The mere reading of the life of Jesus, as we have represented it according to documents which Christians consider inspired, must be sufficient to undeceive every thinking being. But it is the property of superstition to prevent thinking: it benumbs the soul, confounds the reason, perverts the judgment, renders doubtful the most obvious truths, and makes a merit with its slaves of despising inquiry, and of relying on the word of those who govern them. It is not unseasonable, therefore, to offer some reflections which may be useful to those who have not courage to draw out of the preceding inquiry, the consequences which naturally result from it; and thus aid them in forming rational ideas of the Jesus they adore, of his disciples whom they revere, and of books which they are accustomed to regard as sacred.
Our examination of the birth of Jesus ought to render it very suspicious. We have found the Holy Spirit mistaken on that important article of Jesus' life; for he inspired two evangelists with two very different genealogies. Notwith[Pg 184]standing so striking a blunder, and the consanguinity of Mary and Elizabeth wife of the priest Zacharias, we shall not cavil on these points. We shall grant that Mary might really be of the race of David: many examples demonstrate that the branches of races more illustrious have fallen into misery. Departing also from the supposition, that Mary, the immaculate wife of Joseph, may have willingly yielded to the angel; or, simple and devout, may have been deceived by the angel, there is every reason to believe that she afterwards taught her son his descent from David, and perhaps, some marvellous circumstances which, by justifying the mother, might kindle the enthusiasm of the child. Thus Jesus, at a very early age, might be really persuaded of his royal extraction, and of the wonders which had accompanied his birth. These ideas might afterwards inflame his ambition, and lead him to think that he was destined to play a grand part in his native country. Prepossessed with these notions, and intoxicating himself more and more by the perusal of obscure prophecies and traditions, it is very possible, that our adventurer might believe himself actually called by the Divinity, and pointed out by the prophets to be the reformer, the chief, and the messiah of Israel. He was indeed a visionary, and found people silly enough to be caught by his reveries.
Another cause might likewise contribute to heat the brain of our missionary. Some learned men have conjectured with much appearance of truth, that Jesus acquired his morality among a kind of monks or Jewish Coenobites (friars) called Therapeutes or Essenians. We certainly find a striking conformity between what Philo tells us of these pious enthusiasts, and the sublime precepts of Jesus. The Therapeutes abandoned father and mother, wife, children, and property, in order to devote themselves to contemplation. They explained the scripture in a manner purely allegorical; abstained from oaths; lived in common; suffered with resolution the misfortunes of life, and died with joy. It is certain, that, in the time of the historian Josephus, three sects were reckoned[Pg 185] in Judea, the pharisees, sadducees, and the Essenians, or Essenes. From the time of that writer, there is no longer any mention made of the latter; hence some have concluded that these Essenians, or Therapeutes, were afterwards confounded or incorporated with the first Christians, who, according to every evidence, led a manner of life perfectly similar to theirs. From all which it may be concluded, either that Jesus had been a Therapeute before his preaching, or that he had borrowed their doctrines.
Whatever may be in this, in the midst of an ignorant and superstitious nation, perpetually fed with oracles and pompous promises; miserable at that time and discontented with the Roman yoke; continually cajoled with the expectation of a deliverer, who was to restore them with honor, our enthusiast without difficulty found an audience, and, by degrees, adherents. Men are naturally disposed to listen to, and believe those who make them hope for an end to their miseries. Misfortunes render them timorous and credulous, and lead them to superstition. A fanatic easily makes conquests among a wretched people. It is not then wonderful that Jesus should soon acquire partizans, especially among the populace who in every country are easily seduced.
Our hero knew the weakness of his fellow-citizens. They wanted prodigies, and he, in their eyes, performed them. A stupid people, totally strangers to the natural sciences, to medicine, or to the resources of artifice, easily mistook very simple operations for miracles, and attributed effects to the finger of God which might be owing to the knowledge Jesus had acquired during the long interval that preceded his mission. Nothing is more common than the combination of enthusiasm and imposture; the most sincere devotees, when they intend to advance what they believe to be the word of God, often countenance frauds which they style pious. There are but few zealots who do not even think crimes allowable when the interests of religion are concerned. In religion, as at play, one begins with being dupe, and ends with being knave.[Pg 186]
Thus on considering things attentively, and comparing the different accounts of the life of Jesus, we must be persuaded that he was a fanatic, who really thought himself inspired, favored by Heaven, sent to his nation; in short, that he was the messiah, who, to support his divine mission, felt no difficulty to employ such deceptions as were best calculated for a people to whom miracles were absolutely necessary; and whom, without miracles, the most eloquent harangues, the wisest precepts, the most intelligent counsels, and the truest principles could never have convinced. A medley of enthusiasm and juggling constitute the character of Jesus, and it is that of all spiritual adventurers who assume the name of Reformers, or become the chiefs of a sect.
We always find Jesus, during his whole mission, preaching the kingdom of his Father, and supporting his preaching with wonders. At first he spoke in a very reserved manner of his quality of messiah, son of God, and son of David. There was prudence in not giving himself out for such. But he suffered the secret to be revealed by the mouth of the devil, to impose silence on whom he commonly took great care; not, however, until after the devil had spoken in a manner sufficiently intelligible to make an impression on the spectators. So that with the assistance of his possessed, his proselytes, or his convulsionaries, he procured testimonies, which from his own mouth would have been very suspicious, and might have rendered him odious.
Our operator also took care to choose his ground for performing miracles; he constantly refused to operate before those whom he supposed inclined to criticise his wonders. If he sometimes performed them in the synagogues, and in presence of the doctors, it was in the certainty that the less fastidious populace, who believed in his miracles, would take his part, and defend him against the evil designs of the more acute spectators.
The apostles of Jesus appear to have been men of their master's temper—credulous or misled enthusiasts, dexte[Pg 187]rous cheats, or often both together. Jesus, who had skill in men, admitted into his intimate confidence those only in whom he remarked the most submissive credulity or the greatest address. On important occasions, such as the miracle of multiplying the loaves, the transfiguration, &c. we find, as already noticed, that he used always the ministry of Peter, James, and John.
It is easy to conceive that his disciples were attached to him from interest or credulity. The most crafty perceived that their fortune could only be ameliorated under the conduct of a man who knew how to impose on the vulgar, and to make his followers live at the expence of charitable devotees. Fishermen, formerly obliged to subsist by painful and often unsuccessful labour, conceived that it was more advantageous to attach themselves to one who without trouble made them live comfortably. The most credulous expected to make a brilliant fortune, and to fill posts of eminence in the new kingdom their chief intended to establish. It was evidently from earthly or interested motives, and not heavenly, that the apostles attached themselves to Jesus. At the last supper there was a strife amongst them who should be accounted the greatest. "The meanest," as Bishop Parker expressed it, "hoped at least to have been made lord mayor of Capernaum." And even at his ascension the only question his disciples asked, was, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom of Israel?
The hopes and comforts of both vanished on the death of Jesus. The pusillanimous lost courage, but the most able and subtle did not think it necessary to abandon the party. They therefore contrived, as we have seen, the tale of the resurrection, by the aid of which the reputation of their master and their own fortune were secured. It also appears, that the apostles never sincerely believed their master was a God. The Acts incontestibly demonstrate the contrary. The same Simon Peter, who had recognized Jesus for the Son of the living God, declared in his first sermon, that he[Pg 188] was man. "Ye know," says he, "that Jesus of Nazareth was a MAN whom God hath rendered famous among you—Yet ye have crucified him—but God hath raised him up again," &c. This passage proves clearly that the chief of the apostles dared not yet hazard, or was wholly ignorant of the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus, which was afterwards contrived by the self-interest of the clergy and adopted by the foolishness of Christians, whose credulity was never startled by the greatest absurdities. Self-interest and folly have perpetuated this doctrine until our time. By dint of repeating the same tales for so long a period, they have succeeded in making people believe the most ridiculous fables. The religion of the children is always regulated by the fancy of their fathers.
It appears however, that the apostles of Jesus, deprived of the counsels of their master, could not have succeeded if they had not received powerful aid after his death, and selected associates, men more active than themselves, and better calculated for the business. They deliberated together on their common interests; it was then the Holy Spirit descended on them; that is, they considered on the means of earning a subsistence, gaining proselytes, and increasing the number of their adherents, in order to secure themselves against the enterprizes of the priests and grandees of the nation, whom the new sect might have very much displeased. Not satisfied with having put Jesus to death, they had the impudence to persecute his disciples. They engaged Herod to destroy James the brother of Jesus; finally they caused Stephen to be stoned. These priests and doctors did not perceive that persecution is the surest method of spreading fanaticism, and that it always gives importance to the party persecuted.
Accordingly this persecuting spirit, inherent in the clergy, created new partisans to the persecuted sect. Hard treatment, and imprisonment always render sectaries more obstinate, and interesting objects to those who witness their suf[Pg 189]ferings. Tortures excite our pity in behalf of the person who endures them. Every fanatic that is punished is certain of finding credulous friends to aid him, because they persuade themselves it is for truth he is persecuted.
The proceedings instigated by the priests, convinced the new sectaries that it was of the utmost importance to unite their interests. They felt it necessary to avoid quarrels, and every thing which could create division; they in consequence lived in concord and peace.
The apostles, now become heads of the sect, did not neglect their own interests. One of the first faculties with which the Holy Spirit inspired them, was to profit by devout souls, and engage them to place all their property in common. The apostles were the depositaries of these goods, and had under their orders ministers or servants, known by the name of deacons, charged with the distribution of alms. These great saints, it is to be presumed, did not forget themselves in these distributions. It appears also, that the law for this communion of goods, was observed with rigor, as we find, in the Acts of the Apostles, Ananias and Saphira struck dead, on the prayer of Peter, for having had the temerity to retain a portion of their own property: a conduct which would appear as unjust, as barbarous in any other person but an apostle of Jesus. It must however be acknowledged, that the law, which obliged the rich to place their property in common, was very important, not only to the apostles, but for increasing the sect. The poor undoubtedly must have been eager to join a party where the rich engaged to lay the cloth. Hence it is easy to perceive, how this institution might augment the number of the faithful without a miracle.
Of all the adherents the new-born sect acquired, there was none superior to Saul, afterwards known by the name of Paul. The actions and writings ascribed to this Apostle exhibit him as an ambitious, active, intrepid, and opiniative man, full of enthusiasm, and capable of inspiring others with it. Engaged at first in the profession of a tent-maker, he[Pg 190] afterwards attached himself to Gamaliel, a doctor of the law and rendered services to the priests in their persecutions against Christians. Perceiving the utility which a man of Saul's character might be of to the party, the apostles profited by some disgust he had taken to draw him over to their sect. He consented readily conceiving that by his superior talents he might easily succeed in making himself the head of a party, to which he also knew the means of rendering himself necessary. He pretended, therefore, that his conversion was the effect of a miracle, and that God himself had called him. He was baptised at Damascus, joined the apostles at Jerusalem, was admitted a member of their college, and soon gave them proofs of his talents. He commenced preaching Jesus and his resurrection, and labored in gaining souls. His vehement zeal hurried him, without fear or hesitation, into quarrels with the priests, always indignant at the conduct of the apostles; but his persecutions rendered him dearer to his party, of which he became from that time the prime mover.
Often maltreated by the Jews, Paul conjectured that it would be beneficial not to confine himself to them, but that conquests might be made among the heathen. He no doubt knew that mankind resemble each other in all superstitions; that they are every where curious about the marvellous; susceptible of fanaticism, lovers of novelties, and easily deceived. He therefore, sometimes preached to Jews, and sometimes to Gentiles, among whom he succeeded in enlisting a considerable number of recruits.
Jesus, born in the bosom of Judaism, and knowing the attachment of his fellow-citizens to the law of Moses, had always openly declared, that he was come to "accomplish, and not to destroy it." His first apostles were Jews, and showed much attachment to the rites of their religion. They were displeased that Paul their brother would not subject his Gentile proselytes to Judaical usuages. Filled with views more vast than those entertained by the other apostles, he did not wish to disgust his new converts with inconvenient[Pg 191] ceremonies, such as circumcision and abstinence from certain meats. The better to attain his ends, he neglected these usuages, which he considered as trifles, while his brethren regarded them as most essential. The first proselytes or the apostles as we have said, were called Nazarenes or Ebionites, who believed in Jesus without forsaking the law of Moses. They of course regarded Paul as an heretic or apostate. This fact, attested by Origen, Eusebius, and Epiphanius, is important in giving us a distinct idea of primitive Christianity, which we see divided into two sects almost as soon as Paul had embraced it. This new apostle very soon indeed separated from his brethren to preach a doctrine different from theirs, and openly undermined the Judaism which Peter, James, and the other heads of the church persisted in respecting. But as Paul was successful among the Gentiles, his party prevailed: Judaism was entirely proscribed, and Christianity became quite a new religion, of which Judaism had been only the figure. Thus Paul wholly changed the religious system of Jesus, who had merely proposed to reform Judaism. The principal apostles followed the conduct of their master, and showed themselves much attached to the law and usages of their fathers. Paul notwithstanding their protestations, took a different course; he displayed a contempt or indifference for the legal ordinances, to which through policy, however, he sometimes subjected himself. Thus we find he circumcised Timothy, and performed Jewish ceremonies in the temple of Jerusalem.
Not content with decrying the law of Moses, Paul, by his own confession, preached a gospel of his own. He says positively, in his epistle to the Galatians, "That the gospel which I preach is not after men," and that he had received it by a particular revelation of Jesus. He speaks likewise of his quarrels with the other heads of the sect; but his disciple Luke passes over these very slightly in the Acts, which are much more the Acts of Paul than the Acts of the Apostles. It appears evident, that he embroiled himself with his[Pg 192] brethren, the partisans of the circumcision, and the founders of the Nazarenes or Ebionites, who had a gospel different from that of Paul, as they combined the law of Jesus with that of Moses. Irenaeus, Justin, Epiphanius, Eusebius, Theodoret, and Augustine, agree in telling us, that these Ebionites, or converted Jews, regarded Jesus as a "mere man, son of Joseph and Mary, to whom they gave the name of Son of God only on account of his virtues." From this it is evident, that it was Paul who deified Jesus and abolished Judaism. The Paulites, become the strongest, prevailed over the Ebionites, or disciples of the apostles, and regarded them as heretics. Hence we see that it is the religion of Paul, and not of Jesus, which at present subsists.
This altercation of Paul and the apostles of Jesus produced a real schism. Paul left the preaching of the Judaical gospel or circumcision to his brethren whilst he preached his own in Asia Minor and in Greece, sometimes to the Hellenistic Jews, whom he found established there, and sometimes to the idolatrous Greeks, whose language, though unknown to the other apostles, Paul was acquainted with. The success of his mission far surpassed that of his brethren; and if we refer to the Acts of the Apostles, we shall perceive in this new preacher an activity, a warmth, a vehemence, and an enthusiasm well adapted to communicate itself. The missionaries he formed, spread his doctrine to a great distance. The gospel of the apostle of the gentiles prevailed over the gospel of the Judaizing apostles; and in a short time there were a great number of Christians in all the provinces of the Roman empire.
To a miserable people, crushed by tyrants and oppressors of every kind, the principles of the new sect had powerful attractions. Its maxims, which tended to introduce equality and a community of goods, were calculated to entice the unfortunate. Its promises flattered miserable fanatics, to whom was announced the end of a perverse world, the approaching arrival of Jesus, and a kingdom wherein abundance and hap[Pg 193]piness would reign. To be admitted there, they merely required of the proselytes "to believe in Jesus and be baptized." As for the austere maxims of the sect, they were not of a nature to disgust miserables, accustomed to suffering, and the want of the conveniences of life. Its dogmas, few in the beginning, were readily adopted by ignorant men, fond of wonders, whom their own mythology disposed to receive the fables of Christians. Besides, their own priests wrought miracles, which rendered those said to have been performed by Jesus no way improbable in their estimation. Different missionaries, in emulation of one another composed romances or histories of Jesus in which they related a number of prodigies calculated to make their hero be revered, and to interest the veneration of the faithful. In this manner the different collections, known by the name of Gospels, were framed, wherein, along with very simple facts which might have really occurred, we find numerous statements that appear credible only to enthusiasts and fools. These histories, composed from traditions by different hands, and by authors of very different characters, are not in harmony. Hence the want of conformity in the relations of our evangelists, which has been frequently noticed in the course of this work. There were, as we have before remarked, a vast number of gospels in the first ages of the church; and out of these the council of Nice chose only four, to which they gave the divine sanction.
We shall not here examine whether these gospels really belong to the authors to whom they are ascribed. The opinion which attributes them to to their putative writers, might have been founded at first on some tradition, true or false, which existed in the time of the council of Nice, or which the fathers of that council had an interest in sanctioning. It is difficult to persuade ourselves without faith, that the gospel of John, filled with Platonic notions could be composed by the son of Zebedee; by a poor fisherman, who, perhaps, incapable of writing, and even reading, could not be acquainted with the philosophy of Plato. From the com[Pg 194]mencement of christianity there have been many who have denied the authenticity of the gospels. Marcias accused them of being filled with falsehoods. The Alloges and Theodocians rejected the gospel of John, which they regarded as a tissue of lies. Augustin says, that he found in the Platonists the whole beginning of the gospel of John. Origen below informs us, that Celsus reproached Jesus with having taken from Plato his finest maxims, and among others the one which says, that "it is more easy for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to be saved."
Whatever opinion may be formed as to this, we find the mystical and marvellous philosophy of Plato introduced very early into Christianity, which agreed in several respects with the tenets held by the followers of that eminent philosopher; while his perplexed philosophy must also have easily amalgamated with the principles of the new sect. This was the source of Spirituality, Trinity, and the Logos, or Word, besides a multitude of magical and theurgical ceremonies, which in the hands of the priests of Christianity have become mysteries or sacraments. On reading Porphyry, Jamblichus, and particularly Plotinus, we are surprised to hear them speaking so frequently in the same style as our theologists. These marks of resemblance drew several Platonists over to the faith, who figured among the doctors of the church. Of this number were Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, &c. Platonism may indeed be regarded as the source of the principal dogmas and mysteries of the Christian religion.
Those who doubt the truth of this assertion have only to read the works of the disciples of Plato, who were all superstitious persons and Theurgists, whose ideas were analogous to those of Christians. We find, indeed, these writings filled with receipts to make the gods and good genii descend, and to drive away the bad. Tertullian reproaches the heretics of his time with having wandered astray in order to introduce Platonism, Stoicism, and Dialects into Christianity. It wa[Pg 195]s evidently the mixture of the unintelligible doctrine of Plato, with the Dialectics of Aristotle, which rendered theology so senseless, disputable, and fraught with subtleties. The cardinal Pallavicini acknowledges, that "without Aristotle the Christians would have wanted a great number of articles of faith."
The austere and fanatical lives of Christians must also have favorably disposed a great number of Stoics, who were accustomed to make a merit of despising objects desirable to other men, depriving themselves of the comforts of life, and braving affliction and death. We accordingly find among the early Christians a great number of enthusiasts tinctured with these maxims. This fanatical way of thinking was necessary to console the first Christians in the midst of persecutions which they suffered at first from the Jews, and thereafter from the emperors and grandees, incited by the heathen priests. The latter, according to the custom of the priesthood in all countries, made war on a sect which attacked their Gods, and menaced their temples with a general desertion. The universe was weary of the impostures and exactions of these priests, their costly sacrifices and lying oracles. Their knaveries had been frequently unveiled, and the new religion tendered to mankind a worship less expensive and, which, without being addressed so much to the eyes as the worship of idols, was better adapted than its rival to seize the imagination, and to excite enthusiasm.
Christianity was moreover flattering and consolatory to the wretched, while it placed all men on the same level, and thus humbled the rich, it was announced as destined for the poor through preference. Among the Romans, slaves were in some measure excluded from religion; and it might have been said that the gods did not concern themselves with the homage of these degraded beings. The poor, besides, had not wherewith to satisfy the rapacity of Pagan priests, who, like ours, did nothing without money. Thus slaves and miserable persons must have been strongly attached to a sys[Pg 196]tem, which taught that all men are equal in the eyes of the Divinity, and that the wretched have better right to the favors of a suffering and contemned God than those who are temporally happy. The priests of Paganism became uneasy at the rapid progress of the sect. The government was alarmed at the clandestine assemblies which the Christians held. They were believed to be the enemies of the emperors, because they refused to offer sacrifices to the gods of the country for their prosperity. Even the people, ever zealous, believed them enemies of their gods because they would not join in their worship. They treated the Christians as Atheists and impious persons, because they did not conceive what could be the objects of their adoration; and because they took offence at the mysteries, which they saw them celebrating in the greatest secrecy. The Christians, thus loaded with the public hatred, very soon became its victims; they were persecuted; and persecution, as it always happens, rendered them more opiniative. Enthusiasm inflamed their souls; they considered it a glory to resist the efforts of tyrants; they even went so far as to brave their punishments, and concluded with believing that the greatest happiness was to perish under their severities. In this they flattered themselves with resembling the Son of God, and were persuaded, that by dying for his cause they were certain of reigning with him in heaven.
In consequence of these fanatical ideas, so flattering to vanity, martyrdom became an object of ambition to Christians. Independent of the heavenly rewards, which they believed assured to those who suffered with constancy, and perished for religion, they saw them esteemed, revered, and carefully attended to during their lives, while honors almost divine were decreed them after death. On the contrary, those of the Christian community who had the weakness to shrink from tortures, and renounce their religion, were scoffed at, despised, and regarded as infamous. So many circumstances combined contributed to warm the imaginations[Pg 197] of the faithful, already sufficiently agitated by notions of the approaching end of the world, the coming of Jesus, and his happy reign. They submitted cheerfully to punishment, and gloried in their chains: they courted martyrdom as a favor, and often, through a blind zeal, provoked the rage of their persecutors. The magistrates, by their proscriptions and tortures, caused the enthusiasm of the Christians to kindle more and more. Their courage was besides supported by the heads of their sect, who constantly displayed the heavens opening to the heroes who consented to suffer and perish for their cause, which they took care to make the poor fanatics regard as the cause of God himself. A martyr, at all times, is merely the victim of the enthusiastic or knavish priest who has been able to seduce him.
Men are always disgusted with those who use violence; they conclude that they are wrong, and that those against whom they commit violence have reason on their side. Persecution will always make partisans to the cause persecuted; and those to which we allude, tended the more to confirm Christians in their religion. The spectators of their sufferings were interested for them. They were curious to know the principles of a sect which drew on itself such cruel treatment, and infused into its adherents a courage believed to be supernatural. They imagined that such a religion could be no other than the work of God; its partisans appeared extraordinary men, and their enthusiasm became contagious. Violence served only to spread it the more, and, according to the language of a Christian doctor, "the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church."
The clergy would fain make the propagation of Christianity pass for a miracle of divine omnipotence; while it was owing solely to natural causes inherent in the human mind, which always adheres strenuously to its own way of thinking; hardens itself against violence; applauds itself for its pertinacity; admires courage in others; feels an interest for those who display it; and suffers itself to be gained by their[Pg 198] enthusiasm. The learned Dodwell has written two copious dissertations on the martyrs: the one to prove that they were not so numerous as is commonly imagined; and the other to demonstrate that their constancy originated in natural causes. The frenzy of martyrdom was in fact an epidemical disease among the first Christians, to which their spiritual physicians were obliged to apply remedies, as these wretched beings were guilty of suicide. Many of the primitive Christians, says Fleury, instead of flying as the gospel directs, not only ran voluntarily to execution, but provoked their judges to do them that favor. Under Trajan, all the Christians in a city of Asia came in a body to the proconsul, and offered themselves to the slaughter, which made him cry, O! ye unhappy people, if ye have a mind to die, have ye not halters and precipices enough to end your lives, but ye must come here for executioners." Marcus Antoninus severely reflected on the obstinacy of the Christians in thus running headlong to death; and Cyprian labored hard to comfort those who were so unhappy as to escape the crown of martyrdom. Even the enemies of Julian, called the apostate by fanatics, admit that the Christians of his time did every thing they could to provoke that emperor to put them to death. Dr. Hickes, a celebrated protestant divine, says that the Christians "were not illegally persecuted by Julian." Pride, vanity, prejudice, love, patriotism, and even vice itself, produce martyrs—a contempt of every kind of danger. Is it then surprising that enthusiasm and fanaticism, the strongest of passions, have so often enabled men to face the greatest dangers and despise death? Besides, if Christians can boast a catalogue of martyrs, Jews can do the same. The unfortunate Jews, condemned to the flames by the inquisition, were martyrs to their religion; and their fortitude proves as much in their favor as that of the Christians. If martyrs demonstrate the truth of a religion or sect, where are we to look for the true one?
It is thus obvious that the obstinacy of the martyrs, far[Pg 199] from being a sign of the divine protection or of the goodness of their cause, was the effect of blindness, occasioned by the reiterated lessons of their fanatical or deceitful priests. What conduct more extravagant than that of a sovereign able and without effusion of blood to extend his power, who should prefer to do it by the massacre of the most faithful of his subjects? Is it not annihilating the divine wisdom and goodness to assert, that a God to whom every thing is possible, among so many ways which he could have chosen to establish his religion, wished to follow that only of making its dearest friends fall a sacrifice to the fury of its cruellest enemies? Such are the notions which Christianity presents; and it is easy to perceive that they are the necessary consequences of a fundamental absurdity on which that religion is established. It maintains, that a just God had no wish to redeem guilty men, than by making his dear innocent son be put to death. According to such principles, it can excite no surprise that so unreasonable a God should wish to convert the heathen, his enemies, by the murder of Christians, his children. Though these absurdities are believed, such as do not possess the holy blindness of faith cannot comprehend why the Son of God, having already shed his blood for the redemption of men, was not a sufficient sacrifice? and why, to effect the conversion of the world, there was still a necessity for the blood of an immense number of martyrs, whose merits must have been undoubtedly much less than those of Jesus? To resolve these difficulties, theologians refer us to the eternal decrees, the wisdom of which we are not permitted to criticise. This is sending us far back indeed; yet notwithstanding the solidity of the answer, the incredulous persist in saying, that their limited understandings can neither find justice, nor wisdom, nor goodness, in eternal decrees which could in so preposterous a manner effect the salvation of the human race.
Persecutions were not the only means by which Christianity was propagated. The preachers, zealous for the salvation of souls, or rather desirous to extend their own power over[Pg 200] the minds of men, and strengthen their party, inherited from the Jews the passion of making proselytes. This passion suited presumptuous fanatics, who were persuaded, that they alone possessed the divine favor. It was unknown to the heathen, who permitted every one to adore his gods, providing that his worship did not disturb the public tranquillity. Prompted by zeal, the Christian missionaries, notwithstanding persecutions and dangers, spread themselves with an ardour unparalleled wherever they could penetrate, in order to convert idolators and bring back strayed sheep to the fold of Jesus. This activity merited the recompense of great success. Men, whom their idolatrous priests neglected, were flattered at being courted, and becoming the objects of the cares of those who, through pure disinterestedness, came from afar, and through the greatest perils to bring them consolation. They listened favourably to them; they shewed kindness to men so obliging, and were enchanted with their doctrine. Many adopted their lessons; placed themselves under their guidance, and soon became persuaded that their God and dogmas were superior to those which had preceded them.
Thus by degrees, and without a miracle, Christianity planted colonies, more or less considerable, in every part of the Roman empire. They were directed, and governed by inspectors, overseers, or bishops, who, in spite of the dangers with which they were menaced, labored obstinately, and without intermission in augmenting the number of their disciples that is, of slaves devoted to their holy will. Empire over opinions was always the most unbounded. As nothing has greater power over the minds of the vulgar than religion, Christians every where displayed an unlimited submission to their spiritual sovereign, on whose laws they believed their eternal happiness depended. Thus our missionaries, converted into bishops, exercised a spiritual magistracy and sacred jurisdiction, which in the end placed them not only above other priests, but made them respected by, and necessary to, the temporal power. Princes have always employed religion[Pg 201] and its ministers in crushing the people, and keeping them under the yoke. Impostures and delusions are of no use to sovereigns who govern, but they are very useful to those who tyrannize.