In his speech, “Why I’m not a Christian” Bertrand Russell rejects the idea that Christ was the greatest of moral teachers:
I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.
The most obvious question one can raise here is to request a standard by which Russell presumes to judge the great moral teachers of history. Of course, he does not say that he is doing this, but is simply stating his opinion. But if he expects anyone to accept his claim as more than an irrational quirk of his own personality, a standard would be required.
I mention this because it is so similar to the New Atheists’ modus operandi. This particular group is quick to make sweeping (and caustic) moral pronouncements while consistently refusing to give any defense of such statements. This is, of course, doubly problematic in that they so often criticize others for failing to give reasons for what they believe.
But, as for Russell, it is clear from his speech that he judges Christ to be inferior because of Christ’s commitment to justice, rather than simply gentleness and compassion.
It seems odd, then, that appreciation for gentleness and compassion is probably the largest change in moral thinking that Christ’s teaching made to the ancient world. This also reminds me of the New Atheists, who’s references to the “historical atrocities of religion” very often reveal a deep ignorance of actual history.
All this may be beside the point, however. None of this counters the argument that Christ, if he were a lunatic or a charlatan, wouldn’t have been both a great moral teacher and willing to die for that teaching.
This means that Russell’s personal ranking of moral teachers can be set aside. The classic “lord, liar, lunatic” apologetic doesn’t actually require that we begin by agreeing that Christ is undisputedly “better” a moral teacher than Buddha or Socrates (though he was). It merely requires one to accept that he was a great moral teacher (in order to scratch of the “liar” and “lunatic” options). And Russell himself affirms the greatness of Christ’s moral teaching.
So, though I thought it worth questioning Russell’s conclusion, there was no valid point being made against the truth of Christianity by comparing Christ to Socrates in the first place.