Christian author Derek Flood recently tackled a subject that we often see raised in atheist circles: if the Bible is supposed to provide moral guidance, why is it filled with terrible, immoral commands and acts ascribed to God? And his approach is a rather good example of how inventive we humans can be when it comes to preserving respect for an idea or belief that really doesn’t merit it.
Flood begins in a straightforward fashion. Unlike many apologists, he doesn’t try to sugarcoat the slavery, genocide, etc. There are no declarations about “a different time, a different standard,” no suggestion that slavery in the Bible isn’t actually slavery, etc. On the contrary, he notes that the Bible contains
… things like genocide, gang rape, and slavery — not only being sanctioned, but at times even being commanded. For example we read in the law of Moses the divine command for God’s people to “show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2) and to “kill everything that breathes” (Deuteronomy 20:16).
That’s not the whole story though. Alongside these troubling texts, we also find many passages in the Bible affirming a message of compassion and care for the poor and the stranger. In short, we find both wonderful things and horrible things in the Bible.
This, too, is fair enough. The Bible does contains some good things and some (really) bad things. Which is still a problem, if you’re trying to assert that the Bible provides the moral guidelines and rules we need to live. But, to Flood, the problem isn’t the contradictory mix of brutality and generosity, but the assertion that the Bible should be followed with “unquestioning obedience.”
The Bible, he suggests, presents us with a record of religious disputes; it is wrong to assume “that the Bible ought to tell us the right answer.” The Bible is not there to give us the answers, but to teach us how to wrestle with the questions to find answers.
The simple fact is, obedience absent of reflection or understanding inevitably leads to abuse. We therefore cannot unquestioningly follow the New Testament or even Jesus. Instead, we need to learn to adopt how Jesus approached both life and Scripture, adopting his method of faithful questioning motivated by love and compassion.
As moral adults, we should not simply unquestioningly accept whatever the Bible says (including the New Testament), nor should we unquestionably accept whatever our culture says is right (whether from the left or the right). Rather, we must learn how to step into the dispute — both within the pages of the Bible, and in the public square — and make our case for what is good. This is exactly what we find Jesus doing in his time, and for those of us who call ourselves his followers, we need to learn how to do the same in ours.
It bears noting that, while I’m about to criticize Flood’s reasoning, I am not criticizing his rejection of hateful and brutal elements of scripture or an outlook “motivated by love and compassion”; I don’t share his religious beliefs, and don’t find them necessary to achieve what he believes they are necessary for, but his stated goals are very worthy. Where I disagree with him is that the Bible bears any relevance or usefulness to the pursuit of a more reasoned and moral approach to life.
If the purpose of the Bible is not to provide actual moral guidance, but to mix a lot of terrible things that humans have done with good things humans have done in order to teach us how to sort the horrible from the good… well, frankly, we don’t need it.
Human beings are perfectly capable of doing good and bad things; we have a long history of it we can refer back to, for all the examples we need. We’re capable of exploring and debating the consequences of our actions. We’ve figured out how to reason, and philosophers have established far better guidelines than any we find in the Bible for applying reason to a problem. Why, then, do we need the Bible?
Furthermore, what is God’s role in the Bible? If it is really His book, or its formation governed by His will, how does it further the Divine Plan to accumulate a number of really horrendous things, that (He must know) people will use as the inspiration for further atrocities, and pass it on to humankind without at least some word of caution? Couldn’t God at least have mentioned that his book shouldn’t be seen as a blueprint for life (since for thousands of years much of humankind would take it to be exactly that)?
Ultimately, this seems a well-meaning but misguided attempt to explain away the less-than-savory aspects of the Bible. It’s more honest than many in that it does not attempt to whitewash horrors, and more compassionate in that it does not attempt to make them seem just, but it is a pretty bizarre postulation all the same.
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