A Religion Not Made for Success

Were I inclined to believe in them, I would say that the New Testament gospels were a set of maddeningly strange and frustrating documents. Although they contain some beautiful ideas, they always stop just short of bringing them to their logical conclusions. They contain moving admonitions of universal love, but never go so far as to extend that compassion to women or the enslaved. Although Jesus is said to have had pity on the sick and the infirm who came to him and cured them of their ailments, he never did anything to help the millions more who were too sick or too distant even to seek him out, although if he was truly omnipotent that would have been within his power. Though they repeatedly promise that the kingdom of God is just around the corner, that promise remains unfulfilled to this day.

In these ways and others, one could say that Christianity is a religion not made for success. It began as a small, fringe apocalyptic sect, and its originators apparently expected it would always remain so. To judge by what they wrote, the authors of the gospels expected Christianity to persist in its original state – its members penniless vagrant proselytizers, traveling from town to town to preach, sleeping on the ground and subsisting on alms – until Jesus’ return and the end of the world, which the first generation of Christians clearly expected to happen within their own lifetimes.

As proof of this, consider that the gospels lack the sort of rules concerning organization and hierarchy that are ultimately needed for a church to survive in the long term. Other than a few vague references, Jesus never gives advice on how to ordain priests and bishops, how to establish a church hierarchy, or how to select new apostles. He never even defines a formal creed!

This lack of formalization has caused the fragmentation of Christianity into so many different sects and denominations, a degree of variation virtually unparalleled in any other major world religion. For example, Judaism is mainly divided into Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, while Islam is mainly divided into Sunni and Shiite. Christianity, by contrast, has literally dozens of major denominations, often separated by fierce and even violent disputes over the most trifling points of doctrine, such as whether the bread and wine used in communion “literally” (but not literally) become the body and blood of Jesus, or whether they only do so figuratively; or whether children should be baptized or only adults, and whether it is necessary to enter Heaven in any case. Given the grab-bag nature of the gospels, and the highly ambiguous and cryptic nature of many of their teachings, it is hardly surprising that such a diversity of interpretation has arisen.

Furthermore, much of the advice given in the gospels clearly assumes that Christianity will always consist of rootless bands of evangelists, such as Jesus’ teachings that one must sell everything one owns and forsake one’s family to be a Christian, or that people who follow him will always be rejected and reviled. Such teachings make perfect sense in the context of the outcast cult which Christianity started off as. Nowadays, of course, it is largely composed of the very kind of wealthy, settled, comfortable people that Jesus preached against, which is why these teachings are widely ignored by today’s Christians. Some Christians even flatly contradict them, such as the teachers of the “prosperity gospel” who claim that that God wants all his followers to be rich. One need only consider the vast wealth and tremendous luxury enjoyed by Christian leaders, such as the pope or the powerful preachers of the Protestant right, to see how far the religion has diverged from its original teachings.

Finally, take Jesus’ teachings that the end is imminent. These perpetually unfulfilled promises have led to the bizarre phenomenon of feverish apocalyptic speculation that has consumed every single generation of Christians, died away as that generation grew old and gray, and then was taken up just as eagerly by the next generation. Where other religions are more sensitive to history and continuity, the urgent and immediate nature of the gospels’ end-time claims have made many Christian sects all but deaf to it.

In all these ways, Christianity has “stretched its boundaries” as it tries to build a large, mainstream religion on the precepts of a small, isolated cult. Its original infrastructure was not designed for future growth and success. Although later New Testament documents, such as the Pastoral epistles, attempt to provide some framework for this, for the most part Christianity did not become formalized in this way until long after the canon was closed. Much of its formal ideas are little more than the interpretations, and in some cases the outright inventions, of church figures who for the most part were making it up as they went along.

If this religion had been founded by an all-knowing god, it is more likely than not that he would have been aware of its future growth potential and set up its institutions accordingly. The ad hoc and arbitrary nature of the way Christianity has grown, however, points instead to the conclusion that it was invented by human beings who, regardless of their theological creativity, could not foresee the future.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • James Bradbury

    I know a number of people who might otherwise have been xians who were surprised to discover the sheer diversity of beliefs in the world, which gave them reason to begin questioning the (locally) established beliefs. I’ve often said that there are as many religions/belief systems in the world as there are people.

  • Alex Weaver

    On a semi-related note (Christianity as a presecuted faith), I’m not sure if you’ve seen this yet.

  • http://www.anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    When I became an atheist, I still puzzled over what would cause an offshoot of Judaism to become the widespread religion of Christianity during the first few centuries of the common era.

    While it doesn’t explain the why, it occurred to me that the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire is like a virus that for most of history was confined to the animal kingdom and then one day it crosses over and affects humans, like SIV to HIV, for example. Whereas Judaism was essentially a religion that was exclusive to a group of people who defined themselves as Jews, Christianity had pretensions of universality for people of all nations. Something caused a proto-Christianity to leap out of its Jewish confines, and spread throughout its host, the Roman Empire. In fact, were it not for the Roman Empire conquering the Middle East, Christianity might never have happened. And the Roman Empire itself made the perfect host for an aggressive and proselyzing religion. It controlled a large territory that lacked an official state religion (the Romans tended to tolerate all religions, as long as the proper dues were paid to the emperor), and was connected by an excellent system of roads that facilitated travel throughout the empire. When the Roman Empire began to be rocked in the 3rd century C.E. by civil wars, economic hardship, plagues, barbarian incursions and wars with the Persians, it was a perfect breeding ground for Christianity. With the lot of the common people growing worse, a religion that offered a hope for a better world in the afterlife must have been quite appealing.

    On the other hand, the other major power in the Middle East was Persia, which had as its state religion Zoroastrianism. While there were Christian communities within the territory ruled by the Persians, it could not fare as well without the state support it would receive from the Roman government from the 4th century onward.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    I know a number of people who might otherwise have been xians who were surprised to discover the sheer diversity of beliefs in the world, which gave them reason to begin questioning the (locally) established beliefs.

    C.S. Lewis knew that too: in Mere Christianity, he urged his readers not to talk about the numerous divisions and denominations within Christianity when outsiders were listening, lest it discourage those people from coming to the faith.

  • Archi Medez


    In response to your link, the contents of which I realize are a joke:

    1. The claim of the joke appears to be that the proposition that Christians are persecuted is ridiculous. But in fact, Christians are persecuted in many places, especially in Islamic countries. I should also add that the joke operates on the assumption that groups which constitute majorities cannot be persecuted. Obviously, that assumption is shown to be erroneous in some cases where the minority holds power, e.g., Sunni persecution of Shia under Saddam’s rule.

    2. FYI, a graphic representation of the world’s religious adherents (pie chart with percentages), circa 2005, can be found here

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Perhaps Jesus’ exclusion of concrete rules and principles for developing a highly organized earthly institution were intentional. Many have remarked on the suffering that has resulted from the many religious institutions. I would think that if the “Church” as we have seen it in the past and, in some cases, the present was what Jesus had in mind, then I would be less inclined to follow his teachings. I believe that Jesus intended a kingdom of heaven within people and not a vast organization to force people to behave in a certain way regardless of their real desires. I think that Jesus taught that God wanted love, not mere obedience. Obedience, of course, is a result of true love.

    In short, I agree with Ebonmuse. Some people have taken the teachings of Jesus far from the spirit of the teaching. Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God and love each other. Some people have strayed far from this indeed and it pains me to see it.



  • bassmanpete

    Archi, I think the humorous pie chart applied only to the USA.

  • Archi Medez


    Re U.S. pie chart–I think that’s a reasonable assumption, which I believe was also stated by someone in the thread at that link, but the claim lampooned there is universal, and I was responding to that claim.