Mere Messiahs

Yes­ter­day I dis­cussed how the halo effect, which causes peo­ple to see all pos­i­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics as cor­re­lated—for ex­am­ple, more at­trac­tive in­di­vi­d­u­als are also per­ceived as more kindly, hon­est, and in­tel­li­gent—causes us to ad­mire heroes more if they’re su­per-strong and im­mune to bul­lets. Even though, log­i­cally, it takes much more courage to be a hero if you’re not im­mune to bul­lets. Fur­ther­more, it re­veals more virtue to act coura­geously to save one life than to save the world. (Although if you have to do one or the other, of course you should save the world.)

“The po­lice officer who puts their life on the line with no su­per­pow­ers”, I said, “re­veals far greater virtue than Su­per­man, who is a mere su­per­hero.

But let’s be more spe­cific.

John Perry was a New York City po­lice officer who also hap­pened to be an Ex­tropian and tran­shu­man­ist, which is how I come to know his name. John Perry was due to re­tire shortly and start his own law prac­tice, when word came that a plane had slammed into the World Trade Cen­ter. He died when the north tower fell. I didn’t know John Perry per­son­ally, so I can­not at­test to this of di­rect knowl­edge; but very few Ex­tropi­ans be­lieve in God, and I ex­pect that Perry was like­wise an athe­ist.

Which is to say that Perry knew he was risk­ing his very ex­is­tence, ev­ery week on the job. And it’s not, like most peo­ple in his­tory, that he knew he had only a choice of how to die, and chose to make it mat­ter—be­cause Perry was a tran­shu­man­ist; he had gen­uine hope. And Perry went out there and put his life on the line any­way. Not be­cause he ex­pected any di­v­ine re­ward. Not be­cause he ex­pected to ex­pe­rience any­thing at all, if he died. But be­cause there were other peo­ple in dan­ger, and they didn’t have im­mor­tal souls ei­ther, and his hope of life was worth no more than theirs.

I did not know John Perry. I do not know if he saw the world this way. But the fact that an athe­ist and a tran­shu­man­ist can still be a po­lice officer, can still run into the lobby of a burn­ing build­ing, says more about the hu­man spirit than all the mar­tyrs who ever hoped of heaven.

So that is one spe­cific po­lice officer...

...and now for the su­per­hero.

As the Chris­ti­ans tell the story, Je­sus Christ could walk on wa­ter, calm storms, drive out demons with a word. It must have made for a com­fortable life: Star­va­tion a prob­lem? Xerox some bread. Don’t like a tree? Curse it. Ro­mans a prob­lem? Sic your Dad on them. Even­tu­ally this charmed life ended, when Je­sus vol­un­tar­ily pre­sented him­self for cru­ci­fix­ion. Be­ing nailed to a cross is not a com­fortable way to die. But as the Chris­ti­ans tell the story, Je­sus did this know­ing he would come back to life three days later, and then go to Heaven. What was the threat that moved Je­sus to face this tem­po­rary suffer­ing fol­lowed by eter­nity in Heaven? Was it the life of a sin­gle per­son? Was it the cor­rup­tion of the church of Judea, or the op­pres­sion of Rome? No: as the Chris­ti­ans tell the story, the eter­nal fate of ev­ery hu­man went on the line be­fore Je­sus suffered him­self to be tem­porar­ily nailed to a cross.

But I do not wish to con­demn a man who is not truly so guilty. What if Je­sus—no, let’s pro­nounce his name cor­rectly: Yeishu—what if Yeishu of Nazareth never walked on wa­ter, and nonethe­less defied the church of Judea es­tab­lished by the pow­ers of Rome?

Would that not de­serve greater honor than that which ad­heres to Je­sus Christ, who was only a mere mes­siah?

Alas, some­how it seems greater for a hero to have steel skin and godlike pow­ers. Some­how it seems to re­veal more virtue to die tem­porar­ily to save the whole world, than to die per­ma­nently con­fronting a cor­rupt church. It seems so com­mon, as if many other peo­ple through his­tory had done the same.

Com­fortably en­sconced two thou­sand years in the fu­ture, we can levy all sorts of crit­i­cisms at Yeishu, but Yeishu did what he be­lieved to be right, con­fronted a church he be­lieved to be cor­rupt, and died for it. Without benefit of hind­sight, he could hardly be ex­pected to pre­dict the true im­pact of his life upon the world. Rel­a­tive to most other prophets of his day, he was prob­a­bly rel­a­tively more hon­est, rel­a­tively less vi­o­lent, and rel­a­tively more coura­geous. If you strip away the un­in­tended con­se­quences, the worst that can be said of Yeishu is that oth­ers in his­tory did bet­ter. (Epicu­rus, Bud­dha, and Mar­cus Aure­lius all come to mind.) Yeishu died for­ever, and—from one per­spec­tive—he did it for the sake of hon­esty. Fif­teen hun­dred years be­fore sci­ence, re­li­gious hon­esty was not an oxy­moron.

As Sam Har­ris said:

“It is not enough that Je­sus was a man who trans­formed him­self to such a de­gree that the Ser­mon on the Mount could be his heart’s con­fes­sion. He also had to be the Son of God, born of a vir­gin, and des­tined to re­turn to earth trailing clouds of glory. The effect of such dogma is to place the ex­am­ple of Je­sus for­ever out of reach. His teach­ing ceases to be­come a set of em­piri­cal claims about the link­age be­tween ethics and spiritual in­sight and in­stead be­comes a gra­tu­itous, and rather grue­some, fairy tale. Ac­cord­ing to the dogma of Chris­ti­an­ity, be­com­ing just like Je­sus is im­pos­si­ble. One can only enu­mer­ate one’s sins, be­lieve the un­be­liev­able, and await the end of the world.”

I severely doubt that Yeishu ever spoke the Ser­mon on the Mount. Nonethe­less, Yeishu de­serves honor. He de­serves more honor than the Chris­ti­ans would grant him.

But since Yeishu prob­a­bly an­ti­ci­pated his soul would sur­vive, he doesn’t de­serve more honor than John Perry.