What does the New Testament actually say about morality?

June 14, 2006 | By | 32 Replies More

In a short article called “The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos,” Sam Harris asks this simple question: What does the New Testament actually say about morality?  As a warm-up, he describes Old Testament morality (sometimes cited and approved in the new testament):

Human sacrifice, genocide, slaveholding, and misogyny are consistently celebrated. Of course, God’s counsel to parents is refreshingly straightforward: whenever children get out of line, we should beat them with a rod (Proverbs 13:24, 20:30, and 23:13–14). If they are shameless enough to talk back to us, we should kill them (Exodus 21:15, Leviticus 20:9, Deuteronomy 21:18–21, Mark 7:9–13, and Matthew 15:4–7). We must also stone people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, working on the Sabbath, worshiping graven images, practicing sorcery, and a wide variety of other imaginary crimes.

When I told a fundamentalist relative that such writings disturbed me and that they did not inspire me, she said: “You shouldn’t read so much of the Old Testament and focus on those things that trouble you. Instead, you need to read more of the New Testament.” Although she claimed that the Bible was “perfect and without any contradictions,” apparently (for her), the New Testament was more perfect than the Old Testament. Harris has also heard this claim, from Christians, that Jesus is kinder and gentler than the Old Testament God.  Harris therefore checked the New Testament:

Most Christians imagine that Jesus did away with all this barbarism and delivered a doctrine of pure love and toleration. He didn’t. (See Matthew 5:18–19, Luke 16:17, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 20–21, John 7:19.) Anyone who believes that Jesus only taught the Golden Rule and love of one’s neighbor should go back and read the New Testament. And he or she should pay particular attention to the morality that will be on display if Jesus ever returns to earth trailing clouds of glory (e.g., 2 Thessalonians 1:7–9, 2:8; Hebrews 10:28–29; 2 Peter 3:7; and all of Revelation).

After reading Harris, I was inspired to pull out my New Testament; I also consulted the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible.  I will be quoting much of the following from the Bible itself, with some of this material compiled from the SAB, a comprehensive database highlighting many of the contradictions, injustices and episodes of violence in the Bible.

Matthew 5:17

  • Jesus strongly approves of the law and the prophets. He doesn’t object to the cruelties of the Old Testament.

Luke 16:17

  • In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man goes to hell, because as Abraham explains, he had a good life on earth and so now he will be tormented. Whereas Lazarus, who was miserable on earth, is now in heaven. This seems fair to Jesus. 16:19-31
  • Jesus believed the story of Noah’s ark. He thought it really happened and had no problem with the idea of God drowning millions of people. 17:26-27

2 Thessalonians

  • 1:7-9 Jesus and his “mighty angels” will come in flaming fire “to take vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 
  • 1:9 Those unbelievers will be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power;
  • 2:8 And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.

Hebrews

  • 10:30 “For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.”
  • 10:31 “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” who will throw such people into “perdition.”

2 Peter

  • 3:7 But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.

Revelation

  • Everyone on earth will wail because of the coming of Jesus. 1:7
  • God will tell Death and Hell to kill one quarter of the earth’s population with the sword, starvation, and “with the beasts of the earth.” 6:8
  • The martyrs will be impatient to see the slaughter. God will give them white robes and tells them to wait until he’s done with his killing spree. 6:10-11
  • After hail and fire mingled with blood,” God will send his angels to destroy a third part of all the trees, grass, sea creature, mountains, sun, moon, starts, and water.   8:7-13
  • The angels are instructed not to “hurt the grass … but only those men which have not the seal of God on their foreheads.” God tells his angels not to kill them, but rather torment them as scorpions would for five months. Those tormented will beg and desire to die, but God won’t allow this, pending more torture. 9:4-6
  • God will make some locust/horses with human heads, women’s hair, lion teeth, and scorpion tails. They sting people and hurt them for five months. 9:7-10
  • Four angels, with an army of 200 million, will kill a third of the earth’s population. 9:15-19
  • Anyone that messes with God’s two olive trees and two candlesticks (God’s witnesses) will be burned to death by fire that comes out of the mouths of those witnesses. 11:3-5
  • God’s witnesses have special powers. They can shut up heaven so that it cannot rain, they will turn rivers into blood, and continuously smite the earth with plagues for their perverse enjoyment. 11:6
  • Dead bodies will be everywhere, but the survivors will not be allowed to bury them. 11:9.
  • When the witnesses ascend into heaven, an earthquake will kill 7000 men.  The terrified survivors will be thus moved to give “glory to the God of heaven.” This was the second woe. “The third woe cometh quickly.” 11:13-14
  • There was a big red dragon with seven heads, ten horns and seven crowns on his heads.  He ate a woman’s baby.  There was war “in heaven.” The dragon fought against Michael the Archangel and his pals.  12:2-9.
  • Non-believers will be forced to drink special wine and they will be tormented with fire and brimstone … and the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever.” 14:10-11
  • The seven vials of wrath: 1) sores, 2) sea turned to blood, 3) rivers turned to blood, 4) people scorched with fire, 5) people gnaw their tongues in pain, 6) Euphrates dries up, 7) thunder, lightning, earthquake, and hail. 16:1-21
  • God gave the saints and prophets blood to drink. 16:6
  • “Come … unto the supper of the great God.” An angel calls all the fowls to feast upon the flesh of dead horses and human bodies, “both free and bond, both small and great.” 19:17-18
  • Whoever isn’t found listed in the book of life will be “cast into the lake of fire.” 20:15
  • “All liars,” as well as those who are fearful or unbelieving, will be cast into “the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.” 21:8  [Note:  If you’ve lied, then, beware.]

Somehow, I suppose, those who make it to heaven will still be able to enjoy life in the clouds, despite the constant noise and commotion resulting from the torture of some of their friends and loved ones going on down below.

It’s interesting that an omnipotent God would not able to summon up enough compassion to simply leave non-believers alone, especially non-believers who have spent lifetimes being generous to others.  Why not just let those nonbelievers dissolve into nothingness when they die?  For them, death could be the same condition that preceded their birth–a long sleep.  But no.  For the New Testament God, this just won’t do.  For clearly stated reasons of “vengeance,” God has allegedly willed that non-believers will need to suffer constant physical torture for eternity.  No parole.  No pardon.  No hope.  It is shocking behavior like this that leads many believers to claim that God is “beyond” morality.  Believers intend this to be a compliment.  God’s behaviour (described above) certainly wouldn’t qualify as “moral” by any human metric.

My little field trip reinforced my belief that most Believers don’t really believe in the Bible. Anyone reading these New Testament morality lessons with an open mind would be shocked at this version of “justice.” I can only conclude (as suggested by Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell), that most believers don’t really believe these things; rather, they believe that they are SUPPOSED to believe these things.  Most Christians to whom I have spoken over the years are not comfortable discussing these distressing parts of the Good Book.

Christians commonly claim to be God’s “friend.”  For Christians who might be reading this: if any of your other friends acted with such cold and sustained vengeance, wouldn’t you speak up?  Wouldn’t you say, “Hey!  Have a heart!  Stop those locust/horses-with-human-heads-women’s-hair-lion’s-teeth-and-scorpion-tails from stinging people!  Can’t you see that those poor people are BEGGING to be allowed to die! Yes, I admit that they failed to fully appreciate your unlimited love and kindness, but can’t you now see why?”  For any of your earthly friends, wouldn’t you intervene?  Get in his face? Call the police?  Threaten to call off the friendship? 

And if you’re trying to dissuade an omnipotent friend from continuing a torture party, wouldn’t you add that His sacred writings are sure causing LOTS of confusion and bloodshed down on Earth? People stabbing and clubbing each other based on tiny differences in the way people practice their religions.  You might mention that even if there were no non-believers, these different styles of believers would be at each others’ throats.  You might even suggest to Him that there are better, kinder, versions of the ten commandments that would result in a lot less bloodshed.

In his article, Harris concludes, “It is not an accident that St. Thomas Aquinas thought heretics should be killed and that St. Augustine thought they should be tortured.”  To Harris, the notion that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality “is really quite amazing, given the contents of the book.”

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Category: Good and Evil, Religion, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (32)

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  1. Michael Landis says:

    I was enjoying your site wonderfully – right up to the point where you told Ralph that his comments were "preaching" and thus in violation of your comment policy. It appears then, that comments are welcome as long as they don't contradict your viewpoint. I find it ironic that Ralph did not quote a single verse of scripture, and yet the article by Harris that you refered to details dozens and quoted many verbatim. So who's doing the preaching? You ask questions, feining an interst in understanding, but in fact you're only seeking affirmation of your position. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools…

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Michael Landis: Please read the policy on "preaching" more carefully. The policy allows quoting the Bible (or any other supposed holy book) as long as it is not done in an effort to preach. Please do re-read the policy.

  2. Ralph writes:—"Can we, finite creatures, limited in our knowledge really presume to know more than God on any topic, let alone good and evil?"

    You know, this is old, rickety, and flawed reasoning. Given that this god is presumably "our" lawgiver and teacher and presumably knows so much, it defies logic and reason to presume he would state things in such a way as to confound and confuse us—in other words, talk over our heads. It's gamey and therefore petty and therefore undeserving of respect.

    The other problem with it is that it ends all discussion. It's like telling someone "Oh, you don't read or speak Greek, therefore you can't understand anything." Then speak english or teach me greek, whichever.

    What it does not do is answer the question.

    If we are supposed to understand these things in order to fulfill our obligations (to a presumed god or to each other) then one must assume we have the intelligence to do so. Which means that if we don't, in your argument, we've been shortchanged, and the game is rigged, so all bets are off.

    It is nonsense.

    So find another way to phrase it. Start with the assumption that we are capable of understanding these things, that in fact YOU are capable of it, and then apply yourself. If you come to a point where things seem to contradict or simply don't add up, stop assuming it's because you're too stupid. Maybe there's something wrong with the premise and/or the presentation. But for goodness' sake, stop using that piece of crap "we're too stupid to understand GOD" argument. Consider it may be insulting to this presumed god as well as to yourself and the rest of us.

  3. Ralph Menchen says:

    Thanks again for the chance to participate. I noticed some unwarranted assumptions being made:

    Although things can eventually be understood by us, that understanding doesn't necessarily result from our intelligence. If something is shown to you, and you then immediately know it, it happened because someone revealed it to you, hence you now know it. You didn't come to know it all by youself because you're so smart.

    We're never asked to abandon our intelligence nor our understanding, but we do have to admit that our inteligence is not the only means we come to know everything that can be known by us.

    Also, He is a lawgiver and teacher, to those who are His students, who follow Him, because we want Him to be our teacher and have asked Him; but I don't see Him being a teacher to everyone; to those who reject Him. For that matter, to someone who rejects His laws, He's not their lawgiver either, at least not now in this present lifetime, because they don't want Him to be, and they don't want His laws.

    Not knowing something like this has nothing to do with being stupid.

    I just can't refrain from summing it up by saying it this way; "If you were blind you would have no sin, but now you say 'we see'. Therefore your sin remaineth."

  4. Ralph writes:—"If something is shown to you, and you then immediately know it, it happened because someone revealed it to you, hence you now know"

    Excuse, but that's nonsense. If someone shows you something and you understand it, that's a function of recognition, which is a function of intelligence. You've jumbled up some New Age "body memory" garbage with a concept of revealed wisdom and come up with a statement that acknowledges the function of intelligence while denying its utility.

    The only way things become known are by intelligence, whether we're talking about a human learning calculus or a dog learning to sit up on command. We may not always be conscious of the process, but the mechanism is well understood.

    You'll make no points by claiming that what is and is well understood is wrong and trying to replace it with something that explains nothing.

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