Where did the idea of different races come from? What does the Bible say?
I am a coconut. That phrase may anger you if you’re sensitive to issues of race. Or it may make you laugh because you can relate.
I am a Latino. Or is it Hispanic? Mexican–American? Technically, I’m Mexican–Indian–American with a little German mixed in there. My skin is dark brown, but I am much more accustomed to being in a predominantly Anglo community.
My first language is English. I was not allowed to speak Spanish as a child. My best friends were Anglos. My girlfriends were all Anglos. I dated a Latina in college and married her. When I failed in that marriage, I remarried an Anglo woman.
Like I said, I’m a coconut—brown on the outside, white on the inside.
Did you notice that I mixed race, ethnicity, and nationality when trying to describe myself? That’s because they are easily mixed. However, there are just a few races while there are several more ethnicities and many, many more nationalities.
Anthropology, sociology, genetics, political science, and many other disciplines use these categories to study their subjects. They strive to identify physical differences and the impact they have on everything from blood type to intelligence levels. Science has defined three types of race: Caucasian (white race), Negroid (black race), and Mongoloid (yellow race).1 Every human being belongs to one of these three races.
A tragic byproduct of the development of the term “race” has been the use of that word to separate people rather than to unite them.2 Adolf Hitler had millions of people imprisoned and killed because he wanted to distinguish his “pure” and “superior” race from all others. Tribal conquests in Africa led to the selling of conquered people as slaves to non-blacks around the world.
The concept of a superior race fueled this abusive behavior. Besides being evil, the idea of a superior race is a premise that is impossible to achieve.
Anthropologist Eugenie C. Scott writes that humans cannot be compartmentalized into racial categories:
However, even if people in different geographic areas differ, it is impossible to draw sharp lines between racial groups. Few if any populations are cut off from others, and even if laws, culture, and/or religion prohibit it, mating does take place. Characteristics of people change gradually from one geographic area to another; where across Central Asia do European ‘whites’ leave off and Asian ‘yellows’ begin? Anthropologists see races as temporary, changing phenomena, products of genetic processes and natural selection. The races we see today are different from those of yesterday and will be different tomorrow.3
“Race” is a random human term. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Mark Schoofs writes, “Not only is our concept of race arbitrary, but it is based on a relatively insignificant difference between people. Skin pigment, eye shape, and hair type are all determined by genes.”4
Race in the Bible
The Bible mentions families, tribes, peoples, and nations. When the word “race” appears in the Bible, it is referring to these categories.
However, some passages in the Bible have been used to separate people on the basis of race. For example, in the story of Cain and Abel, Cain kills his brother Abel out of anger and jealousy. As punishment, God cursed Cain to wander the world aimlessly and placed a mark on Cain so that others would not kill him.5
Some have taught that this mark was a different skin color, the first racial designation, passed down through Cain. That is simply not what the text says. The Bible says the mark was a clear warning that “anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.”6 The mark was not intended for others.
The story of the Tower of Babel is also occasionally used as a reference for race resulting from divine action.7 During a time when “the whole world had one language and a common speech,” people decided to build themselves a tower that reached the heavens to become like God himself.8 But God stopped them by confusing their language.
However, as mentioned earlier, language and race are not the same thing. God scattered them by introducing different languages, not different races.
Most importantly, the Christian Bible reveals that all people who have ever lived are descendants of Adam and Eve.9 Therefore all people are of the same race—the human race.10
Peter was one of the twelve apostles tutored by Jesus. In one of his early sermons, Peter made a shocking proclamation about human relationships. All the Jews in Jesus’ time had grown up with the belief that they alone were God’s people. Imagine their shock when they learned that Jesus had come for the whole world—no matter their ethnic or religious background.
After receiving a vision from God regarding this, Peter stated, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”11
The Apostle Paul made several major trips throughout the Mediterranean region to share the message that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-expected Messiah and savior of the world. Paul took the gospel of Jesus to white people, to black people, to olive-skinned people; he took it to all people. It was a universal message without any racial distinction for blessings or salvation.
Paul wrote in a letter to the church at Rome, “As Scripture says, ‘Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.’ For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”12
Humans created the categories of race. “Race” is man’s word, not God’s. Race is a human construct, not a godly one. Race developed from humans' interrelationships, not from God’s design. From Jesus we learn that God’s plan is for us all—the human race—to be one with God.13