Hell is not a pleasant subject. Add to that the fact that I know almost nothing about it, and I have two good excuses not to talk about the subject, if I can help it.
Now, though, our friend Hector Avalos has produced a book called The Bad Jesus in which he apparently argues that teaching on hell makes Jesus bad. No, according to one friendly reviewer, it reveals Jesus as a "moral lunatic."
I was foolish enough to challenge this fellow, Ben. So now I can say "ben there, done that." And yes, the temperature does seem to rise ever so slightly . . . Next time, shall we not and say we did? But you know where liars go . . . No, not the campaign trail!
Anyway, here's the review from Amazon, and some of the following exchange. Those who know more about hell, feel free to correct any misunderstandings I display:
As Dr. Avalos defiantly points out, if New Testament historians commenting on the ethics of Jesus are doing real history, then why can’t they find a single thing wrong with Jesus as even a historical figure? That glaring omission on their part is just the tip of the iceberg.
This is “second wave” New Atheism (as Dr. Avalos calls it) at its finest. For those of us genuinely concerned about a reality based secular apocalypticism where Big Religion needs to die in order for humanity to collectively advance, I’d rate this book as an important contribution.
Dr. Avalos on a Freethought Radio podcast with Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, suggested that he’s done the hard work of the research and that it’s up to others to promote the message. I heartily agree!
My main complaint is that I just wanted more of it.
Since I’ve done two public presentations on the immorality of Jesus, I was greatly excited to learn that Dr. Hector Avalos had tackled the same topic at the scholarly level. From my standpoint I certainly did the best I could at my own self-educated level (and I got my presentations approved by Dr. Richard Carrier just to make sure), but having Dr. Avalos do a thorough treatment on a number of case studies was educational and empowering. I was prepared to have gotten some things wrong of course which is inevitable, but I was delighted to see that we largely agree on the issues. Anyone that liked my presentations will find Dr. Avalos drilling deep to show that it just gets worse for Jesus.
Dr. Avalos has done a great service in cleaning house as far as Biblical studies go and he rigorously shows the rampant bias from even the more secular scholars on the topic of Jesus’ morality. If Jesus were portrayed as smoking pot in the New Testament, scholars would insist that he smoked, but didn’t inhale and that there is some incredible grammatical nuance baked into the text to “clearly” demonstrate this. It takes a very patient and diligent mind to unravel the scholarly sophistry and Dr. Avalos was clearly up to the job.
The real scandal of course is that canonical gospel Jesus, as is, is not only “flawed,” but most prominently presented as what modern ethical and educated people would call a superstitious, misogynistic, imperialistic cult leader and an apocalyptic moral lunatic. Jesus’ popularly apparent “pacifism” (what Dr. Avalos describes accurately as “deferred violence”) was merely the eye of the storm of endorsing Mosaic theocratic tyranny and the warm up act for (an albeit mythological) everlasting violence against most of humanity. You can’t just sweep Jesus’ persistent psychotic revenge fantasies under the rug and take the nice sounding bits out of that overall context. Jesus isn’t your nice grandma that is only technically on the hook for Biblical evils but has no personal stake in them. Jesus is THE guy who wants to lead the charge on his Judgment Day to set the majority of humanity on fire for all eternity. A disempowered earthly Jesus may be shown to have unleashed just a smidgen of that fury in the episode of making a whip and assaulting the moneychangers in the temple court (prominently shown on the cover of Dr. Avalos’ book).
In general, nothing repudiates the dubious and questionable ethics of Jesus more than substituting in different more ethical views on his behalf. And Dr. Avalos skewers the endless parade of motivated scholarship desperate to whitewash Jesus for the sake of their modern theological agendas or whatever other reason. When those biases are checked the end result, any reasonable person should agree that the literary product Jesus (what I would call “reading comprehension Jesus”) that the world is stuck with is the kind of street preaching nutjob that even most modern Christians wouldn’t want to hang out with and wouldn’t listen to. No doubt, still, many Christians will be eager and willing to come out against the U. N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ethical stances of various other modern organizations that Dr. Avalos appeals to in ethical comparison (not to mention the same standards Jesus’ defenders will use on anyone else other than Jesus), but it will definitely be an uphill task for them to argue the modern world back into the Dark Ages.
Like every other influential person there ever was, Dr. Avalos points out that Jesus was a remix of what came before and a reflection of his given culture. A mix of mostly more of the same, some progress, and some regress. Dr. Avalos gives continual shout outs to the cultures that either got it right before Jesus or got it right instead of Jesus (or got it right in the ways disingenuous scholarship wants to *believe* Jesus got it rightest ever).
I will eagerly be blogging about each chapter and argument mapping any substantial debate that I can find. Come find me. Anyone that wants to contribute their reasoned perspective could be most appreciated. You will have to check your “Jesus is good no matter what” goggles at the door though.
DM (many threads down): Do you believe in hell? Do you believe that actions are justified or not by their effects? If you answer "no" and "yes" to those two questions, then your argument just disappeared. If Jesus warned of (from your POV) an unreal place to make people act better, and if it worked, then it was a moral act, given the moral assumptions most atheists seem to accept.
If you do believe in hell, then why was Jesus immoral to warn of it? If you don't believe that actions are justified by their consequences, well your second paragraph seems to imply that they are.
But as C. S. Lewis pointed out, heaven and hell are described by a variety of mutually-contradictory analogies -- if you are a literalist. Getting atheists to get beyond extreme literacy, seems (ironically) to be the burden of my life.
Aside from which, your post is overwrought. Calm down, mellow out, and read fairly.
Jesus' entire apocalyptic ministry is hinged on threats of eternal hellfire (especially in the gospel of Matthew). Matthew 3:10-12, 4:17, 5:13, 5:20-22, 5:29-30, 7:13-14, 7:17-19, 8:12, 10:14-15, 10:28, 11:20-24, 13:30, 13:38-42, 13:48-50, 18:6-9, 18:34-35, 22:13-14, 23:33-36, 24:50-51, 25:30, 25:31-33, 25:41, 25:46
Jesus is not your nice Christian grandmother who is overly kind otherwise, but just so happens to "believe" an unimportant laundry list of evil Christian things she takes no responsibility for & never talks about. Jesus threatens hellfire continually & believes he is literally THE guy leading the charge on Judgment Day.
Suddenly you remember that Jesus mentioned setting people on fire. *claps*
I judge the morality of fictional characters based on their fictional context. I don't call Darth Vader a good guy just because his galaxy doesn't exist whether near or far away.
Jesus wasn't just warning of it. He was threatening it and morally approved of it. If he just thought it was real and out of his control, he could have morally condemned it.
On your blog you condemn these things when they are done by Islam:
"As for shame, I think anyone who calls Mohammed a prophet, half of the creed of Islam, should feel shame. Mohammed killed four times as many innocent people on a single day, as did these terrorists in Paris. And there was no one to comfort their families, who were made slaves and concubines. It is a shameful thing, to so highly honor a tyrant, a murderer, a torturer, and a slave-trader. (Though of course not a rare thing, in the West or here in China. Here's looking at you, Chairman Mao.)"
So you don't approve of mass killings or torture (And Jesus approved of the Old Testament which endorsed slavery and taking sex slaves in war). If Jesus had returned in the 1st century when he said he would, resurrected the dead and set even just half of all humanity on fire, that would have been billions of people. And merely billions more if he waited 2,000 years.
I don't ask C. S. Lewis what Jesus' hell would be like since Jesus tells us what his hell would be like. Jesus said it would be like literal torture in 1st century prisons. See Matthew 18:34-35. And unlike the analogy of earth prisons, the punishments for the damned would last forever. See Matthew 25:41-46. And in Matthew 7:14 he says that few would be saved. So that's intending to set the vast majority of humanity on fire. If you condemn Mohammed you should condemn Jesus.
"The evils you describe were, in fact, mostly brought to a gradual or sudden end by Christian reformers praying to God with a Bible under their arms."
Do all self-identified Muslims get full credit for being motivated by Islam when they do things in discordance with what Mohammad did? Or, do we get to say that those who act more like Mohammad and do things more like what are prescribed or endorsed in the Koran and the hadith get more credit than those who don't?
So if Christians holding a book that endorses slavery, seek to end slavery, does their religion get full credit for that?
DM: Homer believed in hell. Homer was evil. What a simply world you live in, Ben.
Atheists believe in dust after death. Atheists are evil.
Lewis was an adult, and read the NT as a literary scholar, not in the simple, cherry-picking manner you prefer. He pointed out that punishment was only one of several themes or images that the NT uses to describe hell, and that one cannot take them all literally, since different images are used.
Jesus set in play principles that ended slavery around the world, liberating tens of millions of slaves. This is obvious, if you read the NT without such venom in your heart -- even non-Christians usually recognize it. Again, Avalos is spitting against the wind of informed history in denying this fact.
Ben: "Homer believed in hell. Homer was evil. What a simply world you live in, Ben. "
A simple world where eternal torture for finite sins is always heinously wrong. You really think you're going to shrug that off? Seriously? It's like mainstream Christianity's biggest moral PR disaster aside from its stance on homosexuality.
I don't know enough about Homer to comment on his afterlife views. However, I do know that I made a very particular distinction that you conveniently ignore. I said: "Jesus is not your nice Christian grandmother who is overly kind otherwise, but just so happens to 'believe' an unimportant laundry list of evil Christian things she takes no responsibility for & never talks about. Jesus threatens hellfire continually & believes he is literally THE guy leading the charge on Judgment Day." Modern Christians squirm all over the place to not take any responsibility for morally endorsing eternal torture. That's because they are good people. However the character Jesus in the canonical gospels is *all in.* He's proud of it. And he threatens it a ton. That's because he's a maniac.
"Atheists believe in dust after death. Atheists are evil.Atheists believe in dust after death. Atheists are evil."
First you didn't know that moral truths are just as readily found in fiction. Now you think that merely describing and believing what probably happens to people when they die makes one morally culpable for that incidence? And you want to lecture me on how to read the gospels as "an adult"? If you morally endorse a moral agent who morally prescribes evil, you are morally responsible for those issues. Because even if it is merely true that some superbeing exists who has the power to eternally torture the vast majority of humanity indefinitely, one does not have to *approve* of this. Maltheism is an option. One can believe a god exists and that this god is evil. Similarly, I don't have to think dying and turning into dust is a good thing.
"...not in the simple, cherry-picking manner you prefer." I listed a ton of verses where Jesus threatens the fires of hell. It's called a big theme. [Here they are again in case you forgot: Matthew 3:10-12, 4:17, 5:13, 5:20-22, 5:29-30, 7:13-14, 7:17-19, 8:12, 10:14-15, 10:28, 11:20-24, 13:30, 13:38-42, 13:48-50, 18:6-9, 18:34-35, 22:13-14, 23:33-36, 24:50-51, 25:30, 25:31-33, 25:41, 25:46]
"[C. S. Lewis] pointed out that punishment was only one of several themes or images that the NT uses to describe hell, and that one cannot take them all literally, since different images are used."
Hmm...let's see. Let's review those themes. Being set on fire. Check. Being tortured. Check. Being left out in the darkness. Torturous fires can be in the darkness. Check, check, and check. Being separated from the Christian god. One can be shut out in the darkness away from the Christian god while being tortured with fire. Did I miss any? Being "destroyed." There's definitely language that could imply annhilationism, but in context of the other more clear verses it seems the destruction of self is a metaphor for permanently crippling the ego of the damned. Much like the serpent in the garden of Eden said that they would "die" in the day they ate of it, but continued living in the ordinary sense, the people in hell are "destroyed" spiritually though they remain technically in existence suffering forever.
The bottom line is that Jesus tells us what hell would be like in Matthew 18:34-35. And he doesn't use C. S. Lewis' imagery from The Great Divorce. Instead Jesus says it will be like torture in first century prisons. And the gospel of Luke has a vivid parable about the rich man suffering in the flames, wanting mercy for himself and his brothers, and getting told that's not in the cards. It's absolutely ridiculous that you think you're entitled to ignore all that in favor of some random author's opinion from over a millenia later. Lewis blew the weakest language used out of proportion outright ignoring the persistent, graphic, strong themes of eternally torturous fire which ought to be used to characterize the teachings. Reading comprehension is not a "choose your own adventure" affair.
"if you read the NT without such venom in your heart"
I don't appreciate the ad hominem. Please keep your mind-reading to yourself.
DM: Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. To observe that overflow does not require "mind-reading." (Also, ad hominem is a logical fallacy, which I did not commit.)
You point to Matthew 18: 34-35 as your "bottom line" interpretation of hell, where Jesus supposedly makes the contrete nature of hell which you have been arguing for -- "hellfire" you emphasize earlier -- the clearest. And what does that say?
"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[h] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 "At this the servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,' he begged, `and I will pay back everything.' 27 The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[i] He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.
29 "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.'
30 "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 "Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,' he said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
You should notice, if what you care about here is an honest, fair appraisal of Jesus' character and teaching, the following points from this text:
(1) The point is that we ought to forgive others, so that we ourselves will be forgiven.
(2) This point is both just and reasonable.
(3) The overall impression from this story alone, would be that Jesus was a wise and skillful teacher who urged his followers to exercise one of the most difficult moral virtues: forgiveness.
(4) Furthermore, this passage makes it clear that God is eager to forgive human beings. He will not do so unjustly, however -- while we still hold on to more trivial grudges against our "brothers."
(5) There are no mentions of "fire" in this passage at all.
(6) Of course, this is a parable, not a literal description at all. Why, then, do you say that the "bottom line" is that in this passage, "Jesus tells us what hell will be like?"
(7) If that is the case, then hell will not be endless, since after paying his dues, it is explicitly said that the guilty one will be allowed to go free.
(8) This passage in fact lends itself well to the Lewis (Great Divorce) or M. Scott Peck understanding of punishment as therapeutic.
(9) It is also a matter of common human experience that people who do not forgive suffer from their failure to do so. Corrie Ten Boom describes this phenomenon among those who were abused by the Nazis (as she and her family were). Here again, Jesus appears to be speaking profound psychological truth. Bitterness and resentment are, indeed, a form of psychological torture, and it is in letting them go that we gain peace.
(10) Punishment after death is, as Lewis said, and as you admit yourself, spoken of in the NT by means of several conflicting images. This implies that the purpose is not precise geographical description, but to evoke truth that lies beyond our sensory intelligence. It is, therefore, not "ridiculous" for an intelligent modern reader to seek for principals whereby to reconcile and understand these differing images, but simple rationality and the attempt to attain mature theological comprehension.
I can understand why these verses upset you. They are certainly unpleasant, and of course were meant to be unpleasant. Perhaps they can be used to make an argument that Jesus was not as all-knowing as Christians believe, and that he was mistaken about the nature of the afterlife. You may choose to think that God is evil, if he punishes sinners after death, in some way. But it seems to me it would be more rational, on those premises, to suppose that Jesus was mistaken (not that I believe either), not "a moral lunatic." That you are so eager to embrace the latter, obviously ridiculous interpretation, is the sign that troubles me -- about your posts, and perhaps this book, if I have the chance to read it.
Well that was fun. I think I'll go back to swatting mosquitoes: it's less confrontational. Or maybe return to following all the good news on the international front or from the campaign trail. Which both help me, BTW, believe in the justice of God's Judgement, whatever shape He ultimately sees as fitting.