The ethics of Christianity

Most religions have a set of ethical principles at their core. This is especially true of the monotheistic religions. In what Christians call the “Old Testament” Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai and received the law directly from the hand of God:

The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tables of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”

Exodus 24:12, Revised Standard Version

And he gave to Moses, when he had made and end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.

Exodus 31:18, RSV

God gave Moses far more than just the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai. He provided a lengthy roster of laws governing daily life (Exodus 21 – 23). He gave Moses directions for constructing the Ark of the Covenant, a table for the bread of the Presence, a lamp stand, a tabernacle with framework and curtains, an altar for burnt offerings, a court with tapestries, and vestments for the priests (Exodus 25 – 28). He specified how priests are to be ordained (Exodus 29). And he gave specific rules for the observance of the Sabbath (Exodus 31).

The punishment for disobeying these laws was often harsh. For example:

“If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.”

Leviticus 20:10, RSV

The Old Testament authors believed that God demanded that they follow the law, as that was what distinguished the Israelites from the other peoples of that time:

“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and do them; that the land where I am bringing you to dwell may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who have separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.

Leviticus 20:22-26, RSV

But the New Testament authors taught forgiveness. Specifically, in the case of adultery, the New Testament relates the following:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.  And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.  Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”

John 8:3-11, RSV

Jesus argued that the law– meaning Jewish law, the law of the Old Testament– was wrong. He forgave a sin that would have been punished by death under the laws of the Old Testament. Jesus was not arguing that his followers should simply know and obey the law. He was arguing that they need to be better than that.

John Chapter 5 relates the story of Jesus healing a man who had been ill for 38 years:

Jesus said to him, “Rise up, take your pallet and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.

John 5:8-9, RSV

Jesus performed this healing on the Sabbath, and for that reason the leaders of the Jewish community accused him of breaking Jewish law which states that no one can perform “work” on the sabbath. In the following passage Jesus gives his response:

“Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man upon the sabbath.  If on the sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the sabbath I made a man’s whole body well?  Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

John 7:22-24, RSV

Jesus certainly has a point. The Jewish priests perform circumcision on the Sabbath. Is that not work? If it is permitted that Jewish priests perform circumcision on the Sabbath, why wouldn’t it be allowed to heal the sick on the Sabbath? To consider a more extreme example in a modern context, suppose that someone gets shot by a robber on the Sabbath. Should the doctor at the Emergency Room of the hospital to which the victim is taken refuse to save the person’s life because it is the Sabbath? That seems pretty absurd.

Jesus says that we should “judge with right judgment”, meaning that there is a higher moral code than that of simply following the letter of the law. What exactly is that higher moral code? The answer can be found in the following passage from the book of Matthew:’

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Mattew 5:43-48, RSV

Jesus expected his followers to love not only their “brethren”, that is, those who are of their own kin or clan, but even their enemies. More than that, he expected his followers to be as perfect as God.

Just how far did Jesus think his followers should go in forgiving the sins of others? In the following passage Jesus provides us with his answer:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Matthew 18:21-22, RSV

So Jesus said that his followers should forgive the sins of others 490 times. And clearly from the wording that is 490 times per person! Why 490? Why not an even 500? Or 1000?

Jesus didn’t mean that we’re supposed to keep a ledger of all the times we have forgiven someone and to stop when we get to 490 times. The number 490 wasn’t meant to be a real number at all. It was used to mean something like “a number that is so huge that nobody could possibly forgive that many times”. That is, the number 490 was intended to be the first century CE equivalent of infinity.

So now we know that Jesus expected his followers to forgive sins infinitely many times. But which sins must be forgiven? Jesus gave us that answer, too, in the following passage:

He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matthew 12:30-32

The only sin that cannot be forgiven is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. All other sins, including murder, rape, incest, assault, battery, robbery, fraud, slander, liable– all of them must be forgiven, and they must be forgiven infinitely many times.

Those are terrible moral principles for a civilization to follow. To forgive any and all sins and to allow those who sin to return to society without punishment– that’s no way to modulate the behavior of citizens in a society. It is, in effect, a formula for anarchy.

The Old Testament is all about knowing the law and obeying the law. The Old Testament authors claimed that the law came directly from God and was given to the Jews to distinguish them from the rest of humanity:

“Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples; for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Exodus 19:5, RSV

That is, the Jewish people were to lead the world to the worship of Yahweh, the god of the Old Testament, and to the following of the law.

But the New Testament says that it’s not good enough to just follow the law. A follower of Jesus must not only obey the spirit of the law, but must also forgive every sin (except that of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit), and must forgive every sinner infinitely many times. Jesus wasn’t trying to make the world a better place in which to live. He was only interested in preparing his perfect followers for an eternity in paradise.

Is it ever reasonable and proper to forgive someone of his or her sin? Sure. Here’s an example. Your teenage son steals his uncle’s car, takes it for a joy ride, and returns it undamaged later in the evening. Technically the boy’s action is theft. Should he be punished for theft? If I were his father I would not ask the authorities to haul my son into the police station for prosecution. Instead I would talk to him about what I would regard as the real crime– breaking trust. And I would expect him to do something to make amends for his actions. Maybe mow his uncle’s yard throughout the summer, or paint his fence. The point is that the theft can be forgiven, so long as punishment is meted out for breaking trust.

In the example of the adulteress who was forgiven by Jesus, it is very possible that she abandoned her licentious behavior. Sometimes forgiveness in such a case works. Sometimes the person who is forgiven is so surprised by the act of forgiveness that it causes that person to reconsider and to change their choices in life.

I can understand forgiving someone who kills in self-defense. If a man breaks into another man’s house with the intent of robbery, attacks the homeowner, and the owner grabs a kitchen knife and kills the intruder– that’s killing in self-defense. And it’s perfectly reasonable to forgive killing in situations of that kind.

But I cannot understand the principle that society at large should forgive any and all premeditated murders. If a man kills his wife not in self-defense, but with malice and careful planning, I can’t think of any reason why he should be forgiven for his crime. I think he should be punished. Forgiveness in such a case makes no sense to me.

The Old Testament was all about knowing and obeying the law. As the New Testament authors showed, the Jews of Jesus’s time interpreted the law so stringently that they administered the law in a manner that was often capricious and unduly extreme. But the New Testament authors went too far when they said that all sins should be forgiven, and that they should be forgiven infinitely many times. Society needs laws. Laws are a product of human design and are not perfect; therefore we need to be prepared to amend laws as the conditions of society evolve. The real error of the Old Testament authors was their assumption that the law was given to humanity by God and that it is therefore perfect and necessarily immutable. It is not. But the teaching of Jesus that any and all sins must be forgiven is far too lenient for any society and should therefore not be followed.

Copyright (c) 2020, David S. Moore

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