Part 3 of my series An Atheist Reads the Bible. This piece covers the first half of Acts of the Apostles. Other pieces in this series can be read here.
1. Preaching to the Converted
The most iconic story in the Book of Acts is the transformation of Saul of Tarsus into Paul the Apostle, brought about by his pledge to accept the teachings of Christ and begin preaching to Jew and Gentile alike. This sudden turnaround, and it is quite sudden, comes for Paul after a career persecuting the early followers of Jesus.
The story is familiar. On the road to Damascus, Paul is met with a vision of the resurrected Jesus who says, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me (Acts, 9:4)?” An awestruck Paul asks what he must do, to which the vision replies, “Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do (Acts, 9:6).”
Paul is left blind for three days before being cured by Ananias, a recent disciple who was commanded by a vision of Jesus to find Paul and restore his sight. Jesus informs Ananias that Paul is “…a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel (Acts, 9:15).”
When Ananias reaches Paul and lays his hand upon the latter, the scales that blinded Paul fall from his eyes, restoring his sight, and “straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God (Acts, 9:20).”
Saul of Tarsus, who previously “laid waste the church, entering into every house, and dragging men and women committed them to prison (Acts, 8:3),” is now Paul the Apostle, to whom a significant chunk of the New Testament has often been attributed, and the founder of Christianity’s first established churches.
Paul’s work dominates much of Acts and so too does the theme of conversion. The number of disciples increases throughout the text, beginning when the Apostles choose seven men to take up the responsibility of preaching Christ. Among them is Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (Acts, 6:5),” who, “full of grace and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people (Acts, 6:8).” Those within the synagogues who engage in disputes with Stephen over his preachings are “not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake (Acts, 6:10).”
Stephen becomes the first martyr of Christianity, stoned to death for what at the time were heretical beliefs. Stephen, however, is ultimately the victor. Though he dies, he is willing to die. The Apostles as a collective are willing to defy the authorities in the synagogues. They are the conveyors of a truth received directly from on high and will not be silenced. They are at all costs to bring the teachings of Jesus to the masses.
This is very much a text for the faithful. It may seem silly to say such a thing about a section of the Bible, a book dedicated entirely to faith, but Acts is without question the most religious section of the Bible that I have read so far. Here, Christianity is becoming a religion, transforming a collection of fragmented teachings of a single preacher from Nazareth into a cohesive movement that is rebelling against existing institutions and in the very early stages of becoming its own institution.
The occurrences throughout this book represent affirmation of the teachings of Jesus and emphasize that pledging oneself to his words is the gateway to eternal life. This is what this book is about. Though many actions are demanded by the Apostles, including the selling of one’s entire property, these are not demanded for their own sake or for some earthly gain, but for entry into heaven.
There’s not much here for the person of no faith except an invitation to conversion. The stories of redemption and conversion are meant to light a fire in the reader and call them to accepting and preaching Christ, experiencing their own walk to Damascus.
2. No Doubt
The stories in Acts, like much of the Bible, move abruptly. Despite the fact that the Bible is gargantuan, the creation of the world lasts no more than a page. The story of Moses’ entry into Egypt and his freeing of his people can be read in less time than it would take to watch the Ten Commandments.
Much detail is neglected and it makes reading Acts a struggle, certainly for an atheist, and I would imagine for the believer as well. Paul’s conversion is easy. It is prophesied by Christ himself, which gives him strong backing and little room to doubt. We know that masses convert. We know that the Holy Spirit falls on those who hear Peter preach “the word.”
What we don’t know is much about the lives these newfound disciples led before they converted, or much about the lives they would lead after conversion. What is not apparent is any form of doubt or struggle in the act of conversion.
For most who believe, I doubt that they were visited by visions or have any sense that their calling to be faithful was prophesied. Nor do I get the sense that most believers found it so simple to begin living and preaching “the word” as easily as Paul did.
There is a struggle that is not seen much in Acts, one of followers struggling to live up to the teachings they espouse.
What about those who did not immediately find affinity with the preachings of the Apostles? Did those who sold their property maintain lives driven by service to the downtrodden or do they return to previous ways? Did Peter and his brother question Christ’s sanity when he asked them to leave their families and livelihood behind to serve his mission?
3. Rocky Road to Redemption
My disconnect with this first half of Acts came from my knowledge that the road to being a good person is never-ending. Real stories of redemption, the ones I have had the opportunity to hear and witness, have never been accompanied by an unwavering sense of certainty. They have involved multiple trips to the emergency room, prison, the psych ward, the homeless shelter, and the rehab facility. They have included death and rebirth on a constant basis and harm to those who surround the individual. Almost universally, they have also included a deep questioning of belief.
The one failure at redemption that we see is in this book is that of Ananias and Sapphira, who sell their land but withhold a portion of the profit for themselves. The result is that both die suddenly, causing all around who knew of the incident to fear the Lord (Acts, 5:12). It is admittedly unnerving that goodness seems easily for the taking for some, yet unreachable for others who are dead before being given a second chance.
I know that this is not how we find goodness in life and that the stories in Acts don’t really mirror our own. Our own stories are punctuated by mistakes and failures that prove that we can easily err on the side of wrongdoing.
I know some who have eventually found peace, often after having endured several failures, just as I know some who did not survive their journey. Acts thus leaves an open question that matters to us, not as believers as non-believers. The question is how we support one another in a journey toward goodness, regardless of faith, and how we exercise patience and forgiveness with those who struggle to get there.
God has never been a part of this journey for me. I have never had faith inspire me to goodness. What I have had is the infinite patience and compassion of loved-ones, teachers, and friends, all of whom were truly invested in my survival.
I’ve worked among people whose greatest hope for survival has been those who offered them a bed to rest, a meal, and a second chance regardless of their sometimes horrid past. What has driven me is the humility to see my own mistakes. If I can be humble enough to accept them in myself, I can accept them in others and do my own small part to give them the second chance that I received.
Some who are so kind are indeed moved by faith, but I cannot accept that faith is all we need to free ourselves from the demons that plague each and every one of us. The question of whether or not we need faith to be good is irrelevant here. What I am certain of is that we need each other. What makes the story of Ananias and Sapphira so unnerving is that such a horrid fate is not deserved for their failure to be perfect.
All of us know that we are easily capable of similar missteps and would be incapable of survival in a world that brought death to those who were not perfect. Our opportunity to live with our imperfections comes from the compassion of others, whatever force may move them. It comes from those willing to sacrifice their own time and effort for our comfort, to guide us to the help we need, and to believe that we are capable of good, especially when we may not believe so ourselves.
There is no survival on our own. No man is an island and no one is good without the devotion of those who surround him. For the non-believer, there is no God to turn to or a single pledge to make in order to magically bring about peace within ourselves. For the believer, there is no God without action, without bringing the words to life.
We have no choice but to invest hope in one another, to breathe deeply and continue loving when others and we ourselves fail again and again. We do not will ourselves to goodness through proclamation or conversion. We bring each other to it through love, compassion, and forgiveness. We must, as Auden says, love one another or die.