Here now is the third post by Platinum blog member Daniel Kohanski, based on his recently published book A God of our Invention.   This one should grab your attention!



From its beginnings, Christianity has had theological difficulties with human sexuality. In this edited excerpt from my latest book, A God of Our Invention: How Religion Shaped the Western World, I lay out what I believe are some of the reasons for this.


The first Christian commentator that we have record of, the Apostle Paul, was also the first to recommend that Christians avoid sexual activity and stay celibate. “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am” (1 Cor. 7:8). Still, he did accept that not all were capable of it. He advised the Corinthians that if a man “thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin” (1 Cor. 7:36). He even acknowledged that some of “the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and [Peter]” were married (1 Cor. 9:5).

As always when reading the New Testament, we have to keep in mind that its writers were expecting the end of the existing world and the coming of the kingdom of God to occur at any moment. This expectation could help explain why Paul, and also the gospels, were opposed to divorce, an antagonism not found in Jewish or Roman law; this was to be the last generation, and all marriages will end soon anyway. It fit their general attitude toward sex and marriage. In First Corinthians, Paul makes this explicit argument: “Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time grows short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none” (1 Cor. 7:28b-29). Jesus reminds his hearers that there will be no more sex once the kingdom has come: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30, also Mark 12:25).

However, celibacy was not practical in a world that stubbornly refused to end. As the Jesus Movement morphed into Christianity, the early Church Fathers needed to construct a theology that allowed Christianity to propagate more Christians—but at the same time they couldn’t contradict texts that were even then becoming canonized. Debates over the role and proper use of sexuality occupied the Church Fathers for the next few centuries, with celibacy generally being the most favored option. Late in the second century, Clement of Alexandria advised that a man should try to conceive without desire, or any passion at all, in full control of his will (Stromata, III.7.58). Even this put him at odds with some other early Church Fathers, who believed that “only by rejecting marital intercourse and procreation could people be restored to their original, spiritual condition intended by God the Creator.”[1] The Apocalypse of Paul, a very popular tract probably written around the fourth century, assigned lifetime virgins a higher place in heaven than married couples who had kept their vows. On the other hand, those who had premarital sex were bound in hell with red-hot chains (Apocalypse of Paul, §§22, 39).[2]

Early in the fifth century, Bishop Augustine of Hippo formulated a concept of sex that even today remains central to Catholic doctrine: sex is the mechanism through which everyone inherits Adam’s “originating original sin”—the “primal” sin, as Augustinian scholar Jesse Couenhoven calls it.[3] In brief, when God created Adam and Eve, he intended that “the marriage of the first human beings, which was worthy of the delight of paradise, would have produced children to love, but without any lust to be ashamed of” (City of God 14:23). But then Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. This disobedience was the primal sin, and one that was “neither necessary nor reasonable, but perverse,” even “inexplicable,” to Augustine.[4] It was disobedience to God, and from then on their genitals would disobey them, as it were. Sexual arousal occurs, or fails to occur, without regard to a person’s will. Arousal leads to lust, and lust overcomes the will (City of God 14:16). Everyone born since Adam’s primal sin is conceived in lust, and inherits Adam’s sin through that very act of conception. Our origin is in sin; hence we are born with an “original sin.” Augustine held that every child born of lust (which he called “concupiscence”) was “bound by original sin,” and the only way to be unbound from that sin was to be “reborn” through baptism in the only person who had ever been conceived without lust—Jesus (Marriage and Desire I.27).[5] Original sin transmits through the father; Jesus’s father was God and his mother was a virgin. Augustine did acknowledge that one of the values of marriage was that it was the only legitimate way to relieve the pressures of lust for those who “lack the self-control for celibacy.”[6] But this only highlighted the problem that the children of a legitimate marriage must be conceived in lust.

Augustine’s thinking about sex was nuanced and complex, and it changed from time to time.[7] It also took a while for the Catholic Church to turn his and other theologians’ ideas into its official doctrine that yielding to sexual lust, even in marriage, is a sin, and is only to be allowed, reluctantly, as long as there is the possibility of engendering offspring. Though the Vatican has lately modified its stance, Augustine’s thinking still permeates the Catholic approach to human sexuality. In 1950, Pius XII rejected the idea of evolution on the grounds that if Adam was not the ancestor of all, then he had not transmitted his original sin to all (Humani Generis §37).[8] And since God decides, according to the Church, if your act of lust results in a pregnancy, then using contraceptives is rejecting God’s right to decide. To have an abortion is to reject a decision God made. In these ways, early Christian beliefs about sex continue to impact today’s world.



A God of Our Invention: How Religion Shaped the Western World is published by Apocryphile Press ( The book first examines how the western world’s idea of God developed from the Israelite worship of many gods, Yahweh included, through the first centuries of Christianity. It then looks at how that idea of God has impacted the way we deal with sex, war, and death, and how the belief that Jesus is coming back has interfered with our ability to handle crises. In the end, it shows how doubt and reality have acted to weaken Christianity’s hold on political power.

(All NT quotations taken from the New Revised Standard Version.)

[1] Hunter, David G., Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press (2018), 18. See Hunter generally for a survey and source materials for various attitudes towards marriage and sex among the early Christians.

[2] See Ehrman, Bart D., Heaven and Hell: A History of the Afterlife. New York: Simon & Schuster (2020), 262–65.

[3] Couenhoven, Jesse, “St. Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin.” Augustinian Studies 36, no. 2 (2005: 359–96), 364.

[4] Couenhoven, 366.

[5] Augustine’s understanding of concupiscence is complex, extending far beyond sexual lust. See Couenhoven (372–76) for an explanation.

[6] Hunter (536), with citations to On the Excellence of Marriage.

[7] E.g., Augustine Against the Pelagians, I.33, On the Excellence of Marriage, I.11, and Marriage and Desire I.16.

[8] Pope Francis acknowledged the reality of evolution in 2015, though without addressing the conflict that had troubled Pius (Francis, In Honor of Benedict XVI).

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  1. fishician February 28, 2023 at 9:39 am

    Now I understand why so many sex scandals in the churches in recent years: there will be no sex after the apocalypse, so better make up for it now! Wasn’t God’s first command to people to “be fruitful and multiply?” Funny how churches continue to be so anti-sex. And they can’t distinguish between romantic desire, which enhances love for another, and lust which uses another for selfish pleasure. Saw an article just this morning noting that marriage is declining in America. Maybe people are tired of religion and the government controlling their relationships.

  2. jscheller February 28, 2023 at 9:49 am

    I agree insofar as the end of sex WOULD be the end of the world.

  3. Robert February 28, 2023 at 10:37 am

    Daniel Kohanski: “… expecting the end of the existing world and the coming of the kingdom of God to occur at any moment. This expectation could help explain why Paul, and also the gospels, were opposed to divorce, an antagonism not found in Jewish or Roman law;”

    What about the teaching against divorce attributed to Shammai and his disciples? Do you think this tradition might also have arisen among apocalyptic Jews?

    Much of the opposing teachings of Hillel and Shammai seem stylized, sometimes almost comically so, and are thus not necessarily historical, and the extremely opposing views of Hillel and Shammai on divorce could fit into this fictional, stylized approach to a question. But the opposition to divorce attributed to Shammai could also have an historical Sitz-im-Leben among apocalyptic Jews, right?

    • dankoh February 28, 2023 at 3:54 pm

      I have no reason to think the schools of Hillel and Shammai, and their arguments, are anything but historical.

      • Robert March 1, 2023 at 9:46 am

        dankoh: “I have no reason to think the schools of Hillel and Shammai, and their arguments, are anything but historical.”

        OK, then you accept that Shammai and his students were much more opposed to divorce than the school of Hillel. Do you think their opposition might have been based in an apocalyptic worldview? Or was it just a difference of opinion about divorce law? At any rate there was antagonism toward divorce found among some Jewish teachers, reportedly around the time of Jesus.

        • dankoh March 2, 2023 at 1:49 am

          I’m not actually familiar with the school of Shammai’s position on divorce, and I’m away from most of my sources right now (we’re in the middle of the Australian Outback). But given that the Torah lays out rules and reasons for divorce, I can’t see that school being opposed to all divorce; more likely they wanted to tighten the rules, which was their general approach to the law. That is not the same as antagonism to divorce in general, nor did it require an apocalytpic worldview.

          • Robert March 2, 2023 at 8:22 am

            Correct, it’s not absolute, but the differences are expressed in pretty extreme contrasts: Shammai would limit divorce to cases of adultery (same interpretation of ערות דבר in Dt 24,1 as in Mt 5,32 19,9), as opposed to Hillel (burning dinner) or Akiva (finding another woman more attractive) or Rashi (too much salt on the dinner). See b Gittin 90a-b.

  4. kt February 28, 2023 at 10:43 am

    What a wonderful perspective which I haven’t given much thought to.

    Many renowned biblical scholars have made me search for possible Hellenistic influence and inspiration within (Jewish/Christian) texts. Reading your post, I am struck by how carnal and technical their worldview appeared to be, despite being aware of this fact. In contrast, the Platonic writings of antiquity, which at least predated the NT books, presented a vastly (as it sometimes seems to me) very different view of this world (such as the allegory of the cave in the Republic) and the different parts of the soul. In the Platonic worldview, only one aspect of the soul, the appetitive part, was associated with the carnal world, and it was something to be minimized by not allowing spiritual experiences that exceeded physical pleasure. An “unhealthy” balance of this would result in reward or punishment in the afterlife, and which could also affect how we would reincarnate, according to them, in a system where death was not considered the separation of soul and body (as I understand it) .

    As a layman, I find it both strange and exciting how material-theological ideas , relationships have developed over time.

    Thank you for your post.

  5. Stephen February 28, 2023 at 10:22 pm

    It is also worth pointing out how the doctrine of the Virgin Birth created the concept of motherhood without sexuality. Unlike their pagan counterparts there is no hint of a god actually having sex with Mary. The Holy Spirit doesn’t require physical contact.

  6. MarkWiz March 1, 2023 at 6:58 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I’m a product of RC parochial school in the 1950s and 1960s, and have always wondered why Church teaching seemed so preoccupied with the “evils of sex.” As an adult, I found myself questioning why the Church put such value on virginity. If God created woman with the capability of producing children through intercourse, why was denying that God-given function seen as being ideal? I will tell you that I was very suggestible to the implicit guilt and distorted thinking the philosophy produced. Marriage was invalid without sex, but sex was wrong if you enjoyed it. I remember the quote from Psalms “In sin did my mother conceive me” as especially hurtful. I never, ever framed Paul’s anti-marriage-seeming writing in the sense that he was expecting the second-coming imminently; that’s a real eye-opener for me. I can’t say I agree with it even so, but at least I understand it more. Thanks!

    • dankoh March 3, 2023 at 12:19 am

      I’m away from my research material right now (we’re near the base of Uluru /Ayers Rock), but I did look up Ps. 51:5 and some comments on it. First thing to note is that the Psalmist (presumably David) is speaking of himself and his sins, not generalizing that everyone is conceived in sin. (I see some speculation that David wrote this psalm (if he did) shortly after his adultery with Bathsheba was exposed.)

      In the Hebrew Scripture, in the Talmud, and in Jewish thinking generally, sex is needs to kept within limits but is not inherently sinful. An interesting perspective is that of the Song of Songs, which is almost pornographically explicit in its celebration of physical love, and in which it is clear that the lovers are not married.

      This positive view of sex is not universal. The Essenes limited sexual activity to a married couple and only for procreation; if they had sex after she was known to be pregnant, they were expelled from the community. In modern Israel, the Ger (or Gur) Haredim used to limit marital relations to once a month, with minimal removal of clothing. (They’ve since loosened up a bit.)

  7. scandler7 March 5, 2023 at 1:39 am

    I’m sorry, but I find no statement that “there will be no more sex once the kingdom has come” in either MT. 22:30 or Mark 12:25…

    • dankoh March 5, 2023 at 2:47 am

      “For they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” This was in response to the question of the woman who had seven husbands, one after the other; whose wife would she be in the resurrection. Jesus’s answer was “none of the above” because they would all be like angels – a higher order of being who did not need sex.

  8. daveb1 March 6, 2023 at 1:59 pm

    “For they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Hmm. Seems like the angels had no problem mating with human women (Genesis 6), and they are (apparently) very sexually attractive to human males (Genesis 19). Seems like angelic sexuality is still up for grabs.

    • dankoh March 6, 2023 at 4:01 pm

      Those angels were punished for doing so. And Jesus certainly didn’t mean the sort of angel that gives in to lust. Read the whole quote in its context (the woman with seven husbands) and also the commentaries on the verse.

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