No One Believes That The God Of The Bible Exists Anymore (From The Archives)

The title of this post is not a complaint; it is merely an observation. No one confronts the representatives of another tradition with a contest to see which one’s deity will send fire from heaven as Elijah did. No Christian blogger claims that those who comment negatively will be struck with blindness for doing so, as apostles did. God is depicted in many parts of the Bible as knocking down city walls, parting seas and so on. Yet no Christian dominionists are likely to march around Washington D.C. and see it fall into their hands.

Those who claim they “believe the whole Bible” and “take it literally” are being dishonest. Their pastor may have preached recently on the story of the fall of Jericho, but it was applied to God “making the strongholds of sin in your come life crumbling down”, not to a battle plan to take a city.

To be fair, not all Biblical authors view God in the same way. And so there is no single “Biblical view of God”. But certainly God as depicted in some parts of the Bible is not the concept of the deity served by Christians today.

The question a Christian needs to ask is whether they have the courage to admit that their view of God is not the same as that of many depicitions in the Bible. Do you have the courage to take the Bible’s actual words completely seriously, even when the result is that you are forced to acknowledge that you do not accept their literal truthfulness?

Let me end with a couple of thought-provoking quotes from Don Cupitt’s book, which I just finished reading:

“The Virgin Mary may cure many people in Portugal but she is much less active in Libya, whereas vaccination and inoculation are observably beneficial – and equally beneficial – in both cultures, the local religion in the end making no difference at all” (Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p.123).

“To put it bluntly, classical Christianity is itself now our Old Testament…We have to use traditional Christianity in the same way as Christianity itself has always used the Old Testament. In both cases there is a great gulf but there is also continuity of spirit and religious values…When a Christian sings a psalm he knows there is a religion-gap and a culture-gap, but it does not worry him because he believes his faith to be the legitimate successor of the faith of the psalmist. Similarly, since the Enlightenment there has developed a religion-gap and a culture-gap between us and traditional Christianity, but we may still be justified in using the old words if we can plausibly argue that our present faith and spiritual values are the legitimate heirs of the old” (Don Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, p.135).

  • Chris

    Very interesting quotes. I think there’s a lot of truth to what Mr. Cupitt says. What sense does baptism, for example, make in our modern culture? Basically none. We– Western Christians– no longer think in terms of purity and impurity, so what’s the use in ritual purification?

  • Isaiah Burton

      In many ways I agree with you, but it seems to me that most fundamentalists do believe that God did all those miracles that are in the Bible, but also believe that God acts in different ways in the world today. I don’t know that we can say that they don’t believe in the God of the Bible. They would say we are in a new age, covenant, or dispensation and that God has chosen to act differently now than He did in the past.
      For example, you mention the fall of Jericho not being taught as a battle plan. I doubt that anyone (then or now) thought that was a good battle plan that should be repeated. While pastors may speak of the fall of Jericho in terms of sin and strongholds, this is just them trying to bring a meaning out of the text for their current audience (it may be a good example of how to abuse the text) but it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe that God did literally bring down the walls of Jericho or that they don’t believe in that God.  
      But, on the other hand, I personally think that Greek philosophy had a huge influence on the Christian perception of God and that there is a divergence between most Christian’s understanding of God and the God of the Bible because of this influence. For example most Christians believe that God does know the future perfectly but many verses such as  Jeremiah 19:5 (where God says something “. . . never entered my mind!”) seem to demonstrate from the Bible that He doesn’t. 
      I guess I would say that most people don’t believe in the God of the Bible, but not based on miracles or even a change in personality (Jesus’ attitude toward sin versus Yahweh’s). The disconnect seems to be that fundamentalists come to scripture with a predetermined view of God’s attributes (bother moral [omnibenevolence, see 1 Kings 22:19 and following] and non-moral [omniscience, see Jeremiah 19:5]) and try to fit scripture into that view and not let scripture change it. Thus, they don’t believe in the God of scripture in that sense. 

  • Peter Kirk

    To be fair, in certain circles a lot is said about taking cities for God, and the strategies for doing so sometimes involve Christians marching round it singing songs of praise. Yes, it’s about making strongholds of sin, rather than literal walls, come crumbling down, but it is about cities, not individuals. Whether it works is another matter. I believe it can do, but that’s because I’m a Christian, not a deist like Don Cupitt, or even a “Bible deist” like Jack Deere says he used to be.

  • JS Allen

    The God of Abraham did a pretty good job of literally crumbling the twin towers, right?

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  • Daniel James Levy

    James, I think you’re limiting your scope of investigation to the western world. As a skeptical Pentecostal, I have first-hands seen some of the “odder” things in the Bible. And for some of the odder other things I haven’t seen (in the Bible or not) I’ve had credible witnesses attest to it. Such people are scholars with doctorates.

  • Daniel James Levy

    Sorry, my point in regards to the scholars with doctorates is that they aren’t loonies.

  • John

    This post from James really rubbed me the wrong way…

    James wrote: Yet no Christian dominionists are likely to march around Washington D.C. and see it fall into their hands.

    John: These examples are purely made of straw. Since Christian dominionists believe God *spoke* directly to Joshua and commanded this, pending such a revelation to one of their influential leaders, we shouldn’t demand to see this as a demonstration of consistency with the Biblical record. So you’ll need better examples of this alleged inconsistency. A better one might be conservative Christian condemnation of various aspects of Muslim culture, that are clearly rooted in the honor-shame/agonistic world of the Bible.

    James wrote: Those who claim they “believe the whole Bible” and “take it literally” are being dishonest.

    John: Honestly, I think this claim is more likely to be dishonest than are the people who make those to claims. I am a Christian and accept that the Bible is full of myth and have no problem with this, as Jesus’ teachings for instance are largely non-literal. But to claim that simple conservative church-goers are being dishonest? Really? Are you that far entrenched in the world of academia that you are this out of touch? Making this whole issue about “courage” is also a bit ridiculous. Is that the problem? People just aren’t brave enough? Thanks for the psychoanalysis oh liberated one…Judging what are in most cases a very complex nexus of geographic, social, and educational factors, also involving (but probably less so) rational and ethical deliberations, in such a simplistic manner, speaks to me of immaturity, a lack of charity, and a judgmental nature.

  • Michael Wilson

    James, loved the article. I have noted the odd mentality of the S. Baptist faith I came from. There was a notion of an apostolic golden age, when miracles happened all the time. There is a sense that God could do that sort of thing again if He wanted, but don’t need to for some reason. In a way, it limits the expectation of the current church, as you could not believe that your own generation was as good as the past unless you to had miracles in your church. Then you have to add in the Baptist notion of the End Time, when all these miracles will come back before the end. 

    I think it creates an interesting dynamic, in that the current time for each generation of Baptist is a kind of low point in history between the glory of the past, lost, and a future glory that can be assured in by the activity of the church.

    I think the view that we are poorer than the Apostolic church, because we don’t see miracles as much, (in fact we have been seeing fewer miracles  each generation separating us from the first generation, when every event was ordered by God’s divine will) deludes us into thinking we can not make a new contribution to Christianity, or make Christianity better than it was originally, to exceed the acts of Jesus, as in John 14:12.

    I think your right that it may be a failure of faith that modern Christians act as though God would choose them in, for instance, a mountain top supernatural showdown. (perhaps the Pope should have a magic showdown with the Ayatollah).

    “John: These examples are purely made of straw. Since Christian dominionists believe God *spoke* directly to Joshua and commanded this, pending such a revelation to one of their influential leaders, we shouldn’t demand to see this as a demonstration of consistency with the Biblical record.”

    What is the check on claiming God spoke with you, your own sense of shame? Acting skills? I have noticed that preachers that claimed prophetic power, tend to inhabit the fringes, like Edger Casey or Oral Roberts. They are there, they just aren’t popular, because most Christians think that prophecy is a thing of the past. 

    • John

      Michael – I guess the check is your own sense of your own sanity. I have no idea; God has never spoken to me in such a way.

      • Michael Wilson

        It seems that modern Christians are much more skeptical of recent claims of prophetic insight than those of the past doesn’t it?

  • John C. Poirier

    You sound a bit like Bultmann here. I’m with Daniel James Levy on this one, although I would say “mainstream denominational” where he says “Western”.

    I don’t think that most American Christians think of God as really that much different from the biblical God.

    I think you’d be surprised if you took a serious look at, say, the Word of Faith movement. That movement is *all about* taking the miracles of the Bible seriously, and esp. about taking to heart the apparent lack of any sort of expiration date on God’s miracle-working power. In fact, the Word of Faith movement constantly appeals to Jesus’ promise that the disciples would perform even greater miracles than Jesus did, and they generalize that promise as potentially applicable to anyone.

    Snake handlers obviously read the miracles literally, and consider them still applicable today.

    I think this applies even to the biggest miracles in the Bible. Most Word of Faith people would probably say that walls *can* come tumbling down, given the right (anointed) leader, and the right situation, etc. (After all, Joshua didn’t go around doing that to every city that rubbed him wrong.)

    Charismatics/Pentecostals often look to heroes of generations past, whom they often think of as miracle workers in biblical proportions (e.g John G. Lake, Smith Wigglesworth, etc.).

    Then, of course, there are the cessationists, but they also don’t belong to your generalization, as they discount miracles, not because they think God is different from the biblical God, but because they arbitrarily place a cessationist dispensation over their understanding of post-apostolic times.

    Perhaps you were raised in a mainline denomination, and don’t have firsthand knowledge of any of this. But I would say that the view I’m describing is held by literally millions of Americans. You can see it on display on most shows on Christian television.

  • James F. McGrath

    Thanks for all the comments so far! I came to a personal faith in a Pentecostal church, and so I am familiar with that tradition as an insider, and not just an observer. I know that my own faith in my teens aspired towards that sort of belief – but I also know that I often felt like, even though I ought to be able to do some of the things I read about in the Bible, I didn’t have enough faith to go tell someone to be healed in the name of Jesus.

    And I think that when one tries to will oneself into such belief, since it involves conscious rather than naive literalism, it still involves belief that differs from that of the Biblical authors. 

    But it is indeed a fair criticism that, to whatever extent my post gets some things right, it applies to some parts of the world more than others.

    And I also feel the force of the comparison to Bultmann. I greatly appreciate his demythologization program, but am keenly aware that his sweeping statements about what “modern man” (who uses the “wireless”) cannot believe is problematic. But I think he was right that a modern person cannot will themselves into a first century worldview completely – the fact that we are aware of other scientific information, even if a choice is made to reject, ignore or misconstrue it, changes the nature of such faith.

    • Paul D.

      As another ex-Pentecostal, I think this article is right on and quite profound.

    • John

      James: But I think he was right that a modern person cannot will themselves
      into a first century worldview completely – the fact that we are aware
      of other scientific information, even if a choice is made to reject,
      ignore or misconstrue it, changes the nature of such faith.

      John: That this should be some source of despair for those wishing to have a “biblical” faith in modern times is not at all obvious. Everyone’s faith is different. Peter’s faith was different from John’s faith even within the Bible. I think you are just descending into vagueness here and the force of the argument you were trying to make has dwindled. The biggest problem, IMO, is that your examples were strawmen.

  • James F. McGrath

    @John, I don’t think that my argument is a straw man. I think that some Christians really do think that our faith today should be like that of the Biblical authors and characters. But more importantly, it does indeed seem to me that those who say they believe that still think differently about God than ancient Christians would have, and are not aware of the differences.

    It may be that I am extrapolating from my own experience in ways that are not broadly applicable. Some other commenters said they could relate to what I wrote, and so perhaps if they are willing to chime in, we can figure out if perhaps we are both partially right – which would still require that I retract my “no one” and replace it with something more nuanced. :-)

  • John

    James – your examples were straw men. Joshua for example. We see an incongruity in praxis here – modern church members are not invading cities and circling walls – because these passages in the Bible are not believed to be prescriptive. John Poirier makes the salient point that this was not even generally prescriptive for the Israelites in the Bible. I agree with you on lack of awareness of the differences; I think it goes for liberals as well though.

  • No One of Any Importance.

       The issue, I see, is that the division lies in the idea of pitting “The Old Testament God” against “The New Testament God.” The tension of our faith is that He(God) is both. The Bible, and our faith, is full of these tensions. Is God a loving Father, or a wrathful Judge? The answer is “yes.” Is the Bible figurative or literal? “Yes”. It can be both. 
       Revelations is very figurative, some of it literal and it’s not all chronological. Psalms is literal in certain places talking of David’s actual experiences then other parts are figurative and romanticized. It doesn’t make what David wrote untrue about God, Seeing as scripture is God breathed. 
       This tension is part of our life, and our faith. We have to learn to accept these tensions. Do we believe that God can or will do things like destroying of cities? While He may not today, He will in the future. Revelations has some very detailed and literal descriptions of meteorological events that are directed and controlled by God Himself. 
       So to argue that the Bible is partially myth(exaggerated or false history) is wrong, but to argue that all of it should be taken at face value is also wrong. Everything must be read in context. If you remove the context and the co-text you get a pre-text. So read what the circumstances and context surrounding a passage in the Bible says about the passage itself. And don’t fall for the debate tactic of a redirect or shifting the burden of proof. No one has the need, or the means, to prove the metaphorical, allegorical, metaphysical, or spiritual(yes, I know it’s redundant). Can we prove every single little thing about the Bible? No. But does that make the Bible a lie? No. 
        What we can prove, which is most of the Bible, shows us that our faith and it’s foundational literature, can be pressed extremely hard and still stand the test of time and intense scrutiny. So to expect and explanation for something that we admittedly can’t prove, because of the very nature of it being supernatural is illogical and irrational.
       So all in all, to expect God to prove His consistency to us is irrational. Thus is the tension of our faith. The substance of things unseen.(Hebrews 11:1) The evidence of invisible things…Tension.

  • No One of Any Importance.

    To clarify on the very last paragraph, I mean it’s irrational to expect God to prove Himself to us by the physical manipulation of things by supernatural means. The very essence of Faith is explained in Hebrews 11:1. Believing without seeing.

  • Michael Wilson

    I think John has a good point. I think the first Christians were in the same positions as the fundamentalist today. They did not witness great miracles, but they were slightly more gullible concerning coincidence and chicanery. They also believed stories of great miracles in their past, the Red Sea and Joshua. and even the people of the time that inspired those tales, would believe they are not to many generations from the gods. So all generations have lived with this belief that in old days magic was common, but now things are different because of X.

    In that sense the modern miracles are not hypocritical, because this is how religion always has been. The miracles of the past always seemed greater than now. Look at the bible, the first miracle is the creation of the world! later he scrambles the worlds language, floods the world, and then slows down. He talks a lot, destroys a city. Then it picks up with the moving of the sea, so and so on, going through phases of increased miracles to less miracles.

  • James F. McGrath

    I’m starting to think that maybe Michael Wilson has put the matter better than I did. Perhaps it isn’t so much a question of people today not expecting God to do precisely the sorts of things he is described as doing in the Bible’s stories. Maybe from ancient Israel to the prent day, religious believers have always used stories of mighty things God supposedly once did to bolster their faith, and from then until now had to wrestle with the implications of the fact that the same things were not part of their own experience.

    • JSA

      Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to communicate with my “Twin Towers” comment.  

      I imagine that the ancients were a lot like us.  The vast majority never bothered to march around cities tooting horns, while a lunatic minority constantly made wild claims that never came true.  Then, when something extraordinary really did happen (due to sheer chance or whatever), it would be incorporated into the folklore, and would sometimes have staying power as a story.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    James, Do you even read your other posts and comments? What exactly is the point to this post? You seem to be advocating that modern people should have a view of God similar to ancient Christians for example. How do modern people learn how ancient Christians perceived God? The Bible right, is this not the same Bible you say was written by fallible men and to which you said. “and what we have in the Bible and elsewhere are expressions of faith in and experience of that God, and expressions of fallible humans’ experiences, perceptions, wishes and imagination?” You say Genesis is not historical, you call Daniel basically a forgery written after the events. So where is the importance of modern Christians to believe the same way? Don’t we all have expressions of faith in and experience of that God, and expressions of fallible humans’ experiences, perceptions, wishes and imagination? If the Bible is lacking in truth, what’s the point in believing as they did?

  • James F. McGrath

    @Howard, I was not implying that I think people ought to think the same way about God. I was addressing the fact that some people believe that they do, when in fact they don’t.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, Okay then, on that point I agree, but I would say that it is more the theology and interpretation that differs more than the direct statements in the Bible.

  • Harry W

     Hi Daniel,

    I’ve read your critique of James Gunn. I’d be interested to have some conversation, if that is amenable to you. I’m in London, UK, and from an evangelical Christian background, although now more drawn to a Liberal Judaism stance.

    ‘Skeptical Pentecostal’ is a new phrase for me!

    Hope to hear from you.


    Harry Wallington

  • John Haggerty

    ‘No one believes that the God of the Bible exists any more.’ You mean no one you respect. That leaves out John Piper, John MacArthur, Ron Wilkerson, Dave Hunt and many like them. Yet countless numbers of men and women listen to these evangelical preachers on YouTube. The Puritans are read now more than ever. Names like John Flavel, Richard Sibbes, George Whitfield, John Owen, Richard Baxter. Will anyone be reading a lightweight like Don Cupitt 350 years from now? The truth is that progressive Christianity is finished. You have nothing to say to the world. Words like sin, depravity and Saviour mean nothing at all to any of you. It’s as if you haven’t engaged at all with the enormity of evil in the 20th Century. Read the new book by Os Guinness, RENAISSANCE – THE POWER OF THE GOSPEL HOWEVER DARK THE TIMES. Put your own shallow convictions to the test. Go to John Calvin, whom the world is rediscovering. Listen to the radio website of the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones. ‘Whenever I have found myself doubting Christianity,’ he said, ‘I only have to look into the depravity of my own heart to know it’s true.’ Or how about Karl Barth? ‘Man is not good. Man has never been good. Man will never be good.’

    • nick.gotts

      Go to John Calvin, an antisemitic theocrat who supported the torture and execution of his theological and political opponents, and worshipped a god so evil he created people with the express intention of torturing them forever.

    • James F. McGrath

      I don’t think you actually read past the title of the blog post. The point is precisely that conservatives of the sort you mention do not maintain “the Biblical view” in the way you assume. And it is due at least in part to the way assumptions can prevent comprehension when reading, as illustrated by your misunderstanding of this blog post, but which also happens regularly with the Bible.

  • John Haggerty

    Dear James, thanks for your response. I did read your text. What have you said that is of any real significance? You are stuck in an unhistoric view of ‘conservatives’. The battle lines were drawn in the 19th Century when BB Warfield stood against the new liberalism and modernism: the one a wasting sickness like a blood condition, the other a fatal cancer. God did act through miracles and through history. Many of the leading military and political figures in the Second World War saw the hand of God in the Allied victory over the profound evil of the Nazi ideology. The suffering was on a gigantic scale but evil was defeated. I stand under the authority of Scripture. You sit in judgement on it. To it you bring your own philosophy and world-view. Don Cupitt has said he was never interested in ‘neo-orthodoxy’. It was a most convenient way of sidestepping Karl Barth. Cupitt, second rater that he is, simply isn’t up to taking on Barth or Donald MacLeod or John Frame or any ‘conservative’ I could name. Scripture ends with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I was reminded of this two days ago when several people were killed in my native city of Glasgow, Scotland. Christ spoke of the 18 people killed when the tower of Siloam fell. ‘Unless you repent you shall all likewise perish.’ When you progressives begin to talk about repentance and the wrath of God against sin, then I shall start taking you seriously.

  • John Haggerty

    To Nick, the anti-Semitism of John Calvin is shameful. Not to be defended upon any circumstances. Luther’s remarks come close to Hitler’s at times. They were both sinful men with personality defects. Embattled men as well. It doesn’t excuse them one little bit. Much of the anti-Semitism sprang from Europe, Rome, and the creation of the first Jewish ghettoes. In Poland and Russia anti-Semitism grew to monstrous proportions. I need only look again at The Fixer by Bernard Malamud (my favourite post-war novelist) to ask myself again: Why is this poor, holy Jew so hated? Yet in the 20th Century we see Simone Weil strongly attracted to historic Christianity in spite of her Jewish background. The chief rabbi of the United Kingdom said he wished the British people would return to Christian belief. As for Calvin’s view of election; he said it was in the foreknowledge of God, a colossal mystery, and not to be preached to people who were not yet saved. On his deathbed he apologised to his colleagues for being so overbearing at times. I believe he was haunted at his actions in the burning of Servitus. He had warned him not to enter Geneva. Blasphemy was a capital offence all over Europe. I do not defend it, nor do I judge the men of the past by our own modern ideas of justice. As for theocracy, what is it but the reign of Jesus Christ in governance and law? John Knox put it into practice in Scotland and made us a nation under God. Read WITH CALVIN IN THE THEATER OF GOD (Crossway Books) edited by John Piper and Paul Matthias. Watch a short YouTube film of John Piper in Calvin’s Geneva. Calvin saved doctrinal Christianity in worship. It’s still here in the 2lst Century, praise be to God.

    • malendfeminist

      Don Cupitt is a prophet of modern times, heralding a new down to earth humanistic spirituality based in theological terms (if anyone were to look into it) on a liberal Judaism to which Jesus may be considered an original contributer. This would then bring a healing to the divide which has existed ever since, which has been referred to in recent comments. It would be entirely innapropriate for Don Cupitt to concern himself with any “neo-orthodoxy”.

      I would suggest that the concept of sin – will be replaced
      by that of emotional pain. We ALL suffer with that – and, unrecognised
      and acknowledged…it invariably causes us to be evil (sinful) in some
      way or another, intended or unintended.

      So that is the big challenge – to deal with emotional pain…

      This is not something that needs a “saviour figure” – but rather, a simple, childlike honesty – from all of us.

      That’s all. Something relatively straightforward for any of us – from youngest to the oldest. No great theological complications…something to which we can all make a contribution.

      ‘He’ – would love it, of course!

  • John Haggerty

    Dear Malendfeminist, your ideas are perfectly reasonable, viable and attractive. I have no quarrel with them on one level. They would go down well in my native country, Scotland, which is now in a post-Christian phase. One of the good things about secular, post-Christian society is in its openness in dealing with emotional pain.

  • John Haggerty

    Sorry, I was cut off behaviour I had finished. I was saying that our modern way of dealing with emotional pain can be very effective. Feminism has enabled women to talk about abuse, sexual, physical and emotional. But here is your difficulty, Malenfeminist. Sin and sin alone gets to the root of the problem. The sin of governments, institutions, international corporations. The sin of the ordinary man and woman. Don Cupitt can’t get away from Jesus of Nazareth any more than I can. But he can only deal with half of Jesus. He tears Jesus away from Judaism, away from a holy God who cannot look on sin. Cupitt does two things, both underhand. First, he removes Jesus from his eminence as Saviour, Lord and King. Two, he persuades his readers that we theological ‘realists’ are kidding ourselves. We can’t really believe in the God of the Old Testament and in the supernatural Jesus of the New, can we? Yes, we can. We go out into the streets of our cities and towns. We tell people that Jesus died for our sins. (We are the ones who meet the broken people, not the Sea of Faith crowd.) He who had no sin was punished in HIS flesh for MY sins. The world has as much need of a Saviour in the 21st Century as it had in the first century. Read some serious systematic theology, Malenfeminist, before you go extolling Mr Cupitt. He has nothing to say. He is a bitter old man pouring out his bile on we evangelicals. Reads THE FAITH ONCE ENTRUSTED TO THE SAINTS? by Geoffrey Grogan, former principal of Glasgow Bible College. (The question mark is in the book’s title. Grogan was a scholar and an evangelical and an intellectual. He knew the DNA of the Bible. And in the words of Francis Schaeffer, he knew the ‘lost-ness’ of modern man living in a godless universe. Thanks.