An Introduction to Christianity
The Christian FaithChristianity emerged from Judaism at the beginning of the first century CE. Christianity inherited the holy scripture of Judaism (which it calls the “Old Testament”) and adds a new scripture (the “New Testament”). Together, these books make up the Bible. The New Testament talks about the teachings of a man called Jesus, the main prophet of Christianity.
- There is exactly one god, called God.
- Jesus is the son of the god and a human mother, Mary.
- Jesus was crucified, but he was resurrected from the dead.
- The Bible was written by men, but is inspired by God.
- The god is a godhead comprising the “father god”, the “son god” (Jesus), and the “holy spirit”. These three form what is known as the “trinity”.
- Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin when Jesus was born and remains a virgin.
- The Earth was created in 6 days, as described in the Bible.
History of ChristianityEarly Christianity spread mainly in the Middle East and Greece. The crucial moment for the religion came in the 4th century CE: The Roman emperor Constantin the Great made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. This established the religion in the sphere of influence of the Romans, and by the time the empire collapsed, Europe was essentially Christian. In the coming centuries, Christianity consolidated its power. It also established its own legal system. One of the main merits of this legal system was that it restored the best of the Roman legal order, bringing forth the concept of free consent, and the necessity to prove guilt and innocence through rational rules of evidence rather than through magical tests such as the ordeal of the fire 1.
During the Middle Ages, Christianity used its power to impose itself: Heretics were brutally persecuted . It also piggybacked on the colonization. European powers conquered foreign lands, and brought Christianity with them — to Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The Inquisition forced people to adopt the new faith . This expansion made Christianity one of the most wide-spread religion in the world — a title that it still holds today.
Over time, however, people developed different interpretations of Christianity. Aided by political struggles, these different interpretations gave rise to different denominations of the faith. The long history and the large geographical extent of Christianity have led to a plethora of different versions of the religion, which we discuss next.
Christian DenominationsToday, Christianity has about 2.5 billion adherents. These fall into roughly 1200 denominations, of which 350 have more than 100,000 members . The main branches are (with maximal estimates for the number of adherents):
- Catholicism (1.2 billion)
- This denomination is centrally governed by the Pope in Rome. The beliefs of Catholicism are codified in a number of creeds, papal bullets, and catechisms 2.
- Protestantism (800 million)
split away from Catholicism with the Reformation in 1517, when Martin Luther started criticizing the Catholic Church. Protestantism generally emphasizes the priesthood of all believers, the doctrine of justification by faith alone rather than by or with good works, and a belief in the Bible alone as the highest authority in matters of faith and morals . Today, Protestant denominations fall into the following groups:
- Pentecostalism (280 million)
- believes in gifts from God such as speaking in tongues and divine healing. The largest denomination is the “Assemblies of God” (65 million, Assemblies of God), which we use here as a representative for Pentecostalism.
- Baptists (100 million)
- believe that a person should be baptized when they consciously decide for the faith. The largest denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention (15.7 million, SBC), which we use here as a representative. We group Pentecostalism and the Baptist Churches together as “American Protestantism” in this book.
- Lutheranism (90 million)
- is based on the teachings of Luther and emphasizes that the Bible is the final authority on all matters of faith. The largest denomination is the Evangelical Church in Germany (24.5 million, EKD), which we use here as a representative.
- Other groups
- include Calvinism (85 million), Continental Reformed churches (30 million), Methodism (80 million), Nondenominational evangelicalism (80 million), and African initiated Protestant churches (60 million). Presbyterianism, in particular, is a subgroup of Calvinism.
- Eastern Orthodoxy (300 million)
- split from Catholicism in the Great Schism in 1054 — ostensibly over the question of whether Jesus is subordinate to God the Father or not, but de facto over the question of the authority of the pope. In Eastern Orthodoxy, every country has their own church, the largest one being the Russian Orthodox Church (150 million). In this book, we use the Orthodox Church of America as representative for Orthodoxy instead — mainly because it has an English Web page 3.
- Oriental Orthodoxy (86 million)
- split from Catholicism in 451 CE in the question of whether Jesus had two complete natures (divine and human) or not. Oriental Orthodoxy is mainly represented in Ethiopia.
- Anglicanism (85 million)
- split from Catholicism in 1534 with the Act of Supremacy, which accepted the King of England as head of the Church instead of the pope in Rome. One of the motivations for this split was to allow the king at the time, Henry VII, to get a divorce from his wife, which the pope refused to grant. Later, Anglicanism developed its own theology in the English Reformation. Today, the Church of England is the main Anglican church (25 million. See also the Church of England Web page).
- Restorationism and Nontrinitarianism (48 million)
- include newer denominations such as Mormonism and Jehowah’s Witnesses. Some of them reject the trinity of God.
Fundamentalism vs. LiberalismIn the context of Christianity, “liberal” does not refer to “liberal moral values”. Rather, it refers to the belief that the Bible has to be read metaphorically. Fundamentalist Christians, in contrast, believe that the Bible has to be read literally. These extremes span a wide spectrum of beliefs. This spectrum is not linked strictly to the spectrum of the denominations: there can be fundamentalist Catholics and liberal Catholics, as there can be fundamentalist Pentecostals and liberal Pentecostals.
FundamentalismFundamentalists hold that the Bible is literally true. Technically, the entire Christendom has been fundamentalist until the age of Enlightment. When the Enlightenment came, fundamentalists consolidated their position in the face of rising liberal views of Christianity. This consolidation of fundamentalist views happened mainly in the United States .
Fundamentalists believe, among other things, that the Bible literally tells us how the world was created. In this view, the Earth came into existence less than 10,000 years ago, dinosaurs shared the Earth with humans, and God literally flooded the Earth with the deluge. 40% of Americans believe that the creation account of the Bible is literally true 4. Fundamentalists also tend to believe that Jesus will come back. 79% of Americans believe that Jesus will have a second coming, and 20% believe that this will happen during their lifetime (Pew Research: Christians’ Views on the Return of Christ, 2009-04-09). Fundamentalism is particularly strong among Presbytarians and Baptists in the New World (America and Australia). I have met such Christians myself.
For Fundamentalists, the words “liberal” and “modern” are pejorative in the context of religion. To them, these words suggest that the true message of God has been abandoned, or watered down with secular, modernist, or atheist ideas.
LiberalismLiberal Christianity emerged in the late 18th century in Europe. It was inspired by the Enlightenment, and became particularly popular in Germany. Liberal Christians believe that the stories of the Bible did not necessarily happen exactly as written down. Rather, they are narratives that express a view on the world in the historical and social context of the writer. Thus, Liberal Christians do not believe that the world was created in 6 days, as the Bible tells us. Rather, they believe that this story shows us how ancient writers imagined the connection between God and the world. From this, they derive how we should see the connection between God and the world. Thus, Liberal Christianity looks upon the Bible as a collection of narratives that explain, epitomize, or symbolize the essence and significance of Christian understanding . As for the actual genesis of the world, Liberal Christians tend to follow the scientific mainstream opinion (of the Big Bang, Evolution, and Darwinism). Liberal Christians also tend to believe that the miracles of the Bible did not necessarily take place. Rather, liberal Christians aim to understand the message that authors of the stories wanted to convey with the miracles.
Liberal Christianity was first met with opposition. In 1869, the First Vatican Council condemned the belief that “all miracles are impossible, and that therefore all reports of them, even those contained in sacred scripture, are to be set aside as fables or myths; or that miracles can never be known with certainty, nor can the divine origin of the christian religion be proved from them” 5. However, in the 19th and 20th century, liberal Christianity became more and more popular. For example, various editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica reflect the collapse of belief in the historicity of Noah’s ark in the face of advancing scientific knowledge . Roman Catholicism, too, has recently taken a more liberal view, declaring that in order to understand the Bible, one “must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture” 6. As for Anglicanism: One quarter of Anglican priests does not believe in the Virgin Birth of Mary, the mother of Jesus 7. One priest explains: “Writers at the time used to stress a person’s importance by making up stories about their early life. I think that is exactly what has happened [with the Virgin Birth].” [ibid]
Today, Liberal Christianity is the dominant form of Christianity in most denominations. This is true in particular in Western Europe, where only a minority of people tends to believe that God literally created the world in 6 days, or that he flooded it with a deluge.
For Liberal Christians, the word “fundamentalist” is pejorative. Liberal Christians tend to see Fundamentalist Christianity as backward, un‐educated, and disconnected from reality. They are surprised to learn that fundamentalist Christians really exist in the United States.
Christianity LightAn extension of Liberal Christianity is what I call “Christianity Light”. It is a reduced form of Christianity, which contains in essence just two tenets: (1) The Christian God exists, and (2) Jesus was a good man. All other tenets of Christianity or its denominations (such as the trinity, divinity of Jesus, the creation of the Earth in 6 days, or the virgin birth) are rejected. Thus, “Christianity Light” is a bit like Deism . The main difference is that “Christianity Light” is colored with Christian ideas. For example, when adherents of Christianity Light talk of a “god”, they refer exclusively to the Christian God (the loving, omnipotent deity who kick‐started the universe). They cannot imagine any other god. At the same time, adherents tend to hold that they are “not religious” — meaning that they do not follow the dogmata of a particular Christian denomination. Thus, a “Catholic Light” will have the very same religious beliefs as a “Protestant Light” — namely that there is a God and that Jesus was a good man. They are equivalent. In my environment, this is the dominant form of Christianity.
Dear Christians: Mark 16:17-18 says that true believers can drink poison and be perfectly fine. Please demonstrate your faith before you impose your religion on the rest of us.
Conservatism vs ProgressionismChristians cover a wide spectrum in terms of moral convictions, running from the conservative to the progressive.
ConservatismConservative Christians generally uphold values that were mainstream some time ago. Thus, today’s conservatives will for example oppose gay marriage, disapprove of sex out of wedlock, see the family as a central building block of society, and approve of the death penalty. However, today’s conservatives will usually not defend slavery or capital punishment for heresy. These values were mainstream too long ago. Conservatives Christians sometimes argue with the laws of the Old Testament. They tend to vote on the right.
ProgressivismProgressive Christians tend to adhere to more liberal moral convictions . They will support gay rights, a more liberal approach to marriage, and a less strict interpretation of biblical law. In particular, progressive Christians are more likely to do away with the laws of the Old Testament. They will argue that these have been abrogated by Jesus’ arrival — a theory known as the “New Covenant” .
If your religion tells you that you must have a baby due to its views on abortion, and then labels that baby as illegitimate because of its views on marriage, maybe it’s time to reconsider your religion.
Activism vs PassivismSome Christians are particularly active about their faith, going to Church, following the rites, and attracting others to the faith. Other Christians attach less importance to their faith. Different intensities of belief can be found across different denominations.
ActivismFor some Christians, religion plays an important role in their lives. They try to go to Church on Sunday, pray regularly, go to Bible reading groups, attend religious festivals, and follow the rites. Since they view religion as important, they will also entice others to follow it. This stance is more pronounced among American Protestants. If activism is combined with fundamentalist and conservative views, the result is often associated with the term “Evangelical” .
PassivismOn the other hand of the spectrum, we have Christians whose practical life is not very different from an atheist’s. Christian rites are reduced to the “hatch, match, dispatch” ceremonies (baptism, wedding, funeral). Many passive Christians enjoy the proverbial “White Weddings”. Church attendance is limited to Christmas. Passive Christians tend to culturally identify with Christianity, but to distance themselves from religious dogmata or ceremonies. This is a prevalent way of life in Europe, and it often goes along with liberal and progressive views.
Charismatism vs CessationismCharismatic Christians believe that God works miracles also today. Cessationists believe that no such miracles occur.
CharismatismGenerally speaking, charismatic Christians believe that God can work miracles if we ask him through prayer. This belief is based on Bible verses such as the following 8:
- Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. [Bible / Mark 11:24]
- If you ask anything in my name, I will do it. [Bible / John 14:14]
- And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. [Bible /Mark 16:17-18]
- And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. [Bible / James 5:15]
- Nothing will be impossible for you. [Bible / Matthew 17:20]
- Ask, and it will be given you. [Bible / Matthew 7:7]
Charismatic Christianity grew out of Pentecostalism in the beginning of the 20th century . The idea of miraculous gifts from God has since spread also in other denominations, such as Lutheranism and Catholicism (ibid). My impression is, however, that it is popular mainly in the New World (America and Australia).
CessationismCessationists believe that God did miracles in biblical times, but hold that no more miracles occurred after the apostles . They believe that miracles that are reported today are either fabrications, natural self‐healings, or exaggerations — which is also the atheist point of view. This is the dominant stance in Europe, across denominations.
TelevangelismTelevangelism is the use of television to communicate Christianity . It is particularly popular in North America, and has recently also spread in South America. Many televangelists ask their audience to donate money. Some of them attract huge audiences, and thus make a fortune in the process. They make millions of dollars every year, and spend it on Rolls Royce cars, houses, or private jets. Some televangelists preach the “seed faith”, where people are encouraged to send the televangelist an amount of money, large enough to be a “sacrifice”. This “seed” would serve as a proof for the faith in God, who would then react by blessing the sender with financial success 9. These sacrifices are the pocketed by the televangelist. Usually, such revenue is tax‐free, because it is gathered by a religious organization. In Africa, some “super‐pastors” have accumulated a wealth in the order of 150 million USD, as we have discussed in the Chapter on Founding Religion.
In some cases, this wealth is based on fraud. Televangelists have been known to fake faith healings — or to record dozens of healings and show only those that work . Many of these tricks have been exposed by Marjoe Gortner, a man who was pushed into the preacher career at the age of 4 by his parents. He became a famous rich televangelist, but had a crisis of conscience in 1972. He invited a documentation team to follow him on one of his tours with a hidden camera . In the movie that resulted from this footing, “Marjoe”, he explains his tricks: This is how you induce motherly women to part with their savings. This is when to speak of how Jesus visited you personally. Here is how you put invisible ink on your forehead, in the shape of a cross, so that it will suddenly appear when you start perspiring. These tricks do their work, and the people in the audience weep and yell, and collapse in spasms and fits, shrieking their saviours name [Christopher Hitchens: God is not great / p. 189]. We discuss different such tricks in the Chapter on Proofs for Gods.
The glittering palaces of Las Vegas have been built with the money of those who lost, and not of those who won.
TrinityWe will now discuss a series of Christian beliefs that evolved over time. We start with a belief that is fundamental to most Christian denominations: the trinity of God, i.e., the belief that God is a godhead that consists of the “father god”, the “son god” (Jesus), and the “holy spirit”.
On several occasions in the Bible, Jesus calls himself the “Son of God” . Thus, early Christianity held that Jesus was the child of God. However, it was not entirely clear whether Jesus was as divine as God (see Rejection of Pascal / Divinity for a discussion). This question was known as the Arian controversy . On one hand, Jesus is styled as the “Son of God”, whereas the Father is never styled as the “Father of God”. Jesus said “the Father is greater than I” [Bible / John 14:28, also: Mark 10:17-18, Mark 13:32], that the Father gave him life (Bible / John 5:26), and that he only does the will of the one who sent him (Bible / John 5:30). On the other hand he said “I and the Father are one” [Bible / John 10:30]. Thus, it was not clear whether God and Jesus were different in divinity or not. This question was debated at the First Council of Nicaea, a council of Christian bishops that was established by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 CE. The council decided this question by a vote. Since a slight majority of members voted in favor of divinity, the council declared that Jesus was divine by himself, and equal in divinity to God .
In parallel to this discussion, during the third and fourth century CE, several theologians began developing the idea that God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were one single being . This idea was based on Jesus’ saying that people should baptize children “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” [Bible / Matthew 28:19]. This phrase was interpreted so as to mean that these tree beings are one and the same. In 360 CE, the Council of Constantinople declared what came to be known as the Trinity: that God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit would be different persons, but one being, “God” . Technically, God is thus a Godhead.
Prior to these developments, and in parallel to them, there were also non‐trinitarian beliefs. Sabellianism said that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are not different persons, but different aspects of the same God . For this view, Sabellius was excommunicated for heresy in Rome around 220 CE .
Today, almost all Christian denominations are trinitarian. However, Jehova’s Witnesses, with 8m adherents, hold that only God the Father is God, and that Jesus was a mediator. Mormonism, with 15m adherents, holds that God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct beings .
HeresyHeresy is the formal denial or doubt of a core doctrine of the Christian faith . As we have discussed before, heresy was (or is) punished by death in most world religions. Christianity was no exception. However, modern interpretations of the faith have desisted from this punishment.
Old Testament: Heretics have to be killedThe Old Testament calls for heretics to be killed: “The punishment of such a prophet or dreamer shall be death” [Bible / Deuteronomy 13:5]. More precisely, “It may be that […] men and women of thy race will […] enslave themselves to the worship of other gods. […] if it proves […] true, away with such recreant men or women to the city gate; there let them be killed by stoning” [Bible / Deuteronomy 17].
New Testament: AmbivalenceIn the New Testament, Jesus said “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned” [Bible / John 15:6]. This can still be understood as a metaphor. Paul also stops short of punishing heresy. He rather recommends exclusion: “Give a heretic one warning, then a second, and after that avoid his company; his is a perverse nature, thou mayest be sure.” [Bible / Titus 3:10-11].
Early Christianity: Heretics have to be punished.Early Christianity punished heretics, but several voices argued against the death penalty. In the 5th century, Augustine of Hippo opined that heretics deserve to be punished, but he urged the Church not to execute them. He declared that “we do not wish either to see the exercise of discipline towards them neglected, or, on the other hand, to see them subjected to the severer punishments which they deserve” 10.
In the 11th century, the Council of Toulouse required that “bishops [must] search out heretics in their parishes, individual suspicious houses, subterranean rooms and additions to houses, and other hiding places” 11, so that the “heretic [be] duly punished” (ibid). However, Pope Alexander II prohibited the death penalty in a letter to the Archbishop of Narbonne 12.
In 1184, Pope Lucius III declared in a papal bull that heresy was to be eradicated entirely 13. Those accused of heresy were to be handed down their “due penalty”. All those who supported heresy were deprived of the right to hold public office, the right to trial, the right to draft a will, and the heritability of their fiefs and offices. The people would be required to swear under oath anything they knew about heretical activity. All oath‐breakers were to be treated as heretics.
Pope Innocence III followed up in 1199, declaring that goods of heretics should be confiscated 14. The Twelfth Ecumenical Council agreed in 1215, stating that heretics should have their property confiscated, shall not be admitted to public offices or deliberations, may not take part elections, may not give testimony in a court, may not write a will, and were deprived of the right of inheritance 15.
In 1232, Pope Gregory IX declared that those who do not repent their heresy shall be imprisoned for life (“in perpetuo carcere detrudantur”) 16. In his papal bull “Excommunicamus”, he also established the tribunal of the Papal Inquisition , concerned with finding and punishing heretics.
In 1252, Pope Innocent IV declared in his papal bull “Ad extirpanda” that no heretic shall be have the right to “maintain a bare subsistence in the country” 17. On the contrary, “those convicted of heresy […] shall be taken in shackles” [ibid / Law 24]. Such penalties could not be pardoned [ibid / Law 32]. Furthermore, “whoever shall find the heretical man or woman shall boldly seize, with impunity, all his or their goods”. The pressure is extended to every citizen, because the papal aide may “if it seem good to them, [compel] the whole neighborhood, to testify to the aforesaid inquisitors if they have detected any heretics” [ibid / Law 30]. Finally, “the head of state or ruler must force all the heretics whom he has in custody […] to confess their errors and accuse other heretics whom they know — provided he does so without killing them or breaking their arms or legs” [ibid / Law 25]. The bull was interpreted so as to authorize the use of torture by the Inquisition for eliciting confessions from heretics .
Also in the 13th century, Thomas of Aquinas argued that “With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. […] Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death. On the part of the Church, however, […] she condemns not at once, but “after the first and second admonition” […] After that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death.” 18.
In 1478, Pope Sixtus IV handed over the inquisition to the secular authorities. In his papal bull “Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus”, he gave the monarchs exclusive authority to name the inquisitors in their kingdoms . From then on, Portugal and Spain launched extensive raids on heretics and suspected heretics in their kingdoms. Officials could apply torture to make victims confess to heresy. The convicted were then taken outside the city walls to the burning place — a public ritual known as auto‐da‐fé. There, their sentences would be read. Some would be acquitted. Others would be punished. Artistic representations of the auto‐da‐fé usually depict physical punishment such as whipping, torture, and burning at the stake. .
Catholicism: Heretics have to be killed. Today: Freedom of religion.In 1520, Pope Leo X approved of the execution by fire. In his papal bull “Exsurge Domine”, he refuted Martin Luther’s thesis that heretics shall not be burnt alive 19. All in all, tens of thousands of people were drawn into the system of the inquisition. Thousands of people were executed.
The inquisition ended in the 19th century, with the wars of independence in the Spanish empire, the Liberal Revolution in Portugal, and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France. The Catholic Encyclopedia from 1907 still explained that “to restrain and bring back her rebellious sons the Church uses both her own spiritual power and the secular power at her command.” 20. It also justified the inquisition, saying that “All repressive measures cause suffering or inconvenience of some sort: it is their nature. But they are not therefore cruel.” [ibid] In 1917, the Canon Law still saw heresy as a crime against the church and and as an infamy 21. However, it freed suspects from the need to incriminate themselves (“nisi agatur de delicto ab ipsis commisso”) 21.
Finally, in 1965, the second Vatican Council decided that “the human person has a right to religious freedom” 22. More precisely, “the Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion.” 23. Equally since 1965, “torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself […] are supreme dishonor to the Creator” 24.
Anglican Church, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy: No large‐scale persecution of hereticsThe Orthodox Church, the Protestant movements, and the Anglican Church all split from the Catholic Church over the centuries. They had their share of violence. However, they did not have the large‐scale brutal persecution of people who did not share their doctrine. The American Protestant movements (Baptists and Pentecostals) formed after the constitution of the US guaranteed freedom of religion. Hence, they do not know penalties for heretics. They use social pressure instead.
As for Anglicanism: When it emerged in 2014 that some percentage of Anglican priests do not believe in God, the General Synod gracefully decided to abstain from heresy trials 25.
Religion comes begging to us
when it can no longer burn us.
Witch‐huntsA witch is a woman who can do magical deeds. In an atheist world, such people do not exist. In the Christian world, witchcraft was first denied. Then, witchcraft was considered evil, and witches were persecuted and killed. This opinion changed later, and today, witches are no longer killed. Still, the different churches have different opinions as to whether witchcraft exists.
Bible: witchcraft exists, witches have to be killedThe Old Testament acknowledges the existence of witches, and calls for their execution. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” [Bible / Exodus 22:18] The penalty is stoning: “A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them” [Bible / Leviticus 20:27].
The New Testament also acknowledges the existence of witches, and warns us not to follow sorcery (Bible / Galatians 5:20; Apocalypse 21:8; Apocalypse 22:15; Acts 8:9; Acts 13:6).
Early Christianity: witch‐craft does not existEarly Christianity held that witchcraft did not exist, and that, hence, women who were suspected to be witches should not be killed. The Edictum Rothari, a secular law code for Lombardy in Italy, stated in 643 that it was impossible for Christians to believe in witchcraft: “Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female slave as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds” 26. Charlemagne, likewise, outlawed belief in witchcraft as pagan, and punishable by death 27. This was echoed in the 785 Council of Paderborn (Catholic Encyclopedia / Witchcraft; I could not find the original text, nor whether this council had papal approval). Another important document in this direction was the Canon Episcopi, a legal text recorded by Regino of Prüm in the 10th century, and supported by Burchard of Worms. This document talks about “unconstrained women” who say they “they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana” — i.e., about witches. The text goes on to call on the priests to “preach with all insistence to the people that they may know this to be in every way false”, because “all that whoever believes in such things, or similar things, loses the Faith” [Decretum Gratiani / Causa 26 / Questio 5 / Canon 12; English translation]. This text was included in Gratian’s authoritative Corpus juris canonici of c. 1140 and as such became part of canon law during the High Middle Ages .
In 1080, suspected witches were killed in Denmark because they presumably caused storms, failure of crops or pestilence. At that time, Pope Gregory VII wrote to King Harald III of Denmark forbidding witches to be put to death 28.
See Bible Apologetics: Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (3/12) for more official statements, which I could not source.
Catholicism: persecution of witches. Today: no torture, but witchcraft exists and remains offenseBy the 15th century, the inquisition was in place. In 1484, two German inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, asked the pope to permit them to prosecute also cases of witchcraft. Pope Innocent VIII complied, and issued the bull “Summis desiderantes affectibus” on December 5, 1484 . It talks about men and women who “give themselves over to devils” and, by this, “cause to perish the grapes of vines, and the fruits of trees, […] hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving”. Thus, the bull acknowledges the existence of witchcraft. The text goes on to grant the inquisitors the right to proceed “correcting, imprisoning, punishing and chastising, according to their deserts, those persons whom they shall find guilty as aforesaid” [Pope Innocent VIII: Summis desiderantes affectibus, 1484-12-05; English translation]. In 1486, said Heinrich Kramer published a book called “Malleus Maleficarum”, rendered in English as “Hammer of the Witches” and in German as “Der Hexenhammer”. It argued that witchcraft existed, and that suspected witches should be prosecuted, tortured, and punished. The book enjoyed wide‐spread popularity in Europe — also thanks to the invention of the printing press. The Catholic Church, though, condemned the Malleus Maleficarum .
The 17th century saw the establishment of milder procedures against witches, but upheld the existence of witchcraft and the punishment of witches. In 1623, Pope Gregory XV issued the “Declaration against Magicians and Witches” [Pope Gregory XV: Omnipotentis Dei, 1623-03-20], which was the last papal ordinance against witchcraft. Former punishments were lessened, and the death penalty was limited to those who were “proved to have entered into a compact with the devil, and to have committed homicide with his assistance” [Wikipedia / Pope Gregory XV; I could not find the original source]. In 1657, the Congregation of the Holy Office published the “Instruction for Conducting Trial Procedures against Witches, Sorcerers, and Evildoers”. The instruction deplores that inquisitors pass to inquisition, incarceration, and torture against witches (Congregation of the Holy Office: Instructio pro formandis processibus in causis strigum, sortilegiorum, maleficiorum / “Error principalis…”, 1657; Italian translation). The document clarifies that torture shall only be applied once the case of witchcraft has duly been established. In any case, the title of the document leaves no doubt that witchcraft was assumed to exist, and that witches should be punished.
The witch trials were of excruciating brutality. Witches would be denounced, stripped naked, tortured, drowned, and burnt alive at the stake. The entire procedure is described on Wikipedia. All in all, between 25,000 and 30,000 supposed witches were executed in the Holy Roman Empire, 1000 people in France, and 1000 people in Southern Europe . The Catholic Church did not execute all of these people herself. However, she delivered theological justification for the killings.
The witch‐hunts ceased in the 18th century — without an explicit theological reason. Still in 1917, the Catholic Encyclopedia did not rule out the existence of witchcraft: “The question of the reality of witchcraft is one upon which it is not easy to pass a confident judgment. […] The abstract possibility of a pact with the Devil can hardly be denied.” 28. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, likewise, condemns “All practices of magic or sorcery” 29.
The Catholic Church has so far not rehabilitated the victims of the witch‐hunts. However, at least witchcraft is no longer punishable by torture. This is because, since 1965, “torments inflicted on body or mind […] are supreme dishonor to the Creator” 24.
Protestantism: witches to be burnt at the stake. Today: witchcraft exists.Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, wrote that “indeed such witchcraft and sorcery there is”. He witnessed it himself, because “When [he] was a child there were many witches and sorcerers around who “bewitched” cattle, and people, particularly children, and did much harm.” [Martin Luther: A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians]. As for the punishment, he explains that “there is no compassion to be had for these women; I would burn them myself” (“de veneficis et incantatricibus […] cum illis nulla habenda misericordia. Ich wolte sie selber verbrennen”, in D. Martin Luthers Werke / Tischreden / 1. Band / Year 1538 / Number 3979, 1916). In his sermons, he demanded that witches be tortured and burnt at the stake (see a list of these sermons in Arbeitskreis Hexenprozesse: Betr. 500. Jahrestag der Reformation: Luther und die Hexenprozesse / Appendix). John Calvin, likewise, acknowledged the existence of witchcraft 30.
Between 25,000 and 30,000 supposed witches were killed in the Holy Roman Empire, which included the Protestant Netherlands, Protestant Switzerland, and Protestant parts of Germany. Around 2000 witches were executed in Protestant Scandinavia .
The witch‐hunts in Protestant lands ceased in the 18th century, without a particular theological reason. As of 2012, the Protestant Church of Germany has not yet rehabilitated the supposed witches Arbeitskreis Hexenprozesse: Betr. 500. Jahrestag der Reformation: Luther und die Hexenprozesse, 2012. The Church has also not distanced itself from Martin Luther’s instructions to torture and kill witches. On the contrary, as of 2015, Martin Luther’s prohibition to do sorcery is still part of the foundations of the faith of the Protestant Churches of Germany 31.
In America, witch‐hunts were less prevalent. The most prominent witch trial was the Salem Witch Trial, which took place in 1692 in Massachusetts and resulted in 20 executions. These took place in the Puritan society at the time, which evolved from Anglicanism and later gave rise to the Baptist and Pentecostal movements. The community regretted the executions, and 10 years later, the church voted to reverse the excommunication of one of the suspected witches. In 2001, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act exonerating all who had been convicted . Today, the concept of witches plays no major role in the American Protestant movements. However, Pentecostalism holds that witchcraft exists, and that children should be kept away from the “darker aspects” of Halloween for that reason 32. Baptists, likewise, hold that witchcraft exists, and that the Bible warns against it (New Age, Low-tech path to clean water reveals God’s love; linked from Southern Baptist Convention).
Anglicanism: witches condemned to death. Today: witchcraft does not exist.In 1542 The British Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, which defined witchcraft as a crime punishable by death. It was repealed five years later, but restored by a new Act in 1562 33. As all acts, these acts required assent by the king to become law . The king, in turn, is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England .
In 1735, parliament passed the opposite law: The Witchcraft Act of 1735 stated that “no Prosecution, Suit, or Proceeding, shall be commenced or carried on against any Person or Persons for Witchcraft” 34. Thus, the persecution of witches ceased, and is nowadays no longer part of the Anglican faith. The Church of England has so far not rehabilitated the victims.
Orthodoxy: no persecution of witchesI found no sources about witch‐hunts in Orthodox Christianity.
I have as much authority as the pope. I just don’t has as many people who believe it.
Book CensorshipBook censorship is the prohibition of the printing, possession, or reading of certain books — under penalties in this world or the next. Keeping books out of the hands of the adherents was a popular strategy in several religions. Catholicism first engaged in censorship, but then gave up on it.
Early Christianity: burning of unapproved booksThe Bible mentions that pagans who converted to Christianity burnt their own heathen books (Bible / Acts 19:19). Apart from that, however, the Bible is remarkably liberal about the distribution of books — quite possibly because the printing press was invented only in 1440.
The First Council of Nicaea (325 CE) was concerned with the question of how God created Jesus. They decided that Jesus had been “begotten” by the Father, and not been created out of nothing. Consequently, they banned the book “Thalia” by the priest Arius, which held the second position. The writings of Arius and his friends should everywhere be delivered up to be burned; concealment of them was forbidden under pain of death 35. The popes continued this tradition, and heretic books were “to be destroyed by fire, and illegal preservation of them was treated as a heinous criminal offense” [ibid].
In 1440, the printing press was invented in Europe, and books could thus be distributed and read much more readily. In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII issued the first bull that explicitly prohibits the printing of certain books. It says that he prohibits any printing without prior consent from the Curia under penalty of excommunication 36. In 1515, Pope Leo X followed suit, and ordained that “henceforth, for all future time, no one may dare to print or have printed any book or other writing of whatever kind in Rome or in any other cities and dioceses, without the book or writings having first been closely examined […] by the bishop” 37. Books that were printed in defiance of this regulation were to be publicly burnt, and the printers punished.
Catholicism: Systematic prohibition of booksIn 1559, Pope Paul IV published the first “Index of Prohibited Books” (“Index librorum prohibitorum”). However, it was considered too rigorous, and mitigated by decree of the Holy Office in the same year 38. It was replaced by what became known as the “Pauline Index”. This document prescribes punishment for all those who dare writing, printing, distributing, or reading any of the books listed in the appendix of the document 39. This list contained hundreds of prohibited works, most notably the works of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther.
In 1564, Pope Pius IV approved the “10 Tridentine Rules”, which were decided at the 1546 Council of Trent. This council ruled that “those who possess [books that professedly deal with things lascivious or obscene] are to be severely punished by the bishops”. “If anyone should read or possess books by heretics […], he incurs immediately the sentence of excommunication. He […] who reads or possesses books prohibited under another name shall, besides incurring the guilt of mortal sin, be severely punished according to the judgment of the bishops.” 40
Since then, the index of prohibited books has been continuously updated. Over the time, it contained the works by Jean-Paul Sartre, Montaigne, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, René Descartes, John Locke, and Blaise Pascal 41. In 1616, the index banned all works that advocated heliocentrism (the theory that the earth rotates around the sun). This included works by Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei. In 1758, this ban was lifted for unknown reasons .
In 1897, Pope Leo XIV abrogated the Tridentine rules with his Bull “Officiormum ac Munerum”. He explains that “the Church […], fearful of so great an evil, has ever striven […] to restrain men from the reading of bad books, as from a deadly poison”. However, he decided “to make [the rules] somewhat milder, so that it cannot be difficult or irksome for any person of good‐will to obey them” 42. He prohibited “the books of apostates, heretics, schismatics, and all writers whatsoever, defending heresy or schism, or in any way attacking the foundations of Religion”, “all versions of the Holy Bible, in any vernacular language, made by non-Catholics”, “Books which professedly treat of, narrate, or teach lewd or obscene subjects”, “the books of classical authors, whether ancient or modern, if disfigured with the same stain of indecency”, “Books [that] narrate new apparitions, revelations,visions, prophecies, miracles, or which introduce new devotions”, “books [that] defend as lawful duelling, suicide, or divorce; which treat of Freemasonry”, unlicensed “books of Prayers, Devotions, or of Religious, Moral, Ascetic, or Mystic Doctrine and Instruction” [ibid]. He concludes that “No one shall venture to republish books condemned by the Apostolic See”, and that “booksellers, especially Catholics, should neither sell, lend, nor keep books professedly treating of obscene subjects” [ibid]. Interestingly, these constraints apply also to non-Catholics. If someone knowingly reads a book of an apostate, or prints it, he suffers excommunication ipso facto (ibid).
The Bull “Officiormum ac Munerum” remained in force. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1917 explains that “Unrestraint of intellect and will is the real cause of [danger]. The so‐called freedom of the press, or the abolition of public censorship, is largely responsible for this unrestraint.” 35 The 1918 Code of Canon Law prohibited books that “purposely fight against religion”, “books of any writers defending heresy or schism”, and “books which attack or ridicule any of the Catholic dogmas” 43. It ruled that “forbidden books may not without permission be published, read, retained, sold, nor translated into another language, nor made known to others in any way” (ibid / § 1241). In 1948, the index of prohibited books contained 4000 books 44.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI restructured the Holy Office in a papal decree, and no longer mentioned the index of prohibited books. This led to questions as to whether the index still existed. This question was answered half a year later, explaining that the index still had its moral force, but “no longer had the force of ecclesiastical positive law with the associated penalties” 45.
Anglicanism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy: No large‐scale prohibitionAnglicanism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy have no history of prohibiting books as vigorously as Catholicism. On the contrary, Protestantism could flourish also because the printing press was invented. Hence, this denomination has been a major proponent of literacy. Historically, Protestantism explains almost all of the difference in literacy between northwestern Europe and the rest of the subcontinent 1.
American Protestantism: ControversiesAmong American Protestants, this advocacy of reading finds some limitations. Some books are controversial among Pentecostals. The Harry Potter books are criticized for advertising witchcraft. Some have argued that they “pose long‐term threat to Judeo‐Christian faith and culture”. Hence, members of one of the churches have burnt the books (Joan Rhoden: What’s Harry doing in the Potter’s house?, Wikipedia / Religious debates over the Harry Potter series). The book about “The Da Vinci Code”, likewise, has attracted criticism for presenting early Christianity in a false light, to which only the Bible can be an “antidote” (Roger Cotton: Response to The Da Vinci Code; both references from the Assemblies of God homepage). Among Baptists, some consider that the movie “The Golden Compass” should be seen only by those firm in the Gospels (Garrett E. Wishall: “The Golden Compass” is a blatant attack on Christianity, Mohler says; linked from Southern Baptist Convention).
From an atheist point of view, Harry Potter books are simply fiction. This is easy to see, because they contain magical stories. Christians, however, cannot agree that magical stories are fiction, because this would catapult the Bible into the domain of fiction, too. Thus, the only means they have to delineate the “true” magic from the “false” magic is to make sure that people follow their own teaching. Hence, they engage in the fight of one fiction (Harry Potter) in against another fiction (the Bible). Fiction or not, Christians should take less offense with books that contradict their beliefs. Atheists, for example, do not burn Bibles, even though the Bibles contain fiction that contradict their beliefs (as well as contradicting science).
Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
(Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.)
Reading the BibleThis book has argued that the Bible contains an enormous amount of absurdity. It is not without reason that atheists quip that reading the Bible is the safest way to become an atheist. Therefore, the Catholic Church once forbid reading the Bible to the laity. This prohibition has since been turned into an encouragement to read the scripture.
Complexity of the ScriptureIn the Bible itself, Saint Peter already observes that “Paul writes the same way in all his letters […]. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” [Bible / 2 Peter 3:16] In 1199, Pope Innocent III agreed, and said that “Such is the profundity of divine Scripture, that not only simple and illiterate men, but even prudent and learned men do not fully suffice to investigate its wisdom” 46.
ProhibitionIn 1056, the Council of Toulouse ruled that “Lay people are not permitted to possess the books of the Old and New Testament” 11. This rule applied only to the local area of Toulouse.
In 1564, Pope Pius IV approved the “10 Tridentine Rules”, which were decided at the 1546 Council of Trent. This council ruled that “Those who presume to read or possess [translations of the Bible] without [written] permission may not receive absolution from their sins till they have handed them over to the ordinary” 40. This happened mainly in reaction to the Protestant movement initiated by Martin Luther and Calvin. The Catholic Church feared that a vulgarization and ubiquitous access to the scripture would give rise to readings that differed from the official Catholic one. Hence, the church insisted that the scripture should pass to the common people only through the interpretation of church personnel. The prohibition to read the Bible remained in place through the centuries, with various minor updates 47.
First signs of change came in the 19th century. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that Pope Gregory XVI “seems to render it clear that henceforth the laity may read vernacular versions of the Scriptures, if they be […] approved by the Holy See” 47. However, no such wording is found in his 1844 letter. On the contrary, the letter complains about Biblical Societies that “conspire to publish in great numbers copies of the books of divine Scripture. These are translated into all kinds of vernacular languages for dissemination without discrimination among both Christians and infidels”. This is called “absurd” 48. The letter reminds us that, following the Council of Trent, “vernacular Bibles are forbidden except to those for whom it is judged that the reading will contribute to the increase of faith and piety”, and confirms “the prescriptions listed and published long ago concerning the publication, dissemination, reading, and possession of vernacular translations of sacred Scriptures” 48.
PermissionIn 1897, Pope Leo XIII declared that “all versions in the vernacular, even by Catholics, are altogether prohibited, unless approved by the Holy See” 42. This sounds like yet another prohibition. And yet, it actually means that the laity was for the first time allowed to read the Bible — at least in the versions approved by the Holy See. The 1918 Canon Code complies, and says that “Books of the sacred scriptures cannot be published unless the Apostolic See […] has approved them. For the publication of their translations into the vernacular, it is also required that they be approved by the same authority” 48.
Since 1992, “The Church forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures” 49.
The reason why you can’t read the Bible yourself, and the reason why only trained theologians can interpret a book written by God, and the reason why the Bible is actually concretely incorrect in so many places (despite any interpretation) is because God is imaginary. If God were real, and if God had actually written a book, the book would be brilliant and inspiring for everybody.
SalvationThe question of salvation is whether people who do not believe in Christian dogma can go to Heaven or not. This concerns in particular Christians of other denominations, adherents of non-Christian abrahamic religions (such as Jews and Muslims), people who have not come in touch with Christianity, and those who reject it (such as atheists). Different times, and different denominations, have seen different answers to this question.
The Bible and early Christianity: Belief is necessary for salvationJesus tells us that “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” [Bible / Mark 16:16]. This is because “He that is not with me, is against me; and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth” [Bible / Luke 11:23]. Saint Paul agrees, and says “God will punish those who do not know him, and do not follow the gospel of Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction [...]” [Bible / 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9]. In the 5th century, Saint Augustine concurs, writing that “Salvation [man] cannot find except in the Catholic Church.” [Saint Augustine: Sermo ad Caesariensis Ecclesiae Plebem / 6; English translation]. This formula was reiterated over the centuries by popes, councils, and papal bulls (Wikipedia / Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus; TraditionalCatholic.net: Salvation Outside the Church?; Raymond Taouk: The Catholic Doctrine of No Salvation Outside the Church; Religious Tolerance: Can non-Catholics be saved, according to the Roman Catholic Church?), most notably by the 4th Lateran Council 15.
In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII explained that “it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” 50. In 1441, Pope Eugene IV explained that “not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics” are condemned to hellfire 51. This attitude contributed to the violent wars between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century. At the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 in France, Catholic mob violence killed the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) in the thousands . In deep thankfulness, Pope Gregory XIII had a medal struck with the motto “Slaughter of the Hugenots” , showing an angel bearing a cross and sword before which are the felled Protestants (ibid). He also ordered three of the rooms in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican to be decorated with a fresco of the massacre (ibid; Y. N. Harari: “Sapiens”, p. 241).
Catholicism: No salvation outside the church. Today: Salvation possibleIn 1832, Pope Gregory XVI cited Saint Ignatius, saying that “if anyone follows a schismatic, he will not attain the inheritance of the kingdom of God” 52. And yet, in 1854, Pope Pius IX opened at least a door to the ignorant: “Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control” 53. He reaffirmed this later, saying that “those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion […] are able to attain eternal life” 54.
In 1863, Pope Pius IX said that it is a mistake to assume that “men living in error, and separated from the true faith and from Catholic unity, can attain eternal life” 54. In 1864, the First Vatican Council re‐affirmed that nobody can attain eternal life without faith 5. Furthermore, the faithful have to be obedient to the Roman Pope, and “no one can depart from [this belief] without endangering his faith and salvation” 5. In 1922, Pope Benedict XV recalled the Athanas Creed: “This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved”. In 1939, Pope Pius XI reiterated that there is no salvation outside the Church, and explained that “in this one Church of Christ no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors” 55.
For unknown reasons, the Catholic Church changed its mind in 1964 with the Second Vatican Council. Jews, Protestants (Schismatics), and adherents of other religions (those who do not accept the supremacy of the Popes) can now attain salvation:
- “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ” 56.
- Jews and Muslims
- “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims” 56. And hence “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems” 23. The Jews, likewise, “should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.” 23
- Other religions
- Nothing is known about their ability to grant salvation, but they do contain some truths. “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” 23
- Schismatics (Protestants)
- “The brethren divided from us also use many liturgical actions of the Christian religion. […] These liturgical actions must be regarded as capable of giving access to the community of salvation.” 57
Early Protestantism: No salvation outside the churchProtestantism rose from the workings of Martin Luther. Luther explained that “he who would find Christ must first find the Church. […] he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. […] Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people [and] outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.” 60 The Jews, in particular, are “no people of God”. Luther argued that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes burned, and property and money confiscated 61.
Lutheranism today: No hell anywayIn 1967, 78% of protestants in Germany believed that there is no hell 62, which arguably makes the concept of salvation more difficult. Accordingly, the Protestant Church of Germany explains that “Hell plays no role any more” 63. Thus, the question of salvation became less interesting.
American Protestantism: No salvation outside the churchThings are different in the American flavors of Protestantism. For Pentecostals, “you must believe […] that only Christ can save you” in order to achieve salvation 64. Baptists, likewise, say “What must I do [to achieve salvation]? Personal faith in Christ is the answer.” [Southwestern Baptist theological seminary: Man’s Need for Salvation, linked from Southern Baptist Convention].
Anglicanism: No salvation without faith in JesusThe Anglican Church holds that “knowledge of God, and of his will, […] is necessary unto salvation”, “requiring […] faith in [Jesus to] be saved”, and speaking of “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” 65. This declaration was ratified by the parliament, thus making it possibly binding to God. However, in a reconciliatory nod to Catholics, the Church of Scotland later decided that it “no longer affirms [that the Pope of Rome] is Antichrist, that Man of Sin and Son of Perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God” [ibid].
Orthodoxy: Salvation by good deedsThe Orthodox Church of America explains that, on the day of the Last Judgement, “Christ will judge all men exclusively on the basis of how they have served Him by serving all men — the least of the brethren” 66. Belief in Jesus or God is not mentioned as a criterion.
I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Almighty Creator. By fighting the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.
HellIn Christianity, hell is the place or state where bad people go after death. This is a popular theme in all major religions. While hell was first a place of physical torment for eternity in Christianity, these conditions have since been relaxed.
Old Testament: Hell is only vaguely alluded toBefore Jesus, hell was only vaguely described (Bible / Daniel 12:2), and thought to be limited in time.
New Testament and Early Christianity: Hell is a physical placeIn the New Testament, Jesus introduces the idea of hell as a place of eternal physical torments. It is a place of “unquenchable fire” [Bible / Matthew 5:22, 18:8-9; Bible / Mark 9:43-49, Revelation 20:13] into which the body is thrown (Bible / Matthew 5:29, 5:30) after sinning (Bible / Matthew 5:22, Revelation 20:30). Hell has “weeping and gnashing of teeth” [Bible / Matthew 8:12; 22:13], “everlasting destruction” [Bible / Romans 2:7-9; Bible / 2 Thessalonians], “raging fire” [Bible / Hebrews 10:27], “destruction” [Bible / 2 Peter 3:7] and “eternal fire” [Bible / Jude 7], and “burning sulphur” where “the devil, the beast, and false prophet” will be “tormented day and night for ever and ever” [Bible / Revelation 20:10, Lukas 16:19-31] along with those who worship the beast or receive its mark (Bible / Revelation 14:11) . This torment is eternal (Bible / Revelation 14:11, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Matthew 25:46, Matthew 18:8).
Throughout the centuries, people continued to believe that hell was a physical place of physical torments in eternity, as shown in numerous artworks 67.
Anglicanism: Hell is eternal tormentsThe Anglican Church confirmed hell as a physical torment in 1646: “but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” 65. While other articles of faith have been repealed since then, the one on hell has not.
Catholicism: Hell is physical torments. Today: Hell is a state of separation form GodIn the Catholic Church, the interpretation of a physical hell stood all the way until 1917. As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains: “According to the greater number of theologians the term fire denotes a material fire, and so a real fire. We hold to this teaching as absolutely true and correct.” 68 Furthermore, “From what has been said it follows that the hatred which the lost soul bears to God is voluntary in its cause only” [ibid], and involuntary during the process.
The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the Bible on the unquenchable fire. However, the text uses the word only in quotes: Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire” 69. In 1999, the Catholic Church decided to turn off the fires in hell. Pope John Paul II explained that “rather than a place, hell indicates the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy” 70. The Jesuit Magazine La Civiltà Cattolica says that God does not inflict pain in hell “as illustrated in many paintings or read in the Divine Comedy” 71.
Lutheranism: Hell not importantIn Lutheranism, the role of hell is less clear. Martin Luther, the founder of the movement, believed that souls sleep and do not feel pain . Today, the Protestant Church of Germany explains that, in its teaching, “Hell plays no role any more” 63.
American Protestantisms: Physical hellIn the American Protestantisms, hell continues to be a place of physical torment. For the Pentecostals, the Bible talks of hell as a “lake of fire”, and “the language of Scripture should always be taken literally” 72. However, “human language is inadequate to describe either heaven or hell”, and therefore hell is described rather abstractly as a place of “eternal torture” [ibid]. Are excluded from this punishment babies and those who have never heard the gospels.
Orthodoxy: No physical fireThe Orthodox Church of America holds that “God does not punish man by some material fire or physical torment.” 75.
It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me. It is the parts that I do understand.
AbortionAbortion is the termination of pregnancy. Over the centuries, Christianity had different stances towards the question whether abortion is the same as murder or not.
Early Christianity: Abortion is not murderAbortion was known and practiced in the ancient Greek and Roman world . During that time, people believed Aristotle’s theory of “delayed ensoulment”, which held that the fetus receives a human soul only 40 days after conception for male fetuses, or 90 days after conception for female fetuses 76. Hence, abortion was not regarded as murder.
The Bible concurs: It establishes the death penalty for killing a human (Bible / Exodus 21:12). However, for inducing a miscarriage, it just establishes financial compensation, because the miscarriage does not count as “serious injury”:
However, between the 1st and 4th century, several Christian thinkers began condemning abortion as murder: Barnabas, St. Hippolytus, St. Basil the Great, and St. Ambrose . Several synods and documents agreed: the Synod of Elvira in 306 CE, the Synod of Ancyra in 314 CE, the Apostolic Constitutions from around 380 CE, and the Apocalypse of Peter all called abortion murder (ibid).
Between the 5th and 16th century, people debated whether abortion was murder or not, because it was not clear when the fetus starts having a soul. This was one of the questions that troubled Saint Augustine, also known as Augustine of Hippo, “one of the most important Church Fathers in Western Christianity”, who lived around 400 CE . He condemned abortion in general (ibid), but conceded that “the law does not provide that the act abortion pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation when it is not formed in the flesh, and so not yet endowed with sense” [Saint Augustine: On Exodus / 21.80]. Another theologian, Thomas of Aquinas, considered abortion murder only if the fetus was “animated” 77.
Catholicism: Abortion briefly allowed, but generally condemnedIn 1588, Pope Sixtus V issued the bull “Effraenatum” that excommunicated anyone who performed abortion. Pope Gregory XIV reversed that decision in 1591, and stated that excommunication was only applicable for abortions after the “quickening” of the fetus 78. This quickening was placed 16 weeks of pregnancy 79. This ruling stayed in effect until 1869. Thus, abortion during the first weeks of pregnancy remained legal during 2.5 centuries.
In 1869, Pope Pius IX reinstated excommunication for abortion in general 76. The Second Vatican Council affirmed in 1965 that “Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes” 80, and this decision was also pinned down in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 81.
Usually, abortions can only be forgiven by bishops in the Catholic Church. However, on 2015-09-01, Pope Francis decided that abortions can also be forgiven by priests 82. This offer was valid for one year only (December 2015 to November 2016).
Anglicanism: Abortion condemned, but tolerableThe Church of England condemns abortion, but recognizes that “there can be — strictly limited — conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative” 83.
Protestantism: Different opinionsThe German Protestant Churches condemn abortion, but recognize that there can be several reasons that make women abort 84. The churches state that they have not been able to find a definite position on the issue of abortion 85.
For Pentecostals, the question of whether to abort or not “is settled by theological statement of Scripture, not by a medical determination of viability outside the mother’s womb” 86. Hence, in their view, abortion is “horrendous murder” [ibid]. If the mother’s life is in danger, people should pray for her, then consult a pro‐life physician, and then arrive “at the proper conclusion” [ibid].
Baptists speak of the “sanctity of life”, but want to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother” 87.
Orthodoxy: Abortion is evilThe Orthodox Churches denounce abortion as a “evil practice”, but “seek to alleviate the conditions of those tempted into such a decision because of their harsh environments or marginalized social status” 88.
Birth ControlDifferent times, and different Christian denominations, have different attitudes towards sex. As an example, we study here the question of whether contraception is allowed or not. Most major religions warn of contraception in order to maximize the number of their adherents.
The Bible and Early Christianity: Probably prohibitionBirth control and abortion were well known in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt in the 2nd millenium before Christ — hundreds of years before the Bible was written or before the Abrahamic God came into existence. The Bible tells us the story of Onan, who was commanded to sleep with his brother’s wife in order to raise offspring for him. But whenever Onan “slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother” [Bible / Genesis 38:8-10]. The story goes on to condemn this behavior: “What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death” [ibid]. Unfortunately, the Lord did not make very clear what exactly he did not like. The mainstream interpretation was that God did not like the ejaculation without the purpose of reproduction . With this interpretation, Christianity is in line with many other dominant religions. They aim to assure that all sexual energy is channeled into procreation, so that the religion continues in the next generation.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII lamented against witches, who “hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving” [Pope Innocent VIII: Summis desiderantes affectibus, 1484-12-05; English translation]. This was interpreted as a condemnation of contraception.
Catholicism: ProhibitionIn 1930, “the Catholic Church, to whom God has entrusted the defense of the integrity and purity of morals, standing erect in the midst of the moral ruin which surrounds her” clarified that “any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against the law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin” 89. Consequently, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “every action which [..] proposes […] to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” 90.
Anglicanism: First prohibition, then permissionIn 1908, the Church of England regarded “with alarm the growing practice of the artificial restriction of the family, and earnestly calls upon all Christian people to discountenance the use of all artificial means of restriction as demoralising to character and hostile to national welfare” 91. 10 years later, sexual love started to be seen as good in itself 92. Therefore, the Church decided in 1930 that “in those cases where there is such a clearly felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood, and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence, the Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of the same Christian principles” 93. By the time of the 1958 Lambeth Conference, contraception was a way of life among most Anglicans 92. Therefore, the Church decided in 1958 that “the responsibility for deciding upon the number and frequency of children has been laid by God upon the consciences of parents everywhere; that this planning, in such ways as are mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience, is a right and important factor in Christian family life” 94. Finally, The Church distanced itself from the Catholic prohibition of contraception: “The Conference finds itself unable to agree with the Pope’s conclusion that all methods of conception control other than abstinence from sexual intercourse or its confinement to periods of infecundity are contrary to the order established by God.” 95 Thus, Anglican thinking changed during the 20th Century from concern about increased use of contraception to official acceptance of it 92.
Protestantism: PermissionIn 1938, Baptists disapproved of the idea “to make possible and provide for the dissemination of information concerning contraceptives and birth control; whatever the intent and motive of such proposal we cannot but believe that such legislation would be vicious in character and would prove seriously detrimental to the morals of our nation” 96. However, in 1977, the Baptists dropped their opposition to birth control, and objected only to “distributing them to minors [without] parental or guardian consent” 97.
Pentecostals believe that “there are valid reasons for delaying, limiting, or not having children”. Therefore, they “recognize the legitimacy of good family planning and the use of birth control” 98.
Lutherans, likewise “explicitly approve of artificial birth control” 84.
Orthodoxy: Reluctant PermissionOrthodoxy allows contraception, as long as it does “not cause an abortion” 99. Still, it makes it pretty clear that “True love in marriage supposes the bearing of children” 100. Hence, “The voluntary control of birth in marriage is only permissible, according to the essence of a spiritual life, when the birth of a child will bring danger and hardship”, and “the Christian marriage is the one that abounds with as many new children as possible” [ibid].
EvolutionDifferent times, and different Christian denominations, have different attitudes concerning the literal reading of the Bible. As an example, we take here the biblical creation story. The Bible tells us that God created two humans, Adam and Eve, from whom all mankind descends. Science, in contrast, tells us that all organisms (including humankind) evolved from a common ancestor. Over time, different Christian denominations have taken different stances in this dilemma.
Bible and Early Christianity: No mention of evolutionThe Bible tells us that “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” [Bible / Genesis 2:15]. “Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”” [Bible / Genesis 2:18] “So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” [Bible / Genesis 2:21-22] In the coming centuries, Christianity stuck to the literal interpretation of this narrative.
In the 17th century, philosophers began proposing the idea that the universe might have developed on its own, without divine guidance . By the 19th century, this idea was supported by a better understanding of the fossil record. In 1858, Charles Darwin published his book “On the Origin of Species”, which formalized the theory of evolution by natural selection. It took Christian denominations around 50 years to react to this theory.
Catholicism: first opposition, then acceptance of evolutionIn 1950, Pope Pius XII explained that the Bible “gives a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people”. Hence, “the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which through generation is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.” 101 Thus, the pope correctly figured out that the theory of evolution contradicts the idea that Adam committed a sin that got handed down to humankind. Without such a sin, however, there is no need for Jesus’ sacrifice. Thus, evolution makes the entire Christian mythology tumble.
Pius’ insight has to be seen in the light of the First Vatican Council, which stated that “all faithful Christians are forbidden to defend as the legitimate conclusions of science those opinions which are known to be contrary to the doctrine of faith, particularly if they have been condemned by the church” 5.
This did not hinder Pope John Paul II to observe in 1996 that “new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis” 102. Since 1997, the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks approvingly of the scientific consensus, noting that “the question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man” 103. In 2004, the International Theological Commission of the Roman Catholic Church observed that “it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from [a] first organism” 104. Adam, then, is nothing more than the “symbol” of the original unity of the human race [ibid].
Anglicanism: first opposition, then acceptance of evolutionInitial responses from the Church of England to Darwin’s theories were hostile 105. However, in the coming century, Darwin’s theories became more and more accepted. In 2008, the Church issued an apology to Darwin: “People, and institutions, make mistakes and Christian people and churches are no exception […] Charles Darwin, 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still” 106. Today, the Anglican Church observes that “the discovery of DNA and recent work on genome sequencing is compelling evidence for the interrelatedness of all living things […]. The mechanisms of genetic mutation and evolution are now well understood” 107.
Orthodoxy: neutralOrthodoxy regards the “story of Adam and Eve as a kind of etiological parable: a story that explains, via mythological imagery, the activity of God from the creation of the world” 108. Therefore, the Bible “has nothing to say, for or against, the theory of evolution” 109.
Lutheranism: EvolutionLutheranism acknowledges that the theory of evolution “has the highest probability for explaining the genesis of life” 110.
American Protestantisms: no evolutionThe situation is different for the American Protestantisms. Pentecostalism holds that the Bible “accurately communicates God’s creation of the heavens and the earth” 111. Consequently, the majority of Pentecostals (66%) believe that the Biblical creation account is a historical narrative (Mike Tenneson and Steve Badger: A Brief Overview Of Pentecostal Views on Origins; linked from Assemblies of God). Half of these believe that the Earth was created in six consecutive 24-hour periods less than 10,000 years ago (ibid).
Baptists, likewise, believe “in a literal biblical creation” 74, and “in the direct creation and historicity of Adam and Eve” 112. In the 1920’s, these groups succeeded in getting teaching of evolution banned in American public schools . They also succeeded in having the Biblical creation account taught in school in the US, under names such as “scientific creationism” and “Intelligent Design” (ibid). This was brought to an end in 2005, when The Kitzmiller v. Dover ruling concluded that intelligent design is not science (ibid).
Women’s rightsDifferent Christian denominations have different opinions as to whether men and women should have equal rights. Some denominations defend a theory of “roles”, in which men and women have equal worth, but different roles in society. As it so happens, men can take all roles they wish, while women are barred from certain roles (most notably all roles that have a leadership function). This is a popular theme in nearly all major religions.
Bible and Early Christianity: No equal rightsChristianity is traditionally dominated by male entities. The woman was created by God only in an afterthought, and only to make man happy. All main Christian prophets are male. The Christian god is male (“Father in heaven”). The main addressee of worship is male (Jesus). Hence, most major Christian denominations traditionally gave leadership roles exclusively to males (priests, popes, bishops, etc.). This is mirrored in the following Bible verses:
- “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” [Bible / Exodus 20:17]. This passage (from the “10 Commandments”) refers to the wife as the neighbors’ property, along with oxen and donkeys. Furthermore, the instruction is apparently addressed to men only.
- “Teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. ” [Bible / Titus 2:3-5]
- “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” [Bible / Ephesians 5:22-24]
- “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives; While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement. Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.” [Bible / 1 Peter 3:1-6]
- “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I passed them on to you. Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head — it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head. In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice — nor do the churches of God.” [Bible / 1 Corinthians 11:1-16]
- “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” [Bible / 1 Corinthians 14:33-35]
- “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” [Bible / 1 Tim. 2:11-12]
- “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.” [Bible / Colossians 3:18-25]
- “To the woman, God said: I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” [Bible / Genesis 3:16] No such pain is inflicted on Adam.
- “If a man takes a wife and, after lying with her, dislikes her and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity”, then the girl’s father and mother shall bring proof that she was a virgin to the town elders at the gate. The girl’s father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. Now he has slandered her and said, “I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.” But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity [i.e., presumably the bed linen with the blood of the rupture of the hymen after sexual intercourse]. Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, and the elders shall take the man and punish him. They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the girl’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives. If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the girl’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.” [Bible / Deuteronomy 22:13-21] The virginity of the man is not required.
Catholicism: No equal rightsSaint Augustine opinioned that “Women should not be enlightened or educated in any way. They should, in fact, be segregated as they are the cause of hideous and involuntary erections in holy men.”.
Quite contrary to this opinion, and contrary to the above Bible verses, Catholicism holds since 1965 that “every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” 24. Unfortunately, this quest has not yet arrived in Catholicism itself. The denomination does not ordain women to leadership functions such as priests, bishops, or popes 113.
Orthodoxy: No equal rightsLike Catholicism, Orthodoxy does not ordain women to leadership positions. And not just this: “Within the life of the family, the father must be the leader and head”, and “The wife must be totally devoted to her husband”. Also, beating the child is a role reserved for the father: “The true father loves and disciplines his child [since the Bible says that] He who spares the rod hates his son” 100.
Baptism: No equal rightsBaptism does not ordain women to priest roles 114. Men are considered the head of woman, and women are made for men 115. Equal rights are opposed 116.
Anglicanism: Generally equal rightsThe Westminster confession of faith contains no discriminatory wording 65. The ordination of women remains controversial, but is accepted by the majority of dioceses .
Pentecostalism: Equal rightsPentecostalism has found 3 women prophets in the Old Testament: Miriam in Exodus 15:20; Deborah in Judges 4-5; Huldah in 2 Kings 22:14‐20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22‐28. It has also found 12 women mentioned as ministers in the New Testament: Tabitha in Acts 9:36; four unmarried daughters in Acts 21:8,9; Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians 4:2,3; Priscilla in Romans 16:3,4; Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis in Romans 16:6,12. From this, Pentecostalism concludes that “Paul clearly was a strong advocate of women in ministry” 117. The other parts of the Bible that deny women leadership roles (see above) are explained as mistranslations or misinterpretations (ibid). Therefore, Pentecostalism resolves to give equal rights to men and women (ibid).
Lutheranism: Equal rightsLutheranism explicitly promotes equal rights for men and women 84. Individual Bible verses saying otherwise should not be seen as proof of a particular thesis, but should be seen in their context (ibid). Since this context is the Bible, which is riddled with inaccuracies, this presumably means that the verses should be ignored.
SlaveryA slave is a person who is owned by someone. This implies that the slave (1) is physically prevented from leaving, (2) has to work under penalty of corporal punishment, (3) can be sold and bought, and (4) has their children also be slaves. Early Christianity distinguished between “just” slavery and “unjust slavery”, and permitted the former — a popular theme in different religions. Nowadays, both forms of slavery are prohibited in Christianity.
Old Testament: Slavery allowedThe Old Testament permits and regulates slavery explicitly:
- Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property. [Bible / Exodus 21:20-21]
- If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. [Bible / Exodus 21:7]
- If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. [Bible / Exodus 21:2-4]
- As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are round about you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession for ever; you may make slaves of them, but over your brethren the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another, with harshness. [Bible / Leviticus 25:44-46]
- If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull is to be stoned to death. [Exodus / 21:32] Note that the compensation goes to the master, and not to the family of the slave.
Jesus: Nothing against slaveryJesus uses slaves in his paraboles, but never argued against slavery. He said, e.g.
- “Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.” [Bible / Matthew 24:45-46]
- “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his bondservants and entrusted to them his property. […One servant goes on to make more money from the entrusted property, the other does not. As for the latter:] He cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness.” [Bible / Matthew 25:14-30] Jesus does not criticize that the master has control over his slaves. It is accepted as a natural state of affairs.
If Jesus had opposed slavery he would surely have said so. Yet, he did not. In Luke 7:2, Jesus heals a slave. Jesus heals the slave without any thought of freeing the slave or admonishing the slave’s owner 119. This shows that he is completely comfortable with the concept of slavery.
New Testament: Slavery allowedIn the New Testament, Paul tells us
- Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eyeservice, as men‐pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord. [Bible / Colossians 3:22]
- Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. [Bible / 1 Peter 2:18]
- Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters […] knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. [Bible / Ephesians 6:5-8]
- Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior. [Bible / Titus 2:9]
- Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed. 2 And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefited are believers and beloved. Teach and exhort these things. [Bible / 1 Timothy 6:1-2]
- Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you — although if you can gain your freedom, do so. [Bible / 1 Corinthians 7:20-21]
Paul also said “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Bible / Galatians 3:28]. Yet, this was never understood as an instruction to abolish slavery — much like it was never understood as an instruction abolish men and women. Slaves were accepted as natural parts of society just like men and women were part of society. It has been argued that Paul worked indirectly against slavery, but did not have the power to overthrow the slavery system as a whole 120. This, however, is as absurd as claiming that Paul worked indirectly against religion, but did not have the power to overthrow it as a whole. Both are unfalsifiable insinuations. In summary, in the words of Kevin Giles, “not one word of criticism did the Lord utter against slavery”. Therefore, there was little objection to slavery from Christians.
Early Christianity: Slavery allowedThe Synod of Gangra declared in the 4th century that anyone who “teaches a slave, under pretext of piety, to despise his master and to run away from his service” should be an anathema 121. Saint Augustine argued in the 4th century CE that “the prime cause, then, of slavery is sin” [Saint Augustine: The City of God / Book 19 / Chapter 15, 4th century CE]. Thus, slavery was justified as a punishment for sins. In the 6th century, Pope Gregory I, declared that slaves should be told to not despise their masters and recognise they are only slaves 122. In the 13th century, Thomas von Aquinas agreed, saying that “a slave belongs to his master, because he is his instrument” 123. Slavery is inherited from the mother, because “slavery is a condition of the body, since a slave is to the master a kind of instrument in working; wherefore children follow the mother in freedom and bondage” 124.
The Decretum Gratiani explained in the 12th century that children inherit their parents’ status: a child born by a slave woman is a slave Decretum gratiani / Case 32 / Question IV / Chapter 15. Pope Gregory IX, likewise, decreed in his “Decretales Gregorii IX” in 1230 that the child born from a free woman is free — implying that a child born from slaves is a slave 125. Together with 4 other texts, these documents formed the Catholic Canon Law from the 13th century on . The law provided for four just titles for holding slaves: slaves captured in war, persons condemned to slavery for a crime; persons selling themselves into slavery, including a father selling his child; children of a mother who is a slave . In compliance with this ruling, Pope Nicholas V authorized Afonso V of Portugal to conquer Saracens and pagans and consign them to “perpetual servitude” in his Papal Bull “Dum Diversas” in 1452 126 and its successor, the Bull “Romanus Pontifex” 127.
Catholicism: Slavery opposed but allowed, now condemnedIn the 15th century, several popes started issuing commandments against slavery . Most notably, in 1462, Pius II declared slavery to be “a great crime” (magnum scelus); in 1537, Paul III forbade the enslavement of the Indians; Urban VIII forbade it in 1639, and Benedict XIV in 1741; Pius VII demanded of the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, the suppression of the slave trade and Gregory XVI condemned it in 1839; in the Bull of Canonization of the Jesuit Peter Claver, Pius IX branded the “supreme villainy” of the slave traders 128.
However, the popes also legalized slavery in certain cases. In 1548, Pope Paul III declared in his “motu proprio” that “each and every person of either sex […] may freely and lawfully buy and sell publicly any slaves whatsoever […], irrespective of whether they were made Christians after enslavement, or whether they were born in slavery even from Christian slave parents according to the provisions of the common law” Pope Paul III: Confirmatio Statutorum populi Romani super restitutione servorum in Urbe, 1548-11-09.
In 1866 the Holy Office issued an Instruction (signed by Pope Pius IX) that declared that “slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law, and there can be several just titles of slavery and these are referred to by approved theologians and commentators of the sacred canons. For the sort of ownership which a slave‐owner has over a slave is understood as nothing other than the perpetual right of disposing of the work of a slave for one’s own benefit — services which it is right for one human being to provide for another. From this it follows that it is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or donated, provided that in this sale, purchase, exchange or gift, the due conditions are strictly observed which the approved authors likewise describe and explain.” 129
In the 19th century, the abolitionist movement gained strength. Yet, Catholic monasteries still had slaves. They were the last to give up slavery, because their entire economy depended on slave labor (see my trip to the Arequipa monastery; see World Future Fund: Christianity and Slavery for other sources). The Canon Law of 1917 still recognized the existence of slavery, ruling that a marriage is invalid if it is contracted with a slave without knowing so 21.
For unknown reasons, the Second Vatican Council decided in 1965 that slavery insults human dignity, and that it is an “infamy” 24. Even the selling of slaves, previously allowed, is now no longer possible, because “The seventh commandment [which prohibits theft] forbids acts […] that for any reason […] lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise” 130.
American Protestantisms: first pro‐slavery, now againstSome Protestant denominations were particularly pro‐slavery, in particular in the United States. Many prominent Protestant leaders defended slavery on the basis of biblical verses. Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America, argued that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God… it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation” . Richard Furman, President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention explained that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example” [ibid]. The Southern Baptist Convention, today the second largest Christian body in the United States, separated from the Northern Baptist Convention in order to uphold slavery . For a detailed treatise of slavery under the auspices of the churches, see Bad News about Christianity / Slavery.
In 1865, after the American Civil War, the United States outlawed slavery. A hundred years later, in 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its role in slavery 131. This apology is admirably verbose and explicit.
Originally, the Mormons did not oppose slavery. They upheld the “Curse of Ham”, a biblical curse on a man that placed his descendants into slavery . However, in 1833, their founder, John Smith, decided that “it is not right that any man should be in bondage to another” (ibid), and the church policy was more ambiguous. After Smith’s death, black people were routinely denied priesthood. This changed in 1978, when the Mormon leaders had a revelation that reversed a long‐standing policy excluding men of black African descent from the priesthood .
Anglicanism: First active in slave trade, then against slaveryIn 1539, the Anglican Church split from the Catholic Church. Its supreme governor is the king or queen of England . The monarchs consider themselves ordained by God 132. In this role, they oversaw the capture, transport, and sale of 12 million slaves by British merchants over the Atlantic Ocean .
In 1833, the United Kingdom abolished slavery. The Anglican bishops voted against the abolition of slavery 133. When the Anglican Church finally had to let go of its slaves, it was reimbursed more than a million pounds in compensation for lost labor. For this reimbursement (and that of other slave owners), the Government had to take up a loan that totaled 40% of the Treasury’s annual income 134. The slaves were not reimbursed.
170 years later, in 2006, the Anglican church suddenly realized that it had made a mistake. It apologized for the role it had in the slave trade (ibid).
Orthodoxy: First pro-slavery, now againstThe Greek and Romanian Orthodox monasteries were slave owners on a grand scale 135. The slaves were mostly Gypsies. During the entire 15th century […] all big monasteries owned Gypsy slaves [ibid]. In 1783, the monasteries opposed the abolition of slavery .
Death PenaltyChristianity has originally endorsed the death penalty, but some denominations are now moving away from it.
Old Testament: Death penalty is mandatoryThe Old Testament Law prescribed the death penalty for an extensive list of crimes including 136:
- Murder (Exodus 21:12-14; Leviticus 24:17,21)
- Attacking or cursing a parent (Exodus 21:15,17)
- Disobedience to parents (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
- Kidnapping (Exodus 21:16)
- Failure to confine a dangerous animal, resulting in death (Exodus 21:28-29)
- Witchcraft and sorcery (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:27, Deuteronomy 13:5, 1 Samuel 28:9)
- Human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2-5)
- Sex with an animal (Exodus 22:19, Leviticus 20:16)
- Doing work on the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14, 35:2, Numbers 15:32-36)
- Incest (Leviticus 18:6-18, 20:11-12,14,17,19-21)
- Adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22)
- Homosexual acts (Leviticus 20:13)
- Prostitution by a priest’s daughter (Leviticus 21:9)
- Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:14,16, 23)
- False prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:20)
- Perjury in capital cases (Deuteronomy 19:16-19)
- Refusing to obey a decision of a judge or priest (Deuteronomy 17:12)
- False claim of a woman’s virginity at time of marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21)
- Sex between a woman pledged to be married and a man other than her betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
The Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13), but in the light of the previous verses, this is usually read as “You shall not murder”.
Jesus: AmbiguousJesus approves of the Old Testament laws in principle, saying “until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” [Bible / Matthew 5:18]. He explicitly upholds the death penalty in his dialog with the Pharisees: “For Moses said “[...] Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.”, but you say [...], thus making void the word of God. And many such things you do.” [Bible / Mark 7:1–13].
At the same time, Jesus repeatedly stated that love is the principle that must guide all our actions (Matthew 5:43-48, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-28, Romans 13:9-10, Galatians 5:14) 136. He also rejected the Old Testament principle of taking equal revenge for a wrong done (Matthew 5:38-41, Luke 9:52-56), saying that we are all sinners and do not have the right to pass judgment on one another (Matthew 7:1-5) [ibid].
In this spirit, Jesus saves the adulterous woman from being stoned to death, by saying “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:10-11). It is not clear whether Jesus meant to abolish the death penalty with his sayings, or whether he mainly intended to expose the hypocrisy of the accusers.
New Testament: Death penalty is possibleThe New Testament seems to take a distance from the harsh punishments of the Old Testament (John 1:16-17, Romans 8:1-3, 1 Corinthians 9:20-21). It warns against taking revenge for a wrong done (Romans 12:17-21, 1 Thessalonians 5:15, 1 Peter 3:9).
At the same time, the New Testament urges us to submit to the judgment of the authorities, saying in particular that the “authority does not bear the sword in vain” (Romans 13:1-5). Paul explicitly approves of the death penalty, saying “If I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die.” (Acts 25:11).
Early Christianity: Death penalty shunnedA church order from Rome dated to around 200 AD forbids any Christian magistrate from carrying out a death sentence under pain of excommunication. It was also forbidden for any Christian to accuse a person of a crime if that accusation might result in the person being put to death .
Catholicism: Death Penalty first OK, now not OKIn 1265, Thomas Aquinas supported the death penalty, writing “The life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men.” 137.
In 1566, the Roman Catechism stated that “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent.” 138.
In 1911, the Catholic Encyclopedia stated that “capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church” 139.
In 1952, Pope Pius XII explained that “it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live” 140.
However, more and more countries turned against the death penalty: Venezuela made the start in 1863, and several Latin American countries followed. European countries also abolished the death penalty (Iceland in 1928, followed by Italy and Germany after the Second World War), among them the Vatican in 1969 . By 1995, 59 countries had abolished the death penalty.
In that year 1995, Pope John Paul II posited that “execution is only appropriate in cases of absolute necessity, in other words when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society” 141. The Catechism of the Catholic Church at the time mirrored this position, stating “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means.” 142.
By 2015, nearly half of all countries (100) had abolished capital punishment. In that year, Pope Francis started to vocally oppose the death penalty, too, saying that “capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment.” 143.
In this light, the teaching of the Catholic Church was officially “changed” 144. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was updated to say that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide” 142. Today, “the Vatican fully supports global abolition of death penalty” at the United Nations 145.
American Protestantisms: Death Penalty is upheldThe Southern Baptist Convention “support[s] the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death” 146.
In the Assemblies of God, the “Opinion on capital punishment is mixed. However, more people associated with the Assemblies of God probably favor capital punishment for certain types of crimes [...].” 147.
Protestantism: Against the death penaltyThe Protestant Church of Germany says that “executions are a shame for mankind” 148.
Anglicanism: first for death penalty, now againstIn 1562, Article 37 of the Thirty-Nine Articles states that “The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.” 149.
Since 1988, however, the Church “speak[s] out against: [...] all governments who practice capital punishment” 150.
Orthodoxy: Against the Death PenaltyIn 1989, the Orthodox Church in America, at its 9th All American Council in St. Louis passed resolutions condemning both abortion and capital punishment as unrighteous and evil 151. The other Orthodox churches have issued similar statements 152.
Proofs for Christianity
The Gospels as proofThe Gospels are the 4 books of the New Testament that describe the life of Jesus: the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is commonly assumed that these books were written by eye‐witnesses, and hence we have a first‐hand account of the resurrection by Jesus. This, however, is not true.
Written by anonymous authorsThe common view holds that the gospels were written by the apostles Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. However, none of the 4 Gospels specifies the author. They are all anonymous accounts. The tradition that the Gospels were written by the apostles was started only in 125 CE by the Bishop Papias. This means that the gospels are just texts written by people whom we do not know. There is no one to vouch for their correctness.
Not written by eye witnessesEven if the authors are anonymous, we could still believe that they were eye‐witnesses. Yet, there is no reason to assume that this would be the case — on the contrary. First, the Gospels were all written later than 60 CE. Thus, all four accounts were written more than 30 years after the events they describe. The Gospel of John was written even later, in the 2nd century after Jesus birth. This makes it less probable that the stories were written by eye‐witnesses.
Furthermore, the books are not written in first person (“Then I saw how Jesus broke the bread”). Rather, they are written in third person, like a story (“Then, Jesus broke the bread”). In fact, none of the gospels pretends to be a testimony:
- The Gospel of Luke explicitly says that it is not written by an eye‐witness (Bible / Luke 1).
- The Gospel of John says “This is the disciple who testifies of these things and who wrote of these things; and we know that his testimony is true.” (Bible / John 21:24). This means that the Gospel of John was not written by the original eye‐witness.
- The Gospel of Matthew cannot be an eye‐witness either: It tells us about the miraculous birth of Jesus, and about his miraculous resurrection. At the miraculous birth, none of the apostles or later followers was present. At the miraculous resurrection, none of the people who saw his birth were present. Thus, either way, the book contains at least some part that is not an eye‐witness account — and we do not even know which one.
- The Gospel of Mark could be an eye‐witness account. However, it does not talk about Jesus’ birth. Furthermore, historical versions of the Gospel of Mark do not talk about the resurrection either. The chapter about the resurrection was added much later, in the 2nd century . Thus, the only story that could be an eye witness account leaves out all the important parts.
Contradictory storiesThe gospels contradict each other. There is not a single coherent sequence of events for the story of Jesus’ resurrection.
- Who were the women who visited Jesus’ tomb?
- Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, says Matthew (28:1); Mary Magdalene, the mother of James, and Salome, says Mark (16:1); Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and other women, says Luke (24:10); or Mary Magdalene alone, says John (20:1).
- Was the tomb open when they arrived?
- No says Matthew (28:2), yes say Mark (16:4), Luke (24:2), and John (20:1).
- Who was at the tomb when they arrived?
- One angel according to Matthew (28:2-7), one young man according to Mark (16:5), two men according to Luke (24:4), and two angels according to John (20:12).
Contradiction with historyThe Gospel of Luke places Jesus’ birth during “the days of Herod, the king of Judaea” (Bible / Luke 1:5), and during “the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Bible / Luke 2:2). This is, by the way, the common Nativity Narrative heard in Church on Christmas. The problem is that Herod died 4 BCE, and Quirinius was governor of Syria from 6 CE on . It just doesn’t square.
The Gospel of Matthew is not much better. It tells us that the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world (Bible / Matthew 4:8). However, at the time of Jesus, there were thriving kingdoms in China, India, South America, and Europe. It is not possible to see them all from a mountain, because the Earth is spherical. In a similar vein, Matthew tells us that, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the earth shook and many dead people came out of the tombs and went into the holy city (Bible / Matthew 27:51-53). Had it really happened, such an event would for sure have left more traces in history and in historical writings than just 2 sentences in a single book. Thus, the Gospels contain statements that are outright wrong. Then, there is no reason to believe the other statements.
Not a historical accountFurthermore, the gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew share a part that is almost identical among them. This means that all writers except the first must have had access to at least one other gospel — or all of them must have had access to the same sources. At the same time, there are parts of the gospels that contradict each other. Now if the writers had access to each other’s work or to a common source, and slightly contradict each other, and if they wanted to give a historical account, then one would expect that they explain why they copied over the work of their fellow writer on some issues, but deviated from him on other issues. But there are no such explications. This tells us that the writers did not intend to give a historical account. Therefore, most scholars assume today that the writers wished to pass a theological message rather than give a historical account.
Paul saw the resurrected Jesus!Saint Paul lived at the time of Jesus, and was first an ardent enemy of the Christians. Later, he had a miraculous encounter with the resurrected Jesus, and changed his mind. He became one of the most fervent supporters of Christianity. Large parts of the New Testament were written by him. We can think that his testimony proves Jesus’ resurrection.
The problem is that Paul never met Jesus before his crucification. Paul only met Jesus after the resurrection. During this encounter, Jesus just said that he is the Lord, and left. Thus, Paul cannot testify that the person he met was the one that was crucified. They may be different people. Besides, the encounter was not a physical encounter with a real person: Paul saw a light and heard a sound and a voice, but did not physically meet a person. Furthermore, Paul was not alone at the encounter. He was traveling with his companions. Yet, none of the companions saw the light. Now look at Paul’s story like any judge in a courtroom would. Paul claims that he met a man who was known to be dead. None of Paul’s companions saw this man 154. Would the judge believe Paul? Of course not! The judge would rightly conclude that Paul is saying nonsense.
The event may have been a vision, a dream, a hallucination, or just a lie — but clearly not a reliable proof. In fact, there is no reliable proof for the resurrection of Jesus. Not a single historical source independent of the Bible ever mentions that Jesus was resurrected 155 .
Why doesn’t Jesus appear to everyone and prove that he is resurrected, just like he appeared to Paul? If Paul needed a personal visit from Jesus to know that Jesus was resurrected, then why wouldn’t you?
Jesus died for us!In the Christian belief system, Jesus died for our sins. This is, in the Christian view, more than enough of a reason to follow him.
However, we have no reason to assume that Jesus died for our sins. According to the Bible, Jesus himself never claimed to have died for our sins. The idea was developed only later by Paul. Paul, however, never met Jesus.
I'll die for my own sins, thanks.
The Bible is the Word of God!A common argument goes that the Bible is word of God, and that, therefore, it must be true. Once it is true, the truth of Christianity follows.
Fictional storyAtheists see no reason to believe that the Bible would be the word of God. For example, the Bible talks of serpents that speak. Serpents cannot speak. Snakes (and reptiles in general) have neither the physical structure nor the brain power to speak. There simply are not enough neurons in the reptile brain to process language. 156 Therefore, it is clear to atheists that the Bible is a fictional story. It talks of fantastic things that did not happen in reality. This is just like a Harry Potter book, the fairy tale of Cinderella, the story of Gayatri, or of Persephone. They are all great stories, but we have no reason to think they are true.
Unknown authorsEven if we were willing to accept the talking serpents, there is the problem that we do not know who wrote the Bible. As we have seen, we do not know who wrote the New Testament. We also do not know who wrote the Old Testament. Take the creation account: The only eye witnesses of the creation were Adam and Eve. However, they could not have written the book of Genesis, because it states that “Adam lived 930 years, and then he died” [Bible / Genesis 5:5]. A person cannot write about their own death. Thus, we conclude that the book of Genesis was not written by Adam. It was written by later authors, at least 900 years after the creation. Then there is no reason to assume that these authors got right what happened 900 years before they started writing, and after the death of the principal witness. In the same vein, people used to believe that the first 5 books of the Bible (which include the book of Genesis) were written by the Prophet Moses. However, one of these books says that “no one knows where Moses’ grave is” [Bible / Deuteronomy 34:6]. This means that Moses cannot have written this set of books. This means that the creation story is just a story of which we do not know the author. There is no reason to believe a story of which we do not even know who wrote it.
People say that the Bible is inspired by God. However, we do not even know who wrote it. Then, how would we know that this person would be inspired by God?
Wrong dataGoing further, there are good reasons to believe that the stories of the Old Testament are complete bunk. The book of Genesis (Bible / Genesis 1) tells us that the plants were made before the sun was made — which is just plain wrong. Furthermore, the sun was allegedly made on the 4th day — which means that these 4 days cannot have passed, because there was no sun in the first place. The entire creation account of the Bible is just nonsense.
The same holds for story of the Israelites in Egypt. This story tells us that hundreds of thousands of Israelites were held in slavery in Egypt, and that they were then led back home to Israel. This story has no historical foundation . The figure of 600,000 adult males (Bible / Exodus 12:37) would imply a flight of 2 to 2.5 million people, when the total population of Egypt at the time was 3 to 4.5 million. Had such a catastrophic demographic outflow taken place, it would have been recorded in Egyptian writings [ibid]. Yet, it is not. The Bible is just wrong.
If I was God, at the end of the Bible, I would have leant in and gone “Oh, and tell them it’s round!”.
The Bible is metaphorical truth!Adherents of liberal Christianity argue that many parts of the Bible are metaphorical. In their view, the Earth was not literally created in 6 days, and Moses did not really part the waters with divine power. Thus, liberal Christians tend to see the Bible as a metaphorical rather than a factual account. This does away with many of the problems of the Bible.
Surprisingly, these very same Christians exempt specific parts of the Bible from the metaphorical interpretation. They hold that the parts where God created the universe and where Jesus rose from the dead are still literally true. Atheists argue that such a choice is completely arbitrary. Why would some supernatural bits of the Bible be metaphorical, and others not? Once we abandon that the supernatural claim that the Earth was created in 6 days, we have no reason to cling on to the other supernatural claim, that Jesus rose from the dead.
If we agree that the entire Bible is metaphorical, then we have no reason to believe in Jesus or the abrahamic god at all. This is because our only reason to believe in the abrahamic god is the Bible (and its cousins). Remove it from the equation, and Christianity implodes.
I once had a fundamentalist evangelical Christian explain to me that when Lot’s wife looked back, it was a metaphor for how she yearned for her old, sinful life. This is probably a correct interpretation. Now all I have to do is explain that the rest of the book was written in much the same manner.
Jesus did miracles!Christians argue that Jesus did many miracles. This proves, in their eyes, that Christianity is true.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Jesus did these miracles. Our only source for this claim is the Bible. The Bible also says that the plants were created before the sun (Bible / Genesis 1), which is wrong. The Bible is thus not a very reliable source.
Furthermore, very few people in the Western world actually believe in miracles. For example, 1% of pregnant teenage girls in the US say they have had a virgin birth 157. Still, for unknown reasons, nobody believes them. So then why should we believe in a virgin birth that was reported 2000 years ago? The same goes for other miracles. I can show you a picture of a man who hovers in the air (see the Chapter on Proofs for God). And still, you will not believe that this is a miracle. Much less would you believe me if I tell you my grandfather saw a man who hovered in the air. You would think this is just some nonsense story. Even less would you believe me if I tell you that my grandfather heard that there was a man who hovered in the air. And if an ancestor of mine heard about the hovering man in ancient times, thousands of years ago, then you would believe me even less. And you would declare me crazy if I believed the story if it was not even told to an ancestor of mine, but just to some random person whom I don’t even know. And this is how it is with the miracles of Jesus. Even the contemporaries of Jesus did not believe in his miracles
Is there any evidence that Jesus exists today? As you think about this simple question, you will realize that there is not. Everything else that you believe in has left behind some sort of evidence that proves its existence. But with Jesus there is nothing. There is no physical evidence of his existence.
The Bible contains true prophesies!One proof for the truth of the Bible that is often brought forward is the list of prophesies it makes. For example, the Old Testament says that the Messiah will be born from the descendants of David — and Jesus was indeed born from the descendants of David.
From an atheist perspective, both the Old Testament and the New Testament are fictional stories written by human authors. In such a setting, it is easy to fulfill a prophesy: Just make your character do whatever a previous part of the story promised. The Old Testament says that Jesus has to be born from the stem of David? Fine, write in your story that Jesus is born from the stem of David. Nobody is going to check the genealogy of a baby born out of wedlock in some remote Jewish village. In the same way, all other prophesies can be fulfilled. This, however, is no proof of divinity.
How difficult would it be to improve the Bible?
Anyone in this room could improve this supposedly inerrant text scientifically, historically, ethically, spiritually… in moments.
Jesus is love!For Christians, Jesus is the ultimate symbol of love: a man who sacrifices himself for the good of mankind. Such a powerful symbol convinces them that Christianity is the religion to follow.
From an atheist point of view, things are a bit different: Jesus may indeed have been an exceptionally charitable and kind person. Many atheists will acknowledge the good works he did. Even if we are not really sure whether he did what the Bible says, we can still appreciate the metaphor of a man who helps the poor. So far, atheists and Christians can actually agree.
Now, it is a long way from there to the existence of a God, the creation of the Earth by supernatural power, the belief in resurrection from the dead, and the obligation to not work on Sundays. Atheists see no connection from “There was a (possibly mythological) good man 2000 years ago” to “Gay people should not marry”.
Was Jesus really love?The idea that Jesus is love is not uncontroversial. Jesus’ love finds an abrupt end if you do not believe in God: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” [Bible / Mark 16:16, similar: John 3:18]. Jesus can eat with sinners of all kinds, but not with atheists. That is not exactly “love”.
Furthermore, as GodIsImaginary.com/35 observes, Jesus did much worse than he could have done. At the very least, Jesus could have transcribed passages into the Bible that would have ended sexism, racism and slavery forever. In the same way, Jesus could have chosen women to be six of his apostles and made several speeches on the topic of women’s equality. This would have been a great and courageous sign of love for his female disciples. Furthermore, if he really loved the Israelites, he could have taught them the basics of medicine, biology, and physics. This would have been a really generous sharing of divine knowledge, which could have saved many many lives, and could have inspired a scientific approach to life. He didn’t.
Jesus invented hellFinally, one of Jesus’ achievements was to introduce the concept of hell (Christopher Hitchens: God is not great / 210). Before Jesus, hell was only weakly alluded to (Bible / Daniel 12:2). Hell was thought to be of limited duration — at most 1 year . Furthermore, there was no torture on sabbath days.
It was only Jesus who introduced the concept of eternal physical tortures (Bible / Matthew 5:22, 5:29, 5:30, 8:12; 18:8-9, 22:13, 25:41, 25:46; Mark 9:43-49; Lukas 16:19-31). He came up with the idea in the first place. This means that Jesus doesn’t love his enemies at all. In fact, you don’t even need to be an enemy — even those who would rather not “believe in” Jesus are condemned to eternal torture in a lake of fire 158. This is the exact opposite of love.
“Hello, my name is Jesus. I love you deeply. I have loved you since you were conceived in the womb and I will love you for all eternity. I died for you on the cross because I love you so much. I long to have a loving personal relationship with you. I will answer all of your prayers through my love. But if you do not get down on your knees and worship me, and if you do not EAT MY BODY and DRINK MY BLOOD, then I WILL INCINERATE YOU WITH UNIMAGINABLY TORTUOUS PAIN IN THE FIRES OF HELL FOR ALL ETERNITY BWAH HA HA HA HA HA!”
Christian valuesThe Western culture and value system has inherited large parts from Christianity: The idea of humans as individuals, the concept of charity, and (maybe most importantly) the abolition of the retaliation law. These concepts have been picked up, developed, and propagated by early Christians. This could be seen as an argument to follow that religion.
Atheists do not share this perspective. First of all, Christianity has been associated in the past also with many values that we no longer share today. These include slavery, the suppression of freedom of thought, book censorship, disdain for people of other life stances, Biblical rituals, weird sexual restrictions, and ancient values in general. Thus, even if we share some of the values of early Christianity, it is clear that we can no longer share all of them. There is no reason to glorify a religion that has produced at least as many controversial values as good values.
Second, appreciation for some values does not mean that we would have to buy the entire package. We can, e.g., renounce the retaliation law without being obliged to believe that Jesus rose from the dead. In fact, it is only through analytical dissection of Christianity that humanity came to abolish the values that we no longer share today. Atheists have taken this dissection a little further, and have dispensed not just with these ancient values, but also with the supernatural.
Withhold not correction from a child: for if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell. [Bible / Proverbs 23:13-14]
Why doesn’t a book written by an omniscient being leave you with a sense of wonder and amazement? If you are reading a book written by the all‐powerful, all‐knowing, all‐loving creator of the universe, wouldn’t you expect to be stunned by the brilliance, the clarity and the wisdom of the author?
Instead, opening the Bible inevitably creates a feeling of dumbfoundment. Have you ever noticed that? Instead of brilliance, much of the Bible contains nonsense. Do these passages leave you with the impression that they were written by an all‐powerful, all‐knowing God? Or was this book written by primitive men? Try the experiment yourself and see what you find.
Christian CultureMuch of our Western Culture is based on ideas, literature, and artwork from Christians. This is seen as a strength of the Christian faith.
And yet, it is not so much a sign of strength of Christianity as it is a sign of the suppression of alternative forms of art. During much of Christianity’s history, non‐religious art was either unpopular or deprecated or both. Unbelievers were persecuted as heretics. Thus, any contribution to society had to happen necessarily in the frame given by the religious authorities. Hence, in retrospect, any creativity appears to be based on Christian thought. But that does not mean that Christianity was the best source of inspiration.
On the contrary, Christianity just restricted the scope of creative contributions. For example, to a casual observer, most of the European artworks between the 8th century and the 16th century seem to be about Jesus on the cross. Atheists wonder why an entire continent restricted itself to a single scene for several centuries. All expressions of femininity were channeled onto the virgin Mary — what a loss!
This does not prevent atheists from appreciating the Christian contributions to our culture. It just defies the argument that Christianity would deserve adherence due to its cultural contributions.
Stop talking about this “Christian Culture”. Christianity has been a force against knowledge and culture for much of its existence. Our occidental culture is, in large parts, born from the opposition to this force.
God is there and loves us all!In the Christian world view, God is there and loves us all — no matter whether atheists believe in him or not.
Atheists retort that this is actually not true. God asked us explicitly to kill the apostates (Bible / Deuteronomy 13:6-10; Leviticus 24:14-16 & 23; Deuteronomy 13:1). This is not exactly what atheists would call love. Even if this commandment has been abandoned since 1965, this is of little comfort since God has neither retracted the original commandment, nor issued an apology. Thus, the reproach still stands.
Anyway, God’s love is not love in the human sense, because it has no effect whatsoever, as we have discussed in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God. Finally, claiming that some fictional creature loves you does not pop that creature into existence.
There are so many other arguments!We treat other arguments for the God, which are not specific to Christianity, in the Chapter on Proof for Gods. Arguments pertaining to the God of Gaps are treated in the Chapter on the God of Gaps.
The BibleChristians base their belief on the Bible. If it were not for the Bible, there would be no reason to believe that God created the world, or that Jesus was resurrected. For a proof, look no further than America: Before Christian missionaries brought the Bible there, the Indians had no reason to believe in Jesus and the Christian God.
At the same time, the Bible is a very unreliable source to base our lives on:
- It talks of serpents that can speak and people who can walk on the water. Thus, it is clearly a fictional account.
- It is not written by eye‐witnesses — neither the Old Testament nor the New Testament. Rather it is written by people whom we do not know.
- It contains wrong information — both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament.
You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, food falling from the sky, and people walking on water — and you say we’re the ones that need help?
The Old and the New TestamentThe Bible consists of the Old and the New Testament. In the Old Testament, God is brutal, vengeful, and thirsty of human sacrifices. This changes in the New Testament: Jesus talks about love, human sacrifices are no longer necessary, and the law of retaliation is seemingly revoked.
To atheists, this is completely inconsistent. A god that first erases his entire creation in a universal genocide suddenly talks of love. How can one trust such a being? And why does he revoke his law of retaliation? If it was not good, why did he announce it in the first place? And if “mankind was not ready for it”, then why did he create mankind in such an imperfect way?
It seems much more plausible that the books of the Bible reflect the attitudes of the times in which they were written. In ancient times, societies were more based on retaliation than today. Hence, the writers talked of the “tooth for a tooth” principle. Jesus seemed to have had a different idea about it. But his writers could not simply cut away their religious and historical heritage. Hence, they presented the new ideology as a continuation of the old one — however inconsistent this was. By linking back to the Old Testament, Christianity could legitimize itself based on the common heritage. The price to pay was that the character of the god became inconsistent on the way.
Are you saying that the smartest person in the universe once wanted us to kill every adulterer and homosexual, but then changed his mind? That somehow makes it better?
The Abrahamic GodChristianity believes in the abrahamic god. This god is a contradictory concept to many atheists: he is “loving”, but never speaks; he is universal, but revealed to only a handful of people at the fringes of civilization; he is benevolent, but causes harm; he is perfect, but his creation is messy; and he has committed extraordinary brutalities. We discuss these problems in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God.
A just and merciful parent cannot condemn his children to eternal banishment. Can you suppose that God, so great, so good, so just, is less kind than you are?
Original SinIn Christianity, the “Original Sin” is humanity’s state of sin, which resulted from the fact that Adam and Eve (the ancestors of humanity in Christian mythology) ate a fruit from a tree that God forbade them. In a naive interpretation of things, Adam and Eve stole the fruit, and humanity then inherited their guilt. As the Bible explains: “By the one man’s disobedience [=Adam’s] the many were made sinners” [Bible / Romans 5:19, 3:23]. However, it is not clear how guilt for a crime could be inherited. Therefore, dozens of other theories have been drawn up about what this “state of sin” could be: the general inclination to do sin, the inability to have true faith in God, the corruption of the Nature of every man, or of being a “condemned crowd” .
From a scientific point of view, the story of Adam and Eve is a myth (Chapter on the Universe). It did not happen. The story was initially invented to explain the origin of the world, and to explain why humans are weak. Then the theory of the original sin was developed. The word “sin” means “an offense against religious or moral law” 159. Thus, the concept was used to make people feel guilty: “There is no one righteous, not even one; […All] have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” [Bible / Romans 3:10], and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [Bible / Romans 3:23-24]. Instilling guilt is a well‐known pattern to bind people emotionally to a religion.
Unfortunately, people realized that the idea of inherited sin makes no sense. Therefore, theologians started re‐interpreting the word “sin”. Suddenly, “sin” came to mean no longer an active offense, but “a state of weakness”. Thus, it became a pumpkin word: It was re‐interpreted to mean something else, but it keeps its reproachful connotations. It keeps suggesting that humanity is guilty of something, even without having done anything. That, by itself, is wrong and manipulative in atheist eyes.
Remember, if you don’t sin, then Jesus died for nothing.
The TrinityIn 325 CE, the First Council of Nicaea decided that God was triune: a single being of three distinct beings.
For an atheist, this is literally unbelievable: Something cannot be one and three at the same time. This is just nonsense. Atheists also suspect that Christians cannot really imagine the trinity either. They just say they do. In the end, few people actually believe in the literal trinity. The concept is nonsensical. It was made up by the theologicians — just like the rest of Christianity.
One may say with one’s lips: “I believe that God is one, and also three” — but no one can believe it, because the words have no sense.
AtonementIn Christianity, atonement is the idea that humans are reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrificial death (Bible / John 1:29, 10:11, Marc 10:45, Jesaja 53:8, Epheser 1:7, Romans 3:23-24). Theologians have developed dozens of theories about how this might work (ibid). In many of these models, the basic idea is that Jesus’ death cleared the Original Sin.
No matter which interpretation we choose: to an atheist (and in particular to a Humanist), the idea that an unrelated person has to suffer in order to clear some inherited sin is completely repulsive. Sin (in any common sense) cannot be cleared through suffering or death. If someone did harm, then it does not help at all if some other unrelated person is tortured. Anybody who draws comfort from such a thing is a sadist.
Thus, from an atheist point of view, all of this is just an attempt to make people thankful to Jesus: We first invent a problem (the Original Sin), and then present our favorite prophet as the solution to that problem. This is a well‐known pattern to make people emotionally attached to a religion.
I don’t even understand the connection with “died for your sins”. He died for your sin, well, how does one affect the other? “I hit myself in the foot with a shovel for your mortgage!”
Self-SacrificeThe story of killing someone in order to make up for the imagined sins of someone else is already pretty weird in itself. This idea becomes even weirder when we consider the concept of trinity: God the Father and Jesus are one. Thus, God killed himself in order to make himself forgive. When Jesus laments “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Bible / Matthew 27:46], he basically says “Myself, myself, why have I forsaken me?” 160. This is completely absurd.
Furthermore, if God is so just and kind, why can’t he just forgive without spilling his own blood?
Yes, sending mself down and having the humans crucify me — that will satisfy me. I feel much better now.
Cafeteria Christianity (1)Some Christians (not all) believe that we should follow the values of the Old Testament. They cite verses from the Old Testament to prove, e.g., that homosexuality should be punished. Even liberal Christians use the Old Testament as a reference — e.g., when speaking of the 10 Commandments. The Bible also clearly tells us that “the word of our God stands forever” [Bible / Isaiah 40:8]. And Jesus agrees: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” [Bible / Matthew 5:17-20].
And yet, the Old Testament contains a surprisingly large amount of nonsensical rules. Consider, e.g., Deuteronomy 22:28: It says that if a man rapes a woman, he has to pay money to the father of the woman, and gets to marry the woman. This is obviously an outrageous rule, which totally disregards the suffering, the self-determination, and even the existence of the victim as a human being with rights. For good reasons, this rule is no longer applied today. And for unknown reasons, this rule rarely appears in Christian discourse. It is just ignored. That is weird, because it would provide a very short path to the conclusion that the Bible cannot be the word of a benevolent god. But Christians never talk about this rule. Instead, they cherry-pick the rules they like from the Bible. This phenomenon is called “Cafeteria Christianity”. I think no‐one described this better than an anonymous writer on the Internet, who replied to a Christian Conservative as follows:
Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to best follow them.
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.
- When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
- I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
- I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
- Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
- I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
- A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an Abomination (Lev 11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?
- Lev 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
- Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19:27. How should they die?
- I know from Lev 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
- My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24:10-16) Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in‐laws? (Lev. 20:14)
Your devoted disciple and adoring fan.
Cafeteria Christianity (2)We have seen that Christians routinely disregard instructions from the Old Testament. Progressive Christians can still argue that the Old Testament was superseded by the New Testament. However, even the laws of the New Testament are disregarded:
- I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. [Bible / 1 Timothy 2]
- Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything [Bible / Ephesians 5:24]
- Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. [Bible / 1 Corinthians 14:34-35]
- Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. [Bible / 1 Corinthians 11:13-15]
- To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife. [Bible / 1 Corinthians 7:10-11]
- And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. [Bible/ Matthew 6:5]
In spite of the fact that the Bible is supposed to be God’s eternal Word [Bible / Isaiah 40:8], we completely ignore it:
- We make women the CEOs of major corporations.
- We elect women to high government offices.
- We appoint women as presidents of universities.
- We fill our schools with female teachers.
- We allow women to speak freely in church.
- We allow women to have short hair, and men to have long hair (most notably Jesus on the majority of portraits)
- We allow divorce.
- We pray in public.
We do all of this in direct defiance of God’s Law in the Bible 161. This shows that we all know too well that the Bible is nothing more than an ancient man‐made collection of stories and rules.
It’s almost as if the Bible was written by racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, sexually frustrated men, instead of a loving God. Weird.
ElijahThe Bible has a beautiful story about how the Prophet Elijah defeated the followers of the competitor god Baal:
They called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come here to me.” […] He stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, […] Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord — he is God! The Lord — he is God!” Then Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there. [Bible / 1 Kings 18]
People argue that “You shall not test the Lord”. They will also say that God has to remain “hidden”. However, the Bible contains more stories of people who doubted the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus. In each case, God does not remain hidden at all, but provides a visible proof:
- Saint Paul was an ardent critic of Christians. Then Jesus appeared to him, and he became a believer.
- The Doubting Thomas was an apostle who did not believe in Jesus’ resurrection. He said: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” [Bible / John 20:24‐29]. Jesus then let him examine the wholes in his hands, and Thomas believed.
- Saint Peter doubted that the man who walked on the water was really Jesus. He said: “Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water” [Bible / Matthew 14:28]. Jesus made him walk on the water, and all those present concluded that “Truly you are the Son of God” [Bible / Matthew 14:32].
Thus, even the contemporaries of Jesus doubted his miracles. Hence, atheists reason, we are also entitled to question his miracles. We are even more entitled to question his miracles, because we know of them only by second‐hand reports of people who lived thousands of years ago. If the ancients did not believe without evidence, then neither should we.
The Catholic ChurchThe Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination. Despite the popularity of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has made a number moral mistakes in the recent past. These were considered so serious, that the UN Committee on Rights of the Child has issued a damning report162. The report criticizes in particular:
- an incompatibility between Catholic Canon Law and the UN Convention of Children’s rights
- a social stigmatization of homosexuals
- a disregard for legal equality between genders, which is often used to justify discriminatory legislation
- sexual child abuse, where the Church has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests. In the US alone, the church has spent 4 billion USD in settlements and judgements 163.
- the toleration of quasi‐slavery of young girls in the Magdalene laundries of Ireland
- the promotion of corporal punishment of children
- the obstruction of investigations of sexual abuse committed by members of the Catholic churches
- the obstruction of efforts in certain countries to extend the statute of limitation for child sexual abuse
These positions are in grave contradiction with the rights of the child. They are also in grave disagreement with the Human Rights or any harm‐based moral framework. Therefore, Humanists cannot agree on such policies. This disagreement extends to the present, because the Church did not abandon the above positions. On the contrary, in its reaction to the report, the Church “regrets to see […] an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching” 164. This divergence has a long history: The Catholic Church’s initial response to the[...] “Declaration of the Rights of Man” [...] was complete rejection 165. Pope Gregory XVI opposed liberty of conscience, freedom to publish, and the separation of Church and State 166. This position has changed in the 20th century. Pope Francis praises the Human Rights 167. However, the Vatican is the only European country that has not signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights . Thus, Humanists and the Catholic Church continue to be at disagreement.
Papal InfallibilityThe First Vatican Council defined that “the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra [...] operates with [...] infallibility [...] and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.” 168. This infallibility has been much criticized. However, it is only natural that the pope is infallible when he speaks in matters of faith, because he defines the faith. It is a bit like when the French scientists defined how heavy a kilogram is — they cannot err because they defined it. Furthermore, the infallibility of the pope applies only when the pope speaks “ex cathedra”. This notion is not explicitly defined, but the consensus is that it applies only when the pope explicitly evokes divine authority. This has so far happened only two times .
However, in the Catholic belief system, the Church still has the highest moral authority. Priests can deliver absolution for sins. When they do so, they speak in the name of Jesus Christ, i.e., in the name of God himself . The formula is “ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti” — “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. This is not a request to God. It is a declaration by the priest in the name of God. This is based on a Bible verse, where Jesus told his disciples: If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven 169. The pope has even more divine power: He is the “guardian of [Jesus'] entire flock in His own place”, and the “Vicar of Christ [, a title] which he bears [...] with vicarial power derived from Him” 170. More succinctly, the pope “hold[s] upon this earth the place of God Almighty” 171. Thus, the priests, and even more so the pope, can speak in the name of God himself.
If this authority decides (or ever decided) something that is in grave contradiction with the Human Rights, then God would surely have withdrawn the right to speak in his name from this authority. He did not. This could mean that God does not like the Human Rights. More likely, however, it means that the Church just claims the ability to speak in God’s name. That is easy to claim, because nobody can check it. This means that the Pope is just one more person who wrongly claims divine powers.
More succinctly, one cannot uphold the Human Rights on the one hand, and believe of the Catholic Church as a divinely inspired institution on the other.
Amoris LætitiaThere are other reasons to doubt that the Catholic Church is in any way connected to God: It was common practice that divorced people could not receive the Eucharist. This was re-affirmed in “The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. […] Reconciliation […], which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who […] take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.” 172.
However, in 2016, Pope Francis published his “Amoris lætitia” , which seems to suggest that divorced people may receive the Eucharistic Communion in certain cases without the requirement of abstinence. The Vatican’s own newspaper Osservatore Romano affirms this interpretation (“Una persona separata o divorziata che vive una nuova unione arriva […] a riconoscere e credere di essere in pace con Dio, non le potrà essere impedito di accostarsi ai sacramenti della riconciliazione e dell’eucaristia (cfr. Amoris lætitia, nota 336 e 351). […] Non è da escludere che queste persone possono essere ritenute idonee per essere padrini e madrine”) 173. See Catholic World Report: A Malta Laetitia, 2017-01-14 or The Economist: Is the pope Catholic?, 2017-03-18 for a discussion.
This has led to an open discussion among clerics about whether the communion for divorced and re-married people would be allowed or not. 45 clerics asked the pope in an open letter to “repudiate” what they see as “erroneous propositions” in Amoris lætitia 174. Other bishops, scholars, cardinals, and dioceses have offered their own interpretations, ranging from outrage about the Amoris lætitia to guidelines of how to apply the letter .
Now think about this for a moment: If the pope were really guided by God, would he publish a document that gives rise to so much dispute? Would he not, by divine guidance, be able to formulate the document in such a way that it is clear and does not require guidelines? Vice versa, if the critics of the document really believed that the pope were guided by God, would they dare criticising the document as “erroneous”? And, if any party were guided by God, why were the previous rules so strict, and are now considered to be relaxed? Or, if these people believed in the power of prayer, why did they not ask God directly to sort it out?
The obvious answer is that neither party in this process is guided by anything divine. The document and the ensuing criticism are the results of ongoing discussion in the Church of how to deal with the reality of divorced couples. What drives this discussion is the desire to remain attractive to the adherents in a modern world, to reconcile the previous position with the future positions, and to support divorced couples without antagonising the conservative circles of the Church. All of this is politics. The result of this discussion (no matter what it is) will be in no way divine. And yet, the result will certainly be sold as the will of God.
PrayerCharismatic Christians believes that God continues to work miracles. This belief is based on Bible verses that promise God’s response to prayer (see above).
Unfortunately, prayer works only for things that can happen by coincidence anyway, such as winning a match, finding the keys, or recovering from an illness. As soon as we move on to concrete changes that cannot happen spontaneously, prayer does not work. Prayer will never restore the limb of an amputee 176. Prayer will never alleviate the world’s hunger — even if millions of people pray for this every day.
Marshall Brain illustrates this by the following story: There is a Christian housewife in Pasadena who firmly believes that God answered her prayer this morning to remove the mustard stain from her favorite blouse. She prayed to God to help remove the stain, and after she washed it the stain was gone. Praise Jesus! [Now, ] if God is removing the stain, then why doesn’t our housewife pray for poverty to dissappear too? Why doesn’t she watch tomorrow as the world magically transforms itself into a poverty‐free utopia, in the same way that her blouse became mustard‐free? 177
Charismatic Christians come up with a large number of rationalizations why the prayer did not work: It is not his will. It is not part of his plan. This prayer is “too big”. This prayer is “too obvious”. The Lord works in mysterious ways. It will be answered three years from now, not today. You are not sincere enough. God will eventually inspire scientists to erase all forms of poverty, etc. 178. Christians are experts at creating excuses like this. They are experts because they have experienced over and over again that prayers just do not work.
To see this, let us pray to any other god. Let us pray, e.g., to Vishnu. If we pray to Vishnu, then some of the things we ask for will just happen by coincidence. These prayers are “answered”. Other things will just not happen. Then it’s not Vishnu’s will. Thus, Vishnu has the same powers as the Christian God. In fact, the probability of something happening is exactly the same — no matter whether we pray to God, to Vishnu, or even to a jug of milk 179. The prayer to a milk jug is as effective as the prayer to God: both have no effect whatsoever on the real world 180.
And we all know that prayer does not work. If prayer really worked, we would not need hospitals. We would not need health insurance. We would not need seat belts, glasses, or helmets. And yet, even Charismatic Christians use all of these. This shows that they do not believe in their own stories either.
We thus find ourselves confronted with a claim that is not true (“prayer works”), and with people who say they believe in it, but who act in every way as if they did not believe in it. These people are contradicting themselves. Everybody knows that prayers do not work. And, according to atheists, prayers do not work because there is no one who listens. Wer discuss this in detail in the Chapter on Proofs for Gods.
The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct God how to put them right.
HypocrisyIn Christianity, a person without sin goes to Heaven after death. In particular, dead infants go to Heaven, because they cannot really sin.
And yet, when an infant dies, believers do not rush to congratulate the parants upon this successful transition to paradise. They do not celebrate infant deaths as the fastest means to bring a person to eternal bliss. The parents do not rejoice for their child either. They should be happy that the child is spared earthly suffering, and goes directly to Heaven, where they themselves will later join. Ever since Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Lutheranism abolished physical suffering in hell, this joy should extend to any death, not just infant deaths. Whenever someone is dying, believers should queue up to congratulate that person. People should rejoice that one of their lot “made it”. Yet, this does not happen.
There are some rare cases where the death of a person is celebrated: Some Islamists blow themselves up in the expectation that they will reach paradise. Such behavior usually causes consternation. People cannot understand how someone can be so sure of Heaven that they are ready to kill themselves in order to get there. And yet, if the Christian belief promises Heaven for good deeds, and the Islamist belief promises Heaven for killing infidels, then the Islamists’ behavior is only logical. Nevertheless, people are unable to understand it.
At least in Western culture, this conundrum has a simple answer: People fully well understand that Heaven is just a pious wish. They know that it’s just a story that we tell each other in order to allay our fear of death. Atheists conclude that even Christians do not believe in their stories.
Historical DiversityOne of the interesting things about Christianity is the diversity of beliefs. Over time, numerous convictions were first upheld, and then abandoned: Slavery was once universally approved, but is now universally shunned. Witches were once persecuted and killed, and nowadays nobody talks about them. Heresy was once severely punished, and is now a non‐issue. All of this shows, in atheist eyes, that there was no divine guidance whatsoever. The Christian authorities were straying in the dark just like everyone else was straying in the dark — even a bit longer than everyone else.
Take slavery: Atheists do not understand how a religion that once approved of slavery can claim divine moral authority today. The institutions obviously made a grave moral mistake in supporting slavery — a mistake that most of them explicitly regret today. This means that these institutions did not act in divine guidance. They were wrong — just like everybody else. But they were not just wrong, they also claimed to speak in the name of God. That makes them worse than everyone else.
If the Bible got that one moral question wrong on which we all agree, that slavery is harmful, then why should we trust it on all the other questions?
Contemporary DiversityChristianity has shown a remarkable diversity of opinions over time. But even at the current point of time, Christianity is as diverse as it can get. There are hundreds of denominations, and each of them holds a slightly different view on a number of topics: Shall we execute a murderer or not? Can God work miracles today or not? Is contraception allowed or not? Is hell a physical place or not? Can non‐Christians go to Heaven or not? Is abortion allowed in some circumstances or not? Shall women have the same rights as men or not?
Atheists reason that if people had a connection to God, they could just pray to him and ask for an answer to these questions. This way, everyone should have the same beliefs. However, this is not what happens. Everyone believes that God wants something different, and every one believes that God wants exactly what he wants. To an atheist, this just shows that everyone imagines his own god in his own head. God exists only in the believers’ minds.
An Atheist view on Christianity
Christianity for AtheistsFrom an atheist point of view, Christianity is a religion, i.e., a set of beliefs. The core beliefs are the belief in one god, in Jesus as the son of the god, in the crucification and resurrection of Jesus, and in the god-inspired nature of the Bible. Beyond these tenets, Christian beliefs vary both across time and across different denominations.
These beliefs are inspired by the Bible. The Bible, however, talks of many physically impossible or false things: talking snakes, people who walk on water, a creation of the world in six days, and many other such things. Thus, the Bible cannot be a factual account of things. Since it is not a factual account of things, there is no reason to hold for true what the Bible says. However, the Bible is the main source of the Christian beliefs: If we remove the Bible, there is no other source that would tell us about God, Jesus, or his divine nature. Thus, without the Bible, there is no reason to believe that God exists, that Jesus was his son, or that Jesus was resurrected. In other words, there is no reason to believe in Christianity.
For an atheist, the Christian God is nothing more than a fictional character in a non-factual story. The proofs that Christians bring forward for their beliefs do not convince atheists, as we have seen in detail. On the contrary, atheists find Christian beliefs unconvincing, and we have seen a number of reasons.
This does not mean that it would be useless to study the Bible. The book contains an enormeous wealth of stories, parables, values, and historical allusions. Furthermore, it is one of the most impactful books ever written. We will therefore now look at the Bible from an atheist perspective.
Ever wondered why God never had people throw stones at rapists? The Bible was written by men.
The Old TestamentThe Old Testament is a collection of stories. We do not know who wrote these stories. We just know that one of the characters in these stories is the abrahamic god. As we have discussed in the Chapter on Gods, atheists hold that the abrahamic god is a fictional character. He appears in the stories of the Old Testament much like the good fairy appears in the story of Cinderella. Both are human inventions. In the Old Testament, the abrahamic god is a rather revengeful and brutal character. This is most likely because the authors lived in more brutal times than ours, and hence they could not imagine their god in any other way. Later, in the New Testament, God becomes a loving and kind character. We discuss this evolution in detail in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God.
The stories of the Old Testament mix historical content with myths and parables. Some of the stories were borrowed from other religions. For example, consider the story of Moses — a prophet who led the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. As a baby, Moses was abandoned, and placed in a basket on the river. This story was most likely taken from the legend of Sargon of Akkad . He was the first ruler of the Akkadian Empire, and lived 2300 BCE. Legend has it that he was also abandoned as a baby and placed in a basket on a river. It is thus possible that the writers of the Old Testament picked up this idea, and applied it to their own figure. That said, the story that Moses led the Jews out of Egypt most likely never happened in reality. The Jews were never slaves in Egypt, as we have seen.
The Old Testament also contains stories about the origin of the universe: According to the Old Testament, God created the universe, the Earth, and people. From an atheist point of view, these stories are pre-scientific attempts to explain nature. They have little in common with what we know about the universe today.
The Old Testament also contains laws and rites. As we have seen and as we will see in the Chapter on Criticism of Religion, these laws are often incompatible with modern Western values. At the time of their writing, however, they had a fundamental impact: They helped forge the Jewish identity. In around 600 BCE, the Jews lived in exile, because they were chased out of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. In this difficult time, the stories, values, rites, and etiological parables of the book gave the Jewish people a common identity. This common identity was consolidated into the religion of Judaism. Judaism later gave rise to Christianity, Islam, the Bahai Faith, and Spiritualism.
The GospelsThe New Testament starts with the Gospels. These are 4 different accounts of Jesus’ life. Jesus was a Jewish preacher, who lived around 4 BCE to 30 CE in what is today Israel. Quite possibly, he was a real person.
It was commonly assumed that the gospels were written by the companions of Jesus. As we have seen, this is not true. The stories were written by anonymous writers. They were written down decades after Jesus died. During these years, the stories were kept alive by word of mouth. Stories that travel by word of mouth are often enhanced and mystified as they are passed on. We have seen several examples of this in the Chapter on the Founding of Religion. The gospels are most likely no exception, and so it comes that the gospels ascribe many miraculous things to the Jesus character.
The first of these miraculous things is that Jesus does not have a human father. He was born from a human mother (Mary) and God. From an atheist point of view, this story is made‐up. The authors of the New Testament (or some intermediate story teller) just invented the story. The reason for inventing such a story was most likely that many religious leaders at the time were considered half‐gods. The Egyptian pharaohs, the Roman emperors, and the Greek kings were all born from gods. So it appeared plausible that Jesus should be born from a god as well. As for Mary herself: She seemed to be unaware of the supernatural birth. The Bible tells us that she has no idea what Jesus talks about when he goes to the temple and says “I am in the house of my father” (Bible / Luke 2:41-52). Had she really been visited by the Holy Spirit, she would for sure have remembered that.
The Gospels go on to tell us that Jesus then became a preacher. In this role, he performed many miracles: He walked on water and healed the ill. Again, from an atheist point of view, these miracles never happened. They were just added to the story by the people who passed it on. This view point is shared today by mainstream Christianity in Western Europe, as we have seen.
Finally, the Gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. If this really happened, it must have been devastating for his followers. Hence the myth of his resurrection was born: The Gospels tell us that Jesus rose from the dead, and walked the Earth for several more days, before ascending to Heaven. This story allowed Jesus’ followers to turn the necessity into a virtue: Jesus had to die so that he could show that he wins over death. From an atheist point of view, this story is, of course, made up. People cannot survive their death. We have seen that, indeed, there exist no first‐hand testimonies of the resurrection.
What did the Romans do when Jesus came back to life?
Inspiration for the GospelsThe main message of the Gospels is that God is a loving god. We have already discussed in the Chapter on the Abrahamic God that this image of God does not fit easily with the revengeful god of the Old Testament. To bridge the gap between the two testaments, the writers of the New Testament linked their stories to those of the Old Testament: Whenever the Old Testament made a prophecy, the writers made sure that this prophecy happened indeed in their stories of the New Testament. This way, they could legitimize the rise of Jesus on the basis of the old stories. Jesus is presented as the Messiah announced in the Old Testament.
The writers of the New Testament also borrowed ideas from other tales from the region:
- The idea of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood (Bible / John 6:56; 1 Corinthians 11:24), i.e., eating a god, was an ancient practice called theophagy . One example is the Greek god Dionysous. Grain and wine were substitues for his body and consumed by his worshipers as part of their religious rites. This idea was then ascribed to Jesus as well.
- The idea of Jesus being born from a divine father has many parallels in ancient mythologies. Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, and Greek kings at the time were all considered half‐gods . The Greek god Dionysous, likewise, was born from a divine father (Zeus) and a human mother (Semele). Hercules was conceived by the union of the god Zeus and the human Alcmena, and Pan by the god Hermes with a shepherdess. In Roman mythology, Ion was conceived by the god Apollo and Creusa, Romulus by the god Mars and Aemila, Asclepius by the god Apollo and Coronis, Perseus from the god Zeus and a woman, and Helen by Zeus and Leda. In Egyptian mythology, Hatshepsut was conceived when the god Amun laid a symbol of life on Queen Ahmose’s nose . Thus, it was probably no question that Jesus should have the same divine origins.
- The idea of resurrection was so popular that there is an entire category of gods who do these things . Examples are Baal, Melqart, Adonis, Eshmun, Osiris, Dumuzi, Tammuz, and Dionysus. The idea of rising after 3 days, in particular, has several parallels. The Egyptian god Osiris died, was mourned, and then rose on the third day.
I think basing an entire life philosophy on the testimony of a pregnant teenager who really stuck to her story is pretty weird in itself.
The New Testament beyond the Gospels
After the Gospels, the New Testament talks mainly about a person called Saint Paul. Initially, Paul was an ardent enemy of the Christians. The New Testament tells us that, after Jesus’ death, Paul was traveling on a long desert road. On that road, he suddenly met Jesus. This encounter changed his life, and he became a proponent of Christianity. This story has parallels to the story of Aristeas of Proconnesus: Aristeas was a semi-legendary Greek poet. When he died, the report of the death had just spread through the town, when a certain Cyzicenian, lately arrived from Artaca, contradicted the rumour, affirming that he had met Aristeas on his road to Cyzicus, and had spoken with him. This man, therefore, strenuously denied the rumor; the relations, however, proceeded to the fuller’s shop with all things necessary for the funeral, intending to carry the body away. But on the shop being opened, no Aristeas was found, either dead or alive. These elements can be found in the stories of the New Testament as well.
Paul wrote the largest part of the New Testament himself. He was the one who came up with the idea that Jesus died for our sins. He also made circumcision optional (Bible / 1 Corinthians 7:19–7:19; Philippians 3:2–3:2). Finally, he allowed Christians to consume pork (one of the advantages of Christianity over Judaism and Islam).
Besides Paul, other people also wrote stories and letters for the New Testament. This led to a large number of books, which were partially perceived as contradictory. People made dozens of attempts to decide which books should be the true books. For centuries, they could not agree whether the Book of Revelation was part of God’s word or not. The decision was finally made 1500 years later — not by God, but by the Council of Trent .
And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.
An atheist view on the BibleWe have seen that the Bible is a collection of stories. These stories mix truth with claims and fictional content. In this way, they codify the beliefs, the understanding of the world, and the value system of the respective writers. The writers did certainly not collect these stories with a bad intention: they may have seriously believed in these stories, or they may have intended the stories to be told as tales. In this sense, they can still inspire people today. And yet, from a factual point of view, there is no reason to believe in them.
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