Christianity’s moral failings: A response to Paula Kirby

This is a response to a talk given on Thursday 25th November at Oxford University’s Atheist Society, by Paula Kirby, on ‘Christianity’s Moral Failings’. I hope to have made it accessible to those who didn’t attend the talk, although it is to be noted that the article is primarily responding to specific criticisms of Christianity, rather than positively affirming the morality of Christianity’s teaching. Shorter version published on the Atheist Society’s blog.

Christianity’s Moral Failings?
It is customary in my field to declare any conflict of interest when publishing an article; alas, as an evangelical Christian I must admit a slight bias not to present Christian Theology as morally intolerable. Nevertheless, I would like to show that Paula Kirby’s moral objections to Christianity are not insuperable, and maintain rational integrity while doing so. I offer my apologies in advance for any lack of structure: this will essentially be an immediate elaboration on each of the points I noted down during the talk.

There was a lot I enjoyed about the talk. Before the event, I was hoping that it would not just be a list of ecclesial atrocities. Kirby obliged and went further in noting that, in particular, debates about the religious/irreligious beliefs and motivations of Hitler and Stalin trivialise the suffering of their victims. I found this quite profound, and was grateful for a discussion of the morality of Christian (or, in some cases, pseudo-Christian) Theology rather than a repetition of moral failures by those proclaiming Christ, of which we are all well aware.

I also empathised with Kirby on many points. For example, it is my conviction that a theology which makes life simply a test for the rest of eternity, or which undermines the importance of this life in its view of the afterlife, is one of the most abominable things to have ever come from the Church. Green and Baker note that atonement theology, in particular, has often been used to encourage resignation to injustice: “The least, the left out and the lost of society are thus urged to welcome the decay of their lives or communities, and those who suffer abuse, the harassed and the ill-used are encouraged to submit quietly, for in this way they can “be like Jesus”…Feminist theologians have been quick to observe that [the popular conception of atonement theology] legitimates and perpetuates abuse in human relationships, not least in the home… locating Jesus, characterized as the willing victim of unjust suffering, at the heart of the Christian faith is for some tantamount to idealizing the values of the victim and advising the abused to participate in their own victimization.” And so I lament, with Kirby, any form of Christianity which encourages victims or observers of injustice to accept it as divinely-ordained quasi-masochism. But, as Green and Baker go on to note, “This, however, is not to say that the cross is a symbol of resignation. The suffering of Jesus, as well as that of Paul and Barnabas, was grounded in their active pursuit of the mission of God, their struggle against those who opposed God’s purpose.”

Third, I valued Kirby’s appreciation of diversity within the Christian tradition as she, on the whole, distinguished between those features which she took to be fundamental to Christianity and those which apply only to some sects within Christianity. I will try to represent this distinction as faithfully to her as possible, but as my note-taking isn’t perfect, there may be some ambiguity. I will not offer an exhaustive list of responses to the talk; it may be assumed that those issues which I do not address are peripheral ones where I do not subscribe to the Christian position that Kirby described.

We begin not so much with an inaccuracy as with an ambiguity. It did not seem clear to me what Kirby used as her basis for Christian Theology, including Christian ethics. At times it seemed to be the Bible, with the invocation of a rather simplistic hermeneutical model (exegesis is the process of working out what an author meant by what he wrote, while hermeneutics is concerned with thinking about how, precisely, what is written in the Bible is prescriptive for Christians). For example, biblical authority (even biblical inerrancy) is not simply a case of reading X and then saying that X is true. On such a simplistic hermeneutic, one could quote “there is no God” from Psalm 14.1 and offer it as prescriptive for Christian orthodoxy! While I do not accuse Kirby of being quite this rudimentary, there did seem to be an element of “the Bible says that [sentence], therefore Christianity believes in the truth of [that sentence],” which clearly must not be taken as a proper understanding of how Christian belief is formed. To talk about what Christian orthodoxy is meaningfully, one must do more than quote the Bible. At other times, the standard for orthodoxy or ethics seemed to be the teaching of Jesus. With regard to ethics, the standard of the Decalogue was offered. With regard to systematic theology, the defining content seemed to be a quite parochial, Western, Roman Catholic theology, or a modern, fundamentalist one (fundamentalism as a quite specific Christian theology arising in the early 20th century, as opposed to any kind of ideological dogmatism or extremism). Appeals to these positions were not just in the peripheral issues Kirby discussed; I will argue that the limited perspectives of these theologies which she provides also have implications for her ‘terrible trio’ of ‘core’ Christian beliefs. As will hopefully be demonstrated, a rigorous basis for Christian orthodoxy and ethics is enormously important for declarations about what is core to Christian belief among other things, and there was not a clear discussion about the essential formative elements of Christianity. With this in mind, we now turn to individual problems in the talk.

Firstly, the Decalogue was held up as formative for Judeo-Christian ethics and was portrayed as no more than, and no less than, a summary of Christian ethics. This was reflected in Kirby’s criticism that half of the commandments are not even related to morality. I do not know where the understanding of the Decalogue as being basically about morality came from. I might take a guess that its centrality in the Law/Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament, which include as much narrative as instruction) along with a conflation of the ethical, religious and legal elements of life led to an understanding of the Decalogue as essentially a summary of moral instruction, but I offer it only as a guess. I would be perfectly happy to concede that the Decalogue does indeed have a central place in the Torah, and that it was, as Houston notes, “a prime expression of the covenant demands.” But, as Houston continues, “it is obviously designed to include all the most basic religious and moral requirements over a wide sphere of life… it is the most basic statement possible of the conditions on which Israel may be in relationship with YHWH. It combines in one text the specific demand for Israel to worship YHWH alone with those few moral requirements which are essential in one form or another for any human society.” As Kirby reflected on some individual commandments, so does Houston comment on the first: “Modern preachers interpret this comment in a moralistic way: anything which absorbs a person’s devotion is his/her God. But this is not what it means in the OT context.” So, contra Kirby, I would maintain that the Decalogue never intended to be a summary of moral rules. It was a summary, indeed, but it was a summary of a particular covenant which, when read, can be seen to have a much broader scope than ethics. Even the sacrificial system, normally understood to be so intimately linked with misbehaviour, was not used exclusively to represent and atone for immoral conduct. (As for the 10th commandment [9th and 10th if you’re Roman Catholic or Lutheran], which Kirby also undermined as a moral command, Houston notes, “there is also an interpretation which sees it as concerned with overt action to dispossess one’s neighbour. Even if the Hebrew word refers primarily to desire, the concern is for the danger to one’s neighbour posed by one’s covetousness; and in particular the kind of covetousness described in Micah 2:1-2.” See also Mark 10.19, where Jesus appears to interpret the commandment as being about fraud. It certainly seems to me that Jesus’ teaching ought to be the most formative element in Christian ethics!). So Kirby’s portrayal of the Decalogue as the pinnacle of Christian ethics is unfounded, and her criticisms of it as an exclusively ethical document therefore a category error.

Secondly, we saw, in the discussion of Christian ethics, at least a danger of the ambiguity in source that I described at the beginning. There seemed to be the implication that Old Testament ethics ought to be prescriptive for Christian ethics. Now, this is clearly true in some cases. Jesus often quoted the Old Testament favourably, often implying partial ethical continuity. However, he also superseded some of the teaching there, most notably in Matthew 5 (“You have heard that it was said…but” and so on). While this does not permit the Christian to dismiss the Old Testament ethical teaching a priori or on a cultural whim, it does demonstrate that the Christian qua a Christian, that is, a follower of Christ, is not compelled to invariably follow Old Testament ethics. Nor is he or she compelled to see all Old Testament behaviour favourably.

For our third difficulty, we move onto the ‘terrible trio’. I am glad that Kirby offered a slightly more sophisticated version of original sin than most critics (and proponents, for that matter), exploring it as a disease and proclivity towards evil rather than simply confusing original sin with original or inherited guilt. Original guilt, by the way, being a quite distinctly Augustinian and Roman Catholic initiative – it’s certainly rejected by many Protestants and was barely present, if at all, in the writings of other (including earlier) Church Fathers – Irenaeus is a good example of a theologian who wrote quite extensively on the idea of original sin (if not by name) without really implying our guilt from birth at all.

Here, however, there are some difficulties. Kirby still presents a picture of original sin which not all Christians accept, thereby using Christian diversity and the consequent lexical ambiguity to create a false dichotomy. She argued that original sin is the belief that everyone is prone to do evil from the moment of birth, a definition that certainly is not universally accepted by Christians. I need not even refer to particularly liberal Christians; I know several conservative, fundamentalist (self-identified) Christians who believe that the category of original sin only applies to the cognizant, and that talking of babies having original sin is thus a category error. Nor do all accept that original sin necessarily involves being prone to doing evil in the sense of committing moral atrocities – many would see it simply as not being fully oriented towards God from the beginning, which seems much less objectionable. (On this point, I believe that Kirby also included the description ‘meriting an eternity in hell’. I do not know if she saw this as essential to the doctrine, but if she did, then the same applies to this clause).

Kirby argued for the centrality of original sin to Christianity on the basis that, if the doctrine of original sin is not true, there is no need for us to be saved. In doing so, she has set up a seemingly harmless dichotomy (though even this is still false. Perhaps we need to be saved because of something other than original sin?) which we’d probably agree to unless we were feeling particularly pedantic. But when we realise that Kirby’s presentation of the dichotomy involves a very specific idea of original sin which is certainly seen as objectionable by many Christians, we note that there may yet be abundant reason for us to need salvation other than simply a proclivity towards evil, and that the Christian can therefore still hold to original sin as a core component of his or her faith while at the same time rejecting those non-essential aspects of the doctrine which Kirby emphasises. By ignoring other articulations and treatments of original sin then, Kirby has actually presented us with this dichotomy: either every human being is prone to do evil from birth, or there is no reason for them needing to be saved. When articulated this clearly, the dichotomy is patently false. Not only do many non-Christians, despite not believing in original sin, feel the need to be ‘saved’ (e.g. from poverty, or from another dangerous situation) whether they articulate it that way or not, but the language of salvation and deliverance (essentially synonymous in the Bible) are often used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to, for example, redemption from slavery, centuries before a doctrine of original sin was ever articulated. It is simply not true that, unless Kirby’s idea of original sin is true, there is no reason we need to be saved, and so the conclusion that her idea of original sin is a core part of Christianity is fallacious.

Fourthly, it is not clear why her conception of original sin is so objectionable anyway. Given that sin is not necessarily seen as the sum total of evil acts or thoughts (in fact, I would go further; it is rarely seen as the sum total of evil acts or thoughts) but rather, minimally, a particular attitude towards God, there is a lot to be desired in terms of the reasoning for thinking that it is a grossly immoral belief to hold. Of course, it may be that Kirby’s articulation or any other articulations of original sin are grossly immoral. But it was not made at all clear why we should think that, other than a crude appeal to prima facie disgust. Incidentally, while we’re discussing the morality of beliefs, it would be interesting to see what is meant by calling a belief immoral. Is there not the possibility that it is a true belief? If so, would it still be morally abominable?

The second of her ‘terrible trio’ form the basis for our fifth difficulty. She argued for the centrality of hell in Christian orthodoxy on roughly the same grounds as those for original sin, that if there is no hell, there is nothing to be saved from. Again, however, the lexical ambiguity leads to the false dichotomy. Since hell, that is, a temporally unspecified state of disunity with God, as a reality is indeed central to Christianity, the dichotomy of hell ‘existing’ (that is to say, is at some point a reality) or humans having nothing to be saved from does indeed seem reasonable (unless, of course, we need saving from something other than hell). However, to try and argue that Christianity is intrinsically morally inept, Kirby used a particular definition of hell which is certainly not core to Christianity and, in so doing, again set up an awkwardly false dichotomy between either being mentally, emotionally or physically punished/tortured for eternity, or having nothing whatsoever to be saved from. One can see the obvious logical difficulties![1]

Her point about hell’s being used a scare tactic as a moral deplorability is true, of course. Whether the citation of an anonymous American theologian who claimed that most of the teaching about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself can be trusted is debatable. Of course, I do not doubt that an American theologian said such a thing. But we ought to ask for more substantiation than the word ‘hell’ appearing in our English Gospels and being attributed to Jesus, in order to also attribute to him the conception of hell that Kirby describes, and which her and I both deplore. The word Jesus used which is translated as ‘hell’ in our Bibles is γέεννα (known as Gehenna in English), which was the name of a place just outside Jerusalem where, for example, children were sacrificed. It came to be used as a metaphor for the destination of the wicked but was, on the whole in Rabbinical literature, not eternal and not a place of torture. The Old Testament does not give it an eschatological dimension at all, and it didn’t always have an eschatological dimension in Jesus’ time either (hence him calling the Pharisees ‘children of Gehenna’ without making any claim on their eternal destiny). Now, it may be that Jesus believed in eternal torture, but it certainly needs more substantiation than, “Jesus talked about hell a lot”. So it does not seem clear to me that Kirby has effectively argued, on either soteriological or Christic grounds, that her conception of hell is a core Christian belief.

I will be slightly more lenient hereafter, since I do not recall her saying that anything described below is core to Christianity. Our sixth main difficulty is analogous to the other two parts of the ‘terrible trio’, and involves another oversimplification of doctrine. Kirby claims to be attacking substitutionary atonement, but in fact ends up attacking an even more particular theory, that of penal substitution. While substitutionary atonement, that is, Jesus mediating reconciliation by doing something we could or did not do, is a key theme in Christianity, simplistic expressions of penal substitution are not. Penal substitution goes further than normal substitutionary atonement by saying that Jesus took our punishment for us, rather than just doing something in place of us. Now, it does not seem as if there is anything particularly immoral about Jesus doing something on behalf of us, so it seems that we can remain content with core Christian belief on this issue. Instead, we must turn to the difficulty with portraying penal substitution as a key Christian teaching on atonement, since this seems to be what Kirby finds morally disturbing. The difficulty, essentially, is this: penal substitution, especially as the primary expression of atonement theology, is a relatively modern innovation. It has roots in the medieval period, building on Anselm’s satisfaction model of the atonement, which itself was a modern, parochial interpretation formed to explain atonement in a very particular context, namely, feudalist 11th century England. It was not until centuries after that that penal substitution, in a culture with a penance and retribution-based criminal justice system, that penal substitution really began to flourish and become dominant among evangelical theologians. There have always been, and continue to be, other theories of atonement which, other than in the last couple of centuries’ evangelical traditions, have been more popular (cf. Irenaeus and Gregory of Nyssa on Christus Victor as recapitulation and ransom respectively, or Abelard on the moral influence model, for some examples). Many theologians today reject penal substitution, at the same time holding to the truth of a substitutionary model of the atonement and keeping their orthodoxy intact. So we have been presented with no reason to see penal substitution as central to Christianity.[2]

Seventhly, there was the allegation that Christianity is morally lacking because it asserts that the only forgiveness it values is God’s. One must immediately wonder why Jesus gave so many injunctions to forgive and why he calls people to ‘be reconciled to [their] brother and sister’ before making an offering ‘[when they] have something against you’. There can’t be much more said about this, since there is no obvious reason to assert that Christianity only values God’s forgiveness.

Eighthly and ninthly, the issues of eternal souls and a heaven/hell polarisation were brought up. Again, I do not know whether Kirby sees either of these as a core part of Christianity, but I would certainly maintain that the ideas of an immaterial soul and a heaven/hell based eschatology do not have good backing in either Biblical or early Christian tradition, and it is up to those who assert these as core parts of Christianity to demonstrate why that might be so.

Tenthly, Kirby accuses Christianity of encouraging childish modes of thought, including not questioning anything. Again, the issue of Kirby’s sources for Christian orthodoxy must be raised here. If she is simply drawing on the New Testament (as she mentioned when talking about ‘faith’), then we are struck with the obvious injunctions against childish thinking (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14.20 – “Do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults”; this, of course, being perfectly consistent with Jesus’ command to ‘be like children’), as well as the irony that all children ever seem to do is ask questions. Biblical quotes can be rolled off anytime (e.g. the command in 1 Thessalonians 5.21 to ‘test everything’), but the burden of evidence for childish and unquestioning ways of thinking in the New Testament is really on Kirby here. It is not enough to simply assert it in the hope that those who blindly follow assertions by certain charismatic speakers about the definition of words like ‘faith’ will uncritically accept it.

Eleventhly, Kirby claimed that Christianity is ‘fundamentally dishonest’ on the precise grounds that it claims to know things which it cannot possibly know. Again, this was unsubstantiated, and can only really be countered by presenting myself as a Christian who doesn’t claim to know anything which is not an analytic truth, and challenging her to elaborate on how, precisely, I am out of line with Christian orthodoxy. The same goes for Bible contradictions, and for saying that Christians have a monopoly on morality. I don’t recall ever maintaining that the Bible has no contradictions, and I have never even witnessed anybody claim that non-Christians can do no moral acts. I do not know if Kirby sees these latter two as fundamental to Christianity, or if she’s met someone that sincerely believes that Christians have an ethical monopoly, but there certainly is a long way to go in terms of substantiating them as criticisms of Christianity as a whole.

So, in summary, Kirby’s failure to provide a rigorous basis for Christian orthodoxy and ethics led to a number of problems, particularly when she aimed to criticise what she claimed were ‘core’ Christian beliefs. This is most clearly manifest in her treatment of original sin and hell. Essentially, it led her to claim that either babies are prone to evil and deserve eternal emotional, physical and mental torture, or there is no need of any form of salvation and so “the whole thing falls apart”. I have highlighted at least 11 secondary difficulties of this hermeneutical failure, of which only a few are potential generalisations. First, Kirby failed to provide a rigorous basis for Christian ethics, erroneously invoking the Decalogue as a summary of Christian ethics. Second, she appealed to other Old Testament narrative and injunction as formative for Christian ethics, which is not only unsubstantiated, but demonstrably false when considering the supersession in Matthew 5. Third, she used a very particular conception of original sin to create a false dichotomy, and failed to demonstrate why her conception is core to Christianity. Fourth, she failed to provide adequate reasoning for why her conception of original sin is morally inadequate, and to justify her realism in declaring beliefs to be immoral. Fifth, she used a very particular conception of hell to create a similar false dichotomy, and failed to justify her invocation of Jesus’ teaching to reinforce an eternal, torturous, penal notion of hell. Sixth, she failed to justify penal substitution as a core part of Christianity, confusing substitutionary and penal substitutionary theories of atonement and failing to appreciate the modern roots of the latter, while giving no mention to the theories which have been much more prominent historically. Seventh, she made wild, unjustified claims about Christianity only valuing God’s forgiveness. Eighth and ninth, she portrayed eternal souls and a heaven/hell-based eschatology as Christian orthodoxy when they, again, are quite local to Western Christianity, in particular Roman Catholicism. Tenth, she claimed New Testament support for encouraging childish modes of thinking with no citations, and despite clear evidence to the contrary. And finally, she made poor use of rhetoric in claiming that Christianity is ‘fundamentally dishonest’, by appealing to things which have in no way been shown to be ‘fundamental’ to either the Bible, Jesus’ teaching, or early Christian creeds or other expressions of faith. I therefore conclude not that Christianity is morally good, or morally superior, but that Kirby gave us no adequate reason to believe that Christianity is inherently immoral.


1.The point may be made that Kirby did not articulate her argument using these dichotomies. However, taking her treatment of hell as an example, we can see that they are implicit in her arguments for the doctrines’ centrality. Kirby discussed hell as eternal torture and punishment before noting that she was well aware that many Christians do not believe in hell. She dismissed this as a possible Christian position on the basis that, unless hell ‘exists’, there is nothing for us to be saved from. Yet, interestingly, she provided no discussion of hell as something other than eternal torture and punishment (as I suggested above), thereby setting up a false dichotomy between believing in her conception of hell or rejecting a core Christian belief. With only a straw man of the ‘core’ Christian position attacked as immoral, then, we have been given no reason to believe that Christianity is fundamentally immoral on this basis.
2. I must admit that I did not hear any argument for why penal substitution is immoral, in any case. To the contrary, she seemed to favourably quote Christopher Hitchens in suggesting that taking a punishment may be acceptable, but that taking responsibility is not. If such a premise is accepted, then there seems no problem with penal substitution at all, since Christianity most certainly affirms responsibility, whether or not it holds to penal substitution. But, in this case, I will give the benefit of the doubt and put it down to my own poor attention!

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