Drugs and alcohol have been used for about as long as people have lived on earth. That means people used psychoactive substances while both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible were being written. Surely, these aspects of widespread human culture must be mentioned in the Bible, and they are.
Alcohol was the most commonly used substance among Jewish and early Christian people, and among all the available substances through history, it’s the only one that’s clearly addressed. But the Bible’s stance on drinking, alcohol, and addiction can be applied to a wide variety of psychoactive substances.
The authors of the Bible might not have known that addiction is a disease that affects the reward center of the brain, but they do show a surprising awareness of the effects, benefits, and dangers of substances like alcohol. You won’t find the word “addiction” in most English translations of the Bible, but you will find wisdom, insight, and warnings about this dangerous consequence of substance misuse.
Does the Bible Forbid Drinking?
The Bible does have plenty to say about the use of alcohol, and through church history, many groups have taken hard stances against it, citing the Bible’s warnings as the chief reason. To their credit, there are likely some communities that would benefit from encouraging abstinence from drugs and alcohol. However, the Bible doesn’t strictly forbid the use of alcohol.
In fact, Jesus’s first miracle, in the second chapter of John, was to turn water into wine at a wedding feast. He also instituted the sacrament of communion, in which Christians remember Jesus’ death for their sins by sharing a symbolic meal where wine represents the blood shed by Christ for his people.
There are also some verses where the Bible seems to advocate for enjoying alcohol for its benefits. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the prophet Isaiah is praising God and looking forward to a future time of blessings in Chapter 25 when he says, “On this mountain, the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine the best of meats and the finest of wines.” In this case, Isaiah is speaking symbolically about a good time of plenty. He uses the idea of fine, aged wine as a blessing from God.
In the New Testament, Paul sends a letter to his young friend, Timothy, who was instructed to correct some corrupt practices in the first-century church at Ephesus. One of these corrupt practices was likely a habit of frequent drunkenness. However, Paul advises Timothy in chapter 5, “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.”
Timothy apparently had stomach issues that could be helped by some moderated wine. Paul seems to be acknowledging the benefit of wine but warning against its misuse.
So, does the Bible advocate for the use of alcohol to the point where even people with substance use disorders should learn to enjoy it, too?
By no means.
Warnings Against Addiction in the Bible
The Book of Proverbs is one of the Bible’s largest books of wisdom literature, which is one of three major wisdom books in the Bible that helps readers gain a deeper understanding of life. Proverbs often gives very practical advice about how to live a generally good life. It’s one book that spends a good amount of time speaking directly to the problem of frequent drunkenness, which we know as a sign of addiction.
In Chapter 23, the book offers a heartbreaking look at alcoholism. It says, “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.”
The proverb points out both the physical and psychological consequences of frequent substance misuse.
We know that alcohol is a depressant, which can worsen problems like depression. We also know that it impairs your motor functions, which can lead to accidents and injuries. Back then, an inebriated person might experience falls, causing injuries and bruises, as people do in present times. Today, you might get behind the wheel of a car, putting your life in danger.
Later in the same chapter, it speaks from the perspective of a person struggling with alcoholism saying, “When will I wake up so I can find another drink?” Alcohol cravings in the morning are a classic sign of alcohol use disorder.
As your body gets used to alcohol, or other substances, you will need it more and more often to avoid uncomfortable side effects. That could mean eventually craving it during odd times like the first thing in the morning or the middle of the workday.
Addiction as an Oppressive Force
Active addiction often feels like you’re under the thumb of an oppressive force. You may have a strong desire to quit and pursue other goals in your life. But the constant compulsion to drink or use drugs holds you back. The Bible often talks about sin in general as a similar force that can gain mastery over you. In Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
Later in the New Testament, the apostle Paul speaks about sin in a way that may be extremely relatable to people who struggle with substance use problems. In his letter to the Romans, he says, “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.”
Even Paul, widely regarded as a great Christian preacher and writer in the early church, struggled with his internal desires to do what he knows isn’t right, much like someone who is struggling to overcome a substance use disorder.
Active addiction can blind you to the nature of your problem, but even people who realize they have a substance use problem may still struggle to resist compulsive drug use. However, the Bible offers hope for people who battle with sinful desires like Paul, and that hope is also available for people with substance use disorders.
Hope for Addiction in the Bible
Addiction has been treated as a moral failing in the past. Though it usually starts with choices to binge or misuse drugs, and active addiction can lead you to hurt friends and family members, addiction itself is a disease. Still, people who go through active addiction often feel guilt and shame for the actions they took to maintain their addiction. In those cases, spiritual and emotional healing is important.
Evidence-based strategies are vital to effective substance use treatment. These programs will address medical, psychological, and social needs related to addiction. However, many people find that spiritual healing is also necessary. Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous emphasize acknowledging your loss of control over your addiction and placing your trust in God. Similar 12-step programs like follow the same steps with a greater emphasis on Christian principles.
The apostle Paul persecuted Christians before his dramatic encounter with Jesus, and he seemed to be burdened by what he saw as sin in his life. However, he also had hope. The New Testament talks about how forgiveness of sin and moral failings is a gift from God through his Son, Jesus Christ, as seen in the widely known verse, John 3:16.
Paul believed this, and he also wrote in his letter to the Romans, “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Addiction is an oppressive force, and it often leads people to regrettable decisions and behaviors. But, according to the Bible, like forgiveness from sins, spiritual healing in addiction is available—and attainable—for those who need it.