IV. Having stated how much he likes the maxims previously discussed, Russell then proposes to give evidence of the deficient teaching of Jesus. He prefaces the list with a quick, derisive statement of doubt as to whether or not Jesus ever existed but given the evidence in support of His existence, I will not address that proposition here. The core charge against the wisdom of Jesus centers for Russell around the statements that Jesus made regarding the imminence of His return and the reality that it did not occur. Christians are mindful that Jesus said that no one knows the hour of future events (Matthew 24:32), including Jesus himself. Russell then demands an accuracy of Jesus which He did not demand of himself. He offers a selection of verses in which Jesus says that various events will not transpire prior to his return (Matthew 10:23; Matthew 6:34; Luke 9:27). Again, context provides us with the clear meaning of Jesus’ words and we discover, unsurprisingly that Russell again demands a literalist interpretation that favors his disdain of Christ’s wisdom. For example, in Matthew 10:23, Jesus says “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” Does Jesus propose a specific deadline for His return? Certainly not in this verse as it refers to the incomplete nature of the Jewish mission, understandable in Matthew who tends to focus on the obstinacy of Israel. Perhaps Russell would have been better off to reserve his judgment of Christ’s wisdom (based on his flawed reading) in light of his earlier appreciation for Jesus’ maxims in the Sermon on the Mount.
In his final attempt to diminish the person and character of Christ, Russell turns to presenting his argument in support of a defect in the moral character of Jesus. He roots this evaluation solely in Christ’s belief in Hell. Why this was not an issue with God (the Father) earlier in the essay is not mentioned. Russell makes this interesting statement,
“I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.” (pg. 17)
This belief, combined with a supposedly “vindictive fury against these people who would not listen to His preaching” combine for Russell to bring Christ’s morality into question. As evidence of this assertion, Russell points to Jesus saying “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matthew 23:33) This verse is yet another example of a single verse being pulled from its larger context because it has the right combination of words to make the philosopher’s point. In the whole of chapter 23, Jesus is condemning the leaders of Israel because their intransigence has led their people astray. This is not an example of Jesus being personally insulted. The leaders of Israel had been given the Law and the Prophets and in the mind of Jesus, they had no excuse for their continued disobedience other than their own stubborn hearts. Condemnation is a consequence of decision, not a capricious punishment by Jesus.
The author rehearses a further litany of disconnected instances which support Jesus’ lack of morality: putting the demons into the swine, cursing the fig tree, encouraging the amputation of the hand that steals and leads you into sin. Properly handled, none of these verses even comes within a hair of evidencing the immorality of Christ. Russell would like the reader to accept these vignettes at face value but what he ends up doing is putting his own lack of ethics on display. To have the ability to read and research the theology and biblical context of the verses that he abuses for his own ends and to not do it appears to make one purposely ignorant. To further use this mishandling of scripture to mislead others into believing a false worldview is an example of the type of leadership that led Jesus to issue such vehement epithets. Russell failed to see the irony.
Bertrand Russell is described as a fine logician and philosopher. His essay, which became the title of a collection of related pieces, Why I Am Not a Christian makes his case based on two premises:
P1 The Existence of God is Dispute
P2 Christ is not the wisest and best man
C Christianity is false and therefore I am not a Christian
Unfortunately, this essay provides supporting evidence for neither of these premises, and because of this the conclusion proposed cannot be evaluated as true. Given the minimal research that would be necessary to properly place the bible verses in their proper context and to address the supporting arguments against God’s existence, one must wonder why a more honest treatment was not given. I understand why the Atheists are so enamored with the essay. It is quotable and the gravitas of the senior philosopher lends it an air of unassailability. On the other hand, the unethical approach that omits rather than substantiates leads me to question the intention of the author. I suppose I will be able to make a better judgment after digging further into the other essays contained in this volume. More damaging than my lack of confidence is that he has established a baseline which the current Atheist writers have elected to follow in the breezy style with which they toss arguments of eternal importance around.