by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Can a Christian drink? It is a question that comes up frequently. Earlier this century, the United States ended the sale of alcoholic beverages because of the perceived dangers of these drinks. The prohibition did not last, due to strong demand for access to liquor. However, the question remains: "Can a Christian drink alcoholic beverages?"
Few people question that over-drinking is bad for people. The Bible is consistent in condemning drunkenness. Paul said that a drunkard cannot inherit the kingdom of God (I Corinthians 6:9-10). In another letter, Paul said that carousing and drunkenness are improper behaviors (Romans 13:13). We understand that down and out drunk is unacceptable, but we have a problem defining how drunk is drunk. People want to be able to consume some liquor without being called drunk. However, we don't know where the line of drunkenness is at. A person who has been drinking heavily will argue with you that he is not drunk. He could be weaving on his feet, but he will swear that he is not drunk. States set a level of drunkenness where beyond the level it is unacceptable to drive, but it doesn't really define what drunkenness is. Some people believe a few drinks, every once in a while, is alright. Some find a drink with dinner is acceptable. Yet others believe that any use of alcohol is to be avoided.
What is it about alcohol that causes these debates? The Bible not only discusses the use of liquor, but it also explains its effects on a person. First, alcoholic beverages are deceptive (Proverbs 20:1). We know that alcohol is a depressant. It slows down the reaction time of the body and mind. It numbs the responses of the body. People who drink have no idea how drunk they are because the drink is deceiving their judgment. However, drinking is also deceptive because it is progressive. One drink doesn't totally wipe you out. Many people are able to handle two or three drinks. With each drink, a person becomes more and more under the influence of alcohol. Drunkenness is a matter of degree of drunkenness. This is why alcohol is deceptive. You think that it is safe to take just one more drink.
Alcohol also causes errors in judgment (Isaiah 28:7). A person under the effects of alcohol does not think clearly or accurately. He will often make decisions that he would never make if he was sober at the moment. A person under the influence of alcohol will also make errors in moral decisions (Habakkuk 2:15). People will do things while drunk that they would never consider doing when sober. An example of this is the story of Noah's drunkenness in Genesis 9:20-23. Normally, Noah would not lie around naked, even if he was inside his tent. This is often the reason why alcohol is used to "loosen up" a party. Drunk people will do things they would be embarrassed to do while sober.
Oddly, alcohol is used to escape depression. People turn to drink to drown out their sorrows. However, alcohol, in the long run, causes depression (Proverbs 23:29-35). In this passage, the writer describes a number of effects that alcohol has on a person. It causes woes and sorrows. It causes strife and anger. It causes lose tongues and babbling to oneself. It affects the memory (one can get hurt and not feel it nor remember where the injuries came from the next day). The writer of this passage likens it to two types of poisons. The bite of the serpent affects a person's circulatory system, widening capillaries near the skin while constricting blood flow to vital organs. The bite of the adder affects the nervous system causing hallucinations, reducing reaction time, and in extreme cases stopping the heart or other vital organs.
For all of its bad effects, it is a wonder that people desire to drink alcoholic beverages. Yet people pursue it. Some try to justify it by noting that people in the Bible drank. Now it is true that all people drink, but it makes a big difference as to what they drink. There are a number of words in our Bible that are translated wine in English Bibles. We need to establish the exact meaning of these words so we know what God was talking about. Usually, we would turn to linguists for word definitions, but in the case of the words for wine, we find there are a wide variety of definitions. Generally, when "experts" cannot agree on a definition, it is because they have their own beliefs which they wish to justify. When faced with these difficulties, it is better to let the Bible define its own terms by the way the words are used.