Is Christianity a Body-Hating Worldview?

Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion[1] is probably the most well known, or notorious, of the populist atheist manifestos that have emerged recently. Another book, which is less well known in the Anglophone world, is Michel Onfray’s grandiosely titled, In Defence of Atheism: the Case against Christianity, Judaism and Islam.[2] It too has the same purpose as Dawkins’ text: an energetic denunciation of monotheism on scientific, philosophical, historical and moral grounds.

Leggatt, Onfray’s translator, has done well to capture Onfray’s aggressive eloquence and the kaleidoscopic dazzle of his erudition, but style and scope of knowledge cannot conceal the weaknesses within his case. One such weakness is the inaccurate assertion that Christianity is a worldview that promulgates a hatred for the physical body and bodily pleasure as sinfully impure. It is certainly true that some Christian teaching has erroneously taught a contemptuous attitude for the body, but a scrupulous exegesis of the Old and New Testaments reveals that Christianity has and ought to esteem the human body and the innocent sensory pleasures associated with it.

Onfray identifies the source of Christianity’s harsh asceticism in Paul’s theologised self-hatred: "His [Paul’s] hatred of self turned into a vigorous hatred of the world and all its concerns: life, love, desire, pleasure, sensations, body, flesh, joy, freedom, independence, autonomy."[3] For Onfray, "Paul’s pen drips ad nauseam a hatred, a contempt, a permanent mistrust for the things of the body".[4] 1 Corinthians 9:27, where Paul describes pummelling his body to enslave it, is presented as evidence of the apostle’s body-hating masochism.[5] The notion that to detest the body is a life-denying philosophy is strongly Nietzschean in flavour and therefore it is no surprise that Onfray’s text is prefaced with an introductory quotation from Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo where the concept of God is impugned as "the antithesis of life".[6]

How can the Christian apologist refute Onfray’s contention? First, it is important to concede for the sake of truth that within historical Christianity there has been an unfortunate and unnecessary form of extreme ascetism founded on a hatred and suspicion of the body. For example, during the high and late Middle Ages, Western Christianity’s St Bartholomew of Farne’s maxim provided the rationale for the soma sema doctrine: "We must inflict our body with all kinds of adversity if we want to deliver it to perfect purity of soul."[7] The body was sin’s instrument and therefore had to be rigorously tamed to defeat temptation. St Francis of Assisi, the Christian saint normally regarded as a model of Christian gentleness taught hatred of the body for its sinful ways. The most common methods of controlling the body were self-flagellation, fasting and sleep deprivation. Consequently, St Dominic would beat himself three times a night: once for his own sins, once for the sins of the world, and once for the sins of those in purgatory.

Such radical practices, however, are not the teachings of Scripture. On the contrary, the Bible celebrates the value of the body as God’s creation and as an integral part of a unified concept of human being. In the first account of creation in Genesis, humanity is described in exalted terms as being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).[8] In its second account of creation, Genesis 2:7 describes God as forming "the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life..."[9] The description of humanity physically being formed from the dust does not give support either to those religious ones who denigrate the body or to those quasi-Nietzscheans and hedonists who accuse Christianity of doing so. The writer of Genesis denies such an attitude is possible, for God’s conclusion regarding all that he has made, which includes the human body, is that it is "very good" (Genesis 1:31).[10] Robert P. Vande Kappelle and John D. Currid provide an explanation that synthesises the seeming antithesis between human beings as created in the image of God and yet physically of the dust.[11] As the image bearer of the divine, humanity is set apart from the rest of creation through a unique relationship with God; however, God is set apart from his creation and humanity is reminded that it is part of the created order. Vande Kappelle and Currid conclude that "There is a unity in man both of God-likeness and creatureliness, in which he remains a finite and dependent creature even in the highest spiritual dimension of his existence and may reveal elements of the image of God even in the lowliest aspects of his nature."[12] Therefore, the body, though made of dust, is a part of the created order that is divinely created and divinely approved.

Though from the dust of the earth, the wonder of the human body, as God creates it within the womb, is celebrated by Psalm 139 verse 14: "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well."[13] The narrator of Genesis surely notes with approval the physical beauty of Rebecca and Joseph (Genesis 24:16; 39:6-7).[14] Athleticism is prophesied as a blessing from God on the tribe of Joseph by Jacob before he dies (Genesis 49:24).[15]

The Bible is not a puritanical document that forbids sensory pleasure

The Bible is not a puritanical document that forbids sensory pleasure. Psalm 23 displays a remarkable sensitivity to visual, auditory and tactile satisfaction through its description of lying down in "green pastures" and walking besides "quiet waters" (v. 2).[16] Christ enjoyed dinner parties and was even accused, though unfairly, of being "a glutton and a drunkard" (Luke 7:34).[17] He was questioned as to why his disciples continued to eat and drink when John the Baptist’s disciples fasted and prayed (Matthew 9:14-16; Mark 2:18-22; Luke 5:33-39 and Luke 7:36).[18] Christ’s first recorded miracle in John’s Gospel was the miraculous provision of excellent wine at a wedding (John 2:1-11).[19] A resurrected Christ shared a delicious breakfast of baked fish and fresh bread with his disciples (John 21:9-15). After celebrating the Last Supper, Christ and his disciples enjoyed singing a hymn (Matthew 26:30).[20] If the Scripture prohibits certain pleasures, it does so in order to protect humanity from sin which is not pleasant ultimately in any way, even if it feels pleasant in the short-term. Proverbs 2:10-22 warns of the painful consequences of adultery which significantly outweigh the moment of illicit enjoyment.[21]

The body’s reproductive function is not regarded as a source of shame within the Scriptures, but as a proper, normal and healthy physical expression. God removed the social stigma of barrenness experienced by Sarah, Rachel, the anonymous mother of Samson, Hannah and Elizabeth by giving them children (Genesis 21:1-2; 30:22-24; Judges 13:24; 1 Samuel 1:20 and Luke 1:23-25).[22] Fecundity is regarded as a divine blessing and children are a reward from God (Psalm 128:3; Psalm 127:3).[23] Sexual pleasure is an unashamedly prominent theme in the Song of Songs, for example, the beloved’s breasts are represented as "two fawns" and the lover’s legs are compared to "pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold" (Song of Songs 4:5; 5:15).[24]

Paul, whom Onfray carelessly describes as a self-loathing body-hater, establishes his theology of marriage precisely on the assumption that people rightly love their own bodies. Husbands are enjoined by Paul to love their wives as they love their own bodies on the reasonably generalised assumption that no one ever hated his or her body, but feeds and cares for it (Ephesians 5:28-29).[25] Paul develops his theological theme of body-love in an incarnational direction that has considerable significance to our task of refuting Onfray’s accusation. Paul states "we are members of his body" (Ephesians 5:30).[26] The body referred to here in this verse is Christ’s body. Paul explores in greater detail this theme of Christ’s body being the church when he describes the way in which each part of the church, like each part of the body, are interdependent (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).[27]

It is the doctrines of incarnation and Christ’s bodily resurrection that provide the most powerful refutation of Onfray’s case, for if it were the divine purpose to hold the body in contempt and the mistreatment of the body were a sign of righteousness, it is difficult to understand why Christ would clothe himself in human form and be resurrected bodily. Though the miracle of the incarnation remains a mystery as acknowledged by the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451),[28] the Bible teaches clearly that the Word, Jesus, clothed himself in flesh and lived as a human being among human beings (John 1:14).[29] As an anticipation of God the Son’s embodiment, one sees within the Old Testament anthropomorphic presentations of God using body parts as poetic images of divine action within the finite world. For example, when Moses desires to witness the glory of God, God promises to do the following: "When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen" (Exodus 33:22, 23).[30] For our purposes it is not important as to whether God literally at that moment has hands, a back and a face, or whether he is speaking analogously to Moses in a way he can understand. What is significant is that God is not ashamed to be described in human bodily terms.

With regards to the accounts of Christ’s resurrection, one has a story of an unashamedly physical resurrection and not only a spiritual one. Ben Witherington III asks what resurrection is in his historical study of the New Testament.[31] His sensible conclusion from his study of the Gospels is that all four accounts emphasise the materiality of Christ’s resurrection. His evidence includes the record of the women clasping Christ’s feet and worshipping him and Christ’s denial that he was a ghost, but one with flesh and bones (Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:39).[32] The fact that Christ ate breakfast with his disciples after his resurrection has already been described in this article. It is important to add that the believers’ resurrection too will be a bodily one (1 Corinthians 15:35-58).[33]

Whence therefore comes the loathing of the body which a minority of Christians have unfortunately espoused, much against the better judgement and teachings of the Bible? Vande Kappelle and Currid opine that Platonist dualism’s enduring influence on Christian anthropological philosophy may have been to blame.[34] For Plato, the human being consists of two natures: the soul and the body. The body is the tomb or prison of the soul from which the soul is liberated at death to contemplate endlessly the Eternal Forms. However, Hebrew anthropology founded on the Old Testament teaches that humans are a unity with the body as one with the soul.

it is by the Spirit of God that dwells in believers that Paul sees the means of living in a holy manner and not self-flagellation and life threatening fasts

The purification rituals for the body as prescribed by Leviticus 15:1-32 may partly be to blame as they are to some extent difficult to understand from a contemporary perspective as they appear to suggest that normal bodily functions such as the emission of semen, menstruation and childbirth are unclean. Certainly Onfray is indignant at the biblical declaration that a menstruating woman is unclean.[35] The difficulty of interpretation is made more challenging when one considers that Leviticus 15 does not provide a justification for its ritualistic requirements.[36] A number of points may be said, however, in reply. First, Leviticus 15 provides the purification measures required to deal with not only normal discharges, but abnormal discharges that threaten the health of the individual and his or her community. Second, as Brueggeman helpfully notes, the chapter cannot be interpreted as misogynistic alone as it is concerned with the ritual purification of the male body also.[37] Third, why cannot the purification rituals be taken to be the means of restoring dignity and health to the body rather than emanating from an anti-physical theology premised on the assumption that the body in esse is impure? Finally, Matthew Henry’s colossal commentary on Scripture provides this important reminder to view the Old Testament through the lens of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ: "Let us bless God that we are not under the yoke of these carnal ordinances, that, as nothing can destroy us, so nothing can defile us, but sin."[38]

One further consideration: Paul’s description of how he beat his body into submission as referred to earlier is easily misinterpreted. Indeed, Onfray’s highly selective and subjective use of the text is typical of much of New Atheism’s – and Old Atheism’s – casual approach to textual exegesis which is not as straightforward a task as it appears.[39] First, it is a transgression of exegetical rules to attempt to establish a doctrine or axiom of praxis on the basis of one or a handful of verses. The whole counsel of not only Paul, but of both the Old and New Testament, needs careful consideration before any conclusion can be drawn. This article has provided sufficient examples, and certainly not exhaustively, of how the Bible reveals God’s high regard for the body which prevents any simple conclusion that Paul is advocating a masochistically body-hating lifestyle as Onfray so strongly wishes us to conclude. Exegetes properly consider verses in context also. The context of 1 Corinthians 9:17 can be found in noting who the audience of Paul’s epistle is and reading the surrounding verses. Paul is writing to Gentiles in a Greek city called Corinth. Part of his audience’s cultural reference is organised sport as Corinth hosted the biennial Isthmian Games. Paul therefore uses sporting images that would have been vivid in their imaginations.[40] His technique is metaphorically to compare the self-discipline required of the Christian to live a life worthy of God’s reward to the self-discipline of a runner and a boxer training for the Games. When Paul describes beating his body, he is speaking metaphorically, not literally, of the forceful self-discipline required in subduing his sinful tendencies in order to live a moral lifestyle. Most significantly, it is by the Spirit of God that dwells in believers that Paul sees the means of living in a holy manner and not self-flagellation and life threatening fasts (Romans 8:1-11).[41]

Onfray and other’s arraignment of Christianity as a body hating, pleasure-despising form of faith is thus found wanting. The overwhelming evidence of Scripture reveals a coherent anthropology that regards human beings whose bodies are God’s valuable creation, whose features and functions are a marvel and whose sinless sensory pleasures are to be enjoyed and not despised. Though we are made of the dust of the earth, our beings, which include our bodies, bear the image of God. The incarnation and bodily resurrection of God the Son provides the most powerful rebuttal of the belief that God wishes us to despise the human body. Therefore, if Onfray has any argument with any point of view, it must be with Platonic dualism’s disdain for the physical and the deviant exegesis of Scripture by radical ascetics whose practices say more about their individual psychologies than any true Christian anthropology.


[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (London: Black Swan, 2007).
[2] Michel Onfray, In Defence of Atheism: the Case Against Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Jeremy Leggatt (trans.) (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007).
[3] Onfray, In Defence of Atheism, p.135.
[4] Ibid., p.133.
[5] Ibid., p.136.
[6] Ibid., p.v.
[7] (last accessed 9th August 2011).
[8] Philip Yancey (ed.), The Student Bible with Concordance, NIV Version (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), p.5.
[9] Yancey (ed.), The Student Bible with Concordance, p.6.
[10] Ibid., p.5.
[11] Robert P. Vande Kappelle and John D. Currid, The Old Testament: The Covenant Between God and Man in W. Andrew Hoffecker (ed.) and Gary Scott Smith (associate ed.), Building a Christian World View (Phillipsberg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1986), p.21.
[12] Vande Kappelle and Currid use ‘man’ and ‘he’ as generic terms for humanity, however, it is preferable to use the words ‘humans’ or ‘humanity’ and ‘they’ to avoid the suggestion of male supremacy.
[13] Yancey, op. cit., p.536.
[14] Ibid., pp.23 and 38.
[15] Ibid., p.48.
[16] Ibid., p.478.
[17] Ibid., p.895.
[18] Ibid., pp.840, 866, 893 and 895.
[19] Ibid., p.919.
[20] Ibid., p.858.
[21] Ibid., p.544.
[22] Ibid., pp.20, 30, 218, 232 and 886.
[23] Ibid., p.532.
[24] Ibid., pp.582-583.
[25] Ibid., p.1027.
[26] Ibid., p.1027.
[27] Ibid., pp.1000-1002.
[28] For a representative selection of theological writings regarding Christ’s incarnation, the reader is advised to consult the chapter ‘The Person of Christ’ in Alister McGrath’s The Christian Theology Reader, 3rd edition (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), pp.263-340.
[29] Yancey, op. cit., p.918.
[30] Ibid., p. 80.
[31] Ben Witherington III, New Testament History: A Narrative Account (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001), p.161.
[32] Witherington III, New Testament History, p.165.
[33] Yancey, op. cit., p.1004.
[34] Vande Kappelle and Currid, op. cit., p.21.
[35] Onfray, op. cit., pp.102-103.
[36] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p.70.
[37] Brueggemman, An Introduction to the Old Testament, p.70.
[38] Matthew Henry and Leslie F. Church (ed.), Commentary On the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961), p.128.
[39] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 2nd edition (Bletchley: Scripture Union, 1993), p.45. For an exposure of how Dawkins makes fundamental and embarrassing errors in his treatment of Scripture, see Alister McGrath and Joanna Collicutt McGrath, The Dawkins Delusion: Atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine (London: SPCK, 2007) pp.57-59. For Christopher Hitchens’ carelessly ignorant and refuted assertion that the Samaritan spoken of in the parable of the same name was probably a Jew, see Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson, Is Christianity Good for the World? (Moscow: Canon Press, 2009), pp.36, 38 and 51.
[40] John Barclay, 1 Corinthians in John Barton and John Muddiman (eds.), The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: OUP, 2001), p.1123.
[41] Yancey, op. cit., pp.983-984.

© 2012 Peter Harris