Atheist “Refutes” Sermon on the Mount (Or Does He?)

Atheist “exegetes” often approach the Bible like a butcher approaches a hog.

Fra Angelico, “The Sermon on the Mount”, ca. 1437-1445
Fra Angelico, “The Sermon on the Mount”, ca. 1437-1445 (photo: Public Domain)

Dr. Daniel Fincke is a former Christian atheist. He wrote an article entitled, “The Evils of the Sermon on the Mount (Part 1)” (9-15-11; Patheos). He decries Jesus’ “supposed message of love and tolerance.” Like many atheists I have encountered, he casually assumes that his biblical exegesis is superior to that of us allegedly misguided, gullible Christians. I shall show that this is not (as usual) the case at all, and that what he attacks is merely a pitiful caricature of the actual thing.

Dr. Fincke takes on Matthew 5:11 (“Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account”: RSV) and states that “Fundamentalist Christians have a terrible persecution complex” because of it. Granted, some Christians hide behind this to rationalize their own sins and shortcomings that non-Christians might point out. But it cannot be denied that Christians are truly persecuted.

On November 5, 2012, German chancellor Angela Merkel stated that “Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world.”  It’s been estimated that “80% of all religiously persecuted individuals worldwide were Christian, some 100 million people in all.”

Dr. Fincke argues that, in Matthew 5:17-20, “Jesus not only refuses to say that all that awful Old Testament stuff about stoning people and hating the gays was invalidated but he doubles down in the worst way.”

Of course, he neglects to see that Jesus expressly opposed the stoning of the adulterous woman (Jn 8:3-11), and that He highlighted  “the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23:23), and summed up the Old Testament law as “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Lk 10:27).

Dr. Fincke then expounds upon how “fundamentalists” interpret the Sermon, but that’s irrelevant to the question of an intelligent exegesis and the teaching of mainstream Christianity, since fundamentalism is not the equivalent of the latter.  But this is the game that atheists so often play: equate “Christianity” with the beliefs and practices of some of its worst practitioners, so as to caricature and then dismiss it (and to justify atheism as an “alternative”).

Jesus said, “every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). Dr. Fincke critiques this and related utterances by observing, “they treat mere feelings with actual actions and threaten to punish them equally. How could you possibly judge someone the same for hatred as for murder or lust as for adultery?”

Jesus was making the point that malicious, sinful actions begin in the mind and the will (an unarguable and rather self-evident notion in ethics and morality). When He did mention punishments (from God in the afterlife), He didn’t sanction “equal” punishment” of everything, but clearly distinguished between three punishments of three different transgressions (Mt 5:22).

Moreover, secular law holds to essentially the same idea. Though an actual murder is punished more greatly than a plan to murder someone, still, the latter is also punishable by law as a wrong thing and violation of law. And premeditated murder that is carried out is punished more greatly than “a crime of passion” which was not planned ahead of time at all.

Dr. Fincke writes in his section, called “Demonization of Sexual Desire” that “Lusting is not natural and good according to Jesus but equivalent to adultery. . . . Jesus goes and makes the true believer mistrust sexual desire itself.” This is a basic category mistake. The Bible and Christianity distinguish between healthy, permissible sexual desire (read, for example, the Song of Solomon) and lust, which is the perversion or twisting of same.

I saw another atheist article on lust that reasoned in a similar way, contending that “lust” is defined in the dictionary as simply sexual desire. This is untrue., in its definition of lust, gives as its first meaning, “intense sexual desire or appetite.” But its second definition (in line with Jesus’ and general biblical usage) is, “uncontrolled or illicit sexual desire or appetite; lecherousness.”

Hence, lists as synonyms of “lust” words such as “lasciviousness” and “lewdness” and “licentiousness” and “wantonness.” concurs, giving as its primary definition, “usually intense or unbridled sexual desire: lasciviousness: He was motivated more by lust than by love.”

Dr. Fincke – out to sea with regard to biblical genre and common Hebrew exaggeration or hyperbole --, states: “His solution of plucking out one’s eyes rather than ever looking with lust represents a hatred of the body and a call to extremist asceticism. . . . Jesus’s crazy absolutist, ascetic prescriptions . . .”

Obviously, this was not advice intending to suggest literal fulfillment. It was the strong Hebrew contrast, which was a means to suggest a strong emphasis. We don’t see Christians walking around with one eye or one hand, precisely because Christians understand this, whereas some atheists apparently do not. And so they insist on interpreting the Bible literally when it is perfectly obvious that the intended sense is not literal.

Dr. Fincke (and atheists quite often) make the same mistake the Pharisees made: interpreting Jesus literally, when He was speaking figuratively or rhetorically:

John 2:19-22 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” [20] The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” [21] But he spoke of the temple of his body. [22] When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.

These multiple elementary, inexcusable errors in just one fairly brief article, illustrate what I have long observed about atheist “exegesis”: they often approach the Bible like a butcher approaches a hog.