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Why Do Christians Try to Convert People?

I begin this New Year by addressing a really interesting question I received recently from a reader.  It’s a question that has rarely occurred to most people.  Today, we tend to think that religions are by their very nature interested in converting others to their views, that they just inherently evangelistic, missionary, proselytizing.  If you religion is “the right one,” wouldn’t you want everyone to agree with you, so they too could be right, instead of wrong?   Wouldn’t their salvation depend on it?

That indeed has long been the view of both Christianity and (later) Islam and … well surely all religions, right?  Uh, as it turns out, the answer is No.  In the world that Christianity came into, for example, in the Roman empire, there simply weren’t such things missionary/evangelistic religions.  Huh?  Then why was Christianity?

Here’s the question I received.

 

QUESTION:

Where/how/why did the new religion ‘about Jesus’ become – unlike most contemporary religions up to that point – a proselytizing one? That is, why did Paul and, presumably, others care whether others converted? Obviously, Jesus reportedly commanded them to do so, but do you think those ‘commissions’ really go back to Jesus?

 

RESPONSE:

This is one of the key questions I addressed in my book Triumph of Christianity.   I did so only after explaining that all the Roman religions were polytheistic (‘pagan” more or less means polytheistic), with many gods, all of whom deserved to be worshiped, and none of whom insisted that they alone should be worshiped.  So it was acceptable and everywhere practiced that people would worship all the gods they wanted, and none of the gods insisted that you worship them alone.  So there was no incentive to try to win “converts.”   Christianity was different. It had the only true God and it was missionary about it.

Here is what I said about the matter in my book.  This will take two posts.

 

 

Christianity as a Missionary Religion

Even if pagans who adhered to one cult or another may have liked others to join them in their rituals of worship and welcomed them when they chose to do so, we have no evidence of organized efforts to make it happen.

Wanna see the full answer to this question?  Join the blog!  Takes little time and little expense, and it pays enormous dividends.  And all proceeds go to charity.  So there is massive upside and zero downside.  So why not?

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Was Christianity a Missionary Religion with No Missionaries?
The Case Against Miracles: Guest Post by John Loftus

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Boltonian  January 2, 2020

    The historian, Shlomo Sand, in his book, ‘The invention of the Jewish People,’ has much of relevant interest to say about the myth of Jews not being proselytisers. Pages 166 onward and 173 onward might be worth a read if you have a copy. He quotes various Rabbinical sources to support his thesis, although he admits that proselytising was not universally approved (as per the oft-quoted Rabbi Chelbo). His argument in the end comes down to statistics: the diaspora, the numbers of which he thinks were hugely exaggerated, was nowhere near large enough to account for the population of religious Jews in Europe, north Africa, and the near and middle East. Anyway, he presents an interesting alternative point of view. Has anybody else here read Sand?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2020

      The problem is that these sources are dealing with a *later* phenomenon, not one prior to the appearance of Xty.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  January 2, 2020

    While I agree paganism wasn’t evangelistic (though Emperor Julian wanted to make it so), I’d say military conquest, leading to you being required to sacrifice to Roman gods of the polis (or die), was maybe a bit more obnoxious than the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on my door in the morning. Which they haven’t done in a while. Are they all right? Have they given up on me? The Mormons gave up on all of Washington Heights, a while back. Shook the dust off.

    • Avatar
      Eric  January 6, 2020

      Maybe they’ve all been raptured?

  3. Avatar
    godspell  January 2, 2020

    Bart, a question–would you agree modern atheists try to convert people?

    You just had one of their evangelists as a guest poster, so I’d hope the answer is yes. 😉

    • johnwloftus
      johnwloftus  January 2, 2020

      I think “conversion” might not be an appropriate word for educators like Bart. But a good education can produce a paradigm shift that might happen over some time, or in a blink of a eye.

      For my part I’m trying to deconvert believers with overwhelming evidence-based reasoning which is also educating them. The reasons I do so are because of the many harms of most religions in general and of most Christianities in particular, which can be seen in my book, “Christianity is Not Great.”

      Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails https://www.amazon.com/dp/1616149566/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_i_PgGdEbSQJP96K

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  January 2, 2020

        As I see it, you and Bart and others are doing something akin to cult “de-programming”. Or to put it another way, teaching people to think in a critical, analytical, and independent way. Never, ever, have I seen any harm in skepticism or critical thinking. Good mental hygiene, for one thing.

      • Barfo
        Barfo  January 2, 2020

        I have seen Christianity doom marriages because one partner strayed into a realm of not being “Christian enough.” It is really sad to witness that over something that is not easy to see or understand. On the flip side I have heard of couples who claim their faith in God is what keeps their marriage intact. If religion is directing a relationship towards a train wreck one partner (the least stubborn) will have to capitulate which is also a dismal affair. Trying to deconvert a Christian solely based on reasoning is tough.

        When I was in the Christian faith, my older brother who is a earth scientist and life long atheist used to use fact over faith with me and it never worked. It wasn’t until I actually had an awakening experience from reading a tragic story that I began to investigate if there truly was a God of the Bible. I’m somewhat embarrassed with myself now because being a retired investigator with a California law enforcement agency my career was based on the fact finding and assembling puzzles. Now my older brother is learning a lot from me about biblical history thanks to Bart.

        • Avatar
          Hormiga  January 4, 2020

          > I’m somewhat embarrassed with myself now because being a retired investigator with a California law enforcement agency my career was based on the fact finding and assembling puzzles.

          Heh. It’s long struck me as more than ironic that Texas jurors are forced to swear an oath to “render [a true verdict] according to the law *and the evidence*, so help you God”.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  January 2, 2020

        I think there is a general guideline not to proselytize on the blog see

        https://ehrmanblog.org/proselytizing-on-the-blog/?highlight=proselytize

        which has
        “avoiding any kind of proselytizing activity that promotes or urges (on others) particular religious views of any kind. . . not post comments that are inappropriately designed to urge particularly religious views.”

        tho not explicit I assume “comments that are designed to urge non-religious views ” would also be borderline inappropriate , such as “I’m trying to deconvert believers” which include a link to a book

        • johnwloftus
          johnwloftus  January 2, 2020

          I’m not proselytizing. I’m persuading. Successfully persuading results in a deconversion.

          Prosletyzing is word that has a bad rap, one that gained its deserved reputation from Christians in revival meetings and by door knockers. They do not reason people into belief but try to emotionalize people into belief with music, pascal’s Wager, life after death promises for grieving parents, and so forth.

          • Avatar
            JBarruso  January 3, 2020

            You left out threats of an eternity being tortured in the fires of hell.

          • Avatar
            godspell  January 3, 2020

            Persuasion and Proselytization are the same exact thing, and you even admit that in your second paragraph. You seem confused. 🙂

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 4, 2020

            I disagree.

      • Avatar
        Apocryphile  January 2, 2020

        I agree that Christianity and Christian churches/sects in general are *not* and have never been “great”, apart from the strictly charitable work they have done (though even that is in many cases tied in with their evangelizing mission). It’s really impossible to imagine what the world would have been like had Christianity never taken hold and become a major world religion (except that Bart would now be in some other line of work!), but I think all-in-all the world would have been better off without it. I think a real case can even be made that it has caused much more harm through the centuries than good. I’ll pick up your book.

        • johnwloftus
          johnwloftus  January 2, 2020

          Yes, it’s not that it hasn’t done good. It’s that overall it has done a massive amount of bad. Good to hear!

          • Avatar
            crt112@gmail.com  January 2, 2020

            I’m not so convinced. I’m an atheist but the Christians I know do some good things like taking an hour out of their week to ponder loving their neighbour. They try not to be angry, try to forgive others, etc. My experience is that religious people are generally very well-meaning with good intentions.
            There’s milllions out there trying to do that on a daily basis and I beleive it promotes good in the world.
            Of course it also gets distorted by those who want strict dogma to follow. Those who see Christianity as a list of ‘dont do this’ and ‘dont do that’. That kills the goodness that can come out of it.
            Then there’s the question – what alternatives does the world offer ? Materialism ? Keeping buying stuff in order to make yourself happy ? Or be part of the outrage culture promoted by social media and spend my time virtue signalling about what a good person I am ?
            So I’m wary of people on a mission to deconvert.
            Every belief system has good and bad, including atheism – it is up to each of usto be discerning enough to pick out the good stuff and apply it.

          • Avatar
            AndrewJenkins  January 3, 2020

            Hi John,
            Many thanks for your contributions to the blog, which I appreciated!

            Do you not think that stating that ‘overall religion has done a massive amount of bad’ is like saying that ‘overall politics has done a massive amount of bad’? Both true…..but can either of them really be abolished?

            Yesterday I received a message from a Hindu colleague asking me (a Christian, although certainly not a fundamentalist) to pray for a Muslim colleague who is recovering from an operation. We are all three engineers, so not strangers to ‘overwhelming evidence-based reasoning’ but we also live in communities where religion still has an important social and ethical role, I think, and respect each other’s traditions.

            I hope I have not overstepped the mark here – I have no intention of proselytising (or even persuading) and I hope Bart will not approve this comment if I have done so.

            Happy New Year to all! Andrew.

            PS I agree with your recent website comments supporting ‘Christianity Today’.

      • Avatar
        mwbaugh  January 2, 2020

        This is a point where communications between Christians and atheists often breaks down. As near as I can tell the argument is something like…

        CHRISTIANS: You are trying to convert Christians to atheism.
        ATHEISTS: No, we are only trying to educate them so they will see how false their beliefs are.
        CHRISTIANS: You are persuading them that their point of view is false and yours is correct. That is the very definition of conversion.
        ATHEISTS: Ah, but our way of seeing things is correct, and what we are doing isn’t converting, it’s restoring people to their default setting.
        CHRISTIANS: That’s just fancy language to hide the fact that you’re trying to convert people to your point of view. It’s no different than us evangelizing.
        ATHEISTS: They’re not even remotely similar.

        Both sides are actually logically consistant, but they proceed from different presumptions and each has a load of confirmation bias on its side.

        From my perspective, there are atheists, like Bart, who educate but have no stake in whether the people they teach end out believers or atheists. I cannot see them as evangelical or proselytizers in any real way. This also where most atheists seem to be.

        There are also atheists of the variety that sees religion as a serious evil that should be eliminated. These sometimes go by the name New Atheists. I’ve also heard the term anti-theist offered as a more accurate for them. For this subset, persuading religious people to give up their beliefs is a priority and they write books, give lectures, and enter debated to this end. It’s hard to see this particular subset of atheists as doing anything other than prosletyzing.

        • johnwloftus
          johnwloftus  January 2, 2020

          I am a highly educated atheist who seeks to persuade through reasoning believers into giving up their beliefs. I do so because Christianity is harmful. I’m educating people to abandon their childish religions.

          Prosletyzing is word that has a bad rap, one that gained its deserved reputation from Christians in revival meetings and door knockers. They do not reason people into belief but try to emotionalize people into belief with music, pascal’s Wager, life after death promises for grieving parents, and so forth.

          • Avatar
            godspell  January 3, 2020

            Okay, I think you’ve answered my question.

            And proven that for at least some, atheism is itelf a religion–with all of the same vices, but maybe not all the same virtues. That would be up to you to prove, and so far I don’t see you helping the sick and poor (a lot of Social Darwinism in atheism).

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 3, 2020

            Thanks. Since you see me, what am I doing right now!

          • Pattycake1974
            Pattycake1974  January 4, 2020

            I think there’s some confusion here John. This post was created by Bart. Maybe you think it’s your post? He also has a very clear rule that states there’s no proselytizing on the blog, and that includes attempting to deconvert Christians. He’s said many times that he is not trying to deconvert Christians and has no interest in doing so.

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 4, 2020

            I can comment on any post just like anyone else, as far as I know. I knew it was Bart’s post. Why didn’t others?

        • Avatar
          godspell  January 3, 2020

          Great post, making a great point. The same destructive personality types exist in both theism and atheism, in about equal measure. And in both cases, they make things hard for the more tolerant and intellectually curious people in their various groups, the ones who want dialogue and interchange, not simply to destroy the other side entirely.

          Many atheists would like to work with religious people of the same ideological bent, but they get accused of working with the enemy. I suppose one could argue some forms of atheism are taking a page from early Christianity’s book–insisting that there can be no compromise. One must convert and leave all vestiges of the old beliefs behind (even though that’s impossible, as it was impossible for Christianity to abandon all aspects of paganism).

          The ones who want to help, and the ones who just want to help themselves. The Sheep and the Goats. Jesus knew them well.

        • Avatar
          UncleAbee  January 5, 2020

          I agree with you. These “new atheists” are proselytizing. Their agenda is to deconvert all they can out of religion. They disguise it as “helping others understand atheism.” Watching stuff like the “Atheist Experience” and “Street Epistemology” on YouTube quickly proves this. I quit watching both.

      • Avatar
        ecafischer  January 2, 2020

        Wait a minute. You’re trying to deconvert believers….ah, clarify that, please. It’s like a double negative.

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 3, 2020

        I wasn’t referring to Bart.

    • Avatar
      anthonygale  January 2, 2020

      I was going to ask the very same question and am inclined to agree. While the views of evangelists wanting to convert and atheists seeking to de-convert may differ, in essence, both are trying to do the same thing. Convince others to change their minds because they think their views are better. Their motivations, which I think are likely to vary, might even overlap.

      People often cite the horrible things that have been done in the name of religion as reasons why religion is bad. I ask anyone who has this view: would those things stop if religion went away? Would the person who kills or the group who oppresses in the name of religion not simply find another reason to do so? Say politics? Some other justification? Or plain outright hatred. I think they probably would.

      • johnwloftus
        johnwloftus  January 2, 2020

        If religion leads us to kill others over territory, money, power and other things, then removing religion out of the mix would result on one less thing to kill others over. You should read Dr. Hector Avalos’s excellent book, “The Reality of Religious Violence: From Biblical to Modern Times”. You can probably get it at a university library.

        https://www.amazon.com/Reality-Religious-Violence-Biblical-Modern/dp/1910928585

        • Avatar
          anthonygale  January 3, 2020

          I think a distinction needs to be made between religion “causing” evil and people “using” religion to justify evil. There is no doubt that people have killed and hated in the name of Christianity. Yet thou shall not kill/murder, forgive others and love your enemies is pretty straightforward. Anyone killing or hating in the name of Christianity isn’t being very Christian. So how is that the fault of Christianity? Again, I doubt that the haters would stop hating if Christianity went away. If they simply find another reason, which I think they almost certainly will, would it make a difference? What reason is there to believe that, in the absence of religion, people are less likely to seek territory, money, power and other things?

          If your going to say getting rid of religion will at least eliminate one excuse for people to do evil, why argue that only for religion? Political arguments have been used to justify atrocities. Unethical scientific experiments have been done. People are shot every day. Should we get rid of government, medicine and guns? Those things might do good as well as harm, and people have rights. But religion also does good and people have the right to believe what they want. Why are you sure seeking to de-convert is for the better?

          $97.50 for a book? I can almost get four years of the blog for that!

        • Avatar
          godspell  January 3, 2020

          Somebody hasn’t studied 20th Century history, where atheist movements engaged in murder and oppression on a level unknown in all previous centuries combined.

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 3, 2020

            …and somebody has not read the book I just recommended.

          • Avatar
            godspell  January 3, 2020

            Well, if you were a religious proselytizer handing out tracts, I wouldn’t be expected to go out and buy the damn tracts, would I? You’d give them to me. No Jehovah’s Witness has ever asked me to pay for The Watchtower, and those cool Jack Chick comics are gratis.

            Also, you posted that link yesterday. Believe it or not, I’m reading a book right now. You’ve heard of Michelle Obama, right? If you ever want to learn how to write a book people want to read, check that out.

            However, if you will promise to read chapter 19 of this book (or hey, why not the whole thing?), I’ll promise to read the thing you’re plugging.

            https://www.amazon.com/Hitler-Ascent-1889-1939-Volker-Ullrich-ebook/dp/B019B6TVZI

            The Chapter is entitled “Hitler and the Churches.”

            (He was into ‘persuasion’ as well.)

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 4, 2020

            This area is not my specialty or my interest at this time. I offered a recommendation of a great scholarly book by Dr. Hector Avalos. If you are so interested get it and read it like I have. Cheers.

          • Avatar
            godspell  January 4, 2020

            Your area of interest seems fairly narrow.

            And yet, you are clearly not a scholar (though you have published what your purport to be scholarly opinions).

            Well, neither am I. And my area of interest is human behavior. (Also animal behavior, but they’re so much saner than us).

            It’s been fun studying a specimen of “Atheistis Britannicus” up close. Ta.

            😉

        • Avatar
          Dnations  January 3, 2020

          “…..then removing religion out of the mix would result in one less thing to kill others over.” That is, of course, an untestable hypothesis, which by definition is not scientific. Neither you or I (or anyone else) can prove that hypothesis is either correct or wrong. But untestable hypotheses don’t have to be without merit. An entire genre of Science Fiction, Alternative History, is based upon untestable hypotheses. I’m familiar with that genre of SF, but offhand I can’t think of a story that involves Chistianity not existing, although I would think there must be some.

          • johnwloftus
            johnwloftus  January 4, 2020

            Have you read Dr. Hector Avalos’s book? It addresses your assertions.

        • Avatar
          darren  January 5, 2020

          Definitely not religion driving war — it’s human nature. Lots of examples of secular movements committing atrocities. You can deconvert people who will find other reasons to have extreme attitudes toward people who disagree with them. Corruption, venal politicians, poverty are far bigger factors driving extremism than religion. Religion provides justification in many cases, but history proves humans can easily find others — race, class, politics, economics. And if you can’t make your case coherently without requiring someone to read an entire book you recommend, then you sound like your’re really just trying to sell books.

  4. Avatar
    Leovigild  January 2, 2020

    Not even the mystery religions appear to have employed organized efforts to bring in devotees. It is sometimes said that the expansion of Mithraism presupposes some kind of mission, but that turns out not to be true. The religion spread essentially by word of mouth from friend to friend, family member to family member – at least among adult males.

    How is that different from the way Christianity spread, though? Isn’t it correct that Christianity spread mostly by word of mouth as well? What ‘organized effort’ did Christians make other than this? I have trouble thinking of any.

    For example, Paul talks of money collected from his new converts to support the Church in Jerusalem, not the other way around, as you would expect of an organized missionary effort.

    Perhaps you are talking about Paul, specifically, and the way he went around developing new congregations? First, it’s hard to know how typical Paul was. Is there evidence that there were a lot of people like Paul? Most martyrologies I know of report on the persecution of people native to a particular place, not itinerant missionaries. As for Paul himself, how different is he than your typical itinerant philosopher going from town to town, teaching as a way of supporting themselves? Would the best comparison be something like the Cynics?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2020

      Yup, I’ll be arguing today it was very similar in terms of *mechanism*; but the difference is that Mithraists did not have a mission to convert — it might be a good thing for someone to start worshiping the god, in the prescribed ways, but that was true of all gods. There was no sense taht anyone *had* to.

  5. Avatar
    AnKoX  January 2, 2020

    Interesting post Professor, thank you. I was wondering about this well-known quote from Jesus, “love your neighbour as yourself”, which actually is from Leviticus 19:18 and appears only to concern Jewish communities (e.g. we know that the Old Testament permits the slave trade but only for the Gentiles as victims). Could it be that the historical Jesus was only referring to Jewish communities when he used some version of this quote, and Paul latter generalized it according to his own philosophy?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2020

      Yes, it all depends on what “neighbor” means. In Leviticus, it definitely means (fellow Israelite). For Jesus, though, it appears to be just anyone you run across (thus the parable of the good Saramaritan, e.g.)

      • Avatar
        SatPat  January 4, 2020

        This is an interesting topic for a couple folks. Richard Dawkins is convinced, as it seems you are, that Leviticus refers only to other Jews. He bases this on American writer, John Hartung, an associate professor of anaesthesiology. Richard Elliott Friedman who, on the other hand, is actually a scholar of biblical languages points out that the lack of punctuation in ancient writings means it can be interpreted in different ways depending on how you read it, and says it can easily be interpreted to mean a neighbor is everyone. He points out that the Torah says 52 times that Israelites should care for the aliens (strangers) who live among them. He goes on and on with examples – there is one Torah for everyone, including the alien, etc. This would seem to support the conclusion that Lev 19:18 means a “neighbor” is everyone.

        Friedman proposes that people who migrated from Egypt and came to be known as “Levites” (attached people) wrote this part of the Torah. He proposes, apparently based on DNA evidence, that they were a band of unrelated people who come to Canaan, where they concocted an Exodus story that included the entire nation, uniting it under the god they brought with them, and with themselves set up as the priest class, as they were given no land. He argues that they surely would have meant “neighbor” to be all-inclusive since they purportedly weren’t native Israelites. And the rest is history… Have you read “The Exodus” by Friedman? Very compelling for believer or nonbeliever.

        Clearly “love thy neighbor” has not been interpreted that way by everyone, and the 52 bits about caring for the ‘alien who lives among you’ has presumably been redacted from a large number of Torah scrolls in Israel! Jesus’ interpretation of “neighbor” would be welcome in the Middle East today!

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2020

          Well, it applied to “Israelites” not Jews, since “Jew” was not a category until after the Babylonian exile. But otherwise, yes, Lev 19:18 is an internal Israelite law. I haven’t read Friedman’s Exodus, but have not noticed that it has gained a lot of traaction among other Hebrwe Bible scholars…. His Who Wrote teh Bible, though, is terrific.

          • Avatar
            SatPat  January 8, 2020

            I meant to say Israelites. My bad. I stand corrected. I knew that.

            I have “Who Wrote the Bible” as well. It reads so smoothly when you read passages by a single author, rather than the mixed and matched edited version.

            “The Exodus” is an easy read. Very compelling. I would like to see some additional evidence for the DNA data he provides, as that is very powerful evidence that his hypothesis is correct.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 9, 2020

            My sense is that most Hebrew Bible scholars consider it a rather serious stretch….

      • Robert
        Robert  January 4, 2020

        Bart: “… For Jesus, though, it [‘neighbor’] appears to be just anyone you run across (thus the parable of the good Saramaritan, e.g.)”

        Do you have any specific arguments for attributing ‘the good Samaritan’ parable to Jesus? It seems very Lukan to me, at least at first glance. I have not rigorously studied the critical scholarship on it.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2020

          No, I don’t think it’s probably authentic. But I’m very open to it expressing Jesus’ perspective: “many will come from east and west….”

          • Robert
            Robert  January 5, 2020

            Bart: “No, I don’t think it’s probably authentic. But I’m very open to it expressing Jesus’ perspective: ‘many will come from east and west….’”

            I agree it probably expressed the views of Jesus that had been absorbed by his followers and developed by the later communities. This attitude of openness to the nations was, according to Joel Marcus, already even shared by John the baptizer. That is an exciting part of his recent book. I’d love to hear your take on this aspect of Marcus’ view … Not just we don’t know but wish we did, but why you don’t think his arguments are plausible. … Unless, of course, you agree whole-heartedly?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 5, 2020

            I think they’re plausible, but no, I don’t buy them. I think John was like just about every other apocalyptic prophet from the time: concerned with the people of Israel.

  6. Avatar
    flshrP  January 2, 2020

    Why Paul was a proselytizer is perfectly clear. He realized that Christianity could survive only if it became the state religion of the Roman Empire and supplanted all the pagan religions and, in particular, replaced emperor worship that had arisen upon the death of Augustus in 14 CE. You explain in detail how this occurred in your recent book “Triumph of Christianity”. Paul was correct and after Constantine I’s conversion in the fourth century CE his goal was achieved. Paul thought that the end times had begun with Christ’s Resurrection and likely expected Christianity to triumph a lot earlier. But apocalyptics like Paul are always in a hurry.

    Christianity was de facto the state religion of Western Europe until the 18th century when the Reformation and the Enlightenment radically changed this arrangement. In the next 250 years powerful secular states arose (the U.S. in particular) that rejected state religions, which has led to the steady decline of Christianity such that today the major Christian sects are in crisis. Literacy, gradual elimination of poverty (on which Christianity relies for converts), and rising standards of living worldwide have put Christianity on the defensive in Europe, North America and much of Latin America. The god of the gaps argument is becoming less and less relevant as modern scientific knowledge closes these gaps and the Christian fantasy declines. Present day efforts at proselytizing are largely ineffective in halting this decline of Christianity.

  7. Avatar
    Epikouros  January 2, 2020

    Of course, those efforts sometimes backfire bigly. I haven’t been a believer since I was a teenager, but I never thought much about it until spouse and I moved back to the Midwest to care for his aging parents. His father is a retired minister from a very conservative Protestant denomination. So we’ve been bombarded with constant mini-sermons about sin, God’s judgment, salvation by faith alone, etc etc. It’s turned me into a pretty vocal atheist. And I’ve come to genuinely loathe Christianity in any and all forms (I was previously neutral on it, maybe even somewhat positive). So his preaching has certainly had an effect on me — just not the one he intended.

  8. fefferdan
    fefferdan  January 2, 2020

    The answer to the question perhaps needs to be separated into two parts: why did Jewish-Christians try to convert fellow Jews, and why did early Christians also try to convert pagans. The answer to the first part of the question seems simple: if you believe you’ve found the messiah — the “one who would restore the kingdom to Israel” [Acts 1.6] — you want your fellow Jews to know. Even if you thought Jesus was only an apocalyptic prophet but not the messiah, you still want people to accept his message. And after his death, if you believe he rose from the dead or that his death was an atoning sacrifice for sin, then that’s something worth sharing too. The second part is more complicated, and no longer involves the Jewish idea of what the messiah does. It involves both a positive and a negative motivation, as Bart points out: fear for the coming destruction, and hope in the message of loving God and one’s neighbor. The believers’ experience of a sense of spiritual liberation from sin and a personal relationship with God, as well as a powerful bond of love with their community, must have also been a powerful factor. Nor should we ignore social pressure: stories of the Holy Spirit zapping those who didn’t get with the program [Acts 5] being one of my favorites.

  9. Avatar
    dankoh  January 2, 2020

    I think you also have to look at the almost total lack of success the Jesus Movement was experiencing with the Jews. It’s not just that they felt compelled to spread the “good news” out of a desire to help everyone get into heaven. They also needed (and still need to this day) validation that they were right – the more so since, according to their theology, getting it wrong, even in details such as whether Jesus really died or only appeared to die, would mean suffering in hell for all eternity. Since the Jews, Jesus’s own people, would not give them that validation, they opted to get it from the Greek world – and to demonize the Jews while they were at it.

    Just one example: Paul says he is bringing Jesus’s message to the Gentiles “so as to make Israel jealous.”

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    fishician  January 2, 2020

    If the idea of universal salvation had won out I wonder how that would have affected the impetus for evangelism and hence the course of Christianity and western civilization. Was the idea that eventually all would be saved ever a majority, or even a major, view?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2020

      No, it was always in the (vast) minority so far as we can tell, with just Origen being the major proponent in the early centuries, and hardly anyone of any influence later.

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    mikezamjara  January 2, 2020

    Dr Ehrman
    In your opinión, what should happen with religions? Should they disappear, evolve, fuse?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2020

      They should be made more loving and less territorial and violent (I’m including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — the ones we are by and large most familiar with)

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        JAF  January 4, 2020

        May I add and “embrace skepticism, honestly admit what is unknown, encourage individual reflection and the continual search for TRUTH”? Human nature always seems to get in the way of the “good” that religion claims to be about.

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        flshrP  January 4, 2020

        I think that’s impossible. Religions are inherently divisive: believers vs non-believers; sinners vs saints; the saved vs the damned; orthodox vs heretical. And the idea of a universal church with members all espousing the same beliefs is the very definition of totalitarianism and groupthink.

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    JBarruso  January 2, 2020

    Great insight! I’m looking forward to the next post. It seems even today Christians and church leaders see a large part of the practice of their religion as a numbers game. Churches and their parishioners are hyper-focused on gaining new members. Sadly, this is a very superficial interpretation of “love” for their neighbors. What kind of love says; “love me, or else…” ??? Especially given that scripture explains there is no fear in love. And there are most certainly no ultimatums. Ultimatums inspire fear. Instead this supposed “love” they demonstrate for their neighbors serves only them, not their neighbors. Nothing elevates one’s own self-image or validates someone like winning converts by convincing them your religion is the “right” one. Contrary to this, Jesus wasn’t focused on numbers and He most certainly wasn’t focused on making converts. If you didn’t get his message (have ears to hear) he could care less. You either got it or you didn’t. There wasn’t any threats or attempts to persuade.

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    Zak1010  January 2, 2020

    Prophets and messengers in the NT, OT and Quran were sent as preachers, warners, reformers with a message from God. For the most part to Pagans and / or Idol worshipers.

    Noah a prophet, a monotheist known as a righteous man preached righteousness. Preached against idolatry. Surrendered to the One God.
    Abraham a prophet, a monotheist known as the father of righteousness, preached the oneness of God against idol worship. Surrendered to the One God
    Moses a prophet, a monotheist known as religious teacher and lawgiver. Surrendered to the One God.
    Jesus ( what can we say about Jesus ) a prophet, teacher, Messiah, messenger, a monotheist preached the oneness of God and full filler of the law. Surrendered to the One God.
    Mohamed a prophet, teacher, messenger, a monotheist preached the oneness of God. Surrendered to the One God.
    These righteous noble prophets have a lot in common .

    Converting was not their motif. Their message or instructions was not to convert, it was to revive, remind, or maybe revert. None used force because they understood that they were mere prophets chosen by God and were commanded only to remind, advise and warn. They understood that guidance comes from God.

    Dr Ehrman,
    Jesus told his disciples to go and preach. He did not say go convert. So the question is. Before Paul, was the concept of ‘ converting ‘ mentioned. Hence, conversion ( the concept ) is Pauline.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2020

      I guess it depends which passages one connects with Jesus. Matthew 28:19-20 is definitely about making converts. But I don’t think Jesus actually said it (the historical Jesus). I don’t think Jesus had a mission outside of Israel. But Paul definitely did. I think my post today is agreeing with you.

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    mtavares  January 2, 2020

    I remember when I first started asking myself this question as a Christian and I was surprised at how late I thought to ask it. Years later I was reading the book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) where the authors provide a simple yet profound thought experiment. They ask you to remember a time where you were really on the fence about buying something – all the back-and-forth, pros/cons you created, and minor mental agony. You finally decide to buy it, and then days later you realize you’re trying to convince others in your life why they also must buy it. It’s as if you’re trying to confirm your own decision by pushing it on others. I don’t think that’s the full explanation for Christian evangelization given that, as you point out, it was unprecedented in other religions, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s a piece of it.

  15. Telling
    Telling  January 2, 2020

    Another significant reason may be there is “money” in it for the Christian, for if they convert even a single sinner it will atone for a multitude of sins.

    My wife is Buddhist, and she has noticed how Christians will go to great effort to convert. Buddhists do not. It may be in part due to the focus of Buddhism: No merit points for conversions, for each practitioner must earn his ticket to Nirvana (ending the cycle of reincarnation). And regarding Buddhism there is no gain in becoming a Buddhist without putting long hours into the discipline. For Christians the merit IS in the conversion.

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    Bernice Templeman  January 2, 2020

    Did missionaries help to create part of the vision of the Judaism messiah ruling many?
    I think Christians need to understand some of Judaism. I also think you have to be careful when reading it. I only read & listened while also reading and listening to the Ancient Egypt Book.

    I am not in religion, I do believe in eternal life, myself and others. I believe we are created equal, good, and the ability to create and change beliefs.

    There are some truths in the Bible but there are also harmful beliefs/stories.

    I know people are connected when they are young. I also know that most disconnect from this spiritual connection. I think the Book of the Dead (Eternal life, going forth by day) is helpful in believing in others, ourselves and in our ability to not sin and have eternal life.
    I don’t think Ancient Egypt didn’t try to convert others, although they left a lot of physical and spiritual knowledge.

    Star Wars Jedi always had to fly into the enemy. Unlike Star Wars, we don’t need violence, we need to wake people up.
    I go back to school and work next week.

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    Dnations  January 2, 2020

    Hey Dr. Erhman, If I’m not mistaken, the original question here was posed to you. We’ve seen Dr. Loftus’s answer, I would be interested in knowing yours. Thanks in advance and for this blog!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2020

      Sorry — which question? My post about why Christians try to convert people was written by … me!

      • Avatar
        Dnations  January 4, 2020

        Yep, I should have been more specific. I was referring to the question that godspell posed to you about whether you agree that atheists try to convert people. After pondering it, I suspect I can guess what your answer will be, although guessing is not the same as hearing it! Besides, my guess could very well be wrong.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2020

          Sorry. Yes indeed, atheist definitely try to convert people! Happens a *lot*!

          • Avatar
            Dnations  January 5, 2020

            No worries. Thanks!

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    Bwana  January 2, 2020

    To what extent can the activities of John the Baptist be regarded as a proselytizing mission, even though the purpose was not to convert to a foreign religion but to persuade a more eschatological interpretation of the prevailing one? I checked the dictionary on “proselytize” and the word “recruit” came up. Isn’t that exactly what John the Baptist was doing: recruit the masses for the coming kingdom of God? Maybe Martin Goodman considers this already a part of Christianity, but I would argue that this baptism ritual, along with its proselytizing connotation, is very much a Jewish phenomenon that only later became a hallmark of Christianity. As such I certainly wouldn’t consider Christian proselytizing a “shocking novelty in the ancient world”.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 4, 2020

      In John’s case he wsa trying to get people to repent and return to the ways of God, i.e., to turn around their lives in ways they should have known were right, not to convert and adopt a different “religion”. So it seems a bit different , but heading in the same direction….

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    veritas  January 2, 2020

    I am not sure why John is answering instead of Bart. It sounded like Godspell directed the question to Bart and see thus far all replies are from John. As previously posted, whatever harm you speak of that Christianity has caused, in the long run there is no downside in knowing whether a God exists, as Bart can attest to as well. Jordan Peterson, when asked ,do you believe in God, responds with, ” It depends what you mean by *believe* because it is a hard question to answer ,but rather he continues, I try/act live like one exist. Margaret Mcmillan, has an interesting book called ,The History of People. She states, that history is full of events that happened the way they did and cannot imagine how we would be today, if those events would of had different results, like Germany controlling the world with a victory. World historical events are an evolution,development and progress of civilization. I would think, we are better off today if some of these things did not take place in the past. I dislike grouping people into categories to establish nothing more than division. Stalin, Mao and Hitler have had their names bounced around by religious/secular groups to justify their argument/evil. That is why Bart always opens at the beginning of a lecture,” My goal is not to* deconvert* anyone”. He presents his findings, of which some may prove debatable or controversy. Let individuals decide for themselves. If believers want to believe a fairy tale, so what. Where is the downside? There is no harm done. Imagine a country like the USA with no laws and left to man’s reasoning to rectify? How far could you trust man’s ethical behavior to morality? Would women be any safer? Would pilfering in stores seize or grow tenfold? Would children be safer? Would murders be unstoppable? Why do we lock our doors of our homes? I think it would be chaos. People, left to their own thinking/devices, are very dangerous. We are capable of doing atrocities without remorse. I think a real issue is gun violence in the US. The second amendment was instituted, by a what 5-4 vote, to allow people to bear arms and use in self-defense…….Look at the murders over the years. Innocent lives lost.

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    Bernice Templeman  January 3, 2020

    In the story of Jesus talking to large crowds and doing the miracle of feeding the crowd with fish and bread… it may seem like a good religion to join because you will be fed, but in some ancient civilizations fish and bread were for lower-income people while meat and other food were for the ruling class.

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