The Moral Problem


‘Then you come to moral questions. There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment. Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence. You do not, for instance find that attitude in Socrates. You find him quite bland and urbane toward the people who would not listen to him; and it is, to my mind, far more worthy of a sage to take that line than to take the line of indignation. You probably all remember the sorts of things that Socrates was saying when he was dying, and the sort of things that he generally did say to people who did not agree with him.

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell.” That was said to people who did not like His preaching. It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come.” That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

Then Christ says, “The Son of Man shall send forth his His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity, and shall cast them into a furnace of fire; there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth”; and He goes on about the wailing and gnashing of teeth. It comes in one verse after another, and it is quite manifest to the reader that there is a certain pleasure in contemplating wailing and gnashing of teeth, or else it would not occur so often. Then you all, of course, remember about the sheep and the goats; how at the second coming He is going to divide the sheep from the goats, and He is going to say to the goats, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.” He continues, “And these shall go away into everlasting fire.” Then He says again, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty. It is a doctrine that put cruelty into the world and gave the world generations of cruel torture; and the Christ of the Gospels, if you could take Him as His chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.

There are other things of less importance. There is the instance of the Gadarene swine, where it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill into the sea. You must remember that He was omnipotent, and He could have made the devils simply go away; but He chose to send them into the pigs. Then there is the curious story of the fig tree, which always rather puzzled me. You remember what happened about the fig tree. “He was hungry; and seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, He came if haply He might find anything thereon; and when He came to it He found nothing but leaves, for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it: ‘No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever’ . . . and Peter . . . saith unto Him: ‘Master, behold the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away.'” This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.’

– Denonn. L.E., Egner. R.E. Ed. 1961. The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell London, United Kingdom: George Allen & Unwin (1962) p. 593-594


Bertrand Russell delivered the lecture Why I am not a Christian (of which this is an excerpt) on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall.

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8 thoughts on “The Moral Problem

  1. …it certainly was not very kind to the pigs to put the devils into them and make them rush down the hill into the sea.

    It wasn’t very nice to the pig farmer either, who went from 2000 head of swine, to poverty. But I’ve always wondered why anyone would raise 2000 head of pigs in a land where the consumption of pork was forbidden – where was his market? One can’t very well herd pigs to Canaan, like one might herd cattle to a faraway market, and to the best of my knowledge, long-distance hauling was centuries into the future.

    And btw, I would never disrespect the holy spook —

  2. Well Arch, this is where history comes in handy. Israel was an occupied land, with a Roman (and mercenaries) army of occupation. Non-kosher meat would be sold to those entrepreneurs who procured for the Roman armies. Salted pork keeps without refrigeration… and don’t I know that! There’s one thing Moses got right: banning the eating of pork – disgusting meat. Perhaps in some subtle revolutionary way though Jesus was practicing non-violent, non cooperation by eliminating a source of food for the occupying army (tongue in cheek here :)

  3. disgusting meat” – Thanks for reminding me to pick up a ham tomorrow for our Thanksgiving. Who does an atheist give thanks to, you may well ask? Why the pig, of course – yum!

  4. There are persuasive arguments that originally there was no hell either in the old or new testaments, and that the references were ‘clumsily cobbled on’ in 70 AD. Makes sense. The whole concept is utterly ridiculous.

  5. From “The History of Hell“:

    In 382 A.D. Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to make a revised translation of the Bible in Latin. Jerome, a Roman Catholic by birth, believed in the doctrine of hell and he produced the revised translation of the complete Bible in Latin known as the Latin Vulgate (circa 405 A.D.).

    Jerome mistranslated and misinterpreted several key Hebrew and Greek words into the Latin Vulgate in support of the already established doctrine of hell in the Roman Catholic Church. We expose and highlight these translation and interpretation errors in the next two chapters, Chapters 16 and 17.

    The Latin Vulgate became the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church, and to this day, it is regarded to be free from any doctrinal errors by the Roman Catholic Church. The Latin Vulgate reigned supreme for over a thousand years and the doctrine of hell became deeply entrenched into the psyche of the Christian world as a true biblical doctrine. This was because of the complete dominance of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages, from the 5th century to the 16th century.

    It should thus be startling to Christians to find that most of the extensive details about the nature of Hell promoted in the “standard” Roman Catholic and Protestant descriptions and popular perceptions of Hell have been based for almost 700 years not on information found in that collection of writings. They grow, instead, out of one alternate source in particular, fourteenth century Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s poem L’Inferno. And most of the content of that poem itself is not based even loosely on any information from the Bible … but from a mish-mash of Jewish fables, pagan mythology, and medieval superstitions. For details on the non-biblical Jewish sources Dante tapped into, see the articles “The Jewish View of Hell” and “Jewish Fables”.

    Much of the popular, modern conception of Hell in both religious and secular circles has its roots not in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, but in the literature and art of the European Middle Ages (a period from approximately 500 AD to 1500 AD). The Bible gives only the vaguest of hints about the fate after death of the “unsaved.” Dissatisfied with this silence, Roman Catholic religious leaders, along with artists and writers, embellished these hints over the centuries until they had created a vast, horrific Underworld so vividly detailed that it had incredible power over the minds of most Europeans.

    ‘Hell’ is not a translation. It is a word that has been inserted by translators into the Bible because of their preconceived ideas about a place of eternal torment. This idea is fast losing ground today as modern translators realise that Hebrew words like ‘sheol’, simply meant the grave to the original inspired writers of the Scriptures. The translators are still very shy though, and in many instances have left the word ‘sheol’ untranslated in modern Bible versions. This is because they can see that this word obviously means ‘the grave’ and not the traditional meaning. Rather than admit this though, and the folly of using the inserted word ‘hell’ in the past, they have just left the Hebrew word ‘sheol’ untranslated many times, and left the readers to make up their own minds.

    Not only is hell an ancient pagan tradition (not at all unique to Christianity), but the ancient Israelites did not understand death that way according to the Holy Scripture. This is why modern Bible translations are completely evicting that word from the Old Testament! Now, why would any Bible translation seek to remove a word unless it did not belong there in the first place? Because this disgusting fable, originated from a place other than God’s Holy Word – yet was craftily slipped in by the dogma-motivated church of ages past.

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