Why I “Hated” that “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus” Viral Video

[Note: I went back and edited this post after further reflection and conversation, including with the artist, Jefferson Bethke, via Twitter. What I’m retracting is crossed out. What I’m adding is green. ]


By now you may have seen the video of the spoken word artist talking about why he hates religion but loves Jesus. It went viral among a certain subset of young Christians, in particular, up to 6 million views in a few days, last I checked.

I am not among the fawning masses clicking “Like.” I was pretty disgusted with it. agreed with 80% of it, but thought it had some problematic phrases. 

I’ll note that this guy Jefferson is probably thinks he’s articulating something positive. But unfortunately, he undercuts this he fails utterly, due to extensive logical fallacies, theological inaccuracies, and historical amnesia. Instead, he passes off shallow pabulum to the Christian hipster-zeitgeist crowd, who lap it up because of snazzy editing, and, you know, it like rhymes and stuff.

Some good critiques here , at Patrolmag, and by my friend and ministry apprentice Dana Ray.

The core problem I find in this video is this guy’s complete inability or unwillingness the failure to differentiate between hypocritical, legalistic, self-righteous false “religion,” and true religion, which is after all biblical, last I checked (James 1:26-27). [Several commenters have since noted that the description on YouTube says it’s about “false religion,” but it would have been better to describe it that way in the video]. This un-nuanced antipathy towards “Religion,” across the board, is a tired meme that I wish would go away.  In the hands of undiscerning people, It’s a cynical deconstruction of the Christian faith, executed by the jaded churched kids set, but it offers very little that is positive, fresh, or constructive. And no, putting everything under the category of “Relationship” doesn’t help us. I would like to see how the “Just Jesus Not Religion” crowd expect to express their faith without doing anything “religious.”

The spoken-word artist’s “hatred” of religion ironically smacks of the proud, self-righteous, legalistic Pharisaism that he professes to disdain. But so do some of the responses to Bethke. Including aspects of this one. Since then, Bethke has been incredibly humble and gracious in dealing with his critics. Still, this attempt to rebrand Christianity isn’t new, isn’t accurate, and it isn’t working. It’s been coming up in conversations I’ve had with people for years. Here’s what I said in my book about Religion, Relationship, and what we really need: Gospel.

One place we need to shift is in how we define and explain what Christianity is about. It’s become common for well-meaning Christians to say, “Being a Christian is not about religion. It’s about a relationship.” But in our post-Christendom era, this line is both tired and discounted by the unchurched and dechurched. Secularists rightfully point out much that is still “religious” about the Christian faith. (If they’re really savvy, they’ll reference verses like 1 Timothy 5:4 and James 1:26-27.) Neither do they find talk of relationship very persuasive, especially because non-Christian “spiritual” people already have a crowded buffet of spiritual relationships from which to choose. Both “religion” and “relationship” capture helpful aspects of what Christianity is, but neither word is strong enough to fully encapsulate what Christianity is about. Only “gospel” can do that.

When the New Testament authors (especially Jesus) want to sum up what they’re about, they invariably come back to euangelion, which is Greek for “gospel” or “good news.” The gospel is the first thing out of Jesus’ mouth as he begins his ministry (Mark 1:15). He equates the gospel with himself in Mark 8:35 and 10:29. The gospel alone is the power of salvation for all who believe (Romans 1:16). The gospel is about God’s free gift of grace. The gospel alone is what saves; no amount of our religious observance or relational feeling has the power to save.

Many of us are aware of how religion easily becomes a work, through legalistic observance of rules and rituals, but sometimes we forget that relationship can fall into the same traps. While the legalist chases adherence to the rules, the relationist chases the next feel-good moment. In this sense, relationship can become just another type of salvation by works among pietistic people who go from one passionate mountaintop experience to another, only to sour on God when he doesn’t deliver according to the bargain they had struck.

To put it another way, the problem with mere religion (religion as external duty) is that you end up with all structure, all bones, but no moving flesh, no flowing blood. It has the appearance of godliness, but there’s no life there. But the problem with “mere re- lationship” spirituality is that it tries to find life in a shapeless, mushy form. Left to itself, flesh doesn’t give life any more than dry bones do! While the bones don’t give life, they provide the necessary structure for life to thrive. Without it, you end up with vapid, shallow, short-lived emotionalism.

Christianity is a religion. To say otherwise ignores Scripture and breaks congruity with billions of Christians from around the world and through 2,000 years of history. Christianity is a relationship. Many relational words are used to describe God and his people. He is our Father, and we are his children. We know him. He speaks, and we listen. We are meant to constantly relate to our personal God. Christianity is expressed and experienced in both religion and relationship. But it’s not about either.

Whether it be religion, relationship, or some other expression of our faith, faithful ministry doesn’t let anything threaten the central place of the gospel. We are meant to be grounded in the life-giving roots of the gospel, which is not merely an initiation for new converts, but the foundation for everyone. The gospel—in all its depth, riches, and fullness—must be repeatedly proclaimed to believer and unbeliever, churched and unchurched alike.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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18 thoughts on “Why I “Hated” that “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus” Viral Video

  1. Steve, I want to offer a thought humbly. When Tim Keller says some of the same things, we evangelicals cheer and celebrate him as one of the best minds of our time (and he is). When this kid says it – he's committing logical fallacies and theological inaccuracies. I would bet money that this kid wrote this stuff because he listens to a lot of Keller or listens to a pastor who listens to Keller. I just think that when Keller speaks negatively of religion, we 'know what he means' and give him the benefit of the doubt. That's not to say the critiques aren't necessarily valid – they may be – only that if you talked to this kid, I would guess he wouldn't be against James 1:27 either.


    • Hi Anonymous–

      Apparently this guy goes to Mars Hill in Seattle, so he listens to a lot of Driscoll, which is probably where he's getting this. I too have listened to a lot of Keller, but with Keller you always knew what he was saying–not because of blind sycophancy, but because he provided nuance and context and defined his terms. Take "Prodigal God," where Keller does talk about "religion," but carefully defines and qualifies it, so that when he uses it as shorthand, we know he's not dismissing all of Religion en toto. If this guy had simply come out against hypocrisy, or legalism, or Sunday Christianity, then there's no uproar over what he's saying, because it's spot-on. But because he's so sloppy in his terminology (ironic for spoken word, don't you think?) he's getting taken to task. Words matter. Theology matters.

  2. I loved the video and I'll explain why. He articulated the gospel better than most churches I've been a part of. This is something I've been trying to get a hold of in my own life. God's been doing a lot with my heart and soul lately and I'm glad for it. Historical "religion" is about what we do to win our way to God. Christianity, of course, isn't about that at all. It's about what God did to bring us into a right relationship with Him. He says it right in the video description.

    The video is about "false religion." This is the kind of "deadly doing," the kind of Pharisaical rule-making that breeds a kind of self-reliance and self-justification that inevitably leads to self-righteousness and contempt toward those who aren't following the "rules." This kind of rule-making drives us away from the Creator. That's false religion.

    Paul talks about this fine line over and over again in his letters. It's impossible to live the life that God made us for if we don't have our eyes on Him. We love God first and God changes are hearts, He changes our loves until He's all that's left. When we love Him with all of our heart, sole, mind, and strength, we don't have a desire to sin.

    "Lay your deadly doing down

    Down at Jesus' feet

    And stand in Him, in Him alone,

    Wondrously complete."

    This video was made for a certain audience. Did he go too far in blanket statements about "hating religion"? Probably. Is the over-arching message of the video still accurate and Biblical? Yes. I'd love to see the Body of Christ be a whole lot more gracious. Words like "fawning masses" surely aren't edifying.

    You say: "The spoken-word artist’s “hatred” of religion ironically smacks of the proud, self-righteous, legalistic Pharisaism that he professes to disdain." Have you read your own blog post??

  3. The description of the video says that he is talking about false religion even though he fails to mention it in his video he states that he is talking about that in his description.

  4. I actually really like the attention brought to the fact that there are two definitions of religion floating around and semantics are causing problems. I thought you expressed the difference and nuance well.

    I wish, perhaps, that you might repost this article without this particular paragraph though:

    "I’ll note that this guy probably thinks he’s articulating something positive. But he fails utterly, due to extensive logical fallacies, theological inaccuracies, and historical amnesia. Instead, he passes off shallow pabulum to the Christian hipster-zeitgeist crowd, who lap it up because of snazzy editing, and, you know, it like rhymes and stuff."

    It seems quite the ad hominem attack of the artist and the acclaimed audience. (Who, if you've judged them correctly, probably won't want to listen past that paragraph, and who, if you've judged them incorrectly, probably won't want to listen past that paragraph.) I'd like to share this post with some of my questioning friends, but I think they would be much more open to listening if they felt loved instead of judged.

    Once again, thanks for the great articulation of a lot of the debate happening recently. I look forward to sharing some great points from here!

  5. This feels like an argument in semantics more than anything. If we were to ask this guy to define religion he would probably end up quoting something along the lines of this: James 1:26 ESV

    "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless."

    But it sounds like you're coming at it from this angle: James 1:27 ESV

    "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world."

  6. Hi Steve,

    Jefferson Bethke, the spoken word artist, is first and foremost…an artist. He is not a theologian and doesn't claim to be. But, if you go to the YouTube page where this video was first uploaded, you will see Jefferson's clarification as to what he means by "religion." Here are his words:

    "A poem I wrote to highlight the difference between Jesus and false religion. In the scriptures Jesus received the most opposition from the most religious people of his day. At it's core Jesus' gospel and the good news of the Cross is in pure opposition to self-righteousness/self-justification. Religion is man centered, Jesus is God-centered. This poem highlights my journey to discover this truth. Religion either ends in pride or despair. Pride because you make a list and can do it and act better than everyone, or despair because you can't do your own list of rules and feel "not good enough" for God. With Jesus though you have humble confident joy because He represents you, you don't represent yourself and His sacrifice is perfect putting us in perfect standing with God!"

    In the first sentence, he explains he is talking about the difference between Jesus and FALSE religion. In the subsequent sentences I think he does a pretty good job of explaining what he means by false religion. And do you really expect the video to begin with a detailed clarification of his terminology? It is, after all, art.

    This video went viral because it resonates. Bethke is expressing why many young Christians are leaving churches today, and it's not because they're against religion per se. They are disillusioned by the chasm between what they read from the Bible and what they see in the lives of those sitting in the pews around them. I think young Christians deeply long for true religion, and they are much more nuanced than we give them credit for. These kids do not have a beef with true Christianity. They are seeking after Jesus with sincere hearts, and they are having a hard time smelling the "pleasing aroma of Christ" (2 Cor. 2:14) in many sanctuaries around our country. To me that is a wake-up call for those of us who are merely sitting in pews each week instead of participating in "Christ's triumphal procession."

    I believe this generation of college and high school students will do much to change our world. I would not describe them as oozing with antipathy or apathy. Not at all! They are full of passion and gravitate toward practical ways to channel that passion. And they are inheriting a world that is extremely well-connected and interconnected. This young generation has tremendous heart, and I, for one, and tremendously heartened by them.

    With humility and respect,


    • Your post definitely has a lot of good points, but I have to agree with Diana, because he does state that he is differentiating between Jesus and false religion in the video description.

      Regardless, your post was really cool to read! I too think that it is dangerous to try and label Christianity exclusively as either "religion" or "relationship," when in actuality it encompasses both of those categories.. especially when the central message of Christianity is "Gospel."

    • I thought about righting a comment myself, but you have said everything I was thinking.. and said it well.

      I am completely against spreading a false gospel… but this isn't one. It clearly explains the basic foundations of the Gospel that should stir on great heart-level conversations and further explanations of 'true religion' vs 'false religion' within the context of discipleship and bible study. I think that is a big win! Let's don't nit-pick semantics.. That is what causes division in the body of Christ. Let rejoice that someone is trying to reach a demographic (no matter the size) of people who need this message. And, remember that God is in control of the hearts of men… not our words. His truth will prevail.

  7. I'd like to say that the gospel is incomplete without a risen Christ – without the resurrection, well… Check out 1 Corinthians 15.

    • I don't see anyone here disagreeing with that anonymous. What we are talking about is religion and false religion; the kind of religion that God initiates and the kind that man creates.

  8. Is this to simplistic?

    I like seeing tons of friends and family posting this video that talks about Jesus, folks sharing it and liking it, and watching it and thinking about Jesus who are not normally doing that kind of thing.

    I also like seeing folks taking a second look at how Christianity is more than a private relationship with Jesus. Seems to me like a net win.

    Go Art…

  9. Hey Steve, Good points but I have trouble with the difference between your book and the video. Books can be treatise, but poetry is experience. Of course, poetry does not define terms and nuance. Is that more about our expectation? No sermon can capture all of faith, but it hits us in certain ways.

    I too like the first Anonymous guy thought was he was riffing on Keller's stuff. His confession of pornography and hypocrisy was excellent. Poetry is again his experience of the Gospel that we have learned from Jack Miller and Tim Keller.

    Btw, I have been wondering why my RSS feeder was missing this blog, then I realized I still have the Sentinel address. Great blog as always.

  10. Hi everyone. Just wanted you to know, if you're subscribed to the comments, that I went back and changed some of the wording in this post. Some of it was prompted by further reflection, and by a conversation with Jefferson Bethke on Twitter. For what it's worth.

    • Hi Steve,

      I really love the "world-wide" conversation spawned from Bethke's video. The fierce debate tempered with wonderful humility is the beautiful aroma of Christ!

      Thank you for your initial response to the video, your willingness to dialogue with Jefferson directly, and your revisions above. You are speaking the truth in love, brother, and I deeply respect your words and actions.


  11. I believe there is a distinction between being 'religious' versus 'religion'. Religion is man search for God, but salvatioin is God's gift to man. We tend to create rituals and beliefs, rites and ethical systems to justify our existence, to placate our guilt and fear of death, to make ourselves useful to the world and acceptable to God. In short, religion is our valiant attempt to get right with God while ignoring the fact and way that he has gotten right with us: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ. To continue to work for our justification instead of accepting our justification is the essence of religion.

    But of course, worship has another dimension. To worship, to pray, to teach, to build churches, to feed the hungry—all of these are religious acts. We often say that we mustn't confuse being a Christian with being religious, but it's impossible to be a Christian without being religious. God uses religion—especially preaching, worship, the sacraments, prayer—to communicate himself to us.

    So we have to "commit religion" in order to be Christians. This is almost, but not quite, like saying that when we commit sin, grace abounds. As we commit religion, grace will abound. Sometimes when we commit religion, we will be trying to justify ourselves—and for that we need forgiveness. Thus religion points us towards God, and God to salvation through Jesus for the forgivenes oif sin.

    For someday, we will not need rituals or preaching or sacraments to know and be known by him. Someday (Rev. 21), God will be in our midst. So Good religion points us to Jesus, and bad religion points us to gods other than GOD. Just my thoughts based upon biblical revelation of His Word, Amen.