Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus – A Review & Response

by Craig A. Smith (Ph.D.)

If you haven’t seen it yet, you should probably watch Jeff Bethke’s video Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. As I write this, his video has been watched more than 19 million times on YouTube. It’s also inspired a whole host of response videos, some of which are worth watching.

In short, Bethke’s premise is simple: the Christian “religion” obscures the truth about Jesus. He identifies religion as something that has started many wars and something that has built huge churches while failing to feed the poor. I think most people can agree that wars and self-serving hypocrisy are terrible legacies. But is religion the true culprit here? I’m not at all sure that it is, yet Bethke has re-defined religion in such a way that, if you accept his definition, it almost has to be. He also seems to subtly imply that “religion” is synonymous with the organized church, leaving one to wonder if the only way to follow Jesus authentically is to do so apart from the church.

Let me be clear: there is much in Bethke’s video that resonates with me. I too find it frustrating that Jesus’ followers often do such a poor job of representing him. As much as I hate to admit it, I’m no different. My temper, my selfishness, my unwillingness to be uncomfortable for His sake…these are all ways in which I distort the picture of Christ that the world sees through me. But let’s be clear: these are my problems, not Christ’s. Perhaps more importantly, these are my problems, not the church’s. But since I and a whole bunch of other people just like me make up the church, the church will inevitably suffer from these same deficiencies.

Bethke seems to think that the problem is the church itself, when the problem is really the people who comprise the church. To be fair, however, he does say that he loves the church, at least in theory. In practice, however, he equates the church with the naughty “R” word: religion. Both explicitly and implicitly, he defines religion as a series of man-made rules and regulations which serve to distract us from our own weakness and sin. He calls religion “perfume on a casket” and says the problem with it is that it never gets to the core. Rather, it’s just “behavior modification like a long list of chores.” What he wants, I think, is for people to authentically follow Jesus from a wellspring of gratitude for His grace rather than out of an attempt to live up to external expectations piled upon us from “religious people”. I couldn’t agree more.

The problem I have with Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus is twofold. First, it makes a huge logical and theological error and second, this error could lead people down an ultimately harmful path.

The logical/theological problem begins with a simple fallacy. He’s taken a list of grievances, summed them all up together under the banner of “religion” and then said that, since those things are bad, religion is bad. But that’s like saying that football is bad because a high school football player once shoved me in a locker. The conclusion simply does not follow from the premise. Bethke’s definition of religion is pretty hard to swallow. He calls it “man made” and equates it with rules, regulations and hypocrisy. Now, is it true that religion often involves rules, regulations and hypocrisy? Sure, but that’s true of capitalism, too. So is capitalism bad because a capitalist works to pass rules that discourage monopolies then forms a monopoly himself? No, the problem is not with capitalism but with capitalists. In the same way, the problem isn’t with religion per se, but with religious people; a.k.a people. Religion is really just what we believe to be true about ultimate questions that then affect the way we live.

Here’s a perfect example of Bethke’s logical fallacy: he says that Jesus came to abolish religion. I would love to see a biblical citation for that claim, but of course there isn’t one. Jesus did speak against hypocrisy many times. Much of the 23rd chapter of Matthew recounts his outrage against those make rules requiring what they’re not willing to do themselves. Jesus also threw the merchants out of the temple because they had turned a place of worship into a marketplace (Mat. 21:12-13). He never called these things “religion”, but since Bethke has defined religion as that which is self-serving, rule-driven hypocrisy, he then feels free to say that Jesus came to abolish religion.

Ironically, the closest Jesus ever came to directly addressing what Bethke calls “religion” is found in Mat. 5:17 where we find that Jesus said: I did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. Follow the path: Bethke says that religion equals rules. Jesus came to abolish religion, therefore he came to abolish rules. The Law is full of rules. Therefore, Jesus came to abolish the Law. But of course that’s the opposite of what Jesus said! And of course, Bethke isn’t saying that Jesus came to abolish the Law, but this seems to be the inescapable conclusion of his reasoning.

By failing to understand what religion really is, Bethke’s logical/theological error can set people on the wrong path. There is a growing movement of self-proclaimed Christians today who have distanced themselves from “organized religion”, a.k.a the church. They do their worship in private and prefer a mountain summit to a sanctuary pew. On some level I understand this and I would never say that every church service I attend is as profoundly moving as the spectacle of God’s glory writ large across a distant horizon. But here’s the thing: Jesus, who clearly hated the ways that human beings corrupt religious institutions, insisted that his followers continue to work inside those same institutions. He said that he wanted to “build” his church (Mat. 16:18) and used construction metaphors, clearly depending on pre-existing understandings of religious buildings like the Temple. He gave rules for dealing with conflicts between believers in the church (Mat. 18:17). He collected money in support of his mission (John 12:6, Luke 8:3). Perhaps most importantly, he defined a mission for the church that is unreachable apart from a committed and dedicated body of people working together around the world (Mat. 28:19). All of this says to me that Jesus was just fine with religion.

What Jesus didn’t like was bad religion. Bad religion is what happens when the truths God has revealed to us about who He is and what He wants for us cease to be our guiding principles. Bad religion is what happens when human selfishness and sin are allowed to twist things around until a church that once served God’s purposes now serves man’s. But make no mistake about it: recognizing that this has happened to the Christian religion doesn’t mean that we can just chuck the whole thing and go it alone. It means that we must seek reform and reform always requires that we make sure our own house is in order first.

Again, much of Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus resonates with me. Bethke has rightly pointed out a number of the more glaring failings of the “organized church”. Of course, he’s not the first to do so, which makes one wonder what his point was precisely. But more importantly, he offers very little in the way of a constructive response that will lead to genuine reform. My major concern with this video is that it could easily be taken as an attempt to legitimize an abandonment of something God Himself ordained. And it does so in a way that almost makes it seem like we’d be following in Jesus’ footsteps. But follow Jesus’ footsteps carefully and we find that they lead right into the very place that we’re being called out of by Bethke and others like him. To be fair, he does say at one point in the video that he “loves the church” but I think he means only that he loves the body of Christ’s followers, not the organizations they form. Again, the problem is one of definition: the church is a body, but it is also an organization.

I was both stirred and troubled by Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus. In it I found a call to reform, starting with myself. But I also found in it a lack of careful discernment that ultimately makes genuine reform very difficult to achieve.