CHRISTIANITY: TRUE OR FALSE?
Karl Marx once said, “Man makes religion, religion does not make man.” This was one of his several ways of saying that religion is an illusion. “It is the opium of the people.” Religion is, Marx insisted, something man has invented from his dream world instead of something God has revealed from heaven. This charge against religion is very old. It has been influential in every period of history. But in our scientific age, it seems especially convincing. If the modern farmer experiences a drought, he does not pray; we are told he irrigates. If modern man becomes ill, he doesn't call for a minister; he rushes to the emergency room. The “God-hypothesis” was necessary for the infantile stage of man's development, but modern man has “come of age.” He does not need God to explain where things came from or to carry on his daily routine. Religion has become a strain on his intelligence. He may have been taught as a child that God created man, but he has concluded now that it was the other way around; man created God! I have suggested that this criticism of religion is not new. In 1927 Sigmund Freud, the founder of psycho-analysis, published one of his most controversial works, "The Future of an Illusion.” Frued argued that religious teachings are the fulfillment of of the oldest , most urgent dreams of mankind. They are the things men wish were true but are not. A child has an almost terrifying feeling of helplessness. He wishes for the protection of a father's love. Later in life he realizes that this helplessness continues but that his earthly farther is not powerful enough to protect him any longer. So man projects his wish for an all-powerful father upon the universe, but the father really does not exist; he is only the projection of mans wish. Freud thought maturity amounted to a willingness to lay aside such childishness and accept the universe as it is, without God. This idea is not limited to psychology. One finds it in the history of philosophy as well. In 1841 Ludwig Feuerbach shocked Europe with his attack on Christianity in a book entitled, "The Essence of Christianity." He argued that man himself is the beginning and the end of all religion. Feurebach attempted to show that every Christian doctrine began with some human desire rather than with divine revelation. Man was puzzled by the question of the origin of life, so he made up the idea of a creator God. Man felt lonely; his life seemed to be without value or meaning, so he invented the idea of a heavenly father who loves him and has fellow-ship with him. Man felt guilty, so he dreamed of forgiveness. He was overwhelmed by life; a divine providence could see him through. Man does not wish to die so the resurrection must be concocted. Feuerbach examined each Christian doctrine and attempted s to show that they reflect natural human hopes and longings. Christianity, he argued, is no more than the composite wishes of mankind projected on a cosmic screen. Is Christianity true or false? Anyone who reads serious novels or plays today knows that the criticism of religion is not limited to 19th century philosophy or 20th century psychology. A principal theme in contemporary literature is that life is meaningless and that illusion is the only thing that makes human life bearable. Eugene O'Neill, a prominent playwright,has a character in one of his plays say, ““Religion is nothing but a chloroform mask into which the weak and unhappy stick their faces!” O'Neill thought that religion is the supreme illusion that makes life bearable for many people. So, Marx's idea that man created God rather than the other way around is quite prevalent today, and this is no light charge. If this is true, religion is empty and deceptive, If religion is rooted only in our personal wishes or collective dreams, we are wasting our time as Christians. What answer does the Christian have to the charge that all religion is “make believe?” The first response I would make is that true Christianity should be distinguished from religion in general. If we are thinking of the wide variety of religious experiences men have claimed, we must concede there is some truth in this objection. Religion has often been used by men as a means of escape from life̓s hardships. If we suffer in this life, we dream of rejoicing in a life to come. Or if we are persecuted, we hope the books will be balanced in the next life, and we will be vindicated. There is reason to believe that men have often chosen what they wished to be true over what is true in religion. Sinclair Lewis' novel, Elmer Gantry, was a caricature of a minister of religion. Gantry was a hypocrite whose Christianity had no relation to reason or thought and little to morality. Lewis meant to expose a
a type of morality which is always present, the religion of the closed mind, irrational, sentimental, always frightened of a new truth. But Christianity is not soft heartedness. It does not thrive on füzzy thinking. And I would have no interest in attempting to justify a “dream world” religion which bases itself upon feeling and sentiment rather than upon truth and reality. However,this “wishful thinking” theory cuts both ways. There is reason to believe that men may deny God because they do not intend to live by his will, and they do not wish to give account to him for their actions. If having a good father makes a child wish for a heavenly father to continue loving and protecting him throughout eternity, then having a bad father may lead to a person to rebel against the idea of a heavenly father sitting in judgment upon his conduct as an adult. Is Christianity a product of man's wishful thinking? Was Marx right in charging that “man makes religion, religion does not make man?” Man has invented many religious notions , but Christianity is not one of man's inventions. The real reason I am sure of this is found in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. As we study his words and observe his life, we never once get the impression that he was using religion as an scape mechanism. He was not building air castles to find a way out of hardship in life. In fact, just the opposite is true: The religion of Jesus did not save him from trouble; his religion got him into trouble. Instead of his religion being a way of ease and comfort, his religion thrust him into conflict with others and caused him to do things that made his life harder. Do you remember his cleansing the temple both at the beginning and the end of his ministry? The Court of the Gentiles had little place in the nationalistic Judaism of the day of Jesus. With no interest in the outsider, the area had been turned into a place of merchandise. There, animals could be purchased to be used in offerings, or a special temple tax coin could be obtained by a foreigner who had returned to Jerusalem to worship. Jesus knew of God's love for all people, not just the nation of Israel, and he challenged the mercenary practices of his fellows in the name of his Father. He made a whip of cords and drove animals and merchants out, poured out the coins of the money changers, overturned their tables and said, Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade”(John 2:16). Jesus was not choosing the way of wishful thinking ; he was following the path of conviction. Jesus' whole life was filled with a commitment to his Father's will that caused him to challenge his culture, even the religious practices of his day. The demands of God for his life cut squarely across the path of ease. He found himself in controversy that became so heated that men would stone him, or attempt to throw him over a cliff. Eventually, he wound up in a garden praying alone: “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14: 36). The gospels describe him as being “greatly distressed and troubled,” and the book of Hebrews later recalls that he “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.” (Hebrews 5:7). But he was true to his commitment: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10: 17, 18). One thing is certain: we cannot account for the religion of Jesus by saying it was his attempt to escape from trouble. It would be more accurate to say that his religion got him into trouble. He was not projecting his selfish desires on a cosmic screen and worshiping them; he was answering a cost1y imperative from God himself. If Jesus had invented his religion, he would not have followed his own invention to a cross. I would lay alongside the life and teachings of Jesus Christ the experience of the apostle Paul. Paul's writings constitute a large part of the New Testament. Second only to Jesus Christ, he is the man most responsible for the growth of the early church. Does his life appear to be a process of dreaming up a religion to suit himself? To answer this question adequately, we must recall Paul's situation before becoming a Christian. He describes himself as having been “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” (Philippians 3: 5, 6) . Trained under the Old Testament specialist, Gamaliel, Saul of Tarsus (as he was called before his conversion to Christ) was the Sanhedrin's official persecutor of the church. He was a zealous, rising young thinker, who appears to have been destined to become the leader of 1st century Judaism. He later recalled, “And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1: 14). When his fellow Israelites began following the crucified carpenter from Nazareth, he describes his reaction, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”(Acts 26:9,11). Then as he traveled to one of those foreign cities, Damascus, Jesus Christ appeared to him. (Acts 26: 12, 18). Was this a case of wishful thinking? Did Paul learn on the Damascus road what he had always hoped was true? To the contrary, he learned the last thing on earth he wanted to be true, the truth that : Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Christians, and not Saul's own people, were following God's truth. This revelation of Christ to Saul demanded a 180 degree turn for his whole life. It involved changing his religion, his status among his fellows. Literally everything which he had counted an asset in his past life he now treated as a loss. (Philippians 3:7,8). Is this the course of action weak, selfish men take when they are following their own wishes? Paul took this course to become a Christian, and his life became very different from what it would have been had he remained a leader in Israel. He had to make tents for a living now, while arguing in the synagogue when he had opportunity. He spent the rest of his life as a member of a despised minority group when he could have known great prominence as a Jewish leader. Does this sound like his religion was the product of wishful thinking? If Paul had been following his own desires, he would never have become a Christian. Christianity did not save Paul from trouble; Christianity got him into trouble. If the religion of Jesus cannot be described as wishful thinking, and if the apostle Paul went contrary to his natural desires in becoming a Christian, what about your own relationship to Christianity? If you were making up a religion of your own, would it be like Christianity? If you were projecting your own wishes, satisfying your own longings, would you have more permissiveness or more demands than Christianity has? To be specific, if you were dreaming up a religion, would it include loving your enemies? Praying for those who persecute you? Going the second mile with a man who forces you to carry his baggage one mile? Turning another cheek to a man who has just struck you on one cheek? Forgiving another person as many as seventy times seven offenses? If I were designing a religion to suit myself, it would not include judgment against my wrongs, . or self sacrifice of the kind Jesus practiced, or the demand to love my neighbor as myself. In short the demands of Christianity run head on into the desires of my selfishness. Christianity does offer hope, forgiveness, joy and peace, but on very different terms than those we would desire. To write Christianity off as nothing but the weak and unhappy sticking their faces into a chloroform mask is to shut one's eyes to the real facts. There is much in Christianity that no weak nature would invent. What about the charge then that “man makes religion; religion doe not make man.?” If you are talking about religion in general, there may be much truth in this criticism because many religious approaches seem to be self-serving. But if you are talking about Biblical Christianity, the charge is not valid. Simply look at Jesus: He wound up on a cross, which is hardly a place the weak and unhappy would wish themselves to be . And look at the apostle Paul. Christianity did not save him from trouble, it got him into trouble. He gave up security and status for a life of suffering and service. And ask yourself this question, “ If you were making up a religion to conform with your own wishes, would it be what you find in the New Testament?” True Christianity has been revealed by God; to reject it is to move in the direction of wishful thinking and a desire to be free from a life of service to God and man. Whatever else we may say, Christianity cannot be written off as a man-made fantasy. It has the character of a way of life which we would not create out of our own desire for ease and protection. What about you and your religion? Is it something you have created out of your own desires, or is it obedience to the One who created you? Jesus was very clear with those who wanted to be his disciples. He said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.” (Mark 8: 34, 35). When Paul entered Jesus' service, he wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2: 20).
Paul frequently described the process of becoming a Christian in terms of a crucifixion, a death, burial and resurrection. When we begin to follow Christ, we are brought into his kingdom by going through a likeness of what he went through to redeem us from sin. Listen to the apostle Paul, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of Cod, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2: 11,12). In the following
sentences of Paul's letter to the church at Colosse, he talked repeateedly about their having been put to death raised with Christ to a new life. If I were designing a religion, it would not begin with a crucifixion of my own self, but this is the way the service of Christ begins. Christianity calls for that which is deepest in you to respond to that which is truest from beyond you, namely, the revelation of Jesus Christ.*
*This message is a reproduction of a message by Harold Hazelip, presented on the Herald of Truth Radio Programs several decades ago and produced by the Highland Church of Christ, Abilene, Texas. I believe this message should be preserved and not pass away. Brother Hazelip superbly answers the false and unwarranted criticism and arguments made by unbelievers against God, Christ, the Christian religion and Christians.