Bertrand Russell on Christ’s Wisdom and Moral Teachings


I am writing this to address a friend of mine, Makagutu, on Bertrand Russell’s views on moral failings of Jesus Christ. This post is not about what I think of the morals of Christ, biblically, but what Bertrand Russell thinks.

You can find the essay “Why I am not Christian” here. I critiqued the essay before, and you can see that here.

In the context of Russell’s time, most atheist intellectuals believed that although Christ was not divine, possibly never existed, and albeit wrong in his views, was “the best and the wisest of men”. Russell does not agree himself, and sets out to explain why.

Firstly, Bertrand Russell concedes Christ did have great moral teachings and wisdom, and claims he agrees “with Christ a great deal more than the professing Christians do” (scroll down to subsection “The Character of Christ”). To assert this, he cites various teachings of Christ most Christians do not follow, such as “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also“, “judge not lest ye be judged“, and “if thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor“. He brings up Stanley Baldwin (the British Prime Minister of the time), Christian law courts, and the general Christian public, who do not practice these teachings. Russell, for his many moral failures, sees himself better and closer to Jesus Christ then most Christians.

Secondly, Russell proceeds to explain why Christ is not the wisest of men. His reasoning is that Christ really did think ” that the second coming was going to be very soon.” Clearly, Christ was wrong, and clearly, Christ was not the wisest of men because of that. His logic for why Christ is not the wisest of men is valid but perhaps not sound – I must confess not everyone is right always. Likewise, flawed knowledge does not necessarily mean flawed wisdom. He aught to have defined it himself.

Thirdly, “you come to moral questions”. It is hear Russell truly fails to make any reasonable argument at all. His logic runs as so:

  1. Hell is immoral
  2. Christ used the fear of hell in his arguments
  3. Therefore, Christ is immoral

I don’t know how Russell decided this was valid logic. His premise has nothing to do with his conclusion – that hell is immoral has nothing to do with Christ’s mortality. Indeed, Christ really did “[believe] in hell”. Although Russell really did “think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would [not] have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world” because he does not believe in hell, it does not make sense that Christ should be held to the same standard since he does believe in hell! Russell sums up his own snobbishness nicely:

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 asHis chroniclers represent Him, would certainly have to be considered partly responsible for that.

Lastly, “there are other things of less importance,” such as killing the fig tree and sending devils into swine. Those criticisms are alright, I suppose, although it appears is bit picking more then anything else for these arguments of “less importance.”

Bertrand Russell’s criticisms of Christ, evidently, are at best half measures. I was aghast at his foolish argument on hell, especially coming from one of the greatest mathematical minds of our age. While I do recommend reading most of the lecture, you might as well not waste your time on his erroneous discussion of Christ.


2 thoughts on “Bertrand Russell on Christ’s Wisdom and Moral Teachings

  1. Hey Lux,

    Nice to see that you are continuing to engage with Russell’s work. He does seem to make a bit of a logic jump regarding the use of teachings involving hell to prove the immorality of the teacher. For the sake of validity, he could have added a premise about “those who teach doctrines that are immoral are themselves immoral.” I’m not sure that teaching only one doctrine that’s immoral can make one immoral, though. If one is late to one appointment, for example, does that make someone a “late person” ontologically across the board? We seem to be comprised of the sum total of our actions, to some extent, so perhaps if someone was chronically late (or frequently taught immoral doctrines), then that person would be a “late person” (or an immoral person). That’s my objection in so many words.

    Also, I’m not sure if you had to write up this post in a time crunch or perhaps your finger slipped while typing “picking.”




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