The Need for Critical Thinking, e.g., Who was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53?

I think a lot. I think all the time. Sometimes I think all I do is think. It can be exhausting.

How much do you exercise — mentally?

If people saw their brains like they see their bodies, most would run to the mental gym (that works on several levels). Being in mental shape takes as much effort as being in physical shape. And like physical activity, you get out what you put in. Reading a comic book might not build as much mental muscle as trying to unravel Neo-platonism. It depends how cerebrally challenging it is. But there’s another type of mental stimulation called critical thinking. It requires concentration and independent or free thought.

I remember when I was first exposed to this term. Ironically, it was at Bible College my first year. I noticed a number of students were bringing newspapers to the school dining room every morning, so I asked why. I was told, it was for a theology class promoting the need for critical thinking. Students were instructed to critically interact with newspapers instead of simply reading them. I had no idea then what that meant and it bothered me I didn’t know. I decided I needed to find out whether I should be doing that as well. I was already thinking critically!

(As a side note, I never read much growing up except, “Encyclopedia Brown” books. Little did I know then, but I was already developing an interest in investigative learning)

Evangelicalism isn’t exactly a bastion of critical independent thinking. In fact, it’s where free thinking goes to die. Evangelicals engage in selective or compartmentalized critical thinking. The choose what to rational critique and what not to. One might even call it biased thinking which is really just rationalization based on a faulty proposition. For instance, it is the conviction God and therefore miracles exist, specifically the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. From this presupposition evangelicals create an entire superstructure of ideology. Here’s where the “critical thinking” part comes in. They will critically analyze everything else to conform to it or reject it as false other than the proposition itself which is assumed to be true. They create two mental folders, one containing non rational faith data and one containing rational information. Life becomes an exercise in filtering everything seen, read and heard into one of these folders.

Evangelicals hide behind the wall of inerrancy or the divine inspiration of the Bible.

Evangelicals engage in micro criticism but not macro criticism which gives the illusion of scholarly pursuit. They perform textual exegesis, theoretical theology or historical analysis from a very specific bias of full or partial inerrancy or infallibility. It is evangelical pseudo-scholarship which operates in the ethereal world of the supernatural. It is a theological castle built on the sand of irrationality.

Evangelical Christians “think” the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian Bible (New Testament) are completely and perfectly compatible. They believe everything found in these ancient Hebrew writings points to Jesus of Nazareth as the heavenly messiah and eternal son of God. Christians are taught to look for Jesus on every page and you will find him.

For instance, Isaiah fifty-three is considered a messianic prophecy about Jesus sacrificial death on the cross. It is the classic Old Testament Easter passage.

13See, my servant will act wisely [or, ‘prosper’] ;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14Just as there were many who were appalled at him —
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness

15so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand
. 1Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
2He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
(Isaiah 52::13-53:3)

This is not the place to do a full exegetical work up on this passage of scripture. I leave that to the theologically curious. I only use it by way of illustration and offer a general overview based on hundreds of hours of study and reflection of this passage, the book of Isaiah itself and ancient Israelite history.

The writer, a disciple of the school of the original eighth century Isaiah (see note below), offered this as a eulogy not a prophecy. The tense describe a past completed event not the “prophetic past” as evangelicals maintain. After a thorough objective and critical investigation of this passage in its literary (within the book itself) and historical (the time, place and situation) context, a far different picture emerges than the Christian view.

Theological note: The writer is a sixth century prophet of the Yahweh cultus in captivity. The original Isaiah gained prominence due to the counsel he provided King Hezekiah of Israel. Though common sense dictated Jerusalem surrender to the Assyrians, Isaiah encouraged the king to stand firm in his trust in Yahweh’s sacred promises and refuse Sennacherib’s offer. A mysterious disease ravaged the Assyrian army forcing Sennacherib to take what remained and return to Nineveh. The threat disappeared overnight. This “miraculous” deliverance of Jerusalem in 701BC catapulted Isaiah to prophetic superstardom and launched a prophetic guild in his name for generations. Our Isaiah is one such disciple from this honored school of Yahwist prophets. On a further point of interest, it was likely Yahwist prophets during Jeremiah’s day who continued in this vein of confidence who were branded false prophets when Jerusalem fell (586BC).

The most obvious fact is this individual suffered from some kind of grotesque facial disfigurement or disease perhaps leprosy, It was literal not figurative. So repulsive was he people could not bare to look at him and would “hide their faces.” We may surmise he contracted this disease early (“He grew up before Him…”) and was constantly derided for it as one cursed by God. It was common belief among religious Israelites, misfortune was the consequence of one’s sin or that of their parents or forefathers. The bigger the sin, the greater the punishment. The force of the passage hangs on this fact.

IMPORTANT: If this passage is to be regarded as a proof text referring specifically and explicitly to Jesus’ crucifixion, IT MUST BE PERFECTLY ACCURATE IN EVERY DETAIL. If it fails to satisfy this criterion, it can only be used as a general application.

The overall tone of the passage suggests, the context was the Yahwist community in captivity somewhere in Babylon (c. 538BC). In an effort to mollify Yahweh, these displaced Israelites took it upon themselves to execute this reviled creature, whom they considered “punished by God.” They hoped God would place their sins on him vicariously and so gain their release. “For the transgression of my people he was punished.” His death was intended to be a sacrificial atonement for their sins and those of their forefathers who caused the deportation under the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (586BC). Coincidental to this came the royal decree of the Persian king Cyrus announcing the release of all captives. God had accepted the sacrifice.

5″But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed
.”(Isaiah 53:5)

The selection of this man seems obvious. He was used to suffering and being held in “low esteem.” His humble state made him innocent. He was the perfect candidate and may even have thought his willingness to submit to death would vindicate him and grant him a place of honor among his people.

10Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes c his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied ;
by his knowledge f my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors”(Isaiah 53:10-12).

So profound an impact did this event have on Isaiah, he felt compelled to memorialize his sacrifice on behalf of the people whose freedom he procured by his death. In the prophet’s eyes, it was this man’s innocence which made him the perfect offering for the sins of the people. Furthermore, his willingness to submit to death was akin to a sheep being led to slaughter. He did not resist or complain but accepted his fate.

From a technical theological standpoint, there are some major problems if one is to read the Christian concept of Jesus’ death. Verse ten suggests the sacrifice was a “guilt offering” (‘asham”) which is not ideal. The “sin offering” (‘chattah’) would be more applicable to Jesus. On that note, Jesus actual death was during Passover. If God were truly orchestrating events, he would have been sacrificed on the Day of Atonement.

In reality, it is unfair to compare this true martyr to Jesus. Unlike Jesus, in his mind he died for the sins of others. Jesus was executed for violating Roman law by choice. He wanted to be king. Jesus death had no value for anyone least of all himself. Israel was no better off for his death. This man, although not being responsible for Cyrus’ decision (nor was God), thought his sacrifice might help others. He died selflessly. Jesus died selfishly.

I realize this interpretation will be staunchly rejected by Christians, especially evangelicals, who will consider it contradicts tradition and New Testament writers who cite it as pertaining to Jesus’ crucifixion (rf. Mt. 8:14-17, Lk. 22:37-41, Jn. 12:36-38, Acts 8:32-35, 1 Pet. 2:19-25). But the moment one determines something is unquestionably true without proper verification, critical thinking dies.

There is no evidence in this passage of crucifixion. Relatively speaking, only a small fraction of Israelites believed in Jesus as messiah. We have no way of knowing how many of the “thousands” reported in Acts reverted back to Judaism after Jesus failed to return. Gentile inclusion is absent from this passage making it apocalyptic using it to when Israel will be restored and its people recognize Jesus as “the suffering servant.” Such an interpretation is an insult to the obvious.

I will not disagree Christians can find in this actual sacrifice an image of their perception of Jesus’ suffering and atonement. It has illustrative not predictive importance. It in no way proves Jesus fulfilled this prophecy except in general as understood by Christians. Jesus himself had no desire to die, had no awareness of substitutionary atonement and certainly did not accomplish anything by it. Had Mary not had her mystical encounter to jump start messianic expectations, his followers would have considered him a pretender to the throne, a failed king.

This is but one of many “messianic” texts which are misinterpreted, starting with the New Testament writers, to bolster Jesus’ credentials as the divine son of God. Their misuse of the Hebrew writings is understandable and forgivable given the many limitations they were under. Proximity to “the event” provided credibility for the resurrection story and fear of the messiah imminent return generated enough converts to give Christianity the grounding it needed.

Two thousand years later, we have the benefit of time, perspective, superior knowledge, information and most of all science to guide us. Being trapped in an endless cycle of a belief (evangelicalism) that affirms a book (Bible) that affirms a belief that affirms a book and so on is an affront to modern rationalities. The only way to escape this merry-go-round of fallacious reasoning is confronting our fears (death and the afterlife) and relying on rationalism not revelation as our most reliable resource.

Faith: A reason not to think

Which is the more powerful motivator, love or fear?

Response to this article will be reactive, a faith reflex. So embedded within the collective evangelical psyche is love* for Jesus in procuring eternal salvation, anything else would be abnormal. This visceral response betrays the emotional root of evangelical faith.

*I would argue the root emotion pervading evangelicalism is fear masquerading as love. Neither Jesus or the Apostle preached a message of loving God but rather fear God or suffer the consequences. Love is an action which should manifest itself in righteous fruit (Lk. 6:43, John 15:1-8). Salvation, according to evangelical theology, permanently guarantees heaven, thereby removing fear as an incentive for godly living. The current anemic state of evangelicalism belies their love for Jesus. Evangelicals are too cowardly to leave the faith so instead they adopt a lethargic approach that still assures them of a final place in heaven. Missing in their calculation is clear biblical teaching warning a fruitless Christian will be judged.

6″If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”(John 15:6)

41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”(Matthew 25:41:43, see also Mt. 13:40-43, Lk. 21:34-36)

The Rapture theory is undoubtedly the single greatest cause of lukewarm evangelicalism since its beginnings. I will dedicate an article to discussing this topic in detail. Suffice it to say, it rests entirely on a sloppy interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In doing so evangelicals think themselves exempt from any and all future judgment. It removes any sense of accountability and worse yet fear. The danger accompanying this belief is evangelicals see themselves as future spectators watching from heaven as the world burns in a giant apocalyptic inferno.

I don’t think I can emphasize this point enough: I had no intention of leaving Christianity. I was desperately trying to rebuild my faith. Jesus would be my foundation. I thought my faith in Jesus was solid. What I did not know was it was grounded in irrational faith. When I started to evaluate the biblical data objectively my faith began to crumble. It was after this I began to write about the dangers of evangelicalism or any Christian belief that places divine authority on the Bible. Again, if Christianity was innocuous there would be no need to attack it rationally. But because they use the authority of the Bible as a weapon against others, it must be exposed. It is a false religion, based on a false book about a false Savior — supernaturally speaking.

When it comes to a frank, objective and critical debate about the authority of the Bible, evangelicals bring an emotional knife to a rational gun fight. The supreme certainty of their belief system does not stand up to rigorous reasoned analysis. Invariably any discussion devolves into whether God’s existence can or cannot be proven resulting in stalemate. Evangelicals by extension postulate if God does exist he most certainly can suspend the laws of physics and perform a miracle like the resurrection. The absence of bona fide miracles in the modern age is a test of faith, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

It is my contention, the nature of the argument is not the existence of God or the possibility of miracles but the reliability of the Bible as an unquestionable source of absolute truth especially on matters metaphysical. If we approach the Bible as a document (many documents) demanding it submit to objective rational scrutiny, would the claims of Christianity stand up? In other words, is the Bible internally consistent, non contradictory, scientifically compatible and logically plausible? When all the evidence is weighed, do the scales tip in favor of its divine or human origin?

At this point, I offer some personal testimony. When I was “saved” as a insecure and emotionally disturbed seventeen year old boy, I embraced evangelicalism because it made me feel good. I suddenly had a huge new family of friends who didn’t tease or bully me. I had a father figure who wanted to spend time with me. I had older adults who care for me and supported me. My life had purpose and meaning. I was happy for the first time in my life. But I knew nothing about Jesus or the Bible. Fast forward fifteen years.

When I graduated from seminary, having previously graduated from Bible college, my evangelical faith was in tatters. I still loved Jesus with all my heart but it was clear to me, evangelicals belief system was fraught with theological problems. I needed to resolve these issues if my faith was to move forward. Up until then, I had given my entire young adult life to Jesus. I was standing at a crossroads. Do I continue to pretend evangelicalism is right and suppress my doubts, or do I put my faith on hold and explore my concerns. I did the latter.

With no job and two theology degrees, I began an exhaustive and painstaking investigation into the foundation of my faith in hopes of salvaging it. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had dropped my faith guard. I was so convinced the New Testament claims about Jesus were unassailable, I could reject everything else and rebuild my faith from this foundation. I started with evangelical specific doctrines like dispensationalism and inerrancy and progressed to more critical ones like salvation and election. These began to topple one by one which emboldened me to dig deeper. Soon I had arrived at the person of Jesus.

I hope one thing is abundantly clear. If I had started my inquiry with Jesus, I probably would still be a Christian of some sort. The end of my faith was a steady erosion over time until it finally collapsed. It ended with Jesus.

The core of my thesis is who Jesus was, and more importantly was not. It is the culmination of decades of devoted research exploring the biblical text itself along with the writings of the Church Fathers and the traditions of Christian history. Much like climbing a mountain, it takes time and effort but the higher you go, the better the view. The perspective atop of mountain is incomparable to what one sees at the base. Without straining this analogy too far, most evangelicals are running around the base of a mountain declaring how wonderful the view is.

Jesus was a simple man who underwent a dramatic experience when he was baptized by John. It was profound and transformative. He determined he had been specially anointed by God and appointed to bring the good news of salvation to his fellow Israelites as a prophet of before the End of Days. For a year his conducted his ministry in the relative obscurity of the Galilean wilderness making occasional trips to Jerusalem for the annual festivals. During one such visit for what would be his last Passover, his preaching about the coming kingdom of God created a stir among some of the more politically minded pilgrims, perhaps Zealots. They decided to nominate Jesus, King of the Jews, in hopes of rallying more people to stage a political revolt against Rome. Their ambitions were cut short by the religious leaders of Jerusalem who foresaw the potential threat of this endeavor.

The religious leaders may have been self serving in their efforts. They knew if things escalated Rome’s response would be swift and decisive. It would jeopardize their wealth and freedoms. However, their actions likely saved thousands of Jewish lives. By arresting Jesus and bringing him before Pontius Pilate, they snuffed out a resistance before it began. Had Jesus been allowed to collect more supporters, his popularity may have reached a zenith which would require severe Roman aggression. It would not be unlike what would occur a few decades later with the Jewish Revolt and Fall of Jerusalem (68-70AD) and again with the Bar Kokhba revolt (135AD). It was not the religious leaders were opposed to a political messiah to liberate them from Roman tyranny, they just didn’t think Jesus was a legitimate contender for that role. They had vetted his claim and rejected him.

Anyone who has read the gospels with any awareness knows how the religious leaders are consistently vilified by Jesus and his followers (Book of Acts). When you don’t like the message, you attack the messenger. Unless Jesus was indeed God’s chosen messiah, they should be lauded as heroes not castigated as villains.

Jesus was a victim of his own popularity. His refusal to rescind his claim to the throne is evidence of his faith in God. The events were conspiring to reinforce his belief and inevitably brought him to the cross. His final haunting words, “My God, my God. Why have you abandoned me? reveal a tortured soul and body. As death approached, he came to the stark realization his messianic dreams were about to die with him.

Jesus death should have marked the tragic end of this Judaistic messianic sect. Its survival can be traced to several key individuals who singlehandedly rescued it for certain extinction. First, Mary Magdalene whose mystical encounter was the spark that ignited belief in the resurrection which Jesus’ disciples would fan into a raging inferno of messianic expectation. Second, was a converted Pharisee, Paul of Tarsus, who introduced a new gospel to pagan Gentiles free of Judaistic encumbrances. Its popularity would quickly supersede Jewish Christianity as Jesus’ repeated failure to exercise his messianic prerogatives and protracted delay extinguished Jewish hope. Last were the fourth century Roman Emperors Constantine and Theodosius who gave Christianity the respectability and protection of Roman endorsement. It was here Christianity gained a foothold guaranteeing its survival through consolidation and uniformity (orthodoxy).

Nothing blurs rational thought more than fear. Evangelicalism is a fear based faith. It offers escape from death and provides eternal hope. John, Jesus, Peter and Paul all preached a message warning of judgment for those who did not subscribe to their gospel(s). Christians have been exploiting mankind’s innate fear ever since. Trying to persuade an evangelical to give up their ticket to heaven is almost impossible. It is much easier to avoid or ignore reason and live in blissful ignorance than confront one’s basest fear and possibly lose this hope. The cost is great and the reward is for many unappealing — intellectual honesty.

Realistically, how many evangelicals are believers for intellectual satisfaction? It is a tough sell to convince a person to give up the benefits of faith, e.g., comfort, meaning, security, joy, guidance and hope, in exchange for intellectual integrity. It is like committing spiritual suicide. So why attack the faith of others?

Evangelicals have become religious political militants. They have brought their faith into the public square and have been relentless in their attempts to reform parts of society to conform to their ideology. Their favorite targets include the LGBTQ community, women’s advocacy rights, immigrants, minorities, the environment and Muslims. We could add to this list: science, the media, secular education, secularists and liberal. The concern is their actions could have disastrous consequences at home (rights and freedoms of others), abroad (Middle Eastern stability) and on earth (environmental viability). We have just witnessed a skeptical resistance to acquiesce to scientific authority concerning the coronavirus. Evangelicals are innately suspicious if not mistrustful of anything that seems to impinge on God’s holy word as they interpret it.

In closing, I think to only way to eradicate the perniciousness of evangelicalism is through education. It must begin with children, but as long as parents are allowed to instill evangelical ideology through socialization and repetitive teaching, the battle is lost. Telling a child they can “choose” to leave the faith when they’re an adult after subjecting them to years of rigorous indoctrination is unfair to the child. By then they may have crippled their rational ability to be objective making rejection unlikely. This explains why the overwhelming number of evangelicals are generational believers having entered the faith before adulthood through the efforts of a family member.

We need to stop reading the Bible with our hearts and start reading it with our heads. Approaching it with a pre-conceived faith bias will only obscure its true meaning and reinforce what we hope and want to believe. The writers of the Bible are religious propagandists who sole objective is to persuade their audience.

30Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”(John 20:30,31)

I have no doubt their motives were sincere and their offer brought tremendous benefit to believers. But these are ancient superstitions that preyed upon vulnerable minds in a pre-scientific world. We should no longer succumb to fantastical thinking. The Age of Enlightenment was the emancipation of rationalism and the glorious dawn of modern science. For the biblical writers these days lay in the far distant future. For us they shone the light of reason on an otherwise mysterious and unknown world that grows brighter each day. Yet many evangelicals prefer to walk around the dimly lit room of faith and proudly proclaim how well they see everything.

Published by ronarends

I was born in London, Ontario, Canada. I attended Capernwray Bible School (England and Austria), Moody Bible Institute (Chicago, Il.), the University of Western Ontario (London, Ontario), London Baptist Seminary (London, Ontario) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, Tx.). I have had several temporary jobs over the years but my focus has alway been on an investigative study of the Bible, Jesus and Christianity particularly evangelicalism. Currently editing a massive literary undertaking deconstructing Christianity and Jesus.

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