Every day is a school day

I’d like to ask a genuine question of my Christian friends. I’m not asking to be facetious or because I think they’ll be perturbed or unable to respond. I’m asking because I really don’t know the answer to the question (quite possibly because I just don’t know enough about Christianity). So, I’ll report back on the best answers I get to the following question:

Is there any teaching of Jesus Christ, which is neither immoral nor a banal plagiarism of pre-existing messages?

My hypothesis is that all of the worthy and admirable teachings of Jesus, pre-dated Christianity and would have been well known to most people in the region at the time. Jesus purports to have gone to an awful lot of trouble to arrange for his birth as a human, his three-year ministry and his horrific murder. It would be strange indeed if this entire divine narrative was acted out, simply to tell humanity what everyone had already figured out for themselves.

Jesus Christ, Plagiarist
Jesus Christ, Plagiarist

In relation to the genuinely novel teachings of Jesus, which would have been unknown before Christianity, my hypothesis is that they are all grossly unethical. Specifically, I’m proposing that all of the teachings which were unique to Jesus at the time when he was preaching, are unbefitting of any deity worth worshiping. As such, even if Jesus was god, these teachings should earn our disdain rather than our devotion.

So here’s the part where I hope my Christian friends will school me. I’ll provide a quick summary of the core teachings of Jesus, all of which fall into one (or both) of the two categories above. Perhaps I’ve left out something of great import? Perhaps I’ve greatly misunderstood the message I should take from a specific teaching? I’m not sure but every day is a school day so I’m ready to learn where I may have gone wrong.

1. Jewish Prophecies
a) it is claimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the character that was prophesied in Jewish scripture
b) the significance of these prophesies being fulfilled, relates to Adam and the Fall Of Man
c) the death (before the resurrection) of the Messiah is said to be a sacrifice to save all people

2. Belief and Faith
a) Jesus says that only a small number of people will reach heaven, with most going to hell
b) belief in the divinity of Jesus is described as a key determinant of who can go to heaven
c) in fact, the importance of this belief is repeated by Jesus again and again and again

3. Moral and Immoral Behaviour
a) possibly the most well know teaching of Jesus is “do unto others as you would they do unto you”
b) another teaching of Jesus, which is very often quoted, relates to showing “love to enemies”
c) the teachings of Jesus also include parables, which involve themes like love and forgiveness

In relation to the first point, Jesus was hardly unique in claiming to be the Jewish Messiah. There have been many claimants to this title and even some who were contemporaneous with the ministry of Jesus, such as Athronges. Another supposed Messiah from around the time of Jesus was Simon of Peraea. In fact, Simon was described as the Messiah by some of the same scribes who wrote the earliest New Testament scriptures and the death of Simon was also described as offering salvation for all. So at the time of Jesus, claims to be the Messiah character from the Jewish prophecies were far from novel or unique and in fact seem to have been quite banal.

In contrast, the second point here is of course entirely original. We are told in the New Testament that a belief in the divinity of this specific man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the most important determinant of who can go to heaven and who will go to hell. In fact, Jesus promises that most people will go to hell due to their lack of belief in him as a god. To be fair, so far this seems to be a pretty accurate prediction. Less than a third of the world’s population is Christian today and we can be sure that the vast majority of non-Christians are fully aware that the Christian religion exists. That is, very few non-Christians can benefit from the loop hole for those who have never heard of Jesus or Christianity. Rather, they are fully aware of the Christian religion but have simply rejected it in favour or other religions or none. As such, Christian teaching requires that these people are condemned to hell.

Jesus sends non-Christians to hell
Jesus sends non-Christians to hell

How can it be ethical or moral for any god to arrange eternal immolation for billions of people, simply because they did not believe in the divinity of a 2,000 year old Jewish carpenter? In fact, I would struggle to think of anything more immoral than condemning billions of people who lived good lives to torture in fire for all eternity, simply because they did not pray to the correct god. This becomes especially heinous when it is considered that this omnipotent and omniscient god couldn’t be bothered providing us with any good evidence of his existence, even though he has made belief in his existence the only way to avoid everlasting agony.

The third characteristic of the teaching offered to us by Jesus, relates to his descriptions of praiseworthy behaviour as compared to actions that should be condemned. Much of this teaching is provided in the form of parables, each with its own morality tale. Again though, all of this teaching appears to be either banal plagiarism or else totally immoral. The aspects of his teaching that are immoral range from killing trees and abusing thousands of innocent animals up to making false promises and threatening to murder innocent children.

There are many other teachings and parables of Jesus, which are certainly much more praiseworthy than these. However, it is difficult to discern how any of his admirable messages are anything other than simple restatements of pre-existing ideas. For example, The Golden Rule had already been described in almost every pre-Christian civilisation (including Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt and Ancient China). In fact, this ethic of reciprocity had been popularised in the region by Rabbi Hillel, only very shortly before the ministry of Jesus began.

Similarly, the teachings of Jesus in relation to love and forgiveness also pre-date Christianity by centuries. The Greek goddess of forgiveness was Eleos and the Roman goddess of forgiveness was Clementia (Julius Caesar in particular, advocated clemency towards enemies). Similarly, the Akkadian Councils of Wisdom in Babylonia taught love for enemies as part of their ethics, as did Taoism and The Dhammapada within Buddhism.

The pacifism implied by a teaching to “turn the other cheek” is an interesting one, as it possibly falls foul of both conditions within my question. As an ethical position, it was hardly a novel one. In addition though, we can all think of situations were an absolute refusal to cause any physical harm to another person would be entirely immoral. It is often said that “an eye for an eye” makes the whole world blind but “turn the other cheek” means every bully gets exactly what they want and everyone else gets a sore face.

Of course, mine may be an unfair summary of Christian teachings. Perhaps there is an important message in the gospels that I have omitted? Perhaps there is a moral teaching of sublime insight that I have failed to grasp? Alternatively, did the creator of the universe come to earth to deliver his ethical perspicacity for all the ages of humanity … only to find that the best he could manage was a cheap re-hash of what mere mortals had already figured out centuries beforehand? It’s not as if the people around him had nothing left to learn. For example, a few words against rape or slavery wouldn’t have gone amiss but it seems that Jesus was too busy prohibiting thoughtcrime that harms nobody to deal with those issues.

So here’s the question again for my Christian friends:

Is there any teaching of Jesus Christ, which is neither immoral nor a banal plagiarism of pre-existing messages?

Perhaps I should offer a prize for the best answer? How about an indulgence from purgatory?


John Hamill

National Committee, Atheist Ireland

Secretary, Atheist Alliance International

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