Monday 8 July 2024

Did Jesus (in the Fourth Gospel) ever express compassion? Not really! Then how come so many "Christians" regard compassion as the primary virtue?

If the Fourth Gospel is regarded as the primary and most authoritative source concerning Jesus Christ; then it seems that Jesus hardly ever (maybe never) expressed "compassion" as we moderns would understand it. 

Jesus did a lot of alleviating suffering, including in the miracles and illustrated in parables; but the purpose seems always to have been teaching, not compassion. 

Jesus did very little in the way of expressing sympathy for individuals. On the contrary, his typical tone is one of scathing criticism, even a kind of sarcasm. Jesus was very seldom "nice", mostly "nasty

Of course Jesus did express and act-upon Love a great deal, more than anything; but my point is that compassion is not love - but an optional sub-set of loving behaviours, and one that Jesus neither asked-for nor modelled for us. 

Going through the IV Gospel up to the events of the Passion, it can be seen that compassion was not the focus of the major episodes:

The miracle at the wedding of Cana; Jesus is pretty sharp and scathing in his words.

The Nicodemus episode; again Jesus is almost mocking towards Nicodemus, in his efforts to snap Nicodemus out of his habitual thinking.

The Samaritan woman at the well; Jesus adopts a stern tone towards the woman.

The Nobleman who asks Jesus to heal his dying son; Jesus is very matter of fact, no compassion expressed.   

The healing by the pool at Bethesda; again no compassion - mostly focused on teaching about the Sabbath. 

Feeding the five thousand; Jesus goes to great lengths to present this as Not about feeding the hungry, but instead an illustration of the transience of earthly bread compared with Heavenly "bread". 

The woman taken in adultery; Jesus is very crisp towards her - despite that she is facing a horrible death, and instead mostly addresses the accusing bystanders on the subject of sin. 

Healing the man born blind; again, no compassion expressed, instead Jesus says the whole thing (including, it seems, the man's lifelong blindness) was so that "the works of God should be made manifest in him" - teaching, not sympathy.

And so on.

Jesus's message is about what we want most. 

Is it resurrected eternal life in Heaven - or... something else? 

Those who most want compassion, and regard "compassion for suffering" as the highest ethical value, should look elsewhere - Buddhism perhaps? But not to Jesus Christ.  

Or maybe they should consider where a primary ethic of compassion will ultimately lead them...


Francis Berger said...

Makes one wonder where the (over)emphasis on compassion originated. I consider compassion to be a gateway drug to altruism, another false and often fatal Christian virtue.

Somewhat unrelated, a professor of mine interpreted the Sodom and Gomorrah story in the following way -- he cast Lot's wife as the heroine of the story because she had the compassion to turn around to see the destruction of the city, something God explicitly warned against. Bonus points for those who manage to figure out how my esteemed professor interpreted God's destruction of S and G.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - "Makes one wonder where the (over)emphasis on compassion originated."

I believe that Satan is claiming responsibility for this atrocity...

WJT said...

Trying for the bonus points here, Frank. I’m guessing the professor focused on Ezekiel 16 (Sodom didn’t help the poor) and ignored every other reference to Sodom in the Bible.

DiGi377 said...

There are plenty of direct references to Jesus showing conpassion to orthers in the 3 synoptic gospels.

Bruce Charlton said...

@DiG - What's your point?

WJT said...

One verse in Mark originally had Jesus “moved by anger” to heal a leper, with this later being corrupted to “moved by compassion” — a data point in favor of the idea that compassion was retconned into the gospel narrative at some later date.

Bruce Charlton said...

Infecting people with promiscuous compassion, like altruism, is a reliable way to make them either miserable, despairing and ineffectual - or else hypocrites.

A famous evolutionary theorist provides an example of the outcome when somebody takes this version of pseudo-Christianity seriously:

On 6 June 1970, Price had a religious experience and became an ardent scholar of the New Testament. He believed that there had been too many coincidences in his life. In particular, he wrote a lengthy essay titled The Twelve Days of Easter, arguing that the calendar of events surrounding Jesus of Nazareth's death in Easter Week was actually slightly longer. Later he turned away from Biblical scholarship and instead dedicated his life to community work, helping the needy of North London...

Price grew increasingly depressed by the implications of his equation. As part of an attempt to prove his theory right or wrong, he began showing an ever-increasing amount (in both quality and quantity) of random kindness to complete strangers. In this way, he dedicated the latter part of his life to helping the homeless, often inviting homeless people to live in his house. Sometimes, when the people in his house became a distraction, he slept in his office at the Galton Laboratory. He also gave up everything to help alcoholics; yet as he helped them steal his belongings, he increasingly fell into depression.

He was eventually evicted from his rented house owing to a construction project in the area, making him unhappy because he could no longer provide housing for the homeless. He moved to various squats in the North London area, and became depressed over Christmas, 1974.

Possibly due to the long-term complications of his thyroid treatment, Price committed suicide on January 6, 1975, by cutting his carotid artery with a pair of nail scissors. His body was identified by his close colleague, W.D. Hamilton.

A memorial service was held for Price in Euston. The only persons present from academia were Hamilton and Maynard Smith, the other few mourners being those who had come to know him through his community work. He is buried in St Pancras Cemetery.

Mariner said...

Bruce, what are your thoughts about the book of Acts? It shows the early Church emphasizing the need for charitable (in the modern sense) campaigns to mitigate famines, earthquakes, etc.

I understand you are not ruling out compassion but rather de-emphasizing it. But Acts (and some of Paul's letters) place it very close to the center.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mariner - I don't regard Acts as a valuable source for Jesus's teachings when it contradicts the spirit and essence of the IV Gospel. There is also the question of consistency in Jesus's core teaching - by my understanding, compassion just doesn't come into it.

William Wright (WW) said...

My understanding is that the Book of Mormon also falls below the fourth gospel (and your own interpretation of it) with respect to authority in your view, but for those who who do read it and believe it to be what its authors (and its translator) says it is, I do think the case is made that compassion is definitely core to Jesus' character and teachings, and therefore a feeling that was and is a prime motive for his actions.

As he was teaching those at Bountiful, Jesus tells the people he was going to leave for a little while because they were too weak to understand everything that he was saying. The people didn't want him to go. He changed his mind and stayed for a little while to heal them, and he stated that compassion was the reason why:

"Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy."

Many years earlier, the prophet Abinadi stood in front of Noah and his wicked priests and said it was compassion that caused God himself to be born as Jesus, and that it was compassion that Jesus was filled with after his resurrection:

"And thus God breaketh the bands of death, having gained the victory over death; giving the Son power to make intercession for the children of men—

"Having ascended into heaven, having the bowels of mercy; being filled with compassion towards the children of men; standing betwixt them and justice; having broken the bands of death, taken upon himself their iniquity and their transgressions, having redeemed them, and satisfied the demands of justice."

Compassion is a feeling that can lead to a wide range of behaviors, not a prescribed set of behaviors itself, and you have really confused that point in your examples, proofs and thinking, in my opinion.

Derek Ramsey said...

In another post you wrote:

[In the fourth gospel] Jesus does not talk about rules for living, does not talk of morality. Does not tell people how to behave in the details (or indeed the sweep) of everyday life. Indeed, this trait is very marked indeed. Jesus is hardly-at-all a moral teacher. When he refers to sin, he nearly always means death, and suchlike realities of this mortal life. And when Jesus speaks of “commandments” he essentially means to “love one another” (as he goes on to explain) and Himself – clearly a qualitatively different matter from the commandments of Moses.

It seems to me that the phrase "sin no more" is more-or-less equivalent to "you must be born again." After all, neither are concerned with morality and the "sin" mentioned refers to "death, and suchlike realities of this mortal life" of which being born again (or sinning no more) is the solution.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Derek - I don't think I agree (although I may have misunderstood you - and maybe we do agree).

My understanding of being born again (in the Nicodemus episode) is to die and then be resurrected; and it doesn't seem that Jesus would have been saying that to these people.

Martin Forrest said...


Jesus does seem to be moved by sympathy in John's Gospel, especially in John 11:

>When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

So I don't really see some incompatibility between John and the Synoptics here. But I think Christ's sympathy is peripheral enough that it shouldn't be taken as some central part of Christianity. It only seems to have been taken that way in the late 20th century and on.

I agree with Bruce that Christianity isn't a religion of compassion or sympathy. To my mind it's about love and abundant life. I think Christians go along with the deceptions of those such as Nietzsche who would convince the world that Christianity is repugnant insofar as it shares with leftism an effeminate, exaggerated concern for and emotionality about suffering, pain, hardship, and so on, requiring us to go about all we do in a weak and womanly fashion. Then this gets turned against us in the form of the problem of evil, where the preoccupation with suffering is supposed to lead us to indict God's goodness for allowing it. Meanwhile usurpers in the Nietzschean and pagan camps cast themselves as the real champions of vitality after hoodwinking us out of understanding and proclaiming the truth of our religion.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Martin - As I mentioned, compassion, empathy is indeed a virtue - but a minor virtue; perhaps best considered as a possible aspect of love in particular contexts.

As I wrote a few years ago, the Fourth Gospel is pretty clear that love is interpersonal - - and that tells us when compassion is exhibited, in the context of specific personal love.

The perversion of Christian teaching comes in when compassion is supposed to be general, universal, promiscuous - abstract compassion for people (or, worse, *classes* of people) we have never met, who are remote, and about whom we know little or nothing - and mostly by hearsay (e.g. the media).

Nietzsche is a big subject, and one on which I have rather lost what grip I once had! (Because I stopped reading him a good while ago.) But I sometimes think he can be regarded in terms of that unfortunate, and eventually lethal, separation of Romanticism from Christianity (instead of their fusion in Romantic Christianity) - that emerged from the early 1800s. Self-identified serious Christians became anti-romantic, anti-individual and creative, and institution-obedience-orientated; while Romantics became not merely not-Christian but "anything-but" Christian.