Can an Atheist Really Be a Christian? A Response to “Catholic” Matthew Dowd

@matthewjdowd, Twitter / nrkbeta , Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

ABC News analyst Matthew Dowd, who identifies as Catholic, recently made a particularly strange claim about Christianity on Twitter:

@matthewjdowd, Twitter

Here’s what he said: “I am Catholic. Being Christian is a state of being. Practicing love. Some of the most Christian folks i know in life are atheists.” [sic]

When challenged by another Twitter user who said, “Being a Christian has at least a little to do with believing in Christ, no?”, Dowd responded, “Jesus came to establish new way of love. He didn’t come to establish a religion.

It’s incredible that these things need to be said, but here are a few ways this is wrong:

1) Jesus’ greatest commandment is about loving God

Yes, Jesus taught we are supposed to love other people. But that’s only the second greatest commandment. The greatest commandment, according to Jesus, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12.30)

If you deny that there even is a God, you aren’t going to be doing what Jesus said was the most important thing.

2) Jesus said that believing in God and His Son is necessary for going to heaven

If saying that loving God is the greatest commandment isn’t clear enough that believing in God is necessary to be a Christian, then look no further than where Jesus explicitly talks about the necessity of faith.

While talking about how God’s Son (himself) was sent to save the world, Jesus says this: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3.18)

Obviously atheists don’t believe in the second person of the Trinity.

This necessity of faith is also confirmed later in the New Testament in Hebrews 11.6: “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

3) Jesus’ commands to love weren’t “new”

When Jesus said that the greatest commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, he was directly quoting the Old Testament, specifically Deuteronomy 6.5 and Leviticus 19.18.

Yes, Jesus showed us the depths of God’s love in a new way, and he fully revealed God in a way that was new. But his commands to love had already been revealed previously.

Remember, Jesus himself was a Jew who said that he came to fulfill the Jewish Law (Matthew 5.17ff). You can’t understand Jesus except within the context of religion and God’s history with the Jewish people.

As biblical scholar Dr. Leroy Huizenga said in a response on Twitter: “the idea that a Jew like Jesus would set up…something new that’s not a religion is borderline antisemitic.”

4) Of course Jesus established a religion

On this issue, Dowd is ironically repeating a talking point from people who care deeply about believing in God, evangelical Protestants; except where Dowd says Christianity is really just about love instead of religion, evangelicals usually say it’s really just about a relationship.

But they’re both wrong. Of course, Jesus said we are to love; and of course, we are meant to have a relationship with God. But neither of those things replace religion, and Jesus did establish a religion in any meaningful sense of the term.

Jesus confirmed the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures. He explicitly established rituals (e.g. baptism, the Lord’s Supper). He appointed leaders, the Apostles. He explicitly said he was establishing His Church (cf. Matthew 16.18). So yes, Jesus did establish a fairly well-defined religion.

More could be said on all of these points, but it should be clear that the idea that Jesus did not care if people believe in God, that he only taught about loving your neighbor, and that he established no religion is wrong.

[See also: The Lost “Duty of Religion”: Everyone’s Moral Obligation to Seek the Truth]

[See also: “The Very Necessary Minimum”: The Forgotten “Precepts of the Church”]

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