Once we get past the bloody and bizarre Old Testament, it’s all “Love thy neighbor” and “Help the poor” from there, isn’t it? We’re expected to accept that Jesus was a wise moral teacher and that the New Testament is a valuable document of morals, even if we aren’t believers ourselves. But the goodness of the New Testament isn’t as obvious upon examination, and it’s not entirely clear that it’s even better than the Old Testament. A respectable case can be mounted either way, but even if we decide that the New Testament is an improvement upon the old one, it’s still undeniably evil. Some of the bad ideas are continuations of the things first established in the OT. For example, in Deuteronomy 21, we’re instructed to kill our children if they’re rebellious, which is a command that Jesus reaffirms twice in the NT, in Matthew 15:3-4 and Mark 7:8-13. In the Old Testament, homosexuality is considered an abomination, and in Romans 1:27, it’s called unnatural and shameful.
It’s pretty hard to match the sexism of the OT, but in 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:12, women are instructed to be silent, and are forbidden to hold authority over a man. Which, to be fair, is not as bad as making them sit outside the camp when they’re menstruating or murdering them for being suspected of having premarital sex, but I don’t see why we should grade god on a curve.
Jesus says that marrying a divorcee is adultery in Matthew 5:31. This dogmatic anti-divorce position held by religious fundamentalists has multiplied abuse and misery for centuries. In Catholic Ireland, it was illegal to get a divorce, and Mother Teresa campaigned to keep forcing Jesus’ morally obtuse rule on everyone through the state. Fortunately, because Mother Teresa and the Church failed, men and women in unhappy or abusive relationships could hope for a better life less plagued by unnecessary misery.
Slavery is Acceptable
In Ephesians 6:5, slaves are instructed to be obedient to their human masters. This isn’t the only time slavery comes up in the NT, but it’s never condemned. Slavery is probably the easiest big moral question we’ve ever been faced with. The Bible, which is supposed to be the most morally wise book on offer, doesn’t condemn owning other human beings as property. In fact, it says slaves ought to obey their masters. I wonder if it was a slaveowner who wrote that.
Hell is described in Matthew 13:42, Matthew 25:41, Mark 9:43, Luke 16:19, and 2 Thessalonians 1:9 as an eternal punishment. But what kind of crime could you possibly commit that deserves a never-ending punishment, let alone one of burning alive? This is possibly the most immoral idea in the NT — that punishment should be eternal.
The New Testament also endorses thoughtcrime. In Matthew 5:22 and 28, Jesus says that feeling anger is the same as murder and is punishable as such, and that privately feeling lust is the same as committing adultery. You can be judged and punished on the basis of your private thoughts. So not only can punishment be eternal, but according to Jesus, thoughtcrime is a thing and you can go to hell for it forever.
The NT encourages people to look forward to the end of the world. Not just in Revelation, but in the Gospels, where it’s clearly stated that the world will end any minute now. But in addition to claiming repeatedly that the end is nigh, this is supposed to be great news. This is not exactly a recipe for progress, and this isn’t a fringe minority of Christians. Over 40% of the American population believes that Jesus will usher in the end times in the next 50 years. This means that true believers don’t actually care about the future of civilization because they think there won’t be one. Sam Harris, in Letter to a Christian Nation, writes,
“According to the most common interpretation of Biblical prophecy, Jesus will return only after things have gone horribly awry here on earth. It is not an exaggeration to say that if the city of New York were suddenly replaced by a ball of fire, some significant percentage of the American population would see a silver lining in the subsequent mushroom cloud, as it would suggest to them that the best thing that is ever going to happen was about to happen. It should be blindingly obvious that beliefs of this sort will do a little to help us create a durable future for ourselves. Imagine the consequences if any significant component of the United States government actually believed that the world was about to end and that it’s ending would be glorious. The fact that nearly half of the American population apparently believes this purely on the basis of religious dogma should be considered a moral and intellectual emergency.”
Another gem from the NT is that according to Jesus, demons are literally real, demonic possession is a real problem, and exorcisms are the way to deal with that problem. Jesus cast out demons on multiple occasions, including in one of the most famous NT stories where he casts demons out of a man who was behaving erratically and into a herd of pigs, who promptly ran off the edge of a cliff. Religious moderates would scoff if you asked them if they believed in literal demonic possession, but the creator of the universe clearly thinks this is a real thing and is the cause of some human behavior.
Religious moderates fancy themselves to be very sophisticated and accuse atheists of being simplistic and literalistic when we point out demons aren’t real. But the reason we no longer take demonic possession seriously as an explanation or widely practice exorcisms is not because of religious progress, it’s because of scientific progress. When someone is having a seizure, we understand what’s happening neurologically; you’re not possessed by the devil. When someone miscarries, it’s not due to demonic influence. These are two examples among many where pressure from the outside caused the religious explanations to be abandoned. Religious moderation is the product of religion losing the argument and losing it’s belief in what it once preached confidently as absolute truth.
Vicarious Redemption and Human Sacrifice
Writing in his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis had a rare moment of lucidity explaining the immorality and insanity of Jesus’ teachings if naturalism is true.
“Now, unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself un-robbed and untrodden on, who announces that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if he was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if he really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivaled by any other character in history. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg, or else he would be the devil of hell. Let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
Putting aside for the moment the “Lunatic, Liar, or Lord” argument that he starts to level at the end, he’s actually right that if the Gospels aren’t literally true, which is fairly trivial to demonstrate, then they are insane and immoral.
The central pillar of the NT is that human sacrifice is a great way to solve your problems. Of course, it doesn’t advocate going around and sacrificing humans to accomplish things, but Jesus’ blood sacrifice is the main event of the NT. The idea that human sacrifice is a good way to appease god is possibly the most obvious holdover from our superstitious, barbaric ancestors. It’s amazing that otherwise educated, intelligent people can believe that a human sacrifice took place in order to solve any problem. This is no different from sacrificing a goat and expecting the weather to change.
Old vs. New
There are some good parts of the New Testament and there are some things I don’t hate that are in the Bible, as long as you read the stories like you would any other book. But the purpose of this episode is to shine a light on the bad stuff in the supposedly brilliant NT. And the things that are good from the Bible are usually not unique to the Bible. Anything that can be said to be good can usually be found somewhere else and can be better articulated than it was in the Bible. Another problem is that the few bits of wisdom that are in there are usually diminished or ignored. The most obvious examples being the numerous times Jesus advocated on behalf of the poor — a sentiment that is completely inverted by today’s Christians, at least in my country.
If you put a gun to my head, I guess I would say that the NT is better, but not much better. It’s not as obviously superior as is often implied. A respectable argument can be made that the evil of the NT exceeds the evil of the OT, as Christopher Hitchens did in god is Not Great. In any case, the NT is clearly not good. It would be trivially easy to improve upon it, which should be impossible if Christianity were true and the most moral being in the universe inspired it.
If you’ve never advocated the death penalty for children, congratulations, you’re more moral than Jesus. If you think men and women should have equal rights, you’re more moral than Paul, who wrote most of the NT. If you think the end of the world would be a bad thing, you’ve transcended NT morality.
We’re expected to accept that Jesus was a wise moral teacher and that the New Testament is a valuable trove of morals, even if we aren’t believers ourselves. But the NT is filled with terrible ideas. The Bible is an evil book, filled with absurdities and immorality, and we’d be better off ignoring it completely except as a document proving how wrong we’re capable of being and how miserable religion is capable of making us if we take it seriously.
Mere Christianity — C.S. Lewis [Amazon]