The title of a book I read recently is startling: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens. The book reflects the view of an increasing number of people these days. They claim that religion is a virulent delusion and notions of God are destructive. With all of our advances in psychology and the social sciences, we understand much about human behavior that we once did not. Some regard sin as an outmoded, even dangerous, concept. In such a world, many wonder, Does Jesus still matter? Whatever you may think of Christians, you wouldn’t like a world without Jesus, and here’s why He matters: His life and teachings planted seeds that revolutionized how we think.
What sorts of ideas?
The golden rule
Let’s begin with the golden rule: “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). It’s true that a number of cultures expressed variations of this principle before Jesus, but in the negative form—what many call the silver rule: “Do not do to others what you hate to have done to yourself.” Restating the principle in positive form seems obvious to us, but for thousands of years no one said it that way.
This simple shift of emphasis makes a world of difference. The negative form simply forbids you to inflict pain or discomfort on others. But the golden rule imposes an affirmative duty to actively seek the joy and benefit of others. Like many powerful ideas, the implications and consequences of the golden rule reach far beyond what they first appear.
Jesus applied this principle in His story of the good Samaritan. In those times, Jews looked upon Samaritans with contempt, going so far as to consider them “unclean” and spiritually polluted. The silver rule would have only restrained the Samaritan from adding to the poor victim’s woes. But Jesus shows the Samaritan acting out the golden rule, rescuing a Jew who has been set upon by thugs, doing for that hapless fellow what the Samaritan would like to have done unto himself in similar circumstances. The Samaritan could not realistically hope that a Jew would lend him aid if he were ill or wounded. But that doesn’t matter. The golden rule imposes a duty on all of us to actively seek the good of others, even those who hate us. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus elaborated on this even further, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
The fact that Jesus would feature a Samaritan in such a story shows how Jesus, in His life and teachings, radically altered the way we view things. By illustrating the golden rule with that story, Jesus led the Jews to see the hated Samaritan as their neighbor, one deserving of their respect. Thus the golden rule strikes at the root of racial prejudice, urging us to see the object of prejudice as one like ourselves. But it didn’t end there.
The Gospel of John also records an encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman of scandalous reputation at a well near the town of Sychar (John 4:4–38). Instead of expressing contempt, Jesus bestowed a singular honor upon her: she became the first person to whom He revealed Himself as the Messiah. The honor and the contrast are heightened because in the previous chapter, Jesus had met with Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, a distinguished leader of the Jews. Jesus said nothing of His being the Messiah to Nicodemus, yet he shared that momentous announcement with a Samaritan woman!
In another dramatic encounter, when a Canaanite woman sought healing for her daughter, Jesus first feigned the prejudice that His disciples surely felt. But then, to demonstrate the universal application of the golden rule, He granted the woman’s request and praised her faith.
If the Jews of Jesus’ day hated anyone more than the Samaritans, surely the occupying Roman armies qualified. Yet when a Roman centurion requested healing for his servant, Jesus not only healed the man but lauded the soldier’s exemplary faith, proclaiming that it was greater than anyone else’s that He’d encountered in all of Israel (Matthew 8:10).
Status of women
Jesus’ treatment of women also broke new ground. I’ve already mentioned two women—and foreigners at that—toward whom Jesus demonstrated what was then unusual respect. But there are three more encounters He had with women that we’ll examine. The first was a woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1–11). When a group of men engaged in publicly shaming this poor woman, instead of condemning her, Jesus held the men accountable for their own behavior, which sent them slinking away.
The second encounter involves a woman—possibly the same one—who bathed His feet in perfume. She, too, was shamed—for wasting money that could have been spent on the poor. But Jesus intervened on her behalf. In both cases, Jesus’ behavior would have been considered scandalous.
In the final case, all four Gospels affirm that Jesus gave to Mary Magdalene the privilege of announcing His resurrection to the other disciples. Because of this, she has sometimes been called “the apostle to the apostles.” Once again, whatever you think of Jesus’ claims, these episodes demonstrate an elevation of the status of women that people of that time found astonishing.
We often hear critics of Christianity point out that the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns slavery and even seems to affirm it. While that charge is technically correct, such critics fail to understand that condemning slavery would have been seen as both treasonous—the Roman Empire depended upon slave labor—and absurd. So far as people of the time were concerned, slavery had always existed. Indeed, in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation myth, Marduk is said to have created human beings as slaves of the gods. Ancient people saw slavery as woven into the very fabric of reality, like gravity.
Even so, Jesus’ life and teachings sowed seeds that undermined slavery and led to its eventual abolition. When Jesus identified Himself “with the least of these,” this certainly had to include slaves. What Jesus lived and taught in principle, Paul made explicit: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
And Paul urged Philemon to accept his runaway slave Onesimus back, “No longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 1:16). Human beings change slowly, especially when it concerns something they consider essential to their prosperity, and human hearts can be very hard. But in the long run, slavery simply could not survive in the face of the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
Care of the sick and needy
Today we take for granted that we have a duty to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves. But in ancient times, the poor and the ill were deemed to be the victims of divine anger, and no one wanted to intervene on their behalf and incur God’s wrath on themselves. Even the disciples, living in a Jewish culture that preached care for unfortunates, fell victim to this thinking. When they encountered a man born blind from birth, they asked Jesus who had sinned, the blind man or his parents (John 9:1, 2).
Jesus not only corrected their thinking; He went on to declare that when someone fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, or visited someone in prison, it was the same as if these things had been done for Him—for Jesus Himself! (Matthew 25:40).
Separation of church and state
In ancient cultures, religion and politics were one. Pharaoh claimed to be the son of Ra, the Egyptian sun god. Roman emperors claimed to be gods. Relying on this concept, the Pharisees set a trap for Jesus (Matthew 22:15–22). They asked Him whether they should pay taxes or not. If He should say Yes, they would accuse Him of worshiping Caesar and dishonoring the Hebrew God. If He should say No, they would accuse Him of treason against Rome—the charge they eventually used to get Pilate to allow them to execute Jesus. Either way, they “had” Him.
But Jesus replied with a principle that forever distinguished the differing realms of religion and politics, of church and state. Noting that the coins that were used to pay the taxes bore the image of Caesar, He said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (verse 21). As the Pharisees’ astonished reaction demonstrated, it had never occurred to anyone that the demands, the needs, and the authority of church and state might be separated—that they might be distinct from one another, that patriotism and piety were not identical.
Opposing racial prejudice, elevating the status of women, undermining slavery, caring for those in need, separating church and state—we think of these as relatively recent accomplishments. Yet they are rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus. You don’t have to think of Him as a divine Being in order to recognize these effects of His teachings. But what if He was—and is—what He claimed to be?
A God of love
We hear of people today who say, “I can’t believe in a god who . . .” and then they mention something cruel or unfair that has happened. It would make perfect sense to lodge this criticism against the pagan culture of the time, for the gods of the ancients were demanding, capricious, and cruel. But Jesus continually taught that God was loving and benevolent. The Bible declares that He was (and is) the flesh-and-blood manifestation of God Himself (John 1:14); that to see Jesus is to see who God is and what He does (John 14:9). Jesus’ life and teachings reveal a God who is love (1 John 4:8), a God who suffers for us (Isaiah 53:4–6) and grieves with us (John 11:35).
If Jesus’ claims are true, then He accepted and experienced death in order to defeat it, and He offers to everyone the opportunity for eternal life. As Ellen White so beautifully expressed it, “Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His.”
Yes, we still see suffering, cruelty, and corruption in the world around us. Sometimes religious people perpetrate terrible crimes in the name of their religion. We see that there are still places where racial prejudice is common and accepted, where women are relegated to the status of property, where slavery continues to be openly practiced, where church and state conspire to coerce conscience, where those in need are the objects of scorn rather than charity.
But history tells us that the life and teachings of Jesus made us aware of the evil of these things and taught us that they are not inevitable—that our attitudes and practices can be changed. That awareness by itself constitutes a tremendous advance in human thought. As we are finding out, many evil attitudes and practices are very difficult to eradicate. But Jesus promised to help us in our battles against these evils, and He promised us that they will come to an end someday.
Furthermore, Jesus conquered death, the worst of all evils, and He promises us eternal life in a land where there will be no evil. These are the reasons why Jesus matters today more than ever.