God

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So all right, maybe there are some questionable parts of Jesus’s story in terms of the theology. But even if the theology is dubious, aren’t Jesus’s teachings of love and peace and charity still admirable and worth following? Of course they are. Even the most outspoken critics of Christianity, like Dawkins, can agree on that:

Jesus, if he existed (or whoever wrote his script if he didn’t) was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.

Jesus’s teachings of love and compassion are genuinely impressive, especially when compared to the other religious ideologies of his time. When modern people ask themselves “What would Jesus do?” as a shorthand for “What would a perfectly kind and loving person do?” they’re following a legitimately positive moral philosophy. The idea of what Jesus stood for, at least as the popular understanding of it goes, is great.

Having said that, though, it’s worth pointing out that not all of Jesus’s actual ideas (as described by the Bible) are as praiseworthy as the ones we typically remember him for. There are quite a few places where the biblical Jesus doesn’t exactly measure up to the idealized version of Jesus that so many of us hold in our minds. (And in some cases, like with the idea of Hell, his teachings are downright abhorrent.) Jesus did have plenty of great ideas, no doubt – but he wasn’t perfect, and neither was his worldview.

I’ve already mentioned, for instance, how he fully endorsed the Old Testament laws, with all their barbarity, in passages like Matthew 5:17-19 and Luke 16:17 (“It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest part of the letter of the law to become invalid”). In passages like Matthew 8:5-13, Matthew 18:23-35, and Luke 12:46-48, he approves of owning and abusing slaves; and in Matthew 15:3-9, Mark 7:6-10 and John 7:19, he criticizes the Pharisees for not killing their disobedient children in accordance with Old Testament law. For someone whose name has become synonymous with “family values,” it’s also surprising how many other aggressively anti-family statements he makes throughout his ministry. In Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:29-30, and Luke 18:29-30, for example, he promises eternal rewards to his followers who abandon their wives and children in order to become his disciples; and in Matthew 10:37, he adds, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” When one of his followers pleads with him to at least be allowed to go and bury his recently-deceased father first, Jesus brusquely dismisses his feelings: “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:21-22). And when another asks if he can at least tell his family goodbye before he abandons them, Jesus reproaches him too: “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-62). Jesus even denies his own family when they try to speak to him in Matthew 12:47-49, Mark 3:31-34, and Luke 8:20-21 – he pretends not to know them and says that his disciples are his only family.

Probably the clearest illustration of how Jesus feels about the subject comes in Luke 14:26, when he flat-out says that his disciples must hate their families if they want to follow him: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” He reiterates this last point – that his followers must even hate their own lives – in John 12:25: “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” And 1 John 2:15 covers the rest of the bases by just making a blanket statement that Christians shouldn’t love anything in the world.

All this talk about hating your family and your life and the whole world would seem to contradict other verses like 1 John 3:15, which says that anyone who hates his brother is a murderer who’s unworthy of eternal life – not to mention John 3:16, which praises God for loving the world enough to sacrifice his only son (which wouldn’t make much sense if loving the world weren’t a good thing). But Jesus makes himself clear in Luke 12:51-53 – his intention is very much to stir up strife and tear families apart:

Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

He reaffirms this in Matthew 10:34-36: “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” And in that same passage, he includes an even more ominous statement: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

A sword? Isn’t this the same Prince of Peace who told his disciples to turn the other cheek? Maybe he’s just being metaphorical here; but then in Luke 22:36 he’s more explicit, telling his followers to actually go and buy literal swords: “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.” And in John 2:13-16, he even takes up arms himself and starts violently assaulting people who aren’t following his religious customs as closely as he wants. (The fact that he actually takes the time to make his own whip for the purpose, too, shows that this isn’t just a spur-of-the-moment tantrum, but a premeditated act of violence.)

Despite Jesus preaching love and compassion half the time, in the other half of his moods he can be shockingly vindictive. In Luke 19:12-27, he tells a story about a king (symbolizing himself) whose subjects hate and fear him because he’s “a hard man” who takes from others what’s not rightly his. When one of his servants fails to earn extra money for him, the king takes away what little money the servant does have, saying, “Unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him.” Then he concludes the parable with the line, “Those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.” So Jesus is likening himself to an unjust king who takes what he didn’t rightly earn and who orders the death of those who don’t want to be ruled by him? What happened to “Love your enemies”? Jesus’s vengeful attitude here is especially chilling in light of Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23, where he declares that he considers anyone who doesn’t explicitly become one of his followers to be his enemy (“He that is not with me is against me”). Does this mean that Jesus wants everyone except his followers to be put to death (or worse, tortured in Hell)?

It’s an important question, considering that there are multiple passages in which Jesus expresses disdain for the idea of reaching out to anyone other than his own people. In Matthew 10:5-6, for instance, he tells his disciples not to preach to gentiles (non-Jews) or Samaritans, but to preach only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In Acts 16:6-7, his spirit forbids his disciples from preaching in Asia. And in Mark 7:25-30 and Matthew 15:22-28, he meets a woman whose daughter is sick and in need of healing – but because the woman is a Canaanite, Jesus rejects her, telling her that he’s only interested in serving his fellow Jews. She pleads with him for mercy – but again, he tells her to get lost, saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” This is a flagrant display of racial contempt; dogs were considered to be “unclean” animals, so Jesus calling this woman a dog is like a white person nowadays calling a black person a chimp or something like that. It’s only when the woman humiliates herself by agreeing with Jesus that she is a dog – “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” – that he deigns to heal her daughter.

And Jesus has a habit of doing this throughout the Gospels – withholding his kindness from people, making them humiliate themselves and beg him for it, etc. Considering that he was supposedly God incarnate, he should have been able to just snap his fingers and instantly heal everyone on the planet, but instead he only bothers to heal the people who happen to be lucky enough to run into him in person; and even then, he often does so only with a kind of grudging passive-aggressiveness – like in Matthew 17:14-17, in which a desperate father pleads with Jesus to heal his son, and Jesus responds by practically rolling his eyes and wondering aloud why he even puts up with these stupid people and their problems: “‘You unbelieving and perverse generation,’ Jesus replied, ‘how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.’”

I also mentioned a story earlier, from Matthew 8:28-32, Mark 5:2-13, and Luke 8:27-33, in which Jesus performs an exorcism on a man – or two men, depending on which Gospel you read – and when he exorcises the demonic spirits, doesn’t just banish them to the void; rather, he transfers them into a nearby herd of pigs, driving the pigs off a cliff to their deaths. Why would Jesus have felt such animal cruelty necessary? It’s not like he was trying to protect innocent bystanders or teach some kind of moral lesson here – it’s completely gratuitous. True, the Gospel writers would have considered pigs “unclean,” and so wouldn’t have had any moral regard for them – but just imagine somebody doing something like this today. Imagine, for instance, if a doctor agreed to cure your illness, but only on the condition that he got to kill a whole litter of puppies afterward. Would you consider this doctor to be doing admirable work? Would you consider him to be morally perfect?

There are still more passages in the Gospels in which Jesus frankly just seems kind of bratty, for lack of a better term. You might remember that fig tree, for instance, which Jesus kills simply because he was hungry and it didn’t have any figs for him to eat – which, considering that figs were out of season at the time, seems like a pointlessly petulant thing to do (Matthew 21:18-20; Mark 11:12-21). There’s also a story in Mark 14:3-9, in which Jesus is having his head anointed with expensive oil, and his disciples are questioning his lavishness, “for [the oil] might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor.” Rather than agreeing with them, Jesus snaps back at them that the poor will always be around, but that Jesus won’t be, so he should be allowed to indulge himself, even at the poor’s expense: “Ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.” This unapologetic disregard for the poor not only comes across as selfish but as blatantly hypocritical; wasn’t Jesus supposed to have believed in helping the disadvantaged? But he comes across as similarly hypocritical – or at least totally lacking in self-awareness – in other passages as well, like in Matthew 5:22, where he asserts that anyone who calls someone else a fool “shall be in danger of hell fire” – only to turn around later and repeatedly call his critics and disciples fools himself (Matthew 23:19, 23:27; Luke 11:40, 24:25). There’s also Mark 2:23-28, in which he and his disciples roam through people’s cornfields and simply take what they want without asking, like a bunch of modern-day shoplifters (and on the Sabbath, no less) – flouting both the fourth commandment and the eighth commandment in one fell swoop. And when the Jewish authorities challenge Jesus on this point, he just sort of blows them off, saying that the Sabbath isn’t really that important to observe anyway.

On top of all these examples of Jesus contradicting his own teachings, there are also examples of him acting in ways that might appear benevolent at first, but which wouldn’t actually be benevolent at all if Jesus’s teachings were really true. Take the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, for instance, in John 11. When Jesus sees that his friend has died, he weeps with grief; then he brings Lazarus back to life. But if believers really do go to Heaven after they die, then why would Jesus have done either of those things? As TheraminTrees wonders: “Why wasn’t he happy [that Lazarus] was in Heaven? And didn’t raising him from the dead mean taking him out of Heaven? That didn’t seem very kind.”

(Actually, there is a possible biblical answer to this question, but it’s not one that preserves the belief that Christians go straight to Heaven right after they die. See, in John 11:24, when Lazarus is still dead (and before Jesus appears on the scene to resurrect him), Martha tries to take solace in her belief that Lazarus’s death isn’t really permanent – but what she tells herself isn’t that he’s already in Paradise, but that eventually he “shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” That is, he hasn’t actually gone to Heaven yet, but will someday. And other parts of the Bible say the same thing – that the dead don’t actually pass into the afterlife right after they die, but rather that they stay dead until the Final Judgment, sometime in the future, and only then do they go to Heaven or Hell (Luke 14:14; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; 1 Corinthians 15; Revelation 20:12-13). The earliest Christians apparently took this view of the afterlife as well, and vocally “defended [it] against the pagan belief that the immortal soul went to the [afterlife] immediately after death.” If that view were actually true, though, it would mean that all the modern-day Christians who “can feel their deceased loved ones looking down on them from Heaven” are just imagining things. I think it’s fair to say that most modern Christians simply reject the biblical view on this one (even if they don’t realize that their beliefs are anti-biblical). Still, it might give you pause if you’re a biblical literalist who feels compelled to agree with the Bible on every point, but who simultaneously wants to believe that those who’ve died are already in Heaven right now.)

At any rate, when it comes to this subject of the afterlife, this is definitely where we see Jesus at his harshest. Remember, before Jesus, the idea of eternally punishing people in Hell wasn’t part of the Jewish tradition; he was the one who introduced the idea. So as heartwarming as it is to read his teachings about love and compassion, it only makes it all the more horrifying when he intersperses those teachings with ones about condemning people to an eternity of fiery torment. And it makes it especially disturbing when you see passages like Matthew 13:10-15 and Mark 4:10-12, in which his disciples ask him why he uses such difficult-to-understand metaphors and parables, and he answers that he does it on purpose, in order to confuse those outside of his immediate circle of followers, so that they won’t be saved and their sins won’t be forgiven. In other passages, of course, Jesus is outraged that those outsiders are failing to embrace his message right away – which seems odd if that’s really what he wants them to do – but either way, he makes it clear that their punishment will be worse than the wrath suffered by Sodom and Gomorrah: “I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee. […] Thou […] shalt be thrust down to hell” (Matthew 11:20-24; Mark 6:11; Luke 10:10-15).

Jesus can’t even let his own disciples off the hook without suggesting at least some pain and bloodshed. He tells them that if they really want to avoid Hell themselves, they should be willing to tear out their own eyes or cut off their own body parts in order to remove the temptation to sin (Matthew 5:27-30, 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-48):

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.

Is Jesus just being hyperbolic here? You’d certainly think so; but then he goes on in Matthew 19:12 to praise his followers who’ve actually, literally mutilated themselves with castration in order to better serve him:

There are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

(Granted, it wouldn’t surprise me if this one turned out to be a bad translation and the original meaning was more metaphorical – but for better or worse, the above phrasing is what’s been handed down to us, so it’s what have to deal with if we insist on interpreting the Bible literally (as the Church father Origen did when he supposedly castrated himself).)

Of course, from a less absolutist angle, it might seem bizarre that Jesus would recommend his followers take such dramatic measures in order to keep themselves from sinning. After all, isn’t his whole purpose to forgive people of their sins so they won’t be judged based on their conduct? But the New Testament repeatedly contradicts itself on this point. According to some passages, salvation is based solely on whether a person believes in Jesus (Mark 16:16; John 3:18, 3:36; Acts 16:30-31; Romans 3:28, 4:5, 4:13, 10:9; Galatians 2:16, 3:10-14; Ephesians 2:8-9). But according to others, belief alone isn’t enough – God judges people based on their thoughts, words, and actions (Matthew 5:20, 12:37, 16:27, 19:17, 25:41-46; Luke 10:26-28; John 5:29; Romans 2:6, 2:13; 2 Corinthians 5:10, 11:15; James 2:14-26; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 2:23, 20:12-13, 22:14). In fact, Jesus even says that there are certain people who can never be forgiven, no matter how much faith they have. According to Matthew 12:31-32, Mark 3:29, and Luke 12:10, anyone who speaks against the Holy Ghost is beyond salvation: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come. […] He that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.” Contrary to the peaceful image of Jesus that most Christians have in their head, then, of a savior who’s all-loving and all-forgiving, the New Testament portrays a Jesus who’s much less unconditional in his love, and much less forgiving of sins, especially toward those whom he considers his enemies.

And nowhere is this clearer than in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. In its prophecies of the end of the world, Jesus is about as far from the “gentle shepherd” archetype as you can imagine; he descends from Heaven mounted on a warhorse, wearing blood-drenched clothing, with his eyes burning like fire and a sharp sword coming out of his mouth – and as he rides into battle and starts slaughtering everyone in sight, an angel calls out to all the birds in the sky, “Come, gather to eat the flesh of kings and generals, horses and their riders, the flesh of all, free and slave, small and large!” (Revelation 19:11-21). In Revelation 14:14-20, Jesus takes a sickle and uses it to “harvest” billions of people, throwing them into “the great winepress of the wrath of God” and crushing them like grapes until their blood pours out in a flood hundreds of miles wide and as high as a horse’s bridle. Pretty much the entire Book of Revelation, actually, is just an unrelenting onslaught of God’s divine forces (including Jesus) torturing and killing the world’s men, women, and children in the most terrifying ways possible. (If you want an illustration of the story that isn’t too graphic, The Brick Testament provides a great recreation of Revelation (and other Bible stories) using Lego bricks.) The ultimate takeaway here is that Jesus, in his final form, is not a gentle peacemaker; he’s a god of vengeance and wrath, just like his father is in the Old Testament.

In light of all these disturbing passages about Jesus, then, what kind of view of him should we really hold? As Terrence Kaye puts it, just imagine if you met someone today, in your real life, who was telling you about what they’d been up to lately and said the following:

This morning I started my day by insulting my mother in public, then punched out my father, my brother, and my sister. Then I gathered up all my clothes, sold them to a second-hand store, and with the proceeds bought a used assault rifle and 50 rounds of ammunition. Next, I went down to the animal shelter and injected all the dogs with a drug that caused them to go insane and dive into the nearby canal where they all drowned. By this time I was hungry, so I went over to my neighbor’s apple orchard and burned it down, because I wanted an orange and there weren’t any. On the way home, I stopped at the local steel mill to discuss my philosophy of life with some of the guys. They laughed at me and said to stow it, so I tossed them all into the blast furnace. That night I discovered my son looking at a copy of Playboy. Concerned for his future welfare, I cut off his right hand.

How would you react to someone telling you all this? Would you consider this person to be the perfect embodiment of goodness? Or would you try to get as far away from them as possible?

It’s true that Jesus said a lot of great things about peace and love – so we certainly shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater here. It’s important to give credit where credit’s due, and on those particular points, Jesus really did get things right. But even there, it’s hard to give Jesus absolute credit, because none of his best ideas were actually completely original to him. The Golden Rule, for instance – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – has existed in some form in practically every cultural tradition throughout history, including many predating Christianity. The Hindu Mahabharata, written centuries before Jesus, says to “treat others as you treat yourself” and to “do not unto others that which would cause you pain if done to you.” The Buddha (who lived around 500 BC) advised his followers to “hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” and to compare themselves “to others in such terms as ‘Just as I am so are they, just as they are so am I.’” Texts from the Late Period of ancient Egypt (~664 – 323 BC) say, “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.” The Greek philosopher Isocrates (436 – 338 BC) taught, “Do not do to others that which angers you when they do it to you.” The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, whose work preceded the Gospels almost immediately and was extremely popular and influential among the Church fathers, wrote, “Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you.” And so on. Even the Bible itself doesn’t claim that the principle of “Love your neighbor as yourself” was original to Jesus; the concept appears in the Old Testament a few times (including Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34), and it’s clear that it was this earlier source material from which Jesus drew the inspiration for his ideas – just like a number of other Jewish teachers before him did (e.g. Hillel the Elder (c. 110 BC – 10 AD), who said, “What is hateful to you, do not to our fellow man. That is the entire Law, all the rest is commentary”).

Of course, it’s not too surprising that the idea of “Love your neighbor” had already been thought of before Jesus came on the scene. But even his more distinctive teachings like “Turn the other cheek” and “Love your enemy” – which a lot of people consider to be the defining moral innovations that set Christianity apart from earlier religions – aren’t completely original to him. The idea of treating your enemies kindly can once again be found in the Old Testament (Proverbs 24:17, 25:21) as well as in other earlier religions and philosophies. The Babylonian Counsels of Wisdom (written in the second millennium BC) says, “Do not return evil to the man who disputes with you; requite with kindness your evil-doer […] smile on your adversary.” The Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope (also written in the second millennium BC) says:

Row that we may ferry the evil man away,
For we will not act according to his evil nature;
Lift him up, give him your hand,
And leave him [in] the hands of god;
Fill his gut with your own food
That he may be sated and ashamed.

Seneca the Younger – again, showing why he was so influential with the Church fathers – wrote, “Someone gets angry with you. Challenge him with kindness in return. Enmity immediately tumbles away when one side lets it fall.” And other Greek and Roman philosophers promoted the same ideas.

Just because Jesus wasn’t the first person to have promoted these principles, of course, doesn’t mean that his contributions weren’t valuable. The fact that he was so successful in popularizing these ideas is an extraordinary accomplishment in itself. The point here is just that he wasn’t a totally unique moral visionary, who came up with these ideas single-handedly; his teachings were a natural outgrowth of philosophical concepts that his predecessors had already developed. In other words, Jesus was largely a product of his cultural-historical environment. It’s true that his moral example was well above average in many respects for his time – but by modern standards, he still held plenty of attitudes that were hopelessly backward. For all his talk about love and compassion, it never occurred to him to question social evils like slavery or animal cruelty. For all that his religion was more accepting of female followers than many other competing religions, it never occurred to him to select even a single woman to be one of his 12 disciples or to sit with him at the Last Supper. (This is often cited as one of the reasons why the Catholic Church still doesn’t allow women to be ordained as priests even today.) And for all that he supposedly did to establish a “new covenant” that would supersede the Old Testament laws, he still reaffirmed many of the Old Testament’s cruelest and most repressive attitudes, from upholding child abuse to condemning divorcees as adulterers (Matthew 5:32, 19:6-9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18) – not to mention threatening fiery vengeance toward his perceived enemies. This isn’t to say that Jesus was a complete monster, of course; but neither was he a perfect paragon of virtue against which all other people should be judged. Again, he was simply a product of his time – a regular, mortal preacher, with some great ideas and some not-so-great ideas, whose legend turned him into something larger than life. And in this respect, he was actually a lot like his divine father, Yahweh – who started off as a local god with provincial origins, limited by the imaginations of the people who wrote his story and accordingly prone to all the same flawed ideas and moral prejudices that they shared – but who would ultimately develop into something much bigger and more all-encompassing.

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