This is the latest post in a series about Bertrand Russell's essay Why I am not a Christian, in which I run through his various arguments and show that for the most part (there are a few exceptions) they either don't apply to classical theism, or they don't apply to any form of theism. The first part of Russell's essay discussed the existence of God; the second part the moral character and wisdom of Jesus. In this post, I discuss the third section of his discussion of Jesus' character. The question is this: was Jesus a uniquely good man; the best of all men? Indeed, was He a good man in general?
Russell made the point in an earlier section that he is not so much interested in the historical Jesus, but in Jesus as described in the gospels and New Testament. It is, after all, Jesus as portrayed in the gospels who Christians revere. As a Christian, I would accept that the Jesus of the gospels is an accurate (albeit undoubtedly incomplete) portrayal of the man who walked the earth. A secular critic (or liberal Christian critic, which amounts to pretty much the same thing) would say that the gospels are a late account embellishing whatever historical kernel started Christianity off, with most of the gospels reflecting the prejudices of the church at that time. In other words, the gospel accounts have little or nothing to do with the historical Jesus (which parts are viewed as historical and which parts myth largely depends on the prejudices of the scholar in question; Christian liberal scholars have the habit of re-making Jesus in their own image. This is largely because there is no real internal evidence that the various parts of the New Testament are later embellishments, so without evidence the only guide these liberal scholars have is prejudice). That, however, is not the question at hand. Christians worship the Jesus of the gospels, so it is the Jesus of the gospels we need to discuss.
The question is was Jesus as recorded in the gospels moral? Therefore for this exercise, we assume that the gospels provide an accurate testimony, to the best precision permitted by the usual ambiguities from literary form, language, parable, lack of details concerning the wider situational context, and interpretation (these ambiguities are present in every written text, not just Christian ones; they can be minimised through meticulous scholarship but not avoided). We assume for the sake of this question that there is one reasonable interpretation of the gospels which is self-consistent and accurate in how it portrays Jesus' deeds, teachings, and beliefs. So the question becomes is there any description of an event in His life where there is no valid interpretation of the passage where Jesus' actions or beliefs in that circumstance can be considered ethical.
Russell has a serious problem which he needs to overcome before presenting his evidence, and which he doesn't really discuss. How do we define goodness? His claim is that Jesus is not perfectly good, or at least that there have been people who are morally superior to Jesus. So he must first have established some measure of goodness against which Jesus falls short. So where does he get this standard of goodness from? There are two possibilities: 1) there is an objective definition of goodness, which we can in principle discover just as we can come to an objective understanding of mathematics or physics; 2) definitions of goodness are only subjective, so people can legitimately disagree about it.
Classically, goodness can be defined as being fit for purpose (the definition ought to be a little more nuanced than this, but this slightly simplified version gives the general idea). This definition accords with our experience; when we talk about a good teacher, a good salesman, a good sportsman, or a good argument, we mean that the teacher, sportsman or argument is fit for purpose, as a moments reflection will reveal. Moral goodness is seen as a subset of goodness, considering rational animals such as ourselves in and of themselves. A teacher is a rational animal plus something else; the something else provides the purposes related to their teaching (this part isn't controversial), but equally (it is claimed) there are standards that come from just being a rational animal (or human being).
So where does this purpose inherent to mankind come from? There have only really been three serious possibilities proposed.
- It arises from fundamental principles which it would be irrational to deny, such as the principle of non-contradiction or that an objective ethics should be universal. This is the Kantian solution.
- The purpose arises as the result of an external mental will. We can then ask how we know whether that will would be good, which leads us to a regress which can only terminate with a will that couldn't be other than what it is and yet which influences and guides material objects. This can only be the will of God. This is the divine command solution.
- Natural purposes arise from tendencies which are inherent to the type of being. So just as muons have the tendencies to decay into a neutrino and W- Boson, or acorns have the tendency to grow into oak trees, so do rational animals have certain tendencies which follow from the nature or definition of the species. For example, to be rational is defined (in part) as a being which has the tendency to learn knowledge and reason logically. An acorn is defined (in part) as something that has to grow into an oak tree. Note that beings are defined by their tendencies. We don't start with observed properties, deduce from those the form (what the being is) and then try to induce from that what its purpose is (what the being ought to be). We start from a tendency (from which we derive a purpose and thus the standard of goodness, the ought), figure out the forms which would naturally fulfil that tendency (the is), and then from the form compute the properties of that class of beings, which we compare against observation. So both rationality and being an animal are defined by certain tendencies. These tendencies can be used to derive a list of characteristics which all rational animals possess. We can compare ourselves against that list, and conclude that we are rational animals. Therefore the standard of goodness we derive from the defining tendencies of rational beings and animal beings also applies to us. This is the Aristotelian or Natural Law solution.
These are, I think, the only options. An objective standard of goodness has to arise from rational principles alone, an principle wholly external to matter (though also rational) which exhibits movement towards an aim or goal (and external to matter means that it must be immaterial; and a immaterial tendency towards a goal means by definition that it is a will), or something which is at least in part arising from the nature of the being (albeit also also based on rational principles and possibly also linked to an external will, if there is an external will sustaining the nature of that being).
Kant's approach provides a necessary condition for any objective ethics, but it is not sufficient to give a unique answer. As an atheist, Russell can't support divine command theory for obvious reasons. (The other objection he might raise is the Euthyphro dilemma, which is also easily answered once we think about each horn of the dilemma from first principles and definitions). The Natural Law or Aristotelian approach depends on the existence of final causality, which as a modern philosopher Russell would reject (the rejection of final causality being the defining feature of modern philosophy). Equally, it has been argued that if beings have inherent tendencies, then that directly implies the existence of God.
So the modern atheist philosopher has a bit of a problem with regards to ethics. It doesn't matter what structure you build on top of it (whether a duty theory, consequentialist theory, virtue theory, or so on). Every ethical theory needs as a first principle a standard of goodness. There is no point saying that people ought to act to maximise happiness or minimise suffering unless you can first prove that happiness is always a good or suffering always an evil. Indeed, this problem has been given the name of the Naturalistic fallacy, and within the context of modern philosophy it is widely regarded as insoluble. Classical philosophy, of course, avoids the problem by allowing for final causes.
So if Russell can't posit an objective ethics, he has to suppose that either moral values are subjective or that they are illusionary. If they are illusions, then obviously he hasn't got the particular moral case against Jesus that he wants to argue. So what if they are subjective?
For example, Russell was very much a sexual libertarian: do what you like, as long as it is consensual. Jesus was very much a sexual conservative: do not even glance lustfully at someone outside of marriage. (How would Jesus have defined marriage? No explicit definition is recorded in the gospels, so at one level it might look like we are reduced to guessing. However, there is a common definition of Marriage, widely accepted up until very recent times, including by Jesus' own culture and the culture founded by Jesus' disciples. Jesus' own teaching is consistent with this definition, so we can be justified in assuming that He would have accepted it. The only places where the definition I supply here differs from that of Jesus' own second temple Jewish culture was in the words indissoluble and single, and both of those additions are taken directly from Jesus' teaching. Marriage is defined as an indissoluble union between a single man and a single woman for the purpose of procreating and raising children. Note that the institution is defined by its purpose, not by the fulfilment of the purpose. The purpose is then used to derive the allowed forms of marriage. The purpose is the same even if the couple fail to achieve it or are incapable of achieving it due to infertility. There is a difference between purpose and capability.). But if there is no objective principle underlying his own ethics, then how can Russell say that he is right and Jesus wrong? All he is doing is putting his own opinion against God's, and saying that his flights of fancy are more rational than God's wisdom. This is not a rational position to take.
So when Russell wants to argue that Jesus is immoral, what he means is "Jesus and I disagree about what is and isn't moral." There are then four possibilities: Jesus is wrong and Russell right, Russell is wrong and Jesus right, they are both wrong, or the question is meaningless. His premise is not sufficient to show that Jesus is immoral, unless he can justify his moral principles. Which, as we have seen, he can't. He is making an additional unstated and unjustifiable premise: that his own will is what determines what is right and wrong, not only for him but for everyone else. Therefore Russell's argument has failed before it has even begun.
So what are the grounds that Russell puts forward for Jesus' supposed immorality? He mentions three things.
Jesus believed in the existence of hell. This was to Russell his main objection, and it strikes me as a curious one. If hell exists, then to disbelieve in it is surely immoral. Firstly because the belief would be false and thus anything you spoke people on the subject would drive people away from the truth. Secondly because you will not act to help people avoid hell. The immoral thing would be to desire for people to go to hell, and in this Jesus is surely the most innocent of all: his whole life (if Christianity is true) was devoted to providing the only means by which anybody may be rescued from hell, and to ensure that as many as possible were so rescued.
So what is hell? First of all, we should ask what is heaven? Heaven is the Kingdom which God seeks to establish; where everybody is perfect, and open to only those who are morally perfect. That's the reason why a chasm exists between heaven and hell. As soon as an evil person, or even a slightly imperfect person, enters heaven, it will cease to be heaven. Obviously perfection is not something we can achieve by ourselves. I am not saying that Christians are morally perfect. Far from it. I am saying that nobody is morally perfect, and Christians just as bad (on average) as everyone else. But the alternative to us achieving moral perfection by our own standards is perfection being worked in us by the act of someone else; and only God has the power and the moral perfection needed to do that. Being Christian is about acknowledging our weaknesses, and trusting and desiring God to remake us into what we ought to be, and preserving us there.
Hell is for everyone else. It is eternal because existence is a good in itself, and thus to cause people to cease to exist will be an even greater evil than the suffering of hell (evil being simply the lack of some good; non-existence the lack of every good). The people of hell reject God, but without God their anger, hatred and self-obsessiveness continually grow and increase. Even though they might start out as decent people, without what common grace exists in this world, they descend into greater and greater evil in their character and natures. The natural consequence of such evil is suffering, and so that is the outcome of the place; not so much caused by God, but by the rejection of God by the people of that place and the evil thoughts and deeds that flow from an eternity of such rejection. Thus while their entrance into hell might have resulted from a handful of evil deeds in this life, their continued stay is caused by the eternal degradation of their characters that results from an attitude of rebellion against God. The suffering is eternal because the evil in their character is eternal. They might try to become perfect enough for heaven, but their futile attempts would just make their imperfections increase.
Hell is, in short, the natural end of a vicious character. God could help them, if they wanted, but they don't want what that help would entail for them: they want the relief from suffering, but not the life of virtue and faith needed for heaven. Not understanding this, their rage against God increases, and with this their evil, and with that their suffering.
That, at least, is (a simplified form of) my take on the matter. If it is right, then to deny the existence of hell is to take a long stride down the road to dragging yourself and others to hell. The only way to escape hell is to trust in the Truth, and to deny hell is to trust in delusions. I do not want anyone to go to hell, but I recognise that people's vice and pride will inexorably lead them there, and, if I cannot persuade them to change course, there is little that I or anyone else can do to stop that. At the same time, I rejoice in justice; that those whose trust allows God to impute and infuse his own righteousness in them are able to escape that fate.
Russell was thus plainly wrong. Jesus was good in part because He believed in the existence of hell, while doing all He could to prevent people from going there. Russell was evil in part because he disbelieved in it, while doing all he could to guide people there.
Russell states that preaching hell is an evil because of the fear and worry it has given people down the centuries. But why is this? Fear is not always an evil. It is not wrong to fear a venomous snake; the fear might well save our lives. Fear is only wrong if it is directed to something which is not dangerous, and there the evil is not the fear but the incorrect knowledge. Fear might provoke us into wrong action, but then the evil is not the fear but the cowardice which stops us from doing the right thing despite the fear. In any case, a genuine fear of hell is not likely to lead us to do evil. Fear of hell is only an evil if hell does not exist (although obviously to desire goodness in itself is better than fear of hell). Russell therefore assumes that hell does not exist. This is only possible if Christianity is false. Therefore Russell's argument is circular and invalid.
There was the instance of the Gadarene swine where it certainly was not kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush into the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and could have made the devils simply go away; but He chooses to send him into the pigs.
This objection is based on a misreading of the passage. It was the demons who asked to be allowed entry into the pigs; and it was the demon possession, not Christ's command, that caused the pigs to run into the lake. Men are worth more than pigs, and Jesus' main concern was for the man. So what was He to do? Let the demons wander the surface of the earth, get bored, and decide to come back to their original home with a few extra house-guests, leaving the state of the man even worse than before (this is what Jesus Himself stated that he believed). Annihilate the demons? But by depriving them of existence would also be an evil; better to follow the original plan and let them live as they desired apart from God's goodness, and enjoy the fruits of their rebellion in hell. Thus one can very well argue that Jesus' action here was the least possible evil.
Then there is the very curious story of the fig tree [which Jesus cursed and it withered]. … This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time for figs and you really could not blame the tree.
Again, it is difficult to fully assess this story with only the little information we have in the gospels, either to condemn Jesus or condone him. To judge whether Jesus' actions were good, we have to judge what His motivations were, and whether those flowed from a good character, and whether they were fulfilled by His action. Here we draw a blank. The story appears in Matthew and Mark's gospels, with the only difference between the two accounts being the timing: Matthew merges the two halves of the story together, while Mark separates them, with other episodes between them. This difference is down to the literary form of the gospels; as classical biographies, their main purpose was to promote a message about Jesus, and strict chronology was secondary to the overall theme. Thus writers were expected to move events around to have a continual flow of meaning. A strict chronology was not usual in this type of writing, and the original readers would have understood that.
The gospel account records that Jesus was hungry, and went to the fig tree to find something to eat. His initial motivation was hunger. But after that, we are left in the dark. Except, of course, it offered to the disciples and those others who paid attention an important lesson about Jesus' authority, and power. If Jesus' intention was to demonstrate that authority, then the means of doing so was certainly effective. The motivation would be to educate his disciples, and anyone else who would pay attention; and education of truth is always good. Thus the deed followed from a good motivation, and was effectively carried out. In this sense it was a good deed. The evil done to the fig tree has to be balanced against the good done to Jesus' disciples through the demonstration. Men are worth more than fig trees.
Luke's gospel doesn't contain this story, but it does have a parable which is relevant.
And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"
Parables always require interpretation, and here is my attempt at unpacking it. The man represents God the Father, the fig tree humanity, and the vineyard and the ground the tree is planted on this planet and the abundance of good resources we have been blessed with. The vinedresser represents Jesus, and the fruit good deeds arising from the virtues, particularly from faith and agape love. The cutting down of the tree represents the last judgement and the end of human history. The digging and manure represents Jesus' life and work and the Holy Spirit, sanctifying humanity to produce good fruit. The parable is basically a warning to mankind. We have been given a great place to live in, but because of pride and rebellion, we have not produced the works and character that God desires. We have been given three chances so far, and have been granted a fourth, but it will not last forever. We will not have an infinite number of opportunities to abuse this planet and society; eventually, if we go to far, we will be the seeds of the destruction of both the environment we rely on and ourselves. We should not be so arrogant to think that we could never be cut down. Why should we enjoy this planet, if we are not worthy of it, and take up ground which could be used to support something better than what we have made ourselves?
A message of the fig tree outside Jerusalem is that what Jesus did to that tree He can also do to us (not so much an active act of destruction, but a passive withdrawal of the grace that sustains us); and if we don't make good use of the blessings given to us, then that is what he will do, and let a better society take up this place we have been blessed with. It is both a lesson about how the power of God can aid us, and a warning to us not to forget that we ourselves rely on God to sustain us; and that grace can be withdrawn at any moment.
Was Jesus' action evil? No, humanity is evil, and God is just. He will give us warnings like the fig tree, but not indefinitely. Then he will withdraw His protection which is the only thing preventing us from creating the world that our actions show that we desire and deserve to live in. Hell.
Was Jesus immoral? If you accept the premises that Russell built his ethics on, then yes. If you accept the premises that Christian ethics is built on, then most certainly no. What evidence does Russell have that his ethical understanding is built on solid ground? He has to contend with the naturalistic fallacy; and the Christians have already taken the only two known ways to evade it. So Russell can't prove that Jesus is immoral without relying on ethical premises which at best beg the question and at worst are wholly false. So this part of his essay utterly fails. He has not proved that Jesus wasn't an uniquely immoral man.
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