What About Atrocities Committed In God’s Name?

One of the most common criticisms against Christianity and the belief in God in general is the millions of people who have been killed by religious extremists and in religious wars. Don’t all the atrocities committed in the name of Christianity disprove it or at least make it highly unlikely?

From a strictly logical perspective, the question makes little sense. Just because the adherents of a system do bad things, that doesn’t make the belief system false. To argue it does is to commit a particular logical fallacy called a “genetic fallacy.” For example, suppose your first grade teacher who taught you your multiplication tables turned out to be a murderer. That wouldn’t mean that the math he taught you was false, would it? The point is that arguments have to be decided on their merits rather than on the quality of the person from which they came. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t matter how many Christians do evil things. The question is whether or not the evidence for Christianity withstands scrutiny.

As sufficient as that answer is, however, it still leaves a deeper question unanswered. If the God were real, how could He let such things happen? We may appeal to free will to explain suffering generally, but what does it say about the character of God if He allows His followers to abuse others in His name? Does that not imply that He condones such actions?

Christian atrocities are a sad part of our history. The Salem Witch Trials are just one such example. It is important to remember that just because an action is taken in God's name does not mean it was sanctioned by God.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that God somehow needs defending. The implication is that God’s followers are His representatives, and that our actions reflect on Him. Yet the Bible nowhere describes us as such. In fact, the closest description we have of that shows the fallacy of this kind of thinking. Gen. 1:26-28 says that we were made in the image of God. That image does imply representation. Literally, we are the visible representation of the invisible God. Yet the entire point of the story of the Fall is that mankind chose to represent himself rather than God. Our atrocities are our own, not His. To illustrate, imagine a group of men who stole a country’s flag and under that flag attacked a village, killing its residents. At first glance, it would appear that the country represented was responsible for the attack. Upon closer inspection, however, we realize that though the actions may have been taken “in the name of” that country, they were unsanctioned.

No sin is sanctioned by God, therefore, no sinful act in His name represents His intentions. Anyone, Christian or not, can claim to do anything they like. The Bible consistently warns against false prophets. These were men who claimed to speak in the name of God. It is instructive that God warned us against such men rather than stopping Him themselves. They will have their judgment along with everyone else. Likewise, God will judge His own who acted falsely in His name.

As an aside, some try to get around this question by arguing that such people are not “true Christians.” I would strongly encourage people not to use that argument. It may be true that such people are false Christians, but the theological implications of using behavior as a test of salvation are dangerous indeed. Belief, not behavior, decides one’s relationship to God. The point is that anyone, Christian or not, can claim to act in the name of God. He will sort out in the end who did and who did not, and those who did not will bear their shame.

There certainly have been many crimes committed by Christians. We must not shirk away from that. Paul recognized his own struggle with sin in Rom. 7:14ff. Yet we must recognize that Christianity itself can never properly be used to sanction sin, no matter how much twisting people do with Scripture. Our job is to be on guard against such people. The blame is on them, not God.