You may have heard that the illustrious Scripture scholar, Richard Dawkins (also known in some circles as Richard Dawkins, bedazzling philosopher, ahem), recently pronounced the following finding, based on years of, well, being a humility-challenged atheist:
"Jesus was a great moral teacher," Dawkins said. "Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today."
That's surely debatable, especially since it's not evident in the least that the sinless Son of God would be willing to sacrifice his perfect humility for a pot of prideful porridge made by the preening professor (Quick! Say that ten times, very quickly: "A pot of prideful porridge made by the preening professor".)
William Oddie remarks in The Catholic Herald about Dawkins' most recent statement:
I love this kind of thing; I have a taste for the grotesque. Here is Jesus, a “moral teacher”, the authority of whose entire teaching derived, from the beginning, from the fact that he didn’t just believe in the existence of God the Father as a kind of add-on, compulsory at the time, but from the fact that he Himself and the Father were one: and Dawkins says that if Jesus had only known what we know today, he would have been an atheist. Of course, he is well aware of the “oxymoronic” nature of his statement; as he explained in an essaywritten in 2006, “In a society where the majority of theists are at least nominally Christian, the two words are treated as near synonyms. Bertrand Russell’s famous advocacy of atheism was called Why I am not a Christian rather than, as it probably should have been, Why I am not a theist. All Christians are theists, it seems to go without saying.” (He later points to the example of an atheist bishop, the former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, to prove that it ain’t necessarily so, though the preposterous Holloway describes himself as a “post-Christian”, even as a “recovering Chistian”).
Oddie points to a 2006 essay by Dawkins in which the British biologist/Biblical scholar wrote the following:
Of course Jesus was a theist, but that is the least interesting thing about him. He was a theist because, in his time, everybody was. Atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh's vengeful nastiness. At least in the teachings that are attributed to him, he publicly advocated niceness and was one of the first to do so. To those steeped in the Sharia-like cruelties of Leviticus and Deuteronomy; to those brought up to fear the vindictive, Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac, a charismatic young preacher who advocated generous forgiveness must have seemed radical to the point of subversion. No wonder they nailed him.
I did a search for "niceness" and "nice" in various translations of the Bible, but couldn't find any examples. However, a search for "kindness" did turn up several results, including:
• "He who withholds kindness from a friend forsakes the fear of the Almighty."
• "He who pursues righteousness and kindness will find life and honor."
• "He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"
• ""Thus says the LORD of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy each to his brother..."
Of course, those are from the lips of Jesus, who—uh, no, wait a second. Actually, those are from the Old Testament: Job 6:14, Proverbs 21:21, Micah 6:8; and Zechariah. 7:9, respectively. And, to take just one of many possible examples, here is an example of the "Sharia-like" utterances found in the Pentateuch:
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him and cleave to him, and by his name you shall swear. (Deut. 10:17-20)
Granted, the phrase "fear of the Lord" (and variations thereof) usually causes a knee-jerk reaction among those who immediately think of the "Old Testament God" as a hulking, angry spirit-being who simpy cannot wait to destroy, pillage, and otherwise do away with everything and everyone in sight. Yet this fear of the Lord is closely connected in the Old Testament (and the New, as well) with a true and abiding love of the Lord. A foundational text is Deuteronomy 6, in which the Hebrews are told three times to “fear the Lord your God” (Dt 6:2, 13, 24), but are also commanded to love the one true God: “… and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Dt 6:5). This loving fear of God is also closely intertwined with wisdom—“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7) and with true life—“The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life” (Prov 14:27; cf. Prov 19:23). It is, as a note in the New American Bible explains (Prov. 1:7), this fear is “primarily a disposition rather than the emotion of fear; reverential awe and respect toward God combined with obedience to God’s will.”
But, I slightly digress. I actually wanted to re-present a little quiz I first posted a few months ago in response to the claim that hell is an Old Testament idea and that the tolerant, loving Jesus would have no part of it. In fact, in that same post, I mentioned Dawkins:
The ol' "nasty God of the OT vs. the non-judgmental Jesus of the NT" is common fare among skeptics, liberals, and people who never read the Bible, which includes, alas, a lot of self-described Christians.
One of the more memorable instances of this is the description by atheist Richard Dawkins in his best-selling book The God Delusion of the God of the Old Testament as “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” As I wrote in one of my "Opening the Word" columns, "That remark indicates far more familiarity with the dictionary than with the Bible." To make this point, here's a quick quiz: which of the following statements is made by or about God in the OT and which were made by or about Jesus in the Gospels?
1. "But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire."
2. "But thou, O Lord, art a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."
3. "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell..."
4. "Light rises in the darkness for the upright; the LORD is gracious, merciful, and righteous."
5. "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell..."
6. "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness..."
7. "And you, Caper'na-um, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day."
8. "I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel which he has granted them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love."
9."There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out."
10. "Nevertheless in thy great mercies thou didst not make an end of them or forsake them; for thou art a gracious and merciful God."
Yep, you guessed it: 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 are statements made by Jesus in the Gospels, and 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 are statements by or about God found in the Old Testament. The basic point is that both the Old and New Testaments speak of judgment and mercy, punishment and love, communion with God and separation from God. And the word "hell" is just one way of describing or referring to eternal separation from the presence, life, and love of God, just as "heaven" is one of many ways to refer to everlasting communion with God. While the Old Testament does not contain the word "hell", it most certainly describes the painful, everlasting punishment that comes upon those who rebel against God and reject his commandments.
Now, there is no doubt that Jesus interpreted and understood the Law and the Prophets in ways that were viewed as radical or unsettling by his first-century Jewish audiences. But—and this is crucial—it wasn't because he "publicly advocated niceness" or rebelled against the "Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac"; on the contrary, he said, "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them" (Matt. 5:17), and he also made the startling claim, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am", thus claiming divinity and aligning himself fully with the afore-mentioned "Ayatollah-like God of Abraham and Isaac".
The key point is this: the radical and startling nature of Jesus' statements about the Law and Prophets is rooted in his clear claim to be the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, his insistence that he was the definitive and final interpreter of the same; and his belief, in sum, that he was, in his very person, the New Law and the final and great Prophet promised by Moses. In other words, the "interesting and remarkable about Jesus" was not that he rebelled against aspects or characteristics of Yahweh (since he didn't), but that he claimed to be one with Yahweh, who he addressed as "Abba": "I and the Father are one" (Jn. 10:30). And the reaction to such words?
The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?" The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God." (Jn. 10:31-33)
Those angry Jewish scholars and religious leaders, in other words, understood Jesus far better than the learned Prof. Dawkins. Let's put it this way: if Jesus had been a mere mortal and a mere moral teacher, we would not know of him today. Christianity would not exist. Period. He would have died, and his little band of followers would have dispersed. End of story. The question is: why didn't that happen? But I'm sure that is something that Richard Dawkins, preeminant historian, will address soon enough.
• Professor Dawkins and the Origins of Religion | Thomas Crean, O.P. | From God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins
• Dawkins' Delusions | An interview with Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., author of God Is No Delusion: A Refutation of Richard Dawkins