Empirical Religiosity

We are exploring what God’s providence means.  In the last bog, we began to notice that God’s providence seems to be rather arbitrary—Christians claim God manipulates events on this world to help improve their lives but we have seen God does not always help those in need.  Why?

Richard Fletcher in his book The Barbarian Conversion notes that the early Church had to contend with the pagan cult’s belief of what is called empirical religiosity which is the idea that proper religion “brings tangible rewards in this present world . . . such as health, prosperity, success, or fame”. [1]  However, the Church had similar beliefs as is evidenced by Bishop Nicetius in his 565 AD letter to the granddaughter of the king Clovis in which he attributes Clovis’ military victories to his conversion to Christianity. [2]

Christians in the present day have the same belief.  They use all the good things they enjoy as evidence that God cares for them.  If God cares for everyone in the entire world, why does he give a minority of the world’s population a majority of the world’s goods?  What about Christians in concentration camps in North Korea or imprisoned in China?  Does God think the need for the luxuries we enjoy is greater than the need of food and medical attention of those Christians who are starving to death or who are being tortured?    If God is able to provide luxuries for certain Christians, why cannot he provide the essential requirements of life to other Christians?

Christians base their belief of God’s involvement in our lives on certain passages of the Bible which seem to indicate God has promised to provide for our material needs.  For example, in Matthew 6:25-34 Jesus instructs us not to worry about clothes or food because God provides for the animals and plant life on this world.  Philippians 4:19 tells us God will supply all our needs.  Has God committed himself to always provide the necessities of life for us?  In 1850, Allen Gardiner and six companions started a Christian mission on the island of Tierra del Fuego.   Their provision ship failed to arrive and all seven died of starvation.  A diary left by Gardiner gave evidence he continued to praise God throughout this whole ordeal. [3]  How do we reconcile the experience of these seven individuals with the passages in Matthew and Philippians?  God could have multiplied their food like he did for the widow who fed Elijah (I Kings 17) or like Jesus who made a few loaves and fishes feed thousands.  Or God could have arranged for the supply ship to arrive on time.  Why did not God do so?

Christians give God the credit for the good that comes into their lives.  The problem with attributing the good to God is that God then becomes responsible for the evil that happens to us as well.  Rev. Franklin Loeher supported World War II and was criticized for it by his pacifist fellow pastors.  During this time, he was injured in a plane crash.  One of his fellow pastors stated it was proof God disapproved of his non-pacifist ways and was punishing him for it. [4]  If God controls events in our world, he obviously brought this plane crash into Rev. Loeher’s life.  How do we know God was not punishing Rev. Loeher for his views?


[1]   Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion (New York:  Henry Holt and Company, 1997, p. 6.

[2]  Ibid., pp. 105-106.

[3]   Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (New York:  Penguin Books, 1964), pp. 320-321.

[4]   Rev. Franklin Loehr, The Power of Prayer on Plants (New York:  Signet Books, 1959), p. 29.

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