What Good Is Religion? Why Christianity is Immoral (and Why That’s Good)

What Good Is Religion? Why Christianity is Immoral (and Why That’s Good) March 31, 2015
 / 123RF Stock Photo
/ 123RF Stock Photo

People feel passionately about religion. Atheists have accused it of being everything that’s morally wrong with humanity, while religious people claim that we can’t have morality without religion.

Is religion good? Does it cause us to be better people? Or is it the cause of wars, destruction and violence?

As a Christian theologian and pastor, I have passionate feelings about my religion. But you may be surprised why I feel so passionately about Christianity.

Christianity is incredibly important because Christianity makes us immoral.

And that is a very good thing.

The Immorality of Christianity

Jesus was immoral. He even admitted it when he claimed, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Jesus did what immoral people do; he hung out with immoral people. You know, those people your mom warned you about. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. He was counted among the lawless. In a totally weird statement that has baffled theologians since the first century, Paul wrote that Jesus was made “to be sin.”

That’s weird stuff and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it. But what I do know is this: Jesus calls his followers to be immoral in the eyes of the world. Yup. If you follow Jesus, people will start thinking that you are immoral. Why? Because Jesus calls us to transgress the religious, political, economic, and social barriers that separate people into the categories of “good” and “bad.” When you do this, you will stand with the social outcasts. You will love them. And when you do, society will label you as an immoral social outcast, too.

That’s why being morally good is not the point of Christianity. When we try to be morally good, it’s always in opposition to someone else who is morally bad. When we fall into moral categories by defining ourselves as good over and against others who are bad, we have fallen from the way of Jesus.

“Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” some highly moral people asked the disciples. But Jesus overheard the conversation and answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire steadfast love not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

Jesus’ questioners were sick with pride. They prided themselves on their high sense of goodness and holiness, but their sense of morality came at the expense of their scapegoats. Their sense of goodness was dependent upon having another group to sacrifice to the gods of morality.

Jesus Saves Us from Morality

But Jesus calls us to steadfast love. Jesus came to save us from our morals that define us as good over and against our evil scapegoats. Jesus was made “to be sin” so that we would no longer use the religious concept of sin as a justification to scapegoat others.

Paul wrote that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” That is not a license to sin, but it is a sign of hope. God’s grace meets us where we are and as we are. We do not have to be good people to receive God’s grace. In fact, if our goodness is defined in opposition to others whom we claim are bad, our hearts will be hardened and we’ll have trouble receiving God’s grace.

Relaxing into God’s Love

I have a good friend who is very moral and very religious. One day his heart broke down under the weight of his morality. He couldn’t keep up. He cried in front of me as he described his efforts of trying to be good enough for his father, his wife, his in-laws, his children, and his God. His body and emotions were racked with tension. As we talked, he began to realize that he didn’t have to live this way; indeed, that he couldn’t live this way any longer. A life-time of pressure to be good enough poured through his tears. He began to let go of the task-master gods of morality and began to embrace the God who graciously offers unconditional and unmerited Love.

Near the end of our conversation, I told him what the theologian James Alison told me about the Christian faith, “I hope you will be able to relax into the realization that being good or bad is not what it’s about. It’s about being loved.”

So, what good is religion? Well, the Christian religion is good when it deemphasizes morality. It is good when it leads us to relax into God’s love. My spirit shifted when I first heard that. And something shifted inside of my friend when I said those words to him. I used to think faith was about being good enough to earn it because we live in a culture that’s based on earning love by doing the right things and performing at higher standards.

But that’s not how it is with God. God’s love is not based on anything we do; it’s based on who God is. And God is love. Pure love with no strings attached.  We cannot earn God’s love by behaving properly because God’s love is freely given to all people, even the “bad” ones. Even us.

Christianity is a good thing for the world when we imitate God’s love. When we freely receive that love and freely offer it to everyone we meet.

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  • Rob Brown

    Jesus was far from immoral. Your reading of the Jesus quote is “fanciful,” to put it kindly.
    However, if the question is whether his friends and followers are moral, the best answer is “sort of.” But only “sort of.”
    The morality of compassion is good, and I don’t think it ever goes out of style, even if it gets bent out of shape, sometimes.

    • jlosinski .

      Perhaps “moralistic” is a better term to use..

  • Aaron Rational

    “Christianity is a good thing for the world when we imitate God’s love. When we freely receive that love and freely offer it to everyone we meet.”

    Is it ‘God’s love’ to judge and condemn those who believe differently? Is it God’s love to decide that, for instance, gays and lesbians shouldn’t have equal rights under the law because the bible says homosexuality is sinful?

    Because so many Christians seem to read the bible differently than you do, and come to different conclusions than you, I wonder why what you say has any external validity. In other words, your sentiment sounds nice, but in reality doesn’t play out that way with many followers of the bible and the Christian faith.

    On top of that, most of your sentiments expressed in this article work equally well for nonbelievers. As an atheist, I agree that we’re not perfect human beings and never can be.

    Human beings will behave unethically and immorally, and it’s our duty to try and be accepting of our own frailty, and to be compassionate with others as well.

    Part of how I do this is through reason and rational observation of myself and the world around me. This is why I can see that even when it comes to people I disagree with, of course they should have equal rights under the law, and that nobody should have to live in fear or be discriminated against because of their life choices (as long as their choices do not try to impinge upon my rights as well).

    What good is all of that love on the part of Christians, when the end result, as often as not, seems to be them casting judgment that people who disagree with their views are “sinners” who are “bound for hell?”

    In the end, love is something that all of us human beings can experience. Love is visible in the world, through action–compassion, helping, caring for, treating people better. Good acts can be loving, and love is something that we are worthy of by the fact that we’re humans, that we have feelings, memories, emotions–we feel pain and suffer when we are mistreated.

    God doesn’t even enter into the equation.

  • Andrey Bolkonsky

    This is W.E.I.R.D.

  • Anarhija Je Sloboda

    I’d like to see an example of god being moral instead of examples of god being immoral and claiming that he’s not. You see morality is morality no matter who you happen to be, if it’s immoral for bob to kill babies then it’s immoral for the president to kill babies and it’s immoral for god to kill babies. It’s especially immoral for a being that claims to be moral by nature to be immoral, because it says that morality is dependent upon position and power.