Famous Enemies of Christ Ancient and Modern
When the apostle Paul penned his epistle to the Galatians, he made the following observation: “But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son...” (4:4). For generations scholars have offered insightful opinions on all that they believe to be entailed in this short but powerful verse. Some have suggested that Christ arrived when He did because Greek had become practically a universal language that afforded ease in communicating the Gospel. Others have commented that the spiritual state of the Jewish nation was such that “the fulness of time” had come for their redemption.
While we may not presume to know with certainty all that the apostle Paul had in mind when he spoke of “the fulness of time,” one thing is certain: the life, birth, death, and resurrection of Christ left this planet and its inhabitants reeling. Christianity did not come into the world with a whimper, but a bang. For millennia, Old Testament prophets sent forth their predictions about a coming Messiah. Suddenly, a multitude of those predictions was being fulfilled—before the eyes, and within earshot, of the common man. Christ, and His Gospel message, turned the world of the first century “upside down” (Acts 17:6). Even His worst enemies recognized the impact He was having. When the Pharisees and chief priests sent their officers to seize Christ on one occasion, the officers returned empty-handed. When asked why they had failed in their quest, the only answer they could offer was, “Never man so spake” (John 7:46).
While there were those who were willing to accept the Gospel, there were likewise many who were not. Some of Christ’s most hateful enemies were the Jewish chief priests and scribes. The Pharisees and Sadducees also belonged to that infamous crowd; they wanted no part of this “good news” that shed the floodlight of Truth on their manifold errors. And it was not just groups who opposed the Lord. Even individuals became disenchanted with the Lord’s message. Acts 19 records the efforts of Demetrius the silversmith to incite a riot in an attempt to discredit Paul—because of the impact he was having on the trade of making idols dedicated to the Greek goddess Diana.
As Christianity spread, its enemies no longer were content merely to object to its central tenets or those who espoused them. Eventually, vocal disagreement gave way to physical violence. The efforts of the Roman emperor Nero to obliterate Christ’s message by charging His followers with all manner of falsehoods, and killing them by the thousands, are well documented. Later, the Roman emperor Domitian was even more hostile in his attempts to destroy Christianity. The attacks made upon Christianity, and the deaths of those who had become its faithful adherents, became innumerable (see Revelation 6:9-11).
Try as they might, however, Christ’s enemies could not accomplish their ill-fated goal. While its foes consigned it to die a thousand deaths, the “corpse” of Christianity never remained in the grave. With each persecution, it grew stronger and spread farther. Eventually, Christ’s enemies began to realize that the tactics they were using were not working. Rather than eradicating Christianity, they somehow were infusing it with new growth. It became apparent that new methods of opposition would have to be found. Violence had exacerbated the problem, not solved it.
Christianity had flourished, even amidst persecution, because it had been based on matters of the head and the heart—not of the bow and sword. Thus, its enemies reasoned that perhaps the best weapon would be to address those “head and heart” matters, not with violence, but with something stronger that appealed to both the head and the heart—admonishing the intellect. Wasn’t it Christianity’s teaching that had caused it to be so successful in the first place? Contradict that teaching, show it to be erroneous, disprove it, and then supplant it with other information—and what could not be accomplished through violence could be accomplished through instruction. Ultimately, the pen is mightier than the sword.
And so, eventually a new phase of opposition to Christianity was born. No longer were the prison, the cross, or the sword the instruments of choice. What Christianity’s opponents had been unable to accomplish by bloodshed, they now hoped to accomplish by the written word. Through the millennia that followed, Christianity’s opponents were enlisted from the world’s intelligentsia. While no article of the brevity of this one can do justice to all, or even most, of them, I would like to offer some insight on a few, and on the methods they employed in their attempts to destroy Christianity. An examination of their backgrounds and efforts, in light of their common goal, makes for an interesting and profitable study.
One of the most celebrated enemies of Christ in the ancient past was Malchus (born A.D. 233), who flourished in the second half of the third century. He was, to use the words of McClintock and Strong, “...one of the most sagacious and learned antagonists of Christianity under the Roman empire...” (1879, 8:420). Early in his career, Malchus went to study under Origen in Caesarea. Later, he moved to Athens to study under Longinus, who was so highly regarded that students came to him from all over the world. Longinus commended Malchus as a brilliant student by changing his name to Porphyry—the name preserved by posterity.
At the age of thirty, he went to Rome to study for several years under Amelius, a disciple of Plotinus. Eventually, he studied under Plotinus himself, and established a sterling reputation as a writer, philosopher, and orator. Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, observed that Porphyry “...made a direct attack upon Christianity, and was, in the eyes of the church fathers, its bitterest and most dangerous enemy” (1910, 2:101). But why did Porphyry become so bitter against Christianity? McClintock and Strong have suggested that “understanding the power of the Christian religion, which was fast superseding the national creeds, he felt the necessity for antagonizing it” (1879, 8:421). Then they added: “...[he] became the most determined of heathen polemics the world ever beheld or Christianity ever encountered” (8:422).
Porphyry wrote a 15-volume series, Against Christians, in which he sought to lay bare alleged contradictions between the Old and New Testaments and to document how the apostles had contradicted themselves. He excoriated the book of Daniel, and charged Jesus with equivocation and inconsistency. His 15-volume series has not survived, however, for in 448 the emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III ordered all copies to be burned. The writings of Porphyry now extant have come from fragments reproduced by writers contemporary with him, and who opposed his arguments in their texts. Schaff has noted:
...Porphyry was a man of remarkable powers of mind and of high culture.... He brought the resources of a great, a cultured mind to bear against the more vulnerable points of the Christian system, testing it by weapons of the highest temper.... [He] moved in bold attack against the supernatural in Christianity, seeking to disprove, not the substance of the Gospel teachings, but the records in which that substance is delivered... (1910, 2:422, emp. in orig.).
There can be no denying the effect that Porphyry had on early Christianity. That is evident by the fact that men such as Eusebius, Apollinarius, and others spent considerable time and effort offering rebuttals to his arguments. One of the works of Eusebius even was titled, Against Porphyry. Schaff has commented:
It was by no means an easy matter to reply to such a critique as Porphyry adopted, and it may be said that he never was answered as he should have been.... That he made a profound impression on the Church is seen in the fact that to all Christians his name became hateful, odious, the synonym for all that is vile and dangerous in unbelief (1910, 2:423).
Porphyry died around 305-306. The extent of the damage that he caused to the early church is inestimable. With his training and powerful oratory, he was a formidable foe, and one of Christianity’s chief adversaries.
Another man of the ancient past whose name is associated with vitriolic attacks upon Christianity is the Frenchman, Voltaire. Born François Marie Arouet in 1694, he adopted the pen name Voltaire in 1717. He was a riotous young man who spent a portion of his youth in prison for one reason or another. He traveled throughout France, and spent some years in England. At first, he was famous for his stage plays, especially his tragedies.
Under the reign of Louis XV, Voltaire became a candidate for membership in the French Academy. Noted philosopher Will Durant said that “to achieve this quite superfluous distinction he called himself a good Catholic, complimented some very powerful Jesuits, [and] lied inexhaustibly...” (1961, p. 164). In 1765, he began what would consume the remainder of his life (and for which he would be most famous)—his attacks upon the Christian religion. One of Voltaire’s first documents on this theme was his Treatise on Toleration, which attacked the Catholic Church. Durant observed:
The Treatise on Toleration was followed up with a Niagara of pamphlets, histories, dialogues, letters, catechisms, diatribes, squibs, sermons, verses, tales, fables, commentaries and essays, under Voltaire’s own name and under a hundred pseudonyms—“the most astonishing pell-mell of propaganda ever put out by one man.” And so he was read; soon everybody, even the clergy, had his pamphlets; of some of them 300,000 copies were sold, though readers were far fewer than now; nothing like it had ever been seen in the history of literature... (1961, pp. 180-181).
His attacks were both frequent and vicious. He began with what today would be styled “higher criticism,” in which he brought into question the authenticity and reliability of the Bible. He then alleged chronological contradictions in the narratives of the Old Testament. He challenged as incorrect many of the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament, and he stoutly denied any such things as miracles and the efficacy of prayer. He once commented: “It took 12 men to originate the Christian religion, but it will take but one to eliminate it. Within fifty years from now the only Bible will be in museums” (as quoted in Key, 1982, p. 2).
Voltaire lived to be 83 years old, dying on May 30, 1778. The steady stream of written materials that he produced against the Christian religion eventually made him far more famous than his romances, tragedies, and comedies ever could.
David Hume was born in 1711 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Early in his life, because of his mother’s influence, he made the decision to study at the bar. However, after graduating from the University of Edinburgh, he developed a sudden but serious disdain for law, and embarked on a mission to establish his own system of thought. In 1739, while only 28 years old and living in France, he wrote the first two of his three volume set, A Treatise on Human Nature, the last volume being penned in 1740. Many consider this set to be his landmark contribution to philosophy. He published the three volumes anonymously, and only in 1748 reluctantly identified himself as the author.
After approximately 1751, he made no further contributions to the philosophical literature, except for his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which was published posthumously and likely written in the 1750s. In 1775, his health failing, he wrote his autobiography, My Own Life, and died the next year. Fuller has offered the following summary of Hume’s beliefs.
...the entire concept of God as the author of anything is extremely dubious.... In the Enquiry, also, and in the Dialogues on Religion he points out that even granting we could infer the existence of God from the universe, we should have no right to ascribe to him more wisdom or goodness or power than is actually displayed in the universe, which is his work.... As the universe stands, it does not suggest the existence of a Deity both all good and all powerful (1945, p. 171, emp. in orig.).
Hume attacked the idea of the immortality of the soul, and placed the origin of religion on par with elves and fairies.
Today, however, Hume is perhaps best known for his essay, “Of Miracles,” which was tucked away in his work, Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1748. The essay itself consists of scarcely more than 20 pages, and yet, as Colin Brown has suggested, “No work on miracles penned in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth centuries receives greater attention today than Hume’s slim essay” (1984, p. 79). The essay arranges itself into two divisions. The first section draws the conclusion that a miracle is a scientific impossibility; from what we know about the laws of nature, a miracle simply cannot occur. The second section concludes that the testimony regarding miracles is specious, and never strong enough to override important scientific considerations. Thus, Hume’s conclusion was that miracles have not occurred, and cannot occur. In summarizing Hume’s argument, Brown remarked:
In it everything turns on the testimony of the senses and how such testimony should be evaluated. The first Christians believed ostensibly because they were persuaded by the testimony of their own senses. Belief on the part of the subsequent generations is dependent upon that testimony. On that basis, Hume concludes that the evidence for past alleged events can never be greater than it was for the first eyewitnesses. With the passage of time and the attendant questions and uncertainties as to the veracity of that testimony, there arises a corresponding uncertainty as to the degree of credence that may be placed upon such testimony by a subsequent age... (1984, p. 80).
For Hume, and those who agree with him, there is no evidence strong enough to suggest that a miracle actually had taken place. Brown continued: “...as Hume’s argument proceeds, it becomes clear that no amount of historical evidence, past or present, is allowed to count, because miracles are judged to be violations of the laws of nature, and as such are by definition impossible” (1984, p. 91).
Hume’s attack upon biblical miracles had serious consequences upon religion generally, and Christianity specifically. Today many refuse to accept Christianity because of the Bible’s instruction regarding miracles.
In more recent times, one of the most vicious attacks upon Christianity was spearheaded by Joseph Ernest Renan. Born in 1823, he was a French historian who attended seminaries in Paris with the intent of becoming a priest. However, his study of German theology led him to reject Christianity. W.M. Simon stated: “Just as he banished all traditional metaphysics from philosophy, Renan rejected any supernatural content in religion” (1967, 7:179).
In 1860, while on an archaeological dig in Palestine, he wrote The Life of Jesus, in which he repudiated all supernatural elements in Christ’s life and ministry. He went even further, however, to depict Jesus as a poor-but-charming itinerant preacher whose claims to be the Son of God were little more than the result of his own delusions. The book was a frontal assault upon the deity of Christ, and received much attention throughout Europe.
On the one hand, it found immediate acceptance among a skeptical European audience that was increasingly displeased with Catholicism. It also assured Renan of the fame that heretofore had eluded him. Subsequently, he authored a book on the apostle Paul, and a five-volume set on the history of the people of Israel. On the other hand, the book was viewed critically as asserting nothing more than unfounded claims—from a former religionist who had an axe to grind in the first place. In January of 1862, Renan had been appointed a professor of Hebrew at the College de France, but the storm created by the publication of The Life of Christ led to his removal in 1864. Today, his place in history has been ensured as a result of his strident attacks upon Jesus.
Perhaps no individual has had an impact upon Christianity equal to that of Charles Darwin, who was born in England in 1809. Robert Darwin, Charles’ father, like his father Erasmus, was a physician, and was determined that his sons follow in his footsteps. Charles, however, abandoned his studies at the University of Edinburgh, eventually transferring to Cambridge University to study for the ministry. Oddly, the only earned degree that Darwin ever held was in religion.
While at Cambridge, Darwin developed a friendship with professor John Henslow, who urged him to study simultaneously not only theology and eschatology, but geology and entomology as well. Darwin took the professor’s advice, and eventually found himself on the H.M.S. Beagle, a British ship that set sail in December 1831 for a five-year voyage to collect scientific data. While on the voyage, Darwin’s thoughts about the theory of evolution gelled. He returned to England in October 1836, eventually married, and by 1842 had become a semi-invalid, although no organic disease ever could be diagnosed as causing his feeble condition.
Nevertheless, he intended to publish a set of books on the theory of evolution, based upon his studies while aboard the Beagle. However, around 1858 Alfred Russel Wallace, a friend of Darwin’s, was suggesting that the possible mechanism for evolution was natural selection—a concept on which Darwin had worked for over twenty years, and that was going to provide the mechanism of the theory of evolution propounded in his as-yet-unpublished set of books. In 1859, Darwin rushed into print with The Origin of Species, a small-but-powerful book that would change forever the way many people viewed their origin.
John Koster, in The Atheist Syndrome, suggested: “By this time—after two decades of bad health and clinical depression—his antireligious bias had become fairly intense...” (1989, p. 55). Darwin began with a belief in God, but by the time The Origin of Species was published, that belief had all but disappeared. In the closing sentences of the first edition of the Origin, Darwin made a passing reference to a Creator. In subsequent editions, however, even that sop had been removed.
The damage Darwin’s ideas have caused cannot be overstated. It would be impossible to estimate the number of people who have had their faith in God damaged, or who have lost their faith entirely, as a result of the theory of evolution that Darwin made popular. While it is true that Darwin did not invent the theory, he did popularize it by giving it an alleged mechanism. His works appeared at a time when skepticism was in vogue. As George Bernard Shaw once stated, “The world jumped at Darwin in an attempt to rid itself of the idea of God.” Darwin gave them the jumping-off place. Many availed themselves of it, and lost their faith in the process.
Robert Green Ingersoll was born in Dresden, New York on August 11, 1833, the youngest of five children of a liberal Presbyterian minister. At the age of 20 he became a lawyer, and in 1858 set up his law practice in Peoria, Illinois. Four years later, he married Eva Parker, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Illinois. In 1866, at the age of 33, he was appointed to the position of Attorney General of Illinois.
In his legal work, Ingersoll did not hesitate to defend the most heinous of criminals—individual or corporate. In Ingersoll the Magnificent, Joseph Lewis stated: “Here we have a man who wrote poem after poem and gave many an impassioned speech about honesty, integrity, propriety, and a host of other virtues—leading the defense of some of the most notorious swindlers of his day” (1985, p. vii, emp. in orig.). Madalyn Murray O’Hair, while serving as director of the American Atheist Center in Austin, Texas, characterized Ingersoll as follows:
He was a superb egotist. And, he engaged in more than one drunken public brawl.... Not withstanding all of the anomalies of his character, he was magnificent when he did get going on either religion or the church.... He was a very rich and powerful man, with close political ties to greater power. As such, he could speak out as he desired (1983, p. vi).
What he desired, of course, was to speak out against things he hated. Koster has commented that “What he hated was organized religion” (1989, p. 123).
Shortly after he went on the lecture circuit in about 1877, he began to include in his repertoire such topics as “Heretics and Heresies” and “Ghosts”—both of which were undisguised attacks upon religion generally, and Christianity specifically. By 1878, he expanded his lectures to include “Hell” and “Some Mistakes of Moses,” both of which were favorites of atheists of his day. He died in 1899, having established himself as a fervent enemy of Christianity.
John Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont in 1859. Sixteen years later, he entered the University of Vermont, where his interests in philosophy and sociology were piqued. He completed a doctorate at Johns Hopkins, and in 1884 began teaching at the University of Michigan. In 1894, he was appointed chairman of the department of philosophy, psychology, and education at the University of Chicago. In 1904, he left Chicago and moved to Columbia University, where he remained until his retirement in 1930.
More than any other individual before or since, Dewey’s views have altered American education. Will Durant observed: “...there is hardly a school in America that has not felt his influence” (1961, p. 390). This is somewhat strange because “...Dewey was not a brilliant lecturer or essayist, although he could be extremely eloquent. His writings are frequently turgid, obscure, and lacking in stylistic brilliance” (Bernstein, 1967, p. 380). Why did he have such an impact on education? Durant suggested:
What separates Dewey is the undisguised completeness with which he accepts the evolution theory. Mind as well as body is to him an organ evolved, in the struggle for existence, from lower forms. His starting point in every field is Darwinian.... Things are to be explained, then, not by supernatural causation, but by their place and function in the environment. Dewey is frankly naturalistic... (1961, p. 391).
He was a prolific writer, and eventually authored A Common Faith in which he discussed religion. He made it clear that “He wished at all costs to be scientific; for him the processes of science are the most obvious and the most successful methods of knowing. Therefore if science neglects something, the something is nothing” (Clark, 1957, p. 519). Because religion was not scientific, it therefore was “nothing.”
He opposed religion of any kind, and insisted upon the teaching of evolutionary thought as the correct view of the origin of the Universe and all living things in that Universe. In his writings, he stressed that “moral laws” were not absolute or inviolate. In effect, “situation ethics” was the basis of his belief system. Dewey died in 1952, having altered forever the landscape of American education. Had he lived just a few years longer, he would have seen his ideas on the naturalistic origin and basis of all things take hold in a way that perhaps even he never dreamed.
Once infidels realized that violence only caused Christianity to grow, they understood that their methods had to be altered if they were going to succeed in destroying it. What methods did they change, and what new tactics were employed in this battle?
First, it may be said that the methods eventually shifted from a physical approach to a non-physical “battle for the mind.” Christianity’s enemies found that the best way to win was to prevent belief in Christianity in the first place, or to undermine any belief that might already be present.
Second, those opposed to the Christian religion learned that the most effective way to accomplish this was to alter men’s perceptions or convictions, or both. And the only way to do that was through teaching. Thus, Christ’s opponents became dedicated orators, professors, and authors. People read; so Christianity’s opponents wrote what could be read. People listen; so Christianity’s opponents spoke eloquently what could be heard. People learn; so Christianity’s opponents taught what could be understood. People choose; so Christianity’s opponents painted a picture that left only one choice—anything but Christianity.
Even a cursory examination of events occurring around us provides ample evidence of the success enjoyed by the enemies of Christianity. Evolution is taught as fact in many public schools. Numerous textbook publishers reinforce our children’s supposed animalistic origin. Television programs often ridicule absolute morals. Newspaper and magazine articles sometimes present as “normal” perversions such as homosexuality, adultery, etc. Hollywood’s moviemakers at times do not hesitate to glamorize filth of every kind. Can anyone doubt the success of Christianity’s opponents in our day and age?
This is one reason, we believe, that the work of Apologetics Press—in proclaiming and defending the Gospel—is so vital. The battle is being pressed upon us from every side. We dare not shrink in the face of it. We must learn what our enemies have learned about winning the “battle for the mind.”
People read; so we must write what can be read. People listen; so we must speak eloquently what can be heard. People learn; so we must teach what can be understood. People choose; so we must paint a picture portraying the evidence that establishes Christianity as the one true religion of the one true God.
We must never forget—even for a moment—that men’s souls are at stake. Success is critical, and failure is eternal.
Bernstein, Richard J. (1967), Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Dewey, John,” ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan and the Free Press), 7:179-180.
Brown, Colin (1984), Miracles and the Critical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Clark, Gordon H. (1957), Thales to Dewey—A History of Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980 reprint).
Durant, Will (1961), The Story of Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster).
Fuller, B.A.G. (1945), A History of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt), revised edition.
Key, Bobby (1982), “Sin Is a Reproach to Any People,” Four State Gospel News, 21:2, December.
Koster, John (1989), The Atheist Syndrome (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt).
Lewis, Joseph (1985), Ingersoll the Magnificent (Austin, TX: American Atheist Press).
McClintock, John and James Strong (1879), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1970 reprint).
O’Hair, Madalyn Murray (1983), “Introduction,” Sixty-Five Press Interviews with Robert G. Ingersoll (Austin, TX: American Atheist Press).
Schaff, Philip (1910), History of the Christian Church (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons).
Simon, W.M. (1967), Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Renan, Joseph Ernest,” ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan and the Free Press), 4:179-180.