Is the Golden Rule Unique to Christianity? Or is it Universal?

Truth is universal, so it shouldn’t surprise us to find expressions of the golden rule around the world but Jesus was unique in his expression and demonstration of it.

(c) Can Stock Photo / Massonforstock

I recently heard that Bernie Sanders described his views about God this way: “Everyone believes in the golden rule, and we call that God.”

That sounds nice, but it’s not true. If truth matters, and I think it does, we should be more accurate than that.

Plato might agree with the idea that a “rule” may be God, but I believe that the best evidence suggests that God is a personal being. The golden rule, itself, is part of the proof.

The golden rule, of course, is the statement famously made by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, in part: “Do to others what you would have them to do to you.”[1]

Bernie Sanders left out the precursor to the golden rule – love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength – but, then he doesn’t believe in a personal God. That is the rub, of course: the golden rule has different meanings depending on the rest of the worldview in which it is asserted.

Bernie Sanders believes that the golden rule is universal. I think that is generally true, as in following the golden rule is universally a good thing. It certainly has universal applicability and universal appeal. But, it isn’t universally believed, as he says, and it certainly isn’t universally observed in the same way.

I am not saying people shouldn’t believe in the golden rule, but it’s pretty clear that most people either don’t believe in it or don’t live by it, or both. More importantly, perhaps, even people who place specific value on the golden rule don’t fully observe or live by it.

I know that because I am one such person. I do fully believe in it, but living by it is another thing altogether. A noble principle like the golden rule may convince the mind, but the actions don’t always follow, in spite of our best intentions. (“Hell is paved with good intentions,” as the saying goes, and for good reason.)

If we are honest with ourselves, we can see examples everyday of our failure to do to others as we would have them do to us and its corollary: “value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”[2] Math and a good memory are all that is needed to compare the amount of time we spend thinking of ourselves and our needs compared to others.

But the fact that none of us live by the golden rule, not fully, even those of us who ascribe to it, is not the only problem. The fact is that most of the world doesn’t even ascribe to the golden rule. The golden rule, as Jesus defined it, is different than other, similar expressions that we find in other world religions. In some cases the difference is radical.

The notion expressed by Bernie Sanders that conflates similarities with universality is a popular one. But, as we will see, some similarity does not an equivalent make.

Variations of what we call the golden rule have existed in other religious literature for centuries. Confucianism includes a similar statement:

“What I do not wish men to do to me, I also wish not to do to men.”[3]

Buddhism has a similar saying:

“Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.”[4]

Hinduism has a similar saying as well:

“This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”[5]

But these statements are not the same. They have been described as “negative” statements of the golden rule, but that characterization is not quite accurate, as Dr. John Dickson observes: the difference between the two ideas is the difference between not punching your enemy in the face and building your enemy a hospital.[6]

These “negative statements of the golden rule” are the equivalent of the popular expression, “trying not to hurt anyone”.  While this ethic is a good one (in a vanilla kind of way), it isn’t the golden rule. The golden rule takes the ethic much further. The golden rule urges us not only to refrain from hurting others, but to do for others as we would have them do for us.

We can find a few (though not many) positive statements of the golden rule in other religious literature.[7] Truth is universal, and so it should not surprise us to find expressions of the truth, including the expression of the golden rule, in various people groups and religions around the world.

But not everyone ascribes to it in the first place, let alone in practice.  We can’t find the golden rule in Islam, for instance. The Quran is full of statements instructing the faithful to subjugate their enemies, to kill them and even behead them. These enemies include all unbelievers, “particularly Jews” and Christians. [8]

Even of those religions where we can find some statement of the golden rule, it isn’t emphasized as it is Christianity. Most of them, as we have seen, don’t state it as fully or radically as Jesus did. The radical nature of golden rule stated by Jesus takes the idea of not hurting others exponentially further. Jesus set the bar much higher.

In the Sermon on the Mount the statement, “do unto others”, came at the end of a much more radical expression:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate youbless 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. Do to others as you would have them do to you.[9]

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus restated the golden rule a different way. He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. We don’t find such a radical statement of the golden rule anywhere outside of Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism (with similar statements in the Old Testament).

But we really fail to understand the golden rule if we fail to appreciate that the golden rule is only the second greatest commandment; the first is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”[10]

Unlike Bernie Sanders’ notion that God is an idea (the golden rule), Jesus affirms to us that God is a person. In that context, the golden rule describes His character, but God is much more than a rule. We see in Jesus the personification of God (in Jesus the fullness of God lived in bodily form (Col. 2:9)), and Jesus demonstrated the golden rule in his very life.

Jesus not only preached the golden rule, he lived it. He washed His disciples’ feet. He forgave and healed people wherever He went. He touched the untouchable. He befriended the unapproachable. Jesus demonstrated the golden rule in His person as He related to other people.

Jesus ultimately gave his life to His enemies, praying for their forgiveness as he hung on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”[11] Jesus claimed to be God[12], who “[left] His authority and glory behind to become a man”,[13] he sacrificed himself to reconcile us to himself while we were still enemies to God.[14]

Jesus was utterly unique in this aspect. While the value of the golden rule is universally recognized, in some form, it finds its fullest expression in the words and life of Jesus.

Further, the golden rile is subservient to an even greater rule, which is to love God above all things. We are only able to love because God first loved us;. (1 (John 4:19), and we are made in God’s image. Again, this is only true because God is a Person. God is not a rule.

While the golden rule may be universally “true” in the sense of its value and importance, the rule, itself, is not God. The golden rule flows from the essence and character of God, which is love,[15] and God demonstrated that character of love for us in Jesus.


[1] Luke 6:31 & Matthew 7:12.

[2] Philippians 2:3

[3] Analects 15:23

[4] Udanavarga 5:18

[5] Mahabharata 5:1517

[6] John Dickson,

[7] A positive statement can be found in Confucianism (“Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.” Mencius VII.A.4) and in Jainism (“In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.” Lord Mahavira 24th Tirthankara) and perhaps some modern religious expressions that have the benefit of the Bible.

[8] Quran 2:89; 2:191-193; 3:28; 3:110-112; 5:51; 5:59-60; 5:64; 5:82; 7:166; 8:12; 8:60; 9:28; 9:29; 9:111 and other passages, including commands to fight them and be harsh to them (8:39; 9:73 & 9:123) and behead and slaughter them (8:12 & 47:4).

[9] Luke 6:27-31 &

[10] Matthew 22:36-40

[11] Luke 23:24

[12] Though some people try to argue he never claimed to be God, the Gospels are full of statements that clearly indicate this was his claim. (See here for a short analysis. See here for a longer analysis from the Gospel of Mark and see here for a longer and more complete analysis.) The Gospels make no sense (including the reason he was put to death) if Jesus did not claim to be God in the flesh.

[13] Philippians 2:5-8 “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

[14] Romans 5:10 “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

[15] 1 John 4:8 “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

4 thoughts on “Is the Golden Rule Unique to Christianity? Or is it Universal?

  1. Reblogged this on Navigating by Faith and commented:

    Bernie Sanders described his views about God this way: “Everyone believes in the golden rule, and we call that God.”

    I think he expresses a popular notion here, that God is universal truth that transcends all religions and people. But is that really true?

    It seems very self-satisfying to think of God in this way. If this is “God” I can assimilate this God, this rule, into my own life and feel godlike. I can become a god, and I can gain some moral high ground, which seems to be what many people are trying to do on social media these days as an unending stream of righteous vitriol appears to prove.

    But, more importantly, is God reducible to a rule to live by? A rule that gives us a moral leg up on our neighbors? Is that all that God really is?


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