I have a few blogs drafted on understanding the Old Testament. A common attack on Christianity will be to take a passage out of the Old Testament and try to use it a sort of “Gotcha!” statement. And sometimes it will be a gotcha statement for people who are raised Christian because Christians usually do not dwell on these passages – for good reason. The reason is because God himself in the body of Jesus gave us instruction on how we should understand the Old Testament. So by focusing on Jesus’s teaching we can see the Old Testament as God intended. I Hope that by reading these blogs atheists and theists will gain a deeper understanding of how Jesus calls us to live.
Quite a few atheists will ask questions like: Why doesn’t Jesus say it is wrong to have slaves? Why doesn’t he say it wrong to discriminate based on [insert category]? Why didn’t he command [insert rule]? This is what I call the “rules model” of moral behavior. Certainly, taking individual actions and saying you must (or must not) do X is one way to inform people how to act. But Jesus overwhelmingly took a different approach. He gave us a moral direction not more rules. That is why early Christians were “followers of the way” rather than “keepers of the code.”
Both models have their advantages and disadvantages. The atheist complaint that there are a lack of more simple minded rules, that the rules model offers tends to misunderstand Christianity at a fundamental level. But that is not to say I do not understand where they are coming from. There is a certain comfort in having a set of rules and believing as long as I follow these I am ok. Regardless of the authority figure, parent, police, referee, school teacher it seems obvious and fair to have the rules set forth in a plain way. So we see that just as we want to know the rules today, Jesus was also asked for the rules. What are the rules to get past those pearly gates?
But there is another reason we want the rules. And here we are getting into a drawback. We want to know the minimum. We don’t pay more for items than the price tag, we don’t overpay taxes, etc. We often think of morality as a restriction similar to a lack of money – in that it can limit our pleasures and increase our suffering. We really don’t want that. We don’t want to give up more of our worldly pleasure than is necessary. This focus of living a life of earthly self-centered pleasure and avoiding suffering is often understood as a form of slavery in Christianity. It can keep us from living a life of love, and service to God and others.
Because “rules model” tend to make moral minimums the bar, it makes sense Christ would not dwell on specific rules. That model tends to cap off our goodness. With rules you only have to go so far and you can comply with a code/rule, but Jesus wants us to always strive to go further in a moral direction. Does anyone really think they are a good person just because they do not own slaves? It is obvious that Christ wants much more.
Yet often Christians – including myself – when we think about whether we will go to heaven we will naturally at least go through the ten commandments and consider if we have kept them. Jesus does not entirely discourage this, but obviously he goes beyond that. see e.g., Matthew 19:16-28 We should love each other so, obviously, we shouldn’t murder. But we are not ethical just because we follow the rule and do not murder someone. Jesus wants more from us than a simple minded rule model suggests. Jesus teaches the basis of the rules and then tells us to take the basis to the fullest. Because his moral directional teaching does not put a cap on our morality like rules based morality Christianity has lead to unprecedented moral progress in the west where Christianity has had the longest and most intense effect.
“Rules models” have at least four downsides. First, As explained above and below they tend to suggest we can cap off our morality.
Second, They are subject to gamesmanship in interpretation e.g., what is slavery? Are indentured servants slaves? Are all workers in communist countries slaves? Is saying if you don’t work you don’t eat forced labor? Is slavery ok in prisons or for prisoners of war? There are many questions we could ask just about slavery. The bible might have to be an infinitely thick rule book to cover all the different and wide ranging moral questions. Human laws are always restricted by our lack of ability to understand someone’s true intentions. We can only make inferences about their intentions from their behavior. Thus people often play games and try to technically comply with rules even though they violate the spirit of the rule. See e.g., Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Unlike human laws that can only deal with what humans can learn, God’s law addresses our intentions and scripture consistently makes it clear that we should not think we can fool God. “But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 God does not have to rely only on the outward behavior we can observe, so his judgment is not so limited.
Third, people want to know the reasons for the rules not just have a list of dos and don’t “because I said so.” We don’t want to do things that seem arbitrary.
Fourth, by addressing who we are and why certain moral rules exist we can understand and develop many moral understandings. So not only do we go further than each rule we can develop our own rules on different issues. For example understanding that all human life is sacred and made in God’s image not only prevents murder but it can, and has, lead to much more, including the understanding that slavery and discrimination is wrong.
Where is the scriptural evidence that Jesus ended the rules model of the old testament but not the moral commandments in a directional sense? It was the point of his statement about “the smallest letter or least stroke of the pen” from Matthew. It is perhaps one of the most quoted passages from Jesus by atheists trying to buttress their “gotcha” verses by claiming it means that Christians must follow every “jot” of the old testament in a literal sense. But that takes Matthew 5:17-20 way out of context and can even contradict Jesus. First here is the passage:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20
What is the context? Jesus said this near the beginning of his famous “Sermon on the Mount.” And we have three full chapters of Jesus himself explicitly elaborating what he means by that quotation. Those chapters are Mathew 5, 6, and 7. And indeed when you understand that statement in the context of rest of the sermon on the mount, you will see why atheists not only misunderstand the context but often try to use that quotation to contradict what Jesus explicitly said when he elaborated on what he meant.
In that sermon Jesus famously blew the “cap” off of many Old Testament moral commands. He kept the intent but insisted we go further in our moral development. He explicitly says how we are called to not just meet the morality of pharisees and teachers of the law but “surpass” them. He then goes on to specifically articulate how we should “surpass” them.
I always encourage people to read the gospels but here, I won’t quote all three chapters but rather just paraphrase with citations. Not murdering is not sufficient don’t even get angry or disparage others. Mathew 5:21-22 Don’t just avoid literally committing adultery. Do not even look at another woman with lust. Mathew 5:27-30. Not only should you be required to give a bill of divorce before leaving your wife, you shouldn’t divorce her at all. Mathew 5:31-32 Not only should you not violate your oaths but you should always speak the truth. Mathew 5:33-37 Not only should you limit your vengeance based on the violation you suffer (“eye for an eye”) but instead you should not take any vengeance and instead give your enemy more than they wrongly took and the beggar more than what they ask for. Mathew 5:38-42 He expands the love of neighbor to everyone even enemies. And directs us to love our enemies. Mathew 5:43-47 “Be perfect…” Mathew 5:48.
Don’t just give to the poor but give to the poor silently without a big show. It is to be done out of love of others not to improve your image. Mathew 6:1-4 Likewise pray but your prayers should be for your relationship with God not in order to make you look holier than thou. Mathew 6:5-6 Forgive everyone like you want God to forgive you. Mathew 6 9-15. Fast but do not do it so others will be aware of your holiness but again make the sacrifice without letting everyone know. Mathew 6:16-18 Desire for money and greed should have no place as they will control you instead of God. Mathew 6:24 In all things rely on God and don’t be a slave to worldly possessions Mathew 6:25-34.
Notice Jesus specifically rejects the atheist interpretation of the harsh punishments of the old testament and specifically that we should not to judge others. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” Matthew 7:1 and we see this theme of not retaliating but instead forgiving throughout the above sermon. He says we should focus on our own moral shortcomings rather than those of others and understand that we are always biased to think we are morally better than we really are. Matthew 7:1-5.
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 7:12. “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” Matthew 7:28-29
Amazing indeed. He changed our morality from the simple minded view of “ok just don’t do these things and you’re good” that atheists often claim to want, to the much more challenging call to love others as best you can. This change in approach has lead to moral progress never seen before or since and of course will lead us to even greater moral progress if we continue in this direction.