Criticism of Christian doctrine

Criticism of Christian doctrine

Criticism of Christian doctrine usually follows criticism of Christianity as a whole.



The earliest objections to incarnation come from Celsus and Porphyry. Celsus found it hard to reconcile Christian human God who was born and matured with his Jewish God who was supposed to be one and unchanging. He asked "if God wanted to reform humanity, why did he choose to descend and live on earth? how his brief presence in Jerusalem could benefit all the millions of people who lived elsewhere in the world or who had lived and died before his incarnation?" [1]

One classical response is Lewis's trilemma, a syllogism popularised by C. S. Lewis that intended to demonstrate the logical inconsistency of both holding Jesus of Nazareth to be a "great moral teacher" while also denying his divinity.

Hell and damnation

Adam and Eve being driven from Eden due to original sin, portrayed by Gustave Doré.

Christianity has been criticized as seeking to persuade people into accepting its authority through simple fear of punishment or, conversely, through hope of reward after death, rather than through rational argumentation or empirical evidence.[2] Traditional Christian doctrine assumes that, without faith in Jesus Christ, one is subject to eternal punishment in hell.[3]

Critics regard the eternal punishment of those who fail to adopt Christian faith as morally objectionable, and consider it an abhorrent picture of the nature of the world. On a similar theme objections are made against the perceived injustice of punishing a person for all eternity for a temporal crime. Some Christians agree (see Annihilationism and Trinitarian Universalism). These beliefs have been considered especially repugnant[4] when the claimed omnipotent God makes, or allows a person to come into existence, with a nature that desires that which God finds objectionable.[5]

In the Abrahamic religions, Hell has traditionally been regarded as a punishment for wrong-doing or sin in this life, as a manifestation of divine justice. As in the problem of evil, some apologists argue that the torments of Hell are attributable not to a defect in God's benevolence, but in human free will. Although a benevolent God would prefer to see everyone saved, he would also allow humans to control their own destinies. This view opens the possibility of seeing Hell not as retributive punishment, but rather as an option that God allows, so that people who do not wish to be with God are not forced to be. C. S. Lewis most famously proposed this view in his book The Great Divorce, saying: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'"

Hell is not seen as strictly a matter of retributive justice even by the more traditionalist churches. For example, the Eastern Orthodox see it as a condition brought about by, and the natural consequence of, free rejection of God's love.[6] The Roman Catholic Church teaches that hell is a place of punishment[7] brought about by a person's self exclusion from communion with God.[8] In some ancient Eastern Orthodox traditions, Hell and Heaven are distinguished not spatially, but by the relation of a person to God's love. St. Isaac the Syrian (also known as St. Isaac of Nineveh) writes,

I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love? I mean that those who have become conscious that they have sinned against love suffer greater torment from this than from any fear of punishment. For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment. It would be improper for a man to think that sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of God. Love is the offspring of knowledge of the truth which, as is commonly confessed, is given to all. The power of love works in two ways: it torments sinners, even as happens here when a friend suffers from a friend; but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret.[9]

Some modern critics of the doctrine of Hell (such as Marilyn McCord Adams) claim that, even if Hell is seen as a choice rather than as punishment, it would be unreasonable for God to give such flawed and ignorant creatures as ourselves the awesome responsibility of our eternal destinies.[10] Jonathan Kvanvig, in his book, The Problem of Hell, agrees that God would not allow one to be eternally damned by a decision made under the wrong circumstances.[11] One should not always honor the choices of human beings, even when they are full adults, if, for instance, the choice is made while depressed or careless. On Kvanvig's view, God will abandon no person until they have made a settled, final decision, under favorable circumstances, to reject God, but God will respect a choice made under the right circumstances. Once a person finally and competently chooses to reject God, out of respect for the person's autonomy, God allows them to be annihilated.

In the twentieth century, a belief in Christian universalism reappeared among many Protestant thinkers, and the notion that Hell might be empty was even espoused by the noted Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Balthasar was careful to describe his opinion that Hell might be empty as merely a hope, but even this claim was rejected by most conservative Catholics, including Cardinal Avery Dulles.


The Catholic Church teaches that baptism is a necessity. In the fifth century, St. Augustine concluded that infants who die without baptism were consigned to hell.[12] By the 13th century, theologians referred to the "limbo of infants" as a place where unbaptized babies were deprived of the vision of God, but did not suffer because they did not know of that which they were deprived. A Catholic burial can be denied to babies who are stillborn[citation needed]. The 1983 Code of Canon Law (1183 §2) specifies that "Children whose parents had intended to have them baptized but who died before baptism, may be allowed church funeral rites by the local ordinary".[13] In 2007, the 30-member International Theological Commission revisited the concept of limbo.[14][15] However, the commission also said that hopefulness was not the same as certainty about the destiny of such infants.[14]

The concept of limbo is not accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church or by Protestants.[16]


The idea of atonement for sin is criticized by Richard Dawkins on the grounds that the image of God as requiring the suffering and death of Jesus to effect reconciliation with humankind is immoral. The view is summarized by Dawkins: "if God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them? Who is God trying to impress?"[17] Oxford theologian Alister McGrath maintains that Dawkins is "ignorant" of Christian theology, and therefore unable to engage religion and faith intelligently. He goes on to say that the atonement was necessary because of our flawed human nature, which made it impossible for us to save ourselves, and that it expresses God's love for us by removing the sin that stands in the way of our reconciliation with God.[18] Responding to the criticism that he is "ignorant" of theology, Dawkins asks "do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in leprechauns?,"[19] and "[y]es, I have, of course, met this point before. It sounds superficially fair. But it presupposes that there is something in Christian theology to be ignorant about. The entire thrust of my position is that Christian theology is a non-subject."[20] Dinesh D'Souza says that Dawkins criticism "only makes sense if you assume Christians made the whole thing up." He goes on to say that Christians view it as a beautiful sacrifice, and that "through the extremity of Golgotha, Christ reconciles divine justice and divine mercy."[21] Andrew Wilson argues that Dawkins misses the point of the atonement, which has nothing to do with masochism, but is based on the concepts of holiness, sin and grace.[22]

Robert Green Ingersoll suggests that the concept of the atonement is simply an extension of the Mosaic tradition of blood sacrifice and "is the enemy of morality".[23] The death of Jesus Christ represents the blood sacrifice to end all blood sacrifices; the resulting mechanism of atonement by proxy through that final sacrifice has appeal as a more convenient and much less costly approach to redemption than repeated animal sacrifice – a common sense solution to the problem of reinterpreting ancient religious approaches based on sacrifice.

The prominent Christian apologist Josh McDowell, in More Than A Carpenter, addresses the issue through an analogy of a real-life judge in California who was forced to fine his daughter $100 for speeding, but then came down, took off his robe, and paid the fine for her from his billfold.[24]

Second Coming

A fundamental belief of Christianity is that Christ will return to the earth to conquer evil and rule over the faithful-a simplified definition of the Second Coming. Since the first century until modern times, some Christian leaders and their followers have prophesied that this would happen, usually during the lifetime of the person making the prophecy, and frequently within the next 20 years after the prophecy. This practice seems to contradict a fundamental Christian principle that says that no one knows when Christ will come (Mark&verse=13:32&src=! Mark 13:32). The failure of even one of these many prophecies to come true often has the effect of trivializing Christian teachings and making the church seem unreliable.

Several verses in the New Testament appear to contain Jesus' predictions that the Second Coming would take place within a century following his death. Most notably, Matthew 10:22-23, 16:27-28, 23:36, 24:29-34, 26:62-64; Mark 9:1, Mark 14:24-30, 14:60-62; and Luke 9:27. Jesus appears to promise for his followers the second coming to happen before the generation he is preaching to vanishes. This is seen as an essential failure in the teachings of Christ by many critics such as Bertrand Russell.[25]

Inconsistency with Old Testament conception of the afterlife

Job seen arguing with his friends concerning the suffering Satan put him through. Portrayed by Gerard Seghers.

Most Christian traditions teach belief in life after death as a central and indispensable tenet of their faith. Critics argue that the Christian conception of the afterlife is inconsistent with that described in the Old Testament. George E. Mendenhall believes there is no concept of immortality or life after death in the Old Testament.[26] The presumption is that the deceased are inert, lifeless, and engaging in no activity.[26]

The idea of Sheol ("שׁאול") or a state of nothingness was shared among Babylonian and Israelite beliefs. "Sheol, as it was called by the ancient Israelites, is the land of no return, lying below the cosmic ocean, to which all, the mighty and the weak, travel in the ghostly form they assume after death, known as Raphraim. There the dead have no experience of either joy or pain, perceiving no light, feeling no movement."[27] Professor Obayshi suggests that the Israelites were satisfied with such a shadowy realm of afterlife because they were more deeply concerned with survival.[27]

Achan, who was stoned to death in front of his sons and daughters. A great cairn of stones was the burial for criminals, portrayed by Gustave Doré.

Some critics charge that the belief in an afterlife is an innovation of Christianity, perhaps by admixture with Greek philosophy; however, by the first century such a belief was already prevalent in Jewish thinking amongst the Pharisees[28][29] and Essenes.[30] The themes of unity and sheol which largely shaped the ancient tradition of Judaism had been undermined when only the most pious of Jews were being massacred during the Maccabean revolt.

The suffering during the Maccabean period became the most serious challenge to the old Israelite thinking. This time it was not the shared suffering of all the Jews, but only those who remained loyal to the Torah who suffered and died. Thus the ancient belief of Sheol, the underworld, which summarized the common fate of all the Jews, proved no longer satisfactory. The logic of salvation that focused only on corporate or collective survival was no longer sufficient. The fate of the individual who perished for the faith had to be addressed. It was through this situation that the idea of resurrection, which Robert Goldenberg calls "the most individualistic of all religious conceptions," was introduced into Judaism... Resurrection and apocalypticism were the Judaic answer to changing times.[31]

See also


  1. ^ Howard W. Clarke, The Gospel of Matthew and Its Readers, Indiana University Press, 2003, p. 12
  2. ^ "Let no cultured person draw near, none wise and none sensible, for all that kind of thing we count evil; but if any man is ignorant, if any man is wanting in sense and culture, if anybody is a fool, let him come boldly [to become a Christian]. Celsus, AD178
  3. ^ "Since we all inherit Adam's sin, we all deserve eternal damnation. All who die unbaptized, even infants, will go to hell and suffer unending torment. We have no reason to complain of this, since we are all wicked. (In the Confessions, the Saint enumerates the crimes of which he was guilty in the cradle.) But by God's free grace certain people, among those who have been baptized, are chosen to go to heaven; these are the elect. They do not go to heaven because they are good; we are all totally depraved, except insofar as God's grace, which is only bestowed on the elect, enables us to be otherwise. No reason can be given why some are saved and the rest damned; this is due to God's unmotivated choice. Damnation proves God's justice; salvation His mercy. Both equally display His goodness." A history of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Simon & Schuster, 1945
  4. ^ Bible Teaching and Religious Practice essay: "Europe and Elsewhere," Mark Twain, 1923)
  5. ^ Albert Einstein, Out of My Later Years (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), p. 27
  6. ^ What do Orthodox Christians teach about death and when we die?
  7. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, ISBN 0-89243-565-8,1994-the revised version issued 1997 has no changes in this section
  8. ^ Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1033, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, ISBN 0-89243-565-8,1994
  9. ^ Isaac of Nineveh. The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. Translated by [D. Miller], Holy Transfiguration Monastery. Stoughton, MA: Alpine Press, 1984, p. 141.
  10. ^ Richard Beck. "Christ and Horrors, Part 3: Horror Defeat, Universalism, and God's Reputation". Experimental Theology. March 19, 2007.
  11. ^ Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell, New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-508487-0, 1993
  12. ^ Cultural Anxieties over the Child in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries by William F. MacLehose
  13. ^ Canon Law 1983
  14. ^ a b CNS STORY: Vatican commission: Limbo reflects 'restrictive view of salvation'
  15. ^
  16. ^ Limbo: Recent statements by the Catholic church; Protestant views on Limbo at
  17. ^ Root of All Evil? (2006) (TV)-Memorable quotes
  18. ^ McGrath, Alister (2004). Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing. p. 81. ISBN 1-405-12538-1. 
  19. ^ Dawkins, Richard (September 17, 2007). "Do you have to read up on leprechology before disbelieving in them?".,1647,Do-you-have-to-read-up-on-leprechology-before-disbelieving-in-them,Richard-Dawkins-The-Independent,page27. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  20. ^ Marianna Krejci-Papa, 2005. "Taking On Dawkins' God:An interview with Alister McGrath." Science & Theology News, 2005–04–25.
  21. ^ Dinesh D'Souza, What's So Great About Christianity, Regnery Publishing, ISBN 1-59698-517-8 (2007)
  22. ^ Andrew Wilson, Deluded by Dawkins?, Kingsway Publications, ISBN 978-1-84291-355-0 (2007)
  23. ^ A Biographical Appreciation of Robert Green Ingersoll: Chapter 11
  24. ^ More Than A Carpenter, Tyndale House, Wheaton, Illinois, 1977, ISBN 978-0-8423-4552-1
  25. ^ in his famous essay Why I Am Not a Christian
  26. ^ a b From Witchcraft to Justice: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament, George E. Mendenhall.
  27. ^ a b Hiroshi Obayashi, Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. See Introduction.
  28. ^ [1] Acts 23:6-8 (NASB)
  29. ^ Pharisees#Pharisaic principles and values Pharisees: Pharisaic Principles and Values
  30. ^ Essenes#Rules, customs, theology and beliefs Essenes: Rules, customs, theology and beliefs
  31. ^ Hiroshi Obayashi, Death and the Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions. (Praeger Publishers, 1992.) See Introduction
  • Joseph McCabe, "A Rationalist Encyclopaedia: A book of reference on religion, philosophy, ethics and science," Gryphon Books (1971). [2]

Further reading

Skeptical of Christianity

  • The Antichrist, by Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris
  • The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God, by Carl Sagan
  • From Jesus to Christianity, by L. Michael White
  • Where God and Science Meet [Three Volumes]: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion, by Patrick McNamara
  • Russell on Religion, by Louis Greenspan (Includes most all of Russell's essays on religion)
  • Breaking the Spell, by Daniel Dennett
  • Einstein and Religion, by Max Jammer
  • Out of my later years and the World as I see it, by Albert Einstein
  • Understanding the Bible, by Stephen L Harris
  • Future of an illusion, by Sigmund Freud
  • Civilization and its discontents, by Sigmund Freud
  • Why I am not a Christian and other essays, by Bertrand Russell
  • Death and Afterlife, Perspectives of World Religions, by Hiroshi Obayashi
  • Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart Ehrman
  • The Birth of Christianity : Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus, by John Dominic Crossan
  • Why I Rejected Christianity: A Former Apologist Explains, by John W. Loftus

Defending Christianity

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