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Why Bertrand Russell Was Not A Christian

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith (1996)

Responding to Russell on Christ

As we saw in the introduction, Russell's basic criticism of Christianity is twofold. First, he denies the existence of the Christian God, then he turns to the question, Was Christ the best and wisest of men? He answers, no. Christ, in his opinion, was a good man, but there were others who were wiser and better. Russell claims to find defects in Christ's teaching and character that prove Jesus not to be the man Christians believe Him to be. If Russell's arguments were true, Christianity would be false.

In order for Russell's argument to be true, however, certain conditions must be met. He must have a moral standard by which he may judge Christ and find Him either to be or not to be perfect. If Russell's philosophy cannot provide a moral standard, then nothing can be argued about Christ's character, one way or the other. Russell also must be accurately representing Christ's teaching and character before he can criticize them. Russell fails on both of these points. A third requirement for moral criticism may be added, namely, that the man who presumes to be a moral critic must himself be moral. In this matter, too, Russell fails miserably.

But first, a short digression to consider Russell's surprising views of history is necessary. Russell tells us that his argument against Christ is concerned only with Christ as He appears in the Gospels, because the historical question is so difficult: "Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him, so that I am not concerned with the historical question, which is a difficult one." Now, there are difficult historical questions, but the existence of Christ is not one of them. We are confronted once more with a remarkably odd view of history, an oddness that is compounded by the fact that Russell goes on to criticize the views of this man whom he says probably never lived. Why didn't Russell just present the conclusive arguments that prove Jesus never lived? It is hard not to suspect that he knew better.

Defects in Christ's Teaching?

The subtitle here is taken directly from Russell, except for the question mark. Since Russell spoke of "defects," plural, one expects to find numerous defects pointed out, but this subheading ends with only one defect having been discussed. That defect is that Christ, according to Russell, taught that He would return to the world "in clouds of glory before the death of all the people who were living at that time." If that is what Christ taught, it would be a defect indeed. But Christ did not teach what Russell says He taught.

If Russell understood Jesus' teaching properly, he would have, perhaps, found it even more offensive, for these verses speak of God's coming judgment against the nation of Israel. The passages that Russell refers to have often been misunderstood by well-meaning but Biblically under-educated Christians who take Jesus' words in a woodenly literalistic fashion. Jesus did speak of "coming on the clouds," but His words are an allusion to Old Testament passages about God bringing judgment upon nations, usually through the armies of their enemies (Is. 19:1; Ps. 104:3-4; etc.). What Jesus was speaking of in Matthew 24 was the impending judgment on Jerusalem, a prophecy that was fulfilled in terrifying detail in A.D. 70. What Russell refers to as a defect was actually a demonstration of the supernatural character of Christ's teaching.

Defect in Christ's Character?

According to Russell, "There is one very serious defect . . . 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." It is not just that Jesus believed in hell as a factually existing place, Russell is also offended with Jesus' tone, which he calls "vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching . . . ." That Jesus lacks the "proper degree of kindliness in his nature" is also demonstrated by His teaching that whoever sinned against the Holy Spirit could not be forgiven, a teaching that puts "fears and terrors" into the world. Jesus' repeated references to hell-fire and punishment are to be held responsible for "generations of cruel torture."

As before, it must be granted that theoretically Russell could be correct, but only on certain conditions. If hell does not in fact exist, then Jesus' teaching about hell may be regarded as a pernicious error. Moreover, if Jesus is not who He claimed to be, it would be more than a little improper for Him to be filled with indignation when men rejected His teaching. On the other hand, we have to ask what Russell did not ask -- what if hell really does exist and Jesus really is the Son of God? If hell really exists, Jesus' teaching about hell is not offensive, it is truthful and courageous, for no one likes to hear about hell. And if He is the Son of God, His moral outrage at men's rejection of His teaching is most holy and proper.

In other words, Russell's criticisms of Jesus presuppose what they are trying to prove. Only if Russell knows that Jesus is not the Son of God -- the very point under debate -- do Russell's criticisms stand as criticisms. Russell is assuming what he has to prove, which means that his assertions are arbitrary. As a philosophical argument, Russell's criticisms of Christ's moral character do not stand. It is hard to believe that Russell himself could have been ignorant of the circular nature of his argument. In any case, he was clearly speaking more as a cheerleader for the National Secular Society than a serious philosopher.

Russell's Philosophical Moral Problem

Apart from the fact that Russell has misunderstood Jesus' teaching, and presupposed what he was trying to prove, he actually faces a much more difficult and fundamental problem. For Russell to be able to judge whether Christ is moral or not, he must believe that there are moral standards which apply equally to Christ and to men of our day. There is no question about the fact that Russell wished to believe that there are moral standards, at least in some sense, for he repeatedly -- even passionately, religiously -- speaks of goodness and love throughout his essays. In the essay "A Free Man's Worship," for example, Russell gushes:

If power is bad, as it seems to be, let us reject it from our hearts. In this lies man's true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments. In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

If it seems that Russell is self-consciously advocating a commitment to the idea of good, even though we know that it is only an idea, a figment of the imagination, that is because he believes that good is a human creation. For Russell the philosophy of value and the philosophy of nature, as he calls them, are two unrelated, fundamentally different disciplines, as he explains in "What I Believe":

Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naive humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance and are best corrected by a little astronomy.

But in the philosophy of value the situation is reversed. Nature is only a part of what we can imagine; everything, real or imagined, can be appraised by us, and there is no outside standard to show that our valuation is wrong. We are ourselves the ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value, and in the world of value nature is only a part. Thus in this world we are greater than nature. In the world of values, nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, deserving of neither admiration nor censure. It is we who create value and our desires which confer value. In this realm we are kings, and we debase our kingship if we bow down to nature. It is for us to determine the good life, not for nature -- not even for nature personified as God.

It is unquestionable that on Russell's view of the universe, either optimism or pessimism is naive, for man is a cosmic accident whose feelings and future can have no ultimate meaning. It is equally beyond doubt that ethics in this view are purely arbitrary. But Russell, not content with meaninglessness, borrows the language of religion and politics and ardently asserts man's authority. All men are kings, "ultimate and irrefutable arbiters" of good and evil, who create value by their mere wish and word.

How is it possible for people who live in the world of nature to create values that have any real meaning? If God's creation of the world must be ridiculed as a dream and a myth resorted to by men who do not have the courage to face the real world, how much more is the idea of man's creation of value a pathetic crutch, chosen only by those who cannot see that man is nothing but a self-conscious animal. In Russell's world force may be applied by those in power to maintain the order they decree, but nothing else is meaningful in the realm of value. It is not "we" who are kings. It is those men with the power to impose their will on others who are kings. Russell imagines a world in which no one bows the knee to the God of the Bible, but he naively imagines that there would be no bowing at all.

He also seems to imagine that if all men were kings, they would magically agree on what constitutes right and wrong. Russell himself, again suffering from a Christian hangover that he does not seem to be conscious of, pontificates: "In a perfect world, every sentient being would be to every other the object of the fullest love, compounded of delight, benevolence, and understanding inextricably blended."

Although he does not think it is possible or advisable to apply to the actual world, he does believe in an ethic of love, even pronouncing love more important than knowledge: "Although both love and knowledge are necessary, love is in a sense more fundamental, since it will lead intelligent people to seek knowledge, in order to find out how to benefit those whom they love." Now apart from the fact that this ethic is borrowed from Christianity, even though distorted, how does Russell imagine that the men that he has pronounced kings will all be brought to agree on an ethic of love, or if they could be brought to such agreement, how they will be brought to agree on what constitutes love in particular situations?

If I were king, ultimate and irrefutable, I wouldn't need Russell to tell me what my values should be, and I wouldn't necessarily choose the same values that he does. There may be others, like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mao, to mention a few, who would diagree with Russell's ethics also. They may have an idea of love that differs from Russell's and a power to impose their idea that neither Russell nor I have. In the Christian worldview there is an answer to this kind of problem, but in Russell's world there is no escape from the everlasting battle of the arbitrary ethics of the infallible czars.

With regard to Christ, we have to ask whether, on Russell's view, He is not also an irrefutable king. The answer must be yes. And so, Russell's objections to Christ's ethic are meaningless if Russell's views of ethics mean anything. Jesus is king and Russell is king. They may disagree, but in Russell's view of the world, whether they agree or disagree is purely a matter of their monarchial whim. There can be no ethical standard by which one king may judge another, for each is a creator in his own right.

In the context of Russell's views on ethics, therefore, Russell's assertion that Christ is inferior to Socrates and the Buddha is nothing more than his personal feeling. It is not a disproof of Christianity, it is a mere statement of his personal distaste. Since on Russell's view there can be no transcendent ethic to which all men must submit, there is also no ethic by which to judge and reject Christ's teaching or character as morally defective.

Russell's Practical Moral Problem

Perhaps the most interesting refutation of Russell's ethics is to be found in his own life, for he himself did not follow his own principles. It is no surprise, of course, to find that Russell cannot actually apply the principle that all men are "ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value" without running into the problem that not every "king" agrees. Russell's opposition to Stalin is particularly ironic. In application apparently Russell's principle reduces to something like an Orwellian slogan: "We are all ultimate arbiters of value, but some of us are more ultimate than others."

What is more problematic is the way that Russell disagrees with himself on vital issues. For example, Russell, a long time pacifist, decided that the love of the good did not include loving communists. In the 1940's and early 50's Russell "had argued the case for preventative war [against the Soviet Union] repeatedly, in numerous articles and speeches . . ." In September of 1953 he went so far as to write in the New York Times Magazine: "Terrible as a new world war would be, I still for my part would prefer it to a world communist empire." But just one month later in October of 1953, Russell suddenly began to deny that he had ever held such a position. Later he admitted that he had indeed suggested preventative nuclear war against the Soviet Union, but that he had offered this advice so "casually" that he soon "forgot" that he had actually said it!

Was he a pacifist or a war-monger? Both! Nothing demonstrates better the depth of this contradiction in Russell's thinking than a statement by one of his former students, T. S. Eliot, who defined the essence of Russell's pacifism succinctly when he said that Russell "considered any excuse good enough for homicide."

This tendency to violence is not merely occasional in his writings. In his autobiography Russell, who criticizes others for being emotional rather than logical, admits to "the practice of describing things which one finds unendurable in such a repulsive manner as to cause others to share one's fury." "Sharing fury" was Russell's idea of pacifism and describing what he found "unendurable" in a "repulsive manner" was his idea of speaking the truth. Perhaps this explains the logical lapses in his writings against Christianity, too.

Pacifism, moreover, was not the only subject upon which Russell was less than logical and less than honest. First, his relationships with women were notoriously heinous. After his divorce with his first wife, which in Paul Johnson's words, "involved a good deal of lying, deception, and hypocrisy," Russell had so many mistresses and wives and the various relationships are so complicated, involve so much dishonesty, cruelty, exploitation, lechery, and hypocrisy that I cannot go into it here. It is important to note that Russell theoretically held to views of women's equality, while actually regarding women as intellectually inferior.

Second, in spite of the gross and repeated failures in his relationships with women, Russell held that the "ills of the world could be largely solved by logic, reason, and moderation." As Johnson explains, Russell was not "so foolish as to suppose that human problems could be solved like mathematical equations," but he did have great faith in man's ability. If men would only rationally, patiently deal with the problems of the world in a detached philosophical manner, most problems, Russell thought, could be solved in time.

This theory, too, however, was not applied to himself. As Johnson relates:

The trouble was that Russell repeatedly demonstrated, in the circumstances of his own life, that all of these propositions rested on shaky foundations. At every juncture, his views and actions were as liable to be determined by his emotions as by his reason. At moments of crisis logic was thrown to the winds. Nor could he be trusted to behave decently where his interests were threatened. There were other weaknesses too. When preaching his humanist idealism, Russell set truth above any other consideration. But in a corner, he was liable -- indeed likely -- to try to lie his way out of it. When his sense of justice was outraged and his emotions aroused, his respect for accuracy collapsed.

His violent pacifism and his problems with women, in other words, were not quirks, they were the pattern of Russell's life. The logic which he professed to believe in was to be applied in speech-writing and essays -- with certain limits that we have observed above -- but logic was not resorted to when personal problems confronted him. All of this is compounded by the fact that Russell "had a profound lack of self-awareness too."


To sum up, in spite of moral limitations that should have provoked some humility, not to mention repentance, Russell considered himself expert enough to pronounce sentence on Christ. Though at one point in his life he advocated a nuclear roast for the USSR, Jesus' teaching on hell was more than he could tolerate. Though Russell opposed other's opinions on moral issues with a style of writing that he himself describes as sharing his fury, he declared Jesus morally inferior for being indignant with His enemies. Though his theory of ethics makes every man a king, the right of Christ -- or anyone else who disagrees with Russell -- to pronounce on ethical issues is denied.

The conclusion is inescapable: Bertrand Russell's criticisms of Christ are arbitrary and self-serving. Russell's arguments have no force because he has not met the conditions necessary to speak intelligibly about ethical truth. Like other atheists, Russell had no ethical standards at all except what he himself contrived. And even these changeable, convenient, invented values were so constricting, he constantly broke them. How, then, shall he judge Christ, or for that matter, anyone else? In Paul's words, "Wherefore thou art without excuse, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest dost practise the same things" (Rms. 2:1).

His criticism of Christ, however, is not in vain. He has performed a real service, for what Russell has done, in effect, is to provide an apologetic for Christianity in the guise of a critique. His life and writing demonstrate with an unintended eloquence that unless God reveals ethical truth to man, there is no means whereby man can attain a true knowledge of good and evil.

[ Table of Contents | Preface | Introduction | Chapter One | Chapter Two | Conclusion ]

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