Does Jesus Really Hate Religion: An Etymological Reflection, or Something

There has been a movement within Evangelicalism in recent years (particularly among those in the iPod generation) to be intentional about separating Christianity from legalistic religiosity. The mantras of this movement are generally statements along the lines of “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion”, “I hate religion; that’s why I’m a Christian”, or “Jesus hates religion.” If you haven’t noticed this movement, you are either enviably oblivious to trends or else don’t have a Facebook account. Slogans like these are meant to serve one or both of two purposes. The first is to shock with irony: to wow the non-Christian with something unexpected or else to convict the legalist of his or her false spirituality. The second is to illustrate and emphasize the difference between biblical Christianity and cold religiosity and moralism. Both of these are praise-worthy and biblical goals. However, as a part of the iPod generation which has started (or else been targeted by) this movement away from “religion,” I can’t help but pause and ask myself what I think about the message being communicated by what I’ll term the Jesus Hates Religion Movement (or, because I’m lazy and like typing abbreviations, the JHRM). So without further ado, here are my musings. . .

The Disclaimer
This blog is not an attempt to do any of the following:

  • Elaborate on the relationship between the Law and grace
  • Argue for or against the Catholic Church as an institution
  • Respond directly to either of the videos at the bottom of the blog, which I included just for context of the JHRM
The Question
“Self,” I said to myself, “Does Jesus really hate religion? This seems an odd idea, and maybe even a dangerous one.” I thought for a while, and responded, “Well, that all depends on your definition of religion.”

The Definitions
Merriam-Webster seemed a logical place to start when it came to definitions, so that’s where I looked first. According to, religion can be defined as any of the following:
  1. the service and worship of God or the supernatural
  2. commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
  3. a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
  4. a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

It doesn’t seem to me that any of these definitions conflict with the heart of what it means to follow Christ. More on that later.

Obviously, the JHRM doesn’t say Jesus hates the aforementioned things. The definition of religion which is presented by the JHRM is generally something along the lines of the following:

  • “Religion is man’s attempt to reach God,” often with the addition of, “by his own righteous acts or good works.”

I lack the vaguest notion of where this definition came from or who coined it (Google doesn’t seem to know either), but as it obviously has nothing in common with the dictionary definition of religion, it seems to me a matter of utmost importance to examine the differences between the definitions, as well as the implications of those differences.

The Examining, Part I — “Dictionary Definition”
First, some thoughts on the Merriam-Webster definition of religion:

Certainly the service and worship of (1) are central aspects of the Christian faith. I hope and pray that my faith inspires the commitment and devotion of (2). I know the concept of faith being institutionalized in (3) can inspire fear in the Protestant imagination, but even your independent Baptist church has non-negotiables and set theological positions. As for (4), I can’t imagine an objection to the core beliefs of Christianity being held with ardor and faith; in fact, I rather think we could do with a bit more of each. I am quite certain that I could.

The Examining, Part II — JHRM Definition
Now, of course, the JHRM is not claiming that Jesus hates any of the things mentioned above. What is meant by the JHRM is that a relationship with Christ is not based upon human moral effort. Clearly, the definition of religion as “man’s attempt to reach God” is intended to distinguish authentic Christianity from a) any other religions, all of which are at least to some degree dependent on human moral effort, and b) cold, dead Christianity which has lost sight of grace and instead become moralistic legalism.

By this definition of religion, a life-giving relationship with the Creator by grace through faith in the power of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial work of atonement on the cross would, of course, be entirely distinct from any “religious” efforts. However, something about this definition doesn’t quite sit right with me, and after a great amount of consideration, I think I have figured out why: it is defining ‘religion’ in terms of Christianity. The problem is that it does not really do what a definition, by definition (no pun intended), is meant to do: it does not accurately describe what religion is. What it is really giving is a Christian perspective on what Christianity is not.

The Problem, as I See It
As followers of Christ, we have an entirely unique perspective on how we are meant to relate to God, and can therefore make a distinction between our own faith relationship and the “religious” striving of the world: this, I think, is exactly what the JHRM aims to do. But for the outside world (and the dictionary of the English language), there is no such distinction. By working with this alternative definition of religion, the JHRM implicitly makes the assumption that everyone who hears “Jesus hates religion” has come to associate the word religion with man’s attempt to reach God by his own righteous acts; an assumption which is ungrounded and, quite frankly, false–if this were the case, the dictionaries would have been updated and I would not have found myself uneasy enough with the concept to write this blog.

Most people in Evangelical circles probably have a pretty clear grasp of this distinction between biblical Christianity and religion in the sense of moral striving or human effort, but that is because it is only really visible from the inside. For those outside of Christianity, “religion” means nothing more than a broad term to refer to a worldview or specific set of philosophical beliefs about the nature of God and the universe. The JHRM is working with a definition that is not the standard, and failing to adequately expound upon its own alternative definition. It’s something like telling people that 2+3 equals 10, but neglecting to inform them that when you and your friends say “10” you actually mean “5”.

It is a fully biblical notion that human moral striving is directly opposed to what it means to truly follow Christ. But to coin a new definition of religion from within Christianity, and then to present it to people without, is irresponsible and dangerous.

The Danger
In using these specialized definitions of religion and Christianity, the JHRM is speaking Christian-ese to a world that has not learned the language.

I’m not nearly obtuse enough to suggest that non-believers are hearing that Jesus hates religion, looking up the definition of religion in the dictionary, and saying to themselves, “Huh, how about that. Jesus hates the service and worship of God, not to mention commitment and devotion to faith. Guess that’s not anything I need to mess with.” But let us think, and think hard, about what we may be communicating to people outside of Christianity with this message.

Imagine that someone who is seeking truth hears the statement and takes away from it that Jesus hates organized religion, in which case there is no need for them to become involved with a church or mess with all of that confusing stuff in the Bible; as long as they believe in God and try to be a good person, they are doing what Jesus wants.

Imagine that someone who has spent her life battling addiction starts going to church and even a Wednesday night Bible study, where she hears that Jesus hates religion and arrives at the conclusion that it’s not really important for her to battle her demons and sinful lifestyle. Because, hey, it’s not about rules, so what does it matter?

These are two scenarios, among many more, which strike me as exceedingly plausible. And if we as Christians do not believe that these are realistic mindsets and thought processes, we have become disastrously oblivious to the struggles of the world.

The Conclusion
To say that Jesus hates man’s attempt to reach God by his own righteous acts or good works is exceedingly Biblical, exceedingly practical, and exceedingly true. But to ascribe our own definition to a word for which the world has another meaning is dangerous. If we are going to tell someone that Jesus hates religion, and then sit down and have an extensive conversation about what we mean by that, I think the concept can be useful and appropriate. The danger comes when these ideas become pithy sayings and mantras without further elaboration, used but not explained. When we attempt to communicate what it means to know Christ through catchy slogans and one-line definitions, we do a great injustice not only to the Gospel, but to those we are trying to reach.

A catchphrase will never be an adequate substitute for living out the Gospel.

The Aforementioned Videos