injustice bible violence

Last week I began a series exploring some of the reasons I don’t accept the Bible as a trustworthy book. I presented two plausible theories (see below) and stated that we should first look at the evidence within the Bible, and only then consider which theory best explains the evidence, rather than first start off with a belief/conclusion that the Bible is true, and then try to think up reasons to support our conclusion. This post will deal with the issue of ethical and moral actions promoted by certain biblical texts, and whether they live up to the comprehensive standard elsewhere in the Bible. Again, keep in mind, our goal is not to start by concluding “the Bible must be right/wrong!” but instead to first look at the evidence and then decide which theory it best applies to:

Theory 1  – The Bible was divinely inspired by God and can be trusted as completely accurate

Theory 2 – It was composed purely by human means and does not contain divine truth

Can I judge the ethics of the Bible?

In dozens of conversations I have had about this, the most common reaction is “you have no right to judge the Bible, because if you don’t have the Bible as your ethical foundation, you have no morals!!!” This occurs because people who base all of their ethics on the Bible have built their whole moral epistemology on the biblical text and cannot even imagine another way to account for morality. Essentially, many Christians assume that the only way to ground morality is on “God said so” and if you don’t accept their way, you cant make moral statements.

Imagine trying to talk with a Hindu about whether or not Hinduism is true, and the first thing that comes out of her mouth is: “you are not allowed to critique the ethics of Hinduism because the your ability to make an ethical statement requires Hinduism to be true, and if you reject Hinduism, you have no ethics and are not allowed to critique my holy books!” Would you not feel cheated, tricked, maybe even a little offended? This is because your conversational partner is “begging the question” and starting off by assuming her conclusion is true, and telling you that it cannot be critiqued, because its true. Anyone can play that game, but it’s a very sloppy way to seek the truth.

That’s exactly what is happening with the Christian assertion “you cannot judge the Bible.” Those that have made the Bible their foundational starting point are unable to discuss it as the subject of a conversation, instead Scripture must be assumed and accepted as true from the very beginning! Real life doesn’t work like this, I don’t first assume “science is true” or “Hinduism is false,” instead I assume “I don’t know the answer to this question, so let’s do our best to first look at the evidence and only then come to a conclusion, not the other way around!

In any case, as a skeptic, I do have a system of ethics by which I can judge the Bible (and I can ground my system of ethics in reason). However, I will be extra generous and simply scrutinize the ethics of the Bible according to its own ethical standard, not just by my own standard. If some part of the Bible teaches that “lying is always evil” and another part says “go to this town and lie” then the Bible has failed its own test! It doesn’t even matter how it fares according to my ethical standard, if it fails its own ethical standard, it has already proven itself to be inaccurate and flawed when dealing with questions of ethics and morality.

What principles does the bible teach about harming others?

If you were to survey the Christians of the world, you would get a wide array of answers about what is moral, immoral, or perhaps neutral/barely permissible. Yet, there are certain areas that most believers would undeniably agree upon, certain laws and edicts that they say are universally taught by the Bible, that must be followed at all costs. I will pick just a few of these. I believe that most Chrsitians would agree on the following two principles:

1. Do not cause physical harm, torture, or injury to a person with the end goal of harming them (only if it’s a last resort aimed at ultimately helping them or preventing them from harming other people).

2. Do not cause the deaths of any person, unless it’s the only way of preventing them from killing/harming others (i.e. only kill someone if it’s the only way to prevent them from killing others).

These principles can be distilled from texts like the Ten Commandments, but they are most evident in  Jesus’ sermon on the mount and certain New Testament passages (i.e. Rom 12.17-21, 1 Thes 5.15.) See Matthew Chapter 5 (specifically texts like 5:44) for all of these principles, which are therein applied far more stringently, I have been extra generous and lax in describing these, by adding extra clauses. In actuality, where Jesus says “don’t harm your enemies at all, ever”, I have changed this to a more laid-back command of “Fine you can harm the enemies who will kill you, but at least don’t harm people who are not going to kill you.” Jesus’ commands strongly support total pacifism and “turning the other cheek” but I will be extra generous and saying “you don’t have to be a pacifist, but only use violence when it saves other lives.

I want you to note this, I am being far more lenient and accommodating, I am removing all the grey areas that could be debated, and sticking to that which is undeniably black and white.  If you cannot agree to these two principles, then this post doesn’t apply to you. If you think harming/killing someone who does not wish to harm others is morally good, then this post is not for you. But please note that makes you are a terrible follower of Jesus, and worse than that, you terrify me, I want nothing to do with you and hope you don’t live in my neighborhood.

I will also note, there are dozens of other passages and ideas, where I believe it’s patently clear that the Bible fails its own moral standard (for example it’s claimed that deception is a sin, yet elsewhere it’s claimed that God decieves: 1 Kings 22:23, Ezekiel 14:9, Jeremiah 4:10, 2 Thess 2:11) but for the sake of brevity, I’m only going to examine the two general principles above.

 

FAILURE #1: Do not harm

“Do not ever cause physical harm, torture, or injury to a person with the end goal of harming them, unless it’s a last resort aimed at ultimately helping them or preventing them from harming other people’

Case study 1 – The Bible endorses slavery

I’m sure you have heard a positive spin on this, something like: “slaves were workers, I’m a slave for my employer today” or “this was a temporary job that lasted for a few years.” This apologetic spin is blatantly dishonest, and demonstrably so. I have written a longer article on biblical slavery, citing texts that confirm slavery was indeed the permanent ownership of people, not a job. Here are two key points: (a) the Bible allows the beating of slaves, so long as they survive (Exodus 21:20-21) and (b) it permits slaves to be kept permanently and passed down for generations, so that children of slaves are themselves slaves. (Exodus 21:5 and Leviticus 25:46). Slavery is undeniably cruel and harmful.

Case Study 2 – The Bible endorses physical torture

There are many strange laws that command violent and painful torture to be inflicted on people. For example, if two men are in a brawl, and a woman tries to intercede and grabs one of the men by the testicles, her arm is to be butchered off from her body, “without pity” (Deut 25:11-12). Likewise, there are many proverbs that endorse using sticks and rods to beat those who are foolish or mentally handicapped, even while education would seem more prudent (Prov 18:6, 19:29, 26:3). In addition, there are dozens of “crimes” for which persons are to be stoned or burned. Notice that stoning and burning are lengthy and extremely painful processes that cause immense suffering and anguish. Some things that you can get “tortured to death” for include: (a) touching a mountain (Exodus 19:13), (b) picking up rocks on Saturday (Numbers 15:32-56), (c) being a bad teenager (Deut 21:18-21), and (d) getting married as a non-virgin (Deut 22:13-21). There are also plenty of future descriptions of torture in the Bible, from severe torments caused by giant supernatural scorpions (Deut 25:11-12) to the idea of hell. None of these punishments are meant to correct the subject, they are meant to inflict pain, misery, and suffering, for the sake of causing that suffering as an act of vengeance. A parent may spank a child, for the ultimate good, but biblical tortures like hell, are solely for the ultimate harm.

Case study 3 – The Bible endorses rape/sexual exploitation

This is one that most people have a hard time believing. First off, the Bible never forbids rape wholesale, it only forbids stealing another man’s woman, for that woman is his property. Virgins who are raped must be purchased from their father and the only solace to the woman is that her rapist may never divorce her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Second, the Bible actually endorses rape, so long as victims are from another tribe. For example, the Bible allowed women to be forcibly taken captive and (after their husbands/fathers were killed) the women can be forced into “marriage” (Deuteronomy 21:10-11). There is some relief, however, because in this case only, if you don’t like your captive woman after raping her, you are not permitted to sell her, but must let her go. And of course, there are still biblical descriptions of rape as a tool that God uses to chastise the nations, further demonstrating that sometimes rape is morally good. (Isaiah 13:15-16)

Case study 4 – The Bible endorses misogyny

There are many cases of misogyny (prejudice and maltreatment of women) in the Bible. Prof Chris Rollston, a biblical scholar was recently fired from his Christian University for writing that many biblical authors promoted mysogeny. For example, he states that “the custom of a marital “bride price” (money given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family) reveals that marriage was… a property transfer, as payment had been made to acquire the bride (Genesis 34:12; Exodus 22:16; 1 Samuel 18:25; Genesis 24:53).” There are many other cases, however, mysogeny starts with the characterization of women in Genesis 1. I don’t accept Genesis 1 as historically accurate (in fact, many Christians, even prominent apologists like C. S. Lewis agree), but this narrative wove itself into the fabric of our culture and defined how women are viewed. First, in the story itself a woman is the cause of sin, perpetuating the tendency to depict women as the blameworthy sex, causing untold injustice and discrimination. Second, in this tale all women are cursed with severe pain as a punishment for something one woman did, showing that all women are deserving of severe pain because of their gender.

 

FAILURE #2: Do not kill

“Do not cause the deaths of any person, unless it’s the only way of preventing them from killing/harming others”

Case Study 1 – The Bible endorses genocide

This is an undeniable fact, there are dozens of scripture passages that openly endorse genocide, the act of utterly destroying a whole people group by butchering the elderly, middle aged, teenagers, children, and infants. Hitler attempted to commit genocide, but he was only continuing a long tradition that is endorsed by the Bible, and one could argue that at least Hitler’s gas chambers offered more quick and painless death than the repeated stabs with a crude bronze age sword. There are dozens of passages that depict (a) God commanding genocide and (b) the Hebrews committing genocide, and claiming that their victory was assured because God was on their side. These horrific passages include, but are not limited to: Exodus 32:27-29, Deuteronomy 2:34, Deuteronomy 3:6, Deuteronomy 7:2, Deuteronomy 7:16, Deuteronomy 13:15, Deuteronomy 20:16-17, Joshua 6:21, 10:40, 1 Samuel 15:2-3.

Case study 2 – The story of the Midianite Children

This may be the most horrifying story in the Bible, and it depicts such cruelty and savagery, that I cannot imagine how a pacifist could claim this book teaches the ultimate truth. First some background: The Hebrews recently invaded Canaan, destroyed many cities, killed many people and then, as they were camped near Midianite territory some of the Midianite women “invited” the Hebrew men to join them in sexual exploits and worship of locals gods (Numbers 25:1-2). The Hebrew men were not forced to participate, they chose it themselves. Moses, purportedly at Gods initiative issues the command to be hostile against the Midianites. Some time passes and the Bible depicts God as urging the Israelites to go back, and wreak revenge on the Midianites for inviting some of the Israelite soldiers to join them. So the Israelites attack and utterly destroy all of the enemy combatants, leaving only the defenseless women (many who are no doubt pregnant or elderly), as well as the little boys and girls. These little women and children are spared to be kept as slaves. (Numbers 32:9-10). Then Moses angrily commands that these defenseless captives be killed. This includes weeping grandmothers, pregnant women, mothers with their children weeping in their arms. (Numbers 31: 17-18). The little boys, all those who were too young to fight as well as babies, are also to be brutally executed.

And finally, when it comes to the little girls, those that are virgins are given away as booty to the soldiers, while all others are to be massacred. In every single military victory in recorded history, the winning army rapes girls, this is an unchanging historical regularity. And while this is not explicit in the text, it’s more than likely these girls became concubines (sexual slaves) as this is accepted elsewhere in Israelite culture, and there are even biblical laws that permit Hebrews to take captives for sexual purposes (Deut 21:10-11). Little girls given away to the same men who had just brutally executed their families. Even if these girls are not used for sexual purposes, one must imagine the absolute horrors that these girls experienced. Imagine a small seven year old sweetheart, seeing her defenseless pregnant mother being viciously sliced open and falling dead on the ground. Imagine the agonizing screams as she sees her younger brothers, grabbed by calloused soldiers hands, and heartlessly stabbed, beat, pierced until they choke on their own blood.

Does the Bible meet its own standard?

No, as we can see it does not. Yes, you can certainly argue that “the God of the Bible has a right to do anything he wants” and I’ll grant you that. The God of the Bile could murder everyone he wants, and nobody would be left to tell him that he was wrong. Yet, if he first asserts that (a) killing children is wrong and then (b) proceeds to kill children, then he has broken his own law. So you see, it is no longer I who judges the Bible, it is rather the Bible that judges itself.

Finally, even after we have seen the biblical text fail miserably and hopelessly at its own standard, let me add one more ethical standard that the Bible severely fails.

FAILURE #3: Do not be unjust

“Do not force an innocent person to suffer the punishment deserved by another.”

Justice is the act of fairly distributing rewards and punishments to those who deserve them. If I told you that a rapist received a reward while his rape victim was brutally executed, would not your blood boil at the injustice?! Mine would! It is a unfair when one person takes another’s reward (unless of course it’s a gift), but the real injustice is when one person is forced to receive another’s punishment.

I contend that the Bible is full of such cases of injustice and therefore is an unjust book.

Case study 1 – Injustice for the Egyptian slaves

In the story of the Exodus there is an oft missed tragedy, the fate of all other Egyptian slaves. As the story shows ten plagues descend on the land, these are shown affecting everyone besides the Hebrew slaves. We can say the Egyptians deserved it for keeping the Hebrews in slavery, but did the other slaves deserve punishment? What for? The biblical text presents a picture where all these other slaves who were already suffering the terrible injustice of slavery, were punished for their masters sins, and thats okay! Consider the suffering a slave mother would hypothetically endure by this injustice the Bible dictates: “Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill” (Exodus 11:5). Little children are described as being killed, the most unfortunate in society are harmed rather than helped, mothers weep, and all of this is punishment falls upon those already in misery, simply because the rich Egyptian masters deserve it. This is a colossal injustice! (Fortunately, there is strong evidence none of this happened, so the Bible merely promotes the idea of injustice in this case, but the idea is cruel enough).

Case study 2 – Injustice for the children punished for parental sins

How would you react if the president commanded little children to be brutally murdered if their parents break the law? Would you feel this is a fair punishment? No! You would know this is injustice at its vilest. In the Bible there is debate (a discrepancy between authors) whether children should be punished for their parents sins. Ezekiel says no! And yet, many other authors say yes, in command and in example. There are principles that allow and command the punishment of children for parents sins (Exodus 20:5-6, Exodus 34:7, Deuteronomy 5:9, Leviticus 26:22, Jeremiah 15:7-8). There are edicts to go and kill (not just “punish”) children for their parents sins (Isaiah 14:21, Isaiah 13:16, 1 Samuel 15:3, Ezekiel 9:6).

Also there are countless of examples that purportedly show God killing children simply to punish their parents (Genesis 7:4,21; Genesis 19:24, Exodus 11:4-5, 2 Chronicles 21:14, 2 Samuel 12:14-15, Jeremiah 2:30, Nahum 3:10, Hosea 10:14, Jeremiah 9:21-22). For example, consider the flood, all of the children, infants, and fetuses in pregnant women were supposedly drowned. Why? Because of their parents sin. Well did anyone stop and ask if the children deserved it? Nope. There is also a slew of passages that show non-death punishments given to children for their parents sins (Deuteronomy 23:2, Deuteronomy 28:18, 1 Kings 11:11-12, 2 Samuel 21:6-9, 1 Kings 2:33, 1 Kings 21:29, 2 Kings 5:27, Jeremiah 16:10-11, Jeremiah 29:32). If all of that is not enough, why there are even passages where God purportedly threatens to force parents to eat their children as punishment, and yet, not once is it considered that children are the real victims of this cruel and unusual “punishment”!! (Leviticus 26:29, Deuteronomy 28:53, Jeremiah 19:9, Ezekiel 5:8-10)

Case study 3 – Injustice for humanity in being cursed for Adam

I am told that I am a sinner who is destined to burn in hell forever and ever and ever. I am a sinner and because of that I must be tortured. It gets even weirder, Augustine, pretty much the most important church father of early Christianity, thought little babies who weren’t baptized deserve to be thrown into hell. But why? Why should I have this sin nature that forces me to sin, or forces me to be punished in hell? Well, as it turns out, it’s all because a long time ago, some guy named Adam, did something bad, and *insert magic* now it’s my fault. Some people who are extra clever change *insert magic* to something lofty sounding like “Federal Headship” (ooooohh) which, in the end, still just means “if your father sinned, you get punished for him.” In the end, whatever fancy lingo we dream up, the fact is I did not choose to have a sin nature, it was *forced* upon me because of some guy named Adam, so why am I judged for it?

Case study 4 – injustice for humanity in an eternal hell

No finite being is good enough to deserve eternal pleasure, and no finite being is bad enough to deserve eternal torture. To deserve eternal punishment or reward, your crime or virtue must also be infinite, but we are finite creatures who are only capable of finite crimes. The end. The clever theology to explain all that away is that “our crime is against an infinite being so deserves infinite torture.” But this is rather silly, it matters not who the crime was against, but what it was! Otherwise you end up with an absurdity like this: Steal a dollar from a poor man, and you owe him two dollars as compensation. Steal one dollar from an infinitely rich man who has infinite money, and you now owe him infinite money as compensation. What?! This is absurd and foolish! In fact, if the infinitely rich man has infinite money, you cant even harm him by stealing anyhow.

Here is a quick analogy to elucidate this: If you shoot two people in the leg, a child who can be harmed, and superman who cannot, ought you really deserve more punishment shooting superman? Not at all, since superman can’t even be harmed by this in the first place. Why should he avenge himself? For what exactly? Since he’s impossible to harm, can it even be called attempted harm? It would be rather cruel of superman to try to punish you by torturing you forever and ever because “you dared shoot me, and even if it can’t hurt me, you still deserve eternal punishment!” Only those who are harmed can seek retribution, God is by definition, unharmable.

In any case, torturing someone for trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions for trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions for trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of years, because of a few minutes of “sin” is completely unjust, and frankly, evil.

Case study 5 – Injustice of substitutionary atonement

The very idea that slaughtering innocent animals can alleviate guilt is patently irrational. Guilt does not transfer persons, moral responsibility cannot be transferred without destroying the whole foundation of justice and fairness. If John raped and murdered a little child, and in court he pulls out a lamb, cuts its neck, and proudly asserts “don’t worry judge, this lamb just took my guilt, so I’m free now, right?” all of us would look at him with disgust and bewilderment. And yet that is exactly what Biblical justice is.

In the case of sacrificial animals in the Old Testament, there is extra harm in the fact that these animals are unwilling victims. In the story of Jesus and the substitutionary sacrifice, at least Jesus is depicted as dying voluntarily. And honestly, I admit, it’s a valiant and immensely noble idea, that someone would choose to die to save me. But at its core the theology is utterly unjust. How does Jesus dying make a rapist no longer guilty of rape? Or a murderer no longer guilty? How can guilt transfer? How can a person who lived a long evil life, raping and murdering millions simply say a prayer, and never be held responsible for his sever evil? How can another who strives to be good his whole life, makes one small mistake, and doesn’t say a prayer, is now considered more guilty than the former?

If you were in court, and a serial killer was freed because his innocent father chose to receive the punishment of lethal injection instead, would you think that justice? No! Its double injustice! Not only did (a) the criminal go unpunished, but (b) an innocent person was punished! Two wrongs don’t correct one wrong!

Consider that this theology means the following story is “perfectly just”: There is a Nazi officer who brutally rapes, mutilates, and tortures helpless Jewish women for years. One particular woman is begging and screaming “God help me” as she is being tortured and raped, and in the last few moments of her agony, she says “since God did not help me I refuse to believe in him” and dies. Her Nazi rapist later escapes to Brazil, lives a long happy, healthy life, and finally, before death prays to Jesus for forgiveness. According to Biblical theology, the victim is now burning in hell, feeling the most horrendous torture, while the Nazi tormentor simply took off his guilt like a coat, and is now enjoying paradise. Is this fair? Christianity says yes. I say its miserable, cruel, ugly, and the very definition of injustice and evil.

Concluding remarks

Ultimately if this book that claims to speak for God, and claims to promote justice is filled with so much injustice, and fails its own ethical standards, I believe we should reject that this book is written or inspired by God.

TRUST BIBLE 1

Let me be honest and upfront with you: I have always loved the Bible, and I do still enjoy it as literature (I probably read it more than most of my Christian friends), alas I simply cannot trust it as a divinely inspired book.

Why? The answer is long, and a little complicated, so I hope I won’t bore you, in fact, it’s because of this that I have been putting off this series of posts for a very long time. When it comes to detailed and controversial topics like this, I tend to wear out half of my audience and enrage the other.

  • Because questions like these tend to get very hostile, very fast, let me first assure you, I am not writing out of enmity, hatred, or strife, rather I write from sincerity and a deep longing to accept things that are true and reject things that are false. I likewise wish for you to do the same. I am willing to believe anything, so long as I can at least be somewhat confident that its the truth. You may not agree with my conclusions, but at least you may see that these are reached after careful and honest investigation.

It took a very unrelated event to finally force me into writing this. It all began as I was listening through an obtuse lecture series on the epistemic problem of induction (I’m not boring, I promise). Grappling with difficult questions made me recall how easy things once were, and for a second I began to wish that I could yet again just accept the Bible as a divinely inspired book which contains God’s word. Things would be so simple and easy! There is so much comfort found in such an idea: “God wrote a book” and we have it. Believing that you have “Gods book” provides you  with an epistemic foundation, an existential anchor, and reassuring solace when dealing with the unknown. In fact, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and others who claim to have divine writings from around the world attest to this feeling every day.

This made me wonder: so why did I choose to take the difficult path? Why can’t I just take the easy way? Why can’t I just believe what I was taught and quietly live my life? What is it within me that burns and hungers for truth?

Why can’t I just believe in the “good book” like most of my friends? Why must I spend thousands of hours of my life searching for answers, critically thinking, analyzing, and questioning? It’s so much easier to just think “(my version of) God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”

This question pulled me away from the lecture series, and I went and picked up my Bible, yet again, almost crossing my fingers, with the eager hope that I would see something new and wonderful. As I read a few pages I was quickly reminded: I chose the only path I could choose while remaining honest. 

  • This actually happens to me all the time. I wonder if I am crazy, and think perhaps I’ve just been deceived by the devil. I wonder if the Bible is indeed Gods inerrant word and I’m just crazy or blind. In this panic I rush to pick up my Bible, eagerly read it for 15-30 minutes, and every single time I put it down, being even more certain: The Bible, for all intents and purposes, looks nothing like a perfect book written by God, it’s utterly human and flawed.

This series of posts will explain why.

WHAT OPTIONS DO WE HAVE?

When we approach the Bible, we generally have two options, either

  1. It was divinely inspired or influenced by God (at least at some level), or
  2. It was composed only by human means without any divine involvement

I contend that when one honestly examines the evidence, its undeniable that #2 is the only honest answer.

THE BIBLE CONTAINS MANY VOICES THAT DISAGREE AND CONTRADICT

The most dishonest words I ever uttered from the pulpit are these: “As proof that the Bible is real, consider that it is perfectly consistent, even though it’s written by 40 authors over 1,500 years. It tells one cohesive story with one consistent theme!” This is a Christian meme, a viral transmitted idea, that dominates Protestant culture. The more fundamentalist one is, the more likely she is to hear this, believe it, and re-transmit this meme to others. And yet, scholars of the Bible tell a vastly different story. (And here, allow me to cite the scholars, because one can try to argue that I am wrong, but the true experts don’t think like me.)

Michael Carasik, a Jewish scholar of the Bible writes:

  • “The different parts of the Bible were written at different times, in different styles, by different people with differing perspectives. That world, like our own, was on in which people disagreed, often loudly, about politics and about religion. These disagreements, along with other compositions that can sometimes be very personal are all found today lumped together in what we call “the bible.” (1)

Jacques Berlinerblau, another scholar of ancient Hebrew literature says:

  • “One of the greatest challenges that a college professor of Bible faces is getting his or her bewildered charges to not think of the Bible as they would a modern book. The Bible is an anthology. It is a collection of discrete documents written by different people, with different perspectives, living at different times, and beholden to completely different worldviews… This would account, in part, for that jarring inconsistencies, puzzling contradictions, and thematic tensions found in the finished product.”  (2)

This is a also attested to by the prestigious Oxford Companion to the Bible, which includes among it’s editors some of the most prestigious Christian scholars of our era, including Bruce Metzger (3)

bible contradictions

This same idea is echoed by most textbooks on the Bible, including those used in Christian seminaries, see for example Robert Kugler and Patrick Hartin’s seminary textbook, titled “An Introduction to the Bible”

  • “Readers of the Pentateuch, Genesis though Deuteronomy have long observed the presence of double version of narratives, contradictions of fact, and variations of vocabulary and styles.” (4)

Yoram Hazony, in his award award winning book “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” declares that;

  • The biblical authors disagree among themselves time and time again, even over what might seem to be issues of the greatest importance. No one can harmonize Isaiah’s claim that in the time of the king-to-come all the earth will have one God with the prophet Micha’s vision, in which each nation will walk with its own god, and Israel will walk with theirs. Similarly, Isaiah sees mankind beating their swords into plowshares and coming to be judged at Jerusalem. But the vision of Joel is different, and he writes that when the nations come to Jerusalem to be judged, they will beat their plowshares into swords – for judgment will come on the battlefield. To understand the Hebrew Bible, then, is first to recognize it as an artful compendium, whose purpose is not – and never was – to present a single viewpoint.”   (5)

Yet if you go into a Christian bookstore, you will find dozens of books by popular fundamentalist leaders that claim to resolve all of the “alleged contradiction,” though most of these are written by authors who are not biblical scholars. For example, Ken Ham (who is an anti-evolutionist minister), Norman Giesler (a minister and philosopher), Josh McDowell (a minister and apologist), Henry Morris (a minister and engineer), though there are a few cases where real biblical scholars publish this as well, like the Harvard trained Gleason Leonard Archer, Jr (pastor, theologian, and biblical scholar). Because there are thousands of biblical scholars, one can always find some ultra conservative theologians that have a commitment to biblical inerrancy, but this position is in the minority among Jews/Christians in biblical studies, and completely absent among scholars of all other backgrounds. 

In fact, many believers are comfortable with admitting these discrepancies as part of their theology. This is what a Marc Zvi Brettler, a Hebrew scholar and a practicing Jew writes:

  • According to my view of biblical authority, it is within my rights to “select” particular biblical texts as more important than others. I perform this selection out of an awareness that the Bible is a contradictory anthology, and thus speaks in many voices… I must decide which voice is authoritative… I must decide if I should “hold the feast of Booths for seven days” (Deut. 16:13) or if I should append it to “a complete rest on the eight day” (Lev 23:39. Similarly, I would have to decide whether the prohibition against eating nonslaughtered meat applies to me (Deut 14:21) or only to priests, and whether as a nonpriest I may eat a cow found dead by the side of the road (see Lev 17:15). These texts are to my mind irreconcilable, and along with many other examples, offer clear proof of the validity of the documentary hypothesis, the theory that the Torah is a composite document, written by different authors at different times and reflecting different interests.” Engaging Biblical Authority: Perspectives on the Bible as Scripture edited by William P. Brown, Marc Zvi Brettler  (link)

Or the Christians Seminary professors Ronald J. Allen, Joseph R. Jeter, in their textbook “One Gospel Many Ears”:

  • “Some biblical writers disagree with one another. The Deuteronomist, for instance, assumes that obedience begets prosperity while disobedience calls forth a curse, but the book of Job says, “not necessarily.” Readers are advised in 1 Peter to be obedient to the emperor since the emperor is Gods agent, but the book of Revelation regards the Roman empire as an instrument of Satan. The Bible is not a rigid anvil… [there are] many forms of pluralism in the Bible.” (6)

And as previously mentioned, Bruce Metzger a leading biblical scholar and who was himself a deeply devout Christian, wrote that:

  • “The Bible thus speaks with many voices, and, from the time of its emergence as an authoritative sacred text, readers and interpreters have noted its many repetitions, inconsistencies, and contradictions.” (7)

WHAT TYPES OF BIBLICAL DISCREPANCIES ARE THERE?

There are hundreds of instances where different biblical authors narrate the same sequence of events or doctrines with significant and irreconcilable differences. There are many lists and examples of this, for examples, visit BibleViz. Generally speaking, biblical discrepancies occur because of two issues, (a) when some historical event did indeed occur but due to the unreliability of human memory and oral tradition, this is retold quite differently by various authors, and (b) because of the fact that the Bible was written over such a wide range of cultures, political views, and time periods, that in many cases historical (or mythical) events, and doctrines/teachings, were reinterpreted by different authors in their own context.

A chart showing some of the self-contradictions of the Bible

 

1. Historical discrepancies

As an example, there are two stories regarding the death of Judas, with radically different storylines, locations, and events portrayed. In one story Judas returns the money to the temple and hangs himself, in another story, he keeps the money –using it to purchase some property, but falls headfirst and is killed by the fall. While some creative attempts by conservative Christians have been employed to try to explain how one can both hang himself, and die by falling headfirst, these always fail to account the many other differences (i.e. Did he return/keep the money? Did he purchase the field or did the Pharisees purchase it? Why was it bought and named?). Some other examples include the discrepancy as to when Jesus was seized in the Garden of Gethsemane, the two different times during which Jesus died, the differing dates of the Nativity, as well as the radically different Nativity stories as a whole

Both of these are historical discrepancies. The event that the stories are based on likely did happen, in some form, however, because humans are prone to misremembering, embellishing a story, theologizing, and retelling it incorrectly, we see very different versions of the story.

2.Theological inconsistencies

As an example, the earlier writings of the Torah contain many instances where the text depicts Yahweh giving the Hebrews ceremonial laws regarding burnt offerings (Ex 20:24, 29:10-42, Lev 1:1-7:38, Num 28:1-29:40). Yet, during a different period in Hebrew culture, we see another set of authors claim otherwise, the book of Jeremiah depicts God saying “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God.” (Jer 7:22-23). It’s patently obvious there are two very different views on what God actually said, this cannot be denied without resorting to blatant dishonesty. In this case, its clear that we are seeing two sets of biblical authors in a debate over what Yahweh actually said in the past.

There are many even bigger theological discrepancies, for example, should a follower of Yahweh kill ones enemy, murder their children, and take their girls into slavery (Exodus 32:27–29, Ezekiel 9:4-6, Numbers 31:17–18 , 1 Samuel 15:2-3) or should a follower of Yahweh love their enemy, turn the other cheek, and give prayer and wealth to ones enemies? (Matthew 5:38-47). Other theological disagreements are centered on the questions like whether God can deceive people or not, and whether the Gospels teach salvation by faith or salvation by works. These kinds of theological discrepancies, in my opinion, are far worse than narrative or historical discrepancies.

WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL?

In the beginning of this post I laid out two possibilities (and these may represent a range of positions, not so much a black/white dichotomy).

1.The Bible was divinely inspired or influenced

2.The Bible was composed only by human means (no divine influence)

In the end it is the goal of any intellectually honest individual to survey the Bible and to see what theory the evidence fits better.

Here is an undeniable fact:

  • The Bible has discrepancies and contradictions. Or at the very least, it’s written in such a way that there are hundreds of verses that seem to be contradictions (even though for some unknown reason are not) which has led almost all biblical scholars and countless readers to become convinced the bible has contradictions. This surely could have been avoided by a divine author seeking to clearly convey the truth in a way that avoids confusion. Surely if God were the author he would have known the two stories of Judas’ death seem to be impossible to reconcile, and would have written them more clearly? 

Ask yourself, which theory does this fact fit better? The first or the second? Are historical discrepancies and theological inconsistencies a better fit for the “divine hypothesis” or the “human hypothesis”? I strongly believe that if we are to be fair, we must admit the inability of the Bible to present a cohesive and consistent voice is very strong evidence that it lacks divine inspiration. Humans make historical mistakes, are highly inaccurate, change their mind regarding theology; God does not.

(To be continued)

WHY DO I WRITE

After years of blogging/talking/dialoguing about religion, I am ashamed that I have not been able to clearly communicate my “heart.” In the last few years I have seen so many responses riddled with spite & condescension. I have heard dozens of stories of gossip and ugly rumors that have been spread about me. On days like these I am deeply disappointed in humanity, but also hopeful that we can restart everything from the beginning.

So this is my clumsy-and-sentimental open letter to all of you who are religious believers. I earnestly hope you will hear my “heart of hearts.”

 

Dear religious believer,

It’s no secret that I sincerely think that some of your beliefs are not correct, a position which I accepted very reluctantly in an effort to be as intellectually honest as possible, no matter the cost. Yet my disagreement with you doesn’t mean that I harbor hatred or spitefulness towards you.

I am not at war against you.

I am not on the side of the enemy. (In fact, our real enemy, I believe, is the cowardly intolerance, brutish unkindness, and unneeded aggression we as humans often exhibit in our foolishness.)

As strange as this may sound, I am on your side, because I care about you enough to hope you believe the truth.

Deep down, at the core of my being, I genuinely want us to share an earnest pursuit of truth together. I want us to join hands as we explore the fabric of reality and strive to understand the universe as it is. You think the answer to everything is your religion, and because I was once a deeply devout preacher who believed it with all of my heart, I totally get that and understand how it feels. And if that answer is indeed true, I sincerely want to accept it and believe it. And likewise, if its false, I want to reject it so that we can move on and discover the more accurate answers, even if we don’t like them.

I promise you this.

I really need you to understand this: I did not come to my conclusions because I am evil, wicked, stupid, daft, and most assuredly not because I hate you or want to offend you.

I am not here to cram some ideology down your throat or to promote a sinister agenda. I am not here to justify some secret sins, nor because I am angry and want to bring about revenge against someone that hurt me.

I really don’t have a wicked plan to wage war against all the infidels, heathen, sinners, or fools, in fact, I hate all those words. I certainly don’t want to make a deep line of division that will separate people into camps, “sinners vs saints” or “smart vs dumb.” As strange as it may be for you to believe this, the fact of the matter is, I want the very opposite.

I earnestly believe we can make the world a better place, where religious and existential dialogue is kind, friendly, helpful, and most importantly, honest. Where people are not degraded for their beliefs, even as these beliefs are challenged. I want to live in a world where people are are not indoctrinated, nor shamed, shunned, mocked, or frightened into submission, but instead share a deep passion for seeing the world as it really is.

This is why I “waste” so much of my time writing and discussing these matters. It’s not to offend you or degrade you, but because I want to be helpful to you.

Deep down, I really do care for you. When you try to “evangelize me,” do you not do this because you care for me and want to “save my soul”? In the same way, when I try to persuade you, I do this because I really do care about you and I care about the truth.

What do I want?

If I am wrong, I sincerely want you to use sound reason and good evidence to convince me of that, so I may join you (don’t merely call me names, gossip about me behind my back, or threaten me with hell – as is unfortunately all too common). If I am wrong, at least I will have sharpened your thinking, and helped you correct some serious flaws in your theology (surely you don’t claim to have all of the perfect answers, perhaps there is something you can learn from me).

If you are wrong, I want you to become aware of this, so that you may join me in being “less wrong” and seeing our universe as it really is instead of believing the wrong answers. Consider that billions of people in the past believed things you now accept are false, surely if you were an ancient Greek polytheist, you would have wanted me to tell you Zeus doesn’t really exist, even if that would upset your worldview? No?

Surely if you are wrong, you want to know that? Don’t you? I certainly do.

I want to make you think, carefully and critically. I want to help you consider your faith with as much scrutiny as you consider the beliefs of other religions or philosophies. I want to make you care more about the truth than what people will think of you. I want to encourage you prefer the truth over comfort and safety. I wish that you would learn to be more fair when examining other peoples religions and perspectives, and learn to be more critical of your own. And I want you to kindly encourage me do the same.

At the end of the day, I want you to join me on this honest journey to pursue the truth, and whether it takes us to Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism, or something even stranger, I want us to walk together in honesty and kindness, willing to accept the truth, whatever it  really is, even if we don’t like it.

believers stand to lose

In my previous post I contemplated what I would do if I was wrong about God and religion.

I’m frequently asked “what if you died and met [my particular version of] God?” My reply was that I would be sincerely surprised, however, I would not get angry, rebel, or hate this God, instead I would quietly sit down next to him and ask him some questions. A God who is good and loving, who knows fully the openness of my heart and willingness to be humble, couldn’t possibly hate me or torture without end..

If I’m wrong, then I would be open to changing my mind, I would be willing to believe that God exists, I would be willing to accept God’s dominion. I trust that any good omniscient being would know my intentions have always been pure and would treat me fairly. So I’m not at all terrified of torture.

What about the traditional Christian (or Muslim, Mormon, Hindu, etc) believer? Let’s ask you the same question:

What if you are wrong? What have you to risk?

THE USUAL REPLY TO “WHAT IF YOU’RE WRONG?”

I have encountered this quote by the rapper Lecrae many times, in each case, it was the reply given by kind religious folk when asked this question. They say something along the lines of: “If I’m wrong then I wasted my life. If you’re wrong about [my] God then you wasted eternity.

lecrae

Lecrae is by no means the first person to come to such a conclusion, this idea has been around for hundreds of years. It was best articulated by the French mathematician Blaise Pascal, who ordered it as follows:

“Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.” (Pascals Wager)

But is this really the case? It is a profitable gamble? Many philosophers and thinkers have considered Pascals Wager and discovered numerous errors; lets briefly survey a few of these.

 

PROBLEM #1 – IGNORES OTHER FAITHS

Here is how the average believer imagines the situation. You have before you the option to (a) believe or (b) withhold belief. One of these options has the possibility of an infinite reward with no loss, the other a possibility of infinite loss with no possible reward. Believers of any particular religion who employ this kind of thinking use binary logic, because they only see their religion as an option.

pascals wager 1

The reality of the situation is that there are dozens of contemporary religious options with millions of followers that present the same wager. Instead of standing before one statement with a 50/50 chance, we are have before us a few dozen religious claims, each with their own afterlives, heavens, and hells. This drastically reduces the odds of being right, it’s no longer a true or false question that yields 50% odds, but rather it’s a multiple choice question, and there are dozens of choices. Instead of having “nothing to lose” if we are wrong, by choosing God A instead of God B, we open ourselves to go to B’s version hell. Instead of odds that are 50/50, we are looking at 1/50.

pascals wager 2

 

PROBLEM #2 – ITS A SELFISH LOTTERY

The second big problem with this wager is that most faiths require that a believer profess faith out of the genuineness of their heart. According to the theological teachings of major theistic religions, adherents are called to have a selfless faith, utmost respect, careful obedience, and authentic love towards God. Yet, Pascals wager calls people to make decisions with a calculated interest in self-preservation. One must consider his odds of playing the “afterlife lottery” and use his selfish desire to roll the dice.

It is a decision grounded in the natural desire to avoid pain and seek pleasure, it’s a choice that stems from our simple carnal urge to run from the horrors of hell and seek the lavishness of heaven. By the definition of most religions, especially the top three monotheistic faiths, Christianity, Judaism, & Islam, this faithless act of picking the option that is most likely to save your skin disqualifies one from the salvation found in that religion.

Believing in God only because you have something to gain, or because you fear punishment is not a noble selfless sacrifice, it is selfish self preservation.  

 

PROBLEM #3 – ASSUMING NO RISK

As part of the argument it is commonly asserted that a believer who is wrong about (their) God loses nothing. (This is a standard line of thinking in Pascals wager, though Lecrae’s version does admit one “loses” his life.) Traditionally, it’s presupposed that a life which is finite or temporary cannot be meaningful and must automatically be a waste. Yet there is no good argument to justify this assertion. Is a finite donut less tasty because it doesn’t last forever? Is a short trip to Disneyland less meaningful because it’s not eternal? Surely no. It seems fallacious to simply assert that a temporary life has no meaning, and even worse to make the baseless claim that if your life was eighty, not a trillion years long, then it must be a wasted life.

In any sense, lets say you decide to play the selfish afterlife lottery, what do you stand to lose?

1. You risk displeasing the God(s) of every other religion, known and unknown to us

As Homer Simpson put it “but Marge, what if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we’re just making God madder and madder!” The reality is, unless you are absolutely and positively sure that your particular version of faith is the true one, you may be incurring the wrath of God(s) upon yourself. And yes, I know that as the believer of one religion you think all those other religions are so obviously silly and wrong that you cannot take them seriously, and yet, that is exactly what the adherents of those other religions think of your faith. Believing something simply because of a wager is a problem not only with different religions, but even within the same religion. What if you take Pascals Wager and simply jump into Pentecostalism, but the real truth ends up being Catholicism. You will be worshiping the right God, in the wrong way and rejecting his emissaries to this earth, and while you may end up barely making it to heaven, you are surely risking some kind of punishment or chastisement by carelessly making a leap of faith without thoughtfully exploring the options.

2. You risk the only moments of existence you will ever get

Sure when you compare eighty years to a trillion years, the eighty obviously pales in comparison. And if we knew for a fact there were infinite years to be had, only a complete fool would choose eternal torture for those infinite years (which begs the question, is such an insane person even eligible to receive punishment, we don’t imprison the mentally ill, so why should God torture them in hell?). Yet, all we do know for a fact is that we have a few decades in this vast cosmic arena, this life is certain, the rest is merely an ethereal possibility. If this short life is 100% of your existence, it is still a huge tragedy to simply gamble it away, even if that is less a tragedy than gambling away 100% of eternal existence. In some ways, it can be said that wasting 100% of your money is even more sad when you have a small wallet rather than an infinite bank account.

3. You risk your only chance to embrace the truth of reality

What if you only have one opportunity to embrace and understand the sublime grandeur of the universe? By throwing it away on a gamble, you risk your only chance to learn and understand reality. Just pause for one second, are you really saying that if the answer to the greatest puzzle of existence isn’t the one you think it is, you don’t want to know the real answer? You don’t even want to try? There could be untold wonders in this universe, perhaps the ultimate answers of reality are infinitely more fascinating and wonderful than what the traditional religions have given us? Perhaps these religions have only grasped at a tiny drop in a vast ocean of beautiful wonder? And you would rather lose what may be your only opportunity to learn about it? Just because you only want the answer that you already picked to be true?

4. (In some traditions) you risk the ability to live a happy life

Fortunately we all live in a peaceful time in history and many of us belong to healthy religious traditions, but at the same time, others do not. There were the millions of people who lived in difficult historical periods, and used the thinking behind Pascals wager to live unhappy lives. There were many stoic and ascetic believers who intentionally harmed their health, happiness, and lives as a sacrifice for God(s). There were millions who lived in repressive religious cultures that prevented women from having freedom, caused men to spend thousands of hours on their in repetitive prayers, groveling in shame, or hunted “heretics,” burning them on pyres. Today there are still religious traditions that prevent many from obtaining joy by shame and physical repression, others prevent adherents from enjoying life, beauty, sex, culture, and etc. This doesn’t apply to all, for indeed many religious traditions offer a good sense of community and meaning, but millions of people have thoughtlessly risked their happiness on religious traditions that don’t.

5. (In some traditions) you risk holding back the entire human race

There are indeed brilliant scientists who are religious believers, yet historically they tend to be at odds with sizable portions of theologians/religious leaders in their tradition. On top of that, the majority of scientists today grow up in non-religious homes. Sociologist Elaine H. Ecklund has found that “When compared to the general population, a larger proportion of scientists are raised in non-religious homes.” (Again, not all religious people hinder science, nor all traditions, but a significant number of historically and today do that it’s worth mentioning). If you simply use Pascals wager to select one of these religious traditions, you are hindering all of humanity. If you pick a religion that discriminates against a race, sex, or sexual orientation, your wager is harmful towards those people. If you simply hate evolution or stem cell research perhaps your impulsive wager will negatively millions of other people.. 

6. You risk teaching others that the fear of death/punishment is stronger than intellectual honesty

Life is filled with many grand riddles, and whatever the final solution may be, if you simply pick a “safe” answer that you think will save you from some ethereal torture, or will shield you from contemplating the sobering reality of death, you are advocating intellectual cowardice. Rather than investigating the truth with courage and integrity, with the aim of accepting it regardless of its conclusions, you would act impulsively on the basis of fear. If you simply pick the answer that appears to be less frightening, then is not a brave intellectual honesty that motivates your decisions, but simple cowardice.  When you act this way you are teaching others that fear is stronger than the truth.

7. You risk teaching others that selfishness is more important than intellectual honesty

On the same note, if you primarily consider the possibility of personal reward, or that if there is no reward at least you have lived a happy life by thinking there is one, you are selling your soul. Rather than pursuing the truth, to whatever conclusion it may lead, you prefer to make the selfish choices that offer you a reward, or at least the hope of one. You opt to make a calculated decision based on how much personal benefit you can reap, not on the truthfulness a claim. And by doing this you teach others around you that the value of selfish desires is more important than a courageous quest for truth.

 

Does this mean you should change sides?

Am I saying you should change your religious views? No, not necessarily (though if you have a good reason, then yes). My goal is to urge you to stop using these careless cop-out answers, stop living a life where you merely make impulsive decisions grounded in fear, selfishness, or indoctrination instead of careful and considerate thinking. I want you to stop assuming this topic requires little or no consideration but just blind faith. Whatever choices you make, please understand all of them are of utmost importance and require care and attention.

If your religion is the right one, it will affect all of your existence, so make that decision carefully and thoughtfully; don’t make silly wagers based on irrational fears and hopes of rewards.

If your religion is not the right one, it will affect all of your existence, so be willing to examine your beliefs, don’t run away from this by using wagers with a calculated self-interest.

Whatever the answers are, be courageous in exploring them and be honest in accepting them.