The 19th-century German philosopher, Karl Marx, had a famous quote about religion: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Wikipedia offers some context for this quote.)
But, as I’ve been reading a book by Gary Thomas called Sacred Marriage, he counters Marx’s assertion head-on.
Marx called religion “an opiate” for the people. Yet Marx had it exactly backwards, at least as far as his words pertain to Christianity. Opium deadens the senses; Christianity makes them come alive.
Marx was convinced that religion gave people “false hope” which enabled them stoically to endure suffering in this life in order to enjoy a better afterlife made up by the ruling class to keep them in line. While the political aspect of this is not addressed by Gary Thomas, the emotional opiate is strongly rejected. Thomas continues:
Our faith can infuse a deadened or crippled marriage with meaning, purpose, and (in what we so graciously receive from God) fulfillment. Christianity doesn’t leave us in an apathetic supor – it raises us and our relationships from the dead! It pours zest and strength and purpose into an otherwise wasted life.
Marx made a mistake that many people continue to make about Christianity to this day. They unfortunately perceive Christianity to be a religion that squashes emotion and pleasure, downplaying happiness and exalting in suffering. As with most misunderstandings, there are truths amidst these confusions. The Gospel does indeed exalt suffering, and proclaim the way of salvation to be found through suffering. But we do not proclaim masochism, despite the fact that some Saints did actively pursue suffering to draw near to God. Rather, we proclaim a religion of ultimate bliss! An entire book in the Bible is dedicated to the celebration of love, with unashamed marital imagery. It simultaneously celebrates the love of husband and wife, and displays the unbridled passion that God has for us, his creation.
What’s more, the bliss of Christianity is not entirely relegated to a spiritual afterlife. First of all, the afterlife we commonly call heaven is not purely spiritual, but physical. We preach a physical bodily resurrection into a New Heaven and a New Earth. The physical pleasures of eating, drinking, hugging, and whatever else, will continue into eternity. Because of this, we can also find eternal meaning in all things good and beautiful in this life. Knowing that God created things for our enjoyment, and knowing that the perfect unending love of God is the greatest joy of all, we are able to enjoy earthly pleasures as foretastes of the eternal pleasures in the life to come.
Suffering comes into the picture quite easily, according to this framework. There are times in this life, inevitably, when we experience crappy situations. Illness, death, persecution, mockery, relationship troubles, stumblings into sin – the list could go on. But because we have our eyes fixed on the eternal bliss of the life to come, we can endure present sufferings with that hope in mind, even if present pleasures are denied us.
At the end of the day, Christianity is about marriage. This picture here is a depiction of the End of the World, when God marries his creation – when Christ marries the Church. A successful and healthy marriage takes a lot of preparation and work. Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it isn’t. That’s why Christians aren’t (supposed to be) too upset one way or another when life brings pleasure or suffering. As St. Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:11b-12).
So, as Gary Thomas pointed out, Karl Marx got it wrong. Christianity is not meant to be like opium to get us through a painful life. Rather, ours is a religion that invigorates us, or, more literally, fills us with new life which not only prepares for eternity through suffering, but anticipates eternity through joy.