Most American Christians have identified smoking or chewing tobacco as sinful, but what is the Biblical basis for this conclusion? There is no verse that says “Thou shalt not smoke.” So why should we think it’s morally wrong?
The two reasons I typically hear are related to (1) health and (2) addiction. Regarding health, the verse appealed to is often 1 Corinthians 3:17 in which Paul says God will destroy those who defile the temple of God. The temple is understood to be the human body, so anything that destroys the human body is sinful. I’m not convinced this is the right interpretation of the verse, but let’s run with it for the sake of argument. There’s no question that smoking cigarettes is not good for the body. It’s unhealthy and thus unwise, but is this enough to warrant considering it sinful? How many other things do we consume that are unhealthy for us? Are we prepared to call too much consumption of chocolate, ice cream, soda, red meat, and the like sinful as well? These are also unhealthy when consumed too much. One may object that while these things are unhealthy, they do not typically kill the person who consumes them. That may be true of each item individually, but not necessarily as a whole. A person who consumes too much sugar, fat, etc. often develops diseases such as diabetes or cancer, and some die as a result. If we’re not prepared to consider it a sin to eat too much ice cream or drink too much soda, then why are we so quick to consider smoking a sin? Perhaps we should consider both to be sin, but I doubt most would see it that way (you can pry my ice cream container away from my cold, dead hands!!).
Regarding addiction, Paul speaks of not allowing himself to be brought under the power of anything (1 Cor 6:12). This broadly covers the area of addiction. We should not allow ourselves to become addicted to anything. No matter what we do, we should always be controlling it rather than it controlling us. Seeing that nicotine is addictive, it would follow that ingesting it is morally wrong. But if the principle is to avoid ingesting any addictive substance, what about caffeine? Caffeine is addictive. Just ask the person who tries to stop drinking caffeine products. They often experience withdrawal symptoms. And how many people can’t wake up without their coffee? Should we consider the drinking of coffee or soda to be sinful as well, then? One might counter that the levels of caffeine in coffee and soda are less than level of nicotine in cigarettes, making the former less addictive than the latter. Perhaps, but then shouldn’t we at least be preaching that too much coffee or soda is sinful (good luck trying to define how much is too much)? I’ve never heard that message! If the issue is moderation, then why not conclude that smoking in moderation is morally permissible as well? Why condemn smoking qua smoking?
I’m not pro-smoking. I would be more than happy if all tobacco was eliminated from the face of the earth tomorrow. But my preferences don’t matter. If I’m going to tell a convert to Christianity that s/he needs to quit smoking because it’s sinful (as opposed to unwise), I need to have good Biblical justification for it. At present, I’m not convinced the Biblical principles we commonly appeal clearly apply to smoking (at least in moderation). I’m not convinced we are consistently applying those principles either. We condemn smoking while we allow other things that are unhealthy and addictive. One could argue that the way to rectify this inconsistency is to consider certain amounts or all sugar, caffeine, and the like to be just as sinful as smoking. Perhaps, but if we think that conclusion is ridiculous, then we need to ask ourselves what makes smoking any different.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.