The Good Book?

The Good Book? March 24, 2008

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.

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