Among internet skeptics, there goes a claim that religion is simply a product invented to avoid the reality of death. Can this explain the origin of Christianity?
“I honestly believe that the fear of death and the pain of bereavement are the two TRUMP cards in the religious deck.”
The above is a common quote from fundamentalist atheists when faced with the question of how religion, specifically Christianity, arose. Indeed, this quote may hold some valuable truth if all one has ever known are believers who use religion as a means to justify a self-centered attitude and to subsequently avoid engaging with counter worldviews and arguments. However, skeptics are often guilty of crafting a strawman here, as these unfortunate particulars are argued to be the cause of Christianity itself. This holds no water for a number of reasons
There would be no need for Christianity if fear was the motivation.
The Jews already believed in a final resurrection of the dead, so why would they invent a Messiah who, not only died shamefully (as opposed to their belief that the Messiah was a warrior who would lead them to victory) but was also raised from the dead before the final resurrection? Do critics think the Jews weren’t totally free from fear so they just made up another religion on top of the one they already had in a futile effort to avoid death? It seems far more likely that Christianity arose because of eyewitness testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think skeptics would agree, even if they may attempt to chalk the post-mortem appearances to something other than reality. The fear of death as a cause for the origin of Christianity only shoots the claimant in the foot.
Critics would not accept it going the other way
I’ve granted that critics who use this argument may do so because of what they’ve personally seen in the church, and while it may be true that some convert only as a means to a comfortable end, they would be making a baseless assertion if they conclude that fear lies at the heart of Christianity. I can just as easily make my own assertion that one’s only an atheist because he doesn’t want to give up an immoral lifestyle. Based on what I’ve heard from conversion testimonies my claim should be true, right? No one would appreciate it if I actually used that assertion, but that’s what we’re getting from popular critics.
The afterlife is never present in evangelistic passages
Awhile back I wrote an article looking at the claim that Christianity was created by power hungry barbarians who wanted nothing less than to control the masses through threats of eternal torture. It came as no surprise that we never saw this in the evangelical texts of Acts. Since Heaven and Hell were realities of honor and shame, Christ referred to them, not as a cause for fear, but as general knowledge regarding the consequences of evil. Manipulation is nothing more than a baseless assertion. See further details in link one below.
Christianity doesn’t deny the reality of death
I’m in complete agreement with the notion that death shouldn’t be brushed over with either Heaven or Hell. Death is the tragic result of disobedience. Despite what critics tell us, Christianity never makes light of death. This world was never meant to be full of sickness, pain, and death. We were made to be with the creator in everlasting joy, but death and destruction tore that relationship apart.
I grant skeptics some truth to their claim because it hurts me too. It hurts me to see fellow believers make light of death to someone who’s struggling with the loss of a loved one. Painting tragedy as the will of God or as a lesson for us is a terrible view of both God and life itself. Spiritualizing every tragedy may cause us to idolise the result instead of helping our brother as he’s hurting. Some things don’t have a clear-cut answer, but Christ invites us to lean on Him in the midst of the pain. Rather than deny it He chooses to hurt and suffer with us. He understands our hurt because He bore every ounce of pain on the cross. We’re called to carry each other in suffering as Christ carries us. I’ll link a wonderful article by J.S. Park below that has more to say on this.
In the end, the argument of the fear of death is nothing but a circle of hypocrisy. If we’re going to assert fear as a motivation for religion the critic shouldn’t shout back when believers assert similar arguments for his disbelief. But then again, do deconverts really change?