“Religious views inform voting, how they raise their children, what they think is moral and immoral, what laws and legislation they pass, who they are friends and enemies with, what companies they invest in, where they donate to charities, who they approve and disapprove of, who they are willing to kill or tolerate, what crimes they are willing to commit, and which wars they are willing to fight.”
― Matt McCormick
If Christianity was the true religion, and if the God of Christians was a perfect being, wouldn’t he have the power to either improve the behavior of his people or discipline them for their bad behavior?
If it could be shown, then, that Christian behavior is overwhelmingly reprehensible, and that Christians get away with acting this way while claiming to be followers of God, it is only reasonable that people see this as evidence against the truth of Christianity, and of the Christian God.
For those who spend their time actively opposing religions in general or Christianity in-particular, a favorite activity is to spend time highlighting current news or historical events about things Christians have done which show they are truly hypocritical, petty, or even villainous.
The favorite examples are, of course, the Crusades and the Inquisition. All of the kingly and priestly oppression and domination of the peasantry in the Middle Ages is laid at the feet of Christians. In his book The Making of the Messiah, critic Robert Sheaffer complains of the roadblocks to societal development for which he finds the church responsible:
“The priest invents and encourages every kind of suffering and distress so that man may not have the opportunity to become scientific, which requires a considerable degree of free time, health, and an outlook of confident positivism. Thus, the religious authorities work hard to make and keep people feeling sinful, unworthy, and unhappy.”
Christians are implicated – with not insubstantial evidence – in lethal violence towards abortion clinics and abortionists; of historically encouraging slavery and racism; and of hatred and violence towards people who embrace alternative worldviews and lifestyles.
Celebrated Christian reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther are each hatefully accused; Calvin of burning a man for heresy, and Martin Luther for his Anti-Semitism.
The prisons throughout the United States are packed to bursting with convicted men and women claiming to be Christians.
The argument for a good and loving Christian God is easily argued against based on ugly and unloving Christian behavior. Can Christian beliefs still be justified in light of such behaviors?
“No True Scottsman”
There is a fallacy which tends to crop up regularly when looking at this question, called the “No True Scotsman Fallacy.” The name stems from an account of a Scottish man who hears of some atrocity or other committed by another Scottish man. In disgust, he asserts “No TRUE Scotsman would ever do such a thing!”
Critics of Christianity, when pointing out some kind of reprehensible act committed by Christians, tend to get the response “Well they weren’t really Christians. A REAL Christian wouldn’t do that.” This is understandably frustrating, as it seems that Christians keep moving the marker so that they can never be pinned down. However, “Christian” is just a label that anyone may apply to themselves. If that label has no objective standards against which the person may be judged, then the term becomes meaningless. One cannot accuse a so-called “Christian” of doing something that indicts Christianity as a system of belief if there is no standardized system to be believed.
The Bible predicts that there will, in fact, be those who falsely claim to be Christian:
Matthew 7:21-23 English Standard Version (ESV)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
There are four Biblical principles to keep in mind when judging the actions of people who claim to be Christians:
People are drawn to any system that gives them power over others
The question is usually framed “Why are more atrocities committed in the name of religion than anything else?”
The answer to this is that religion presents a very effective tool for justifying any sort of action. If one may simply assign divine authority and approval to their actions and get away with it, they have found the perfect excuse to do anything they like without interference.
Religion, like money, sex, and power, is a perfect method for manipulating people, and wherever such methods exist, there are people who are more than happy to abuse them.
This is probably why Jesus told his followers, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Only with wisdom may a canny Christian identify the shysters and power mongers who claim God-given authority, and only by innocence may they avoid being swept up into actions that shame the God with which they identify themselves.
John gives his readers a similar warning: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” The Bible anticipates that so-called “false prophets” will arise to lead naïve believers into avenues that violate the teachings of the Christ they claim to follow.
“Religion is the opiate of the people,” Karl Marx famously stated. In his writings, Marx made it clear that he thought religion was a lie propagated by the ruling powers to keep their subjects submissive and obedient, and to give them hope for the next life so they would not revolt in this life.
Medieval theology gave the culture of the time a concept called “the divine right of kings,” which basically said that the decisions of the king were directly from God and should be treated as the decisions of God. This was just the latest manifestation of the tendency of ancient dictators to place themselves as identical with God, as the Roman Emperors would do, having the citizens bow in worship of them.
In fact, history abounds with examples of power hungry governments and individuals using God, gods, and religion as a justification for their thoughtless and self-aggrandizing use of political power.
Is the Christian faith, then, simply another scheme foisted upon the masses to keep them obedient to the law of the land, however unfair that law may be?
In ancient Rome, Christians refuse to worship the Emperor, even with the threat of death and dismemberment looming over their heads. In Nazi Germany, Christians put their lives at risk in order to hide Jews from Storm Troopers; and famed minister Dietrich Bonheoffer organizes an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life. When the attempt fails, Bonheoffer is imprisoned and executed. In present day China, Christians smuggle Bibles into the country, and act in direct disobedience to the government by meeting to worship.
In Matthew 10, Jesus is sending his disciples out into the world, instructing them to preach his gospel no matter what, and warning them of the resistance and acts of hatred they will face because of their message. He says, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”
When the disciples went forth and began to teach, they were arrested repeatedly. At one court hearing they were asked if they had not understood that they were not allowed to teach the Gospel of Jesus, to which they replied, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
Has religion been used as a tool for governments and authorities to control the masses? Absolutely. However, there is one element found in all such religions that is conspicuously absent in proper Christianity. That is the idea that true religion consists of obeying a set of laws in order to gain eternal reward.
In ancient Egypt the deceased are judged by their deeds in life, their souls being weighed against a feather. If the soul is not weighed down with wickedness, they pass into the realm of the gods.
In modern day Islam there is a similar belief where Allah judges the dead, weighing their adherence to the laws set forth in the Koran against their evil deeds. If Allah deems that the person’s obedience was greater than their disobedience, they pass into paradise.
Even in Roman Catholicism, a person must constantly confess and make amends for their evil, following the various rituals of the Church in order to gain salvation.
When a religion forces constant performance from its adherents, promising the highest reward for compliance and the most heinous consequences for failure to perform, that religion has a controlling effect that cannot be overstated. The followers of the religion become absolute slaves to the performance demanded by their faith. There is also a strong tendency to hypocrisy in such religions, since the followers tend to overestimate their own righteous performance while looking down on others. Proper Christianity, however, is no such faith.
Christianity properly understood teaches two very simple things. First, it teaches that no one is capable of performing well enough to win God’s favor. Secondly, it teaches that God has offered to forgive and adopt everyone who believes in the sacrifice given by Jesus Christ.
While every other religion offers only enslavement to law, Christianity offers freedom from law and laws. This is why Christians have always obeyed a power that transcends government, often to the violation of those governments. Because those who must follow laws in order to obtain God’s favor come to resent those laws, but those who are freely forgiven and adopted have a loyalty that surpasses compulsory obedience. They have a loyalty to God that stems from bottomless gratitude.
Christians are imperfect
It is possible to be a Christian and to act in a way which defies the standards of Christianity. Christians do not claim to be infallible or perfect. In fact, the very act of becoming a Christian begins with the admission of one’s sinfulness. The Bible allows that a person who is Christian may “backslide” or misbehave in a way that is unbecoming of their allegiance to Christ.
This does not indict the system but rather the person. A Christian is not perfect simply because they are a Christian:
1 John 1:8 English Standard Version (ESV)
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Christians who choose to practice that which the scripture considers sinful are condemned rather than commended:
1 John 1:6 English Standard Version (ESV)
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.
Those Christians who do sinful things are often disciplined by God:
Hebrews 12:5-8 English Standard Version (ESV)
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.
Christians, likewise, are told to disassociate with and attempt to correct fellow Christians who practice sin:
2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 English Standard Version (ESV)
If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.
Many people do despicable things in the name of the Christian God, but it is certain that those actions would be abhorrent to the majority of Christians, and that they would seek by all means to disassociate themselves from people who do such things. It is ridiculous to say that because a person invokes the name of God that their actions would be unconditionally condoned by that same God.
There is a standard against which Christian behavior may be judged
Matthew 7:15-20 English Standard Version (ESV)
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
The Bible is at least as judgmental of Christian actions as any non-Christian may be. There are very specific standards Christians are meant to achieve. As already discussed, practically no Christian lives up to those standards, however if one is truly following Christ, the Bible indicates that they will display certain qualities – termed “fruits” – that will increase and mature as they continue to walk with God.
Possibly the most famous list of these “fruits” is given by Paul in the book of Galatians:
Galatians 5:22-23 English Standard Version (ESV)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Biblical standards of morality are not always consistent with non-Biblical standards
There are, in fact, very real Biblical concepts that fall out-of-step with secular ideals. When Christians are accused of acting within these principles, the accusations are true.
Most of these have to do with concepts related to sexual practices and the understanding of a family unit. The Bible stresses a very conservative view on how and when sex may be practiced.
Christianity is, necessarily, a worldview of delayed gratification. Christians are told to “lay up treasure in heaven” instead of on earth. They look forward to the future return of their Messiah, and they consider death to be the beginning, not the end. Consequently, a Christian can reasonably forego immediate fulfillment of their interests and desires in favor of their lofty ideals. This leads to a philosophy of restraint, and sometimes even self-denial, as seen in this passage:
1 Corinthians 6:18-20 English Standard Version (ESV)
Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
For those who do not share the Christian belief in some kind of future reward or higher ideals, it seems understandably offensive when a believer tries to then push the Christian philosophy of restraint upon them, making them seem guilty of some kind of offense, when they were simply doing what they felt they had a personal right to do.
Sex is, perhaps, the most intimate experience, and highest pleasurable activity to which most people aspire, so naturally a secular culture demands as few restraints to practicing sex recreationally as possible – to maximize freedom and minimize potential consequences such as disease, emotional or physical trauma, and unwanted pregnancy. This is an area of major collision between Biblical and Secular ideals, and the discourse on this topic has been bitter, heated, and sometimes even violent.
The question then becomes: which standard is the correct standard? If Christians and the Bible are wrong in their standards, then Christians really do act shamefully; and this becomes a very real indictment against this system of belief. One would have to make a compelling case against the Biblical standard in order to prove this.
On these points, either the Bible is correct, or Secular ideals are correct. Whichever is correct condemns the other.
It should be mentioned that when Christians resort to hateful and violent tactics in order to enforce their understanding of morality, this truly is a violation of Biblical principles. Both motive and method must comport with the Bible in order to justify the Christian who claims to be following it.
The “Genetic Fallacy”
One final thing must be said in this regard: the truth of Christianity does not stand or fall on who believes it, their motivations for believing it, or their personal behaviors. Either Christianity is true or it isn’t. That certain people embrace Christianity and then behave in a despicable manor does not somehow prove that Christianity is untrue. This same person doubtlessly holds a number of other beliefs that are in fact true. They probably believe that the earth is round, that exercise is good for the body, that rain comes from clouds, and that when they strike another person, it will hurt that person. These things do not somehow become untrue if the person believing them behaves badly.
Christianity stands or falls on its own merits. If Christianity is true, those who believe it will be held accountable for how they have represented those beliefs to others. If it is untrue, their behaviors are not made it untrue.