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Jesus is supposed to be the great moral teacher: God incarnate, preaching moral perfection, or preaching morality perfectly. However, more often than not, this teaching involves scaring people with notions of what will happen to them if they don’t choose wisely. Or, his teaching basically involves threatening you.

Robert Price sums this up with aplomb in the excellent Blaming Jesus for Jehovah:

Sorry, it is hard to evade the truth that Jesus is shown here predicting hellfire for those who do not repent while there’s still time. You might call it killing a mouse with an elephant gun; the behaviors he lists (stealing, trespassing, ogling) would seem to carry their own “punishments” by their intrinsic nature and their likely social repercussions, like the fate of the adulterer caught in the act by his lover’s husband (Prov. 6:23-29, 32-35, 7:6-27).

Do you really need additional threats of never-ending torment amid flames and devouring worms on top of real-world blow-back? If you think you do, if you think it is best to frighten people out of negative behavior, you are short-circuiting the growth of moral sensitivity and mature conscience.

And a Jesus who tried to scare the hell out of people (or to scare them out of hell!) wouldn’t be much of a moral teacher, despite his reputation. He would be holding you back in the most infantile stage of morality: keeping your hand out of the cookie jar for fear of a whipping. (p. 72)

Price then goes on to recount Matthew 18:23-35:

23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 26 So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ 27 And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt.

28 But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ 30 But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 31 So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened.

32 Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33 Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ 34 And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him.35 My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

In some translations of this pericope, the word torturers is nicely translated as jailers. It’s why I like to use the NASB, because I find their translations often more authentic.

So the best way to teach morality is threaten people with the worst thing in human conception.


A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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