Gospel Disproof #31: Burning coals

Ask the average layman who Jesus was, and if they’re a more secular/liberal sort of person you’ll probably hear that he was a “great moral teacher.” Ironically, however, the one uniquely Christian moral principle he taught was this:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.

Great philosophy, isn’t it? Let’s dismantle airport security and send Al Qaeda free tickets. Do good to those that hate you, give them whatever they want, let them hurt you and take your stuff and get away with it.

Obviously, for all their praise, even Christians do not follow Jesus’ one uniquely Christian moral teaching, except on rare occasions when it’s to their advantage to do so. This is a doctrine whose true virtue lies not so much in practicing it as in just teaching it. Hypocrisy aside, there’s a certain gloss of nobility and selflessness in the idea of being more generous to one’s enemies than they are to you.

Unless you look at this sentiment in its biblical context.

The roots of Jesus’ teachings can be found back in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, chapter 25:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
and the LORD will reward you.

The idea of being nice to your enemy is actually not original with Jesus. It had been a proverb for centuries before Jesus came along. But notice the catch: being nice to your enemy actually sets him up for major paybacks. Your kindness now isn’t really being nice to your enemy at all, you’re just setting yourself up for a divine reward that includes the torture of those you were nice to.

Paul, like Jesus, picks up this same theme as an explicitly Christian practice.

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”

Paul takes this passage from Proverbs and explains why Christians ought to follow Jesus’ advice and be good to their enemies: it’s to “leave room for the wrath of God.” By being nice to your enemies, you’re giving God an opportunity to really nail them better than you ever could. He doesn’t specifically mention burning them forever in Hell, but “burning coals,” eh?

Even in its mercy and forbearance, Christianity is selfish, vindictive, and cruel underneath. Though the outward pose is one of generosity and forbearance, the ultimate goal is to increase the suffering of those who oppose you. Look at the gloating over Christopher Hitchen’ death. Look at Cranston, RI. Yes, there are nice people who are Christians. But they didn’t get that from Jesus. Christianity itself is not nice at all.


  1. Brad says

    I’ve never heard the phrase “burning coals” associated in any way with hell. I’ve always heard it as a metaphor to describe the “spiritual conviction” your enemies will feel when you are repaying their abuse with kindness.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      I think you’re right as far as the original intent of the proverb is concerned. When you look at how Paul combined it with “Vengeance is Mine, says the Lord,” though, you end up with a New Testament spin that’s not quite so charitable. Of course, being nice to someone in hopes of making them suffer “burning coals” of guilt isn’t all that great either. How do you say “passive aggressive” in Hebrew?

      • Artor says

        I’d gotten the impression that pretty much anything said in Hebrew comes with a heavy dose of passive aggression.

  2. wholething says

    It is my understanding that Psalms and Proverbs are the oldest writings in the Bible, save for some verses added to them during or after the Babylonian exile. Suspected late additions include the ones about smashing babies’ heads and consuming excrement. The concepts of Hell, afterlife, and Satan arose later.

    Put into the historical context of when these aphorisms were collected, it seems that the “burning coals” refer to promoting a feeling of guilt in your enemies. The surrounding verses are about not peeving off your neighbors and such.

    When that rather innocent verse is ripped from its context by those using the idea of Hell to promote their product, it displays the horrid mindset you point out.

  3. RW Ahrens says

    It has become my conclusion regarding christians and values/morals that in reality, modern christians (and probably historical ones, too) really take their morality from the surrounding social milieu and culture, and then cherry pick the passages in the bible that support that world view and are to an advantage to them.

    Hence the convenience of ignoring the passages in Deuteronomy that support slavery while still “following” the ones that denigrate homosexuality.

    This, too, is a good example of that principle.

  4. RK says

    Being a rather recent Atheist…

    The intent of the scripture there is not to be a cream puff and passive, but to treat your enemies differently than they treat you. Responding to anger or hate with understanding and compassion on the other person causes a change in the whole situation.

    Buddhism has a similar idea of viewing all people as human and having loving kindness for them.

    It does not mean you don’t learn some Kung Foo and as non violently as possible prevent people from hurting other people.

    • Brian M says

      But RK, I think the “meaning” includes both meanings, as discussed above. The original meaning in Proverbs MAY have had that intent (although most Hebrew Scriptures seem to focus on smiting the tribal enemies instead)…but Paul’s version is a little different in tone.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    Ironically, however, the one uniquely Christian moral principle he taught

    So the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16) was not original? Who would bother to steal such a lameness?

    • billwalker says

      There is NOTHING new or original in Xianity. It’s ALL borrowed from earlier pagan mythology.Reading a few bios on Emperor will reveal that HE was the founder & FUNDER of the Roman Catholic church, & all of it’s branches & twigs.

  6. Ysanne says

    Come on, in a time and place where blood vengeance was still quite popular, the idea of not starting a feud over an offense (or even ending one) was a quite sensible one, although of course not all that original. Throw in basic bargaining skills, and it’s clear that it’s a good idea to choose an over-the-top example, so that the practical “meet in the middle” compromise still has an element of forgiveness.

    And while Paul isn’t exactly the greatest proponent of unselfish kindness or tolerance, I would like to point out that “let room for the wrath of God” is tons better practical advice than, say, the ever popular “kill the one you disagree with, for the greater glory of God”. I just wish fundies would respect that it’s their god’s job to judge and punish, and it’s not their place to give advice or even assistance in this matter.

    Yes, from a modern humanist perspective these writings are quite backwards and hate-filled, and today we have far better ideas to base our ethics and morality on. But for their time they’re not bad at all. What’s bad is if someone doesn’t notice when a principle becomes obsolete and is replaced with a better one.

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