An Examination of the Holy Scriptures, of the Nature of the Christian Religion, and of the Proofs upon which Christianity is founded.
You have seen, Madam, in my preceding letter, the incompatible and contradictory ideas which this religion gives us of the Deity. You will have seen that the revelation which is announced to us, instead of being the offspring of his goodness and tenderness for the human race, is really only a proof of injustice and partiality, of which a God who is equally just and good would be entirely incapable. Let us now examine whether the ideas suggested to us by these books, containing the divine oracles, are more rational, more consistent, or more conformable to the divine perfections. Let us see whether the statements related in the Bible, whether the commands prescribed to us in the name of God himself, are really worthy of God, and display to us the characters of infinite wisdom, goodness, power, and justice.
These inspired books go back to the origin of the world. Moses, the confidant, the interpreter, the historian of the Deity, makes us (if we may use such an expression) witnesses of the formation of the universe. He tells us that the Eternal, tired of his inaction, one fine day took it into his head to create a world that was necessary to his glory. To effect this, he forms matter out of nothing; a pure spirit produces a substance which has no affinity to himself; although this God fills all space with his immensity, yet still he found room enough in it to admit the universe, as well as all the material bodies contained therein.
These, at least, are the ideas which divines wish us to form respecting the creation, if such a thing were possible as that of possessing a clear idea of a pure spirit producing matter. But this discussion is throwing us into metaphysical researches, which I wish to avoid. It will be sufficient to you that you may console yourself for not being able to comprehend it, seeing that the most profound thinkers, who talk about the creation or the eduction of the world from nothing, have no ideas on the subject more precise than those which you form to yourself. As soon, Madam, as you take the trouble to reflect thereon, you will find that divines, instead of explaining things, have done nothing but invent words, in order to render them dubious, and to confound all our natural conceptions.
I will not, however, tire you by a fastidious display of the blunders which fill the narrative of Moses, which they announce to us as being dictated by the Deity. If we read it with a little attention, we shall perceive in every page philosophical and astronomical errors, unpardonable in an inspired author, and such as we should consider ridiculous in any man, who, in the most superficial manner, should have studied and contemplated nature.
You will find, for example, light created before the sun, although this star is visibly the source of light which communicates itself to our globe. You will find the evening and the morning established before the formation of this same sun, whose presence alone produces day, whose absence produces night, and whose different aspects constitute morning and evening. You will there find that the moon is spoken of as a body possessing its own light, in a similar manner as the sun possesses it, although this planet is a dark body, and receives its light from the sun. These ignorant blunders are sufficient to show you that the Deity who revealed himself to Moses was quite unacquainted with the nature of those substances which he had created out of nothing, and that you at present possess more information respecting them than was once possessed by the Creator of the world.
I am not ignorant that our divines have an answer always ready to those difficulties which would attack their divine science, and place their knowledge far below that of Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and even below that of young people who have scarcely studied the first elements of natural philosophy. They will tell us that God, in order to render himself intelligible to the savage and ignorant Jews, spoke in conformity to their imperfect notions, in the false and incorrect language of the vulgar. We must not be imposed upon by this solution, which our doctors regard as triumphant, and which they so frequently employ when it becomes necessary to justify the Bible against the ignorance and vulgarities contained therein. We answer them, that a God who knows every thing, and can perform every thing, might by a single word have rectified the false notions of the people he wished to enlighten, and enabled them to know the nature of bodies more perfectly than the most able men who have since appeared. If it be replied that revelation is not intended to render men learned, but to make them pious, I answer that revelation was not sent to establish false notions; that it would be unworthy of God to borrow the language of falsehood and ignorance; that the knowledge of nature, so far from being an injury to piety, is, by the avowal of divines, the most proper study to display the greatness of God. They tell us that religion would be unmovable, were it conformable to true knowledge; that we should have no objections to make to the recital of Moses, nor to the philosophy of the Holy Scriptures, if we found nothing but what was continually confirmed by experience, astronomy, and the demonstrations of geometry.
To maintain a contrary opinion, and to say that God is pleased in confounding the knowledge of men and in rendering it useless, is to pretend that he is pleased with making us ignorant and changeable, and that he condemns the progress of the human mind, although we ought to suppose him the author of it. To pretend that God was obliged in the Scriptures to conform himself to the language of men, is to pretend that he withdrew his assistance from those he wished to enlighten, and that he was unable of rendering them susceptible of comprehending the language of truth. This is an observation not to be lost sight of in the examination of revelation, where we find in each page that God expresses himself in a manner quite unworthy of the Deity. Could not an omnipotent God, instead of degrading himself, instead of condescending to speak the language of ignorance, so far enlighten them as to make them understand a language more true, more noble, and more conformable to the ideas which are given us of the Deity? An experienced master by degrees enables his scholars to understand what he wishes to teach them, and a God ought to be able to communicate to them immediately all the knowledge he intended to give them.
However, according to Genesis, God, after creating the world, produced man from the dust of the earth. In the mean while we are assured that he created him in his own image; but what was the image of God? How could man, who is at least partly material, represent a pure spirit, which excludes all matter?
How could his imperfect mind be formed on the model of a mind possessing all perfection, like that which we suppose in the Creator of the universe? What resemblance, what proportion, what affinity could there be between a finite mind united to a body, and the infinite spirit of the Creator? These, doubtless, are great difficulties; hitherto it has been thought impossible to decide them; and they will probably for a long time employ the minds of those who strive to understand the incomprehensible meaning of a book which God provided for our instruction.
But why did God create man? Because he wished to people the universe with intelligent beings, who would render him homage, who should witness his wonders, who should glorify him, who should meditate and contemplate his works, and merit his favors by their submission to his laws.
Here we behold man becoming necessary to the dignity of his God, who without him would live without being glorified, who would receive no homage, and who would be the melancholy Sovereign of an empire without subjects—a condition not suited to his vanity. I think it useless to remark to you what little conformity we find between those ideas and such as are given us of a self-sufficient being, who, without the assistance of any other, is supremely happy. All the characters in which the Bible portrays the Deity are always borrowed from man, or from a proud monarch; and we every where find that instead of having made man after his own image, it is man that has always made God after the image of himself, that has conferred on him his own way of thinking, his own virtues, and his own vices.
But did this man whom the Deity has created for his glory faithfully fulfil the wishes of his Creator? This subject that he has just acquired—will he be obedient? will he render homage to his power? will he execute his will? He has done nothing of the kind. Scarcely is he created when he becomes rebellious to the orders of his Sovereign; he eats a forbidden fruit which God has placed in his way in order to tempt him, and by this act draws the divine wrath not only on himself, but on all his posterity. Thus it is that he annihilates at one blow the great projects of the Omnipotent, who had no sooner made man for his glory than he becomes offended with that conduct which he ought to have foreseen.
Here he finds himself obliged to change his projects with regard to mankind; he becomes their enemy, and condemns them and the whole of the race (who had not yet the power of sinning) to innumerable penalties, to cruel calamities, and to death! What do I say? To punishments which death itself shall not terminate! Thus God, who wished to be glorified, is not glorified; he seems to have created man only to offend him, that he might afterwards punish the offender.
In this recital, which is founded on the Bible, can you recognize, Madam, an omnipotent God, whose orders are always accomplished, and whose projects are all necessarily executed? In a God who tempts us, or who permits us to be tempted, do you behold a being of beneficence and sincerity? In a God who punishes the being he has tempted, or subjected to temptation, do you perceive any equity? In a God who extends his vengeance even to those who have not sinned, do you behold any shadow of justice? In a God who is irritated at what he knew must necessarily happen, can you imagine any foresight? In the rigorous punishments by which this God is destined to avenge himself of his feeble creatures, both in this world and the next, can you perceive the least appearance of goodness?
It is, however, this history, or rather this fable, on which is founded the whole edifice of the Christian religion.
If the first man had not been disobedient, the human race had not been the object of the divine wrath, and would have had no need of a Redeemer. If this God, who knows all things, foresees all things, and possesses all power, had prevented or foreseen the fault of Adam, it would not have been necessary for God to sacrifice his own innocent Son to appease his fury. Mankind, for whom he created the universe, would then have been always happy; they would not have incurred the displeasure of that Deity who demanded their adoration. In a word, if this apple had not been imprudently eaten by Adam and his spouse, mankind would not have suffered so much misery, man would have enjoyed without interruption the immortal happiness to which God had destined him, and the views of Providence towards his creatures would not have been frustrated.
It would be useless to make reflections on notions so whimsical, so contrary to the wisdom, the power, and the justice of the Deity. It is doing quite enough to compare the different objects which the Bible presents to us, to perceive their inutility, absurdities, and contradictions. We there see, continually, a wise God conducting himself like a madman. He defeats his own projects that he may afterwards repair them, repents of what he has done, acts as if he had foreseen nothing, and is forced to permit proceedings which his omnipotence could not prevent. In the writings revealed by this God, he appears occupied only in blackening his own character, degrading himself, vilifying himself, even in the eyes of men whom he would excite to worship him and pay him homage; overturning and confounding the minds of those whom he had designed to enlighten. What has just been said might suffice to undeceive us with respect to a book which would pass better as being intended to destroy the idea of a Deity, than as one containing the oracles dictated and revealed by him. Nothing but a heap of absurdities could possibly result from principles so false and irrational; nevertheless, let us take another glance at the principal objects which this divine work continually offers to our consideration. Let us pass on to the Deluge. The holy books tell us, that in spite of the will of the Almighty, the whole human race, who had already been punished by infirmities, accidents, and death, continued to give themselves up to the most unaccountable depravity. God becomes irritated, and repents having created them. Doubtless he could not have foreseen this depravity; yet, rather than change the wicked disposition of their hearts, which he holds in his own hands, he performs the most surprising, the most impossible of miracles. He at once drowns all the inhabitants, with the exception of some favorites, whom he destines to re-people the earth with a chosen race, that will render themselves more agreeable to their God. But does the Almighty succeed in this new project? The chosen race, saved from the waters of the deluge, on the wreck of the earth's destruction, begin again to offend the Sovereign of nature, abandon themselves to new crimes, give themselves up to idolatry, and forgetting the recent effects of celestial vengeance, seem intent only on provoking heaven by their wickedness. In order to provide a remedy, God chooses for his favorite the idolater Abraham. To him he discovers himself; he orders him to renounce the worship of his fathers, and embrace a new religion. To guarantee this covenant, the Sovereign of nature prescribes a melancholy, ridiculous, and whimsical ceremony, to the observance of which a God of wisdom attaches his favors. The posterity of this chosen man are consequently to enjoy, for everlasting, the greatest advantages; they will always be the most partial objects of tenderness, with the Almighty; they will be happier than all other nations, whom the Deity will abandon to occupy himself only for them.
These solemn promises, however, have not prevented the race of Abraham from becoming the slaves of a vile nation, that was detested by the Eternal; his dear friends experienced the most cruel treatment on the part of the Egyptians. God could not guarantee them from the misfortune that had befallen them; but in order to free them again, he raised up to them a liberator, a chief, who performed the most astonishing miracles. At the voice of Moses all nature is confounded; God employs him to declare his will; yet he who could create and annihilate the world could not subdue Pharaoh. The obstinacy of this prince defeats, in ten successive trials, the divine omnipotence, of which Moses is the depositary. After having vainly attempted to overcome a monarch whose heart God had been pleased to harden, God has recourse to the most ordinary method of rescuing his people; he tells them to run off, after having first counselled them to rob the Egyptians. The fugitives are pursued; but God, who protects these robbers, orders the sea to swallow up the miserable people who had the temerity to run after their property.
The Deity would, doubtless, have reason to be satisfied with the conduct of a people that he had just delivered by such a great number of miracles. Alas! neither Moses nor the Almighty could succeed in persuading this obstinate people to abandon the false gods of that country where they had been so miserable; they preferred them to the living God who had just saved them. All the miracles which the Eternal was daily performing in favor of Israel could not overcome their stubbornness, which was still more inconceivable and wonderful than the greatest miracles. These wonders, which are now extolled as convincing proofs of the divine mission of Moses, were by the confession of this same Moses, who has himself transmitted us the accounts, incapable of convincing the people who were witnesses of them, and never produced the good effects which the Deity proposed to himself in performing them.
The credulity, the obstinacy, the continual depravity of the Jews, Madam, are the most indubitable proofs of the falsity of the miracles of Moses, as well as those of all his successors, to whom the Scriptures attribute a supernatural power. If, in the face of these facts, it be pretended that these miracles are attested, we shall be compelled, at least, to agree that, according to the Bible account, they have been entirely useless, that the Deity has been constantly baffled in all his projects, and that he could never make of the Hebrews a people submissive to his will.
We find, however, God continues obstinately employed to render his people worthy of him; he does not lose sight of them for a moment; he sacrifices whole nations to them, and sanctions their rapine, violence, treason, murder, and usurpation. In a word, he permits them to do any thing to obtain his ends. He is continually sending them chiefs, prophets, and wonderful men, who try in vain to bring them to their duty. The whole history of the Old Testament displays nothing but the vain efforts of God to vanquish the obstinacy of his people. To succeed in this, he employs kindnesses, miracles, and severity. Sometimes he delivers up to them whole nations, to be hated, pillaged, and exterminated; at other times he permits these same nations to exercise over his favorite people the greatest of cruelties. He delivers them into the hands of their enemies, who are likewise the enemies of God himself. Idolatrous nations become masters of the Jews, who are left to feel the insults, the contempt, and the most unheard-of severities, and are sometimes compelled to sacrifice to idols, and to violate the law of their God. The race of Abraham becomes the prey of impious nations. The Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans make them successively undergo the most cruel treatment and suffer the most bloody outrages, and God even permits his temple to be polluted in order to punish the Jews.
To terminate, at length, the troubles of his cherished people, the pure Spirit that created the universe sends his own Son. It is said that he had already been announced by his prophets, though this was certainly done in a manner admirably adapted to prevent his being known on his arrival. This Son of God becomes a man through his kindness for the Jews, whom he came to liberate, to enlighten, and to render the most happy of mortals. Being clothed with divine omnipotence, he performs the most astonishing miracles, which do not, however, convince the Jews. He can do every thing but convert them. Instead of converting and liberating the Jews, he is himself compelled, notwithstanding all his miracles, to undergo the most infamous of punishments, and to terminate his life like a common malefactor. God is condemned to death by the people he came to save. The Eternal hardened and blinded those among whom he sent his own Son; he did not foresee that this Son would be rejected. What do I say? He managed matters in such a way as not to be recognized, and took such steps that his favorite people derived no benefit from the coming of the Messiah. In a word, the Deity seems to have taken the greatest care that his projects, so favorable to the Jews, should be nullified and rendered unprofitable!
When we expostulate against a conduct so strange and so unworthy of the Deity, we are told it was necessary for every thing to take place in such a manner, for the accomplishment of prophecies which had announced that the Messiah should be disowned, rejected, and put to death. But why did God, who knows all, and who foresaw the fate of his dear Son, form the project of sending him among the Jews, to whom he must have known that his mission would be useless? Would it not have been easier neither to announce him nor send him? Would it not have been more conformable to divine omnipotence to spare himself the trouble of so many miracles, so many prophecies, so much useless labor, so much wrath, and so many sufferings to his own Son, by giving at once to the human race that degree of perfection he intended for them?
We are told it was necessary that the Deity should have a victim; that to repair the fault of the first man, no expedient would be sufficient but the death of another God; that the only God of the universe could not be appeased but by the blood of his own Son. I reply, in the first place, that God had only to prevent the first man from committing a fault; that this would have spared him much chagrin and sorrow, and saved the life of his dear Son. I reply, likewise, that man is incapable of offending God unless God either permitted it or consented to it. I shall not examine how it is possible for God to have a Son, who, being as much a God as himself, can be subject to death. I reply, also, that it is impossible to perceive such a grave fault and sin in taking an apple, and that we can find very little proportion between the crime committed against the Deity by eating an apple and his Son's death.
I know well enough I shall be told that these are all mysteries; but I, in my turn, shall reply, that mysteries are imposing words, imagined by men who know not how to get themselves out of the labyrinth into which their false reasonings and senseless principles have once plunged them.
Be this as it may, we are assured that the Messiah, or the deliverer of the Jews, had been clearly predicted and described by the prophecies contained in the Old Testament. In this case, I demand why the Jews have disowned this wonderful man, this God whom God sent to them. They answer me, that the incredulity of the Jews was likewise predicted, and that divers inspired writers had announced the death of the Son of God. To which I reply, that a sensible God ought not to have sent him under such circumstances, that an omnipotent God ought to have adopted measures more efficacious and certain to bring his people into the way in which he wished them to go. If he wished not to convert and liberate the Jews, it was quite useless to send his Son among them, and thereby expose him to a death that was both certain and foreseen.
They will not fail to tell me, that in the end the divine patience became tired of the excesses of the Jews; that the immutable God, who had sworn an eternal alliance with the race of Abraham, wished at length to break the treaty, which he had, however, assured them should last forever. It is pretended that God had determined to reject the Hebrew nation, in order to adopt the Gentiles, whom he had hated and despised nearly four thousand years. I reply, that this discourse is very little conformable to the ideas we ought to have of a God who changes not, whose mercy is infinite, and whose goodness is inexhaustible. I shall tell them, that in this case the Messiah announced by the Jewish prophets was destined for the Jews, and that he ought to have been their liberator, instead of destroying their worship and their religion. If it be possible to unravel any thing in these obscure, enigmatical, and symbolical oracles of the prophets of Judea, as we find them in the Bible,—if there be any means of guessing the meaning of the obscure riddles, which have been decorated with the pompous name of prophecies, we shall perceive that the inspired writers, when they are in a good humor, always promised the Jews a man that will redress their grievances, restore the kingdom of Judah, and not one that should destroy the religion of Moses. If it were for the Gentiles that the Messiah should come, he is no longer the Messiah promised to the Jews and announced by their prophets. If Jesus be the Messiah of the Jews, he could not be the destroyer of their nation.
Should I be told that Jesus himself declared that he came to fulfil the law of Moses, and not to abolish it, I ask why Christians do not observe the law of the Jews?
Thus, in whatever light we regard Jesus Christ, we perceive that he could not be the man whom the prophets have predicted, since it is evident that he came only to destroy the religion of the Jews, which, though instituted by God himself, had nevertheless become disagreeable to him. If this inconstant God, who was wearied with the worship of the Jews, had at length repented of his injustice towards the Gentiles, it was to them that he ought to have sent his Son. By acting in this way he would at least have saved his old friends from a frightful deicide, which he forced them to commit, because they were not able to recognize the God he sent amongst them. Besides, the Jews were very pardonable in not acknowledging their expected Messiah in an artisan of Galilee, who was destitute of all the characteristics which the prophets had related, and during whose lifetime his fellow-citizens were neither liberated nor happy.
We are told that he performed miracles. He healed the sick, caused the lame to walk, gave sight to the blind, and raised the dead. At length he accomplished his own resurrection. It might be so believed; yet he has visibly failed in that miracle for which alone he came upon earth. He was never able either to persuade or to convert the Jews, who witnessed all the daily wonders that he performed. Notwithstanding those prodigies, they placed him ignominiously on the cross. In spite of his divine power, he was incapable of escaping punishment. He wished to die, to render the Jews culpable, and to have the pleasure of rising again the third day, in order to confound the ingratitude and obstinacy of his fellow-citizens. What is the result? Did his fellow-citizens concede to this great miracle, and have they at length acknowledged him? Far from it; they never saw him. The Son of God, who arose from the dead in secrecy, showed himself only to his adherents. They alone pretend to have conversed with him; they alone have furnished us with the particulars of his life and miracles; and yet by such suspicious testimony they wish to convince us of the divinity of his mission eighteen hundred years after the event, although he could not convince his contemporaries, the Jews.
We are then told that many Jews have been converted to Jesus Christ; that after his death many others were converted; that the witnesses of the life and miracles of the Son of God have sealed their testimony with their blood; that men will not die to attest falsehood; that by a visible effect of the divine power, the people of a great part of the earth have adopted Christianity, and still persist in the belief of this divine religion.
In all this I perceive nothing like a miracle. I see nothing but what is conformable to the ordinary progress of the human mind. An enthusiast, a dexterous impostor, a crafty juggler, can easily find adherents in a stupid, ignorant, and superstitious populace. These followers, captivated by counsels, or seduced by promises, consent to quit a painful and laborious life, to follow a man who gives them to understand that he will make them fishers of men; that is to say, he will enable them to subsist by his cunning tricks, at the expense of the multitude who are always credulous. The juggler, with the assistance of his remedies, can perform cures which seem miraculous to ignorant spectators. These simple creatures immediately regard him as a supernatural being. He adopts this opinion himself, and confirms the high notions which his partisans have formed respecting him. He feels himself interested in maintaining this opinion among his sectaries, and finds out the secret of exciting their enthusiasm. To accomplish this point, our empiric becomes a preacher; he makes use of riddles, obscure sentences, and parables to the multitude, that always admire what they do not understand. To render himself more agreeable to the people, he declaims among poor, ignorant, foolish men, against the rich, the great, the learned; but above all, against the priests, who in all ages have been avaricious, imperious, uncharitable, and burdensome to the people. If these discourses be eagerly received among the vulgar, who are always morose, envious, and jealous, they displease all those who see themselves the objects of the invective and satire of the popular preacher.
They consequently wish to check his progress, they lay snares for him, they seek to surprise him in a fault, in order that they may unmask him and have their revenge. By dint of imposture, he outwits them; yet, in consequence of his miracles and illusions, he at length discovers himself. He is then seized and punished, and none of his adherents abide by him, except a few idiots, that nothing can undeceive; none but partisans, accustomed to lead with him a life of idleness; none but dexterous knaves, who wish to continue their impositions on the public, by deceptions similar to those of their old master, by obscure, unconnected, confused, and fanatical harangues, and by declamations against magistrates and priests. These, who have the power in their own hands, finish by persecuting them, imprisoning them, flogging them, chastising them, and putting them to death. Poor wretches, habituated to poverty, undergo all these sufferings with a fortitude which we frequently meet with in malefactors. In some we find their courage fortified by the zeal of fanaticism. This fortitude surprises, agitates, excites pity, and irritates the spectators against those who torment men whose constancy makes them looked upon as being innocent, who, it is supposed, may possibly be right, and for whom compassion likewise interests itself. It is thus that enthusiasm is propagated, and that persecution always augments the number of the partisans of those who are persecuted.
I shall leave to you, Madam, the trouble of applying the history of our juggler, and his adherents, to that of the founder, the apostles, and the martyrs of the Christian religion.
With whatever art they have written the life of Jesus Christ, which we hold only from his apostles, or their disciples, it furnishes a sufficiency of materials on which to found our conjectures. I shall only observe to you, that the Jewish nation was remarkable for its credulity; that the companions of Jesus were chosen from among the dregs of the people; that Jesus always gave a preference to the populace, with whom he wished, undoubtedly, to form a rampart against the priests; and that, at last, Jesus was seized immediately after the most splendid of his miracles. We see him put to death immediately after the resurrection of Lazarus, which, even according to the gospel account, bears the most evident characters of fraud, which are visible to every one who examines it without prejudice.
I imagine, Madam, that what I have just stated will suffice to show you what opinion you ought to entertain respecting the founder of Christianity and his first sectaries. These have been either dupes or fanatics, who permitted themselves to be seduced by deceptions, and by discourses conformable to their desires, or by dexterous impostors, who knew how to make the best of the tricks of their old master, to whom they have become such able successors. In this way did they establish a religion which enabled them to live at the people's expense, and which still maintains in abundance those we pay, at such a high rate, for transmitting from father to son the fables, visions, and wonders which were born and nursed in Judea. The propagation of the Christian faith, and the constancy of their martyrs, have nothing surprising in them. The people flock after all those that show them wonders, and receive without reasoning on it every thing that is told them. They transmit to their children the tales they have heard related, and by degrees these opinions are adopted by kings, by the great, and even by the learned.
As for the martyrs, their constancy has nothing supernatural in it. The first Christians, as well as all new sectaries, were treated, by the Jews and pagans, as disturbers of the public peace. They were already sufficiently intoxicated with the fanaticism with which their religion inspired them, and were persuaded that God held himself in readiness to crown them, and to receive them into his eternal dwelling. In a word, seeing the heavens opened, and being convinced that the end of the world was approaching, it is not surprising that they had courage to set punishment at defiance, to endure it with constancy, and to despise death. To these motives, founded on their religious opinions, many others were added, which are always of such a nature as to operate strongly upon the minds of men. Those who, as Christians, were imprisoned and ill-treated on account of their faith, were visited, consoled, encouraged, honored, and loaded with kindnesses by their brethren, who took care of and succored them during their detention, and who almost adored them after their death. Those, on the other hand, who displayed weakness, were despised and detested, and when they gave way to repentance, they were compelled to undergo a rigorous penitence, which lasted as long as they lived. Thus were the most powerful motives united to inspire the martyrs with courage; and this courage has nothing more supernatural about it than that which determines us daily to encounter the most perilous dangers, through the fear of dishonoring ourselves in the eyes of our fellow-citizens. Cowardice would expose us to infamy all the rest of our days. There is nothing miraculous in the constancy of a man to whom an offer is made, on the one hand, of eternal happiness and the highest honors, and who, on the other hand, sees himself menaced with hatred, contempt, and the most lasting regret.
You perceive, then, Madam, that nothing can be easier than to overthrow the proofs by which Christian doctors establish the revelation which they pretend is so well authenticated. Miracles, martyrs, and prophecies prove nothing.
Were all the wonders true that are related in the Old and New Testament, they would afford no proof in favor of divine omnipotence, but, on the contrary, would prove the inability under which the Deity has continually labored, of convincing mankind of the truths he wished to announce to them. On the other hand, supposing these miracles to have produced all the effects which the Deity had a right to expect from them, we have no longer any reason to believe them, except on the tradition and recitals of others, which are often suspicious, faulty, and exaggerated. The miracles of Moses are attested only by Moses, or by Jewish writers interested in making them believed by the people they wished to govern. The miracles of Jesus are attested only by his disciples, who sought to obtain adherents, in relating to a credulous people prodigies to which they pretended to have been witnesses, or which some of them, perhaps, believed they had really seen. All those who deceive mankind are not always cheats; they are frequently deceived by those who are knaves in reality. Besides, I believe I have sufficiently proved, that miracles are repugnant to the essence of an immutable God, as well as to his wisdom, which will not permit him to alter the wise laws he has himself established. In short, miracles are useless, since those related in Scripture have not produced the effects which God expected from them.
The proof of the Christian religion taken from prophecy has no better foundation. Whoever will examine without prejudice these oracles pretended to be divine will find only an ambiguous, unintelligible, absurd, and unconnected jargon, entirely unworthy of a God who intended to display his prescience, and to instruct his people with regard to future events. There does not exist in the Holy Scriptures a single prophecy sufficiently precise to be literally applied to Jesus Christ. To convince yourself of this truth, ask the most learned of our doctors which are the formal prophecies wherein they have the happiness to discover the Messiah. You will then perceive that it is only by the aid of forced explanations, figures, parables, and mystical interpretations, by which they are enabled to bring forward any thing sensible and applicable to the god-made-man whom they tell us to adore. It would seem as if the Deity had made predictions only that we might understand nothing about them.
In these equivocal oracles, whose meaning it is impossible to penetrate, we find nothing but the language of intoxication, fanaticism, and delirium. When we fancy we have found something intelligible, it is easy to perceive that the prophets intended to speak of events that took place in their own age, or of personages who had preceded them. It is thus that our doctors apply gratuitously to Christ prophecies or rather narratives of what happened respecting David, Solomon, Cyrus, &c.
We imagine we see the chastisement of the Jewish people announced in recitals where it is evident the only matter in question was the Babylonish captivity. In this event, so long prior to Jesus Christ, they have imagined finding a prediction of the dispersion of the Jews, supposed to be a visible punishment for their deicide, and which they now wish to pass off as an indubitable proof of the truth of Christianity.
It is not, then, astonishing that the ancient and modern Jews do not see in the prophets what our doctors teach us, and what they themselves imagine they have seen. Jesus himself has not been more happy in his predictions than his predecessors. In the gospel he announces to his disciples in the most formal manner the destruction of the world and the last judgment, as events that were at hand, and which must take place before the existing generation had passed away. Yet the world still endures, and appears in no danger of finishing. It is true, our doctors pretend that, in the prediction of Jesus Christ, he spoke of the ruin of Jerusalem by Vespasian and Titus; but none but those who have not read the gospel would submit to such a change, or satisfy themselves with such an evasion. Besides, in adopting it we must confess at least that the Son of God himself was unable to prophesy with greater precision than his obscure predecessors.
Indeed, at every page of these sacred books, which we are assured were inspired by God himself, this God seems to have made a revelation only to conceal himself. He does not speak but to be misunderstood. He announces his oracles in such a way only that we can neither comprehend them nor make any application of them. He performs miracles only to make unbelievers. He manifests himself to mankind only to stupefy their judgment and bewilder the reason he has bestowed on them. The Bible continually represents God to us as a seducer, an enticer, a suspicious tyrant, who knows not what kind of conduct to observe with respect to his subjects; who amuses himself by laying snares for his creatures, and who tries them that he may have the pleasure of inflicting a punishment for yielding to his temptations. This God is occupied only in building to destroy, in demolishing to rebuild. Like a child disgusted with its playthings, he is continually undoing what he has done, and breaking what was the object of his desires. We find no foresight, no constancy, no consistency in his conduct; no connection, no clearness in his discourses. When he performs any thing, he sometimes approves what he has done, and at other times repents of it. He irritates and vexes himself with what he has permitted to be done, and, in spite of his infinite power, he suffers man to offend him, and consents to let Satan, his creature, derange all his projects. In a word, the revelations of the Christians and Jews seem to have been imagined only to render uncertain and to annihilate the qualities attributed to the Deity, and which are declared to constitute his essence. The whole Scripture, the entire system of the Christian religion, appears to be founded only on the incapability of God, who was unable to render the human race as wise, as good, and as happy as he wished them. The death of his innocent Son, who was immolated to his vengeance, is entirely useless for the most numerous portion of the earth's inhabitants; almost the whole human race, in spite of the continual efforts of the Deity, continue to offend him, to frustrate his designs, resist his will, and to persevere in their wickedness.
It is on notions so fatal, so contradictory, and so unworthy of a God who is just, wise, and good, of a God that is rational, independent, immutable, and omnipotent, on whom the Christian religion is founded, and which religion is said to be established forever by God, who, nevertheless, became disgusted with the religion of the Jews, with whom he had made and sworn an eternal covenant.
Time must prove whether God be more constant and faithful in fulfilling his engagements with the Christians than he has been to fulfil those he made with Abraham and his posterity. I confess, Madam, that his past conduct alarms me as to what he may finally perform. If he himself acknowledged by the mouth of Ezekiel that the laws he had given to the Jews were not good, he may very possibly, some day or other, find fault with those which he has given to Christians.
Our priests themselves seem to partake of my suspicions, and to fear that God will be wearied of that protection which he has so long granted to his church. The inquietudes which they evince, the efforts which they make to hinder the civilization of the world, the persecutions which they raise against all those who contradict them, seem to prove that they mistrust the promises of Jesus Christ, and that they are not certainly convinced of the eternal durability of a religion which does not appear to them divine, but because it gives them the right to command like gods over their fellow-citizens. They would undoubtedly consider the destruction of their empire a very grievous thing; but yet if the sovereigns of the earth and their people should once grow weary of the sacerdotal yoke, we may be sure the Sovereign of heaven would not require a longer time to become equally disgusted.
However this may be, Madam, I venture to hope the perusal of this letter will fully undeceive you of a blind veneration for books which are called divine, although they appear as if invented to degrade and destroy the God who is asserted to be their author. My first letter, I feel confident, enabled you to perceive that the dogmas established by these same books, or subsequently fabricated to justify the ideas thus given of God, are not less contrary to all notions of a Deity infinitely perfect. A system which in the outset is based upon false principles can never become any thing else than a mass of falsehoods.
I am, &c.