Christianity has been called cruel because it teaches that Jews killed Jesus and that Jesus is the only way to Heaven. The first incites persecution; the second denies that goodness matters in God’s assessment. This challenge, though, misunderstands both the nature of history and the nature of justice.
Moviegoers will soon get an eyeful from Academy Award-winning producer Mel Gibson. His latest film, “The Passion,” chronicles the final twelve hours in the life of Jesus, including the most authentic—and graphic—portrayal to date of the brutality Jesus experienced at the hands of His executioners.
Though the movie is not even in distribution yet, the controversy has already begun. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has weighed in with their concern. Since Vatican II in the 60s, the Catholic Church has vigorously disavowed Jews’ responsibility for Jesus’ death, a view that historically has been used as grounds for persecution of Jews as “Christ killers.”
The Jewish Anti-Defamation League also expressed alarm. “Will [the “Passion”] correct the unambiguous depiction of Jews as the ones responsible for the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus?” they wondered, according to the Washington Post.[i]
Jewish leaders have long been deeply sensitive to any characterization of Christ’s passion that would transfer guilt collectively to the Jews. Even prominent pro-Christian Jewish thinker Dennis Prager has voiced misgivings about Christianity in this area. In a piece entitled “When Religion Makes People Cruel” I found this comment: “Historically, the greatest evidence of the ability of religion to make a person cruel can be found among believing Christians.”[ii]
The general point of the article was a good one: Sometimes the directives of a particular religion seem at odds with basic morality. But is Christianity guilty here? Do the specific teachings of the New Testament produce cruel people and cruel situations?
Prager gave two examples. First, pogroms against Jews have been justified because the Christian Bible blamed Jews for killing Jesus. Second, Christianity is cruel because it teaches that all non-Christians, regardless of how God-fearing, moral, or kind, will suffer eternal torment, while all believers in Jesus, regardless of their behavior, have salvation.
The first point is a serious non-sequitur. The second errs principally because of a misunderstanding of the role of goodness in salvation, an issue even many Christians are seriously confused on.
Our fundamental questions are simple: Does the Bible teach these things, and do these teachings, by their nature, lead to cruelty in those who believe them?
Is It Cruel to Hold that Jews Killed Jesus?
The Christian Bible does, in fact, teach that Jewish leadership was responsible for the execution of Jesus. But this, in itself, is not cruel. First, it’s not a religious dogma of Christianity, but a somewhat incidental historical footnote. Second, if Prager’s accusation sticks, then, oddly enough, Judaism ends up being cruel, too. Let me explain.
First, the identity of Jesus’ executioners is irrelevant to Christian dogma. What is critical to dogma is that Jesus truly died and was raised, not that any particular group was responsible for His death. Indeed, from the perspective of theology all men are responsible for the death of Christ because all sinned, and this the New Testament is very clear on. Further, Jesus made it clear that He gave His life willingly. No one takes His life from Him, He said, but He lays it down on His own initiative (John 10:18).
The question here is not doctrinal, but historical. The Gospel accounts merely report what happened, that Jews had Jesus executed for religious reasons. Historical facts are either true or false, not cruel or kind. If a particular thing actually happened, then it cannot be cruel to believe it.
Incidentally, the Bible is not the only historical record to implicate Jews in Christ’s passion. The Jewish scripture known as the Babylonian Talmud suggests the same thing. Sanhedrin 43a says, “On the eve of the Passover, Yeshu (the Nazarene) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.’”
The Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 107b states, “Jesus performed magic and incited the people of Israel and led them astray.” According to these Jewish texts, Jesus was executed for religious crimes and offenses that mattered to Jews, not for political sedition against the Roman Empire.[iii]
Second, cruelty to Jews does not follow from the assertion that Jews were instrumental in the death of Jesus. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we see this. Quite the contrary, the early Christians brought their message of forgiveness and reconciliation to the Jews first, with no animosity.
Further, the Christians of the first couple of centuries were excessively pacifistic and wouldn’t lift a finger to defend even themselves, much less take revenge on the Jews. Revenge was not only forbidden by the New Testament, it was unnecessary. According to Christian teaching, the execution of Christ was used by God to accomplish salvation for all who would believe. The death of Jesus was a great good to Christians, not an evil that needed avenging. It wasn’t until centuries after Christ that the institutional church used such illegitimate justification for malicious actions against non-Christians.
Is Judaism Cruel?
Third, this line of thinking also makes Judaism cruel. In the first century the Jewish belief that Jesus was not the Messiah was the animus for systematic persecution of Christians. Stephen was murdered by a mob of Jewish leaders for pointing out that the Jews habitually rejected God’s chosen deliverer—from Joseph, to Moses, down through the prophets, even to Messiah. In fact, most Christian martyrs from 33 to 64 A.D. died at the hands of Jews.
Here’s the dilemma. This argument holds that Christians murdered Jews because they believed Jews killed Christ. Therefore, the belief that Jews killed Christ is evil and Christianity is cruel for teaching it. But Jews murdered Christians because Jews believed Jesus was not the Messiah, as Christians claimed. Therefore, the belief that Jesus is not the Messiah is evil, and Judaism is cruel for teaching it. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
The fact is, evil people of all religious persuasions may seize upon religious justification for their immoral behavior, even when the behavior itself is condemned by the religion they purport to serve. When that happens, it’s simply mistaken to blame the religion. It may be that some of the greatest acts of cruelty came from professing Christians who used their religion as a cloak for evil. Christianity itself, though, doesn’t cause such evil.[iv] Rather, it consistently condemns it.
Is It Cruel to Hold that Jesus Is the Only Way to Heaven?
The second objection states that it’s cruel to teach that all non-Christians, regardless of how God-fearing, moral, or kind, will suffer eternal torment, while all believers in Jesus, regardless of their behavior, have salvation.
First, even if this depiction was entirely true, it escapes me how teaching this makes one cruel. Historically such thinking has stimulated great kindness: acts of charity, mercy, and love to make more tangible and palatable a message of God’s forgiveness that people desperately need. History is replete with wonderful examples of self-sacrifice and profound acts of love from Christians whose chief motivation was their belief that people perish eternally without Christ. It may be that Christians are mistaken here, but I fail to see how such a view makes them cruel.
Second, this is largely a straw man; the depiction is not true. Christianity does not teach that all “believers” in Christ, no matter what their behavior, have eternal salvation. In the Bible words are cheap and behavior is dear. Mere professions of faith are worthless. John says explicitly, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar,” and “Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God” (1 John 2:4, 3:10). Jesus Himself said, “By their fruits you shall know them.”
But what about good people? Does Christianity hold that goodness is irrelevant to God? Here we must take our time and weigh our words carefully.
First, the Old Testament puts the issue of human goodness in perspective. Isaiah 64:6-7 says, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
The Psalmist adds, “They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds. There is no one who does good. The Lord has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside. Together they have become corrupt. There is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:1-3).
These are strong words. The prophet affirms that our iniquity overwhelms our goodness. The Psalmist declares that our corruption consumes us. This is God’s perspective. We are all guilty, from the least to the great.
This is precisely the Christian testimony. The New Testament does not teach that good deeds are of no value. It teaches that good deeds cannot pay for bad deeds. This is a critical point of misunderstanding, even by Christians.
Why Good Can’t Pay for Bad
Our problem is not goodness, but badness. Yes, God demands that we live ethically. But what about those moments when we don’t? The most vital issue Christianity answers is “How can we be right with God when we are not thoroughly good?”
There is profound misunderstanding on this point, as I said, and part of the misunderstanding is because many err in defining goodness according to human standards, that is, good “more or less”—basically good. God, on this view, is concerned with what kind of individual one is “on average.” He’s not examining every corner of one’s life to find any dirt there. If the good outweighs the bad, if good is predominant, then God winks at the occasional moral lapse.
But justice never works like this, does it? The law demands that “on average” each person obey every law always, not most laws usually. You can be an upstanding citizen all your life, but one single crime is still going to bring you before the court.
Further—and this is absolutely critical—no amount of good behavior pays for bad behavior. Period. Law requires consistent goodness, and that which is already owed cannot be used to pay for new debts.
God, like all lawgivers, requires nothing less than moral perfection. “But that’s impossible,” you say. You’re right. That’s why we need a Savior.
For those inclined to disagree with this point, I have this question: If laws can be violated with no expectation of punishment (since the law does not demand perfection) then which laws or what percentage of the law can be disobeyed with impunity, with no consequence of justice?
The Christian claim is simply this: Every person stands guilty before God in some measure. Good deeds cannot atone for bad deeds because one already owes God obedient, righteous, moral behavior. Instead, we must seek forgiveness, and since God is the one offended, we must seek forgiveness from Him on His terms.
The New Testament teaching is that God’s terms involve Jesus, and a rejection of Jesus is a rejection of God’s forgiveness. One who rejects forgiveness is still in his sin; he’s still under judgment.
Here’s a simple way of putting it. One day every single one of us, the morally great and small alike, will stand before God to be judged for our own crimes, such as they are—some more, some less. Either we pay for them ourselves, or we let Jesus pay for them for us. That’s it. If we refuse forgiveness through Jesus, then we stand alone to endure God’s penalty.
That’s the New Testament teaching. There’s nothing bizarre, unfair, outlandish, or cruel about it. The only cruelty is knowing this information and withholding it.
I certainly agree that religion can make people cruel. But that’s only because either the religion itself is false and therefore does not reflect God’s morality, or because the religion is true, but its ethics are either misunderstood or misapplied. The latter happens frequently with Christianity. That’s not the fault of its founder, though, or its founding principles; it’s the fault of its followers.
[i] Lloyd Grove, “Mel Gibson’s Washington Power Play” (Washington Post, 7/22/03, p. C3); http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A26264-2003Jul22.html.
[ii] Dennis Prager, Ultimate Issues, Vol. 10, Number 2, 1994.
[iii] We must be careful not to make too much of these references, since they seem to be 2nd century or later in origin and may have undergone some corruption (e.g., the reference to a 40-day search for witnesses), or reflect ideas that developed later in the Jewish tradition. It does seem significant, though, that we have early Jewish records suggesting that Jews themselves did not consider it anti-Semitic to have played a part in Jesus’ execution.