1. Recently, apostate atheist Hector Avalos published The Bad Jesus. Last night I listened to his 2-part interview on the Inquisitive Minds podcast.
Even without reading his book, you get can a feel for the argument by perusing the table of contents:
Basic Elements of the Argument
2. The Unloving Jesus: What’s New Is Old
Loving the Enemy in the Ancient Near East
Love Can Entail Violence
The Golden Rule: Love as Tactical
The Parochialism of New Testament Ethics
3. The Hateful Jesus: Luke 14.26
Jesus Commands Hate
Hate as a Motive for Divorce
The Statistics of Hate and Love
The Semantic Logic of Love and Hate
4. The Violent Jesus
Matthew 10.34-37: Jesus’ Violent Purpose
Matthew 5.38-42: Don’t Victimize Me, Please
Matthew. 26.48-56: Non-Interference with Planned Violence
John 2.15: Whipping up Pacifism
Acts 9: Jesus Assaults Saul
5. The Suicidal Jesus: The Violent Atonement
Jesus as a Willing Sacrificial Victim
Mark 10.45: Self-Sacrifice as a Ransom
Sacrifice as Service: Transformation or Denial?
2 Corinthians 5.18: Anselm Unrefuted
René Girard: Sacrificing Apologetics
6. The Imperialist Jesus: We’re All God’s Slaves
The Benign Rhetoric of Imperialism
Christ as Emperor
The Kingdom of God as an Empire
7. The Anti-Jewish Jesus: Socio-Rhetorical Criticism as Apologetics
Abuse Me, Please: Luke T. Johnson’s Apologetics
When is Anti-Judaism not Anti-Judaism?
When Did Christian Anti-Judaism Begin?
8. The Uneconomic Jesus as Enemy of the Poor
Jesus as Radical Egalitarian
The Fragrance of Poverty
Sermon on the Mount of Debts and Merits
9. The Misogynistic Jesus: Christian Feminism as Male Ancestor Worship
Mark 7//Matthew 15: The Misogynistic Jesus
Mark 10//Matthew 19: Divorcing Equality
The Womanless Twelve Apostles
The Last Supper: Guess Who’s Not Coming to Dinner
The Egalitarian Golden Age under Jesus
10. The Anti-Disabled Jesus: Less than Fully Human
John 5 and 9: Redeeming Jesus
The Ethics of Punctuation
Paralyzed by Sin
11. The Magically Anti-Medical Jesus
Miracles, Not Magic?
The Naturalistic Jesus
12. The Eco-Hostile Jesus
Mark 5: Animal Rights and Deviled Ham
Luke 22 and Matthew 8: Sacrificing Animal Rights
Matthew 21: Fig-uratively Speaking
Mark 13: Eschatological Eco-Destruction
13. The Anti-Biblical Jesus: Missed Interpretations
Mel and Jesus: The Hypocrisy of New Testament Ethics
Mark 2:23-28: Jesus as Biblically Illiterate
Matthew 19: Jesus Adds his Own Twist on Divorce
Isaiah 6:9-10: Integrating Extrabiblical Materials
The Ethics of New Testament Ethics
i) The basic strategy is clear. He cites examples which, based on his own interpretation, show that Jesus held views that are politically incorrect. That makes Jesus "bad."
Of course, the conclusion only follows if you think the views of the Western secular elite c. 2015 supply the standard of comparison.
ii) Hence, Jesus is "eco-hostile" because he was responsible for pigs drowning and a fig tree withering. Once again, that only makes Jesus "bad" if you share the views of Peter Singer and radical environmentalists.
iii) The two examples he cites here create a quandary for his position. Both examples involve the supernatural, which Avalos denies. So he doesn't think Jesus really transferred evils spirits from the demoniac to a herd of pigs. Likewise, he doesn't think Jesus really caused a fig tree to miraculously wither. From his standpoint, that's fictional or mythological.
As for Jesus incinerating the earth when he returns, Sodom and Gomorrah were population centers. It wasn't firebombing nature, but targeting sinners. Smart bombs.
And even if (ex hypothesi), Jesus were to incinerate the earth, that would be resetting the clock. Like terraforming.
Finally, Avalos doesn't actually believe Jesus will do that.
iv) He interprets the healings naturalistically, as psychosomatic cures. But at best, that explanation is only plausible for certain kinds of medical conditions.
v) Sometimes his allegations depend on absurd interpretations. He has a tin-ear for hyperbole in Lk 14:26.
vi) Sometimes his allegations are inconsistent with secular ethics. For instance, even if you say the atonement of Christ was suicidal, secular ethics doesn't consider suicide to be inherently wrong, much less altruistic suicide. Hume considered the taboo against suicide to be superstitious.
2. In his interview, Avalos made the following claims:
i) When historians study figures like Herod, Alexander the Great, and Augustus Caesar, they consider the good and the bad. But when they study Jesus, he can do no wrong. They defend his ethical superiority. That's because they filter him through the lens of Chalcedon and Nicea. They treat him as divine rather than human. They continue to employ a "religionist" agenda. That's despite their claim to study him as a historical figure.
ii) Likewise, that's in spite of the fact that many things Jesus said and did are antithetical to many of the ethical norms we hold to today as good.
iii) If you interpret the Sermon on the Mount in the context of the Olivet Discourse, Mt 5 is a case of deferred violence rather than nonviolence.
iv) Jesus is eco-hostile. He's guilty of "anthropocentric" ethics because he cares more about human beings than animals.
Likewise, at the day of judgment, he will destroy the biosphere. The day of judgement is like the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah on a global scale.
v) Jesus was anti-Jewish. That's not at odds with his Jewish identity. Jews can speak against other Jews. Consider the intra-Jewish polemics in Isaiah, or Jewish sects like Qumran. Some Jewish sects accuse other Jews of not being the true Israel. So Jesus could be guilty of "ethnic slurs," like Jn 8:44.
vi) Some scholars defend Jesus by denying that he said some of the things attributed to him in the Gospels. But that's circular. That's only supposing Jesus couldn't say that. But the scholars have no independent corroboration for what he could or couldn't say.
vii) Apropos (vi), Avalos is not a Jesus mythicist or a Jesus historicist, but Jesus agnostic. We don't have enough data to know whether there was such a person as is described in the Gospels.
Avalos calls himself an empiricist. We don't have anything from Jesus' time. Nothing contemporary. Our sources date from the 2C and beyond. Since we don't have the "original Jesus," we can't tell how representative our sources are. We lack that standard of comparison.
viii) Modern morality is based on empathy. That's an evolutionary survival mechanism. It makes you care about others. It's not based on rewards.
ix) Some critics of Christianity like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris speak outside their field of expertise. They aren't Bible scholars, and that hurts their case.
3. Let's run back through his interview and assess his claims:
i) What if Jesus really is different? What if Jesus really is divine?
Avalos erects a false dichotomy between Jesus as a divine figure and the study of Jesus as a historical figure. But if Jesus is God Incarnate, then that's a historical event. A real life. Avalos begs the question.
ii) I agree with him that, considered light of eschatological justice, Jesus was not a pacifist. The Sermon on the Mount is indeed a case of deferred violence.
But that's only morally problematic if you think violence is intrinsically wrong. How can Avalos hope to justify that claim?
iii) Even on evolutionary ethics, man is the apex predator. Likewise, animals typically care about members of their own species rather than other species. So Avalos can't justify animal rights on a secular basis.
And to say anthropocentric ethics is wrong begs the question against Christian ethics.
Moreover, Avalos is disingenuous. He is spouting radical chic nonsense that he himself doesn't take seriously. He wouldn't hesitate to kill an animal to feed or protect himself–if it came to that.
iv) Since Avalos isn't Jewish, why is he so judgmental concerning intramural disputes about who is the true Israel? That's none of his business.
Consider intramural wars in atheism concerning who best represents atheism?
He disregards the fact that in Jn 8:44, Jesus is turning the allegation of the critics back on themselves.
v) I agree with him that scholars have no objective basis for distinguishing authentic words and deeds of Jesus from inauthentic words and deeds of Jesus in the canonical Gospels.
vi) To claim that our sources for Jesus date from the 2C at the earliest is bizarre.
It's unclear what he means by "contemporary" or "from Jesus' time." Does he mean anything written after the death of Jesus is unoriginal? That only something written about him during his lifetime could be original?
If so, that's extremely arbitrary. For instance, a younger contemporary can write about an older contemporary after he died. A son or daughter can write about his late father or mother. He needn't write about them when they were still alive for his account to original.
Oral history and living memory can be reliable decades after the event. Likewise, a historian can make use of firsthand accounts, even if the historian was not, himself, a firsthand observer. In addition, the sources can be much earlier than the history or biography that incorporates the sources.
Finally, do our sources of information for historical figures like Alexander the Great date from the time of Alexander?
vii) Hector's skepticism generates a dilemma for his critique. He can only say the historical Jesus was bad if he knows what the historical Jesus said and did. If, however, he considers the canonical Gospels to be historically untrustworthy, then he's in no position to evaluate the ethics of the historical Jesus.
At best, he's evaluating the ethics of a fictional character. But what does that accomplish?
If your aim is to attack Christianity, the way to do that is not to attack the ethics of Jesus, but to attack the historicity of Jesus, and especially the divinity of Jesus.
If Jesus was either a fictionally character or a merely human historical figure, then his moral teaching has no authority. Proving his teaching to be morally flawed would be superfluous. For the only reason Christians venerate his teaching is because they venerate his person as God Incarnate.
Conversely, would Avalos attack the morality of Jesus if he thought Jesus really was God Incarnate? So the whole elaborate exercise is a misguided.
viii) To make evolutionary ethics the standard of comparison is futile. To begin with, even if you accept naturalistic evolutionary psychology, that would only account for the origin of our moral sentiments. It would explain why we have instinctive feelings about right and wrong. But that wouldn't mean our moral instincts correspond to moral facts. To the contrary, our moral instincts would the byproduct of mindless, amoral evolutionary conditioning. Our sense of right and wrong would be arbitrary.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we grant his evolutionary narrative, natural selection doesn't foster universal empathy. Throughout human history, there's a double standard: empathy is reserved for members of your in-group. By contrast, there are no inhibitions on what you do to members of the out-group.
There's a tension between altruism and self-interest. In case of conflict, do you save yourself at the expense of others, or save others at your own expense? Does the survival mechanism apply to the individual or the population?
Even if evolution programmed humans to be altruistic, once we become aware of our programming, we can override our programming. It's just a form of brainwashing. It only works so long as you don't know that you were brainwashed.
Unless Avalos has an objective standard to evaluate the ethics of Jesus, his critique is systematically tendentious. And he can't very well mount an internal critique of Jesus' ethics. He can't attack the ethics of Christ on Christian grounds, for the ethics of Christ are normative for Christian ethics.