“I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t believe in every word of the Bible. But I do believe in the teachings of Jesus. They’re so full of love and peace and tolerance. That’s where I get my divine inspiration from.”
I’ll grant that the philosophy of the Jesus character in the New Testament is, in many ways, an improvement over the Old Testament. It’s a lot lighter on the genocidal brutality and violence, for one thing. And some of the ideas in the Gospels are pretty decent ones.
But it’s a very mixed bag indeed. And while a mixed bag is okay if you’re just talking about human ideas — every one of the thinkers I admire have some ideas I think are coo-coo or messed up or just plain wrong — it’s a lot more problematic when you believe that the ideas in question come straight from the mouth of a perfect God.
There are some seriously screwed-up ideas in the Gospels. And they’re ideas that run counter to some of the most treasured principles of most modern progressives… including progressive Christians.
I want to list them here.
A few quick ground rules:
I’m talking here about my own opinion about what is or is not a screwed-up idea. But I am going to focus on ideas that most modern progressives agree are screwed-up (or would, if the ideas hadn’t come from Jesus).
I’m not going to cite references to hell and damnation. I do think that’s one of the most profoundly messed-up ideas in the Gospels, and it’s one of the most prevalent; but I’ve already catalogued it previously.
And I’m not going to cite the self-aggrandizing “I am God” stuff, as it seems like a rhetorical dead-end. After all, the whole question of whether Jesus was or was not God is exactly the point on which Christians and I disagree, so pointing to it as an example of a problematic philosophy is a bit too circular for my taste. Instead, I’m going to focus on ideas in the Gospels that most progressives would find troubling… completely apart from the question of Jesus’s divinity (or, indeed, his existence).
I will, however, talk about both the hell stuff and the “I am God” stuff when it points to some other troubling aspect of the Jesus philosophy… such as the oft-repeated “Believing that I am God and following my teachings is the only right way to practice religion” trope.
I’m also not going to bother with factual errors (like “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”), or internal contradictions (such as the whole “Should you do your good Christian works openly or secretly?” question), or instances of Jesus just being a jerk (like blighting the fig tree, and the whole “dissing his mother and brothers” thing). And I’m not going to nitpick every little idea in the Gospels that sort of bugs me.. I’m just going to talk about seriously troubling ethical and political ideas.
When a verse is repeated almost word for word from one book to another, I won’t repeat it in this list, unless for some reason it seems to bear repeating. (Which is why there’s a lot more from Matthew than any of the other four books.) And I’m quoting from the Revised Standard Version.
Here we go!
Matthew 5:18: “Whosoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The first in a long line of “You have to do exactly what I tell you” teachings. None of this “Different people find God in different ways” ecumenical crap for Jesus. No, sir. My way or the highway.
Matthew 5:21-22: “You have heard it said that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.”
So now we have thought crimes? Being angry is as bad as as killing, and as deserving of punishment? Not to mention speech crimes. Insulting people and calling them fools makes you deserve to be burned in fire? I don’t think the ACLU would look very kindly on this one.
Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.'”
Ditto above. Thought crimes. Thinking about prohibited sex is as bad as having it. Nice. Plus, we have the whole idea of prohibited sex and consensual sex crimes in the first place. Not to mention the sexist and heterosexist assumption that only women get looked at with lust… and only men’s lust counts.
Matthew 5:31-32: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I way 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.”
So now divorce is out, too. Not only do we have the idea that the consenting (if often dishonest) act of adultery is a sin. We now have the idea that marriage must be permanent, and divorce is tantamount to adultery.
Unless, of course, the woman is unchaste. Then divorce is okay.
What happens if the man is unchaste isn’t mentioned.
So much for Martin Luther King; the abolitionists; the resistance movement in Nazi Germany. They weren’t following Jesus’s teachings, I guess. After all, they didn’t just stand there and let themselves get hit. They resisted one, or ones, who were evil. Bad move, apparently.
Matthew 7:24-27: “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”
Yet another in the “You have to do exactly what I tell you and follow all my teachings” trope. Again, not exactly the spirit of groovy progressive ecumenicalism.
Sheesh, dude. How callous can you get?
Okay, he’s making a point about how you should focus on life and not death, or something. But he’s not going to let his disciple off to go to his dad’s funeral? Even heartless multinational corporations let you off to go to your dad’s funeral. Even heartless multinational corporations recognize that a big part of honoring life is acknowledging death and grief. That is some fucked-up shit right here.
Matthew 10:14-15 (said to the twelve disciples, instructing them on how to spread his word): “And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.”
Well, I like the part about not pestering people to death about your beliefs. In fact, I wish a lot more Christians would take that to heart. But yet again, we have the theme of “anyone who doesn’t listen to my teachings and believe them is doomed.” Nice. Very tolerant.
Matthew 10:32-33: “So every one who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.
Once again, it’s the “You have to believe in me if you want to be saved” theme.
This theme comes up a lot in the words of Jesus, and I don’t have a snarky comment for every single instance of it. But it is (a) an unbelievably common theme, and (b) a theme that runs completely counter to the tolerant, ecumenical, “there are lots of different ways to find God” values of progressive Christianity… not to mention the tolerant, diversity-loving values of progressivism generally. So I’m going to list every single clear-cut instance of it that I can find.
Let’s hear it for peace and unity!
You know, considering that the one message progressive Christians hammer on about more than any other is “peace on earth,” I find it very interesting that the Jesus character actually said, in actual words, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth.” (This is a point I’ve made before — liberal Christians can be just as bad about cherry-picking as conservative ones.)
Matthew 10:35-37: “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 those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Some nice family values you got there. Peace, unity, brotherhood? I don’t think so. And again, we have the “You have to follow me or else” theme. Only now we’re starting to see the “at the expense of your family and everything else in your life” side of it. Sometimes, the guy sounds like Jim Jones or the Bhagwan Rajneesh.
Matthew 11:21-23 (said to crowds in cities, for not repenting when they saw his miracles): “Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”
And again: Anyone who doesn’t believe in me and follow me will burn in hell.
Again with the “If you’re not totally on my side, you’re hosed” theme. You can’t get it much plainer that this, actually.
Matthew 12:31-32: “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
And again. In possibly the harshest language of all. This is the thing that the Blasphemy Challenge is all about — the idea that blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is the one unforgivable sin.
I’m not going to talk here about the idea of an unforgivable sin. There are people who I’ll probably never forgive — George W. Bush comes to mind — and I’m more or less okay with that. So I’m going to say this instead:
If you were going to pick one sin to be unforgivable, would you pick “denying Jesus’s divinity and blaspheming against the Holy Spirit”? Wouldn’t you pick, say, torture, or genocide, or child molestation? This, in my opinion, is Jesus at the absolute peak of his intolerance.
Matthew 19: 9: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Again with the “nix on divorce” theme. Very much not in keeping with modern progressive values. And again with the “female unchastity being the one acceptable excuse for divorce” thing. Nice.
Matthew 22:35-39: And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And he said to him: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Okay. The “love your neighbor as yourself” part, I’m down with.
But note, please, which of these Jesus clearly says is the most important. According to Jesus, it is less important to love your neighbor than it is to believe in God. It is less important to treat other people well than it is to be true to the tenets of your religion.
Pretty much the exact opposite of what progressive Christians say they believe. And very much the exact opposite of most modern progressive ideals.
Mark 4:28-29: “Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemies against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
And again with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit — and not believing in Jesus’s divinity — being the one unforgivable act. The single worst thing you could possibly do. Yuk.
Mark 8:11-12: The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation need a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”
This is a theme that actually comes up more than once in the Gospels, although it’s rarely stated so baldly as it is here. The theme: You should believe in Jesus — in his divinity, in his miracles — without any signs or evidence. The people who believe in him because they saw his miracles, they’re pretty cool… but the people who believe in him without having seen any miracles, they’re totally awesome.
Which very much runs counter to the modern progressive ideals of (a) valuing truth, (b) not just believing what you’re told, and (c) not getting taken by charlatans.
To be fair, in other places Jesus is happy to point to his miracles as proof of his divinity. But I said I wasn’t going to get into internal contradictions, so I’m not going to. If I did, we’d be here all day.
Mark 10:2-12: And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
And again with the ix-nay on the ivorce-day. The prohibition on divorce comes up in every one of the four Gospels. I’d just like to point that out. Plus we have the homophobia of the “God made them male and female” bit…
Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
Yet again with this familiar trope. ‘If you believe me and do what I tell you, you’ll be fine. If you don’t, you’re screwed.”
And again. Obedience to Jesus: good. Independent thought: bad.
The parable from Matthew 7:24-27, about the wise man who built his house on a rock and the dummy who built his house on sand, is repeated at this point, so I won’t list it again. But the line about doing what we’re told is so baldly stated here in Luke that I couldn’t resist.
Luke 10:38-42: Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who say at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Maybe I’m being nitpicky here. Maybe this just bugs me because I’ve thrown a lot of dinner parties, and if my sister sat in the living room listening to some guru while I did all the work myself, I’d get annoyed, too.
But to me, this seems like yet another example of the “Listening to Jesus is more important than helping the people in your life” principle. It’s another example of “Loving God is more important than loving other people and treating them well.” And that’s ain’t right.
Luke 9:61-62: Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Another in the “Geez, callous much?” category. It fits right in with the “Can I at least go bury my father first?” story of Matthew 8:21-22 (and in fact, that story is repeated here as well). Again, we have the “It’s more important to follow your religious leader than it is to be kind and thoughtful to your family” theme. And again, we have the creepy, cult-leaderish, “You’re not worthy if you’re not willing to abandon your family for me” theme.
These aren’t the values of anyone I know. And there’s a reason for that.
Luke 15:26: “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.”
Nice. Do I have to say it again? Obedience to Jesus over affection and respect for your family; the dividing of people from their families to a degree that’s creepy and cultish. Ick.
Luke 18:29-30: And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
Again with the “abandon your family, treat the people who love you shabbily, in order to follow me and obey my teachings” trope.
John 6: 53-54: So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Yet again, with the “you won’t have any life — i.e., eternal life — unless you believe in my divinity and follow my religious practices.”
(FYI: This sort of stuff is all over John, and it’s after midnight as I write this and I want to go to bed; so I’m only going to list the more egregious examples of it from now on.)
John 8:29: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he.” (“He” meaning the Messiah/ Son of God.)
And again. The only way to salvation is through a specific religious belief. All other beliefs are incorrect, and nothing else can save you.
John 12:48: “He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day.
And again. Reject Jesus and his sayings, and be judged — no matter what else you do in your life. (I told you: this stuff is all over the book of John…)
And again. Just one way to God. Jesus’s way.
John 20:24-29: Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, I will not believe.” Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
This story has always, always bugged me.
I think Thomas was completely reasonable. If someone told me that my dead friend had come back to life, I’d bloody well have to see them and put my hands on them before I believed it was really them. But Jesus has to get all snarky about it, and give Thomas a hard time for not believing the wildly improbable without having some actual evidence. Again, the message: Blind faith good. Independent thought bad.
Throughout every book of the four Gospels, we have verse after verse after verse after verse about servants. I’m not even going to list them all. And from what I understand, “servant” should more accurately be translated as “slave.” In some verses it actually says “slave.” Slavery was a widespread reality in Jesus’s day. And not only did he not speak out against it — he used it to illustrate points. He even used the beating of servants and slaves to illustrate points. Ew.
I’m not saying there’s no good content in the Gospels. There is. I’m not even saying that the bad verses outweigh or outnumber the good. I don’t feel like doing a tally right now of which verses I think are cool and which I think are messed-up. Some other time, perhaps… but it’s really beside the point.
The point is this: The bad stuff — the stuff that runs completely counter to the most important values of most progressives I know, including progressive Christians — is not hard to find. It’s all over the place. I basically just spent a few hours with a Bible in one hand and my laptop in the other, and came up with this rather frighteningly long list. And it’s not like these are the minor teachings, either — some of them are among the most famous and beloved teachings of everything Jesus supposedly said.
Now. Again. The fact that the philosophy of the Gospels is flawed and inconsistent would not be a problem if you saw Jesus simply as a person: a far-seeing person with many important and indeed radical ideas, but one who was also somewhat limited by the culture in which he lived. If that’s how you saw the Gospel teachings, you could easily take what you need and leave the rest… just like you would with any other thinker you admired.
But when you believe that Jesus was/is the divine Son of God, and that the Gospels are a more or less accurate representation of his teachings… then you’re in trouble.
Yes, the Jesus character in the Gospels spoke of love and respect and humility, healing the sick and taking care of the poor. But he also spoke of the wickedness of thought crimes, and the sinfulness of divorce; of the value of surrendering rational thought, and the nobility of abandoning family and responsibility to pursue a religious practice. He spoke with approval of the calm acceptance of evil and oppression in this world. And he spoke — over and over like a broken record — about the all-importance of believing that he was God, and obeying his commands. He spoke again and again about how there was just one right way to practice religion, and how doing this was a far greater priority than being a good person in the world.
If you believe that it’s normal and healthy to think about things that you would never actually do; that expressing anger is often useful and healthy; that good people should resist evil and oppression; that people’s sexual and marital lives are nobody’s business but their own; that people of different faiths, perhaps even of no faith at all, can still be good people; that you shouldn’t just believe what you’re told; that women and men should have equal marital rights; that actions speak louder than words and beliefs; that religion shouldn’t divide people; that fact-checking is a valuable skill; and that it’s more important to treat each other well than to have the exact right religious doctrine… then good for you. I think so, too. But if you believe that the Gospels reflect the reality of his life and teachings, then apparently Jesus didn’t.