The matter of "Christian Ethics" is very important in the debate about the truth or validity of Christianity. Christians will often refer to the "high ethical standards" of Jesus in an effort to buttress their contention that they have the True Religion. Even nominal Christians and many non-Christians have considered Jesus to be one of history's great "moral teachers." But are such claims true, and do they stand up under scrutiny? I intend to explore that issue and hope to shed some light on a matter not often discussed.
1. What did Jesus Teach?
That isn't such an easy question to actually answer, believe it or not. It isn't entirely certain what exactly he taught. The earliest Christian writers, Paul included, have little or nothing to say about his ethical teachings, even when it would be to their obvious advantage to do so. The seeming ignorance on the part of the early writers raises the legitimate question of whether or not Jesus really did teach what the later writers say.
In later writings, there is real controversy as to what statements attributed to him might actually be original. The Jesus Seminar doesn't believe that very many can justifiably be called original to Jesus. An obvious explanation of this discrepancy would be that the alleged teachings are later additions, but since so many Christians either ignore this problem or do not accept this solution and follow what is laid down in the Gospels, that is what further critiques will have to deal with.
2. Is there an ethical system?
"Great ethical teachers" commonly develop full and coherent ethical systems which provide a comprehensive basis for teaching proper behavior and attitudes. Unfortunately, no such system is to be found. Instead we find a patchwork homilies and pronouncements, some of which are unclear and others of which are contradictory.
3. If he didn't have a system, what about his main principle?
Many Christians will quickly refer to what is considered his primary principle: "You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38). However, it must be remembered that the context of Jesus' ministry was harsh, otherworldly, and very urgent - thus casting a slightly different light on this "great commandment." According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God was very close at hand (Matthew 4:17) and would in fact come into being within the lifetime of some of those around him (Mark 9:1).
Because of this, he was not particularly concerned with typical worldly problems, saying that people should "sell all that they have" (Luke 18:22), neglecting his family despite their importance in Jewish culture (Matthew 12:46-50), and predicted that his teachings would lead to brother killing brother (Matthew 10:21) and followers hating members of their own family (Luke 14:26). Anyone who did not renounce all that they had could not become a disciple, and anyone who rejected his teaching would receive severe punishment. Does any of this logically follow from the principle of love? What kind of God requires a love which leads to neglect of family? killing family?
Unsurprisingly, little of this is actually followed by Christians today. How many Christians are genuinely unconcerned about their future? Indeed, any rational and moral person who considers a free and just society important would have to invest a great deal of concern in the future. Many of the most serious problems which face us today, especially environmental, are often the result of not planning enough or properly.
4. What about the "Golden Rule?"
The "Golden Rule" has been around in different forms and in different cultures for a long time before Jesus, but he has unfortunately come to be remembered as its originator. The two formulations: "So whatever you wish that people would do to you, do so to them" (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31), or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" are probably often thought of with Jesus. Jesus is also credited with having been the originator of "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27) even though this was, in fact, an Old Testament idea which he borrowed (Leviticus 19:18).
But despite all of this, Jesus himself often did not follow these rules. Although he taught that people should love their enemies, he accorded much less than that to people who simply disagreed with him. He displayed barely concealed contempt for his gentile neighbors, equating them with "dogs" (Mark 7:27), and once instructing his disciples to "Go nowhere among the gentiles" (Matthew 10:5). He even at refused to heal a gentile child until the child's mother came up with a clever saying (Matthew 15:21-28).
Jesus spoke out specifically against anger: "Anyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Matthew 5:22); in fact, the context here actually equates anger with killing. So it would be reasonably to conclude that Jesus would not exhibit the anger to others which he would not want to receive. Can anyone imagine Jesus actually engaged in actions which are much like murder? It is surprising, therefore, to find that, on several occasions, Jesus displayed anger.
4. Shouldn't we have faith in Jesus?
His demand for followers to have absolute faith in him is perhaps his most novel, since his other commandments were already anticipated in earlier Jewish writings (for example, the command to love one's neighbor). Oddly enough, it is a commandment often copied by later cult leaders throughout the world. The Branch Davidians certainly put a lot of faith in David Koresh. But what is a person to have faith in, exactly? That Jesus is "the son of God?" "the son of Man?" Then why was Jesus normally so hesitant to clearly state that those phrases indeed described him? (Luke 22:70). How can someone reasonably follow the command to have faith when they aren't sure what the faith is supposed to be in or about?
And why did Jesus teach that people should attempt to control their thoughts, emotions, and desires (Matthew 5:21-28)? This point is rarely discussed among Christian ethicists - and for good reason. If we are not to contemplate any sort of evil, that would stifle art and literature tremendously. Could he really have believed that thoughts and emotions were bad in and of themselves, regardless of consequences? There is little reason to suppose that his view is true, and the view that they should be stringently controlled isn't very justified.
5. Wasn't Jesus' behavior exemplary?
Unfortunately, no. His actual behavior does not live up to the idealized image often made of him. For example, he explicitly taught that anyone who didn't fully embrace his teachings would be subject to the severest of punishments - hellfire. This is hardly the action of even a very nice person, much less an exemplary person. In addition, despite the fact that he regularly complained about the hypocrisy of others, he himself was guilty of hypocrisy on a number of occasions. Jesus often accused the Pharisees (and others who did not share his opinions) of being "vipers" or "hypocrites" ( Matthew 12:34, 15:7, 22:18, 23:27, 23:33). Amazingly he went on to call some of them "fools" after having specifically told others not to use this term, warning that to do so would make them liable to the "fire of hell!" (Matthew 5:22, 23:17).
Furthermore, he preached the principle of forgiveness of others who transgress, but he was adamant that anyone guilty of the simple act of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit could not possibly receive any sort of forgiveness - and odd stipulation for an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. How can any act, especially the utterance of a few words, so harm an omnipotent and all-good god so as to prevent forgiveness?
At times he preached nonresistance to evil, something which has inspired many people to become absolute pacifists, never raising a hand to defend against aggression. However, Jesus did not always practice this, for example chasing moneylenders out of the temple and destroying property instead of attempting to win them over with love. Could generations of pacifists have made the wrong decision?
Perhaps worse, and one thing which prevents many humanists and rational ethicists from according Jesus the status of "Great Moral Teacher," is the fact that did not stand for any intellectual virtues - clearly not valuing reason or learning. He rarely offered listeners any sort of reason for his commands, and when he did it was of two kinds: either because the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, or because anyone who obeyed would receive a reward while those who didn't would be punished in Hell. What kind of teacher attempts to coerce followers with threats?
No rational justifications were ever given, and it is reasonable to presume that he did not consider critical thinking to be of any value whereas faith in the absence of or in opposition to evidence is proper. A rational person would have to reject any set of values which are based on blind obedience and which rejects the basic principles of reasoning.
6. Doesn't Jesus serve as an ethical model for good family values?
Jesus was fond of repeating the Old Testament commandment: "Honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12; Matthew 15:4, 19:19; Mark 7:10, 10:19;Luke 18:20). Unfortunately, Jesus did not always treat his own earthly father and mother with the respect warranted, and his odd behavior sometimes actually brought dishonor to them!
There are no biblical references at all indicating that Jesus ever spoke to his father, Joseph, and only a few instances given where Jesus spoke to his mother, Mary. In each of those cases, Jesus was curt, if not actually rude. He once scolded his mother for even seeking him at all (after he had, at the age of twelve, been missing for several days), "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I had to be in my Father's house?" was his retort. Twice addressed her only as "woman!" I don't know about anyone else, but my own mother wouldn't react too kindly to such treatment.
At the famous wedding in Cana, when his mother mentioned that the wine was running low, Jesus replied: "Woman, what have you to do with me?" (John 2:4). Few mothers would regard such a remark from even a grown child kindly. If there was ever an instance that Jesus spoke respectfully to his mother or father, we have not been told about it.
There are many biblical references to the contempt and ridicule which Jesus attracted from the populace and the religious leaders of his day. Even his own family tried to restrain him once when he appeared to be acting strangely (and as a consequence, had attracted quite a bit of attention): "And when his family heard about it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, 'He is beside himself [crazy]. He is possessed by Beelzebub'" (Mark 3:21). His disgraceful death on a Roman cross could only have brought dishonor to his mother and father "...for it is written, 'Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree'" (Galatians 3:13).
6. Aren't Jesus' teachings what we need to help us cope with ethical problems today?
In short: no. Jesus addressed few if any of the complicated problems which face modern society: abortion, death penalty, euthanasia, cloning, war, racial, ethnic, & sexual discrimination, slavery, etc. No pronouncements were made regarding the moral questions regarding democracy, socialism, economic justice, etc (which will come as a surprise to many conservative Christians in America who seem to regard capitalism as the only system ordained by their god).
In fact, in some cases, his silence can be regarded as approval, especially with issues like slavery. The practice of slavery was widespread throughout the Roman Empire and Judea at the time, and if he had anything negative to say about it, we certainly should have heard. Instead, he seems to have considered it more important for a slave to stay with or return to his/her master rather than become free. It is notable that Paul commanded the early Christians to continue unabated with the practice. If this hadn't been the case, the United States might not have had to fight a Civil War over the issue, and millions of lives and untold death and suffering might have been avoided.
So, assuming that Jesus' original moral teachings are actually contained in the synoptic Gospels, it seems clear that they are in large part irrelevant, indefensible, or not original to him. The otherworldliness, harshness, and insistence on unthinking obedience, and mean-spirited vindictiveness are not only unacceptable, but quite a long ways from the claim of "moral perfection." What's more, his silent approval of things like slavery make him an unjustified model of morality.-->