Question: "Who was Voltaire, and how did he impact Christian history?"
Answer: François-Marie Arouet (1694—1778), better known by his pen name, Voltaire, was a French philosopher of the Enlightenment era who very much dominated the French stage for half a century. He received a classical education under the Jesuits at Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, but he abandoned the law for the pursuit of his literary activities.
Voltaire made a number of positive contributions to theism. Rejecting atheism outright, he believed that a Creator could be inferred from a study of philosophy and natural theology. He accepted many of Thomas Aquinas’s arguments for God and developed his own rendition of the cosmological argument. Moreover, Voltaire defended many of God’s attributes such as His necessity, omnipotence, eternality, simplicity, and intelligence. He also sided with William Paley’s teleological design argument, saying, “This of itself appears to me the most convincing demonstration of the existence of a God, and I cannot conceive in what way it can be answered.”
Although Voltaire called his philosophy “theism,” he was actually a deist, and this caused him to reject a number of Christian doctrines. For example, the problem of evil caused him to doubt God’s attributes of goodness and benevolence, along with any idea of an afterlife.
Calling the Christian faith the “infamous superstition” and taking the typical deist stance of anti-supernaturalism, Voltaire rejected all miracles recorded in the Bible. While acknowledging Jesus as superior to all other religious leaders and accepting His moral teachings, Voltaire refashioned Christ to be a humanist and deist and rejected His divinity.
Voltaire summed up his view of the Bible in this way: “The Bible. That is what fools have written, what imbeciles commend, what rogues teach and young children are made to learn by heart” ( Philosophical Dictionary, 1764). Believing that “we are living in the twilight of Christianity” (op. cit.), he felt the Christian faith would soon become extinct and the Bible only an ancient relic. Ironically, years after his death, Christians purchased Voltaire’s home and used his own printing press to manufacture Bibles. While some have tried to classify this story as only an urban legend, others have researched the case and found it to be true.