Why should atheists do Bible study? There must be reasons, because the most militant atheist organization, American Atheists, recommends it. I suggest to start with that many people quote the Bible as a moral authority, both for people's individual conduct and for legislation. It is worth knowing what the Bible actually says, so those who brandish it won't be able to get away with making up their declarations out of whole cloth. Disclaimer: (1) There are many things wrong with the "divine command" theory of ethics, and I am not in any way suggesting that we should do these things "because Jesus said so". (2) I'm not making any claims or arguments about the "historical Jesus", even whether or not there was one. All we have available to us is the literary Jesus as portrayed in the four Gospels, and all we can say about "the ethics of Jesus" is about what that literary character says in those texts. Many religious folk claim to have the Absolute Truth about ethics, based on that text. Atheists should be interested to know the actual content of the ethics of Jesus, and not only because it turns out to be mostly ignored by those who call themselves Christian. I set out to do the following: Search the four Gospels for everything Jesus says about what we should DO. Skip the miracle stories, skip the promises of Heaven and threats of Hell, collect only the ethical teachings. Once they are collected, step back and see what we've got. Let me say that I recommend this exercise. If anybody thinks my presentation of Jesus' teaching is inaccurate, I urge you to do the same exercise, and see for yourself. Having done that exercise, I've come to some conclusions, which I will reveal up front. First, the "synoptic" gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are strongly similar to each other, and the fourth gospel, John, is very different. Essentially all of the ethical teachings are in the first three. John is almost nothing BUT miracle stories, promises of Heaven and threats of Hell. What little ethics there IS in John is remarkable more for what it does NOT say. The first three have a lot of common quotations and stories, John has no quotations in common with the others. For this reason I am first going to cover the ethics taught in the first three gospels, and then discuss John. Second, The ethics of Jesus, as presented in the synoptic gospels, is very difficult, very challenging. But there is an underlying logic to it, which I hope to make clear in this presentation. The ethics of Jesus are apocalyptic. Jesus is reported to have believed and taught that the world as people then knew it was coming to an end; he was an apocalyptic preacher. Matthew chapter 24, Mark chapter 13, Luke chapter 21, all speak of an apocalyptic end time, with earthquakes, famines, wars, with false prophets and religious persecutions, with mass deaths and turmoil. He stresses that no one knows when this will happen, so we should keep ourselves ready at all times. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke he says "This generation will not pass away till all these things take place." Though he says no one knows the day and hour, he apparently thinks it will be "soon", within the lifetime of those hearing him speak. In Matthew 10:23 he says: "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes." Given that he thought the world was ending, the Day of Judgement was coming when all would be sorted into the saved and the damned, going to Heaven or Hell respectively (Matt. 25:31-46), it makes perfect sense that his ethics were utterly unworldly, radically unworldly. He put no value on earthly wealth, fame, power, or family. He urged his followers to forsake all of these to focus entirely on purifying their own character, doing good works, and spreading the gospel. You are not seeking to have a pleasant or successful life on Earth, you are applying to get into Heaven when the Earth is destroyed. In Matthew chapter 16 for example he says 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27 For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done. 28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." This passage is repeated in Mark chapter 8. An even more clearly unworldly teaching is Luke 14:26-33, 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. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? ... 33 So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. Regarding wealth, for example, he says not to accumulate any. (Matt. 6) 19 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 24 "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. 25 "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? If you have already accumulated some wealth, Jesus says to get rid of it. In Luke chapter 18 (and Matt. 19, and Mark 10) a rich man asks Jesus: 18 And a ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 19 And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 20 You know the commandments: `Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'" 21 And he said, "All these I have observed from my youth." 22 And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." 23 But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich. 24 Jesus looking at him said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." In Matthew 13:44-46 he again talks of selling all that you have; the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, or like a pearl of great price, and the wise man sells all that he has to buy it. In Matthew 5 and Luke 6 he says to give extra to those who steal from you, give to all who beg from you, lend without expecting repayment. In Luke 12 he says to beware all covetousness, "sell your possessions and give alms", to provide yourself with treasure in Heaven. In Luke 14, "when you give a feast, do not invite the rich, lest they invite you in return, and you be repaid. But invite the poor, the maimed, the blind, and you will be blessed, for they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just." This is a repeating theme, that you should do good works without expecting any return, in fact you should take care to avoid getting any return. If you receive any reward here on Earth, you will not receive reward in Heaven. This is apparently HOW you lay up treasures in Heaven: do things worthy of reward, and DO NOT TAKE THE REWARD HERE ON EARTH. A just God will see that you get what you deserve; if you haven't gotten any reward on Earth, he will reward you in Heaven. Regarding fame, In Matthew 6 for example he says "beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your father who is in Heaven." He says to give alms in secret, pray in secret, fast in secret. If you let yourself be seen, so that men praise you for your piety, you have an earthly reward and will not get a heavenly one. He condemns the scribes and Pharisees for seeking honor among men, for making their piety a means of gaining earthly status. He says: "Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward." Regarding power, he says not to seek it, but instead seek to be of service. In Matthew 20 and Mark 10: 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. In Matthew 18, 3 and said, "Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 23, 10 Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. 11 He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; 12 whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. Besides not seeking power, remember Matthew 5, 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. It would be very hard to maintain earthly power if you did not resist those who attacked you. In Luke 6, 27 "But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. In short, if someone robs you or enslaves you or even kills you, that is their problem, not yours. You keep your eyes on the prize, which is Heaven. Do not let yourself be tempted into fighting for some piece of this Earth. Regarding family, he says that your earthly family is to be abandoned. Your true family is your fellow believers. Matthew chapter 8: 21 Another of the disciples said to him, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." 22 But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead." A very similar passage is Luke Chapter 9 59 To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." 60 But he said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." 61 Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." 62 Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Matthew Chapter 10: 34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 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; 36 and a man's foes will be those of his own household. 37 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; 38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Matthew Chapter 12: (also Mark chapter 3, and Luke chapter 8) 46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 47 But he replied to the man who told him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" 48 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 49 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother." Matthew Chapter 19: (also Mark chapter 10) 29 And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. A possible exception to this is your spouse, if you already have one. In Mark and Luke, Jesus does not allow divorce and remarrage for any reason, ever. In Matthew 19 he allows divorce only for "unchastity". It is not stated whether you can divorce without remarrying, or abandon your spouse without divorce. His disciples say "if such is the case, it is not expedient to marry", and Jesus tells them that those who are able to make themselves eunuchs should do so. "He who is able to receive this, let him receive it." Making yourself a eunuch sounds extreme, but Jesus says you should do whatever it takes to live a sinless life, even cut off body parts that tempt you to sin. Matthew 5: 27 "You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. There is one member in particular that might tempt you to sin, but it would be vulgar to mention it in a speech, so Jesus speaks instead of the eye and hand. But he seems to really mean it, when he speaks of making yourself a eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven's sake. Living a sinless life involves, among other things, following the entire Law of Moses. In Matthew chapter 5 he says: 17 "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever 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. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. In Luke chapter 16 he says: 16 "The law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one dot of the law to become void. In fact he goes further; we should not only follow the Law, we should overfulfill it, seeking to follow the spirit of it as well as the letter. Matthew chapter 5 explains this clearly. We should not only abstain from adultery but also from lust. We should not only abstain from killing but also from anger. We should practice forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation, and peacemaking. We should not only abstain from swearing false oaths, we should abstain from swearing oaths at all. The law says "an eye for an eye", but Jesus says to abstain from retaliation; do not resist evil, turn the other cheek, do good to those that hate you. He sums up the spirit of the law with the famous Two Greatest Commandments. Matthew 22:16 36 "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?" 37 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. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." This is repeated in Luke chapter 10: 25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 26 He said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" 27 And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." 28 And he said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live." Having also read a lot of the law of Moses, I think Jesus is mistaken about the spirit of it, but that is beside the point here. Jesus continues his theme of overfulfilling the law in Luke 6:32 ... 32 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. and in Matthew 5:43... 43 "You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Nevertheless, he does say the letter is to be observed as well. Matthew 23: 1 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. 22 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. The major exception seems to be the dietary laws, which Jesus says to ignore. Mark 7: 15 there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him." 16 And when he had entered the house, and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 17 And he said to them, "Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, 18 since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 19 And he said, "What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. 20 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, 21 coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 22 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man." This story is also in Matthew 15. It could be argued that this is a contradiction; he says not one iota of the law will ever become void, but he also says not to bother with ritual cleanliness of your food. I'm not concerned with that here; I'm not trying to criticize Jesus' ethics here, just trying to see what they are. According to the Jesus described in the Gospels, our concern with the law of Moses is supposed to be with obeying it ourselves, not with enforcing it on others. We should be concerned with purifying our own character, to perfection. Matthew 7: 1 "Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when there is the log in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. Matthew 18: 20 Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" 21 Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. These are repeated in Luke 6 and 17. Summing up so far: Abandon all your Earthly ambitions. Forsake your Earthly family and give your loyalty to God and your fellow believers. Sell everything you own and use the money to do good works. Avoid getting any Earthly reward for your good works. Follow the Mosaic Law, both the letter and the spirit of it. Abstain from all sin, inside and out; abstain from covetousness, abstain from anger, abstain from lust. Do WHATEVER YOU NEED TO DO to abstain from lust. Practice strict nonviolent pacifism; do not resist evil, do not strike back, do good to those who hate you. Practice mercy and forgiveness and peacemaking. Do not judge others, that is not your job, Judgement Day will come soon enough. Seek to purify your own character, strive to "be perfect, even as your father in Heaven is perfect." This is asking a lot. Is all of this necessary? In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus says that admission to Heaven is very selective. 13 "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. 21 "Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' 23 And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.' In Luke Chapter 13: 23 And some one said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" And he said to them, 24 "Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. What might disqualify you? What would keep you OUT of Heaven? To start with, failing to follow Jesus' teachings. Matthew Chapter 7: (also Luke chapter 6) 24 "Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; 25 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 the rock. 26 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; 27 and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it." In the history of Christianity there was a long debate over whether we were saved by faith or by works. The first three gospels seem to come down squarely on the side of works. What will get you into Heaven, or keep you out, is what you DO, not what you believe. Being rich will make it very hard to enter Heaven. Not following the Mosaic Law will keep you out; "unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven." Holding grudges, refusing to forgive, will definitely keep you out. Sins of any kind will count against you. Denying that you are a follower of Jesus will keep you out. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will keep you out. Pride will keep you out. "Unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdon of Heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven." Most graphically, failure to do good works will keep you out. In Matthew Chapter 25: 31 "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' 40 And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?' 45 Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.' 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." ---------------------- So far I have been describing the ethical teachings of the Jesus described in the first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Jesus described in the gospel of John is very different. Remember that in each of the first three gospels there is an apocalyptic chapter, where Jesus warns of the end of the world, with disasters and wars and mass death and turmoil, followed by Judgement Day, coming soon. There is no apocalyptic chapter in John. At the end of John he speaks of his own future "coming", apparently the "second coming", but gives no apocalyptic warnings or descriptions. There is no hint that the second coming will be anytime soon. I've read that Bible scholars generally agree that Mark was the earliest gospel written, Matthew and Luke were based partly on Mark and partly on other material, and John was the last one written, no earlier than 100 AD. If you go through the gospel of John and collect only the ethical teachings, skipping everything else, you will find that there are very few. The Jesus described in John never says to help the poor, much less does he say anything about selling your possessions. The only time he mentions the poor, he says "the poor you always have with you." He never says to follow the Mosaic law, never says to abstain from all sin and be perfect, never says to cut off body parts that tempt you to sin. He never says to be humble. What DOES he say? He says three things over and over. "Believe in me", he who believes will get into heaven. "Eat my body and blood", those who take communion will have eternal life. And "Obey me, keep my commandments." Those who do not believe and do not obey are condemned to Hell. But there are only two commandments mentioned in the entire book. He does say to practice forgiveness; In chapter 8 there is the story of the woman caught in adultery, and Jesus says "let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Other than that, the only commandment he gives is to "love one another". In other words, love other Christians. John 13: 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." In the first three gospels he was described as saying that to love those who loved you was nothing remarkable, gained you no real credit; even the gentiles, even the tax collectors do the same. There, he said to go beyond this and love your enemies. In John, there is no word about loving your enemies. That is all: "believe in me", "eat my body and blood", and "love one another". Do that and you get into Heaven. The Jesus described in John is not an ethical teacher, he is a sacrificial lamb. We are not saved by his teachings, we are saved by his blood. We don't have to renounce anything of our Earthly life, all we have to do is believe, take communion, and be nice to other believers. There is nothing hard in the gospel of John; the gate is wide and the way is easy. Personally, I think that the gospel of John was written by church leaders who found the existing gospels to be inconvenient. It was at least 70 years after the time of Jesus, and the apocalypse had not come; it had become an embarrassment. They wanted to have large congregations, they wanted a gospel that would have mass appeal. So they did an apocalidectomy. They took out the apocalyptic prophecies, then had to take out most of the ethics also, because the ethics make no sense without the apocalypse. There is some disagreement among atheists as to whether Jesus was a historical figure. Some atheists are of the opinion that he was totally mythical, a fictional character modeled after earlier stories of resurrected saviors like Osiris and Horus, Adonis and Attis, Prometheus and Mithra. I'm an agnostic on that question, but after doing this study, if I had to bet, I'd say that there probably was a historical Jesus. The ethical teachings of the first three gospels make sense given the starting premises, that the world was ending soon and admission to Heaven was very selective. I don't see how anyone would profit by making up a story like that. Perhaps I just lack imagination. But on the other hand, I think the gospel of John bears as much resemblance to the historical Jesus as "Twas the Night Before Christmas" bears to the historical Nicholas. Legends about Jesus grew until the historal figure was eclipsed by the legend, and his drastic, demanding, apocalyptic teachings were ignored. May he rest in peace.
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