Opium is an illegal narcotic drug; Jesus is a historical figure who claimed to be God. So, which is better?
The question may seem strange, or like comparing pome and citrus fruits, but it comes from one of the most famous criticisms of organized religion. In 1844, philosopher and economist Karl Marx called religion the “opium of the people.” There is no doubt Marx’s criticism included Christianity. So, let us try and understand this scathing remark and weigh its claims.
What did Marx mean by “opium of the people”?
Before evaluating Marx’s criticism, we must try to understand what he was saying. Opium is a potent substance that comes from seedpods of opium poppy plants. Once collected, the substance can either be used legally to make medicine or illegally to make drugs like heroin. We can say with certainty that Marx was not calling religion the medicine of the people. He was equating religion to a drug. He was claiming that religion is as fleeting and unsuccessful at dealing with life’s physical and emotional problems as the momentary high one experiences from using drugs.
Why Marx Thought He Was Right
Everyone experiences pain. Everyone has problems. This is true today and was no different in the days of Karl Marx. Marx seemed to observe that if humans are to persevere through life, they have to deal with these hardships in one way or another.
It appears as though Marx reflected on all the ways people coped with life’s problems and saw no difference between religion and substance abuse. To Marx, whether one ascribed to a religion or injected a potent substance made no difference. Both would be equally ineffective—both a mirage that could only provide temporary and inadequate relief. The user of opium would experience their high then quickly return to his or her right mind only to find the world and its problems waiting patiently. Similarly, he must have thought, religious observances and rituals were an ethereal high, equally temporary, proportionally empty, and similarly delusional. From Marx’s perspective, neither “solution” avoided or even meaningfully eased the burdens it aimed to elude.
What Marx Got Right
When Marx called religion the “opium of the people,” he did get two things right. First, he properly identified drugs as an empty and futile way of dealing with life’s problems. Any drug induced escape does not and cannot solve or even meaningfully ease any of life’s suffering. Second, “religion” in the sense of rituals, traditions, and systems is also a false hope. Going to a building, performing religious acts, and even doing good, moral things are as ineffective at truly solving life's problems as getting high off drugs!
Why Marx Was Wrong
In the end, however, Marx’s criticism falls flat. He is wrong because he does not distinguish Christianity from other religions and thereby rejects Jesus as the true solution.
Marx failed to grasp how Jesus is different from all other religious leaders. Jesus is not someone who made public claims of private divine enlightenment. He is divine and is the source of all enlightenment (Heb 1:1–3). Jesus did not attempt to persuade anyone that he possessed the self-help secrets to eternal life. He claims that he himself is the way, the truth, and the light (John 14:6). Jesus was not a power-hungry leader who cajoled his followers into giving him a portion of their income. He is Lord over all of life (Col 1:15–20) and those who submit find abundant joy (Ps 16:11). Jesus sets himself apart then, not as the leader of another religion, but as the answer to life’s biggest problem.
What is life’s biggest problem? Marx thought it was the separation between people and their work. He spent most of his life thinking and writing about how to alleviate this issue. But if Marx had only turned his eyes from this picket fence he would have seen the canyon lying between humanity and its Creator—the sin of mankind creating an impassible gap to our holy God (Rom 3:23). Naturally then, because he did not understand the problem of sin, he could not recognize Jesus’s death and resurrection as the solution. On the cross, Jesus gave himself up in order to overcome the sum-total of humanity’s evil (Rom 3:24). Jesus’s death is the love and mercy of the Creator accepting our guilt and our penalty for our sins. His self-sacrifice is the only bridge between humans and God.
Jesus Is Better
So why is Jesus better than opium? Jesus answers life’s problems; drugs elude them. Since Jesus is the answer to our biggest problem (namely, how we can relate to our Creator), we find answers to all of our problems in him. Yes, Christians still have pain and problems like everyone else. But because of Jesus we suffer in hope, looking to a day when we will suffer no longer (Rev 21:4). Because of Jesus we suffer in community, sacrificing to care for the needs of fellow believers (Phil 2:3). Because of Jesus we suffer in victory, knowing that whatever happens—even death—will turn out for our good (Rom 8:28).
Marx was unable to see this because he was blind to the nature of human brokenness. May God open our eyes to see the depths of our brokenness in order that we might see and sing the heights of his grace! If religion is the opium of the people, then Jesus is the unshakable solution for those who love him.
 It is worth noting that much ink has been spilt (by writers much smarter than me) over what exactly Marx was trying to say here. The philosopher’s precise opinion of religion changed throughout his life is not always clear from his writings. Nevertheless, in this article, I am attempting to evaluate the maxim based on how many people employ it today.