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What is deism?

Deism is a religious philosophy that flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but its effects linger into our present age. Deism teaches that all people can know and believe in a Supreme Being—the prime mover of all things—merely through the vehicle of reason. Historically, deists often held to a modified form of Christianity that emptied the faith of any supernatural elements while allowing its moral instruction to remain. Though it is more of a philosophical and religious set of ideals than an organized religion, deism offers an antisupernatural worldview as an alternative to Christian theism.

When did it begin?

Although many of the principles of deism stem from the philosophical musings of early philosophers, it was not until the time of Edward Herbert, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648)—the father of English deism—that it became a formulated alternative to biblical Christianity. Herbert was heavily influenced by the writings of medieval scholastics on natural religion. In his influential work De Religione Gentilium (Pagan religion), Herbert argued that it is immoral to insist that pagan nations—which have not had access to Scripture—deserve to be punished by God. Herbert developed the principle of deism out of a desire to rescue from eternal punishment those who had never been exposed to biblical revelation.

Who are the key figures?

Many influential figures are numbered among the renowned deists who followed Herbert. Leading French intellectuals, politicians, and authors such as Voltaire, Napoleon Bonaparte, Victor Hugo, and Jules Verne advocated deism. Adam Smith in England and Thomas Paine in America were among the influential intellectual deists. Many have suggested that John Locke advanced deism more than anyone else in England. However, Locke was technically a rational supernaturalist, neither accepting nor denying all forms of revelation or supernaturalism. In American history, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln were deists. In the twentieth century, astronaut Neil Armstrong professed belief in deism. Due to a lack of formal proselytizing, classically defined deism has few adherents in our day. However, many have argued that “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) is the main religious belief system in America today. MTD is a form of functional deism.1

What are the main beliefs?

Deism has five essential beliefs:

  1. A Supreme Being: Deism teaches that there is one Supreme God who made all things and who watches over the world. This God has been likened to a great clockmaker who winds the world up like a clock and lets it run by its own laws, not interfering once he has started the process. In deistic thought, reason—apart from revelation—leads one to the Supreme God. Deists deny the deity of Christ, suggesting that the belief that there are three persons in the one true God is irrational. Although deism tends to stress God’s nonintervention in the world, some deists have had a view of providence in which God is guiding His creation. Still, they have not held to the full-orbed biblical doctrine of providence.

  2. Worship: Deism calls mankind to worship the one Supreme God, but deists differ as to what this looks like. Many of them believe that worship consists in the pursuit of a virtuous life. Some deists have held to a view of the Supreme God that led them to pray; others have not.

  3. Morality: In the deistic worldview, virtue is the highest goal of man. We are acceptable to the Supreme God by right living. All people have the same sense of virtue and know how we ought to live, especially in our relationship with our fellow human beings.

  4. Repentance: People appease the Supreme God by grieving over those things that they know they have done wrong. Deists see no place for a God who requires a blood sacrifice to satisfy His justice.

  5. Immortality: Deists have differed on whether human beings have an immortal soul and on the existence of the afterlife. Many deists have denied immortality, while others have affirmed it. Deists who affirm the existence of an afterlife have generally held that all humanity may attain to eternal life by doing what is right. In other words, good or virtuous people go to heaven when they die. Deism is essentially a works-righteousness, moralistic religion.

Why do people believe this form of false teaching?

In the age of the Enlightenment, deism was extremely appealing to Western civilization. It offered a rational alternative to historic biblical Christianity. Additionally, deism offered modern people a religion that appeared to be more charitable than Christianity. Moralistic therapeutic deism offers people a God who does not meddle too much in their lives and who also encourages them to be good, fair, and nice to one another. It guarantees salvation to those who pursue a life of goodness and kindness.

How does it hold up against biblical Christianity?

Though God reveals Himself in the things that He has made (Rom. 1:19–20), we can know Him as Savior only through the revelation of Christ in the Scriptures (Luke 16:29, 31; 24:27, 32, 45; Rom. 10:14). The world was created by the word of God’s power (Heb. 11:3). He upholds it by that same word (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3). God is intimately involved in the governance of every action and event in the world. As Dr. R.C. Sproul said, “If there is one single maverick molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.” Salvation is a free gift of God, not based on anything that we do.

No one goes to heaven because of his works. Rather, whoever believes in the Son of God will have eternal life.

In contrast to the five main beliefs of deism, Scripture teaches the following:

  1. The Supreme Being: There is only one true and living God, subsisting in three distinct persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each member of the Godhead is worthy of our worship, since all the members of the Godhead are “the same in substance, equal in power and glory.”2 The Father is God (1 Cor. 1:3; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2), the Son is God (John 1:1; 8:58; 10:30; Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:15–16; Heb. 1:1–3), and the Spirit is God (Acts 5:3–4). These three persons are distinct, yet they do not constitute three different gods, for they share the one divine essence fully and equally.

  2. Worship: God alone is worthy of our worship. We are to worship God only according to His revealed truth. John 4:24 says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” No one can come into the presence of God without a mediator. As God and man, Jesus is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

  3. Morality: All people (except Christ) have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). There is nothing that we in ourselves can do that will bring us into a right relationship with God. God has provided redemption in Christ. Scripture teaches that God justifies us freely—declares us righteous and forgives us—by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ. Salvation is by faith alone through grace alone, apart from works (Eph. 2:8–9). We do not seek to live morally upright lives in order to be accepted by God. We are accepted by God and, therefore, we seek to live lives of grateful obedience, obeying God’s moral law (Eph. 2:10).

  4. Repentance: Though God commands all people everywhere to repent of their sins (Acts 17:30), our repentance does not atone for sin. God sent Christ to be the perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins (Heb. 7:27; 9:26). The blood of Jesus covers all our offenses against God (1 John 1:7).

  5. Immortality: No one goes to heaven because of his works. Rather, whoever believes in the Son of God will have eternal life (John 3:15–16, 36; 6:47). Salvation is a free gift of God’s grace in Christ. Jesus lived a perfectly sinless life in order to fulfill the demands of God’s law as the representative of God’s people (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 4:3–4). Jesus died under the wrath of God to take the punishment of His people, and His perfect obedience is credited to those who believe in Him, meaning that believers have eternal life because of the good He has done. God reserves heaven for those who trust in the Son’s finished work of redemption (1 Peter 1:3–5).

How can I share the gospel with those who hold to this false teaching?

  1. Focus on God’s sovereign power in governing all His creation. To deny God’s providential working in His creation is to deny God Himself. If the sovereign Creator is not working out His plan according to His most wise counsel, chance is ultimate. Scripture teaches that God is not detached from His creation but intervenes in the lives of His creatures. Rather than living in detachment from God, we are called in Scripture to be reconciled to God through the saving work of Jesus. The transcendent God draws near to us in the person of Jesus Christ and by the powerful working of His Spirit.

  2. Focus on the sinfulness of man. If someone insists that God accepts us because of our goodness, we should remind them of what Scripture says about the sinfulness of man. We are fallen in Adam and are under the wrath and curse of God (Rom. 5:12–21; Gal. 3:13). We are born dead in sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1–4) and are unable to do anything spiritually acceptable to God in our sinful nature. Any attempt to gain God’s approval is a manifestation of self-righteousness. Nothing we do can bring us into a right relationship with God.

  3. Focus on the perfection of Christ’s person and saving work. Only in Christ does God accept sinners. Jesus is God in the flesh, and He took the sin of His people on Himself at the cross in order to reconcile us to God and make us righteous before Him (Rom. 3:21–26; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Peter  2:4; 3:18). Jesus took the infinite wrath of God to atone for all the sin of His people. Because Jesus has borne the punishment that His people deserve, all those who trust in Him alone for salvation will not suffer eternal death but rather will inherit eternal life.

This article is part of the Field Guide on False Teaching collection.

  1. Christian Smith, “On ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith,” Catholic Education Resource Center, accessed September 19, 2019, https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/common-misconceptions/on-moralistic-therapeutic-deism-as-u-s-teenagers-actual-tacit-de-facto-religious-faith.html.
  2. Westminster Shorter Catechism 6.