De-terrorizing the Texts of Terror: What The Bible’s “Punishing God” is Really All About

De-terrorizing the Texts of Terror: What The Bible’s “Punishing God” is Really All About February 16, 2015

There are any number of texts in the Bible that depict God as a punishing God, and God’s punishments, according to these texts, can be quite severe. I have noticed that some evangelicals who emphasize God’s love tend to ignore these texts, while others seem to take delight in a punitive God. Some progressives are not sure what to do with these texts either.

There is no need to be afraid of these texts. We don’t have to ignore them or deny them or cut them out of our Bibles. The inspiration of these texts of terror is not to be found in what they teach about God, but in what they teach about ourselves. These texts do not tell us who God is, they tell us who we are, namely, fragile, fallible human creatures who are inclined to project our flaws onto God.

These texts expose our all-too-common tendency to project our fears, anxieties, insecurities, guilt, biases, skewed perceptions, and negative self-image onto God. These texts show us how messed up we can be in our understanding of God.

Why can I say this? Because I read these stories through the lens of the greatest story in the Bible, the story of Jesus. For a Christian, the story of Jesus should trump all other stories. To be a Christian is first of all to be a follower of Christ. The sacred story of Jesus is the story through which I filter all the other stories. And in the story of Jesus I meet a nonviolent God.

Jesus teaches his disciples to love their enemies, to pray for them and do good by them so they will live as God’s children in the world, for God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35). Jesus bases this instruction on the compassionate character of God, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

Jesus, of course, embodied what he taught. Jesus rebuked the disciples when they wanted him to call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans when the Samaritans refused them passageway through their country. I imagine Jesus thinking, “Don’t you get it yet. I didn’t come to torch people, I came to heal people” (Luke 9:51-56). When a disciple cut off the ear of one who had come to arrest Jesus, Jesus told his disciple to put his sword away and then healed the injured man (Luke 22:49-51). Jesus never responded violently to violence, and according to one Gospel account he even prayed for the forgiveness of his tormentors (Luke 22:34). He endured the intense suffering and humiliation of a Roman execution without any hate or desire for vengeance or retribution. The story of Jesus reveals a compassionate, forgiving, nonviolent God.

By reading the rest of the Bible through the filter of the story of Jesus, the human propensity for projecting our violent tendencies onto God is exposed. A simple rule that can be applied to any text is this: If the God described in the text is not as good, loving, merciful, just, and compassionate as we know ourselves to be in our better moments, then we should know that the God depicted in the text cannot be a true picture of God.

We can call this listening to the Spirit, trusting our “inner authority,” connecting with our true selves, or we might simply call it common sense, but we should know in our hearts that if we are ever more loving than the God we imagine, then the God we imagine cannot be God.

I recently discussed the subject of hell with a conservative Christian friend. She brought it up because she knew I didn’t believe in eternal torment. In the course of the conversation I asked her, “Would you under any circumstances condemn your worst enemy to a fate of eternal agony? She wouldn’t. (I knew she wouldn’t, which is why I asked her that question. I’m not sure I would ask that of just anyone.)

I said, “Then why do you think God would? Are you more gracious and forgiving than God?”

This seemed to make sense to her. But then she came back with the common traditional response, “But you know the Bible says . . .” I responded, “Yes, in a few places the Bible talks about hell, but could it be possible that you are misreading the Bible?”

“What do you mean?” she asked. I said, “Could it be that the passages about hell, as well as all the other biblical texts that seem to sanction divine violence, are actually teaching us, not about God, but about our human propensity to project onto God our negative qualities and repressed fears?” She was quiet after that and said she would think about it. Perhaps she is ready to take a new step on her spiritual journey

These texts of terror expose the ways we project violence onto God and invite us into the drama of the human struggle to understand and relate to God in more healthy and transformative ways. There is no need to be afraid of these texts, any more than we need to be afraid of the God of Jesus.


tinychuckChuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Unfundamentalist Christians.

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16 responses to “De-terrorizing the Texts of Terror: What The Bible’s “Punishing God” is Really All About”

  1. These words are the words of the Nobleman in the parable (Luke 19:11-27) who is so “not” like God. That’s the point which is signaled at the beginning of the parable, “A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return.” This is the exact opposite of Jesus who told his disciples to relinquish all dominant power, and be the servant of all like the Son of Man (Jesus). Jesus is going to be handed over over to the powers that be and he will not in any way resist. He even prays that God will forgive his tormentors. All through the Gospel of Luke Jesus teaches about relinquishment of power and wealth and loving enemies because God is that kind of God (Luke 6:36). In addition, this parable in Luke is a combination of the parable of the talents (in Matthew) with a different narrative (the Nobleman). A lot of redaction going on here. Luke’s intent is subtle and subversive. What Luke wants his readers to see, I think, is that the God of Jesus is so not like the Nobleman.The above selection of a verse and attributing it to the actual teaching of Jesus is something a fundamentalist would do to try to prove their bias. I hope you are better than that.

  2. Of course, the point in my piece is that Scripture reflects the best and worst in human beings. One can find in the Bible advancement and regression, a loving God and punishing God, exclusion and inclusion, etc. It is the best in the tradition that represents breakthroughs in consciousness and moves us forward. Your antagonism toward even the best in the Christian tradition is not helpful to anyone. One doesn’t have to be religious to contribute to the human project. Critique is always necessary and good when it serves to advance human consciousness. I see you intent on deconstructing with no apparent interest in reconstructing. Why not spend some time looking for the common good, instead of scapegoating all religious faith? Your negativity reflects a kind of blindness to the positive and good.

  3. It’s interesting how you want to focus on the negative in the tradition and interpret all the rest from that bias. Attack seems to be your mode of operation. You also seem to be so bent on the negative/regressive/worst in the tradition you are blind to the breakthroughs in Scripture that reflect real enlightenment, compassion, love, passion for the poor and marginalized, etc. If you are trying to convince others against religious faith, I can hardly see how your approach could work. All the negativity reflected in your posts are hardly appealing or attractive – in fact, just the opposite. If I were a non-believer it might just drive me to God.

  4. I have no interest in “whitewashing” at all. I clearly acknowledge that there are both life-diminishing texts and liberating, life-enhancing texts in my tradition. I am not attacking you, simply making an observation and wondering why you are blind to the good, helpful, positive, and transformative in my tradition. You began by attacking my tradition. I simply wonder what your intention is. You are surely not interested in dialogue. Pointing out your negativity (animosity?) is hardly attacking you. And yes, if you came into my church for no more reason other than to attack and condemn our tradition (as it seems to be your purpose in the comment sections of progressive bloggers), I would politely ask you to take it somewhere else . . . please!

  5. “Blind” to any of the light, wisdom, and goodness in my tradition. Seems so. Calling the one I regard as the fullness of love and the embodiment of nonviolence “Jihadi Jesus” is pretty “bent” and “negative.” Go find someone else to project all your negativity onto, I’m done.

  6. The nobleman in this parable (Luke 19:11-27) is Herod Archelaus and represented the Roman rulers. Jesus felt the Jews were ready to rebel to establish a new kingdom and this parable was meant to discourage rebellion. Jesus was saying in this parable that if the Jews rebelled against Rome they would be slaughtered just like those who opposed Herod Archelaus.

  7. Why do you think all parables are about the kingdom of God? The only people who want this parable to be about the kingdom of God are those who think God is a sadistic monster.

  8. The teachings of Jesus in the bible are about both a Heavenly kingdom and how to live in this life, which for the Jews included not rebelling against Rome.

    I like the flood picture. There is no geological evidence of a global flood 4500 years ago so the flood story in the bible is simply Hebrew mythology. The only ones who accept it as an actual historical event are those who think God is a sadistic monster.

  9. When Jesus said to hate one’s life, he was saying to hate the life one leaves behind in order to follow him. Jesus said to love your neighbor as you love yourself which implies self-love not self-hate.

    There’s no way to know if Jesus believed the stories of the Old Testament were actual events. Jesus used these two stories to illustrate the suddenness of a future event. Stories can be used as illustrations whether they are real or fiction. I’ve used scenes from movies to help describe something to someone. Just because I say, “Stupid is as stupid does,” doesn’t mean I think Forest Gump actually existed. If I used these stories to illustrate the suddenness of a nuclear attack, it doesn’t mean I’m against eating, drinking, planting a garden, or building a house. My point would be that people were doing these things because they were unaware of what was about to happen.

    Cartoon says, “This made Jesus very angry.”
    Mark 1:41 says, “And Jesus, moved with compassion,”

  10. I agree that Bible translations can be pretty dishonest, especially the NIV. But in this case the NIV says.

    Mark 1:41 Jesus was indignant….

    It would have been nice if the writer of Mark had said why Jesus was angry instead of leaving it to speculation. Maybe Jesus knew the leper was a blabbermouth and Jesus was angry because he was going to have to spend more time in desolate places instead of in a city.

  11. An example that bothers me is “nephesh” translated as “soul” when it applies to humans and something else such as “life” when it applies to animals. Because of this, Christians tend to dismiss animal cruelty because animals supposedly don’t have souls.

  12. Hey, dogs are people too. 🙂

    When it comes to the evolution of human morality, I can see how natural influences could drive moral development. But I also see God exerting a biasing influence as well. For example, I think the golden rule is of God because it shows up in almost every religion even though humans seem to have trouble living up to that ideal.

    I think morality needs to evolve quickly to keep up with the world today. There are moral challenges that arise from advances in technology and knowledge and from an overpopulated world. Unfortunately, this moral development is hindered by those who believe the bible is the literal inerrant inspired word of God because they are trapped in an Iron Age morality or a rigid interpretation of that morality.

  13. tim is among the progressivly mentally ill trolls I’ve encountered recently. He seem to need ppl’s negative attention in order to stay visible & have a life. There really is no there there. He may be headed for a breakdown which will be a breakthrough into the light b/c ppl here are praying for that I hope.

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