What Albert Einstein thought of Jesus (and God)

I’m currently enwrapped in the shameless pleasure of reading Albert Einstein’s biography by Walter Isaacson. This book has basically destroyed my shallow assumptions about Einstein by introducing me to the man (as opposed to the idea of the man). And one area of interest that people eighty years ago had a hard time wrapping their minds around was Einstein’s religion.

Did he believe in the Jewish God of Abraham? Or what about the Christian God of the Apostle Paul? Or was he an agnostic? Perhaps an atheist? Did Einstein even have a religion or was he religionless?

According to Einstein’s own confession, he was religious. But confusion came into play when he tried to explain his religion.

“Try and penetrate with out limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.” (p.384)

Finally Einstein was asked pointblank: Do you believe in a God? To which he replied: “I’m not an atheist.” Einstein went on to say:

“The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvellously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.” (p.386)

So Einstein did believed in a God. Or did he believe in a “god”? Or is he talking about a force of nature yet to be discovered? Was science his religion? Or was he suggesting that this “force” was the Christian God? Or perhaps the Jewish God? (For Christians, those are one and the same.)

According to Isaacson, “As a child, Einstein had gone through an ecstatic religious phrase, then rebelled against it.” Around the age of 50 Einstein began to talk more about his views of God. At what point he “came” to believe in a God, if any, cannot be known. It may be that he always believed that a god of some sort existed. But it was his science – the very same science that novice people today use to proclaim atheism – that led him directly into belief in a God.

See, Einstein was a strict determinist. He “displayed a profound faith in the orderliness of the universe.” This faith led him to resist quantum mechanics (today we know that Einstein was wrong to do so). It was also this conviction of orderliness that formed the backbone of his scientific outlook as well as his religious.

According to Isaacson, Einstein wrote,

“The highest satisfaction of a scientific person is to come to the realization that God Himself could not have arranged these connections any other way than that which does exist, any more than it would have been in His power to make four a prime number.” (p.385)

Here Einstein is appealing to the medieval philosophy broadly accepted today that God cannot do that which is locally impossible. Just as God cannot hear silence, smell nothing, or make four a prime number, he also cannot create a universe with different orderly laws than the one we live in. (Of course Einstein’s ideas are not new, and they have long before Einstein been debated by theologians.)

But what kind of God did Einstein believe in?

Einstein was a deist. He believed that a god of some sort must exist, but he, she, it is not a personal being. “I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.”

I find this emphatic position strange since Einstein appeals to our “limited minds” when accepting a god, yet seems to exhibit such confidence in knowing what kind of God he is not. In any case, the question was then put to him: what about Christianity? His answer here is what interests me greatly:

“As a child I received instruction both in the Bible and in the Talmud. I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.”

His interviewer asked, so you accepted the historical existence of Jesus?

“Unquestionably! No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.”

I find those statements by Einstein to be some of the most powerful made about Jesus I’ve ever read, by Christian or otherwise. In fact, if I were not a believer already, Einstein may have just made a convert of me.

Question: What do you think of Einstein’s view of God and Jesus? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • phil king

    He also said

    A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy,
    education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man
    would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of
    punishment and hope of reward after death. [Albert Einstein]

    • True. This philosophy probably also explains why he believed men were naturally polygamous and had no problem committing repeated affairs with multiple women so long as no one got seriously hurt.

  • phil king

    I thought the topic was about divine convictions – not marriage. However, I hope you know that the Bible says that Solomon had 700 wives, an unspecified number of princesses (possibly his relatives) and 300 concubines:

    And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. [1 Kings 11:3]

    • I was replying to your comment about “ethical behaviour.”

      The nice thing about the Bible is that it doesn’t sugarcoat when people did dumb things. The Bible tells us about Solomon’s relationships. But you shouldn’t confuse “telling” with “condoning.”

      • phil king

        The bible condones polygamy:

        If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. [Exodus 21:10]

        • That’s not condoning polygamy. That’s putting limitations on a person who commits polygamy. It does not say, “a man shall take for himself more than one wife.” It’s saying “IF a man takes for himself more than one wife (acknowledging a situation, not condoning it), he must treat both fairly.” The emphasis is how he treats the women.

          • phil king

            Surely you know that condone can mean both sanction and accept, and amongst all those ancient rules, there is nothing to say that polygamy is forbidden.

          • @Phil King, if I may be so bold as to intrude, there are plenty of us who believe in the lordship of Jesus Christ who are not living for a future life after death. I can tell you honestly that after studying what the Bible actually said about hell, I have no fear of it, nor do I promote (or believe) a fear of it is a reason for other people to seek Jesus. As for a possible heaven, I like to think of that as icing on the cake, but I’m firmly convinced that if what I do in this life has no value in this life, it’s irrelevant to any “next life” that may occur.

            It is true that the Christian hope of resurrection may make believers more ready to die for their beliefs/faith/ethics. There, I have not been tested (and would be quite happy if I don’t need to be), so anything I would say in that vein would be completely hypothetical. But one need not consider the afterlife in any serious manner, in order to come to a choice of faith. It’s actually quite unfortunate that so many Christians have (mis)represented the way of Jesus in that fashion. It misses the point.

          • phil king

            There is no way that a belief in life after death – especially a belief in the two scenarios of hell and heaven – could not have strong effects on how
            you live this life.

            One example of how this belief in an afterlife effects people, can be
            seen in the current war at Gaza where hundreds of children have died.
            Many Muslims believe that these children have gone to the Muslim
            heaven and many Christians believe that these children have gone to
            the Christian heaven. And of course, many people think this war was
            prophesied in the bible. In other words; a dependance on God, rather
            than a search for a solution.

          • @Phil: Hi Dan: There is no way that a belief in life after death – especially a belief in the two scenarios of hell and heaven – could not have strong effects on how you think and how you live this life.

            Dan: Then i guess you are saying I’m lying? You are correct that such beliefs do affect some people in the way you describe, but what I said in my previous comment was completely true about me, and while my position may be a minority one, I assure you I am not unique.

          • alllrite

            “quote Mining” – is just a silly saying that atheists use when they get caught contradicting themselves.

        • John Johnson

          This text was God protecting the rights of women. God deals with people where they are. Tribal Semitic nations at that time fought for survival, they had too. Tribal Genocide was common practice. Defenseless widows resulted and God provided for their care. This is God elevating Heathens with the notion marriage is more than a romantic tryst.

    • John Johnson

      I hope you realize scripture condemns Solomon’s lifestyle and indicates he’s damned.

  • YinMei Quan

    Quote: A letter being auctioned in London this week adds more fuel to the long-simmering debate about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s religious views. In the note, written the year before his death, Einstein dismissed the idea of God as the product of human weakness and the Bible as “pretty childish.” – http://www.nbcnews.com/id/24598856/ns/us_news-faith/t/einstein-letter-calls-bible-pretty-childish/

    Einstein was wrong about Quantum Mechanics and he was wrong about Jesus – I highly doubt he ever said the words of Jesus pulsate in the Gospels. And even if he did, not only did he change his mind, citing this “appeal to authority” is a logical fallacy where the opinion of an expert in one field (physics) is cited as evidence in another (theology).

    In other words, we value what a scientist can actually prove – not what he says. Stephen Hawking is an atheist, as are 93% of the top scientists, the American Academy of Sciences. This is not proof there is no God, but it is evidence God is very, very unlikely. Yeshua is just as unlikely as Zeus and all the other gods before them. When will theists admit that faith is not a path to truth?