The Christian case against Bitcoin and blockchain

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A number of months ago I read an article on challies.com that attempted to give a positive take on Bitcoin and blockchain technologies from a Christian perspective, which I strongly disagreed with. This post is a response.

I have long been a fan of challies.com, which has many excellent Christian articles and resources, and from the same kind of Christian background as me — Protestant and theologically conservative. The article in question was not by Tim Challies himself, but was a guest post. It had just enough plausible sounding arguments, and enough of a credibility boost from being on challies.com, that I felt compelled to respond.

XKCD comic: “Are you coming bed?” Answer: “I can’t. This is important. Someone is *wrong* on the internet

Thankfully, there are other articles by Christians about Bitcoin, such as Greg Phelan’s recent analysis from an economic perspective, and the earlier 2017 article by Joe Carter, both of which are excellent. I won’t be repeating all the observations and arguments made in those, but I do think that there could be a benefit in providing a response to the challies.com article from a more technical angle — as someone who is both theologically trained, and has more than 20 years experience in professional software development.

I’ve split what I want to say into two parts. This post deals with the claim that the challies.com article represents a genuinely Christian outlook on Bitcoin and blockchain. On closer inspection, I think in reality it represents a mostly misinformed and sometimes very naive understanding of both economics and technology, and then uses Christianised vocabulary to gloss over the problematic parts of Bitcoin.

That may sound like a harsh assessment, but I will try to back it up below.

My second post looks at the claim that cryptocurrencies and blockchain are a technological revolution.

I’m writing this mostly for a Christian audience, but others may benefit and I would certainly appreciate input and feedback from those who don’t share my Christian faith. The ethical principles, although expressed in Christian terms here, are certainly not unique to Christians.

My posts will focus on Bitcoin and Ethereum, the two most famous cryptoassets, but most of it applies to others, and I’ll look at some of the others briefly at the end of the second post. (I prefer the terms “cryptoasset” and “cryptocoin” to “cryptocurrency”, because these things are not currencies).

Bitcoin is a cult

For a Christian to understand and navigate the world of Bitcoin and its promoters, it’s important to understand that you are dealing with a cult — a movement with its own faith and philosophy and leaders (paywalled), and even language and culture. One illustration of many:

You need this understanding first of all to inoculate yourself against the outlandish hyperbole surrounding everything Bitcoin. When reading “Bitcoin fixes this” or “blockchain fixes that” or “web3 is the future”, time after time, it’s easy to lose your head and think, “surely so many people can’t be so wrong?”. But when something functions as cultish devotion, divorced from any need to be based on rational claims, the wild enthusiasm should be expected.

For example, take Michael Saylor (1.9 million followers on Twitter):

If you fell asleep on your keyboard and woke up to find that you had accidentally tweeted “5jubh6 78mktrtyqwerpo”, you would still not have produced anything so utterly devoid of truth or meaning as this tweet. And yet, you will likely never compete with Saylor or his tweets in terms of popularity either.

This is perhaps the extreme end of the Bitcoin cult. Normally, it doesn’t seem to be quite as bad, and perhaps not as bad as other recent cults like QAnon. On the other hand, it is a cult essentially built around money, and benefiting from big financial backers who are making the most of the fact that Bitcoin is a largely unregulated financial asset. So it is pretty dangerous.

A robust response to it, however, needs to be more than a dismissive “it’s a cult” (which doesn’t address whether the beliefs of the cult are actually true) and more even than “it’s gambling which is a sin”.

Christian faith and risk-taking

The challies.com article starts with talking about the need for “faith” in our finances, and continues this theme in places where it talks about risk taking. But the faith it is describing is not Biblical, Christian faith.

Biblical faith is not making a leap into the dark to engage in risky and possibly unethical behaviour while praying that God will bless you. Neither is it “you can do miracles, when you believe”, as Dreamworks put it. Rather, faith is trusting that God will do what he has promised to do (as written in the Bible), and thereby being enabled to do what is right.

In addition, while not rationalistic, it is a rational faith, based on the historical reality of God’s revelation of himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and his resurrection from the dead. As the apostle Paul wrote, if Jesus Christ did not actually rise from the dead, then the whole of the Christian faith is a waste of time and Christians are the most pitiable of all people.

What does Christian faith look like in practice? Let’s say, for example, that I’m struggling financially, and I’m tempted to cheat on my tax form. If I remember that God has promised to look after me. and refuse that temptation, that’s Christian faith in action. It’s rational because the miracles and resurrection of Jesus give me good reason to believe that his words are reliable.

As a negative example, I know of a Christian organisation that “stepped out in faith” by diverting money received specifically for supporting Christian workers to a different scheme that failed. They were unable to recoup the money they owed the workers, and the organisation folded. That is not faith, it is fraud.

To claim that some action is acting in faith requires promises from God that cover that action, and a Biblical demonstration that the action is a morally good one that God approves of. If buying Bitcoin is morally out of line with God’s Word (as the other Christian articles I linked to argue, and as I will below), it is never acting in faith to do so — even if we feel we are “trusting God”.

The Bitcoin faith

The faith of the Bitcoin cult stands in stark contrast to Christian faith.

All cryptoassets live and die by faith. If the market stops believing that a certain cryptoasset is valuable, then it immediately ceases to be valuable. It has no value other than as an entirely speculative financial asset and so the faith aspect is vital.

But Bitcoin faith is a blind and anti-rationale faith. Bitcoiners carry on believing despite all the accumulated evidence that Bitcoin is a dead-end idea. And indeed they have to, as their investment will only be worth anything if they carry on believing and can convince other people to believe. This makes it necessarily anti-rational — evidence must simply be ignored and explained away.

A demonstration of Bitcoin faith at work is found in the closing lines of the challies.com article:

We are convinced that Christians will all soon agree that crypto is not a curse to be feared, but a blessing to rejoice in, fully under the control of the One who has overcome the world.

Take heart, we’re going to make it.

It would be easy to pass over the last sentence as a mere platitude. But it’s actually a deliberate mashup of a Biblical quotation and Bitcoin lingo. The language is straight from Jesus’ words in John 16:33, but finishes with “we’re going to make it” (WAGMI or GMI), which, along with its inverse NGMI, is a part of Bitcoin culture. “We’re going to make it” is how Bitcoiners spur each other on to keep believing.

Of course, use of Bitcoin lingo is not necessarily wrong. There are many ways as Christians that we consciously and subconsciously borrow from the culture around us, and there may be nothing bad about that.

But it is worth reflecting on the nature of faith at work here. “We’re going to make it” is a statement of faith without a reason or a rationale, or a promise from God. It is a mantra that the Bitcoiner must keep repeating, and must indoctrinate others with, or it will fail. It is faith in a man-made system, faith in “technology”, and ultimately faith in faith itself. But certainly not faith in God.

In addition, it seems pretty clear that the authors are using Biblical rhetoric for their essentially political aim — the promotion of Bitcoin and cryptoassets. This closing note frames the success of Bitcoin as if it was aligned and united with the growth and triumph of Christ’s kingdom. Since they believe cryptoassets to be a blessing to the world, I can understand why they might do this. But this kind of appropriation of Biblical truths and language for political ends is always extremely dangerous and destructive for the church.

In this instance, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as Mike Pence’s idolatrous appropriation of Hebrews 12:1-2 for a political speech, for example. But it is the same mistake — you believe a certain cause is a good one (which is fine, although you may be mistaken), but then go on to talk about that cause as if it was itself the cause of Jesus Christ (which is not OK).

Faith and FOMO

The reality is that most crypto devotion is built on the back not of faith, but Fear Of Missing Out. “If I don’t buy into Bitcoin/latest-new-alt-coin/NFTs/web3 maybe I might miss an amazing opportunity to get rich by doing nothing…” is the fundamental mechanic at play for most people.

Of course, that doesn’t stop it being represented in exactly the opposite terms. The challies.com article presents the crypto-skeptic as “fearing” crypto. The ridiculous “Fortune favours the brave” Matt Damon ad for crypto.com likens gambling on crypto to intrepid explorers of the past. But Biblical courage looks like this:

Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Better the little that the righteous have
than the wealth of many wicked;
for the power of the wicked will be broken,
but the LORD upholds the righteous.

Psalm 37:1-3,16-17

The “land” here refers to the promised land, the place of blessing, which Christians understand in an expanded sense — the meek shall inherit not just one land, but “the earth”. That doesn’t mean Christians are to be passive and never take risks. Rather, it means that we calmly and fearlessly do what is right, not worrying about losing out or getting left behind.

A Biblical understanding of money making

The essential thing that the challies.com article fails to provide is some kind of theology of work and money-making, especially when it comes to investing.

To counter the accusation of gambling, the authors write:

Some critics call crypto a “casino” for “price speculation,” but such detractors may fail to recognize that their criticism can apply equally to the Christian holding mutual funds in their company 401(k)

Do they mean that some (but not all) pension funds are run in unethical ways that amount to gambling? If so, then this is just whataboutery. Do they mean that all pension funds or similar investment schemes are equivalent to gambling? Then this is fairly basic financial illiteracy. It’s depressing to have to spend time countering these classic Bitcoiner tropes and fallacies, but here goes…

Not everything that makes money is legitimate “work” (in the Biblical sense).

It’s clear from the Bible that some activities are “work” that should be rewarded with money:

A labourer is worthy of his wages

1 Timothy 5:18

But not all:

6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’

11 We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Here the apostle Paul is addressing the problem of idle people within the church family. They clearly have enough to live on financially, but they are not earning it. Presumably they are living off the generosity of friends or family, or accumulated riches, or are in some way scamming people.

None of these are God-glorifying work, no matter how much money you “make”.

Real work, that is worthy of wages, is distinguished by loving your neighbour by doing something useful for other people or society in general. Work can take many forms, but normally involves making things or providing services. Sometimes work can seem quite detached from practical utility, like studying pure mathematics. But we sponsor such people as a society because we’ve recognised the value of increasing the sum of human knowledge as a good in itself, and as something that often ends up helping people in other ways.

Now, investing money appears to be a Biblically legitimate way of making money in general terms (e.g. Matthew 25:14-30). But clearly not all investments can be approved of. Investing money in a pornography company might get you a good return, but it is not legitimate for a Christian. The companies or schemes that we invest in must also be doing something good for society.

So, suppose there is a company that produces a new, more efficient system for washing clothes (or whatever). Clothes need to be washed, and if it can be done more efficiently, all the better. You invest in their stock, and you get back a dividend from the profits that are made. If you get in early, you may also gain from their stock going up in value as the company grows and succeeds. In both cases, you have done something useful and worthy of being rewarded:

  • in owning the stock, you are allowing your surplus cash to be put to use in the world, for the benefit of others.

  • in recognising the value of what the company was doing, you have applied your wisdom and understanding in choosing to invest in a company that would make the world a better place. You have also done so at risk to yourself.

In this case, we have a positive sum outcome. It is not simply money going round in circles. Some people paid money to have their clothes washed, and other people put that money in their pockets (the company employees and the investors) — but in addition, clothes got washed. Something good and useful happened in the world.

This is in contrast to zero sum schemes, where all the money earned by some is lost by others, and there are no other benefits. Or even negative sum schemes, where significant overheads or other losses mean that overall the world has become a worse, poorer place because of the transactions.

When it comes to pension funds and other investments, we may not have complete control of the portfolio of companies being invested in. But to the extent we do have control, an ethical approach to investment must involve choosing stocks (or government bonds etc) where we have a reasonable confidence that the money will mostly be put to good use. We might choose to delegate that decision to a provider of ethical financial services, rather than attempt to become experts ourselves. But at some level investing must involve the ethics of what we are investing in, and not just the returns we make.

Piling schemes on top of schemes cannot render something ethical. If, instead of investing in a porn company directly, I buy stocks in a financial services company that specialises in investing in porn, or makes its money primarily off that industry in some other way, I’m ethically no better off than I was.

Also, positive outcomes are not a justification for unethical investing. Such positive outcomes might include:

  • “I made a lot of money”. The large amounts of money that people put in their pockets do not justify money-making schemes, even if they are technically legal. On the contrary, these large amounts of money are the very thing that needs to justified, because they’ve come from other people’s pockets.

  • “I made a lot of money, and I’m going to give it to the church or a charity”. No, the ends don’t justify the means.

  • “I made a lot of money, so now I have more time to give to my family/prayer/God’s work”. It’s the same thing.

  • “I made so much money, the sight of my bank balance causes my heart to fill with overflowing praise to God!” Please stop. You love money, not God.

There is a lot more that could be said here, and what I’ve attempted above is an outline. There are probably areas where Bible-believing Christians disagree, such as on the degree of speculation that is legitimate when investing, especially since it can be pretty hard to define the difference between speculation and investment. But we can agree on some basics:

  • To claim that all investment is gambling, because it all involves risk, is just the continuum fallacy and is ethically sub-Christian.

  • Speculation can only ever have a net positive value for the world if the asset involved is itself useful.

Application to cryptoassets

So much for the general principles. When it comes to Bitcoin and other cryptoassets, as far as anyone is able to analyse it, it’s a strongly negative sum scheme. It is not a stock — Bitcoin does not exists as a company that provides some useful service — and it pays no dividend. All the dollars that come out of the system have come from other people paying in, and at the same time there are massive losses.

The most well known is the amount of electricity wasted, especially for anything involving “proof of work” consensus algorithms, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. If you care about climate change, as every Christian should, then this should matter to you.

Even if you could solve climate and environmental concerns, wasting resources is always waste, and always takes away from other, beneficial uses, for example by driving up prices. This is economically inevitable.

And there are many more “negative externalities”, as this Stanford lecture put it:

This [huge electricity consumption] is far from the only externality the cryptocurrency mania imposes upon the world. Among the others are that Bitcoin alone generates as much e-waste as the Netherlands, that cryptocurrencies enable a $5.2B/year ransomware industry, that they have disrupted supply chains for GPUs, hard disks, SSDs and other chips, that they have made it impossible for web services to offer free tiers, and that they are responsible for a massive crime wave including fraud, theft, tax evasion, funding of rogue states such as North Korea, drug smuggling, and even armed robbery.

Financially, it is in essence a Ponzi scheme — but worse than a Ponzi, according to this Financial Times post (paywalled).

Bitcoiners will even admit this:

(Although, when someone can’t tell the difference between a currency and a Ponzi, their assessment may not be worth very much…) Other Bitcoiners have also spoken openly in praise of Ponzi, and other crypto leaders have been totally open about this.

In addition to being an immoral way to earn money for ourselves, promoting crypto is a huge failure to love our more vulnerable neighbours. Just like Ponzi schemes and multi-level marketing scams, the financial structure of cryptoassets means that there is no source of money except new investors or recruits. Eventually they will run out of “greater fools”, at which point a large number of unlucky people will lose.

Some people can afford such risks. But these schemes, with their potential for high (and unsustainable) returns, always attract the most vulnerable and financially desperate. Like the widow in the temple, these people will put in their last pennies, all they have to live on. Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees who “devoured widows’ houses” surely applies to anyone who promotes or encourages these schemes. “These men will be punished most severely.”

Proof of waste

In a healthy economy, money serves as a kind of “proof of work”. As a reward for doing something useful for society, you are given money which you can use for yourself or others you care about. 1

But the “proof of work” in cryptoassets turns this on its head. Bitcoin and Ethereum miners are rewarded in proportion to how many calculations they do. Now, if the electronic ledger they were maintaining with the electricity this requires were actually beneficial to society, then this might be reasonable. But since these assets function only as “greater fool” schemes and not as money (except for criminals, and a very small number of legitimate cases), it would be better to call this system “proof of waste”.

Bitcoin and Ethereum reward miners for wasting natural resources. This makes it probably the most unethical invention of the 21st century. It should be deeply offensive to anyone who believes, as Christians do, that the planet’s resources do not belong to us, but to Another, who requires us to steward them wisely, and who will one day ask us to give account for that stewardship.


Are there are some other technological or social benefits that might somehow offset all this? I’ll look at that in my second post.

But first, there are some other angles we could look at this from a Christian point of view.


Crypto-gnosticism

Gnosticism (silent ‘g’) was a movement that affected early Christianity, and still has influence. The name comes the greek word “gnosis” meaning “knowledge”, and refers to the fact that gnostics usually claimed some kind of higher level of enlightenment that came not from a right understanding of God’s truth in holy scripture, or any other rational source, but via direct revelation from God. You could call this “crypto-gnosis” — hidden knowledge — if you wanted.

This is far from being something unique to Christian sects and movements. The seductive belief that you have gained access to a higher, hidden knowledge that other people “just don’t get” is a driving force behind many conspiracy theories and cults. And it is certainly present in the Bitcoin world. For example:

While this “you just don’t get it” idea didn’t come through that strongly in the challies.com article, I’ve seen it from other Christian crypto-enthusiasts, and, given the unfortunate inclination of significant parts of the Christian world towards conspiracy theories, you are likely to see this new crypto-gnosticism sometime soon in your local church.

Sound money

Another claim made by the challies.com article, often found amongst Bitcoiners, is that cryptoassets are “sound money”. One of the central ideas here is that the supply of Bitcoin, in contrast to fiat money, cannot be controlled by centralised authorities such as governments. Putting aside the many fundamental failures in understanding of economics, and the fact that Bitcoin fails to be money at all by most definitions, there is a strong libertarian, anti-government philosophy at work (paywalled).

As Christians who believe in original sin and flawed human nature, some level of distrust of human institutions is good and right. All our democratic institutions are built on the understanding that “power corrupts, absolutely power corrupts absolutely”. In addition, it seems pretty clear that the current capitalist systems we live in have many problems and are failing many of the poorer people in our society.

But that does not mean we reject governments or states. The Bible is pretty explicit on this.

Further, Jesus’ instruction to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” is explicitly in the context of state-issued currency which was used for tax collection. The crypto-proponent’s claim that governments should not be allowed to control the money supply is simply not a position you can argue from the Bible.

Even if the government shouldn’t have control over money, why would we prefer a process in which bunch of entirely unaccountable techies and rich investors get to decide how money works instead? There is nothing in Bitcoin that makes it inherently fairer than fiat money, and in fact the system reproduces some of the worst failings of capitalism in exaggerated form. Bitcoin doesn’t allow everyone to “earn” equally — rather, it gives a big leg up to those already rich enough to afford the hardware needed for mining, or to those who can afford the risks of gambling.

Hope

There is so much more that could be said, but the more you explore, the more you realise how far Bitcoin’s underlying philosophy is from anything Christian.

Bitcoin is often envisaged as representing hope, but in reality it is just hopium and an underlying despair is not far away. When you challenge a Bitcoiner on some of the issues mentioned above, very often the response is along the lines of “everything is a scam anyway”. (Here is a great response to that)

Hope in Bitcoin often comes from a deep, disillusioned, nihilistic rage at “the system” — which is often understandable. But it is then used to justify attitudes and actions focused on extracting as much for yourself as possible, while you still can. This is fundamentally incompatible with true Christian hope for the growth of Christ’s Kingdom and beyond.

Inevitablism

The final note of the challies.com article, and the subject I’ll end on too, is the idea that crypto is part of inevitable technological progress that we simply have to get on board with. I’ll deal with the technology fallacy in my next post. The other fallacy is that we can’t stop it. This is yet another staple argument of the Bitcoin cult.

But this claim is not true. As Christians, there are some things we can be certain about regarding the future. We believe in the return of Jesus, the triumph of His kingdom, and judgement day — based on specific promises in the Bible. There are also things we can say are certain, or almost certain, based on a rational understanding of the laws of physics or human nature. But we have no business believing or repeating claims about all kinds of other human inventions or processes being inevitable when they are not.

If you claim “people are always going to want get-rich-quick schemes”, I will agree with you 100%. However, going on to say “this particular scheme is inevitable, and we should all join in” is self-fulfilling defeatism that is both untrue and immoral.

If we want to talk laws of economics and inevitability, Bitcoin is a bubble that is guaranteed to burst:

Cartoon with 4 squares: 1809: “The empire can’t fall, it’s too big”. 1921: “The ship [titanic] can’t sink, it’s too safe”. 2008: “The market can’t crash, it’s too large”. 2021: “The bitcoin bubble can’t burst, it keeps growing”

(source)

Of course, we don’t know when, and crypto might be with us for a long time — but only if we adopt a passive, defeatist attitude. Many cryptoassets have already been banned in various countries, and there is no reason why the same couldn’t happen across the world — all we really need is for financial regulators to wake up, as they are beginning to do.

So it would help if Christians did their part.

Next: Is blockchain a technological marvel? (For those who cannot stand the suspense, the answer is No.)


Updates

Mostly written at the beginning of 2022, this post was published on 2022-03-05 but has had various small edits and updates since then to keep it relevant and correct.

Footnotes

1

I would happily agree that most implementations of this concept have some significant issues, especially in making it far too easy for the already wealthy to go on accumulating wealth, without actually working. But there are ways we can counter that. In the Bible, the year of jubilee was a 50-year reset button, to counter runaway generational poverty and generational wealth. Today we have taxes and other forms of legislation.

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