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Are Christians Intolerant?

It’s a big question whether Christianity on the whole should be seen as “tolerant”– that is, does it accept the validity of other faith traditions or not?   My sense is that some Christians do, many don’t, and most probably don’t think about it much.   It is a particularly interesting question to ask with respect to Christianity in the *ancient* world.

The reason is that when Christians were being persecuted in the second, third, and early fourth centuries, their leaders / writers pled for religious tolerance: everyone could have their own religion and no one should be persecuted for their religious choices.   But when Christianity became the religion of the emperors, Christian leaders / writers (some of them) changed their tune.  Not only did they argue that Christianity was the only right religion and that everyone should follow it; they urged that anyone who didn’t follow it should be persecuted.  Or even prosecuted.

Not every Christian or Christian leader/writer thought that, of course.  Probably (?) the vast majority did not.  But some did.  And some of those who did had real political power.  It became a problem.  Here’s how I trace the development of this significant point of view (with nasty real-life consequences) in my book Triumph of Christianity.




Christian Coercion

The Christian scholar Lactantius, one of our primary sources for the “great persecution” under Diocletian, was an early fourth-century proponent of freedom of religion.   Lactantius was …

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Did a “Pope” Write the First-Century Book of 1 Clement?
When Christianity Became the “Official” Religion of Rome



  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  May 4, 2018

    In your upcoming book on the afterlife, will you give at least some ink to the heretical Gnostics? Did they worry about hell fire and brimstone? Maybe for the mailbag.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2018

      I haven’t decided yet — but the Gnostic ideas about the return to the Pleroma may be interesting to deal with a bit. I’ll be thinking about it!

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  May 4, 2018

    Aristotle said there are two causes to political revolution: “Inferiors revolt in order that they may be equal, and equals revolt that they may be superiors.”

    The people on the bottom say they want equality, but once they have equality they now want to be on top. There’s no reason Christians and Christianity should be any different from other groups.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 4, 2018

    I was particularly struck by the idea that some people in ancient times were struck by the “inferior literary quality of the Christian scriptures.” Obviously, there is brilliant literature in the Bible, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. But first reading the entire Bible, as a Fundamentalist teenager, I was stuck by large portions of it that just did not hold my interest because of their not being very connected to other parts of the Bible and their stories often being fragments rather than fully developed stories. I was always surprised that, taken as a whole, so many would conclude that this was all great literature and obviously the Word of God. I guess, even though I was a Fundamentalist, I was not as convinced of this “obvious” literary quality. It would be interesting to me to learn more about how scholars see this literary quality of the Bible question? One would think that the Word of God would grab hold of one’s interest so that one could just not put it down. I just did not find this to be the case. Most of it was pretty boring.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2018

      Yeah, when I was a teenager I knew a Christian leader who always told us that “the Bible is the greatest book ever written.” (He didn’t mean only in terms of its influence but in terms of its literary quality) Only later did I realize that this fellow was not much of a reader and in fact had not read very many other books, certainly none of the ancient classics or the great works of the nineteenth century.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  May 8, 2018

      As far as ancient Hebrew literature goes, the complete narrative from Genesis 1:1 to 2 Kings 25:30 is just about the greatest thing you’ll ever read in Hebrew. It’s truly a masterpiece. Whoever the redactor/compiler of that massive work is (and I’m inclined to give credit to Ezra) I would put him on par with the likes of Homer and Herodotus. But as for ancient literature as a whole, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t hold a candle to the Illiad or the Histories in terms of literary excellence in general.

  4. Avatar
    flyboydh1  May 4, 2018

    Starting from the beginning of Christianity to now, Christians misappropriate the Jewish Scriptures, taking them out of context to mean something completely different then they actually do, and using them to outside of the context of the Oral Torah. In this case, Firmicus fails to understand that G-d is speaking specifically to the Jewish people in Dt. 13: 6-10, as is the case for the entire Torah. The Torah is a constitution. A covenant between the Jewish People and G-d. So yes, there are laws against idolatry, but without the context of the Oral Torah, Firmicus and the like think it gives him and others the right to wreak havoc on non-Jews who believe in other religions, which is simply not the case and not in the spirit of Torah and Judaism.

  5. Avatar
    Pattylt  May 4, 2018

    One of my biggest mysteries in trying to understand the fanatical, religious mind is trying to wrap my head around the extreme need to mandate that others believe exactly as they do. Firstly, how boring if everyone thought exactly like me. Secondly, why this need? I used to think it was due to insecurity in their own beliefs but have since realized that, while true for some, not all. Perhaps just a brain wired differently? For those that would persecute or use coercion to demand “correct belief” I think have a mental illness. They seem to have an inability to realize that other minds are different from their own. Life would be much sweeter if more people could just accept that others have differing beliefs and accept it. Discuss and try to persuade, fine! But then find peace within themselves to accept that everyone doesn’t believe as you do and be glad that those differences exist. I wouldn’t wish my exact mind on anyone else. It’s mine!

    • Avatar
      Steve  May 7, 2018

      Having been raised in one of those fanatical homes, my dad was outright angry when I had a thought that was contrary to his beliefs or made an “unbiblical” choice. Good and evil, in his mind, could not coexist under his roof.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  May 4, 2018

    So, a loving and almighty God would ask people to kill for him, rather than doing the dirty work Himself, like He did with the flood. Strange view.

  7. Avatar
    ask21771  May 4, 2018

    Would the historical Pilate have defended Jesus as he did in the gospels

  8. Avatar
    RRomanchek  May 4, 2018

    Did Christian tolerance/intolerance toward Jews follow the same pattern, or was it different?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2018

      YEs,pretty much same pattern, at the same time and with the same players.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  May 4, 2018

    Religions don’t make people intolerant. People make religions intolerant–or some wholly secular belief system, makes no difference. It’s a personality flaw many people have, and impose on whatever belief system they glom onto. A deep dislike for those who don’t conform to their sense of right and wrong. I don’t ilke to use the term ‘hard-wired’ but you can find examples of it in nature. Animals do it without intellectualizing or rationalizing, which is nice.

    Religion used to be the best forum for such people to exercise their intolerance, but in many places that is changing, rapidly.

    Roman pagans were clearly not all that tolerant, as the early history of Christianity proves. They simply had different standards they expected people to adhere to (or else). You could worship your own gods, sure–as long as you worshiped theirs as well. There was no sense at all that people had a right to freedom of conscience–the concept didn’t even exist.

    In a sense, it began to develop during the early history of Christianity–before and after Constantine–the notion that persuasion is better than compulsion. That an outward show of faith brought about by fear of punishment or discrimination is worth nothing. Not all Christians believed this, and some pagans came to see the value of tolerance when their necks were on the block–but it was the discussion, the debate, that was important.

    Obviously many pagans had sincere faith, but their sincerity was not important to the government that oversaw religious practice, channeled it as a tool of social conformity. Nobody cared about whether you worshiped the pagan gods sincerely, as long as you said the words, made the sacrifices. The goal of Roman paganism was obedience to the state.

    This carried over into Roman Christianity, corrupted it to a great extent–they did unto others as had been done unto them–but the old independent spirit of the former outsider cult remained, and helped inspire many of the ideals that came to define western civilization. The right to worship, think, and express yourself as you see fit, even in opposition to the established order of things. You obey the laws, but your beliefs are nobody else’s business. It’s a hard ideal to hold to, and we’ve done it most imperfectly–but the ideal has endured.

    It’s hard to see how that could have evolved out of the pagan Roman state. It’s sad to see how many Christians don’t appreciate the contributions their forebears made. But again–that personality type will manifest itself in any system of belief that can grant them power over others. You don’t get rid of it by changing your beliefs. You get rid of it by insisting that everyone’s beliefs are sacred.

  10. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  May 5, 2018

    Interesting post. Dr Bart, what’s your opinion about tithing? While some churches has stopped collecting tithe from there congregation, many church pastors claim its biblical…

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2018

      It’s based on the laws of the Hebrew Bible, that regular ole Israelite folk need to give a percentage of their income to support the temple and priests in Jerusalem.

  11. Avatar
    jrhislb  May 5, 2018

    “It’s a big question whether Christianity on the whole should be seen as “tolerant”– that is, does it accept the validity of other faith traditions or not?”

    I am not sure that is a good definition of tolerance. Accepting the “validity” of someone else’s religion sounds like modern ecumenical thinking or even like relativism. I would think one could be tolerant of other peoples religion, in the sense of letting them practice it in peace, while believing it to be quite wrong and immoral.

    Are you saying that there were Christian writers who did not view Christianity as superior to the pagan religions in the early centuries?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2018

      No, I’m saying that there were probably Christians who were not bothered much if others thought they had found *other* paths to God.

    • Avatar
      godspell  May 9, 2018

      I’m sure all football fans view it as superior to all other athletic activities (either kind of football). But they still watch baseball, hockey, basketball, maybe cricket and rugby in other parts of the world…..

      Early Christians wanted very much to live as they believed Jesus wanted them to. Jesus taught that you should treat everyone as you wanted to be treated, love those who persecute you, never commit violence for any reason, even in self-defense. It’s very hard to reconcile that with religious intolerance. And even though he clearly considered his method of religious practice superior (even to that of other Jews), Jesus seems to have responded much more to faith and good will than to doctrine.

      Bart has made a good point that to him, what saved you was not how you believed, but what your beliefs made you do, or not do. Theoretically, a pagan who had never heard of Jesus, but lived a good and moral life, could also enter the Kingdom.

      (This idea of the virtuous upbaptized finding some kind of decent place in the afterlife can be found in the Christian world for many centuries afterward–it’s in Dante. But it was hard to reconcile that with the needs of a proselytizing faith–if membership has no benefits, why join?)

      Tolerance and intolerance are personality traits, not religious ones. In any system of belief, including atheism (I don’t know what else to call something with an ‘ism’ after it), there will be the live and let live kind and the ‘don’t let them live!’ kind.

      • Avatar
        stevenpounders  May 10, 2018

        “In any system of belief … I don’t know what else to call something with an ‘ism’ after it”

        Wow – that’s a lot of “systems of belief”:

        aneurism, aphorism, astigmatism, autism, bilateralism, botulism, Bowdlerism, Briticism, colloquialism, criticism, didacticism, dimorphism, dysphemism, embolism, expressionism, fauvism, galvanism, giantism, heliotropism, hypnotism, impressionism, journalism, magnetism, malapropism, mannerism, mechanism, mesmerism, metabolism, neologism, optimism, organism, plagiarism, prism, professionalism, pugilism, recidivism, regionalism, rheumatism, spoonerism, tourism, ventriloquism, volcanism, vulgarism, witticism …

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  May 18, 2018

        Jesus did not think his religious practice was superior to that of other Jews–that’s a later Christian fantasy. Did you ever ask yourself why Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount? Did you ever wonder why he would preach such apparent nonsense as loving those who persecute you? Jesus certainly didn’t think he was divine, but he wasn’t a fool.

  12. Avatar
    Silver  May 6, 2018

    Is not the root of Christian intolerance found in John 14:6 & 6:44 which verses ensure that the faith remains exclusivistic?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 6, 2018

      Yup. But then the question is where / why *John* came up with this view.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  May 7, 2018

        Regardless of where John got that view, I think it’s fair to say that the majority of Christians believe it. That’s kind of the whole point of a monotheistic religion (“This is the ONE that’s true”). If the definition (for these purpose, anyway) of ‘tolerance’ is believing that there are other ways to get to heaven, then I don’t think any monotheistic religion passes that test.

        The incredible number of sects suggests that Christianity certainly isn’t an exception.

        • Avatar
          llamensdor  May 18, 2018

          Although Bart believes Judaism was originally henoistic, there is no doubt that it was eventually monotheistic. Judaism was not and is not exclusivistic. It’s possible to believe there is only one God without requiring that your religion is the only way to worship him.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 18, 2018

            Yes, I’ve repeatedly said that it was monotheistic. It’s also not monolithic, making it impossible to generalize about what Jews believe/think or don’t believe/think.

      • Avatar
        Silver  May 8, 2018

        But would not ‘John’ have come up with the exclusivistic idea because there was a tradition that these were the actual words of Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 8, 2018


          • Avatar
            Silver  May 8, 2018

            When you said ‘Yes’ to the point that ‘John’ believed the exclusivistic position actually came from a tradition that these were the words of Jesus i.e. what HE actually believed, do you, however, hold that it is unlikely that Jesus did, or even would, subscribe to such a position? Do you think that John simply made up these conversations to promote a theological point of view? If John did invent them, is there any indication in the rest of his gospel which suggests his motive for so doing?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 9, 2018

            The fact that a Gospel writer depended on tradition for his views does not have a direct bearing on whether the tradition is historically reliable or not. I don’t know if John made up Jesus’ discourses or if they were handed down to him in this form.

          • Avatar
            llamensdor  May 18, 2018

            But surely you don’t believe that Jesus actually said such a thing.

          • Bart
            Bart  May 19, 2018

            Sorry — I’m lost in the thread of comments. You’ll need to start again: which saying of Jesus are you asking about?

  13. Avatar
    mannix  May 7, 2018

    There’s an ironic twist to the tolerance issue. Among the worst examples of religious intolerance are intRAfaith rather than intERfaith: consider the Reformation/Counter-Reformation and the Shia/Shiite violence; and I once heard someone say (tongue in cheek of course) that if you wanted to “get rid” of Jews, just leave them alone…they’ll eventually kill each other!

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  May 18, 2018

      No, they may dispute until they drop from exhaustion but they’d never kill each other.

  14. acircharo
    acircharo  May 10, 2018

    I don’t even understand the argument given the history of Christianity. Almost right out of the gate, given the acceptance of the faith in the early fourth century, Christians immediately began to demonstrate a condescension and intolerance of other religions. The more the Church grew, the more intolerant they became for the next 1500 years, give or take. I have no doubt that, given the necessary authority, they would be out in force even today suppressing the beliefs of others.

  15. Avatar
    llamensdor  May 18, 2018

    And yet their American believers invented a Republic as well as a constitution that enshrines religious liberty.

  16. Avatar
    prestonp  June 5, 2018

    “If anyone secretly entices you…” are the key words. They are not commanded to kill everyone with other gods here, but those who secretly entice them. “Pitiless words that provide no exception clause. God directs his faithful to murder anyone who promotes the worship of other gods,”

  17. Avatar
    prestonp  June 5, 2018

    In a sense it is like asking if NFL fans are fanatics, rude and belligerent? You bet. To hear some people talk about these folks one could easily form the opinion that most NFL fans are total jerks, which would be a serious mistake.

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