Some thoughts on 'Christian virtues and values'

Those of us who live in prodominantly Christian nations often hear the opinion expressed that for someone to live a moral life he/she needs to have a grounding in Christianity and Christian virtues. Is there any justification for this opinion?

Written 2009/02/06, last edited 2021/08/22
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©


Virtues and values

What many people think of as Christian virtues and values are certainly good virtues and values; I have no argument with that. This page is simply pointing out that they do not come from Christianity, they come from ethics and moral philosophy.
If we were to look for examples of how we should behave in the Bible we would find a great many that are not acceptable to anyone with a conscience and ethical standards. Those who claim that our moral standards are given to us in the Bible pick the bits they like and ignore many other passages; even then, nowhere in the Bible is anything said about the need to look after our planet, nowhere does the Bible say that torture, slavery or the rape of a woman is wrong, and nowhere is anything positive said about women's rights.

We do not get our virtues and values from Christianity and the Bible, we get them from innate ideas of altruism and from ethics, a branch of philosophy invented by the ancient Greeks.

Ethics in the Bible

In this section I have supposed that Christian virtues must be derived from the ethical ideas that are recorded in the Bible. If we were to learn ethics from the Bible, what examples and principles could we find?

There is no concept of environmentalism in the Bible. Surely we have a responsibility to look after the world. Genesis, 1; 28 gives the impression that we should take what we want from the earth with no thought of any duty of care.

Moses exterminated the Midianites; Numbers, 31; 15-18. The Midianites 'crime' was that they had converted some of the Israelites to their religion.

Joshua attacked Jericho, killed all its inhabitants, and took the land that used to belong to the people of Jericho; Joshua, 6; 15-21. The people of Jericho had done no harm to the Israelites. According to the Bible the Christian God wanted the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites to be utterly destroyed if they did not surrender and pay tribute.

Kill anyone who tries to convert you to another religion; Deuteronomy 13:6-10.

Mass murder
Apparently in a fit of rage, Moses ordered the indiscriminant killing of three thousand Israelites; Exodus, 32; 27-29.

Neither Old nor New Testament - both written in an age of slavery - say anything against slavery.

Moses ordered taking all the Midianite virgins as slaves; Numbers, 31; 15-18; "but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man", and Lot offered his daughters to be raped, the daughters apparently having no right to refuse, in Genesis 19.

Xenophobia, or not?
Much of the Old Testament is very Xenophobic, it's the Chosen People against the world; the New Testament is much more inclusive. The question of how we should treat those who are not like us is very different in the two major divisions of the Bible. Is the Old Testament wrong on this subject? If so, why should we believe it to be right on other subjects?

Love, forgiveness, kindness
We are told that Christianity is a religion with all these virtues, but then what sort of a loving God condemns sinners to an eternity in Hell?

The Bible states that the only way to Heaven is through Jesus Christ. Apparently all those people who had the misfortune to be born before Jesus, or who never heard of Christianity, were condemned to Hell even if they lead exemplary lives. Is this justice?

Kill, kill, kill

Leviticus 20: 9-16

9: Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. Because they have cursed their father or mother, their blood will be on their own head.

10: If a man commits adultery with another man's wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.

11: If a man has sexual relations with his father's wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

12: If a man has sexual relations with his daughter-in-law, both of them are to be put to death. What they have done is a perversion; their blood will be on their own heads.

13: If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

14: If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you.

15: If a man has sexual relations with an animal, he is to be put to death, and you must kill the animal.

16: If a woman approaches an animal to have sexual relations with it, kill both the woman and the animal. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.

Very few people in the twenty-first century would say that the above punishments would be justifiable in any ethical society.

A few ethical examples from the history of Christianity

Intolerance of religious interpretation
From the time that Roman Emperor Theodosius the First adopted Christianity (around 390AD) to Martin Luther (around 1517) Christians ruthlessly punished or executed anyone who tried to adopt variations of Christianity that didn't suit the official line. Adherents to variations on Christianity such as the Gnostics and Cathars – and many other sects and religions who have been quite lost to history – were exterminated. (More elsewhere.)

When the Catholic Church had things its own way, before the Reformation of the 16th century, it was terribly corrupt (consider the sale of 'indulgences', etc.) There is no evidence that the Church is any more moral than any other big organisation.

Child abuse
The very numerous cases of sexual abuse of children within Church organisations that have come to light during the past couple of decades was bad enough, but the Church hierarchies (several denominations) tried to hide the crimes rather than stop them. Before the recent sexual abuse came to light there was physical and mental cruelty in Catholic schools and orphanages.

Control by fear
Christian churches (and Muslim communities) control the faithful and keep them from the exercise of free thought by instilling in them the fear of eternal damnation.