Facing Up to the Bible’s Darkness

Via Slacktivist, I came across an interesting essay by Greg Boyd, Getting Honest about the Dark Side of the Bible. (You might remember Boyd as one of the theologians interviewed in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, as well as his more recent and praiseworthy stand against the use of Christianity to support American imperial militarism.)

I have to give Boyd credit for doing something I’ve rarely seen Christians do: facing up squarely to the dark and savage morality of the Bible. In his post, he lists many of the same brutally violent verses atheists have often pointed out, in essays like my “A Book of Blood“, about God commanding genocide, smashing parents and children together, threatening to rip pregnant women open, and so on. Boyd writes that “we must honestly acknowledge that some depictions of God in Scripture are simply horrific” and that Christians must be “ruthlessly honest” about how disturbing this is:

How else can we describe material such as this as anything other than horrific, macabre, grotesque, and even revolting? If a portrait of God commanding people to slaughter babies and causing mothers to eat them doesn’t qualify as revolting, what would? If you found material like this in any other ancient or modern text, would you hesitate for a moment from labeling it as macabre, revolting, or some such phrase? If we are honest, we cannot deny it. So how does horrific material like what I just reviewed suddenly become less revolting by virtue of being found in our sacred text rather than someone else’s?

There are, of course, Christians who read these verses without a qualm because they hold to a divine-command morality in which might makes right, in which anything God does is morally good by definition because he’s the biggest and the strongest, even if it means killing children or impaling people on spears. Boyd rejects that apologetic as well:

This view is highly problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it undermines the analogical basis of referring to God’s “goodness” and “love” etc. Unless what we mean by “good” as applied to God is analogous to what “good” means in other contexts, then the “goodness” we ascribe to God is devoid of content. The idea that God utterly transcends our moral categories also unwittingly ascribes to God a Nietzschian ethic in which morality is reduced to nothing more than the preferences of whoever is in power.

Boyd also argues that violence in religious texts leads to support for violence in real life – not a shocking conclusion, but it’s good to have additional evidence for it. He cites the testimony of early American colonists who justified a slaughter of native people by treating it like a biblical allegory, casting themselves in the role of conquering Israelites. (It reminds me of a study cited in The God Delusion which found that Jewish children were supportive of a biblical story about Joshua slaughtering the Canaanites, but sharply disapproved of the same story when the names and locations were changed to place it in ancient China.)

So, there’s much to praise here. Boyd is right to notice the contradictory moral views ascribed to God by the New and Old Testaments, where the former depicts Jesus as preaching forgiveness and self-sacrificial love, and the latter depicts Yahweh as commanding the violent and merciless eradication of all enemies. And he’s right to flinch from the genocidal morality of the Old Testament, rather than defending it as so many modern apologists horrifyingly do.

But what conclusions do you draw from this? When you wind up with such a stark contradiction in your worldview, a basic principle of logic would advise you to check your premises: one of them must be wrong.

From an atheist perspective, it’s obvious where the problem lies. It’s in Boyd’s belief that the Old and New Testaments must present a coherent moral view because they were inspired by the same divine author working under the same set of moral principles. If you throw out that premise and instead assume that the Bible is an imperfect, human product, then the mystery is dispelled and you wind up with a much simpler and more satisfying conclusion: the two halves of the Bible were written by different people with different moral outlooks and then stuck together without regard for coherency.

Now, Boyd says he rejects this view (“I adamantly affirm that all this material is inspired by God”). But short of that, it doesn’t seem as if he has much advice on how a Christian should resolve the dilemma, other than a vague promise that he’ll say more about it in the future.

What’s interesting is that he expressed the same view on another occasion, as I wrote in “The Poisoned Cup of Theodicy“. In that post, Boyd has a similar treatment of the problem of evil, arguing that any attempt by a theist to explain why there’s evil and suffering in the world will lead to a bad outcome, and so believers should just work to fight evil without letting themselves think about why it exists.

Tortured as this logic is, I suppose it’s better than embracing and defending the biblical genocides. But it still commits you to a intellectual landscape of pits and traps, one where you have to be careful where you tread lest you stumble into deadly paradox. To Boyd and others who believe like him, I ask: Wouldn’t it be easier just to set aside those tangled presuppositions and accept that the Bible is a human document, one that no god had a voice in creating?

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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.

  • http://stroppyrabbit.blogspot.com Yewtree

    The Bible is not so much a book of two halves, but a compilation of many books, and I don’t just mean the canonical books into which it is usually divided up, but the different voices identified by the “Higher criticism” in the 19th century, and described by Karen Armstrong in The Bible: A Biography (which should be read by just about everyone, since the Bible is still a big part of our culture, but especially by anyone who wants to take the bible at face value, whether they are atheists or evangelicals or fundamentalists).

    The Higher Criticism (regarded by believers in the 19th century as even more scary than On the Origin of Species) identified four voices in the Old Testament: the Yahwist (J), who refers to God as Yahweh; the Elohist (E), who refers to God as El; the priestly author (P), and the Deuteronomist (D). Each of these authors had a different style, a different political agenda, different historical circumstances in which they were writing (and editing previous texts) and a different set of values.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_criticism#Old_Testament

    A similar process was applied to the authors of the New Testament.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_criticism#New_Testament

    Another important interpretation of the New Testament was offered by the Jesus Seminar, a group of New Testament scholars who got together to try and work out which of the utterances attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were what he actually said. This was done by cross-referencing the four gospels to check for utterances reported by all four, or omitted in one or more gospels.

    There is a happy medium between assuming that God dictated the Bible to its human authors, and regarding it as a purely human book. That is to say that it was divinely inspired, but that transmission was imperfect. This means that Bible fans can say that the humane bits were divinely inspired, but the brutal bits weren’t.

    Jewish commentators have long had a method of exegesis (interpretation) which dictates that every verse of the Torah must be interpreted to mean something loving.

  • Ritchie

    @Yewtree

    “There is a happy medium between assuming that God dictated the Bible to its human authors, and regarding it as a purely human book. That is to say that it was divinely inspired, but that transmission was imperfect. This means that Bible fans can say that the humane bits were divinely inspired, but the brutal bits weren’t.”

    That is logical – but it then breaks the authority of the Bible. If the Bible is anything less than perfect and inerrant, then no-one can use it as a moral standard. No-one can say “We should do X because it says so in the Bible” because the bit they are referencing might be one of the ‘transmission mistakes’.

  • GCT

    There is a happy medium between assuming that God dictated the Bible to its human authors, and regarding it as a purely human book.

    Um, you just got done telling us that it’s a human book.

    That is to say that it was divinely inspired, but that transmission was imperfect. This means that Bible fans can say that the humane bits were divinely inspired, but the brutal bits weren’t.

    This is nothing more than special pleading and begging the question.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com Michael

    If the transmission was imperfect, then how can it be trusted? We cannot know the human messengers got it right. That itself undermines the authority of the Bible.

  • 2-D Man

    There is a happy medium between assuming that God dictated the Bible to its human authors, and regarding it as a purely human book.

    That seems strange. We know that humans are capable of producing everything – desirable or not – in the Bible. So why attribute anything in there to gods, exactly?
    It sounds like you’re desperate to reach the conclusion that gods were responsible for scriptures. Just let it go.

  • Hanan

    >If the Bible is anything less than perfect and inerrant, then no-one can use it as a moral standard. No-one can say “We should do X because it says so in the Bible” because the bit they are referencing might be one of the ‘transmission mistakes’.

    Are you saying they CAN’T or SHOULDN’T. If it is the former, then you are wrong, you can look at Conservative Judaism to a good extent. If it is the latter, well…

  • Bdole

    Now, Boyd says he rejects this view (“I adamantly affirm that all this material is inspired by God”). But short of that, it doesn’t seem as if he has much advice on how a Christian should resolve the dilemma, other than a vague promise that he’ll say more about it in the future.

    This is the theological equivalent of vaporware. I wouldn’t hold my breath for anything groundbreaking.
    He certainly has an honest grasp of the problems with the Bible. Now he needs to take just one more teeny, tiny intellectual step. Of course, that’s one small step for the brain, but one gigantic leap for the social animal in which it resides.

    (hey look at me everybody, I’m using blockquotes just like a real denizen of the interwebz!)

  • Adam Lee

    There is a happy medium between assuming that God dictated the Bible to its human authors, and regarding it as a purely human book. That is to say that it was divinely inspired, but that transmission was imperfect. This means that Bible fans can say that the humane bits were divinely inspired, but the brutal bits weren’t.

    That is another option, sure. But even if the pick-and-choose approach leads to a better result than the sola-scriptura approach, my question is still the same: How do you know which parts to accept and which to reject? How do you tell the difference between divinely authored verses and human corruptions? To say that “I know which parts of the Bible are divinely inspired, and they’re the parts that I happen to agree with,” is really doing the exact same thing that the fundamentalists do, just in service of a different conclusion.

    My argument is that no idea deserves any more respect than it can claim for itself on the basis of its own inherent reasonableness. Without independent evidence of non-human authorship, claiming divine inspiration, whether for a good passage or a bad one, is simply an assertion that that particular piece of text should be awarded more respect or less skepticism than it would otherwise merit. Good ideas don’t need it, bad ideas don’t deserve it.

    Jewish commentators have long had a method of exegesis (interpretation) which dictates that every verse of the Torah must be interpreted to mean something loving.

    I’m always glad to hear about humanistic morality trumping religious dogma, but if that’s your exegetical strategy – override the text whenever the literal meaning is something morally unacceptable – then why treat the Torah as deserving of any special reverence at all? You could apply that same approach to any book, be it the Bible, the Qur’an, Harry Potter, or Mein Kampf, with equal success.

    If you’re always going to use your own conscience to decide what’s right, then you don’t need a holy book at all. And that’s fine! I encourage that. I think people’s consciences are perfectly sufficient for most things. But if that’s what you’re relying on to make decisions, just say so, and don’t make spurious and unsupportable claims about how the creator of the universe agrees with you.

  • http://stroppyrabbit.blogspot.com Yewtree

    In reply to all of the people above – the Bible is not my holy book, and I do not worship the deity who may or may not have inspired it. I was merely mentioning that there are more nuanced positions available.

    Adam, you wrote:

    If you’re always going to use your own conscience to decide what’s right, then you don’t need a holy book at all. And that’s fine! I encourage that. I think people’s consciences are perfectly sufficient for most things.

    You don’t need a holy book to help you decide what’s right, I absolutely agree.

    However, you might read it for the stories, the mythology, and so on, and I would say this is the way that most religious liberals read it – as a mythological account of past events, as a book of stories and poetry. People have used the stories in the Bible to inspire them to resist slavery and oppression – but unfortunately they have also used them to justify genocide. The latter use is why sola scriptura is such a dangerous doctrine.

    How do people decide which bits are good and which bits are bad? With reference to their own consciences, of course, and that is absolutely fine – though I do like the Jewish model of turning everything towards a loving interpretation, as a community.

    Given the Bible is not going to go away as a foundational text of our culture, I think dismissing all of it as a response to the bad bits is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and (more importantly) hands the Bible over to the fundamentalists for their sole use.

    I liked Richard Dawkins’ suggestion of reading it as literature.

  • http://stroppyrabbit.blogspot.com Yewtree

    Ritchie wrote:

    If the Bible is anything less than perfect and inerrant, then no-one can use it as a moral standard. No-one can say “We should do X because it says so in the Bible” because the bit they are referencing might be one of the ‘transmission mistakes’.

    Exactly! No-one should ever say “We should do X because it says so in the Bible”. They should say, we should do this because it is right, because it has been tried and it works, and so on.

    If you read Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality (he’s a friend of Richard Dawkins by the way), he makes the point that people are always interpreting the text according to their own consciences (whether they admit it or not), and anyway because the Bible contradicts itself, they can’t be sure what was meant by the text anyway (whether or not they believe it was divinely inspired), so why not admit that and decide things based on reason, evidence, and conscience.

  • Errant Endeavour

    I’d be interested in seeing a ‘loving interpretation’ of the book of Job.

  • http://stroppyrabbit.blogspot.com Yewtree

    Let’s try that again. Now, just to be clear, I do not believe that the creator of the universe spoke to Moses from a burning bush, or from a cloud on top of Mount Sinai, and I don’t believe that the universe was created. Clearly Moses believed that and acted accordingly, however. (My view is that he had some kind of transcendent experience which was so profound that he regarded it as the source of divine commandments; the cause of this experience could have been his own psyche, or some external factor.)

    However, for the sake of this illustration, let’s just assume for a moment that the creator of the universe did speak to Moses from a burning bush. This being the case, Moses was in some altered state of perception at the time. So Moses went home and tried to write down what he experienced. It was inevitably only an impression of what he experienced, and not the actual experience. Later, he allegedly went up a mountain and spoke to his God, and came back with some commandments. Again, what he wrote down was only an impression of what he experienced. And it’s fairly well known and widely accepted that Moses wasn’t even the author of the first five books of the Bible, so what we have is someone else’s account of Moses’ transcendent experience.

    So people could believe that God spoke to Moses, but still not believe that they have to follow every commandment in the Bible without applying the filter of their own conscience, reason & experience.

    If you have ever had a transcendent experience (and they are quite common) you will know that they are not at all easy to put into words. You get a sense of some underlying energy shining through everything (perhaps this was the source of the “burning” appearance of the bush). This could be interpreted as energy, light, divinity, a sense of connectedness with everything, or just a projection of the psyche. Since Moses didn’t have the benefit of others’ accounts of transcendent experiences, he assumed that a God spoke to him.

    Even if we accept the premise that Yahweh spoke to Moses (which we don’t), we can’t use the text of the Bible as a source of moral commandments without applying the filters of reason, conscience, and experience, because we know that the transmission was faulty. But that doesn’t invalidate the interest of the story of someone having a transcendent experience, or the value and interest of the account of a tribe of people moving from a view of their God as a smitey and vengeful entity to a view of him as a beneficent and caring entity. (A transition that some evangelicals and fundamentalists could do with emulating, and soon.)

  • GCT

    Clearly Moses believed that and acted accordingly, however.

    Clearly…except for the fact that Exodus never happened.

    Even if we accept the premise that Yahweh spoke to Moses (which we don’t), we can’t use the text of the Bible as a source of moral commandments without applying the filters of reason, conscience, and experience, because we know that the transmission was faulty.

    Which invalidates the Bible as a moral guide at all – something that is anathema to most Xians.

    But that doesn’t invalidate the interest of the story of someone having a transcendent experience, or the value and interest of the account of a tribe of people moving from a view of their God as a smitey and vengeful entity to a view of him as a beneficent and caring entity.

    Why any more interest in this than the Greek myths then? The Bible stories are all fabrications, and poorly written ones at that. But, if you are trying to get us to see the Bible as not a guide, you’re preaching to the choir, so to speak. The problem is that many Xians don’t see it that way. They think these things literally happened, that god wrote the book, that it’s a moral guide, etc. It’s not OK to simply say, “Well, as long as they aren’t acting barbarically, then it’s OK to think the Bible is a good book and a good moral guide,” because that’s wrong and ignores the abuses that do come from people following the Bible.

  • Figs

    Right. The exegetical method being used by YewTree accepts that everything in the Bible is based on something that actually happened, just improperly filtered. But like GCT said, modern archaeological evidence points to the Exodus never actually happening. As such, we don’t have to limit ourselves to the “how did Moses record what he ACTUALLY saw?” option, because we have the “somebody just made this up” option.

  • Paul

    I see no reason or necessity to use something like the Bible as a moral guide. In fact, it only messes things up, as the mythologies have to be interpreted, which means they will be mis-interpreted, etc. Why go there at all? Why not just use the Golden Rule, or a few of any other of the numerous settings of what most people already know as the basis for morality?

  • Hanan

    >then why treat the Torah as deserving of any special reverence at all?

    Because of the presupposition of Revelation. The Torah is that record of revelation and the laws that went forth out of it. So for example Rabbis in the Talmud brought up a story of Ezra the Scribe trying to write down an authoritative Torah. When he tried, he realized the existing Torahs around him had differences in each one. So when he wrote his, he simply looked at each one and accepted the majority view. If two Torahs had one reading, and a third had another, he went by the two. Now, this does not mean they are the correct reading. His was a more pragmatic exercise that the nation needs a workable Torah. So the rabbis aren’t troubled by this but simply accept it as part of the chain of transmission even though it may not be perfect. From there, a methodology to discover halacha (Jewish law) starts to work.

  • Hanan

    >If you read Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality (he’s a friend of Richard Dawkins by the way), he makes the point that people are always interpreting the text according to their own consciences

    And I would say that Judaism probably would agree with that just in different terms. To bring another Talmudic legend: There was a Rabbi that said X was the law. The majority said it was Y. The Rabbi insisted X was the law and to prove it, the river would flow backwards, the walls of the study would lean in and eventually a heavenly voice would agree with him. Eventually a heavenly voice DID agree with the rabbi and say the law is according to him (i.e. X). The majority answered God and said: “The Torah is not in Heaven, we decide on laws, not heavenly voices.” God laughed and responded: My children have bested me

    Now, it is clearly metaphoric. The story was to teach simply that we humans deliberate on it and come up with our conclusions as best we understand it through process of deliberations. So in Judaism at least, it does flow through our filtering system and balancing it with other issues.

  • http://stroppyrabbit.blogspot.com Yewtree

    @GCT

    Why any more interest in this than the Greek myths then?

    Like I said, the Bible is not my holy book. I am a Wiccan, and we do not have a single holy book. I am interested in Greek mythology, Norse mythology, Roman mythology and so on. It just so happens that this post was about the Bible, and so I commented on it.

    @Figs

    The exegetical method being used by YewTree accepts that everything in the Bible is based on something that actually happened, just improperly filtered.

    I don’t believe that Exodus actually happened. It may be a garbled and heavily mythologised version of some historical event, but I do not care – to me the Bible is just another mythology. I was using the story as an illustration of a possible method of exegesis that some people might use. (Dear me, you people are so literal-minded.)

    @ Hanan: yes, the Jewish faith is much more nuanced on these kinds of things. I like that story about the heavenly voice; it is quoted in Karen Armstrong.

    @ Errant Endeavour: yeah the book of Job is pretty nasty.

  • MNb

    @Yewtree: “I would say this is the way that most religious liberals read it”
    Yes, though there is more to them. They do not only accept god, but also Jesus as their savior, he being the perfect embodiment of unselfish love.
    Their problem he isn’t according to the Gospels – at least not what I would call perfect.

    @Figs: “somebody just made this up option”
    We have this option for the Gospels as well. The infanticide as described by Matthew has be proven a legend beyond reasonable doubt.
    The liberal christian will answer: “it’s all about the meaning of the stories.”
    I think this is a point way too many atheists ignore, which is lazy. There have been quite successful attempts though that the meanings of several stories suck as well – ie that Jesus not even as a legend is the perfect embodiment of unselfish love.

  • RowanVT

    Reading the bible broke my faith. I could not reconcile a ‘loving’ deity with what I read in that book. I did, and still do, find the deity depicted in the bible to be wholly evil, and I’m very glad it doesn’t exist.

  • Joe

    “Boyd is right to notice the contradictory moral views ascribed to God by the New and Old Testaments, where the former depicts Jesus as preaching forgiveness and self-sacrificial love, and the latter depicts Yahweh as commanding the violent and merciless eradication of all enemies.” – Here we go again. This is a cliched and superficial comparison of the OT and NT and ignores large sections of both traditions. The OT prophets advocated social justice and self-sacrifice in much stronger terms and much less equivocally than Jesus or Paul ever did. (Jesus’ ethic also stressed the rewards of heaven, making self-sacrifice essentially self-seeking.) Nowhere in the OT is there mention of eternal torment in hell, which figured prominently in Jesus’ teaching, and there are few books in history more vindictive than Revelation. This line of argument – OT violent, NT warm and fuzzy – is, to me, just another way of blaming the Jews for everything.

  • Slane

    Why do people even need to read the horrible versus in the bible to see that god is a steaming load. From birth we(in the West) are taught that freedom is the most valuable commodity we have. Why do so many people offer it freely to an imaginary man in the sky?

  • David Hart

    Joe:

    This line of argument – OT violent, NT warm and fuzzy – is, to me, just another way of blaming the Jews for everything.

    Really? How does blaming the particular authors who wrote the bible for the moral abominations they put into it automatically become blaming the Jews collectively for some crazy stuff a handful of their ancestors wrote, many centuries ago? One can certainly point to passages in the OT that are warm and fuzzy, and passages of the NT that are violent, but it still remains true that the OT god is very comfortable with genocide, commanding it on many occasions and committing it himself sometimes – including the murder of all-but-eight of the human population of the world, whereas the NT god is predominantly about showing humans how to achieve salvation (even if the thing they need saved from is actually his own pissed-off-ness) and extending that offer to everyone. It’s not unreasonable to note this: yes, the NT’s criteria for salvation are absurd (and inconsistent), but the OT god really is a brutal warmonger a lot of the time, and it is not ‘blaming the Jews for everything’ to point this out.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani J. Sharmin

    Now, Boyd says he rejects this view (“I adamantly affirm that all this material is inspired by God”). But short of that, it doesn’t seem as if he has much advice on how a Christian should resolve the dilemma, other than a vague promise that he’ll say more about it in the future.

    This is something I keep noticing. This article seems an example of a certain type of writing that I’ve gotten used to seeing in which the author will discus the problems in the Bible and then offer a solution. The part in which they’re discussing the problems will be really well-done and thoughtful with quote from the Bible and evidence from history, but then the part with the solution will either be non-existent or not as well-explained. It brought to mind John Shelby Spong’s “The Sins of Scripture” (which I read a while back and actually quite enjoyed); he explained the problem really well, but the suggestions for improvement in the later chapters of the book felt forced and the product of just ignoring the bad parts.

    Re: The Hebrew Bible vs. The New Testament
    I actually think Joe make a somewhat valid point. There is this tendency to be overly simplistic when discussing the Bible (possibly because many people haven’t read it). The general consensus seems to be that yes, we know there are bad things in the OT, but the NT makes it better and solves everything … because of Jesus. People want to be be able to say that they believe in the whole Bible … but there’s a theological interpretation by which they can pretend Jesus healing the sick and helping the poor somehow makes up for the bad stuff in the OT while ignoring the bad stuff in the NT. Perhaps not “blaming the Jews” exactly but it does seem a bit like trying to hand off the problems in one’s own religion to the religion that came before it, in order to avoid any difficult questions.

  • GCT

    @Hanan,

    Because of the presupposition of Revelation.

    And, which part is revelation and which isn’t? Jews/Xians can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim that it’s a book full of god’s words, and then also claim that they have to interpret it to figure out which parts are really from god and which are not.

    So the rabbis aren’t troubled by this but simply accept it as part of the chain of transmission even though it may not be perfect. From there, a methodology to discover halacha (Jewish law) starts to work.

    Except for the fact that it doesn’t start to work, especially since it contradicts your next comment.

    @Yewtree,

    Like I said, the Bible is not my holy book.

    So, you argue for their position, then claim, “Well it’s not my position” as soon as you hit an argument that you/they can’t answer? I’ll take that as an admission that there is no answer for the objection. Thank you.

    (Dear me, you people are so literal-minded.)

    You people? Nice religious privilege you got going on there.

    Secondly, yes, we are. Why? Because Xians (and others) present the Bible as god’s words. Then, they want to turn around and claim that it’s really not god’s words when they want to disavow the evils that are pointed out. They want their cake and to eat it too. It’s bullshit. If those really are god’s words, you better take them literally, which would be a much more honest approach to the Bible than the wishy-washy crap that people like Karen Armstrong try to serve us. If you aren’t going to take it literally, then you may as well toss the whole thing out and admit that morals don’t come from god, the Bible is useless as a moral guide, and quite a few other things.


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