Karl Marx (1818-1883) famously derided religion as a myth. He described it as an opiate which people take to help them cope with oppression and social injustice. At the root of society’s problem was the existence of private property. The possession of property placed the owners in a class distinct from those who lacked property – the Bourgeois versus the Proletariat. And this had always resulted in a conflict between both classes. The solution, therefore, is to abolish this thing called ‘private property’ and the animosity would vanish. In view of this, Marx offered the vision of a classless society devoid of private property. All mankind would eventually work together to build a better world where there is neither lack nor surplus.
However, as the experience of several decades later would show, he only succeeded in replacing a ‘myth’ with another myth. The communist ideal actually produces in the societies that adopt it two classes: the dictator and his subjects. It replaces the supposed oppression of the capitalists with the tyranny of the despot, bringing along a sack-load of torture, misery, and fear. Far from being a solution, the attempt to abolish class only worsens the problem.
So, we need to look more closely at the ‘myth’ he attempted to replace.
There is little doubt that religion can indeed be (and often is) no more than an opiate for many. It relieves them from the harshness of their present lives. In fact, many scholars argue that this is why people believe in God in the first place. They desire someone who will resolve all the problems and inequities in human life and identify this being as ‘God’.
This is a distortion of religion, however. True religion, as the apostle wrote, is to care for widows and orphans in their affliction (James 1:27). Far from being an escape from the problems of life, true religion (which is biblical Christianity) is a confrontation with the problems of life.
The Christian religion, when correctly understood, believed and practised, does not lead to oppression (whether via class, race, or gender). This is because it is centred on love: God’s loving us and we loving our neighbours without regard to their status or position. The central symbols of the Christian faith are the cross and the empty tomb. We find the holy God who created all things, man inclusive, stripping down to take up our human nature with all its limitations and entering into our world with all its miseries. And he took upon himself all that was evil in our world (pain, misery, death), destroying them on the cross. Furthermore, he rose from the dead to herald the restoration of all things, a task to be fully consummated in the future when Christ returns.
So we see that religion, true religion, is not escapist but transformative. God loves his world, broken though it is, and came to renew it. When he entered into our universe, he held the hand of the weak, cured the pain of the wounded, healed the disease of the leper, and wiped away the tears of the sorrowful. And he calls to all who follow him to follow in his steps.
Contrary to Marx, the problem with our world goes beyond class or private property; it reaches much deeper. It stems from the condition of the human heart. In the words of Charles Colson, “The world is not divided into white hats and black hats; it is not divided into good people and evil people. Rather, good and evil coexist in every human heart.” And it takes religion, true religion, to deal with it.
Christ did not abolish class because he knew that was not the problem. Neither did he condemn private property, for both concepts are parts of God’s good creation which have merely been distorted by sin. Renewal, and not elimination, is what our world needs.
False theories of salvation, like Marxism, will attribute the human problem to some aspect of God’s creation (such as class, money, sex, etc) and seek to eliminate that thing. The biblical Gospel, which is synonymous with true religion, correctly sees that all creation is corrupt and in need of redemption. And this is what God has both accomplished and is working out through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.