Tom Gilson

Christianity and Slavery: Does It Mean Jesus Isn’t Good After All?

Jesus is extraordinarily good. That’s the case I make in Too Good to be False, and all my conclusions depend on it. Skeptics pushing back against it so far say the case fails because Jesus didn’t condemn slavery. And I’ve just realized that so far I’ve been answering them all wrong.

I’ll show you a summary here of how the debate usually proceeds, putting my own name in one side of it. I need to take the proper blame for how I’ve been handling it wrong.

The Bad Right Answer

SKEPTIC: Your case for the Gospels depends on Jesus’ superior ethical goodness, but he wasn’t that good after all. He never condemned slavery, for one thing.

TOM: Well, actually, he did, even if he never used the word “slavery.”

He came “to set the captives free,” he says in Luke 4, but what does that mean, and how would he accomplish it? There’s no hint anywhere that he meant that as either a political or economic revolution. You can have political and economic revolutions every year, and they never get to the bottom of the issue, which is the heart.  Jesus came to lead a revolution of the human heart. He died and rose again for us so that we could be reconciled to God, with renewed hearts.

But you’re still wondering what he actually said about slavery. He taught the Golden Rule, which necessarily leads to the end of slavery. He condemned greed and self-centeredness, the root of the enslaving spirit. He taught love for all, even enemies, which must lead to the realization that all persons have equal worth. He punctuated that by dying and rising again for all persons equally. He taught sexual morality, which undercut one of the most unpleasant aspects of slavery as it was practiced then.

He may not have said the word “slavery,” but his teaching cut every leg out from under it. No one could fully follow his teaching and continue treating persons as objects, as less than human.

Still, slavery was absolutely woven into the economy and culture of the day. It was nothing like southern chattel slavery, of course. If you’re thinking slavery in 1830s Alabama, you’re not thinking of slavery in first century Greco-Roman or Judaic culture.

But it was embedded in the social structure, so deep that  you must realize there’s no way anyone could have just ended slavery. The Greeks, Romans, and Jews had no conception of widespread voluntary employment. There’s no chance that Jesus or anyone could have instituted it overnight. They’d have been slaughtered for trying. Jesus was obviously willing to die, but he had even larger reasons in mind for it.

What was needed was a revolution of the heart, which he led, and then the gradual development of economic and social structures to fill the place slavery had held. It resulted over time in the ending of slavery in Europe; and in fact, there is no place on earth where slavery was abolished except under the influence of Jesus Christ.

SKEPTIC: Oh, come on. You can’t be serious! You know how slaveholders in the American South justified it with the Bible. Racists today still cling to their Bibles. You can’t believe Jesus did anything good against slavery!

 TOM: But this is not all that surprising. Sinful, self-centered people have always grabbed on to any justification they could find for their sin. The religious leaders in Jesus’ own day did it, and that was the one thing that upset him more than anything else while he was on earth. So it’s nothing new. Yes, it’s horrific, but the Bible’s own account is well aware of how this happens. 

What I Should Have Said Instead

That’s how I’ve answered this challenge up until now. I did it that way just yesterday. But I shouldn’t have. It’s a bad answer.

My first reply was fine — too long for face-face conversation, but usable for an online answer perhaps, and on the right track, anyway. My second reply, though? I’ll stand by every word of it, since it wasn’t false. But it sure was wrong.

How so? I’ll demonstrate by showing how I should have answered instead. We’ll pick it up again from the skeptic’s challenge:

I’ll stand by every word of it, since it wasn’t false. But it sure was wrong.

SKEPTIC: Oh, come on. You can’t be serious! You know how slaveholders in the American South justified it with the Bible. Racists today still cling to their Bibles. You can’t believe Jesus did anything good against slavery!

 TOM: Excuse me, but I thought we were talking about Jesus, not about southern slaveholders. Jesus effectively condemned slavery, by his teaching that cut every support from under it. Let me review it: He demonstrated the equal worth of every human being. He condemned self-centered greed. He preached love to all persons. So tell me, please: Where do you find him failing ethically?

Sorting Out the Issues

You see my mistake now, don’t you? We’d started out talking about whether Christ was good, and I let myself be sidetracked into talking about whether Christians are good. It was a true answer, but to the wrong question. Christians don’t have to be good in order for Jesus to be good, or for his word to be true. And that’s what we’d been talking about: Jesus’ goodness.

Christians do wrong sometimes. And Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares teaches that he expected fakes to fold themselves in with the real Christians. If that hadn’t happened, his own teaching would have been falsified. He turned out to be right, though. It doesn’t look good for Christendom, but God doesn’t call us to worship or venerate Christendom, only Christ.

It was a true answer, but to the wrong question.

So here’s the outline for how to answer this challenge:

  1. The Too Good to be False argument rests on Jesus’ ethical perfection. If Jesus was as good as the argument says he was, then the Gospels appear very much to be true accounts of his life, including the miracles reported in them, and he is fully worthy of our following him no matter what.
  2. Jesus’ ethical perfection does not rest on Christians’ ethical perfection.
  3. Any discussion about Christians’ errors, or about the controversial distinctions between real Christians and nominal or hypocritical “Christians” is a tangent, easy to get bogged down in, but irrelevant to the question at hand.
  4. Therefore, when challenged on Christians’ ethical perfection, remind the other person we’re talking about Jesus instead.
  5. Whatever one may say about Christians, if Jesus was as good as the argument says he was, then the Gospels appear very much to be true accounts of his life, including the miracles reported in them, and he is fully worthy of our following him no matter what.

Point 5 quotes from Point 1, which in turn quotes from the end of the summary in the sidebar. It shows how we need to keep circling back, always focusing on the main question: Are the Gospels true accounts of Jesus’ life? If so, then he is worth our following him no matter what.

And that “no matter what” even includes, “no matter whether some Christians act badly.”

Too Good to be False has received truly extraordinary endorsements for its powerful, unique, original, Christ-centered case for the historicity of the Gospels. Purchase your copy today!

Image Credit(s): Internet Book Archive Image, Library of Congress.

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"Engaging… exhilarating.… This might be the most surprising and refreshing book you’ll read this year!" — Lee Strobel

"Too Good To Be False is almost too good to be true!" — Josh McDowell

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Recent Comments

  • kcklos43gmailcom November 4, 2020 at 4:35 pm on My Puzzling Problem with Too Good to be FalseTom, how about: This is a different kind of book about Jesus, regardless of how many you've already read!
  • Tom Gilson November 3, 2020 at 7:26 am on My Puzzling Problem with Too Good to be FalseThat is exactly right. Since that is not my argument, however, I did not make that mistake. Th comparison with Mein Kampf is more than just a little disturbing!
  • Thaddeus November 3, 2020 at 4:39 am on My Puzzling Problem with Too Good to be FalseHi Tom, I haven't read the book yet, but I have some of your works. I see that some people feel that this just HAS to be true as this couldn't be made up...it's too fantastic to be false. A false premise (premiss) This approach reminded me of Hitler and

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