One of the most common tenets of Christian faith, believed by denominations across the spectrum, is that Jesus Christ taught and displayed some kind of unique, superlative moral virtue, unmatched by any other individual from myth or history. I’ve also heard this belief advanced as a counter to the argument from religious confusion, claiming that we should consider Christianity to stand out from all other religions because of the obvious superiority of its founder’s moral teachings.
I do grant that the teachings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament are morally superior to the rules of the Old Testament. This is not, in and of itself, high praise; it’s rather like saying that someone is nicer than Stalin. And, if you’re inclined to believe the dogma of the Trinity, it raises the obvious point that it was Jesus who instituted those cruel rules in the first place. But leave that aside for now.
Yes, some of the teachings attributed to Jesus are superb, even beautiful. There’s no doubt that they’re advancements over what came before. However, we have advanced further. In the two thousand or so years since the gospels were written, we’ve made considerable moral progress, and many beliefs which were widely held in Jesus’ day we now recognize to be gravely immoral. The New Testament, being a product of its times, attributes many of those same beliefs to its founder. Far from being an unmatched moral exemplar, Jesus (if he was a real person) was actually far behind where many of us are today in terms of moral development. His character shows no evidence of unique or unmatchable virtue. Consider some of the following deficiencies:
Slavery. Not only does Jesus not condemn slavery, he speaks favorably of it, comparing God to a slaveowner who beats his slaves for not obeying:
“And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”
Unless one is a moral relativist, a label most Christians would fiercely deny, the moral conclusion must be that if slavery was ever wrong, it was always wrong. That being the case, we would expect a divine being not bound by the culture and prejudices of the time of his incarnation to have condemned it unequivocally. Instead, he speaks of it and works it into his teachings as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Racism and favoritism. In one incident from the synoptic gospels, a Gentile woman comes to Jesus and begs him to heal her sick daughter. At first he ignores her. When she persists, he says, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24), and, “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs” (15:26). He does eventually heal the woman’s daughter, but only after she submits to his degrading analogy and agrees that she is like a dog. Shouldn’t the Son of God treat all human beings as equals?
Breaking up families. Jesus’ teaching that “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother” (Matthew 10:35) could be interpreted as a simple statement that his new, exclusivist religion will cause argument and dissension. But the next passage is not so easily explained away:
“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.”
and even more bluntly:
“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.”
This cannot be sugarcoated. It’s the classic cult teaching that, to be a member of the cult, you must forsake all external attachments and love and trust in the cult leader above even your own friends and family members. This is an evil teaching which has been exploited to brainwash people throughout history, and it is not worthy of inclusion in a religion based on love.
Sexist treatment of women. Granted, the gospels, as opposed to the rest of the New Testament, contains relatively few explicitly sexist teachings. (There are exceptions: such as when Jesus teaches that men can divorce their wives for adultery, while apparently making no similar exception for women, or when the resurrected Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to “touch me not”, but allows Thomas to literally put a finger into the nail holes in his hands.)
However, what’s notable is what Jesus does not say. Although the gospels have him nullify some of the Old Testament rules, such as the provisions about ritual hand-washing or not working on the Sabbath, he never abrogates cruel laws such as the one mandating that rape victims marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), or the one that values women’s lives as worth half as much as men’s (Leviticus 27:3-7). He does not even contradict the rampant sexism elsewhere in the New Testament, including many of the letters of Paul. Like slavery, the devaluation of women is another cultural prejudice about which Jesus has nothing to say. Just imagine how much suffering and misogyny could have been prevented with one single, unambiguous statement that women deserve to be the equals of men in all things!
Hell. Bertrand Russell once said that Jesus’ most serious moral flaw was that he believed in Hell. On this point, I’m in complete agreement. For all its cruelties, the Old Testament never envisioned further torment in the afterlife. It was Jesus who introduced that innovation to Western religions.
As Robert Ingersoll eloquently put it:
It was reserved for the New Testament to make known the frightful doctrine of eternal pain. It was the teacher of universal benevolence who rent the veil between time and eternity, and fixed the horrified gaze of man on the lurid gulfs of hell. Within the breast of non-resistance was coiled the worm that never dies.
If this seems like an exaggeration, consider some of the more bloodcurdling gospel verses on the subject. In one of the most infamous teachings of the New Testament, Jesus tells us that we should be afraid of God because he has the power to send us there:
“But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.”
Hell is such a terrible place, in fact, that we should mutilate ourselves if necessary to avoid it – a teaching which scarcely seems less gruesome if it’s meant metaphorically.
“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.”
But it gets worse than that. Jesus also teaches that Hell is not just a place of punishment for the handful of incorrigible sinners, but is in fact the destination of most of humankind:
“Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
And in a final sadistic twist, Jesus explains that he often speaks in parables because many people are predestined to damnation, and so he deliberately seeks to confuse them so they won’t understand and repent:
“And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.”
In fact, Jesus says, God supernaturally prevents people from understanding so that they will remain damned:
“He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.”
Not only are these teachings wrong, they are obviously wrong. There is no unapproachably superior morality to be found in the teachings or the character of Jesus – merely another moral philosophy of a primitive era, which, like all past moral systems, was advanced over its predecessors in some ways and deficient in others.