By David Madison
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…except those who are okay with supernatural evil
I was a Bible nerd even in my high school days, and continued to be one in college, when I made the decision to go to seminary. What a thrill that was: to study the Bible and God at the graduate level. But early in my seminary years I learned a troubling lesson—from my theology professors themselves: it is impossible to come up with a coherent theology of the Bible. For the simple reason that the Bible’s ideas about god are an incoherent, uncomplimentary mess. Theologians themselves know that there are a thousand and one embarrassing Bible verses, so many of them relating to what Bible god is like and wants. This is one of the reasons that Christianity itself has fractured into thousands of different brands: so many disagreements about its god.
Many of the embarrassing Bible verses are, in fact, about how bad, vicious, and vindictive Bible god is. This is no surprise, since the original Yahweh was a tribal deity in competition with others, and had to protect his turf. Christian apologists face the challenge of making this god look good, despite the plain meaning of the texts. They don’t want this god either. They work hard to make their idealized, supposedly refined concept of god conform to Bible god (David
Hayward’s cartoon nails it).
I suspect many of the devout Christian laity don’t read the Bible because, after dipping into it here and there—yes, even in the New Testament—they are shocked by what they find. Since their early years in Sunday School and catechism, they have been nurtured on images of their god carefully curated by preachers and priests; the bad Bible god is kept out of sight. Well, except for fanatical Christians who want their god to get even for all the sin in the world.
There are so many ways Bible god falls far short of what we would expect of a god who deserves to be worshipped. Dan Barker has provided invaluable help on this, e.g., with his 2018 book, God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction (to date, 508 reader reviews, 74% Five Stars). But I also highly recommend his essay, “Supernatural Evil,” in John Loftus’ 2021 anthology, God and
God so loved the world? Well, not quite—in fact, far from it, when we can see how much damage Christian theology has caused the world. Just in terms of inhibiting human understanding of how the world works. Barker opens his essay with a description of what happened in Lisbon, Portugal on 1 November 1755.
“The fall air was crisp and clear, and the sea was calm. The bustling metropolis was brimming with visitors and residents who packed dozens of churches for the Feast of All Saints. Around 9:45 a.m., while worshippers were praying, the city was rocked by a massive earthquake, ten times as strong as the one that destroyed San Francisco in 1906. Most of the churches were demolished, immediately killing thousands who were trapped inside.” (p. 388)
There were more earthquakes and tsunamis too,
“But that wasn’t the worst. The fires that broke out grew into a roaring inferno that blazed for days through the rubble, incinerating trapped survivors, impeding rescue efforts, and destroying many structures that had withstood the quakes.” (p.388)
How can this not be a serious challenge to belief in an idealized, refined concept of god: on a holy day, thousands of people were crushed to death in churches where they’d gone to pray. This brings to mind another horror 189 years later: when German soldiers were retreating from France in 1944, they massacred 643 civilians in the village, Oradour-sur-Glane. The men were herded into barns that were set on fire, while 247 women and 205 children were locked into the church and machine-gunned to death.
Anyone whose mind had not been sabotaged by Christian theology has to wonder if this deity—in whose churches these victims died—isn’t weak and negligent, or simply wasn’t paying attention. Historian Barbara Tuchman, is her analysis of the Black Plague in the 14th century, noted that the suffering had been so massive that traditional explanations, e.g., god was punishing sin, were no longer convincing. They just didn’t work. If god wasn’t involved at all, Tuchman notes, “…then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings.” (p. 129, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14thCentury)
But Bible god plays a major role in keeping people trapped in bad theology. Barker points out that clerics at the time preached that sin was the cause, that god had gone into full punishment mode. Pope Benedict XIV urged churches in Italy to pray earnestly to avoid similar disasters. Sin was behind it all: “When England learned of the disaster, they immediately banned masquerade balls, presumably because they led to great sinning.” (p. 389)
Barker notes that the disaster “…sparked a huge debate about the problem of evil. The Age of Reason was beginning to flex its muscles against the Age of Faith.” (p. 389) There were thinkers who indeed sensed that the fixed Christian order was loosed from its mooring; Barker quotes Voltaire, who “would have none of this. He mocked those callous explanations: ‘And can you then impute a sinful deed to babies who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed?’ Was Portugal more evil than other countries? ‘Lisbon is shattered,’ he wrote, ‘and Paris dances.’” (p. 389)
But Bible god fuels the anger of preachers who hate sin. Barker includes a sampling of Bible texts that reinforce the idea that god is a punisher who inflicts suffering, e.g., Jeremiah 49:37, “I will bring disaster upon them, my fierce anger, declares the Lord. I will send the sword after them, until I have consumed them,” and Jeremiah 45:5, “And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not, for behold, I will bring disaster upon all flesh, declares the Lord.”
There are three features of Bible god that spoil Christian theology: (1) This god behaves like a furious toddler when it doesn’t get its way. (2) This god keeps a close watch on everything that every person does, says, and even thinks—or so plenty of Bible texts claim. I suspect that many of the devout don’t live as if this is true. (3) This furious toddler gets upset over trivia, instead of over great moral issues. Barker illustrates this in a major section of his essay.
He illustrates the trivia in his discussion of idolatry, breaking the sabbath, interracial marriage, and general disobedience. Bible god can’t tolerate “his people” worshipping other gods—bowing down before idols—and goes into jealous rages when this happens. Of course, there are religious fanatics today who use this as a guide for behavior, but most of the folks who function in the modern world are far more tolerant. There are so many different religions, so many different ways of worshipping a variety of gods; the basic good practice to follow is “live and let live.” In my hometown—back in the 1940s and 1950s—there was a substantial religious divide: Catholics were adamant that Protestants were wrong, and vice versa, but everyone would have been horrified if the god they worshipped burned down the opposing churches—or commanded them to do so.
Bible god’s jealousy, by the way, found expression in his defective Ten Commandments: the first three are “all about him.” He insisted on being the focus of attention and respect. Those first three commandments should have been knocked off the list to make room for a few that are conspicuously missing: prohibition of slavery, racism, misogyny, and marching off to war, one of the most grievous human faults.
In our world today, one of those basic ten commandments—about keeping the sabbath—is almost universally ignored. Bible god would not be pleased. “Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy Sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:2) And there’s the horrible story we find in Numbers 15: a man was discovered picking up sticks on the sabbath:
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.” (Numbers 15:35-36)
Yes, the death penalty. The furious toddler is at it again. This makes sense only in the context of ancient tribal religious practice, as Barker notes: “Keeping the sabbath has nothing to do with morality, but it is such an egregious ‘crime’ against God that it merits the death penalty.” (p. 399)
I once read a Christian apologist’s excuse for Bible god commanding that even children should be put to death when the Israelites conquered the land promised to them by their tribal deity. “Those children,” the apologist argued, “would have grown up to be a corrupting influence on the chosen people.”
Barker calls attention as well to the ban on mixed marriages, forbidden for the same reason. “After idolatry and breaking the sabbath, the next most common crime associated with ‘evil’ is marrying outside of God’s chosen people. ‘Do not intermarry with them,’ we are warned in Deuteronomy 7:3.” Barker includes a long quote from Nehemiah (13:23-30), his rant against mixed marriages, which includes the words: “And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair.” Barker calls attention to the damage done by belief in Bible god: “Nehemiah ran around like a deranged street preacher, beating up people, cursing them and pulling out their hair! And for what? For choosing whom to marry. Is this sane? Is this moral?” (p. 400)
Nehemiah’s rage about mixed marriages—his desire to dissolve them—draws attention to another aspect of Bible theology incoherence. In Jesus-script we find condemnation of divorce, which includes the words, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mark 10:9) The strong implication of this is that all marriages, wherever and whenever, have been ordained by god: he has done the joining together. This has to be a major theological mistake, given all the bad marriages that have happened.
Barker provides a comprehensive list of the bad attributes/habits of Bible god. He notes that Richard Dawkins took a lot of heat for his accusation that god “…is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction…” Which turned out to the title of Barker’s book, and in this essay he lists 27 of the faults and flaws of Bible god, including jealous, control freak, genocidal, bully, curse hurling—and scriptural references for them all.
Apologists will rush to Bible god’s defense: think of all the good Bible verses about god—and of course these do exist. Martin Luther King popularized a verse from the Book of Amos that was his call for racial justice: “But let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24) However, readers have to step gingerly around so many of the horrible verses about god, including Jesus-script that warns about eternal punishment in fire, and that there will be as much suffering at the arrival of his kingdom as during the time of Noah. Yes, the furious toddler is right there in the New Testament. We end up with theological incoherence, which excludes the possibility of any sound, convincing theology of the Bible.
Theologians and philosophers have long discussed/debated about moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil derives from human wickedness, natural evil from what our biosphere inflicts upon us. But Barker calls attention to what has to be a third category: suffering willfully inflicted by Bible god behaving as a furious toddler: on purpose causing pain and destruction as punishment. In the wake of Hurricane Ian there has been speculation about who or what Bible god was getting even with. Hence the title of Barker’s essay, Supernatural evil:
“If the maleficent God who boasted ‘I create evil’ actually exists—thank goodness he doesn’t— then earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, droughts, wildfires, floods, tornadoes and viral pandemics should be understood as neither moral evil nor natural evil but as ‘supernatural evil.’” (p. 407)
Whenever we bump into religious fanatics who are okay with Bible god, maybe the best practice is to stay as far away as possible from them.
David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.
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