The Good Book?

Recently, an offended Christian left this comment on my satirical post “Footprints“:

Call me close-minded, but am I the only one who looks at the whole text of Scripture, and not just the parts that deal with eternal damnation?

Because, if we’re playing a game where we take the Holy Word of God out of context, I can alter His meaning to say just about anything, really.

….why does everyone fail to mention all the times that God blessed His people? Why is everyone so quick to point out where God brings punishment upon those who deserve punishment? Why does no one want to talk about the innumerable people who witnessed the miracles of Christ?

First of all, I have to say I found it rather odd that this visitor acknowledged that the Bible can be made to say “just about anything”, depending on which verses one selects, and that he doesn’t see anything unusual about that. Is that the hallmark of a good book, that you can make either a collection of very good lessons or of very bad ones, depending on what you choose to emphasize? Shouldn’t a truly good book present a consistently good message no matter which parts you pick?

But, leaving that aside, I’ll gladly take this Christian up on his challenge. Let’s look at the whole text of scripture.

If one starts reading at the beginning of the Bible, the first thing one should notice is that it’s far from the unblemished collection of just and beautiful teachings that many of its followers would have us believe. In just the first few books of the Old Testament, there’s a great amount of hatred, bloodshed, and violence – and not just practiced by God’s enemies, but often waged by his followers in his name and with his approval, or even committed by God himself. The book of Genesis, for example, records God becoming so angry that he sent a massive flood to drown nearly every living thing on earth. The book of Exodus shows how he tormented the Egyptian people with plagues to punish their ruler. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy contain many cruel and savage laws, such as how homosexuals should be stoned, or how women who are raped should have to marry their rapists. The books of Numbers and Joshua gleefully recount a genocidal war of extermination which God ordered his chosen people to carry out against the Canaanites.

I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Even if we take an overview that looks at “the whole text of Scripture”, we see that it’s far from faultless, and that there are many passages which we rightly consider to be cruel and abhorrent. Indeed, if one reads the deconversion stories of former Christians, a common element is that their journey to atheism began when they actually read the Bible and saw for themselves what it contains.

Now, to grant this Christian’s point, I’m not claiming that the Bible is all bad. It’s quite true that, mixed in with all the violence and terror, there are also some quite good verses, including excellent and profound lessons about compassion, love, and generosity. (I would not, however, count the “loving” sacrifice of Jesus among them. If anything, I think it belongs more with the former group of verses than the latter – showcasing as it does either the savagery of a god who demands that someone‘s blood has to be shed to forgive sin, or else the bizarre masochism of a god who put himself through a needless, agonizing death.)

However, the good verses don’t predominate. If anything, I’d say that the bad ones outnumber the good, and that the Bible’s overall message is more about suffering and destruction than it is about hope. (Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7 that most people are going to Hell is a microcosm of this.) That is not a conclusion reached by taking biblical verses “out of context”, but by simply reading the Bible for what it says, without seeking to deny or downplay the verses that raise troubling theological issues.

But my Christian visitor missed a more fundamental point. Yes, it’s true that the Bible contains many bad lessons. It’s also true that the Bible contains many good lessons. But trying to determine the “balance” of good and bad, as if the good verses could somehow outweigh the bad ones, overlooks a basic truth. The fact that there even is such a mixture makes the Bible a bad book overall – because a truly good book would not have good and evil parts mixed together. A truly good book would be consistently good, not just occasionally good!

Mixing good and evil lessons is like, to use an analogy I heard once, mixing wine with sewage. It doesn’t matter if there’s a lot more wine than there is sewage; you still get sewage in the end. Similarly, evil doesn’t cease to be evil if it’s mixed with some good, but good definitely does cease to be good if it’s adulterated with evil. If there was a benevolent deity who inspired the Bible, why would he be willing to share real estate with the shocking atrocities and infamous cruelties recorded in that book? Would he want or allow his message of love to be stained with blood and mingled with these evil deeds?

Pointing out this absurdity is why I wrote “The Great Sage’s Visit” on Ebon Musings. In the case of a human being, this conclusion would be clear to everyone. But when cherished religious beliefs are at stake, some people will resist even the most obvious and persuasive reasoning.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • velkyn

    this Christian seems to be using the good ol’ excuse of “context”. Oh, the Bible would be your holy book too if you *just* understood it in “context”. Well, I’ve asked for that context, even asked them to define what they mean by that word. I’ve found that doing that is one of the fastest ways to make a Christian vanish from a forum. Excellent essay as always, ebon.

  • An Atheist

    I didn’t have to read the bible to realize it religion was all trash. However after I realized this, I also realized no Christian would listen to you until you have read it. So I did, long after I realized it was ridiculous. It is completely amazing that people can reconcile the Bible with goodness. The worst part about the Pharaoh is that he made him resist so that he could torment Egypt, as well as the other parts where he causes people not to believe so he can send them to Hell. They have no control. This is more than enough to discredit the Bible.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    …evil doesn’t cease to be evil if it’s mixed with some good, but good definitely does cease to be good if it’s adulterated with evil.

    Why do so many Christians who habitually resort to lying for Jesus fail to see this? The allegedly moral end of bringing souls into God’s kingdom does not justify using the immoral means of lying to get them there.

  • konrad_arflane

    Why is everyone so quick to point out where God brings punishment upon those who deserve punishment?

    This seems to me a point we should not overlook. This Christian apparently doesn’t notice that the Bible also tells of God bringing punishment to people who, in fact, don’t deserve it *cough*Book of Job*cough*. And not only that, there are a great number of places where the Bible describes someone as deserving of punishment for things that, to a modern reader, either don’t merit punishment at all, or don’t merit the very harsh punishments meted out by God.

    I suspect this is one of those instances where a believer simply doesn’t stop to consider whether God’s acts are actually good – there is no point in such speculation when anything God does is good by definition, after all.

  • mikespeir

    When they start complaining that we’re taking things OUT OF context what’s really bothering them is that we’ve noticed what’s IN the context.

  • aklassen

    When I read this page, I noticed that it seems everyone’s posts, from the ‘Christian’s’ in the beginning through to the most recent post, have something in common in their approaches to this topic. Admittedly, this is a very narrow and overly brief discussion of the topic, but I can’t help but noticing that everyone has neglected the fact that we’re talking about a book. If we picked up a contemporary book and started discussing whether it was good or evil (a very strange dichotomy for an inanimate object, in any case), inevitably very early in the discussion someone would bring up the author(s), the historical context, the intended audience and a variety of other literary aspects. Yet this is rarely done with the Bible outside academic circles. ‘Christians’ rarely do it because it makes the Bible into a book rather than a Holy Book and amateur critics are inexplicably happy to meet them on the pedestal. Intelligent critics of the Bible and theologians start with discussions about when, where, why and how the Bible was written. With a perspective such as this, it is much easier to understand why the Bible is today what it is and from that understanding, it is possible to discuss the Bible in more tangible terms than ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

    Furthermore, I’ve found it far more rewarding and insightful to look at the Bible as a book–just as fallible as the people who wrote it. With this perspective, one can tap into the centuries of theological thinking without cutting off one’s own feet with the dogma of the religion.

  • landis

    “Why does no one want to talk about the innumerable people who witnessed the miracles of Christ?” I would like to ask this Christian, just who actually witnessed any miracles. All of the research I’ve done does not turn up one single eyewitness to any of the things that were described decades and centuries after his supposed death.
    After suffering through another Myth laden Easter, I just wanted to scream at my TV when all of the documentaries came on talking about JESUS. Not one of them offered any solid evidence of his actual existence. Rather, they take quotes from apostles who lived decades and centuries later as proof and just expect everyone to accept this without question.

  • Shawn Smith

    landis, I couldn’t watch more than a minute of one of the shows on the Discovery Channel (or History, I can’t remember which) that actually mentioned Josephus as confirming evidence of the existence and divinity of Jesus. phhft.

  • James B

    Context… con-text.

    con
    Function: transitive verb
    Inflected Form(s): conned; con·ning
    1 : swindle “accused of conning retirees out of their savings
    2 : manipulate
    3 : persuade, cajole

    text
    1 a (1): the original words and form of a written or printed work
    (2): an edited or emended copy of an original work b: a work containing such text

    Simple really. ;)

  • Robert Madewell

    Because, if we’re playing a game where we take the Holy Word of God out of context, I can alter His meaning to say just about anything, really.

    Look at this sentence and you’ll see a point I have been trying to make for a long time. “Holy Word” and the pronoun “His” after that show us plainly what god this person worships. My parents do the same. They worship a book! Fundies worship the bible. A 3000 year old badly translated book is thier God! Don’t believe me? Ask a fundie if the bible is ever wrong. Because fundies hold the bible up on a pedestal, they have made it their idol. This is whats behind the homophobia, creationism, doctrine of hell, etc. If the bible says it, it must be true.

  • http://badger3k.livejournal.com/ Badger3k

    Robert – this is a point that, hopefully IRC, Robert M Price makes in his book – “The Paperback Apocalypse” – if not that, then maybe “Deconstructing Jesus”. The Fundies and Evangelicals have made the Book thier God, while ignoring everything else, including their supposed real god. They take the book over the ideal (or Idea)! Of course, that also relates to the Catholic polythiesm with their Saints and multiple Virgins (I recall an interview-or post- somewhere where it was brought up that one Pope thanks the Virgin of Fatima specifically, and not just the Virgin Mary. Totally called out the paganism inherent in the belief system. Fascinating the way the mindset “works”.

  • dutch

    Just taking one example from your article regarding the flood. We will never find evidence of a flood as described in genesis. As I have said before, The Bible is spiritual. Most Christians don’t understand this, and it makes their defence of The bible awkward at best. As Jesus said, “my words are spirit.” If no flood, then the rest follows, none of it is actual earthly history.

    By the way, how in hell did Matthew write about Jesus temptation in the wilderness?

    Landis, Jesus Christ was never physically in this plane. However, He was manifest in man. You are very right in saying “Not one of them offered any solid evidence of his actual existence.”

    No Ebonmuse, I am not the only one who understands this. Our numbers grow.

  • bassmanpete

    Ira Gershwin put it well:

    It ain’t necessarily so, it ain’t necessarily so. De t’ings dat yo’ li’ble to read in de Bible,it ain’t necessarily so.

    and:

    To get into Hebben don’t snap for a sebben. Live clean, don have no fault. Oh, I takes dat gospel whenever it’s pos ble but wid a grain of salt.

  • http://dubitoergo.blogspot.com Tom Foss

    No Ebonmuse, I am not the only one who understands this. Our numbers grow.

    Your numbers were pretty large back in the day. Then they were ruled heretical. Now, what ancient Catholics considered heresy doesn’t much matter to us atheists, nor I imagine does it matter to most Christians. But the “we’re the only true Christians” argument works no better for you than it does for any of the other True Scotsmen Christians who try to use it. And while your tortured logic would place these events in a spiritual plane (as opposed to, gosh, a fictional plane. Where’s Ockham when you need him?), I’m sure there are plenty of Bible-thumpers out there, equally secure in their belief, who would cite passage after passage to refute your position. It is, after all, the big book of multiple choice, as Ebonmuse’s drive-by commenter rightly noted.

    Incidentally, what’s the difference between matters that happen in some realm wholly separated from our abilities to observe and detect it, and matters that do not happen at all?

    I suspect that it’s as Thomas Jefferson put it: “To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul.”

  • Valhar2000

    Oh, come on, Tom! Religion feels so good! And you don’t get busted for it the way you do for smoking crack!

  • terrence

    “Spiritual, as oppposed to, gosh, fictional” –love that. From my collection of favorite quotes:

    “The invisible and the non-existent look pretty much alike”

  • Christopher

    Dutch,

    “No Ebonmuse, I am not the only one who understands this. Our numbers grow.”

    No, your numbers are incredibly thin right now (as they have been since the Catholics persecuted your kind to the verge of extinction) – and I don’t see any type of neo-Gnostic theology becoming the dominant theology anywhere again.

    Face it, your glory days are behind you.

  • dutch

    Tom Foss, “I’m sure there are plenty of Bible-thumpers out there, equally secure in their belief, who would cite passage after passage to refute your position”

    They are not nearly as secure in their positions as you assume. Perhaps this is why some “secure” Christians evolve into “secure” atheists. My minister is extremely strong in The Word. There have been quite a few meetings between him and more mainstream Christian ministers. To back-up claims and counter claims these ministers cannot quote nearly the Scripture our minister can. Instead of scriptural argument, these ministers have resorted to name calling, and once have resorted to shoving. Isn’t this a familiar tactic that no matter what the discussion, if you can’t win, name calling and such is what is left.

    If I understand your logic, you are saying if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

    Also Mr. Foss, Thomas jefferson was most certainly a Christian as where all “The Founding Fathers,” no matter how much revisionist history you care to read. I have only a few quotes attributed to Jefferson, but he also signed The Declaration of Independance as well as being the main author of this fine document.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

    from Jefferson’s 1st innaugaral address;
    “acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter–with all these blessings,”
    “Relying, then, on the patronage of your good will, I advance with obedience to the work, ready to retire from it whenever you become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make. And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.”

    The “Mayflower Compact,” is replete with religion, in spite of revisionist historians saying otherwise – again from original documents.

    I would rather look into original documents than read someone’s opinion – there are a lot of secular internet sites that will allow you to do this.

    I merely state that “The Good Book” is largely misunderstood. I do not wish to go off-topic, but you brought up Jefferson. The diseases are not physical, and if you study The Bible(not that you will) you will find that oil is “wisdom,” which in turn makes the parable of the ten virgins, five of who ran out of oil(wisdom) in their lamps, more easily understood by those who care. Anounting of oil then is not the cure of a physical disease.

  • Steve Bowen

    Dutch

    I don’t see how any of your quotes brand Jefferson a christian. Deist at “best”

  • Samuel Skinner

    Deism is bare bones theism- basically enough to use all the “God exists” arguments, but not enough to be ties to any faith or atrocity. It is going for a religion based on reason. If he had lived at the time of Darwin, there are good odds he would have been an atheist- most of the foundation of Deism was the inability to explain order otherwise.
    As for Jefferson himself, I always thought Thomas Paine and George Washington were better human beings. Paine fought the good fight his who life, and George had some empathy for his slaves and began to realize they were human (ironically driving him to bankruptcy because he stopped selling apart families and children).

    Yes, the Mayflower compact is full of religious language. It isn’t the founding document for the United States though- it is a power sharing agreement between the Puritan settler of the Mayflower colony and the half of the ship they hodwinked (wait a minute… this isn’t Virginia!). The Plymouth Rock colony had little influence on the US- the only reason it is famous is because Jamestown doesn’t make as good a story (people came to get rich and starved because they wouldn’t work.).

  • dutch

    Yes, Jefferson was more a deist. I agree as to your takes on Washington and Paine.

    Thank you for mentioning Paine. I have and I am reading original works of Paine as a result of your post. So far, Paine is saying exactly what I believe, basically organized religion stinks. Faith is between one man and God. Interestingly Paine was born and raised a Quaker. The founder of Quackerism is one George Fox, who said that Christ’s second coming is not external but in man. which is also something I am in agreement with.

  • MisterDomino

    The “Mayflower Compact,” is replete with religion, in spite of revisionist historians saying otherwise

    Excuse me?

    Which historians, exactly, ever claimed that a document written by religious pilgrims for the purpose of religious freedom had no mention of religion?

  • Lyssad

    Second that, aklassen. Also, I would add that before we go compiling all the verses, we need to decide which bible. Do we look at just the Jewish version with its 24 books, or the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, or Orthodox bibles, or all 81 books of the Coptic version? And what about the Gnostic books, like the Gospels of Mary and Judas?

  • dutch

    Mister Domino,

    In another thread of this site, it was said that religion played no part in the first Thanksgiving; which is just wrong.

    Lyssad, you may trust The KJV, but more than that, you may trust The Word in you. No, this is not your thought or “voices” in your head, it is a direct, albeit misunderstood, communication between you and your Creator.

  • Shawn Smith

    My understanding is that Thomas Jefferson, like other (although not all of the) founders, did believe in a personal, interventionist god. He believed that the attributes of that god could be discovered through rational thinking. That doesn’t sound like any Deist I’ve heard of. He thought of Christ as a good teacher, but human, not divine, which would make him like very few “Christians” today. He was certainly no atheist, as he knew of several atheists (mostly in France) and explicitly stated that he did not agree with their view. I like the term I’ve heard elsewhere: “theistic rationalist” as a good description of Jefferson’s views. He was probably second only to James Madison in strongly advocating between a strict separation between religion and the powers of the national government.

    Of course, George Washington also believed in an interventionist god, and was convinced that the Revolution would not have succeeded if it hadn’t been for that god intervening on the side of the colonists. There was at least one occasion where he should have, by all rights, been killed by musketfire, but wasn’t touched. I’m sure he saw that occasion as further proof of that intervention. Unlike Jefferson, however, Washington didn’t appear to have a problem with the national government providing support for religion, so long as no particular sect was supported exclusively. Adams and Hamilton appeared to share large parts of that view.

  • lpetrich

    Dutch, that alleged communication is not what one would naturally expect from an omnimax entity that wishes to deliver a clearly-understood message. I’m far from being omnimax, and I think that I’ve done a MUCH better job of communicating what I want to say than that alleged god.

    Also, the Puritans almost certainly did not share much of Dutch’s theology, so why make heroes out of them?

  • MisterDomino

    In another thread of this site, it was said that religion played no part in the first Thanksgiving; which is just wrong.

    You didn’t say the first Thanksgiving; you said the Mayflower Compact.

    If that’s the argument you’re trying to make, the first Thanksgiving wasn’t about the Christian religion; it was a native harvest festival.

    Check out this website if you want more:

    http://www.new-life.net/thanks01.htm

    Or, just grab one of the dozens of books or scholarly articles written on the subject; they all say pretty much the same thing as that website.

  • LyssaD

    Dutchie, I haven’t had a direct communication with God since I dropped acid as a teenager. And if happens now I’ll be talking to a psychiatrist asap.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Lyssad, you may trust The KJV, but more than that, you may trust The Word in you. No, this is not your thought or “voices” in your head, it is a direct, albeit misunderstood, communication between you and your Creator.

    Dutch, I hope you’re aware that not everyone hears the same voices in their heads as you do.

  • dutch

    Ebonmuse,

    Nice way to twist my words. If you read it, using your superior intellect, I never said I hear voices in my head. You wouldn’t understand “The Word in you.”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    You’re right: I don’t understand that. Given the great deal of work you’ve evidently put into making it incomprehensible, I’m not surprised.

  • Valhar2000

    You don’t get it, Ebon. It’s our fault that we don’t here THE WORD, becuase our hearts are closed (wonder how blood comes in and out of it all the time, then…).

    So, if Dutch is right, he is right, but if he is wrong, it is ourfalt that he is wrong, not becuase he actually is wrong. See? Understading Christianity is not that hard, if you put your mind to it.

  • goyo

    Lyssad, you may trust The KJV, but more than that, you may trust The Word in you. No, this is not your thought or “voices” in your head, it is a direct, albeit misunderstood, communication between you and your Creator.

    Nice way to twist my words. If you read it, using your superior intellect, I never said I hear voices in my head. You wouldn’t understand “The Word in you.”

    So if it’s not voices in your head, then how does god communicate with you?
    I know you are a big believer in dreams, but those always seem like pictures and “voices” in my head.
    Is it through “feelings”? That’s pretty vague.
    Seriously, how does god communicate? And is it only with certain religions, or is the islamic faith just as correct as the christian? Do they hear from the creator also?
    And Dutch, if you’re still trusting the KJV, then you must know about all the incorrect translations it has? For example, when it refers to the holy spirit as the holy ghost?
    The word in you…seriously, Dutch, your gnostic theology really gets tedious.

  • dutch

    Yes, it is hard to comprehend, and maybe I fumbled the explanation, but maybe the explanation is too fantastic to believe. I’ll leave it at that.

    If you believe the Bible carnally, that God is a violent, loving, and mischievious entity, then I couldn’t blame you in your atheism. I know it ain’t so.

    goyo,
    I use only the KJV with Strong’s Hebrew and Greek dictionaries. I use “e-sword,” free Bible software I downloaded.

    You said, “the islamic faith just as correct as the christian? Do they hear from the creator also?” Perhaps you will find the following interview with Iraqi general Sada interesting.

    Rosenberg says Sada told him moving stories about what God is doing in Iraq today. Sada said that “Some 5,000 Iraqis have publicly identified themselves as new followers of Christ since Iraq was liberated, and that an estimated 8 out of 10 Iraqi believers say they converted because Jesus appeared to them in dreams or visions

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    Rosenberg says Sada told him moving stories about what God is doing in Iraq today.

    One wonders how the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians in Iraq fits into God’s grand plan. It has already progressed to the point where many Christian leaders fear the Christian community in the country will be entirely eradicated.

  • http://deleted MisterDomino

    One wonders how the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians in Iraq fits into God’s grand plan.

    They’re not real Christians. DUH.


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