French playwright, satirist, and philosopher Voltaire (given name: Francois Marie Arouet, 1694-1778) wrote at a time when a corrupt state church and totalitarian government exercised brutal control over nearly every aspect of French life. Among other causes, Voltaire wrote to free his fellow Frenchmen from the early 18th-century church’s doctrine of “the divine right of kings” – the notion that the monarchy was ordained of God and therefore resisting injustice was a sin.

Unlike Luther, who first attempted to reform the church, or the Anabaptists, who started their own, Voltaire reasoned that the best way to break the corrupt church’s hold on people’s hearts and minds was to make his fellow citizens doubt the core doctrines of the church, and therefore its divine authority.

Voltaire’s attacks on the monarchy, on the state church, as well as on contemporary philosophers who promoted acquiescence to the status quo, were diabolically clever and effective.  They influenced Thomas Paine and other American revolutionaries, helped lead to the brutal French revolution, and have influenced many writers and students since.

To thinking Christians, Voltaire’s work is of interest largely because, long after his death, Voltaire’s arguments against core Christian doctrines influenced another kind of revolution – within several mainstream Christian denominations, people influenced by Voltaire’s ideas (though often filtered through other writers) have decided that those core Christian doctrines are expendable “stumbling blocks” that are actually keeping people away from the teachings of Jesus.

But before we focus on that, let’s learn just a bit more about Voltaire.  One thing that made him so effective was his ability to come at things “sideways,” getting his ideas past the censors, at the same time he planted seeds of doubt throughout his culture.

Voltaire’s Unique Approach to Banned Subjects – Under almost constant censorship, Voltaire often presented his most “dangerous” ideas by pretending he was writing about someone else. He would start an essay with something to the effect of “You won’t believe what such and such a group has the audacity to say.” Then he would spell out his own ideas about religion or politics in great detail, only to end with a very weak “rebuttal” such as: “Fortunately we in France have the Church to explain that such ideas are only foolishness and may safely be ignored.”

As an example, in Voltaire’s article supposedly denouncing anti-trinitarians (in Dictionnaire Philosophique), he provides a list of arguments against the doctrine of the Trinity.  (They center, by the way, on the doctrine being hard to understand and not being explicitly spelled out in the New Testament). Most of those arguments preceded Voltaire, and would not rock the faith of anyone who knew the Bible and something about church history. Voltaire ends the article by saying, that, (fortunately) the (church) councils had settled the subject. However, many people without convictions or motivation to evaluate Voltaire’s claims for themselves have come away from such summaries convinced that Voltaire has made a compelling case against a core Christian doctrine

Voltaire and the Divinity of Christ – In an essay that supposedly attacks those who renounce the divinity of Christ, Voltaire suggests a “history” of how Jesus came to be considered divine by the church, supposedly over a period of centuries. Again, many of the ideas in the following passage originated before Voltaire, but few people expressed them as well.

” , , , Christians spent three whole centuries in constructing little by little the apotheosis [raising to the status of a god] of Jesus. . . . At first . . . Jesus was regarded merely as a man inspired by God, then as a creature more perfect than the others. Some time after he was given a place above the angels, as says Saint Paul. Every day added to his stature. He became an emanation of God manifested in time. That was not enough: he was held to be born before time itself. Finally he was made God, consubstantial with God.

Voltaire’s chronology ignores the fact that virtually all first- and second-century Christian writings and creeds universally accepted the divinity of Jesus.  The great church councils of later centuries were not convened, as some insist, to establish Jesus’ divinity, but largely to refute an upstart third-century movement to discredit it.

To scholars serious about their faith and willing to check out the facts, Voltaire’s claims that the doctrine of the divinity of Christ evolved over three centuries should be of historical interest only.  But scores of readers who could not be bothered to investigate Voltaire’s claims have simply acquiesced, surrendering this doctrine of Jesus’ own teaching without a shot, as it were. Unfortunately, quite a few of those young men advanced to the pulpit, and even to seminary chairs, where they could disseminate their lack of faith to the next generation under the apparent authority of their own church leadership.

Quoting Voltaire – Voltaire was convincing, prolific, and wickedly funny. Some Christians like to point out that Voltaire enjoyed skewering atheists almost as much as he enjoyed skewering Christians. But before quoting the fellow to prove some sort of “Christian” point, Christians should remember that much of Voltaire’s writing was tongue-in-cheek, and that quoting him out of context could backfire among people who actually take the time to look up the quote.

Voltaire and Twain – American authors often compare Voltaire to Mark Twain, which is a fair comparison if one keeps in mind that Voltaire was first, and was far more vitriolic than Twain (Of course, with church censorship, exile, and imprisonment, Voltaire had more to be bitter about than Twain). To Twain’s credit, he exceeds Voltaire when it comes to capturing the pioneer spirit (for good or for ill) of his countrymen, and for creating compelling characters in most of his fiction. But when he is writing mostly to prove a point, he does emulate Voltaire’s tongue-in-cheek tone.  He also reflects Voltaire’s practice when he uses “letters” and “journals” (supposedly from other people) to camouflage attacks on various aspects of society.

In his own attacks against religion, Twain also seems to have repeated several of Voltaire’s arguments (amplifying them with Twain’s own brand of humor, of course). Yet most of Twain’s rants against organized religion or Christian doctrine pale next to the original, even in translation. As a fomenter of “radical” ideas, Twain may influence the reader; Voltaire influenced countless other writers.

Voltaire’s Influence on the Church – Voltaire’s on the church has been as subtle, widespread, and effective as leaven in a lump of dough. Nearly three centuries later, countless religious leaders who’ve swallowed Voltaire’s claims without examination now contend that doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ are outdated “stumbling blocks” that are keeping people away from “The Faith” (assuming you can call anything “The Faith” that actually requires no faith at all).

Ironically, since Voltaire’s assertions have become dogma in traditionally “mainstream” denominations, the churches and institutions affected have become every bit as dogmatic about their version of “Christianity” as was the early eighteenth-century Roman Catholic church that Voltaire attacked. They, frankly, refuse to revisit their basic assumptions, even when archaeological and manuscript evidence proves them wrong.

As a further irony,  the churches that abandoned Biblical doctrines that they thought were keeping people away have stopped attracting new people at all, or even keeping more than a fraction of their own children and grandchildren in the church. Apparently if you take everything out of the “faith” that actually requires faith, you also take away the sense that the faith has anything more to offer than lessons in ethics, which, most people seem to feel they can do without. Yet, in spite of history’s lessons, it still seems that every time Voltaire’s arguments are restated by yet another author in search of publication or notoriety, they attract the attention of those who are easily swayed by whatever seems “clever” or “new.”

Though many times refuted, Voltaire’s assertions about basic Christian doctrines have become the bedrock that supports the foundations of the “Liberal,” “Neo-Orthodox, and “Post-Modern Christian” movements of the last two centuries. In a way, Voltaire has been the thorn in the side of theologically orthodox Christians for almost three centuries, a fact that he would probably find quite amusing, did he not have more compelling demands on his attention just now.


Oddly enough, a book about “reforming the church,” largely based on claims originally made by Voltaire, recently “made the rounds” at any number of conservative Bible colleges and seminaries.  Maybe you’ve read it and have all kinds of ideas for making “the faith” more acceptable to nonbelievers by minimizing – if not filtering out – everything that smacks of the supernatural.   Guess what – you’re just the latest in a long line of shallow thinkers who’ve fallen for the same centuries-old arguments.

Here’s a rule of thumb – the next time you hear what seems to be a reasonable, compelling argument against ANY of the core doctrines of Christianity, chances are it started with, or at least was popularized by Voltaire – and it has never staggered the faith of any Christian who took the time to do their own research or thinking on the subject.

The eleventh of May 2015 is the 270th anniversary of the battle of Fontenoy, a great French victory in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748). Voltaire’s official position as royal historiographer allowed him privileged access, for a time, to dispatches sent to Versailles from the battlefields, and he started to write an Histoire de […]

I do not suppose, Spectator of the World, that you propose to fill your pages with facts concerning the physical world. Socrates, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, allowed all the spheres to gravitate one on the top of the other, that they might devote themselves to the regulation of manners. Are your speculations also thus concentrated on morality? But what do you expect from a morality which the teachers of the nations have already preached about with so much success?

I agree with you that it is somewhat of a reflection on human nature that money accomplishes everything and merit almost nothing: that the real workers, behind the scenes, have hardly a modest subsistance, while certain selected personages flaunt on the stage: that fools are exalted to the skies, and genius is in the gutter: that a father disinherits six virtuous children to make his first-born–often a scapegrace–heir to all his possessions: that a luckless wretch who comes to grief, or to any unhappy end in a foreign country, leaves the fortune of his natural inheritors to the treasury of that state.

It is sad to see–I confess it again–those who toil in poverty, and those who produce nothing, in luxury: great proprietors who claim the very birds that fly and the fish that swim: trembling vassals who do not dare to free their houses from the wild boar that devours them: fanatics who want to burn everyone who does not pray to God after their own fashion: violence in high places which engenders violence in the people: might making right not only amongst nations but amongst individuals.

And it is this state of things, common to all lives and to all places, which you expect to change! Behold the folly of you moralists! Mount the pulpit with Bourdaloue, or wield the pen like La Bruyère, and you waste your time–the world will go its way!

A government which could provide for all would do more in a year than the order of preaching friars has done since their institution.

In a very short space of time Lycurgus raised the Spartans above ordinary humanity. The force of Confucius’ wisdom, two thousand years ago, is still felt in China.

But, as neither you nor I are made to govern, if you have such an itching for reform, reform our virtues, which in excess may well become prejudicial to the prosperity of the state. It is easier to reform virtues than vices. The list of exaggerated virtues would be a long one: I will mention a few, and you will easily guess the rest.

I observe, walking about the country, that the children of the soil eat much less than they require: it is difficult to conceive this immoderate passion for abstinence. It even looks as if they had got into their heads that it will be accounted to them for virtue if their beasts also are half-starved.

What is the result? Men and beasts waste away, their stock becomes feeble, work is suspended, and the cultivation of the land suffers.

Patience is another virtue carried to excess, perhaps, in the country. If the tax collectors limited themselves to executing the will of their lord, to be patient would be a duty: but if you question these good folk who supply us with bread, they will tell you that the manner in which the taxes are levied is a hundred times more onerous than the tax itself. Their patience ruins them and their landowners with them.

The evangelical pulpit has reproached kings and the great a hundred times for their harshness to the poor. The fault has been corrected–in excess. The royal antechambers overflow with servants better fed and better clothed than the lords of the parishes whence they come. This excess of charity robs the country of soldiers, and the land of labourers

Spectator of the World, do not let the scheme of reforming our virtues shock you: the founders of religious orders have reformed each other. Another reason for encouragement is that it is perhaps easier to discern an excess of good than to pronounce on the nature of evil. Believe me, dear Spectator, I cannot urge you too strongly to reform our virtues: men cling too tightly to their vices.

Voltaire’s historical writings form a significant part of his output, including works on Louis XIV, Louis XV, Charles XII, Peter the Great, the Holy Roman Empire, and even a pioneering universal history. These histories were highly regarded in his lifetime, and Voltaire was a powerful influence on the other great historians of the age, Hume, Gibbon and Robertson. […]

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming publisher John Mitchinson to the Voltaire Foundation for a particularly enlightening and enjoyable talk. Like Voltaire at Ferney, Mr Mitchinson is a keen amateur beekeeper, and like him he also keeps livestock, and the similarities do not end there. John Mitchinson’s latest venture in the fast- and ever-changing world […]

Letter XIV of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques provides an insight into the early days of modern science, contrasting the theories of Descartes and Newton at a time in which Newtonian physics was new and controversial. The vitality of the debate as approached in this volume struck me, as a humanities student, more intensely than GCSE science lessons […]

In 2015, the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV, the VF is delighted to be launching our publication of Voltaire’s seminal Siècle de Louis XIV, critical edition by Diego Venturino of the Université de Lorraine. We are very proud to be doing so with the generous support of the Centre de recherche du Château […]

Towards the year 1707, the time at which the English gained the battle of Saragossa, protected Portugal, and for some time gave a king to Spain, Lord Boldmind, a general officer who had been wounded, was at the waters of Barèges. He there met with Count Medroso, who having fallen from his horse behind the baggage, at a league and a half from the field of battle, also came to take the waters. He was a familiar of the Inquisition, while Lord Boldmind was only familiar in conversation. One day after their wine, he held this dialogue with Medroso:

You are then the sergeant of the Dominicans? You exercise a villainous trade.

It is true; but I would rather be their servant than their victim, and I have preferred the unhappiness of burning my neighbor to that of being roasted myself.

What a horrible alternative! You were a hundred times happier under the yoke of the Moors, who freely suffered you to abide in all your superstitions, and conquerors as they were, arrogated not to themselves the strange right of sending souls to hell.

What would you have? It is not permitted us either to write, speak, or even to think. If we speak, it is easy to misinterpret our words, and still more our writings; and as we cannot be condemned in an auto-da-fé for our secret thoughts, we are menaced with being burned eternally by the order of God himself, if we think not like the Jacobins. They have persuaded the government that if we had common sense the entire state would be in combustion, and the nation become the most miserable upon earth.

Do you believe that we English who cover the seas with vessels, and who go to gain battles for you in the south of Europe, can be so unhappy? Do you perceive that the Dutch, who have ravished from you almost all your discoveries in India, and who at present are ranked as your protectors, are cursed of God for having given entire liberty to the press, and for making commerce of the thoughts of men? Has the Roman Empire been less powerful because Tullius Cicero has written with freedom?

Who is this Tullius Cicero? I have never heard his name pronounced at St. Hermandad.

He was a bachelor of the university of Rome, who wrote that which he thought, like Julius Cæsar, Marcus Aurelius, Titus Lucretius Carus, Plinius, Seneca, and other sages.

I know none of them; but I am told that the Catholic religion, Biscayan and Roman, is lost if we begin to think.

It is not for you to believe it; for you are sure that your religion is divine, and that the gates of hell cannot prevail against it. If that is the case, nothing will ever destroy it.

No; but it may be reduced to very little; and it is through having thought, that Sweden, Denmark, all your island, and the half of Germany groan under the frightful misfortune of not being subjects of the pope. It is even said that, if men continue to follow their false lights, they will soon have merely the simple adoration of God and of virtue. If the gates of hell ever prevail so far, what will become of the holy office?

If the first Christians had not the liberty of thought, does it not follow that there would have been no Christianity?

I understand you not.

I readily believe it. I would say, that if Tiberius and the first emperors had fostered Jacobins, they would have hindered the first Christians from having pens and ink; and had it not been a long time permitted in the Roman Empire to think freely, it would be impossible for the Christians to establish their dogmas. If, therefore, Christianity was only formed by liberty of opinion, by what contradiction, by what injustice, would you now destroy the liberty on which alone it is founded?

When some affair of interest is proposed to us, do we not examine it for a long time before we conclude upon it? What interest in the world is so great as our eternal happiness or misery? There are a hundred religions on earth which all condemn us if we believe your dogmas, which they call impious and absurd; why, therefore, not examine these dogmas?

How can I examine them? I am not a Jacobin.

You are a man, and that is sufficient.

Alas! you are more of a man than I am.

You have only to teach yourself to think; you are born with a mind, you are a bird in the cage of the Inquisition, the holy office has clipped your wings, but they will grow again. He who knows not geometry can learn it: all men can instruct themselves. Is it not shameful to put your soul into the hands of those to whom you would not intrust your money? Dare to think for yourself.

It is said that if the world thought for itself, it would produce strange confusion.

Quite the contrary. When we assist at a spectacle, every one freely tells his opinion of it, and the public peace is not thereby disturbed; but if some insolent protector of a poet would force all people of taste to proclaim that to be good which appears to them bad, blows would follow, and the two parties would throw apples of discord at one another’s heads, as once happened at London. Tyrants over mind have caused a part of the misfortunes of the world. We are happy in England only because every one freely enjoys the right of speaking his opinion.

We are all very tranquil at Lisbon, where no person dares speak his.

You are tranquil, but you are not happy: it is the tranquillity of galley-slaves, who row in cadence and in silence.

You believe, then, that my soul is at the galleys?

Yes, and I would deliver it.

But if I find myself well at the galleys?

Why, then, you deserve to be there.

I have always been intrigued by Theodore Besterman – the Voltaire Foundation’s founder. At 99 Banbury Road, Oxford – home of the Voltaire Foundation since 1993 – he is commemorated by a black bust sitting at the left end of the mantelpiece in the main room (which was named after him); at the right end […]