Why I Do Not Believe in Bertrand Russell - Island of Sanity

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Defending Christianity

Why I Do Not Believe in Bertrand Russell

When I was in college there was a class that used as one of its texts the book, Why I Am Not a Christian, by Betrand Russell. I don't know how popular or influential this book is, but I happened to see a copy of it in a book store recently and, remembering how much it was discussed when I was in college, I bought a copy and read it. (I didn't take the class so I never read it at the time.)

Perhaps some people find this book a convincing argument for atheism. Not only do I not find the arguments particularly persuasive, but I wonder if even Mr Russell himself found these arguments convincing.

Okay, I want to be careful here. I generally work on the assumption that everyone, including people that I disagree with completely, mean what they say. I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking that anyone who expresses an opinion different from mine must be a liar or a hypocrite.

But sometimes ... well, I lost my faith in Bertrand Russell on page 17 of this book.

Mr Russell notes that it is common for people who are not Christians to say that they believe that Jesus was a good man and a great teacher and so forth, but they just can't believe that he was actually God come in human form. Russell explains why he not only doesn't believe that Jesus was God, but also why he doesn't believe that Jesus was even a particularly good man. His first and main point in the argument is this:

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.
A little later he quotes Jesus statement that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the one sin that can never be forgiven, and then he writes:

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.
In other words, he says that Jesus was an evil person because he believed in the existence of things that Mr Russell considers evil.

But how would this make Jesus evil? A little later Mr Russell makes some references to slavery. Would it be fair to say that because (as Mr Russell himself agrees) slavery is evil, and as Mr Russell believes in slavery, that therefore Mr Russell is evil? Surely not. I do not hold Mr Russell responsible for the evils of slavery because he did not start it or sustain it. (He wasn't even born until 1872, after slavery had been abolished in the Western world.)

Indeed, most of what Jesus had to say about Hell and blasphemy were warnings to people about how to avoid an unpleasant fate. If I was to give a speech warning people about the dangers of drunk driving and urging them never to drive while drunk, would that make me responsible for drunk driving, and therefore an evil person? Surely just the opposite: to the extent that I succeeded, I would be saving people from this evil. It would surely be an absurd criticism to say that I was a terrible person because I was putting all these "fears and terrors" into the minds of poor alcoholics.

Okay, Mr Russell does not believe there is such a place as Hell, so he does not see Jesus as a hero saving people from its horrors. But if Jesus was completely deluded about the existence of Hell, if he was trying to save people from a danger that didn't really exist, that still doesn't make him evil. You could say he was misguided. You could say he was a lunatic. But he wasn't evil.

Whether or not you believe that some claimed evil really exists in the universe, the fact that someone else does believe it exists tells us nothing about his moral character.

Unless ... unless that person not only believes that the evil exists, but also has some responsibility for making it exist. If Mr Russell had said that Jesus was evil because he created hell and condemned people to go there, and that hell is an evil place, well, we could debate whether it is right or wrong to condemn people to a place like hell, but this argument would at least make sense. But he denies that Jesus is God, and if Jesus isn't God, then it wasn't him who created hell, so he is not responsible for it, right or wrong.

I can't help but wonder if Mr Russell didn't start out thinking that he would say that Jesus was evil because he created hell. But then he realized that he couldn't say this, because he had just finished saying that Jesus was not God but simply an ordinary man. And of course if Jesus was just an ordinary man, then he wouldn't have the power to create hell or send anyone there. And so Mr Russell is left with this mushy argument: Jesus is evil because he talked about an evil thing that somebody else did but that he had nothing to do with, except to warn them to avoid it.

So does Mr Russell believe that Jesus was just an ordinary man, in which case all his arguments about how evil he was for "believing in" hell fall apart? Or does he believe that Jesus did in fact create hell, in which case he must really be God, whether Mr Russell approves of the way he runs the universe or not? He can't have it both ways.

© 2003 by Jay Johansen


Matthew Oct 18, 2014

I have just stumbled upon your interesting article.

The way in which I read Russell is slightly different, yet it comes back to the premise which concludes this article: "He can't have it both ways". I think that Bertrand Russell's argument is as follows:

Option A: Jesus and God are synonymous - This would lead to the conclusion that Jesus created Hell. The conclusion of this would be that he is not morally just.

Option B: Jesus and God are not synonymous - Jesus wholeheartedly believed, but was not justified in claiming the existence of Heaven or Hell. The conclusion of this would be that Jesus is not God.

The summation of Options A and B are as follows: 'Jesus can be good or can be God. But he can't be both'

The defect in Christ's moral character: It is fair to label as unjust the belief and hope that something is true. Jesus, whether he was or was not synonymous with God, would have believed the things that he was saying. I can grant that premise. Therefore, he believed in the following: 1. That God was the creator of everything. 2 That God therefore was creator of Hell. 3. That God is good. 4. That God's will is good. This is the belief that bad people SHOULD go to Hell and suffer forever. This, in my opinion is not moral teaching

Geir Jan 6, 2017

Two kingdoms, God's and the Devil's.
Which one does sinful man naturally belong in?
Not in God's kingdom. And since there are only two, our citizenship defaults to the Devil's when we sin.
So when we die in our current fallen state, we end up in hell.

The only escape is to be born into God's kingdom.
According to the gospel of John, third chapter, this can only happen through faith in Jesus Christ.
He suffered and died to satisfy God's holiness and justice for each and every human being.
And through faith in Him we are given a new life and citizenship in God's kingdom.
The invitation stands and goes out every day, to everyone.

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