“Religion”, Karl Marx famously said, “is the opium of the people.” An article in 1843 magazine elaborates:
Marx was not exactly against religion. For him, faith was something that “the people” conjured for themselves, a source of phoney happiness to which they turned to help numb the pain of reality. It was “the sigh of the oppressed creature”.
It has similarly been described as a crutch for weak people, and indeed in moments of crisis many people find themselves praying, even if they’ve never considered the existence of God before. As it was expressed in World War II, “there are no atheists in foxholes” .
Some studies also suggest a link between religious belief and improved mental health, physical health and life expectancy, though it is noted that it is often the practices associated with religious adherence (such as only drinking in moderation, having a sense of purpose in life, and having a supportive community) that actually bring the health benefits .
So is that all religion is, some made-up idea that helps us escape the harsh realities of life, or at least supports us through them?
If you’ve read any of my other articles, it won’t surprise you to find that I think there’s more to it than that, or at least, that there’s more to Christianity. You see, I think the problem with the world is bigger than short lifespans or hard circumstances. I think the goal of life is more than health and happiness. Following a religion, or adhering to religious practices will go a long way towards helping with your sense of wellbeing, pretty much whichever religion you pick. But will it meet your deepest needs?
One reason behind the ‘no atheists in foxholes’ aphorism is that in life-and-death situations we don’t just want something that makes us feel a bit better about the bombs raining down on us. When we’re trapped in extreme circumstances, we want someone who can actually help, someone who has the power to make it stop, to protect us, or to give us the resources to face the bombs with boldness.
The message of Christianity is that God can do all those things. The Bible and the whole of Christian history is full of accounts of God rescuing his followers from imminent death, or bringing them back to life after they have died, or of enabling them to face death with incredible courage, enduring torture or illness with fortitude, peace and hope. He is present with us in the midst of our troubles and helps us either by freeing us from them or helping us overcome them.
Yet while people facing danger or other difficult circumstances cry out to someone to save them from their troubles, many begin to consider God’s existence as they approach the natural end of life, too. This is not because they think he might help them live longer, or be more happy and fulfilled in the days they have left, but because they become aware of a need deeper than health or happiness. They need hope. When we have nothing left to do but look back over our lives, we become aware of all the ways in which we have failed to live up to even our own standards of a good life. We can never make reparations for all the wrongs we have done, and all the good things we have failed to do. The sense of guilt and failure can be overwhelming. If there is an afterlife, and a judge waiting to assess our lives and decide whether we should spend eternity in heaven or in hell, we start to hope we have been good enough to make it to heaven. And the Bible tells us that not one of us has. It is pointless trying to be good enough; we never can be. Perfection—complete and utter purity—is the only pass mark, and not one of us has ever achieved that. Even if you lived a perfect life every day from now on, you would never be able to erase all the times you’ve lied, cheated, spoken in anger, or hurt others.
What Christianity offers is someone who can take that all away (and all the things you will do in future, despite your best resolutions). The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ was fully God, yet lived a perfect life on earth as a human being. He chose to take the punishment for all our wrongdoing on himself, so that if we trust in him and accept his sacrifice on our behalf we can receive God’s forgiveness and be made as pure as if we were as sinless as Jesus.
It sounds bizarre, I know. It’s almost incomprehensible. But it is the vital difference between Christianity and all other faiths and self-improvement programmes. Christianity is not about following religious practices to improve your health, happiness or life-expectancy. It is about putting faith in the promises of the God who made you. It is about believing that if you accept his son’s sacrifice on your behalf you can be forgiven today, receive help to live a life that pleases him tomorrow, and have the certain hope of a future with him in paradise. You need to be convinced it is true, of course, and there are plenty of other posts on this blog that can point you to resources and help you think through whether the Bible and its claims can be trusted. Do some research, check it out, and if you’re convinced, take up Jesus’ offer of new life.
What is faith in Jesus for? It is for forgiveness today and flourishing forever.
 ‘What is the opium of the people?’, 1843, November/December 2013
 The source of this quote is uncertain – it may even have originated in WWI
 See here for example