The Bible says what?
If you have ever spent any significant time reading through the pages of the Bible, you have probably come across verses that made you cringe. Especially the ones that make God appear like a violent vindictive tyrant.
“God said what?”
“God did what?”
Many serious good-hearted Christians have asked these same questions over the ages as they’ve meditated on the ancient text of Scripture. This is not a new phenomenon. But instead of sharing their concern freely with their Christian church community, they kept it hidden due to current church dogma on these matters. They were taught that in order to be a true, faithful and orthodox Christian they need to accept without question the entire Bible as being true and without error. The Bible is “inerrant” and “infallible” they were told. “It’s either all true, or none of it is true.”
But is that really the case?
Since of course they believe God is real and has transformed their life in significant ways, they felt that asking too many questions in this church culture might not be the best course of action. Maybe it’s just a phase they’ll grow out of. A passing worry. But although they stuff their uneasiness, try to ignore it and “pray for more faith” so that they can “just believe the whole Bible” without all the internal conflict and uneasiness, the uneasiness doesn’t go away. Could it be that they really are unfaithful…a bit unorthodox? What will their church and pastors think if they start talking about their questions? What will people who aren’t Christians think who find out about their apparent lack of faith? Wouldn’t it just make them not want anything to do with Jesus or Christianity?
Maybe you can relate to their experience.
Like so many others, I too have asked and wrestled with these same questions over the last twenty years but was very selective with who I shared it with in the Christian community.
“Biblical” genocide and other violence
The reality is the Bible includes some incredibly horrific stories and images. The authors of the Bible books, especially of those within the pages of the Old Testament, paint some very graphic pictures of bloody violence. And what is perplexing is that God is the one either commanding the violence or bringing it about. From the world-wide genocide found in the story of Noah to the Canaan genocide mandate commanded of the ancient Israelites, the Bible contains stories that present God as vindictive and violent.
For those who haven’t read these stories or only heard the Sunday school version of them, take a moment to thoughtfully consider what happened. In the flood story, God condemned and judged the entire whole world by drowning every man, woman, child, and baby in flood waters (yes, babies too). We’re talking potentially millions of people drowned to death. In the Canaan mandate, God judged the people living in Canaan by ordering the Israelites (called the people of God) to be his divine agents and slaughter literally everyone in the land, leaving no survivors (again, babies and small children included). And you did read that correctly…no survivors. Some of our English Bible translations soften the original language, which is deceiving, by saying God commanded them to “utterly destroy” the people. Utterly destroy sounds like classic comic book language not annihilation. Utterly destroy just doesn’t quite bring across the force and reality that this was a divinely sanctioned bloody massacre of potentially hundreds of thousands of people.
And that’s only the two most dramatic stories in the Bible of violence ordered or executed by God.
There are other stories of God ordering the Israelites into wars with nations outside the land of Canaan, but instead of commanding them to kill off everyone in those nations, the Israelites were instructed to take the women as war booty to marry.
Yes, you heard that right.
That’s in our Bible.
Christian mental gymnastics
Again, many Christians today are taught that in order to be faithful to the Christian faith and to God, they need to accept that God actually ordered genocide and other acts of violence in the Bible. They are told to hold these passages “in tension” with the more Christ-like passages. That “God is both just and loving.” That “God is both the judge and the one who shows mercy.” That honoring God means “You need to accept the whole Bible as totally inerrant by faith.”
But what kind of God orders genocide and other acts of violence against “evildoers” on the one hand (be it in the distant past or not) and on the other hand commands followers of Jesus today to be Christ-like people who are known for their compassion, mercy and service to others? In other words, how is genocide and other acts of violence on par with the golden rule and self-sacrificial love?
Answer: it isn’t.
The irony is that if you ask a large number of Christians today who believe in Biblical inerrancy what they think about genocide and other brutal acts of violence in the last hundred years, like the Rwandan genocide in the 1990’s or the Jewish Holocaust during World War 2, they will likely say that those acts of violence are appalling and inhumane.
But then when asking them what they think of the God-sanctioned flood genocide in the story of Noah or the Canaanite genocide commanded of the ancient Hebrews, they will likely claim those Bible stories are reflective of God’s just judgment on people whose sin had reached a point of no return. They may also put it off as something “God just did in Old Testament times” but wouldn’t do or command today.
But is that an appropriate and thoughtful way of talking about God?
Sin reaching a point of no return?
God acts different in the Old Testament times than in New?
So God changed?
More to the point, how to do we hold things “in tension” and just naively accept that everything in the Bible must equally portray an accurate depiction of God when the vision and picture Jesus taught about God was uniquely and dramatically different (not just slightly different)?
Jesus and the end of violence
When we talk about violence, we are talking about the intention to bring physical harm or death to someone through physical acts of aggression. Jesus spoke to this topic and related topics on a number of occasions, but the most notable and striking are found in Matthew 5:9, 5:20-26 and 5:38-48. In his famous sermon on the mount message, Jesus articulates a way of being God’s people ( “the light of the world”) that is shocking, arresting and uncomfortable. In fact, it’s so shocking that many Christians today falsely assume Jesus couldn’t quite possibly have meant for his followers to actually follow the instructions found in Matthew 5-7 as mandatory commands. To them, it’s the ideal life but not the expected life of faith.
Perhaps take some time and read those chapters if you’ve never done so before.
In his message, Jesus spoke of a way of living that always seeks reconciliation as the first and last order of business in human relationships. It doesn’t matter if it’s your Jewish grandma you’re at odds with or the Roman Praetorian guard, Jesus called for his followers to make reconciliation a top priority. And in doing so, he was calling them to deal with injustice and other acts of violence by responding in a way that was unnatural (in fact, it’s the opposite of what is natural).
If someone has wronged you, don’t return to them in kind. Don’t strike them on the face. Don’t pull out your sword. Don’t put an end to their life. Don’t even curse their existence. “You’ve heard it said, but I tell you the truth” was Jesus’ plan A. This was what he referred to as the lifestyle of kingdom of God people.
Case in point: In Jesus’ day, it would have been completely reasonable and natural for his own people, the Jewish people, to use acts of violence against the Roman soldiers stationed throughout Galilee and Judea. Why? Because Rome, like many nations before them, had taken over political jurisdiction of the Hebrew people. Although, the Jewish people were given a large degree of religious freedom, Rome took advantage of them enough to instigate uprisings and retaliation. Picture military from another country showing up in the United States (or wherever you’re from) and take control of the political landscape. There were in fact Jewish zealot militia groups who did in fact rise up to fight against the Roman occupation.
Jesus too could have gotten on that bandwagon of Jewish retaliation against the Romans, but he chose not to. He even had military-minded Jews who were encouraging him to do so. It wasn’t that Jesus was a coward or wasn’t the fighter type. According to Jesus, the kind of people God was raising up would not be known for their military might and violent retribution but for their fierce mercy, compassion and service to others. And the very thing this God was asking of people was the very thing this God was also doing in and through the person of Jesus.
One of the early followers of Jesus said that when we look at Jesus’s lifestyle and what he taught, we can be confident that what we are seeing is God on display. The kind of God that shows up in the life and death of Jesus is one who enters into the mess of human space. The kind who commits to love people sacrificially and without vengeance. Instead of slaughtering enemies, this God looks them in the eye when they bring their hatred, suspicion and violence, and shows them mercy instead. Rather than shame and humiliate his enemies, the God we meet in the person of Jesus would rather suffer humiliation at the hands of his enemies by dying on a Roman cross. This God is a forgiving God. A disciple of Jesus once asked how many times he should forgive someone if they kept wronging him. Jesus replied with “70 x 7” (meaning indefinitely).
Unreconciling the violence and non-violence of God
How do we reconcile the violence and non-violence of God found in the pages of the Bible? This question is where many Christians land when taking this topic seriously. But maybe associating violence with God at all is part of our problem. Perhaps the better question when considering the ancient context the Biblical narrative was written in is “How do we unreconcile the violence and non-violence of God?” The following historical considerations strongly point in the direction of the latter question:
- Biblical violence is rooted in an ancient Near Eastern context: The violence and vindictive actions of God we find in the pages of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, was not foreign to the other ancient nations and people groups around the world, including the ancient Near East; meaning ancient Israel was not alone in understanding divine beings to be vindictive. Study the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans and you will discover a similar framework. Violent deities were simply part of the ancient worldviews of the time. This was not unique to the ancient Hebrews.
- The Bible is a true account of what people believed about God in the past, not necessarily a true account of what God is actually like. If in any sense the Bible is inerrant, it is in communicating what people believed about Israel’s God and how they lived out their faith in God.
- Just because earlier people of faith turned to violence, like genocide, in their histories doesn’t mean people of faith today should do the same. There have been plenty of beliefs and practices that have evolved over time in the history of the Christian faith community.
- The Bible details a progressive experience in the life of people of faith: For example, children in ancient Israel who repetitively disobeyed their parents were stoned to death by their parents (does this mean parents should still do this today?). Unmarried women who were raped would be married off to their perpetrator and parents would actually approve (does this mean we should still do this today?). It was believed to be morally correct for men to maintain long beards and women to wear hair coverings in church (does this mean we should still do this today?). Slavery was part of the mental framework of people in both the Old and New Testaments (does this mean we should still own slaves?). Of course not. Neither then should we assume that just because people of faith at one time in history believed genocide was a completely reasonable thing for God to mandate his people to perform on an entire population and region of people, this in no way means God actually mandated genocide. They may have believed God commanded it, but that doesn’t mean God actually did. That distinction makes all the difference in the world.
This is of course is a much bigger conversation and every Christian should formulate their own conclusion on the matter. For me, God cannot be both a violent vindictive god who is overly concerned about image and at the same time be the merciful self-sacrificial God in the person of Jesus who humbles himself on a Roman cross. That would make God schizophrenic and a schizophrenic god is not to be trusted in my estimation. Nor should an abusive father or mother be trusted who acts with great hate and belligerence in one moment and then pretends to be loving and supportive in the next. I have a number of reasons for coming to this conclusion that I have not included in this blog post due to space and time, but one of the strongest reasons for changing my mind on this topic is the life and ministry of Jesus (including his uncomfortable teaching on violence found in Matthew chapters 5-7, the imitation of that teaching in Paul’s letter to the Romans in 12:14-21, and the death Jesus so willingly died on a Roman cross). I am compelled to think that the God I meet in the face of Jesus is not the kind of being who orders genocide or commands senseless acts of violence. Jesus’ standard of forgiveness alone (70 x 7) is enough to make one rethink this matter.
To me, it’s time for people of faith, including Christians, to take this topic a bit more seriously. If we can acknowledge that the Rwandan genocide and the Jewish Holocaust was horrible and morally wrong, then we aught to take that same logic to the very stories in our own Bible that paint a picture of God as a monster. My prayer is that the God we see in the face of Jesus will come into fuller view. When we do, enemies and neighbors become for us the very people we are called to love and serve in Jesus’ name.
For further reading on taking Jesus’ message of self-sacrificial non-violent love seriously, I highly recommend the following books:
A new kind of Christianity: Ten questions that are transforming the faith (2010) by Brian D. McLaren; The Bible tells me so: Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it (2014) by Peter Enns; What is the Bible? How an ancient library of poems, letters, and stories can transform the way you think and feel about everything (2017) by Rob Bell; Cross Vision: How the crucifixion of Jesus makes sense of Old Testament violence (2017) by Gregory A. Boyd; Sinners in the hands of a loving God: The scandalous truth of the very good news (2017) by Brian Zhand.
To purchase one of these books, click on the following Amazon links:
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