The night Jefferson Bethke, 22, posted his “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video on YouTube, he made a bet with his roommates about how many views the video would get by morning.
“The lowest bet was 1,000 and the highest bet was 6,000,” Bethke said in an interview.
By the time Bethke woke up the next day, the video had more than 100,000 views. Eight days after the video posted, it has been watched more than 14 million times.
The viral video, Bethke said, was not an attempt to bash all religion, but rather “to write a poem against legalism, self righteousness, self-justification and hypocrisy” — the definition of bad religion that is preached at Mars Hill, the church he attends in Washington state.
Among the lines that provoked theological cheers and jeers:
What if I told you, Jesus came to abolish religion?
What if I told you getting you to vote Republican, really wasn’t his mission?
This is what makes religion and Jesus two different clans,
Religion is man searching for God, but Christianity is God searching for man.
Because the problem with religion is that it never gets to the core,
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores.
As he shared in the video and in an interview, Bethke’s own spiritual transformation was mirrored in the imagery of the rotten religion. Although he attended a nondenominational Protestant church growing up, he says he grew “numb” to Christianity’s message, describing himself then as a hedonist. “Lust, pleasure, greed [was] at the core of my heart.”
“I was worshipping and getting my identity and worth from pleasure.”
After his own conversion in college, “that truth, that weight and that reality just crushed me, in a good way, and led to real transformation. It wasn’t me just playing the game, it was me having a heart that was transformed by the grace of Jesus.”
Does Bethke really believe, as he said in the video to great response from many religious scholars (and armchair theologians), that Jesus came to abolish religion?
“You have to get back to my definition of religion,” Bethke says. “[Jesus] was coming to abolish self righteousness, justification and hypocrisy.”
“To me,” he said, “the church and the body of Jesus has an immense weight and immense job in carrying his mission. I think the church is a place to come to for forgiveness, as I alluded to [in the video] ... I think it’s a place where there is forgiveness of sin, there’s grace, there’s mercy.”
“Essentially, whatever you find in Jesus you should be able to find in his body, a.k.a. the church. To me, that’s immensely positive. I’m a 100 percent believer in the church.”
Bethke’s video may have also tapped into a larger trend in American religion: a growing skepticism of organized religion, particularly among younger generations. A 2010 Pew Forum poll found that Americans ages 18 to 29 “are considerably less religious than older Americans,” even when compared to their parents and grandparents’ generations at the same stage of life. Despite that decline in religious affiliation, by other measures, this generation still seeks meaning in other ways.
Bethke’s message for spiritual skeptics: “My message for the people who call themselves spiritual but not religious and who would say, you know, ‘The church is some place that I don’t want to be involved in,’ I would say: Investigate Jesus.”
“Look to him — who is he? What did he do? Try to strip back all of the things that have been added over the past 2,000 years. Go to the Scripture.”
What’s next for the young video star?
“I don’t want to be famous,” Bethke said. “I don’t want to be known. I want to be [someone] obscure who makes [Jesus] known and makes him famous.”