FEB 2002


by Eric Lormand

"Why do you call me good?" (Mark 10:18)
"And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?" (Luke 12:57)

Suppose you were in the market for a new house, and the real estate agent told you, in all seriousness, that a particular house was absolutely perfect in every way, not a single defect. Youíd scour the place before signing the dotted line. Or similarly, suppose a friend offered to set you up with a completely ideal blind date. Itíd be ridiculous for the agent or your friend to complain later that your inspection was "one-sided" or that you were "only emphasizing the negative".

Thatís how we ought to think about Jesus. Itís usually agreed by both Christians and non Christians, even by vehement anti-Christians, that Jesus as presented in the four gospels is perfectly ideal, morally. Many of his most simple teachings (e.g., the "Golden Rule") seem brilliant, and many of the actions that seem most natural to him (e.g., seeking to forgive those who crucify him because "they know not what they do") are, at times, amazing. But we should scour the record before signing on the dotted line. (Box 1 and Box 2 give other reasons itís important to think this through.)

BOX 1   The Worldís Coolest Argument for Christianity

No fancy theological reasoning, hereójust focus on the historical record of Jesusí life, and apply a few commonsense principles. When we examine the record we find two very startling pieces of data: (i) Jesusís actions and teachings are marvelously wise, yet (ii) Jesus claims to be God. Either Jesus is right in claim (ii), or he isnít. If heís wrong, either he sincerely believes heís divine or he doesnít. We should believe whichever of these three possibilities best fits the evidence (i).

The argument proceeds: If Jesus really believes heís not God, itís not likely heíd lie about it, since lyingís bad and heís otherwise so good. On the other hand, itís not likely that he really does believe heís God (if he isnít), since this would be as crazy as believing youíre a beach ball. But Jesus doesnít otherwise act crazyóhis sanity, above all, comes through. Since the evidence weighs against the possibilities that Jesus is a liar or a lunatic, the best conclusion is that heís lord.

I donít think this so-called "lord-liar-lunatic" argument can be countered simply by refusing to believe that Jesus really does claim to be God, or by attempting to undermine in other ways the historical value of the biographical record. Itís as reasonable to trust the biographical accounts of Jesusí life as it is to trust any other source of ancient history. Maybe itís more reasonable, given the relatively large number of old copies still in existence, and given that hand-copiers wouldíve feared earthly or heavenly punishment for errors. As for the original accounts, C.S. Lewis makes this interesting point:

[A]s a literary historian, Ö I am quite clear that [the Gospels] are not artistic enough to be legends. Ö [T]hey are clumsy, they donít work up to things properly. Ö In the story of the woman taken in adultery we are told Christ bent down and scribbled in the dust with His finger. Nothing comes of this. no one has ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art. Surely Ö the author put it in because he had seen it. (God in the Dock, pp. 158-159)

Still, thereís room for the cautious non-believer to maneuver. Maybe Jesus is lyingóbecause he sees it as his only chance to get people to follow his teachings. After all, it isnít always wrong to lie, and itís sometimes your moral duty. Still, it would seem pretty dumb intentionally to press a lie all the way to your crucifixion, especially when your message isnít catching on. Or maybe Jesus is honestly mistakenómaybe this only seems so loony to us because itís rarer now than it apparently was then. But itís hard to countómaybe now we just lock people like this out of sight more often. Lots of people before and after Jesus have thought theyíre God, but it seems none of them manage to combine this with comparable moral brilliance.

The article explores a different counterargument: undermining the central assumption (i) that Jesus was so morally wise. Without this assumption, the possibilities that Jesus was lying or deluded cannot be so easily dismissed. (See Box 3 after reading the main text.)

BOX 2   All-Powerful, All-Knowing, All-Evil

Many arguments seek to prove (or at least make plausible) the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, "personal" beingóGod. But these arguments typically fail to address the question of whether or not this super-being is correspondingly decent. (A virtue of the argument in Box 1 is that it focuses on precisely this gap.) Even if there is a God, this doesnít mean (s)he/itís worth worshipping. The following (hopefully fictional) account of the creation of the world illustrates how an omnipotent, omniscient, personal being could fail to be good:

The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed. (Russell, A Free Manís Worship)

This also shows why we shouldnít infer directly from a (supposed) preponderance of good in the world to the goodness of the creatoróGod could have given his creatures just enough signs of goodness to persuade them to worship him, while really harboring hideous ulterior motives. We have no reason, at least independent of the argument in Box 1, to favor the hypothesis that God is absolutely good over the hypothesis that he is absolutely evil, or at least somewhere in between. (It may even be that, given earthquakes and polio and other nasty stuff, we have some antecedent reason to deny that God is absolutely good. But I donít rely on such considerations in the article.)

So letís turn to the biblical stories without prejudiceówithout prejudging the issue of Jesusís moral status. This procedure should be welcome to any Christian who believes that a fair reading of the texts will bear out their claims. I think otherwise. What are the facts?

Simple moral assumptions

Before we can address this, we need to settle on some moral principles. Iíll try not to depend upon any but the least controversial ones:

(1) Thereís a difference between morality and power. (This assumption is implicit in Box 2ís claim that an omnipotent being could well be a "meanie".) Hitler was powerful, but he wasnít (correspondingly) goodóand not simply because he didnít win! Similarly, I assume itís more respectable in general to engage in "rational" moral discussion than to wield power as a substitute for rational persuasion.

(2) Considered all by itself, suffering is a bad thing, and so to the extent one predictably causes suffering, one should have an overriding justification or excuse. There are serious constraints on the suffering one is permitted to cause. For instance, thereís such a thing as "cruel and unusual punishment"óif a kid pokes fun at your beer-belly, you arenít justified in shooting him. Inflicting great pain should be treated as a last resort.

Though I think (1) and (2) could be defended "from scratch" rather than assumed, that would take a while and I wonít try to do so here. At any rate, they would be hard for a Christian to deny. Other points may surface here and there, but I believe they will be as unobjectionable as these.

Jesus in the Old Testament

I first draw attention to a few of the actions of God in the Old Testament which seem very wrong. If Jesus is God, heís responsible for these actions every bit as much as "Jehovah" is. The Old Testament is pretty gory, and we could multiply examples indefinitely. I list only a couple that are lesser known, that are attributed to God directly rather than to a human representative (Mosesís biological weapons, Samsonís suicide bombing, etc.), and that seem to be completely pointless. Third, Iíll point out certain features of the famous story of Job, since Job asks the same question I do, namely, "Is God (completely) good?" Then weíll turn to the New Testament documents.

Grin and bear it

II Kings 2:23-25 reads:

He [Elisha] went up from there [Jericho] to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, "Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!" And he turned around, and when he saw them he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and thence he returned to Samaria. [End of story. The italics are mine here and throughout.]

While of course I donít want to encourage youngsters to jeer at baldheaded men, the punishment in this case is cruel and unusual if anytthing is. And the implication is clear that itís God whoís inflicting the punishmentówhy else would the bear come out just when Elisha curses the children? While itís possible that the boys are doing more than "just teasing"ómaybe they are trying to kill Elisha, or steal his lunchóthereís no textual reason to believe this. No reason, that is, unless you already believe that God must have a good reason for killing the boysóa belief which, as I have argued, is nothing more than a prejudice.

You touch it, you buy it

Even more of the "mercy of the Lord" is displayed at I Chronicles 13:9-10, where David, an unfortunate named Uzzah, and a couple of others are transporting the ark of the covenant:

And when they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and he smote him because he had put forth his hand to the ark, and he died there before God.

As you may have guessed, there is a prohibition against touching the ark. But it seems that Uzzah has good intentions (to prevent the ark from crashing to the ground), and surely this fact calls for leniency. (If his intentions were to cop a feel of the ark, why would he wait until the oxen stumble? In hopes that he can trick God?) Even if his primary intention is (heaven forfend!) to touch the ark, this punishment is excessive.

Because I said so, thatís why

Honestly motivated by his long suffering, it occurs to Job to wonder whether God is good, and he responsibly and respectfully takes his question straight to the source. We might reasonably demand that God engage in something like moral discussion. So how does God display his goodness? This is the irony, for his display is one of the most detestable of all his actions. Even the most careful reading of Godís speech from the whirlwind (chapters 38-42) reveals not a shred of evidence of his goodness, but only a "military parade" of his power and might. Thus sayeth the Lord to Job. for instance:

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiíades, or loose the cords of Orion? (38:31)

Is the wild ox willing to serve you? (39:5)

Do you give the horse his might? (39:19)

In the face of this onslaught Job whimpers:

Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer thee? (40:4)

The Lord continues:

Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? (40:8-9)

Evaluate it without prejudice: isnít this exactly what a powerful monster would say? You can easily imagine Hitler "justifying" himself, to someone who questions his goodness, by intimidating the questioner. And there are no morally relevant differences between this wrong and Godís intimidation of Job. Finally, Job succumbs to this battery:

I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted. (42:2)

I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore do I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes. (42:5-6)

If Job is ready to bow down before the first display of supernatural power he is faced with, is it not clear that he is equally ready to bow himself before an omnipotent fiend? And is it really so clear that he does not do so?

Jesus in the New Testament

With this much said, I now consider some of the actions and attitudes of Jesus wearing his own hat (that is, the Jesus of the New Testament). Again I leave aside actions and teachings of others, such as the apostles, just as I leave aside the rampant crimes of later church institutions. Iíll list them in gradual and rough increasing order of importance, with the final two noticeably more persistent than the rest. The final six mainly concern problems with Jesusís moral teachings, while the first two concern his (other) actions.

#8 Good Shepherd or Cattle Rustler?

Start with the weird story of the Gadarene swine. Jesus casts out demons from a certain man, and, at the demonsí request, sends them into a nearby herd of swine, which are thereby driven into the sea. Now, if Jesus is God, he can presumably cast the demons into the abyss or wherever he pleases, so it is unjustifiably cruel to the swine to use them as a disposal site for the demons. Bad enough, but in case youíre not much moved by wanton cruelty to animals, consider that Jesus pointlessly disregards the rights of the herders who (quite understandably!) ask Jesus to leave their region. (Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-17, Luke 8:26-33)

#7 The Mob Leader

And then there is the story of the chief priests who ask Jesus to tell them how he gets his authority. Maybe the evangelists are right to guess that the question is asked in order to trap Jesus in some legality, but Jesusí behavior is still far from perfect. The question itself, regardless of the possible intentions of the questioners, is a perfectly fair one; itís a question you could reasonably demand a straight answer to. Jesus, however, chooses to evade the question. While I doubt he should duck the question, Iím more concerned with how he manages this: he asks another question, which he knows (even if he isnít omniscient) the chief priests will be afraid to answer in public. Then, since they donít answer his question, he doesnít answer theirs. Thatís silly at best ("But I asked you first!" "No, I did!" "No, I did!") but the really crucial thing is this. The reason the priests cannot answer Jesusís question is that they are physically afraid of the surrounding crowd, so that Jesus is using the threat of violence to duck the question. (Matthew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8)

#6 Slinging Mud

Jesus is quick to assume that anyone who fails to "follow" him does so because of moral defects rather than (say) lack of evidence. While itís not clear what weight should be given to the words of Jesusí disciples, John states what seems to be an echo of Jesusí view:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God. (John 3:19-21)

Weíre accustomed to hearing political candidates argue ad hominem that those who disagree with them are depraved, without evidence. Usually we smell it like it is, as revealing a moral weakness in the proponent. But, it might be objected, maybe Jesus and John are right about informed non-Christians! I doubt it: consider Gandhi for starters. Many people are non Christians for reasons other than any "love for darkness".

#5 Iím Rubber, Youíre Glue

This famous story expresses one rather unwise aspect of Jesusí moral teaching:

Why do you see the speck that is in your brotherís eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, "Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye," when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brotherís eye. (Luke 6:41-42)

Really bad advice. Often you canít see your own vices unless others point to them. If we were all to "mind our own business" until we were morally very clean, and only then criticize others, we attain very little moral improvement at all. If the most morally depraved person in the world tells me of some fault of mine (please assume, for the sake of the argument, that we arenít one-and-the-same), the truth or falsity of what she says doesnít depend upon her moral status.

#4 The Scarlet Letter

There are other cases where implementing a policy of Jesusís would lead to disastrous results. Jesus says:

But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32)

This isnít a sensible policy. Consider the following two cases:

(A) A man and woman are married. The woman has never been unchaste, but every day she beats the man and abuses their children and commits all sorts of atrocities, etc. Furthermore, she vows never to stop unless the man divorces her (and she cannot otherwise be stopped, etc.).

(B) A man and woman are very happily married. The woman has a "one-night stand", However, sheís heartily sorry afterwards and tells her husband and it doesnít affect (negatively) her actions or attitudes in the future.

Now, according to Jesus, a divorce is permissible (although not obligatory) in case (B), but is impermissible in case (A). This ought to strike you as simply perverse. What can be said in defense of this policy on divorce (a policy which unfortunately has been heeded, to the misery of manyóat least with the gender roles reversed), and what can be said in defense of a God who arranges things such that the marriage in case (A) must not be dissolved? The only line I see is to try to make a case for denying that the cases are possible ones (God wouldnít let that happen!), but, unfortunately they are (or he does).

#3 Defending Slavery

Many of Jesusí parables are stories of master-servant relationships. For example, he asks rhetorically:

Will any of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, "Come at once and sit down at table"? Will he not rather say to him, "Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink"? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? (Luke 17:7-9)

Jesus is using this situation as an analogy for a relationship he considers good, namely, that between God and man. It seems he must condone (or advocate) such relationships, or else he wouldnít use them as analogies for relationships he thinks right. But master-servant relationships of the sort Jesus exploits are among the worst relationships there are.

#2 Might Makes Right

Now I turn to what I consider to be the most central issues.

Jesus makes many pronouncements about whatís good and whatís bad. One trouble is that he gives very little reason for accepting his pronouncements. But the real problem is that he "defends" his views (when he bothers to at all) by appealing to rewards and punishments. That is, he doesnít urge people to act in certain ways or adopt certain attitudes because those actions or attitudes are good, but because theyíre rewarded. And so with his negative injunctions, and punishment.

This comes out vividly in his Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the X-ers, for they shall get reward Y. Woe to the X-ers, for they shall get punishment Y." This isnít only a poor sort of argument, but a dishonest one (coming from one who should know better). Confusion of questions of morality with questions of reward and punishment (i.e., of who wields power) is the surest sign of power-intoxication: from the heavy-handed parent, to the heavy-handed tyrant, to the heavy handed God. Granted, this sort of practiceó"carrots and stcks"óis effective in causing (similarly confused) people to agree; but it isnít right to use it in this manner (as a substitute for dialogue). Things arenít made good by being rewarded, for bad actions could be rewarded. (Recall that weíre assuming thereís a difference between morality and power.)

Itís lamentable that people are often motivated by (no more than) fear of punishment and hope for reward. We acknowledge this when we admire the proverbial scout who walks the oldster across the street without asking for a reward. But Jesus is happy to prey upon the reward/punishment motivation. Heís often asked: "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" A really wise moral teacher wouldíve responded (by saying something like), "You should do such-and-such a thing, but not Ďto inherit eternal lifeí. What virtue is there in doing your duty only in order to be rewarded? Do these things because theyíre right. (And by the way, hereís why theyíre right Ö.)" However, Jesus responds consistently in the opposite manner:

Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. (Mark 10:21)

Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return [hunh?]; and your reward will be great. (Luke 6:35)

Judge not, and you will not be judged, etc. (Luke 6:37-38) Ď

Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you. (John 5:14)

This sort of thinking permeates Jesusí entire moral teaching. On plausible assumptions about his knowledge (and certainly on the assumption that he is omnipotent and omniscient!) his actions amount to threats on the same level as Godís intimidation of Job.

#1 The Torturer

This last point is a common but nonetheless forceful one. It concerns Jesusí belief that eternal punishment in a hell of fire is a good thing in some (one is inclined to say "many" or even "the great majority of") cases.

To make the objection itís customary to appeal to a broad moral distinction between two sorts of punishment. On the one hand, thereís retributive punishment, and on the other thereís preventive punishment (there are borderline cases, of course, but they donít blur the extremes). Retributive punishment is motivated by considerations of vengeanceó"an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth"óand nothing deeper. Preventive punishment is motivated by considerations of usefulness (and desert)ófor example, you may want to jail a criminal in order to prevent him from doing more wrong, but not simply in order to "get him back".

If you donít like the distinction, or else donít agree that retributive punishment is wrong, itís enough if you agree to the following: itís better in general to simply jail a criminal (or even execute her) than to jail her in order to torture her indefinitely. (Pain should be a last resort, and should be minimized.)

Now, it seems obvious that everlasting torment in hell is wrong for just these reasons. No matter what "trespasses" someone may commit, all thatís needed is for God to lock íem up for eternity, or cause íem to cease to exist. Even Jesus (who can strike many unprejudiced readers as simply bloodthirsty) seems to be conceding as much when he says, "It would have been better for that man [who betrays the Son of Man] if he had not been born". If so, whatís the point of the everlasting torment by fire? Jesusís seeming admission makes his advocacy of hell even more detestable.

The typical response is that hell really is more like being locked up than like the eternal hellfire. Itís often claimed that the suffering amounts to being separated from God. But if sinners donít suffer down here from being separated from God, why would it be so excruciating later on, unless there was more to hell than the apologists like to admit?

So What Wouldnít Jesus Do?

These are some of my reasons for thinking that Jesus is far from morally spotless, and isnít worthy of worship and submission even if he is omnipotent, etc. (Box 3 assembles these points into a response to the "Worldís Coolest" argument in Box 1.) I believe many of his moral teachings are on the right track, and I have great respect for many of his actions, but in moral virtue he sits far below others such as Buddha, Socrates, and Lao-tse. Divine or not, he has a whole side thatís seriously deranged.

What wouldnít Jesus do? No telling.

BOX 3 Liar or Lunatic?

See Box 1 for the argument to which this is a response. A response neednít favor "liar" over "lunatic" or vice versa; itís enough to favor "either liar or lunatic" over "lord".

At point #1, about the fiery hell, I mentioned the response that maybe hell is simply separation rather than fiery torment. But Jesus made many statements that hell is fiery torment (with the wailing and gnashing of teeth and the whole bit). Is Jesus lying? Is he sincerely mistaken? Then couldnít he be lying or mistaken about his divinity? If he is speaking figuratively here, why not suppose he is speaking figuratively when he claims to be God?

The idea that Jesus couldnít possibly be a liar or be mistaken about his divinity mainly comes from his startling exhortations, e.g., to "turn the other cheek" or to forgive his crucifiers. But we see that he isnít above slapping cheeks around (e.g., points #7 and #3) or maintaining a grudge for quite some time (point #1).

Given point #6 about mudslinging, Jesus begins to look obsessedóintoxicated by his own power (or delusions thereof). Itís not at all implausible to suppose him to be simply mistaken about his own identity, or else at some level to realize it but deceive others. This diagnosis is supported by his heavy investment in master-servant talk (point #3), by declarations (to his followers) such as "You are my friends if you do what I command you." (John 15:14), by the nearly exclusive willingness to use the carrot and the (flaming) stick (points #2 and #1).

FEB 2002

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