When examining the ethics of the biblical God, we must not arbitrarily separate the actions and teachings of Jesus in the gospels from the character of God illustrated throughout the Bible. A vast percentage of believers and nonbelievers mistakenly think of him only related to his earthly ministry and onward. This does not fit with the central biblical teachings that church leaders, beginning with Christ’s apostles, have referenced when describing the role of Jesus in the physical and spiritual realms. Everything that God said and did in all 66 books of Scripture was in unison with the whole Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit. This includes the creation, management and sustenance of the universe.
Without that foundational proposition, all Christian doctrines would lose their weight and meaning.
This is clearly expressed in John 1, Colossians 1, and the Nicene Creed. Here we have the primary guidelines for the theology of every Christian denomination. This includes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox churches (Greek, Russian, etc.), and thousands of Protestant groups (Baptist, Anglican, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Nondenominational, etc.):
John 1:1-3 – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
Colossians 1:15-17 – “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Nicene Creed – The character of Jesus is defined here as “the Son of God, the begotten of God the Father, the Only-begotten, that is of the essence of the Father. God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father, by Whom all things came into being, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.”
God in Jesus Christ enacted, commanded, or supported these horrific actions and punishments: eternal hell based on a short earthly life, genocide, misogyny, slavery, seasonal and colonial warfare, theocracy, capital punishments for moderate sins, animal sacrifice, excessive judgment on the vast majority of humans who did not have biblical revelation until the last few hundred years, and many other inhumane things.
On slavery, for example, Jesus declares the relationship between God and humankind to be like the connection between earthly masters and slaves. He makes no criticism of slavery. He speaks as if the institution is normal and acceptable, even saying that God and human masters are justified in torturing disobedient slaves (Matthew 18:21-35).
When speaking of the actions of “God in Jesus Christ” above, I’m describing what the Bible says he did before, during, and after his earthly life. This includes all Old and New Testament decisions made in harmony with the other two persons within the Godhead: the Father and Holy Spirit. They have always existed as three persons within a united deity: acting and being together.
When I refer to “moderate sins” above, I mean biblical examples such as: a female lying about her virginity – which modern science has shown to be impossible to prove medically; cursing one’s parents; working on the Sabbath; not keeping a known dangerous bull locked up if the bull later kills a person – but if a slave is killed the owner only has to pay a fine; being the victim of rape if one is an engaged woman and the rape occurs in a city; and many more.
The inhumane actions and laws listed above are things that Jesus never challenged because, as the New Testament and history of orthodox theology repeatedly states, he was the God of the Old Testament. Even if a believer takes a more liberal viewpoint and downplays or denies the divinity of Jesus, the same basic argument remains in tact. This teacher from ancient Galilee supports in full the God and writings of the Old Testament.
In the New Testament, he innovates on the earlier scriptures, but doesn’t contradict them. In fact, he says that he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it.
See Matthew 5:17-19:
“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 say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Well known critic of Christianity, Richard Dawkins, famously said in his book, The God Delusion:
“The God of the Old Testament is 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.”
Now this quote has its own detailed reference website that includes a multitude of Bible verses that support each of the more than a dozen terms that Dawkins use to describe the character of God.
The extreme brutality of God’s words and deeds in the Old Testament can seem “lightweight” in comparison to the New Testament’s emphasis on hell, a place of everlasting torture and dread. Jesus teaches on hell many times in the gospels, as do his closest disciples in books such as Romans, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, Jude, and Revelation.
These kinds of primitive values must be cast aside or humanity will forever be lost in barbaric methods of engaging life’s challenges. A realistic alternative is the harder road of intelligent problem-solving and compassionate understanding. This involves the construction, development, adaptation, and maintenance of imperfect, yet humane cultural ethics and social structures.
For a very different perspective than is typically presented regarding the life and teachings of Jesus, consider reading this book by religious scholar Hector Avalos, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics.
Here’s the book description:
Did Jesus ever do anything wrong? Judging by the vast majority of books on New Testament ethics, the answer is a resounding No. Writers on New Testament ethics generally view Jesus as the paradigm of human standards and behaviour. But since the historical Jesus was a human being, must he not have had flaws, like everyone else? The notion of a flawless human Jesus is a paradoxical oddity in New Testament ethics. According to Avalos, it shows that New Testament ethics is still primarily an apologetic enterprise despite its claim to rest on critical and historical scholarship. The Bad Jesus is a powerful and challenging study, presenting detailed case studies of fundamental ethical principles enunciated or practised by Jesus but antithetical to what would be widely deemed ‘acceptable’ or ‘good’ today. Such topics include Jesus’ supposedly innovative teachings on love, along with his views on hate, violence, imperialism, animal rights, environmental ethics, Judaism, women, disabled persons and biblical hermeneutics. After closely examining arguments offered by those unwilling to find any fault with the Jesus depicted in the Gospels, Avalos concludes that current treatments of New Testament ethics are permeated by a religiocentric, ethnocentric and imperialistic orientation. But if it is to be a credible historical and critical discipline in modern academia, New Testament ethics needs to discover both a Good and a Bad Jesus.