The Golden Rule and Christian Apologetics

I have run across not a few evangelical Christian apologists who have argued that their religion is "superior" because Jesus preached the Golden Rule, "All things therefore that you want people to DO to you, DO thus to them" (Matthew 7:12), while other ancient teachers merely taught the negative version of that rule: "Do NOT do unto others what you would NOT like done to yourself."

Christian apologists such as C.S. Lewis and William Barclay even cited numerous quotations of the negative Golden Rule from ancient sources to make the contrast appear more stark between what Christianity taught and what the rest of the world taught:

"Do not impose on others what you do not desire others to impose upon you." (Confucius, The Analects. Roughly 500 BCE.

Hindu sacred literature: "Let no man do to another that which would be repugnant to himself." (Mahabharata, bk. 5, ch. 49, v. 57)

"Hurt not others in ways you yourself would find hurtful." (Udana-Varga, 5.18)

Zoroastrian sacred literature: "Human nature is good only when it does not do unto another whatever is not good for its own self." (Dadistan-I-Dinik, 94:5; in Muller, chapter 94, vol. 18, p. 269)

Buddhist sacred literature: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udanavargu, 5:18, Tibetan Dhammapada, 1983)

The Greek historian Herodotus: ". if I choose I may rule over you. But what I condemn in another I will, if I may, avoid myself."
(Herodotus, The Histories, bk. III, ch. 142. Roughly 430 BCE.)

Isocrates, the Greek orator: "What things make you angry when you suffer them at the hands of others, do not you do to other people."

Christian apologists add that it is not (in their opinion) difficult to honor a negative Golden Rule, but it is "exceedingly" difficult to live by the positive Golden Rule Jesus taught. Such apologists seem to forget that a lot of Judeo-Christian morality is based on the "Ten Commandments," which are almost all negative rules, "Thou shalt NOT..." etc. Such apologists even forget that Jesus and Saint Paul are said to have struggled hard to resist temptation and resist sinnning, i.e., to NOT do things they were tempted to do, again a negative task. The whole story of Job is about a man tempted to "curse God," but he resists. So, for Jesus, Paul, Job and other Biblical heros, there appears to be just as much "difficulty" involved in avoiding sinful behaviors as practicing positive ones, (perhaps even greater "difficulty") regardless of what the apologists state.

Indeed, the so-called "negative" Golden Rule is itself a part of Christianity. It is found in pre-Christian Jewish writings as well as in the Catholic Bible and in a textual variant in the Book of Acts, see these examples:

Philo, the great Jewish Hellenistic philosopher of Alexandria, wrote, "What you hate to suffer, do not do to anyone else."

Hillel, a great Jewish rabbi who lived just before Jesus' day, taught, "What is hateful to thee, do not to another. That is the whole law and all else is explanation." (b Shabbatt 31a; cf. Avot de R. Natan ii.26)

Even earlier than the saying by rabbi Hillel, the negative Golden Rule is found in Tobit, an apocryphal book that is included in the Catholic Bible: "What you hate, do not do to anyone." (Tobit 4: 14-15. 2nd century BCE.)

And in the Book of Acts: "Textual variants in Acts 15 :20,29 & 21:25 are quite involved... various Western texts add the Negative Golden Rule, 'Do not do unto others...' which is first attributed to the first century Jewish rabbi Hillel but also quoted in The Didache (a second century Christian text believed to consist of teachings of the earliest Christian Fathers and used to teach new converts) i.2." [from Tim Hegg and Beit Hallel's online article, "Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council: Did They Conclude the Torah was Not For Gentiles?" copyright 2001]

And what about another claim made by Christian apologists, such as William Barclay, who argued, "The very essence of Christian conduct is that it does not consist in not doing bad things, but in actively doing good things." Was Barclay unaware of the fact that teachings that advocate "actively doing good things" are found in other ancient literature besides the New Testament?

Ancient Babylonian sacred teaching from two thousand years before Jesus was born: "Do not return evil to your adversary; Requite with kindness the one who does evil to you, Maintain justice for your enemy, Be friendly to your enemy." (Akkadian Councils of Wisdom, as cited in Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts)

Buddhist holy teaching: "Shame on him who strikes, greater shame on him who strikes back. Let us live happily, not hating those who hate us. Let us therefore overcome anger by kindness, evil by good, falsehood by truth." (written centuries before Jesus was born)

Buddhist holy teaching: "In this world hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This is the law, ancient and inexhaustible." (The Dhammapada)

Taoist holy teaching: "Return love for hatred. Otherwise, when a great hatred is reconciled, some of it will surely remain. How can this end in goodness? Therefore the sage holds to the left hand of an agreement but does not expect what the other holder ought to do. Regard your neighbor's gain as your own and your neighbor's loss as your own loss. Whoever is self-centered cannot have the love of others." (written centuries before Jesus was born)

The Greek poet Homer: "I will be as careful for you as I should be for myself in the same need." (Calypso, to Odysseus, in Homer, The Odyssey, bk. 5, vv. 184-91. Roughly late 8th century BCE.).

Excerpts from a pagan's prayer: "May I be the friend of that which is eternal and abides...May I love, seek, and attain only that which is good. May I wish for all men's happiness...May I reconcile friends who are wroth with one another. May I, to the extent of my power, give all needful help to all who are in want. May I never fail a friend in danger...May I know good men and follow in their footsteps." ("The Prayer of Eusebius," written by a 1st-century pagan, as quoted in Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion. Interesting Note: A few Christians on the internet have incorrectly attributed this prayer to a 3rd-century Christian also named Eusebius. They should read Murray's book instead of assuming that everything positive has to be "Christian.")

Islamic holy teaching: "That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind." (Sukhanan-i-Muhammad, 63)

The Positive Golden Rule is also found in Jewish literature (Mishneh Torah ii: Hilekot Abel xiv.I)

Lastly, there appears to be a flaw in the Golden Rule itself. If you simply try to "do unto other as you would like them to do unto you" then you could wind up doing things to others they might not enjoy as much as you do! Do you like listening to rap music? Then do it to others! Crank up those speakers so others can enjoy it as well! Do you like having sex? Then go out and initiate sex with others! Do you love your particular religious beliefs? Then initiate conversations with others about your favorite beliefs. Worst case scenario is that if someone fears they will be sent to eternal hell for doubting a particular religious belief, they might welcome being coerced and tortured to "correct" their beliefs and assure them eternal heaven, in which case the Golden Rule would imply that other people would be equally appreciative of being "corrected" rather than "risk eternal hellfire." So we need both the Golden Rule and also the "negative" Golden Rule, working together, to avoid the kinds of excesses mentioned above.

An even more "finely tuned" rule might be what some call "The Platinum Rule," namely, "Do Unto Others as They Would Have You Do Unto Them." In other words, take time to learn about your neighbor's tastes, their mood, their nature, and their temperment, before you start "doing" things "unto them." Treat others the way they want to be treated.

In all three cases -- the Golden Rule, the negative Golden Rule (also nicknamed the "Silver Rule"), and the "Platinum Rule" -- our similar biological and social/psychological structures ensure that our desires and fears will also be similar. And such similarities are what allow each of us a window into each others' inner self. Very few people enjoy being lied to, called names, stolen from, injured, or otherwise provoked. While almost every last one of us loves having friends, sharing experiences, good health, good meals, etc. Those are part of who we all are. So you can and should look within to sense the truth of what we all share. Hence, "you" have an inner window on what other people would like done to them. Just keep in mind that the exact "scene" that is displayed most prominently inside each person's "inner window" may differ from person to person, and you have to take that into account as well, before you "do unto them" as "they" would like.

[First posted by Ed Babinski on 8/25/09]


Jason Long said...

Terrific post. This shows the superiority of the platinum rule (I must confess that this term, but not the idea, is new to me) over the golden rule. My coworkers tire of me criticizing the golden rule when someone brings it up at the retail setting. We do not all want to be treated the same! When in doubt, the golden rule is adequate, but the platinum rule is much better.

If the Bible were a work of divine inspiration rather than one of often-antiquated views of subpar philosophies, one would expect that it would take the time to include this, but it does not - thus keeping with the tradition of including the irrelevant (tents, candles, begats, censuses) and omitting the relevant (slavery, equality, higher philosophy). I wonder what an apologist thinks a failed attempt at a divine book would look like, if not this?

Andrew S said...

Excellent post. I have always disliked the golden rule, precisely because of how it differs from the Platinum rule. it's easy to say, "Well, *I* would want someone to bring salvation to me, so that's what I'll do to you"'s harder to look at the specific situation a person has and what THEY want.

Anonymous said...

Atheists want to show their knowledge as superior to Christians and their 'nonsense'. The reason some offenders know the traffic code better than policemen is their desire to justify their violations.