At a Republican Presidential debate in Iowa in 1999, G.W. Bush was asked to name his favorite philosopher. His answer was, “Jesus.” When asked to explain his choice, he said, “Well, if they don’t know, it’s going to be hard to explain.” That part he got right; it would indeed be very hard to explain how Jesus qualifies as a great philosopher.
We might forgive Bush because of his legendary incuriosity, but anyone who has actually read the Bible and thought even a little about it should realize that Jesus dispensed a ton of bad advice. To call him a “great philosopher” is simply absurd. What I find most troubling about this is that many believers in non-Christian religions as well as some atheists and agnostics claim to admire the “wisdom” of Jesus. I would argue that what was truly useful in Jesus’ teachings was obvious, and the rest was either nonsense or downright dangerous.
First, let me say that I am fully aware that the case for the existence of an actual Jesus is quite weak, but that is an issue for another time. For now, please think of my words as an “if-then” proposition; if Jesus existed, then…”
And, of course, if the apologists weigh in, then we know what to expect. Clever apologists can twist logic into weird, exotic shapes to make some of the statements of Jesus appear to make sense. But, shouldn’t the “philosopher of the common man” be more accessible? Didn’t Jesus imply that his words didn’t need interpreting? As the philosopher Wittgenstein said, “Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.” And, I would add, especially if you have the powers of a god.
So, with those thoughts in mind, let’s take a look at some of the “wisdom” of Jesus.
“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” So, the people of Europe should not have resisted Hitler’s drive for expansion? The Jews didn’t much resist being rounded up for the holocaust and look what happened to them. And let’s be perfectly clear on an important point, this passage is not suggesting passive resistance, à la Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King; it says “do not resist,” not “do not resist actively.”
“Turn the other cheek.” Did he think this would impress a bully? Did Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy impress Hitler?
Jesus said that if you are fined, then you should pay double. Huh? Exactly who does this benefit? It would just make one poorer.
To think of Jesus Christ as a wise and great philosopher is to ignore an abundance of evidence. Jesus advised that one should sell everything and give the money to the poor. I’m certainly glad that Jesus was not my retirement advisor! This might be a good place to mention that virtually all of Jesus’ teachings spring from his conviction that the world was about to end. It didn’t. This is one major reason why so much of what he allegedly said sounds like nonsense to us today. Jesus was apparently the leader of just another doomsday cult.
Jesus said, “Don’t worry about the poor; they’ll always be with you.” And I would add, especially if no one worries about them. Is this a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy?
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” This is where the profane is mistaken for the profound. Isn’t this the kind of advice you hope no one takes? If people really believed this nonsense, wouldn’t there be a whole lot more one-eyed, one-armed people in this world? And, if you’re too squeamish to do the job yourself, try telling the surgeon you want your hand removed. What do you think he will do? And, anyway, it’s the brain that controls the eyes and hands. This passage shows that Jesus knew very little about human anatomy.
“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Thinking is not doing. This is just silly. We have all thought about lying and stealing many, many times; does this make us liars and thieves? And how many will think, “Well if I’m going to get blamed anyway…” It is not possible to prevent every stray thought from emerging into your consciousness. Obviously, it’s what you do with it that counts. People who take this command seriously will be fortunate to avoid insanity as their “good” thoughts and “bad” thoughts chase each other around in their heads. Isn’t telling a man to not look at a woman lustfully a bit like telling him to not think of a white elephant?
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” How many millions of people do you suppose led miserable lives for decades because they married the wrong person, or their spouse became abusive, non-supportive, etc., and they believed it was sinful to divorce? Our secular laws ignore this piece of “wisdom” for very good reason.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink….Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Isn’t this the same as saying, “don’t worry about holding down a job, or what you will eat or drink?” And the farmer who doesn’t “store away in barns” is going to be hungry by the end of November at the latest. Hell, even squirrels know this is dumb advice!
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” He thinks we shouldn’t worry about getting an education, or saving some of our income, or otherwise planning for the future?
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.” Are not the Christian children who are dying of malnutrition and easily treatable diseases in Africa asking and seeking? Aren’t they and their parents praying their asses off? So why are they dying instead of getting and finding? This advice is simply not helping them, it is wasting their time.
And then we have Matthew 19:12, where the “Prince of Peace” recommends self-castration. “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (and the theologian Origen, circa 200CE, reportedly did so). This kind of sick/dangerous nonsense doesn’t even deserve a comment.
To cap my argument that Jesus was not a great philosopher, allow me to point out that he sometimes didn’t even take his own advice. He said, “But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Then he proceeds to call people fools. “Ye fools and blind.” (Matthew 23:17) “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” (Psalm 14:1).
Why don’t people see these passages for the foolishness they are? Part of the reason is the way they are taught. Many of these passages come from the Sermon on the Mount which, at least in the KJV, is pretty good poetry. It is generally read in a chant-like approach which narcotizes the mind to where one confuses the beauty and cadence of the words with meaning. This borders on hypnotic suggestion. ‘Give everything to the poor’ sounds like such sweetness and light until we consider the very real consequences.
It seems that Jesus’ great addition to the world of “knowledge” was the concept of hell. But this is clearly an unprovable hypothesis and it was pretty stupid to unleash an idea on the world that would inevitably damage the mental health of millions.
To think of Jesus Christ as a wise and great philosopher is to ignore an abundance of evidence. In the end, if Jesus was such a smart guy, why do we mostly ignore his advice? Why does no one castrate himself or cut off his hands, give everything to the poor, and never plan for the future?