Discovering God - Atrocities

Discovering God

What about atrocities committed in the name of Jesus?

Some churches have done good for their own members, their locality, and for other lands. But that cannot and does not erase or minimize the sordid record of evil wrongdoing perpetrated by the church throughout much of its history.

Examples of atrocities committed in the name of Jesus abound, and people could reasonably throw these up as a falsification of Jesus teaching.


Through much of Christian history, opponents of the church s views were subjected to torture and cruel death, including burning at the stake.[1] Then there were religious wars, including the Crusades, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths under the banner of the Cross (often to the sound of hymns of thanksgiving).[2]

Praises to God also accompanied genocidal massacres of entire Jewish communities long before Hitler.[3] During Hitler s regime, most of the German Lutheran church supported him with weekly prayers for his success. The Roman Catholic Church concluded a treaty of cooperation and support with him. Even some American churches supported his regime.[4] How could such events happen if Christianity is a faith based on truth and love?

To understand this, we need to look at the development of certain trends in church history that eventually took most of the church far away from what God intended it to be.

The early period

Church leaders after the apostles, fearing heresy and wanting to gain more control, began to carefully limit people s access to the Bible. They argued that only church leaders were competent to interpret scripture.[5]

In addition, the pressure of persecution by Rome tended to foster legalism, hyper-strictness, and anti-Semitism.

Later in the 300s, when the Roman government embraced the church, money and power began to flow in. The faith described in the Bible was increasingly distorted by the addition of popular superstition. Sometimes confused or corrupt leaders even replaced the biblical message completely with a message more suitable for attaining control.

One of the earliest misfortunes in church history was the abandonment of the grammatical-historical method of interpreting the Bible.[6] Instead, the narratives were converted into allegories with symbolic meaning. This left the interpreter free to assign his own interpretation to the text.[7] Since anyone could assign his own meaning for allegories, the Bible tended to lose authority. Instead, church leaders claimed the authority to determine which allegory was appropriate in each case.

Under this regimen, people gradually began to relate more to icons (holy pictures and statues) and temples than they did to the written Word. The church excused this change by pointing out that the people were illiterate and that it would be divisive to allow each person to reach his own conclusion about Scripture s meaning.

But this was not really a sufficient answer, because oral societies are able to learn and study the written Scriptures through public reading (1 Timothy 4:13). Besides, the church should have taken an interest in teaching more people to read. Later, during the Protestant Reformation, it was the church that pushed for universal compulsory education so people could read the Bible.[8]

The outcome

Once the Bible was taken out of the hands of average people, no one could prevent teachings alien to the Bible from entering the church. Eventually the church began to openly claim that it could generate new divinely inspired material apart from any biblical authority. Church leaders became so powerful that they eventually made opposition to the church s views a capital crime in Europe. Hundreds of thousands of dissidents (including Jews) were tortured and killed in Europe during the medieval period.[9]

Modern readers find it hard to understand how such disparity between the church teaching and the Bible (upon which it was supposedly based) ever came to pass. But once biblical authority was subjected to human authority, anything could happen. Although the Protestant movement in the 1500s corrected many of these excesses, the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican churches continued to practice the power tactics of their predecessors. Dissenters and Jews were persecuted and killed in the name of Jesus.[10]

Responding to abuses

Today, some churches are still openly evil, as when they teach race hatred and group suicide, or when they bilk money from the ignorant for greedy church leaders. Others are merely ridiculous, as when they engage in superstitious practices or various extra-biblical types of ritualism, like snake handling. Of course, other churches are completely innocent of such abuses.

Why would God allow the church to go so far astray, and how can we speak of Christianity without also speaking of the church? Is it really possible to divorce the biblical message from the historical church?

The answers to these questions are right in the Bible itself. Jesus predicted that many impostors would invade the church:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.... Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 7:15-17, 20-21)

In this passage, Jesus teaches that we cannot trust professed Christian leaders based merely on their word. Evil workers are going to infiltrate the people of God. So people have to evaluate any leader s truthfulness by examining that person s morality ( fruit ) and faithfulness to the biblical message. In cases where church leaders are involved in violence, lying, or immorality, they have obviously failed this test.

Jesus puts the burden on the individual believer to distinguish the true teachers from the wolves in sheep s clothing. So you never reach a point where you can safely say, I let my priest or pastor figure out what is right in theological matters.

Not the clergy

To defend the people of God from evil infiltrators God prescribes the opposite of what happened in the post-apostolic church. Instead of people losing their connection with the word of God, he wanted his people to be educated and well-equipped in his word.

When Paul prescribes, Let one of two prophets speak, and let the rest pass judgment, he envisions a biblically literate membership capable of recognizing truth from error. This is why the Bible was not written primarily to theologians or church leaders (with the exception of the Pastoral Epistles). Rather, we see the books of the New and Old Testament addressed to the common people in local fellowships.

Even if a group was illiterate, Paul ordered that his letters be read to all the brothers (1 Thessalonians 5:27), and he said to give attention to the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13). Moses told his people, These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).

Paul addresses the book of Philippians, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons. So the leaders and deacons (ministers) could also read along with everyone else.[11]

So, throughout the Bible the authors assume normal people will read and understand what they write. That was to be a critical block to false teachers. But the early church went away from this, and the results were catastrophic. The divide between the people and the clergy expanded until the people became powerless and ignorant. All power flowed into the hands of the clergy an often corrupt clergy. Many priests and bishops may have stayed faithful to God, while others went bad. Without God s word, the people had no way to know what was right or wrong.

In the final analysis, we need to make a clear distinction between the teachings of the Bible and the practices of those counterfeiting truth. Deception is real, and the enemy of human souls will infiltrate and distort the truth as much as possible.

We should not forget the important exceptions to the lamentable trend in the church through history. Christians have contributed to, and led, a number of important social changes. For example, most historians see the Christian church as central (though tardy) in the abolition of slavery. Universal education is a legacy of the Reformation. In many places the only hospitals and schools in existence were put there by Christians, at their own expense. Unfortunately, the good deeds of some churches cannot blot out the horrific record put up in the name of Jesus.

Church tradition is a human product, subject to all the fallibility of humans. And Jesus warned us that there would be many impostors bent on evil. Only God s word is reliable.

[1]During the Inquisition, torture of children and the aged was to be kept light, but only pregnant women were exempt, and then only until after delivery. Ronald Finucane, Persecution and Inquisition, Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977) 31. This entire section (pp. 34-323) is an excellent and fair explanation of the problem of persecution during this period.

[2] After marching around Jerusalem barefoot, singing penitential hymns, the crusaders broke into the city. There followed a horrible bloodbath. All the defenders were killed as well as many civilians. Women were raped, and infants thrown against walls. Many of the city s Jews had taken refuge in the synagogue, and the crusaders set fire to the building with them inside. According to an eyewitness, at the Porch of Solomon horses waded in blood. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1984) 1, 295-296.

[3] For an excellent but heart rending collection of source readings in translation from this period (many written by church officials), see Jacob R. Marcus, ed., The Jew in the Medieval World, (Antheneum, N.Y.: Antheneum, 1969), 155-158. A striking incident of church persecution involved the Jews of Passau. Under torture they admitted that they had obtained several hosts (communion wafers) and that when they had stabbed the hosts, blood flowed from them; that the form of a child arose; and that when they tried to burn the wafers in an oven two angels and two doves appeared. Four of the arrested Jews converted to Christianity and were treated kindly as a result: they were merely beheaded. The rest were torn with hot pincers and burned alive. Examples of such atrocities abound in the history of the church. Marcus includes a score of typical examples, such as the burning of over two thousand Jewish men, women, and children in Strasbourg in 1349 (p. 45). These examples are included because some church members today have difficulty admitting the reality of church-caused atrocities. Note that the accounts mentioned here were not written by enemies of the church, but are original accounts written by clergymen at the time and correlated with parallel accounts.

[4] For example, at the time of the Weimar republic, It is estimated that seventy to eighty percent of the Protestant pastors allied themselves with the Deutschnational Volkspartei. This party advocated every expression of justifiable anti-Semitism. David Rausch, Legacy of Hatred: Why Christians Should Not Forget the Holocaust (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1984), 50-51. For their part, the Catholic Church concluded a Concordat (or treaty of friendship) with Hitler. ( Concordat between the Holy See and the German Reich [with Supplementary Protocol and Secret Supplement] July 20, 1933 available at

[5] This remarkably early (about 110 AD?) development can be seen in Ignatius of Antioch (unless, as some scholars think, these passages are forgeries from two centuries later). He argues, Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop, and, He who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop does [in reality] serve the devil. That the pressure of heresy was the driving force behind this restrictive new teaching is evident in this passage and in the letter to the Philadelphians: Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend [heretics].... For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, Letter to the Trallians, and Letter to the Philadelphians, in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985), 66, 80, 89, 90.

[6] A grammatical-historical interpretive method seeks the meaning by using the rules of grammar in the original language, colored as appropriate by the historical context. Under this method, the context and flow of thought control the meaning.

The method allows for figures of speech and idiomatic expression. But symbolism is only accepted when the text clearly intends to be symbolic as indicated by clear textual cues.

The advent of allegorical interpretation resulted from the intrusion of Platonic philosophy into the thinking of the church. It also stemmed from a desire to present the Old Testament as a Christian book. See a fair but critical treatment in Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1970), 23-45.

Clement of Alexandria is credited with popularizing the allegorical approach to the Bible and for incorporating Greek philosophy into Christian theology. See his explanation in The Stromata, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, 322ff. Augustine was also influential in advancing allegorical interpretation. Learn about the grammatical-historical method of interpretation in Roy B. Zuck, Basic Bible Interpretation (Wheaton, Ill., Victor Books, 1991).

[7] For instance, the church taught that the two swords found by Peter in Luke 22:38 stood for the two authorities established by God over human society. One sword was the civil government (based on the passage in Romans 13:4), and the other was the ecclesiastical (church) authority. On this basis, it became plausible for the church to use armed force against its enemies, as they did in the Crusades and in the many executions of dissenters in Europe over hundreds of years. Geoffrey Bromiley, The Interpretation of the Bible, Frank E. Gabelein, ed., The Expositor s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1978), 69.

[8] Both Luther and Calvin believed that it was important for all Christians to read the Bible. They urged the state to help establish an educational system. Merle L. Borrowman, Education, The Academic American Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, 60-61.

[9] See source reading in translation relating to this power struggle in Brian Teirney, The Crisis of Church and State: 1050-1300 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964). The three-hundred-year history of the Inquisition can be studied in any survey of church or medieval history.

[10] According to Gonzales, the persecution of Anabaptists, carried out by both Protestants and Catholics, involved more fatalities than the famous Roman persecution of Christians during the first two centuries of Christianity. Yet while everyone knows about the early persecution of Christians, this merciless persecution of the Anabaptists is virtually unknown to laymen today. Justo L. Gonzales, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 56.

[11] See also Hebrews 13:22, 24, where the author says, Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation . Greet all your leaders and all God s people. So the book was not addressed to leaders, but to the other members of the church. Also, Colossians 3:16 says, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.