Jesus' Morality Was Too Moral
Updated: Jul 21
“The order to ‘love thy neighbor’ is mild and yet stern: a reminder of one’s duty to others. The order to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed, as is the hard to interpret instruction to love others ‘as I have loved you.’ Humans are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves: the thing simply cannot be done...”[i]
- Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens didn’t claim Jesus’ moral code was immoral. He did the opposite. He claimed Jesus’ moral code was too strenuous to be obeyed – it was too moral. He especially saw the command to “love thy neighbor as thyself” as be too difficult. In Hitchens’ view, Jesus set the bar of morality far too high.
It’s true Jesus’ moral code exceeded the norm of people in the 1st century. That’s because moral standards aren’t based on what the average person does; they’re based on what truly moral conduct is. So, the first question to ask is, was Jesus’ moral code moral?
What was Jesus’ morality?
Morality starts with the idea of personhood. This sounds strange, but it’s true. It’s easier to justify treating people poorly if you dehumanize them. However, if Jesus was correct that all people were created by God and welcomed by God, personhood isn’t based on nationality, race, age, intellect or capabilities.[ii] All human beings are people.
As people, we perceive ourselves and others to have value, but how much?[iii] And, do we possess the same value? Jesus saw everyone as having immense value – high, equal, universal and unchanging.[iv] Given this, moral rights are the inherent possession of all persons, everywhere, all the time.[v]
Next comes moral principles. They’re essentially the same thing as moral attributes. The Bible describes them as love, truthfulness, faithfulness, goodness, purity and justice. Collectively, they’re called righteousness. For something to be moral, it had to be in keeping with all of them. Jesus affirmed these principles and said they’re the way to live.[vi]
Making moral principles more tangible involves moral laws. This is called “applied ethics.” Orthodox Judaism counts 613 moral laws in the Tanakh (the Old Testament). They were 613 ways to be loving, truthful, faithful, good, just and pure. Jesus affirmed them and lived in keeping with them.[vii]
This is how Jesus said people should live. And, to make it even simpler to understand, he provided two easy guidelines. Christopher Hitchens took exception to both of them.
Two simple rules-of-thumb
Jesus taught two simple rules-of-thumb to help people make moral decisions. After all, we experience unique situations every day. These were his tests:
- The Golden Rule - The first rule-of-thumb was to love (or treat) other people the way you would like to be loved (treated).[viii] It’s generally referred to as the golden rule. It was taught by both Judaism and Jesus. Christopher Hitchens saw it as too strenuous to be obeyed.
- Jesus’ example – The second rule-of-thumb was to follow Jesus’ example; we should treat others the way he did.[ix] Hitchens saw this as hard to interpret.
Is this too difficult?
Was Jesus’ moral code “too strenuous to be obeyed?” Was it too moral? Can people live this way? Or, is Christopher Hitchens correct in saying people simply can’t love others as much as themselves?
Let’s select a few moral laws from the Bible as tests. We’re instructed to not lie, not steal, not sleep with other people’s spouses, help the poor, seek justice for others and lay down our lives for our friends. Can we actually do these things? These were examples of treating others the way we want to be treated.
Based on what we see in real life, yes, these things are doable. Lots of people don’t lie, steal or have affairs. Some billionaires actually do give away half of their possessions so others can live better lives. People, at great personal cost, pursue justice for others. And, parents do love their children selflessly. We even see police and soldiers risking their lives to protect people they don’t even know! So, yes, it is possible to live this way. But, do we do it without fail?
Our moral flaws
Christopher Hitchens was right about one thing – we do have a morality problem. People are not puppets. We make genuine choices. Unfortunately, our choices are often motivated by greed, pride, the desire for power, fear, hurt, hatred or sexual desire. We all fail. Even Hitchens diagnosed himself with stupidity and selfishness.[x]
So, while Jesus’ moral code is doable, we make choices to not do it. The problem is not the morality of the moral code; it is moral and can be obeyed. The problem is us.
God’ solution to our morality problem
Jesus did not set a moral bar that’s too high. The bar that’s set is truly moral and reasonable. However, only God possesses absolute moral purity – only God possesses moral perfection. People fall short and fail. Yet, rather than leaving us writhing in moral failure, Jesus said, God will forgive.
Jesus also taught that God loves people in spite of their moral failure. He offers forgiveness, cleansing from “sin” and will account Jesus’ moral purity to us. To receive it, we need only receive Jesus. Forgiveness and a clean moral slate are received through faith in Jesus. This is was Jesus and his followers taught. [xi]
The Bible conveys that Jesus secured forgiveness for mankind by being the ultimate example of laying down your life for others; Jesus bore the guilt and deserved punishment of mankind’s moral failure by dying for us. He displayed how he valued mankind by giving his human life to save ours. Yet, he could only do that if he were, in truth, God.[xii]
The Bible conveys something else Jesus did to help us with our morality problem. He sent the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, to be with us to help us make good moral decisions.[xiii] We receive his presence, when we receive him.
None of this was seen as a “pass” to behave immorally. It was God’s solution to our morality problem.[xiv]
What does this say about Jesus?
In claiming Jesus’ moral code is “too strenuous to be obeyed,” Hitchens is inadvertently giving Christianity support for Jesus’ divinity. After all, if Jesus’ moral code and personal example were beyond normal human ability, then what does that say about Jesus?
Jesus’ moral code was indeed moral. It doesn’t make sense to say it’s too moral, just because we fall short. Jesus knew people would fail but provided a means of forgiveness and moral restoration. If the bar of morality were set to make us feel comfortable (at the height of our worst personal failures) morality would soon cease to exist.
About Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011) – was a journalist, author and social commentator. He wrote for the New Statesman, the Nation, the Socialist Worker, Vanity Fair and the Atlantic Monthly. In his early years, he was a Trotskyist but displayed less interest in economics in later years. He was an out-spoken atheist and opponent of religion. He was educated at Oxford University.
Copyright 2021 by Patrick Prill
[i] Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great, (New York, NY: Hachette Book Group, 2009), 213. [ii] Matthew 19:1-6, Mark 11:15-17 [iii] Is human value merely granted by a declaration or a law? If human value is not real, it’s fleeting. [iv] John 3:16 [v] In Christianity, God is Sovereign. God does not owe people natural or moral rights. Moral rights derive from the value God ascribes to people. God requires people to treat each other as though they possess the same value. [vi] Luke 6:32-36, Matthew 5:8, Matthew 23:23, John 8:42-47 [vii] Christianity conveys that Jesus died for the sins of mankind and, therefore, fulfilled the sacrificial system of the Tanakh. The Temple sacrificial system, feasts and festivals that were prescribed for Israel comprise roughly 100 of the laws (mitzvahs) of the Tanakh.
See 1 John 2:1-2 and Hebrews 10:1-18. [viii] Matthew 19:17-19, 22:34-40. [ix] John 13:34-35, 15:9-13. [x] Christopher Hitchens, god is not Great, 77. [xi] Christianity teaches that Jesus (God incarnate) bore the guilt and punishment for human moral failure and offers humanity forgiveness, pardon, “righteousness” and help in living morally. (Romans 3:21-26, Philippians 1:9-11, 2:12-13, 3:7-9) [xii] Psalm 49:7-9 and Isaiah 53:1-12 [xiii] John 14:15-26, John 16:5-15 [xiv] Romans 6:1-18, Jude 3-4