Some people have made the claim that the Bible teaches socialism, and the proper biblical view is that of some sort of socialist economic or governmental system. For example, writer Obrey Hendricks, Jr. has made a strong claim to this regard (see here).
Since this is a claim to the Bible, we can speak of it here. Before we respond, we need to be very clear in that the Bible does not promote one type of government or national economic system for the nations of the world. Whether a country is a monarchy, fully communist, a republic like the United States, or some other form of government, the Bible simply does not command that people hold one type of leadership structure for a nation. In ancient Israel, God commanded the leaders run the country a certain way. However, He made no commands upon any gentile nation, therefore we cannot hold that one type of government is more biblical than another.
In economic systems, such as socialism or capitalism, the Bible gives us more guidance. As we will see, the scriptures have a good bit to say about money and people. However, we again must be careful to go no further than scripture, and recognize that many of the competing economic theories are matters of degree and the Bible does not completely command one or the other. A call for charity in these discussions is in order.
For our purposes, we will hold to a definition of socialism as a central authority gathering resources, voluntarily or involuntarily, and distributing them for the common good. We contrast that to a system that allows more individual control of resources. Does the Bible promote one of these views over the other?
The supposed purpose of socialism is to have a distribution of wealth that is fair, especially to the poor. The Bible has quite a bit to say about taking care of the poor.
In the Old Testament, God has many passages that commanded Israel to take care of the poor, namely:
Besides these, there are many Old Testament passages where God tells us His heart is with the poor and oppressed.
Again in the New Testament, the Bible tells us that those who have the means are to give to the poor, to reach out to the poor, and not trust in riches.
On the other hand, God expects the poor to have responsibilities for what they get. This is clear from many passages;
Perhaps most telling is the way that giving is to happen. Throughout the Bible, Old Testament and New, while people were told to take care of the poor, it was the individual persons who were to take care of the poor. Nowhere does God give a command for a central government to collect money and resources then distribute them out to others in an attempt to create fairness. The primary giving is by individuals; the taking care of the poor is an individual responsibility. Nowhere is a government told to gather resources and give it out to increase fairness.
The one place in the Bible where a central government gathered all resources and distributed them was when Joseph was running Egypt in Genesis 47:20-21. The result was not a utopia, but rather the leader owned everything and reduced the people to servitude. It seems that the one example of gathering resources and distributing them out again did stave off starvation, but at the cost of impoverishing the entire nation.
One New Testament passage gives instructions to church leaders on how to collect money and take care of the poor. In 1 Timothy 5:3-16, Paul goes into a good bit of detail on how the church should distribute money to help the poor. In speaking of helping widows, several qualifications are given:
These detailed instructions are telling. Yes, the Bible teaches that we should take care of the poor, but the New Testament church is specifically not to give money to people merely because they are poor. Rather, they must be of good character and truly in need. Giving money to people merely because they have no income can “teach them to be idle” (v.13) and burden the community coffers, preventing the truly needy people from getting enough.
The Bible teaches a strong view of personal property. In Acts 5:1, a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, sold a piece of property and gave the money to the church. God judged them because they lied about how much money they made from the sale. In 5:4, Peter says “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” Therefore it is not the case the church or central government had the responsibility of gathering resources and redistributing them.
The Bible also makes it clear that while praising Jesus and doing good works to the poor are not mutually exclusive, praising Jesus is more important to us than good works toward people (Mark 14:7)
The Bible makes it clear that being poor per se brings no righteousness nor reward (1 Corinthians 13:3).
Finally, while Jesus did heal everyone, these were signs that spoke of His credibility (John 6:2). Jesus healed everyone as a sign of His messiahship. Apart from these miraculous signs, God never healed everyone (see 2 Corinthians 12:9). God Himself sometimes used sickness as a judgement (1 Cor. 11:30). Several of the people near Paul remained sick, including Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:26-27), Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20), and Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23).
The vast majority of the passages in the Bible that speak of helping the poor and oppressed are commands to the individual. The central church is to give to the poor, but with several restrictions. Nowhere is a central government told to bring in resources and distribute out to increase fairness. Private property is always under the control of the individual, who is responsible to God for how it is handled. The poor, when they meet the test of truly needy, should be helped, but it is their responsibility to work. Nowhere in the Bible does it say for a government to take care of people’s debts.
Further, the primary place to take care of people is the family. In both Old Testament and New, the person’s immediate family has the responsibility to take care of their needs. This is why the family unit is so important, and breakup of the family is so detrimental to society. Families are critical to the neediest of society, and when the family breaks up or is redefined, the poor are the ones who suffer.
We can safely conclude that the Bible does not share the goals of socialism, even what is today called democratic socialism. It speaks nothing to universal healthcare run by a central authority, but rather commands individuals to take care of each other’s needs, using compassion and wisdom. The Bible does not command everyone be given a minimum income, but rather commands all to work and the family to take care of people’s needs.
God’s model is for all of us to have compassion on the poor, and therefore the common coffers will have enough resources to take care of the truly needy.
In the first century, the Romans had a Jew named Josephus to write a history of the Jewish people and the wars that took place in Israel. Josephus’ book Antiquities of the Jews mentions Jesus twice. The first is brief and merely says that Jesus, who is called Christ, was the brother of James (Ant. Ant. XX.IX.1) The second is lengthier and in some dispute. It appears to us as follows:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day. (Ant. XVIII.III.3)
This passage is debated at length and good discussion on it can be found elsewhere. A good and fair treatment can be found in The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ by Gary Habermas (1996, College Press, Joplin, MO, 192-196). Habermas discusses the questions with the passage and gives support for the original passage mentioning Jesus, although admitting some sections are in legitimate question. Habermas states:
There are good indications that the majority of the text is genuine. There is no textual evidence against it, and, conversely, there is very good manuscript evidence for this statement about Jesus, thus making it difficult to ignore. Additionally, leading scholars ont he works of Josephus have testified that this portion is written in the style of this Jewish historian. (192)
Habermas reviews the scholars who have dealt with this passage, as have others. Therefore we will not repeat that here; Christian apologists have dealt with it at some length. For our immediate purpose, we can say for the sake of argument that the passage is in dispute.
It is problematic for the atheist or skeptic to dismiss the Bible outright due to a questionable passage such as this. Atheists throw around criticisms denying that Josephus mentions Jesus, apparently concluding that they can dismiss the historicity of the Bible in the process. A more extensive reading of both the Bible and Josephus reveals a rather solid corroboration about historical details. The list below provides a series of facts presented in both the Bible and Josephus. It is a rather extensive list, with conclusions to follow.
One might nitpick about the importance of a few of the items in this list. We could counter with the fact that some of them involve multiple facts, and the list is not an exhaustive examination of Josephus. This list will nevertheless suffice to say that the Bible has a rather extensive corroboration in Josephus. We can stand on firm ground in saying that the Bible has a good historical corroboration in a major first century work written by a non-Christian who had no motivation other than documenting history. The burden of proof is on the skeptic to deny the general historical accuracy, and the specifics listed here provide a solid list of support for the particular historical accuracy of the Bible.
We can add to this the list of other sources that historians show corroborate the facts in the Bible. In The Historical Jesus, Habermas quotes over 40 sources outside the Bible that support several hundred facts inside the Bible, and recreates almost the entire gospel account from sources outside the Bible. Some of the sources are hostile to the Christians, providing especially strong evidence, since they have no motivation to help Christianity or Christians.
Particularly relevant is the fact that sprinkled within the many corroborated facts are miracle accounts, words of Jesus, and teachings of prophets claiming to speak for God Himself. A fair reading must conclude that the statements sprinkled within the history must be taken at face value, at leas without preconceived conclusions that it is a historical novel or invented out of whole cloth. The two mentions of Jesus, that he existed and was called the Christ, are therefore given support.
We therefore conclude what the Bible presents as true, namely that it was written by eyewitnesses to the events it presents.
In a podcast (transcript here), William Lane Craig says the following:
Dr. Craig: . . . If God is in time then there are tensed truths. That is to say, there are propositions which have verbs in them that are in the past, present, future, and other tenses. And therefore these propositions change their truth values as time goes on. For example, it was once true that Columbus will discover the New World. A little later it was then true that Columbus is discovering the New World, and as time passed it became true and is now true that Columbus discovered the New World—past tense. So what this means is that if there are these objectively tensed truths that change their truth values from going from false to true, then God, in virtue of being omniscient and knowing all truths, will come to acquire new beliefs—he will learn new truths, namely, as the proposition “Columbus discovered America” switches from having the value false to having the value true, this now will come to be believed and hence known by God. And so a God who is in time will have a knowledge that is constantly changing, he will have a knowledge that is constantly growing, we could say learning new things, as new propositions become true. So far from entailing his non-omniscience, God’s omniscience would actually entail that his knowledge will be changing and constantly being added to as new truths come into being.
[Interviewer]: Some people may be thinking that you’re saying that God didn’t know that Columbus, for sure, would discover America and he came to know that when he goes, “Oh, look!”
Dr. Craig: No, no, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that before the event God knew the future tensed proposition “Columbus will discover America” but he didn’t know the proposition “Columbus discovered America” because that was false at that time. That was false at that time. So that proposition switches truth value once Columbus has made his discovery—it goes from being false to being true, and since God is omniscient (and omniscient means knowing and believing only and all truths) God must come to believe that proposition now. And he will no longer believe the proposition “Columbus will discover America” because that proposition has now become false. It used to be true but it isn’t any longer, so God won’t believe it anymore.
So, you see, God does learn new tensed truths all the time, because he is omniscient.
Craig and the interviewer go on to claim that “people need to get past third grade Sunday school theology.” apparently claiming that the view that disagrees with them is elementary and naive.
Here we must disagree with Craig, for his mistake leads to a very serious error. Craig makes a mistake by not being precise with his truth statements. Using his example, Columbus discovered the new world in 1492. In 1491, the statement “Columbus discovered the new world” (past tense) is false, while in 1493 the statement would be true. However, he is incorrect in saying that the statement made in 1491 changes from false to true, for it is true for all people in all time that the statement made in 1491 “Columbus discovered the new world” is false. The statement was false in 1491 because it was made in 1491, but it is still false for all times that the statement “Columbus discovered the new world” was false in 1491. Likewise, it is true for all people and all times that in 1493 “Columbus discovered the new world” is true. The point Craig was making is that the truth statement changed, when in fact it was merely an imprecise example statement. Using the tensed statement “Columbus discovered the new world” is only meaningful made in time, and when moved to another time either becomes a different statement or becomes imprecise and unknowable. More correctly, we would have to say something like “As of today, Columbus discovered the new world.” We would then have to ask “when is today?” and we would know whether it was true or false. Regardless of when “today” was, the statement would be either true or false for all times. Making a statement with tensed verb apart from a point in time is merely an imprecise example. Again, apart from a time reference, a past tense statement is not meaningful. “In 1492, Columbus discovered the new world” is a past tense statement with a time referent, which has meaning,
This imprecise view of truth leads Craig to hold to the position that God can be omniscient and still learning. To his credit, he does hold that God is not surprised by things, so in that sense Craig holds that God knows all things. However, this is a tortured view of omniscience, saying that God is constantly learning new truths but always knowing all truths, as Craig says in two sentences above.
Rather, holding that God truly does know all truths and does not learn is not a “third grade Sunday school theology.” These statements are unfair, unjustified, and uncalled for. In but one example, the great theologian Charles Hodge says of God’s knowledge:
This distinction between the possible and actual, is the foundation of the distinction between the knowledge of simple intelligence and the knowledge of vision. The former is founded on God’s power, and the latter upon his will. This only means that, in virtue of his omniscient intelligence, He knows whatever infinite power can effect; and that from the consciousness of his own purposes, He knows what He has determined to effect or to permit to occur. (ST, 1.398)
Thus all of God’s knowledge is included in what He has determined to effect or permit to occur, which scripture tells us He knew from the beginning, prior to any earthly human action. If we include the possible and the actual in God’s knowledge, we have included all states of affairs, therefore God is omniscient in the fullest sense of the word. If God’s knowledge changes in any way, it must result in God being limited in some sense, whether it be knowledge or power. This is a serious error.
If God did not exist, what would be the impact on morality? For the answer, let’s look to those who say that the only things that exist are natural forces:
Morality is a biological adaptation no less than our hands and feet and teeth…Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” they think they are referring above and beyond themselves…Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction…and any deeper meaning is illusory.” – Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse
Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends.
Ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. –M. Ruse and E. Wilson, The Evolution of Ethics (1989)
Evolutionary biology tells us there are no purposeful principles in nature . . .There are no inherent moral or ethical laws . . .Human beings are marvelously complex machines. –atheist William Provine
Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. –Sam Harris, Free Will, p.5
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the
properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. ” –Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden, page 33.
This last quote is most telling. Dawkins, a committed atheist, clearly holds that there is no evil and no good. Clear to the bottom, the universe is blind pitiless indifference. He repeated these words while speaking at an atheist rally in Washington DC. Dawkins clearly holds that there is no moral code that permeates the universe.
Yet in that same short speech in Washington, Dawkins proceeded to call religion evil. His books are replete with justifications of why he believes religion to be a bad thing. So it would seem that Dawkins gives himself away, informing us in one breath that there is no moral code, then in the next breath telling us how he has grounds to measure us by a moral code that applies to all men.
In reality, all of us have a moral code that we measure each other by. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis clearly points out that we do indeed all believe in a moral law that transcends all of us. We clearly make a distinction between the man who tries to trip me and fails and the man who succeeds to trip me by accident. If, as William Provine says, we are but machines, we should hold machines just as morally culpable as we do people. But we do not. When a power saw cuts a finger, we do not hold the saw morally responsible. Why?
Well, because there is a moral law, an ethical code that we all know is there. Men are not machines, but are morally responsible for how we act compared to the moral law that is larger than any civilization or group of civilizations on earth. Moral laws require a moral lawgiver. This we call God.
This is an excellent talk by Dr. James Tour, who is a top-tier scientist in his field. He manages to make this both understandable for those not academics in biology and challenging for those who are. I encourage you to listen to his talk.
The king of skeptics, David Hume, taught that we cannot be certain of even common things that happen around us. He claimed that even when one billiard ball hits another, we cannot be sure that the first caused the movement in the second. But even Hume once said “I never asserted so absurd a proposition as to say that something should arise without a cause.”