Thinking About Religion
Volume 9 (2011)

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Was Jesus Morally Perfect?

Tom Smythe
North Carolina Central University

Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians in our time take the Holy Bible to be the literal Word of God as revealed to the human authors by means of revelation. Such Christians regard Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. They do so because they believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Since Jesus is the Son of God, he is perfectly wise and morally perfect.

I take “perfectly wise” to mean that the moral teachings of Jesus in the Bible are infallible. By “infallible” I mean that the teachings of Jesus cannot possibly be mistaken.[1] By “morally perfect” I mean that the moral pronouncements of Jesus are infallible, and that Jesus is morally omniscient. By “morally omniscient” I mean that there is no moral truth that Jesus does not know. Fundamentalists maintain that we ought to worship Jesus as our Lord and Savior because he has infallible moral knowledge and he knows all moral truths. Jesus is thought of as morally perfect. I think this view has some serious and fatal difficulties. I will investigate some passages from the New Testament that I think throws credible doubt on the alleged moral infallibility and omniscience of Jesus. A morally perfect being will be morally infallible, morally omniscient, and always kind (do the kindest thing). I argue that Jesus, as portrayed in the Bible, is none of these. I stipulate that I could be completely mistaken about the historical Jesus, but I believe I am correct about the Bible.

I shall examine some of the comments in the Holy Bible by Jesus Christ on divorce, who is saved, honoring one’s parents, family values, tolerance and authority, slavery, moral reasoning, and other religions. My thesis will be that Jesus Christ makes remarks in the Holy Bible that reflect a human being that is less than morally perfect.

DIVORCE

I will begin with the pronouncements of Jesus on the subject of divorce. In Matt 5: 32 Jesus is quoted as saying “…whoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery; and whoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” In Mark 10: 11, 12 we read “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and be married to another, she committeth adultery.” In Luke 16: 18 we see “Whoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery; and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” [2] I interpret Mark and Luke above as holding that “Whenever you divorce your spouse it is adultery.” This means that divorcing your spouse is sufficient for adultery. It also means that there is never any good reason to get divorced; that when you do, it is adultery. Since adultery is wrong, divorce is wrong always and everywhere.[3] If this is what these passages imply, then my criticisms will apply.  Of the three passages, only the one from Matthew mentions the exception of marital unfaithfulness as sufficient grounds for divorce. It should be pointed out that the Bible does not say that you have to divorce a spouse that is unfaithful.

I think the unquestioned, blind adherence to these passages by uncritical and unreflective Christians has caused a great deal of unwarranted human suffering. If these passages imply that unfaithfulness is the only grounds for divorce, I regard this as clearly false, unless some reason can be given for believing it. Domestic violence, physical and psychological abuse, and basic incompatibility of life goals and aims, are also moral justifications for divorce. Anyone who disagrees with this has the burden of proof of showing why a married person cannot divorce someone who is cruel to them or abuses them. These seem to me to be morally sufficient reasons for divorce. I should point out here that unfaithfulness can be interpreted to include abuse, but I think that the Bible is clearly interpretable here as talking about adultery as the only grounds for divorce. If this interpretation is not correct, then I do not know how to take these passages. If it is correct, then Jesus was clearly mistaken.

The dictum that by marrying a divorced person you thereby commit adultery also seems to us to be clearly false. There are several reasons why someone may have gotten into a bad marriage, and in such cases he/she may have justifying reasons for obtaining a divorce. To command that this person can never get remarried to anyone again is not only morally unjustifiable, but cruel. I see no justifying reason for such a view. Such a view prevents divorced people from leading happy and fulfilling lives. I conclude that if Jesus really said this, he was clearly morally unjustified in doing so, and morally mistaken. Hence his moral teachings are not infallible.

 WHO IS SAVED

In Matt 7: 13, 14 we are told “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those that enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those that find it are few.”[4] In Luke 13: 23, 24 Jesus is asked “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” and he said to them “Strive to enter the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able.” We assume by “life” Jesus means eternal life in heaven, and that few will find it. I think both of these passages, that were purportedly uttered by Jesus, clearly imply that most of us are going to be sent to hell by Jesus. I find this prospect difficult to reconcile with a divine being that is supposed to be infinitely good, morally perfect, and who loves everyone unconditionally. Anyone who would send most human beings to eternal torment does not seem to be a candidate for moral perfection. A morally perfect being will not send most of us to hell. If God created us, and Jesus is God, why did he create us so we will go to hell?  

I also find this passage incompatible with Romans 9: 11-13 that says “The Scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is the Lord for all who call upon him. For, “ everyone who calls upon the Lord shall be saved.”

F. F. Bruce argues that in saying “the many” are destroyed Jesus may be speaking of his ministry when he spoke to his followers. He spoke to those who were alive then. Bruce points out that Paul (Rom 5: 15,19) speaks of “the many” as those who receive the benefits of the work of Jesus. However, I do not see any necessary connection between these two passages. Jesus could just as well have condemned most of us in one place, and changed his mind in another.[5] I think it is an unnecessary kindness to see Jesus as being consistent here. Bruce points out that another writer said “ignorance, incapacity, perversity, the sheer human capacity for error are sufficient to ensure a high failure rate.”[6]

My interpretation is a plausible alternative to that of Bruce. However, I will not insist that the quote be taken in the most unfavorable way. It is enough to point out that it is problematical.

Another way of resolving this conflict is to say that everyone CAN be saved, but few actually are going to be saved. Since God is omniscient, and presumably knows this ahead of time, I have difficulty reconciling this with His goodness and love for us. If God is good, and loves us, he would want us to be saved. Since He is all powerful, why would he not bring it about that we are saved?

The philosophical theologian John Hick agrees with this. He says that unending torment cannot be a good end. Hell is a concept that raises the problem of evil, and a theology that opts for a place like hell is at variance with any plausible theology. Hell is better construed as a symbol of the responsibility our freedom gives us towards God.[7] Since God allegedly created man as free and responsible agents, we should have the wherewithal to avoid doing wrong and bad things. A good God would offer us the option of Hell, but that option need not be actually realized for responsible and rational beings. This is how I read Hick.

Since Jesus is portrayed in the Bible as clearly advocating that some, or most, people deserve to go to hell, I maintain that the Bible fails to portray a being that is morally perfect. Jesus threatens people with hell fire and eternal torment throughout the New Testament. In Matt 11: 20-24 Jesus condemns entire cities to dreadful deaths and eternal torment in hell just because they do not care for his teachings.

HONORING YOUR PARENTS

In Matt 15: 4 we are told by Jesus “For God commanded, ‘Honor you father and your mother,’ and, ’He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’” I do not find such a remark to be an example of what a morally perfect being would say. Similar sentiments are to be found in Exodus 21: 13, Lev 20: 9, and Deut 21: 18-23.

ANTI-FAMILY

Then there is this: “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be that of his own household. He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matt 10: 34-38)

If this is taken literally, (and it need not be), I find this to be anti-family and a rejection of the very family values that conservative Christians espouse. Similar remarks can be found at Luke 12: 51-53.

Bruce points out that this saying comes in the context of Jesus speaking of the conflict between the realm of good and evil. Those who wish to follow God must follow Jesus. Otherwise, we are on the side of the enemy.[8] However, I find this dichotomy to be an oversimplification of the human condition, where we do not always have either or choices; either follow Jesus and his teachings or side with evil. Such disjunctive thinking is far too simplistic.

Bruce argues that when Jesus spoke of tension and conflict in a family, he spoke from personal experience. There are indications that some of his own family did not sympathize with him. When Jesus said he had come to bring “not peace but a sword” he meant this would be an effect of his coming, not the purpose. I regard this as an alternative explanation that would ameliorate the remarks of Jesus. I cannot comment on its plausibility, but it comes as a welcome relief.

In Luke 14: 16 we are told “If  any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”  A very kind interpretation of this passage would be that a disciple of Jesus should renounce all else. However, this passage is readily interpreted to be contrary to family values that Christian conservatives avidly espouse.

INTOLERANCE AND AUTHORITARIANISM

There is reason to believe Jesus was intolerant. In Matt 12: 30 Jesus says “He who is not with me is against me.”[9] I find remarks like that to display an intolerance for those who may question or disagree with the teachings of Jesus. Such intolerance is hardly a moral virtue, let alone a sign of moral perfection. The above is consistent with the remark Jesus makes that “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18: 3) This can be interpreted as commanding us not to question, think critically, or try to use reason to educate ourselves morally. I find such authoritarian remarks to be contrary to what a mature moral agent ought to be.[10]

More importantly, Jesus is engaging in crass authoritarianism. You either do what he says, accept him as your Lord and Savior, and obey him, or you will go to hell. Everyone is either good (because they obey and worship Jesus), or bad (because they don’t). Everyone is either saved or unsaved. Jesus explicitly says so in Mark 16: 16 “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”[11] I find such a simplistic final solution to the complexities and subtleties of the human condition to be a major affront to the dignity of thinking human beings everywhere. The biblical Jesus makes it simplistic at Matt 12: 30, and Mark 16: 16.  Human beings are complex creatures with multiple variables influencing their personalities and behavior. Such an authoritative and simple solution to the problems facing human beings is for the uneducated among us who need authoritative guidance, but not for people who can think intelligently about what they should do, and what is right and good. This sort of authoritativeness can easily be looked at by some as an insult to the dignity of thinking and morally sensitive human beings everywhere.

In Mark 14: 21 we are told that “woe to the man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would be better for that man if he had not been born.”[12] I do not know what betraying Jesus amounts to, but it is this sort of threat to anyone who questions Jesus can easily be looked at as a mean sort of crass authoritarianism. It is not for the thinking people among us.

OTHER RELIGIONS

In John 3: 17, 18 we see “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world may be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned: he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the holy Son of God.” This seems to make people of other religions, such as Muslims and Hindus, condemned to hell. I find such passages to be unfairly exclusivist and intolerant of others who do not share Christian beliefs. The same applies to John 3: 36 which reads “He who believes in the Son has eternal life: he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of god rests upon him.” I regard such threats as unworthy of any religion or creed.

In John 8: 23, 24 it says “He said to them “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” Again, I find such threats to be insensitive. Another, similar passage is in Acts 3: 23, where it says “And it shall be that every soul that does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.”[13]

SLAVERY

I will now quote from Luke 12: 45-48: “But if that servant says to himself, ’My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the maidservants and menservants, and to eat and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and put him with the unfaithful. And the servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating.”

An unkind interpretation of this passage would be that Jesus advocated beating of slaves when they are unruly. A kinder interpretation is that Jesus did not disapprove of having servants or slaves when he had the opportunity to do so. I find this to be consistent with the fact that slavery is approved of elsewhere in the Bible, and that Jesus did not disapprove of slavery or servitude. I find this to be incompatible with the view that Jesus is morally omniscient, thus morally perfect. Since slavery is immoral whenever and wherever it occurs, I find this to be another reason to question the moral sagacity and perfection of Jesus Christ as portrayed in the Bible. It appears that Jesus failed to disapprove of slavery. The fact that in no other place in the Bible does Jesus disapprove of slavery, and the fact that he had an opportunity to do so in Luke 12: 45-48, but did not, is evidence that Jesus did not officially disapprove of slavery. Since slavery is always morally wrong, there was at least one moral truth that Jesus did not know. Thus Jesus was ignorant of at least one important moral truth.

Another possibility is that Jesus may have known of slavery, but had reason not to condemn it. I find this possibility to be poor judgment for a fully morally perfect being.  Still another possibility is that Jesus was sent to save us, not to reform all our doings on earth. But, then in what sense was He morally perfect?

MORAL REASONING

In the New Testament Jesus rarely gives any reasons for his moral commands. He just expects everyone to accept him as a moral authority without question, and he simply issues directives and commands. In the rare places where he engages in any kind of reason giving, or moral reasoning, his reasoning is poor and defective. For example, in Matt 23: 29-36 we read:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would NOT have taken part in all the shedding of blood of the prophets.’ Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets, Fill up then, the measure of your fathers. You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourage  in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah…whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the alter. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon your generation.

It seems fair to interpret this passage as saying that the scribes and Pharisees would have taken part in the persecution of the prophets BECAUSE their ancestors did. In addition, BECAUSE their ancestors persecuted the prophets, they will now do the same. And in addition, BECAUSE their ancestors are guilty of wrongdoings, the present descendants of those ancestors are guilty of the same wrongdoings of the ancestors. All of these conclusions and assertions that are alleged to follow the above “becauses” are gross non sequiturs. All these inferences are unwarranted, and all three inferences are examples of poor reasoning.

In the first place, just because the ancestors of the present scribes and Pharisees persecuted the prophets, it does not follow logically that the present scribes and Pharisees would have done the same thing. Second, it doe not follow logically that the scribes and Pharisees will now persecute the prophets, just because their ancestors did, And third, it does not follow logically that the present scribes and Pharisees are now guilty of wrongdoing, and deserving of hell, just because their ancestors were guilty of wrongdoing. All this is very bad moral reasoning on the part of Jesus Christ. If there is another way of interpreting these passages, then I may be wrong, but this seems like a plausible interpretation. The third point by itself shows a serious defect in moral reasoning. No one should ever be blamed for what their ancestors did just because their ancestors did something wrong. This is defective moral reasoning. Had the Pharisees exhibited the same sort of spirit this ancestors had, they may have been blameworthy.

A referee points out that Jesus could have had the view that the guilt of one generation is handed on to the next. If so, then the premise, that Jesus may have assumed is questionable. In this case the reasoning of Jesus is not at fault.

THE GOODNESS OF MANKIND

In Mark 10: 17, 18 a man knelt before Jesus and asked what he must do for eternal life calling Jesus the “Good Teacher.” Jesus replied that he is not good, and that “No one is good but God alone.” This clearly implies that Jesus is not as good as God the Father, therefore, not morally perfect according to he very New Testament itself. It also implies that everyone else in the world is not good. I find this to be unsatisfactory as a moral view. Religion should not be in the business of telling everyone that they are no good. This is morally unacceptable.[14]

Further  passages are like this one in Romans 3: 11, 12 that reads “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have clearly charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong, no one does good, not even one.” For a world that has seen the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Albert Schweitzer, John F. Kennedy, and now Barack Obama, I find such Biblical passages to be an outrageous affront to human beings everywhere. Organized religion, and such intellectual garbage, is hardly beneficial to the human condition and the furtherance of human knowledge and well being.

I conclude that although there are many virtues that I have not mentioned that Jesus exemplifies in the Bible, I have shown that Jesus is less than morally infallible, less than omniscient, and sometimes unkind and intolerant of others. The ethical advice Jesus is given credit for is often mistaken, even cruel. He sometimes reasons poorly when he attempts to reason morally. In some cases, blind obedience to the moral advice of Jesus has caused human suffering. I find this unnecessary and avoidable by critical thinking. I recommend that people who are considering what they ought to do try thinking, and not rely solely on holy books. I think that total reliance on being saved by Jesus Christ discourages such a process. The moral I draw is that good people need to read holy books critically and reflectively, and use their ability to reason morally in order to obtain moral truths in a reliable manner. This will not be achieved by blind trust in any holy book, or blind faith in the Biblical Jesus Christ for moral guidance.[15]  


 

[1] Assuming Jesus is God Himself, our concept of God is of a being that cannot make a mistake, or be ignorant of anything (omniscience).

[2] The King James Bible, King James Version, (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1988).

[3] I think it is safe to assume without providing evidence that Jesus disapproved of adultery. One finds this generally true of the Bible.

[4] The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, (Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1952). This version of the Bible will be used in the rest of the essay.

[5] I am assuming the writings of Paul in Romans 5 represent the views of Jesus.

[6] F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, (InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 204.

[7] John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 4th edition, (Prentice-Hall, 1990), p. 125.

[8] F. F. Bruce, op. cit., p. 155.

[9] In context this was not a general claim, but directed to a group of antagonistic Pharisees. Here Jesus seems to want the polarization of his audience—for or against. I owe this point to Paul Wilson.

[10] There are other possible interpretations of this passage. One such interpretation is that God infinitely exceeds our cognitive powers, and we should accept his word and obey Him without question. But this attitude can lead to trouble if we do not read the Bible critically. I am advocating a critical reading of the Bible.

[11] Some later editions of this book do not contain this verse. I owe this point to Paul Wilson.

[12] In context this was spoken of Judas who was planning to betray Jesus. I owe this point to Paul Wilson.

[13] Here I am assuming that the words of Peter represent the words of Jesus.

[14] This can be interpreted as saying that we are not wholly good that is not the same thing as saying we are not good at all. This is a kinder interpretation. Bruce gives such an interpretation, see p. 172.

[15] One can argue that Jesus did not come to earth in order to fix all the problems in society, or to give us a complete morality. He came mainly to save us. I have no objection to this view here. I would like to know why the Bible says most of us are going to hell, if Jesus came to save us.  I am attacking the view that Jesus was portrayed in the Bible as morally perfect. I thank Larry Nessly for his time and help. I also thank a moderate and more sober referee for this journal who helped me improve the manuscript.


Thinking About Religion, Volume 9
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Posted 03/14/2011

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