Harsh Words & Hyperbole: do they make Jesus the bad guy?

The other day on Twitter, an atheist responded negatively to a tweet claiming Jesus is good. He claimed Jesus was a _______ (a derogatory term I won’t repeat here). I was taken aback. I mean, I regularly hear of people’s disbelief in Jesus as the Son of God, but most will at least concede that Jesus was a moral teacher. So, I asked this skeptic to show me which Bible verses that he thought made Christ look bad. Here are a few of those verses and my responses:

“Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:25-27

At face value, that does appear harsh. Why would Jesus expect his followers to “hate” anyone or even their own life? And what is this about “carrying your own cross?” That doesn’t sound fun.

Like in any story, context is key to understanding. It’s always best to read verses in context of a chapter or better yet, the whole book. If you’ve never read through a whole gospel in one sitting, I highly recommend it. You can start with Mark’s Gospel, the shortest one, if you don’t want to read for long. When you read an entire gospel in one sitting, you can see the character of Christ develop as he interacts with others. This helps in deciphering what certain verses, like the ones quoted above, really mean.

The Cost of Following Christ

Jesus is talking about counting the cost of what it requires to be a disciple of Christ. And to make a point, he spoke often with words that, at first glance and without a contextual understanding, can seem difficult or even contradictory when compared to other admonishments in the Bible, like “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). How can we “hate” anyone if we are called to love everyone?

But what Jesus is saying is that if you follow him and let’s say your family are not believers and ask you to reject your faith, then you need to choose who you will ultimately follow. It does not mean literally “hate” someone else, otherwise that contradicts what Jesus said about love. 

This is a “symbolic cross” that some of us have to carry. Imagine a Muslim convert… they are fully rejected by their family if they become Christian. That is their cross to carry.

Carrying Other Crosses 

In Mark 15:21-28, there is a man who was forced to help carry the cross of Christ because Jesus was so physically damaged by being whipped and beaten, that he could no longer carry his own cross. That was the Roman law—that you had to carry your own cross to be crucified on. This also implies that, at certain times or circumstances, we should help bear one another’s burdens, too.

What about those two thieves, hanging on their own crosses next to Jesus? Some wonder why Jesus didn’t save them. But they were being punished for their crimes, and Jesus was dying, as he was supposed to do. This was an over-arching good event happening for the salvation of the world. One of the thieves understood that; the other didn’t.

Symbolic Language

Jesus spoke often with metaphors, parables and hyperbole to make a point and to filter out those who were just “looky-loos.” He’d speak in ways that even his disciples would need clarification on later, in order to understand. So, he’d explain the nuanced meaning to them in private because he knew they really wanted to know.

One of those times, when Jesus uses hyperbole, is when He says to gouge out your eye if you lust after another person (Matt. 5:29). Any thinking person would understand he did not mean to literally pluck out your eye. He is speaking strongly against lust, as it needs to be “rooted out” of your thought life, since that is where sin begins. 

No person should ever be an object to “lust after.” Everyone is a precious soul and are made in the image of God. Lust demeans people down to a selfish, personal gratification level – it objectifies people. That is the opposite of love. So, Jesus spoke with harsh words against lust to make a point.

He did the same with showing the cost of being His disciple (Luke 9:59 is the same principle). Followers of Christ sometimes must choose between the things of this world and the things that transcend this world, the heavenly kingdom. It is not easy to do and many fail. So, Jesus is making a strong point that you must count the cost of discipleship. Will you keep your eyes on the things of this world, or keep your eyes on Jesus? 

We cannot love the world and its systems more than we love God. It just doesn’t work that way. That violates the first commandment, which says you cannot have any other gods before Him. There are no other gods before the one and only true God. But again, He is making a point that we tend to make gods out of things in this world, like money, power and sex. We cannot have those things dominate our allegiances while following God.

The Man Jesus Left Behind

In Mark 5:1-20, there is a story of Jesus healing a man from demonic influences. Once healed, this man wanted to go with Jesus, yet he was told to stay behind. Why? I would assume to eventually show the people living in that area that he was healed by Jesus, thereby helping those to believe Jesus was the Messiah. Again, this is a greater good.

The Benefit of the Doubt

God, by definition, is a supreme being. He is the Creator and Ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority. And a perfect being is good. Therefore, because I know that God is good, I will give Him the benefit of the doubt when I don’t understand a passage. I don’t assume evil intent or malice on His part, like some skeptics do. Instead, I will take the time to investigate challenging passages, like the ones I’ve cited in this blog and try to figure out what it means.

Good Bible Reading Practices

It is important to answer two questions when trying to understand a Bible verse:

  1. What did the author intend when writing it?
  2. What did it mean in the given historical context?

When we can understand those two things, then we can take the guiding principles gleaned from the verses and apply them to our lives today, in our cultural context and with a deeper appreciation of what is being communicated. A good Bible commentary is a great tool to keep on hand or use an online version.

When Dealing with Challenges

One tactic to use when someone makes claims about Christianity is to simply ask them, “What do you mean by that?” In this instance, I got clarification on the particular verses he found questionable, and we were able to discuss them charitably. In other circumstances, that might not always be the case. Sometimes skeptics will just spout off stuff they heard without backing it up. Don’t jump to defend your position until you know exactly what the other person’s position is – get clarification first, and perhaps you will be able to clear up misunderstandings.

Overall, I was able to have a friendly discussion with this skeptic who thought poorly of the person of Jesus. Hopefully, this atheist will at least think more favorably of Christ, even in his unbelief.


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