I’ve said before that I’m not much of a fan of Jesus. If the reports of what he taught his followers have any truth to them, he said a number of things to which I object (and I don’t mean just the parts about believing in invisible spirits).
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The Jesus I Don’t Like
For one thing, he modeled for his followers a kind of fanatical abandon which doesn’t really translate well into normal, daily life. I suspect that has something to do with the fact that he thought the world was about to end at any minute. In case you haven’t noticed, people obsessed with the end of the world are terrible at figuring out how to manage a world that isn’t going away any time soon. It’s all well and good to say “take no thought for tomorrow,” but down here in the real world someone has to do precisely that or everything falls apart.
He was also very negative toward the notion of family life, and he seemed consistently critical of people whose commitments to taking care of their families got in the way of following him around. He made it clear that whenever the needs of family interfered with ministry, the mission always come first. I know quite a few men and women who internalized that message so well that they have been willing to split their families to make sure God knows he comes first.
He was also very negative in his view of human nature, if the words put in his mouth by the writers of the gospels can be believed. He kept insisting that “no one is good except God,” and he didn’t seem to hesitate telling people they were fundamentally evil (“If you, being evil…”). He informed his followers that, just as following him required “hating” your own family, so it also demanded “hating” your own life.
To whatever extent Jesus peddled anti-humanistic thinking, I consider myself an opponent to his ideology.
The Jesus I Do Like
But like Yahweh before him, Jesus isn’t a very consistent a literary character. He seems to be a mottled blend of fact and fiction, like a man who at one point said and did some noteworthy things but who posthumously became buried under layer after layer of legend until he became a figure larger than life.
It’s easy as an atheist to find fault with the things that Jesus said, and my skepticism prevents me from believing a word about the more imaginative things it says that he did (e.g. walking on water, healing the disabled, raising the dead, and finally soaring into the air to disappear behind the clouds). But I would be remiss if I didn’t stop and point out that there are quite a few moments in the gospels where Jesus sounds more like a humanist than anything else.
Not too long ago, I read an article in the Huffington Post in which a fellow “freethinker” suggested he’s comfortable calling himself “a secular follower of Jesus.” I wouldn’t go that far myself since, the way I see it, my commitment would always be to the ideals themselves, not the individual who articulated them. I would sooner call myself a follower of Robert Ingersoll, whose elocutions encapsulated modern humanism better than any other person I can call to mind. But I don’t say I follow the man because he was just a man. I feel the same way about Jesus.
That said, like the author of the HuffPo article, I can easily pick out a number of moments in which Jesus said things which sound very much like my own values as a secular humanist. In fact, sometimes he sounds so positively enlightened and forward thinking that I wonder if he was really a proto-humanist in disguise. What if he was really a freethinker born ahead of his time but got immediately co-opted into the services of varying religious groups in the latter half of the first century C.E.?
I wonder sometimes if he would have aligned himself more with the non-religious were he to have been born at a later date? Who knows?
Five Elements of Humanism in the Teachings of Jesus
All I can really do is look at the words we have preserved for us today. When I do, I can pick out a number of moments in which Jesus sounds more like a progressive-leaning humanist than he does anything else. I’ll group them according to each humanistic theme I see advocated in his words.
- He taught people to critically analyze the religious dogmas of their day. He challenged the sacrosanct with boldness.
In Mark 7:1-23, the religious teachers of his region rebuked Jesus for failing to pass along to his followers the proper pre-meal rituals of their day, which by their logic rendered the food they ate unclean. In today’s terms, this would be analogous to teaching Christians not to pray before the meal, asking God to “bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies, and thus to thy service.” Where I live, people make quite a show of this in public spaces. One large wealthy family I know used to frequent the same eating establishment my family did, standing to hold hands and pray all the way around the large round table before sitting down to eat their Sunday dinner. Jesus would have likely had words for that practice as well, but that’s not the issue at the moment.
Jesus fired back at these men with a rebuke of his own, charging that the bulk of their worship rituals consisted of empty rules made up by men. As an atheist, of course, I would go one step further and suggest they all are made up by men, but let’s not get distracted from our point. It’s refreshing to see the main character in a religious text distinguishing himself from his surroundings by calling out the pointlessness of the “purity culture” of his day.
Related: “How the Bible Helped Me Become an Atheist“
Pay close attention to the argument Jesus gives them: He argues that what you put into your body doesn’t make you “unclean.” Character comes from within, he suggests, in what lies beneath the surface:
“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them.”
In case you didn’t catch that, Jesus here makes a radical break with the religion of his time. According to this text, he just invalidated the very basis for all the food laws that helped to differentiate “God’s people” from everyone else for presumably a thousand years.
He makes a great point, too. What you put into your mouth eventually comes back out the other end (eww) and it doesn’t therefore impact your personal character. Like the apostle Paul would later argue, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink.” According to Jesus, we are making a mistake when we evaluate people’s personal character based on what they put into their mouths.
I’ve often wondered: Why does this rule not also apply to other orifices? I think that’s a fair question.
As a side note, it may very well be that these words are among the many which the early church put back into the mouth of Jesus decades later in order to settle disputes of their own time. It doesn’t really matter much to me, since the only Jesus we know of is the one the early church preserved for us. Any serious student of the Bible must wrestle with the realization that some measure of “creative remembering” took place, no matter how conservative their theology. But the statements are still there, demanding that we decide whether or not we can agree with what it says that he said.
- He brutally critiqued the purity culture being pushed by his own religion, judging it superficial and distracting from the things that really matter.
People love to talk about how Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” and “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But there were indeed two groups of people toward whom Jesus was relentlessly critical: The very wealthy and the very religious. We’ll get to the first group in a moment. But Jesus’s harshest words were always reserved for the men who made names for themselves by taking the laws of God and fleshing them out into prescripted practical terms. One of my old seminary professors argued they were only trying to help, but Jesus didn’t seem to have any patience for their kind at all.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are…
You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
I mean, come on. This guy had a pair on him, you know? No wonder they wanted him taken out. He called them hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, and a brood of vipers. He poked fun at their misguided obsessions, telling them they “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” That derogatory line almost certainly drew a laugh from the crowd, causing the religious leaders of his time to clench their fists and grind their teeth.
This guy would probably be a hit at a meeting of local atheists. At times, I swear we would say the exact same things.
- He collapsed the vertical dimension of piety into the horizontal, redefining virtue in terms of how you treat your fellow human beings.
It has always impressed me that Jesus approved of boiling the 613 laws from the Old Testament down into just two: Love God and love each other. One guy approached Jesus and said:
“To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
LOL. That shut them up, didn’t it? I’m not sure people knew what to do with him sometimes. He basically just condoned dismissing the entire Temple cultus in favor of simply trying to do a better job of loving well. What a freakin’ hippie, amirite? And yet this is the man we are told was God incarnate. This is as authoritative as it comes.
We have here a protagonist who is telling us that most of the business of worship from the founding of Israel to the time of his speaking had either ceased to be relevant, or else it never really was in the first place. We could argue for some time about which of those two it is, but remember: I’m an atheist, so it’s probably not gonna go anywhere.
Jesus even went a step further, taking the first commandment (love God with all you’ve got) and subsuming it—collapsing it—into the second. Watch what he does here:
Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
True worship, according to Jesus, consists in treating your fellow human beings well, showing them respect, love, and kindness. According to him, God isn’t all that interested in your performance of the prescribed religious ritual. What he wants, according to this man, is for you to learn to value your fellow human beings, treating them the same way you would want them to treat you.
His favorite verse seemed to be Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” I know this because he brought it up on multiple occasions.
“Love your neighbor as yourself,” he also loved to say. As an atheist, I can’t really argue with that. Frankly, if that’s your focus, I’m not all that concerned with why that’s the case. You say you treat people well because God wants you to? Fine, works for me. What will cause us to cross swords is when someone comes along and convinces you that God wants you to respect people less (all in love, they will argue). Until then, I’m gonna call this a win and say we’re on the same team.
- He denounced nationalism and tribalism in no uncertain terms, telling story after story commending people for reaching out to those who are different from them.
People living in the Second Temple era of Judaism had plenty of reasons to dislike those from other nationalities. In fact, dislike of “the other” was woven deeply into the tribal history of the people of Israel, divided as they were between competing kingdoms and bloodlines. The Old Testament often spoke of loving your neighbor but hating your enemy. Jesus directly contradicted that in a bold move which pitted his message against the message of an underlying theme of ancient culture:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (emphasis mine)
Jesus had an irritating habit of telling stories in which a foreigner behaved better than people from his own nationality. The most famous of them all is his Parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37). In that story, two religious people—who ordinarily would be the heroes in stories like this—just walk right by an assault victim fighting to stay alive on the side of the road. They were likely too concerned about becoming “unclean” to sully their hands helping the poor unfortunate victim.
Then Jesus introduces a Samaritan into the story, almost certainly eliciting jeers from the audience, who quickly became horrified when they realized he was about to make the dirty foreigner the hero of the story. Jesus had been asked who qualifies as a “neighbor” since we are to love our neighbor, and he turned that question on its head by suggesting that even those who were seen as enemies could “out-love” and “out-compassion” God’s own chosen people. What an incendiary story to tell! Again, it’s no wonder they wanted this guy taken out. That part I completely believe.
Tribalism runs deep in human nature, and it’s not just a problem for the religious. Atheists like me struggle with this as well, as the culture wars keep inclining us against humanizing those who consistently dehumanize us. It’s not an easy thing to keep in mind; but the way I see it, that’s part and parcel of what it means to be a humanist.
In our quest to be “good without God,” even the “without God” part cannot be allowed to exclude others unless we ourselves want to become guilty of the very exclusionary behavior we are always criticizing our religious counterparts for exhibiting.
This isn’t an easy thing to do. But it’s one of the things that Jesus and I seem to agree on. Even if he didn’t consistently espouse this idea, though, it’s still a good goal to pursue. To my mind, anyone trying making the world a better place for everyone, not just for themselves, is on the same team.
- He denounced social injustice and greed, calling on the wealthy and powerful to use their privilege to benefit others.
Jesus reserved his harshest words for the very religious, but his second harshest words were directed toward the very wealthy. In his mind, wealth and privilege were only useful and good to whatever extent they were used to benefit the rest of humanity. Wealth in and of itself wasn’t bad, but the moment it became hoarded by the well-off it became an evil that shrinks the size of their soul.
That’s why he said “It’s impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Anyone who truly followed Jesus’s teachings would give away so much of their material assets that in they never really stay wealthy. It’s a constantly flowing wealth that begins with them but keeps moving out to the rest of the world.
I write a lot about disliking the notion of Hell, and we have Jesus to blame for telling so many stories about Gehenna (aka “Hell”). You can visit the Valley of Hinnom today and see that it’s a beautiful place, no longer a burning trash heap as it once was in Jesus’s day. Many have found in that an amusing and comforting reassurance that Jesus never really intended us to think God would light us all on fire for eternity just because we didn’t “tag up” to Jesus by confessing our sins with the right canned little speech.
Leaving that debate aside, it’s important to note that Jesus was taking a popular image from his own day and inverting its inherent message, putting it in the service of a new set of values. When Jesus talked about Hell, it wasn’t the thieves and hoodlums and prostitutes and the tax collectors who went there, it was the wealthy, plus also the very religious. They are the ones who used artificially manufactured rules of worship to mask their lack of compassion toward the less fortunate, and for those born outside of their own insular community.
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus (no, not that Lazarus, a different one), it was the wealthy man who went to Hell and later had to beg for the beggar to come and bring him relief from his suffering. If we can get past our own horror, it’s still pretty amazing that Jesus chose to repurpose the concept in this way. He was taking the notion of Hell and co-opting it into the service of a message of social justice. To be honest, I never really thought about it that way before.
Consider also the story he told of the sheep and the goats. In that story, it wasn’t the conventionally wicked who wound up receiving the judgment of God, it was the ones who failed to take care of other people who were in need. In this story, Jesus is essentially suggesting that God’s blessings and eternal judgment aren’t contingent upon adherence to things like Sabbath laws, dietary laws, or even sexual norms (and no, not even on “faith” in the Pauline sense).
According to Jesus, what happens to you after you die depends much more on how well you treat your fellow human beings than on how clean you keep your “testimony.” Just try telling that to an evangelical minister, though.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” —Upton Sinclair
A Different Kind of Judgment
The gospels report that Jesus foretold of a coming destruction. It’s difficult at times to tease out which statements were meant to indicate “the end of the world” and which were simply going to spell the doom of the nation of Israel. Perhaps he expected them both to happen at the same time. I’m not really convinced either way.
Nor am I convinced that Jesus really predicted the destruction of Jerusalem as precisely as it makes it sound like he did. At one point after someone praised the beauty of the stones out of which the Temple was constructed, Jesus informed them that not one stone would be left on another. There would come a day that an enemy army would descend on the city and wipe out its inhabitants, scattering them to the four winds and obliterating their central symbols of national identity.
This was most likely an anachronism since the gospels were more probably written well after these things took place. But I’m less interested in when the predictions were made than I am in why. What was the reason Jesus gave for this destruction on the city?
There is throughout the Bible a consistent prophetic theme in which God visits judgment on his people whenever they lose sight of the things he really wants them to focus on, like caring for the poor, the downtrodden, and the outcasts. Not everyone in the Bible sticks to that message, mind you—it’s a mixed bag. Sometimes the writers of the Bible are much more focused on minutiae and rule-following.
But there has always been a sort of “minority report” running throughout the Bible, a prophetic tradition calling the nation back to its ideals, warning them that God is going to remove his blessings from them if they refuse to extend the boundaries of their concerns to people not entirely within their already too small social circles. It matters little to me that these interpretations may have been written after said destruction occurred (through mediating forces like enemy armies, of course).
What matters most to me is how consistently they invert the values of the religious establishment, calling the nation back to its social responsibility toward their fellow human beings. That kind of message tracks very well with the humanism that has come to dominate my own worldview. That is the kind of warning that even my own country could use hearing again in a fresh and convincing way.
What I wouldn’t give to see Jesus show up and directly address white evangelical Christians for a few minutes. That video would blow up the internet, you know it? The smackdown would be delicious.
Related: “Evangelicals and the Whitewashing of Jesus“
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