God, No! Thoughts About Magic and Christianity

Penn Jillette, God, No!

A recent article in Religion News Service got me thinking about magic and Christianity. “Magicians say their craft makes them see faith as just hocus-pocus” begins by noting the recently published book by famed magician, Penn Jillette. In God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales, Jillette uses his platform as a magician to debunk religion. He says, “It’s always astonished me how any magician can be spiritual.”

In fact, an awkward relationship between Christianity and magic has existed from the beginning. We don’t know if the opponents of Jesus accused him of doing magic per se, but we know the Pharisees accused him of casting out demonss by the power of Beelzebul (Matt 12:24). Later Jewish tradition holds that Jesus was a sorcerer: “On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced  sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover! (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a). A similar charge was levied by one of the earliest pagan critics of Christianity, Celsus, who said that Jesus did his miracles by magic (Origen, Contra Celsum, 1.68).

Benozzo Gozzoli, "The Fall of Simon Magus," 1461-1462. This scene represents a legendary addition to the biblical story in Acts.

The Acts of the Apostles presents a curious interaction between a magician/sorcerer named Simon and the followers of Jesus. Philip, one of the early apostles, went to Samaria to preach the good news (Acts 8:4ff). While he was there, many people were miraculously healed through him. This sparked the interest of Simon, who is often referred to as Simon Magus (Simon the Magician). He had amazed the people of Samaria because of his magic tricks (illusions? demonic?). The people lauded him, saying “This man is the power of God that is called Great” (Acts 8:10). But when Philip came along with genuinely miraculous healings, Simon actually believe the good news about Jesus. Apparently, he knew the difference between his magic and the actual power of God.

Shortly after Simon’s conversion, Peter and John came to Samaria to pray for the new believers, who received the Holy Spirit in a powerful way. Simon liked what he saw, and offered to pay Peter and John for the power to baptize people in the Holy Spirit. Peter’s response was clear and frightening:

“May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” (Acts 8:20-23)

Simon, realizing that he was dealing with power far beyond anything he had known before, repented: “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me” (Acts 8:24).

That’s all we know about Simon Magus from Scripture. Later Christian tradition, which may be historically accurate, identifies him as a leader of a heretical movement.

So, how does all of this relate to Jillette’s critique of religion (especially Christianity) in God, No! I can see several points of connection.

First, Jillette’s critique of Christianity is nothing new. It’s been around for almost 2,000 years. That doesn’t mean it is either true or false. It does mean that Jillette is treading a well-worn path.

Second, it is certainly true that certain manifestations of God, genuine miracles, if you will, can be faked. We’ve seen that ever since Moses appeared before Pharaoh. Some years ago, a Christian “healer” was discovered to be faking “words of knowledge” in his healing crusades. If Jillete challenges us to be wise and discerning in our estimation of God’s works, then he is doing us a service.

Third, it is interesting that Simon Magus, a classic illusionist, was so impressed by what he saw in Philip’s ministry that he converted. But, Simon’s immaturity of faith showed itself when he tried to buy the power of God. Did Simon continue to wander away from genuine faith. Tradition says he did. I wonder how Jillette would respond if he spent time among Christians who weren’t pretenders, but who were genuinely experience the presence and power of God.

Fourth, I expect Jillette’s book will draw a bunch of readers because it has a clever title and because Jillette is a fine entertainer. But, do you really want to get your religious ideas from a man whose post-high-school education was at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College? (No joke. No magic trick. That’s where he went to college. But, in fairness to clowns and their intellect/faith, see the comment by Evan below.) My guess is that Jillette’s book will be an entertaining read, but if you want to take your atheism straight up, stick with Hitchens or Dawkins.


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  • Evan

    Penn Jillette is an amazing entertainer, and a gregarious fellow. He is simply operating out of what we all did at one point, “being wise in our own eyes.” C.S. Lewis would have been writing the forward to Jillette’s book and applauding him for a good portion of Lewis’ life… and then something happened. Or perhaps I should say, Someone. “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”(from “Surprised By Joy”) Lewis is about the only person I know of who “deduced” his way into faith, but that was because his personal integrity would not permit him to ignore what he came to conclude was the Truth.

    When I see Jillette in action (although I avoid a good bit of his work due to content I don’t care for,) in addition to my high regard for his craftsmanship, I get a sense of a underlying pain. Many people have problems relating to God because of the actions of others. Perhaps, like Lewis had, he has a “disappointment with God.” Of course, it could be that like the vast, vast majority of humans, he simply has an attitude toward God of “You can’t tell me what to do. I am going to do what I want.” I just get the feeling there is something more there.

    Yet there is hope. Thomas the Twin famously said that unless he could put his hand in Jesus’ side and his fingers in His hands and feet, he would not believe. That event had a Happy Ending. Perhaps I am just working out of the attractiveness of Jillette’s persona, but I can envision such a result for him.

    As to Jillette’s educational credentials, I understand the point you are making. The Theological Left (which numbers scores of atheists in its ranks,) especially looks to academic pedigree to judge the validity of one’s theological argument. But I also remember that a graduate of Nazereth School of Carpentry and a handful of alumni from the Capernaum Fishing Academy have proven to be more theologically sound than many with Ph.Ds and Th.Ds from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford and a host of others. And rest assured, on That Day there will some whose credentials merely consist of Ringling Brothers Clowning who will be found to be written in the Book of Life, while many with Impressive Degrees will be in the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Check the links for someone who actually sounds better qualified to teach Christian theology than many of my professors were:



  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Evan. Wait, are you saying that people with highbrow educations don’t have all the answers?

  • Dorothy Alvarez

    I really like your thoughts, Mark and Evan.  What I see in the church today is a confusion of faith and magic. We think that if we follow the proper steps; sing the right sequence of songs; pray the correct prayers we will get the results we want. Magic is about guaranteed outcomes.  Faith is always about a relationship to which we submit, even when we don’t get the outcomes we want.

    Oh, and Mark, I am sure that those who graduate from Harvard have all the right answers.  And I am sure Evan agrees too.  Especially if they started in the Glendale Unified Public Schools.  Certainly.


  • Anonymous

    Dorothy: Ah, you crack me up. The important thing to realize is that people from Harvard think they have all the right answers.

  • Dorothy Alvarez

    Well, yes.  Of course.

  • Thanks, Mark.
    I have heard “magician” is the only honest profession. It promises to deceive you and fulfills that promise. 🙂
    Faith and magic are tools. Outcome depends on what you are trying to make. One of my professional gigs is as a face painter. When I paint a 7 year old “SpiderDude” or a Unicorn Princess, for a few hours they become something else, supremely confident and happy in an obvious illusion. Their parents are mostly delighted by this. There are a couple realities in play: They get to pick the fantasy *they* want. They are very, very aware of the financial “investment” their parents are willing to spend on their little dreams.
    We all paint our lives with decorations that wash away eventually. Nevertheless, we can run about with all the confidence a good, expensive face paint job instills. People smile and approve and believe we are the fantasy painted and we believe theirs. That seems to carry most of us. To me that’s real magic, whether you are a 6 year old superhero or a PhD, or something in between.
    Many times in my personal life, when I have been declared ineligible, discredited or deemed incompetent–that is when the Spirit elevates, honors or establishes my situation. I can revel in others’ (believer and atheist alike) condemnation of my current foolishness, because I know what’s coming. That’s magic too. And I didn’t even go to “clown” college. 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Lori: Great comment, thanks. I had never heard that magician is the only honest profession. That’s good line.

  • Evan


    I like your style. As for Mark, I have marvelled how he emerged from Harvard being the faith-filled evangelical fellow he is, which has sort of made me sound like Nathaniel wondering if anything good can come from Nazareth. 🙂 There is now an understood wink and a nod when the conversation veers in that direction. I am very glad he uses his training and his gifts as he does on this site.


  • :-Dan


    The most in congruous thing I have ever heard anyone say about Penn was that there was some underlying pain he is suffering from. I have listened to him on a very wide range of topics (he did an hour long daily radio show or almost a year, they are still on the web somewhere). I have never heard anyone so in touch with his feelings, family, friends, and community. If he was in pain, he would tell us.

  • Anonymous

    Dan, thanks for your comment. I have no particular knowledge of Penn. But I believe all human beings wrestle with plenty of personal pain. And, as a pastor, I have seen that many people are unaware of that pain, though it influences their behavior. Again, I can’t comment on Penn in this regard, except to note that he is human.

  • :-Dan

    Your “sense of underlying pain” seemed like more than “he is human”.

  • Wiccanlez

    Highly entertaining read to a pagan since under our definition prayer is magic. Intent + will + request to a deity = spell. In other words magic.

    PS. I changed your diapers when your parents were at Mariner Camp.

  • Actiondurkee

    Maybe Penn should consider mathamatician Ivan Panin’s work on the mathamatical possibility of evolution. Made a believer of intelligent design out of me but then I consider myself open to intelligent possibilities.

  • Adam

    Great article, my question is how or why The Clown College plays into whether or not someone is capable of free thought…libraries don’t give degrees but are filled with knowledge. Someone may never get a degree in theology but if they read the bible everyday could they not be able to weigh in on topics? It was meant as an attack on his character to imply that his opinions should be discounted.

  • dmc10

    Seriously? Panin’s just another numerology whacko who spend all his time looking for magical patterns in the bible. He was NOT a scientist nor even a mathematician. All of his published works are magical math mumbo jumbo trying to justify his religion, nothing about his work was academic or worth taking seriously.