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The Sermon on the Mount’s hatred for life on earth
Crack open a work of Christian apologetics and you’ll find the claim that the only alternative to Christian morality is nihilism. Commentators will often invoke Nietzsche who, they say, worried that the “death of God”—the rise of unbelief during the 19th century—would unleash nihilism.
This ignores that Nietzsche believed Christianity was nihilistic. “In Christianity neither morality nor religion has even a single point of contact with reality.” Religion deals with imaginary causes, such as God, imaginary effects, such as sin, imaginary beings, such as spirits, and so on.
This world of pure fiction . . . falsifies, devalues, and negates reality. Once the concept of “nature” had been invented as the opposite of “God,” “natural” had to become a synonym of “reprehensible”: this whole world of fiction is rooted in hatred of the natural (of reality!); it is the expression of a profound vexation at the sight of reality. (The Antichrist, §15)
On this point, Nietzsche was right. This world is all that exists, and any morality that degrades life on earth and its requirements is nihilistic—however much it claims to uphold values in another reality.
There is no clearer illustration of Christianity’s other-worldly nihilism than the Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents his conception of the moral ideal. And his ideal reflects a single, unifying theme: hatred for life, work, wealth, pleasure, success, happiness on earth.
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“The Impossible Ideal”
The Sermon on the Mount is found in Matthew 5-7. Jesus begins by describing in broad terms the ideal Christian (the Beatitudes). He then goes on to explain in more detail how an ideal Christian ought to conform to God’s laws (5:17-48), worship God (6:1-21), and relate to the world (6:19-7:12).
The basic theme of the Sermon on the Mount is not subtle: value God, not this world; value the next life, not this one; seek eternal rewards, not earthly ones.
Who is the ideal Christian?
The ideal Christian, according to the Beatitudes, is poor in spirit, mournful, meek, merciful, peaceful, persecuted, pure in heart, and hungers and thirsts for righteousness. This was a message radically at odds with pagan moralists, whose moral ideal consisted of earthly flourishing, which involved pleasure, honors, wealth, pride.
In theologian Servais Pinckaers’ words, Jesus’s message “overturns our ideas and projects, reverses the obvious, thwarts our desires, and bewilders us, leaving us poor and naked before God” (Pursuit of Happiness, 36-7). Specifically, what Jesus overturns is the notion that we should value life on earth. According to Calvin, “The disciples of Christ must learn the philosophy of placing their happiness beyond the world, and above the afflictions of the flesh” (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists).
Simply put, Jesus points to things that anyone who values earthly life and happiness will aim to avoid and says: these are the ideals you must seek if you desire the kingdom of Heaven.
How to conform to God’s laws
Jesus insists that he does not intend to overthrow Jewish law, but to fulfill it. What this means has been a matter of rabid controversy throughout Christianity’s history. But in essence what Jesus claims is that Christians must obey Jewish law, but obey it in the proper spirit.
And so, you shall not murder. But it’s not enough to obey the word of the law—you must obey its spirit by refusing even to get “angry with your brother or sister.” It’s not enough that you refrain from committing adultery—you should not even look “at a woman with lust.” To cultivate the proper spirit, he provides “practical” advice:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown in hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
What, generally, is the proper spirit a Christian should seek to cultivate? Love. Promiscuous, indiscriminate, unearned love. Love for everyone, including your enemy: for the man who rapes your wife, the priest who molests your child, the genocidal white supremacist, the woke nihilist out to destroy your country.
How should you show your love? By sacrificing yourself for the sake of your enemy. And so Jesus orders us not to
resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
Why give up what you want and become a tool to serve evil? Because you’re giving up only earthly values, and the evil achieves only earthly rewards. But earthly rewards count for nothing. What counts is your eternal soul. To side with your earthly happiness is to risk eternal damnation.
How to worship God
Just as Jesus orders us to perform our duties towards others in the right spirit, so we are to perform our duties to God in the right spirit: when we give alms, pray, and fast, our focus must be on doing them for the sake of God’s praise—not the praise of other people. For example:
So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
It is not enough to sacrifice your wealth to the poor, Jesus says, but you must sacrifice it without the desire for credit from anyone on earth, including the recipient.
How to relate to the world
Finally, Jesus turns to the overall attitude we should cultivate toward this world:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Treasures, here, means wealth but it means much more than wealth: it means any earthly value. The earth should not be your priority. You have to choose which master to serve: God or the world. The wise man serves God and so hates and despises the world.
God, in turn, will serve his servants. It is utter folly to be concerned with your interests. It is folly to invest yourself in the long-range work of sowing and reaping. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
The person who loves his life and tends to his life, Jesus insists, is filled with anxiety about the future. That’s because he’s wrongly focused on his earthly future rather than his future in the kingdom of God. “Anxiety about the future,” writes New Testament scholar Jonathan Pennington, “reveals a focus too much on the things of this world and maintaining them, putting one to the foolish category of laying up earthly treasures” (The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, 251).
And though you should not love the world, you should love the people in the world—not love them for who they are, but for that in them which isn’t earthly. Not their character as they have made it, but their soul as God has made it. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Rather than treat people as they deserve, you must “do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus’s teachings here have been called the “the Impossible Ideal.” And they are impossible—if your goal is to live on earth. “[Y]ou must make your choice,” says Martin Luther.
You have two ways open before you, either towards heaven and eternal life, or towards hell; either with Christ or with the world. But you must know this: If you live so that you will have a good time here, and no persecution, then you will not get to heaven with Christ, and the converse; and you must, in short, either let Christ and heaven go, or choose this, that you will suffer all manner of persecution and evil treatment in the world. In a word, he who will have Christ, must forfeit personal ease, life, goods, honor, the favor of the world, and not be frightened at contemptuous treatment, ingratitude or persecution. (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, 48)
Rather than face up to this choice, most Christians have sought to redefine and soft-pedal the Sermon on the Mount’s radical message.
“Versions and Evasions”
Whenever you criticize the Sermon on the Mount, you will be told you do not understand its wisdom. Its plain and obvious meaning is not its real meaning.
Some Christians disagree. The Anabaptists and their descendants (the Amish, the Mennonites) take it literally and consistently. And it is not crazy to think the Sermon was meant to be taken this way.
For one thing, the Jesus of Matthew is arguably an apocalyptic prophet who believes the end of the world is approaching, and so there’s no reason to be concerned with the practical requirements of life. “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” Jesus says in Matthew 16:28.
For another thing, the central idea of the Sermon is that this life doesn’t matter. To argue that Jesus cannot have meant what he said because it would make practical life impossible is to ignore Jesus’s whole point. Stop being concerned with this life and focus on the only thing that truly matters: the next world.
Nevertheless, it’s important to take seriously that most Christians have not adopted a straightforward reading of the Sermon on the Mount. There are what Harvey K. McArthur called “Versions and Evasions of the Sermon on the Mount.” Specifically, McArthur identifies twelve radically different approaches to the Sermon’s teachings, most of them aimed at softening their meaning and making them more compatible with life’s demands.
For example, Catholics developed what has been called the Double Standard view. In this reading, the Sermon on the Mount consists of two kinds of rules: precepts and counsels. Precepts identify rules everyone must live up to in order to achieve salvation, while counsels are necessary to achieve the kind of perfection appropriate for the clergy. So, following Matthew 5:21-26, the laity shall not murder, but the clergy must go further and not experience anger at their brother.
Luther, by contrast, developed what has been called the Two Realms view. Everyone falls under the guidance offered by the Sermon—but only in their personal lives. The Sermon is not meant as guidance for people performing their official duties as politicians, soldiers, or even clergy. As a Christian, you must turn the other cheek—but as a state executioner, you must discharge your duty and kill without remorse.
Atheists should perhaps be forgiven for not grasping the “real” meaning of Jesus’s words when Christians themselves can’t agree. But what’s striking is that, even when Christians try to reinterpret the Sermon’s teachings so that they are not blatantly irrational and self-destructive, the result is more often than not still a doctrine fundamentally at odds with earthly life and happiness. They blur the nihilism—they do not erase it.
Let’s look at a few examples. I’m going to focus mainly on the interpretations of Augustine and Luther, two of the most influential and learned Christian thinkers in history.
Sex, Marriage, Adultery, and Divorce (Matthew 5:27-32)
Augustine, like many later Christian commentators, stresses that when Jesus orders us not to look at a woman with lust, he is not saying that we may not experience lust. To look is a deliberate act and so the sin is to “consent to lust; so that the forbidden appetite is not restrained, but satisfied if opportunity should be given” (On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, XII).
Luther agrees, though he notes that even the feeling of lust “is still sin.” But, Luther assures us, avoiding this sin does not require literally plucking out our eye or cutting off our hand. “Then we would have to take our own life, and every one become a self murderer.” No, Jesus is “speaking here of spiritual life and spiritual affairs, in which one does not externally, corporeally, and in the sight of the world, throw away his eye or his hand, deny himself and forsake all things, but in his heart and in God’s sight” (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, 106-8).
What no one doubts is that sexual desire is a great temptation for sin, and so must be bound by strict moral rules. Luther believes sexual desire is fine if confined to marriage—Augustine is more ambivalent.
A Christian may therefore live in concord with his wife, whether with her providing for a fleshly craving, a thing which the apostle speaks by permission, not by commandment; or providing for the procreation of children, which may be at present in some degree praiseworthy; or providing for a brotherly and sisterly fellowship, without any corporeal connection, having his wife as though he had her not, as is most excellent and sublime in the marriage of Christians. (On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, XV)
On one point, Jesus is unambiguous: divorce is off the table except in the case of adultery. No matter how bad your marriage is, no matter how poorly your partner treats you, no matter how much happiness and sexual joy you’ve been deprived of, it is your duty to stay with your spouse and sleep only with your spouse—or sleep with no one at all.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that your partner’s adultery changes the equation in any meaningful sense. You may divorce a wife who cheats on you—but you may not remarry, and therefore may not have sex, until she dies. To do otherwise is to commit adultery.
The message is clear: your happiness, and especially your sexual happiness, simply is not important.
Retaliation and loving your enemy (Matthew 5:38-48)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Augustine notes that Jesus is not here overturning Jewish law. “An eye for an eye,” he observes, was not a call for retribution but a limitation on retribution. At a time when men were liable to murder someone who offended them, “an eye for an eye” was a demand for restraint: if they take your eye, take only their eye.
What Jesus is calling for, says Augustine, is an extreme form of the same restraint. Better than merely taking an eye, you should have an evildoer pay “back nothing at all.” And better than that is “not even to resist other inflictions” (On the Sermon on the Mount, Book I, XIX).
This plainly is a demand to appease and surrender to evil—indeed, to aid evil in your own annihilation. It would, taken seriously, make life on earth impossible. So, Luther concludes, this can’t be the actual meaning of Christ’s doctrine: “there would be a strange state of affairs, so that one would have to submit to everybody’s caprice and insolence, and no one could be safe from another, or keep anything, and at last there would thus be no government at all.” (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, 126)
Luther’s solution, as I’ve noted, is to say that the Sermon does not apply to people insofar as they are acting in an official capacity. Augustine’s approach is different. He tells us that Jesus’s command does not actually preclude anyone “from inflicting such punishment as avails for correction, and as compassion itself dictates.” (On the Sermon on the Mount, XX) Turn the other cheek, for Augustine, really means you should punish evildoers—put them to death, even—so long as you do it with love.
Neither of these approaches reflect what Jesus actually said, of course. They are, instead, interpretations meant to make what he said seem morally sane. Yes, both concede, to turn the other cheek would unleash evil and destruction here on earth. And so we must limit Jesus’s advice and shrink its sphere of applicability.
What this accomplishes, however, is to sever the moral and the practical. Insofar as we practice Jesus’s moral teachings, we empower the evil—insofar as we set aside his teachings, we’re left without moral guidance. And so we see in the aftermath of 9/11 leaders taking Jesus seriously by refusing to defeat our enemies—and we see medieval inquisitors burning heretics alive while proclaiming their love.
Money, wealth, and work (Matthew 6:19-34)
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” says Jesus. And later:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the gentiles who seek all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Augustine stresses that Jesus does not mean you should actually refuse to store up treasures while waiting for God to feed and clothe you. “In the use of this passage we must be very specially on our guard,” he says, “lest perchance, when we see any servant of God making provision that such necessaries shall not be wanting either to himself or to those with whose care he has been entrusted, we should decide that he is acting contrary to the Lord’s precept, and is anxious for the morrow” (On the Sermon on the Mount, Book II, XVII).
On the contrary, it is “the intent with which he does it” that matters. In pursuing worldly goods, we must have “heavenly intent, having that end of love in view.” We may pursue wealth and other worldly goods as a means toward fulfilling our duty as God’s servants. If we seek wealth with love of God and our neighbor in mind, then we may think, plan, work, produce. If we seek wealth for our own enjoyment, however, “our mind becomes polluted by the desire after earthly things” (On the Sermon on the Mount, Book II, XIII).
Luther, as expected, comes at the issue a different way, though ends up in basically the same place. Jesus, he insists, “is speaking here, and in all his sermons, not about how a secular person is to do and live; but how you are to live uprightly towards God as Christian, who has not to concern himself about the world, but only about the life to come.” As always, Luther is not referring to two different people, but to the same person in two different capacities: the Christian qua Christian, and the Christian qua farmer, prince, or some other earthly role.
Thus I say also in regard to this next: My person, that is called a Christian, is not to care for or lay up money; but I am to be heartily devoted to God only. But externally I may and am to use temporal good for my body, and, as to other people, so far as relates to my secular person, I may gather money and treasures; yet not too much, so that I do not make an avaricious belly out of myself, that only cares for itself, and can never be filled. (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, 196)
Lest this seem to give the Christian too much latitude to pursue wealth, Luther makes it clear: your purpose in seeking wealth beyond your basic needs must not be for “one’s self and for his own pleasure.” That would be selfish and immoral. No, your purpose in pursuing wealth must be “not for your own satisfaction and avariciousness, but for the need of other people.” Aside from that, “you must be courageous enough to despise all [earthly] treasures and goods” (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, 197-8).
This, of course, already soft-pedals Jesus’s message, but modern commentators have sought to soft-pedal the soft-pedaling. Pennington, for instance, writes:
These exhortations against anxiety about food and clothing are not arguing against the proverbial wisdom of preparedness or saving and planning for times of need; they are not saying that growing crops or owning more than one shirt (or a closet to hold them in) is wrong. The issues of food and clothing are treasure-heart matters. The person who lives in anxiety about providing for himself or herself reveals and perpetuates a double-heartedness, a splitting of the soul between the now (where the heavenly Father meets us) and an imagined (dreaded) future of need. This normal human experience is ultimately a lack of faith and therefore in need of instruction and reproof. (The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, 251)
This is hardly the prosperity gospel. Even so, Jesus, in this view, was no radical reorienting us away from life on earth. He was merely warning us against treating worldly goods as our god, as our highest value, as a source of insatiable greed and worry. On this reading, the man who tells us “not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” who dismisses “toil” as pointless, and assures us that God will feed and clothe us—what he really meant was that we should think first of God while devoting ourselves to the intense, focused, long-term effort of pursuing ambitious career goals, of achieving success, of securing prosperity.
Sure. Why not?
What is totally absent, even from this reading, is a recognition that wealth is good, that prosperity is good, that luxury is good. No value is assigned to wealth insofar as it leads to the enjoyment of life on earth.
To be sure, an earthly idealist knows full well that we can mistakenly treat wealth as an end-in-itself rather than a means to an end. We can treat wealth as more valuable than virtue. But that doesn’t change the fact that wealth, the work that makes wealth possible, and the worldly enjoyment that wealth makes possible, are not to be devalued by morality. Not if life on earth is our goal.
From Other-Worldly Nihilism to Earthly Idealism
“Show me a man who claims that he is living up to the standards of the Sermon on the Mount,” writes Presbyterian Pastor James Montgomery Boice, “and I will show you a man who either has never read it, does not understand what it is teaching, or is lying” (The Sermon on the Mount, 10).
In a similar vein, another Christian author notes, “The Sermon on the Mount must produce despair in the natural man; if it does not, it is because you have paid no attention to it” (Oswald Chambers, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, 17).
In their book Kingdom Ethics, David Gushee and Glen Stassen complain that this widespread belief that the Sermon’s ideals are “impossible for ethically realistic practical living” is what explains why so many Christian thinkers have sought to “compartmentalize and marginalize” those ideals. The inevitable pattern is to say that the Sermon can’t be practiced, then “to argue that we need some other ethic that we can practice—which almost always turns out to be an ethic that accepts the authority of some secular power or worldly ideology.” Yet Jesus, by contrast, is abundantly clear in the Sermon that “these teachings are meant to be done” (Kingdom Ethics, 93). Gushee and Stassen think the solution is to properly interpret the Sermon on the Mount, which thankfully, after 2,000 years of failure, they have finally succeeded in doing.
The real problem Christians struggle with is that you cannot live by an anti-life morality—you cannot realize ideals on this earth that diminish and demean the importance of life on earth.
The Sermon on the Mount claims to offer man rewards higher than those available on earth. But there is no other realm and there are no other-worldly rewards. Whatever Jesus claims, in fact, in reality, what the Sermon amounts to is a tearing down of man’s actual rewards, values, and ideals.
If Effective Egoism is a morality of earthly idealism, then the Sermon on the Mount is a morality of other-worldly nihilism.
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective: