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The Church Judas Built

The Atheist Manifesto, by French philosopher Michel Onfray, is just one of the half-dozen major atheist books of the last few years.1

Part of his project is the “deconstruction of Christianity,” among other monotheisms, which Onfray faults for the arrogance of “men claiming to be repositories and interpreters of God’s word—the priestly castes”; for

the hatred of intelligence, which monotheists reject in favor of submission and obedience; hatred of life coupled with a passionate and unshakable obsession with death; hatred of the here and now, consistently undervalued in favor of a beyond…; hatred of the corruptible body, disparaged in every aspect, while the soul.… eternal, immortal, divine—is invested with all the higher qualities…; and finally hatred of women.…[and their replacement by] the Angel, a bloodless archetype, in preference to real women.” (59)

Seventh-day Adventists are more into reconstruction than deconstruction of Christianity, but we would largely see Onfray’s point. We reject self-serving hierarchies of interpretation and theological hegemonies in favor of the priesthood of all believers (Exod. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9). We believe in the application of individual intelligence to diligent biblical study and scientific endeavor (Acts 17:10–11; Deut. 29:29), and in dialogue among equals. We want to give intelligent obedience to a God who always promotes human freedom and dignity, allowing the believer to stand tall in any company.

We reject the neo-Platonic dualism that would value the disembodied soul more highly than the body, seeing in Scripture a wholism of body and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1), and a goodness of the physical creation. We believe we will ultimately inhabit not a Platonic heaven but a new earth, a bodily pleasurable existence (Isa. 65:17–25). We believe Christ came to bring life abundant, beginning in the here and now. We feel called to honor God in our bodies. We believe that we are saved due to what God did in a body—living, shedding blood, resurrecting in a glorious body similar to the one we will be given (Phil. 3:21). Our health institutions care for bodies, male and female, as Jesus did.

We’d probably say that Onfray was not rejecting the Christianity lived and taught by Jesus, but a corruption of it by the Church. In debate, we’d concede many of his criticisms of Christianity, but say, “Now can we talk about Jesus?”

So far, so good—at least in theory. (How well these noble ideals are integrated with our daily lives may be another question.)

We’d even point out that the early church’s acceptance of the administrative paradigm of the Roman empire was a large part of the reason it corrupted into the church of the Dark Ages. A self-serving culture distorts the ideas of the gospel. Jesus saw this coming, and tried to prevent it: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:25–26).

But hierarchical leadership seemed natural—it was part of the culture, easily absorbed by the church. And so love and esteem from God and the gospel service of others were replaced by carnal human desire for power and esteem from others. The result? The destructive hierarchies of the Dark Ages, crushing all in their path. The Spanish Inquisition. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day. Onfray and other bestselling atheists marshal this history as evidence against God’s very existence.

Yet the Dark Ages church revealed less of God than of the disciples run feral. It was like brash, young John, willing to call down fire (or, if God would not send fire, at least the church controlled armies)–totally of the wrong spirit and not knowing it (Luke 9:54–56). It was like Judas, starting arguments about who was the greatest and manipulating until he held the money bag. It showed the carnal human spirit writ large.

Paul even prophetically applied the Judas label to the corrupted church he foresaw. As Jesus in prayer called Judas “the son of destruction” (“the one headed for destruction,” John 17:12 NLT), so Paul, in the only other biblical use of that expression, predicted that the defected church would eventually produce “the son of destruction,” a self-made hierarch also called “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3) because he would even attempt to change God’s laws (Dan. 7:25). What does this “son of destruction” do? He “opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or is worshipped,” and “takes his seat in the temple of God—the church—even finally “displaying himself that he is God” (2 Thess. 2:4).

That prophecy fits church history, and predicts similar behaviors and beliefs just before Christ’s second coming (2 Thess. 2:8), but aiming it at others can be a little too convenient and smug. A more challenging question might be: are those attitudes in me?

Am I about exalting myself and downing others, Judas-style (John 12:3–8)?

Do I ever try to sit where God should sit, sovereign of my own life, setting my own commandments, bending others to my will?

Is my claim to membership of the remnant tinged with elitism, with subtle superiority over others? Or do I feel a humble gratitude for a remnancy by grace alone (Rom. 11:5)? Do I show genuine love and concern for people of other religions and of no religion?

In an age where multinationals define the culture, how does the management style of my church differ from any other corporation? Have churches absorbed secular corporate values—the hierarchicalism, the widening salary gaps based on position, the inequalities based on country of origin, the power games, the job titles for personal worth (Matt. 23:8), the driven workaholism that starves family life, the numerical measures of success? We must apply marketing and management insights in gospel work, but reject many of their underlying motives and assumptions. Judas would have climbed the corporate ladder better than most.

Jesus washed Judas’ feet. Do I also need a regular attitudinal clean-up?

Paul, after describing the church Judas built, directs his readers to the gospel that shows God’s love, tells them they’re God’s chosen, gives them God’s salvation, God’s sanctifying Spirit, God’s truth, God’s grace, and God-given hope (2 Thess. 2:13–17). It’s all from God. Had Judas humbly accepted that–rather than an achievement-based righteousness that was constantly competitive–what might he have done with all that talent? What legacy might he have left to his family, the church, and the world.

Who’s going to demonstrate–and speak–the gospel to Michel Onfray?

Notes and References

1. Michel Onfray, The Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam (first published as Traite d’Athéologie, Editions Grasset and Fasquelle, 2005) (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2007).

Grenville Kent is lecturer in Old Testament and Cultural apologetics at Wesley Theological College, in Sydney, Australia. He is working on a book and documentary series on the existence of God.

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