Last week I began a series exploring some of the reasons I don’t accept the Bible as a trustworthy book. I presented two plausible theories (see below) and stated that we should first look at the evidence within the Bible, and only then consider which theory best explains the evidence, rather than first start off with a belief/conclusion that the Bible is true, and then try to think up reasons to support our conclusion. This post will deal with the issue of ethical and moral actions promoted by certain biblical texts, and whether they live up to the comprehensive standard elsewhere in the Bible. Again, keep in mind, our goal is not to start by concluding “the Bible must be right/wrong!” but instead to first look at the evidence and then decide which theory it best applies to:
Theory 1 – The Bible was divinely inspired by God and can be trusted as completely accurate
Theory 2 – It was composed purely by human means and does not contain divine truth
Can I judge the ethics of the Bible?
In dozens of conversations I have had about this, the most common reaction is “you have no right to judge the Bible, because if you don’t have the Bible as your ethical foundation, you have no morals!!!” This occurs because people who base all of their ethics on the Bible have built their whole moral epistemology on the biblical text and cannot even imagine another way to account for morality. Essentially, many Christians assume that the only way to ground morality is on “God said so” and if you don’t accept their way, you cant make moral statements.
Imagine trying to talk with a Hindu about whether or not Hinduism is true, and the first thing that comes out of her mouth is: “you are not allowed to critique the ethics of Hinduism because the your ability to make an ethical statement requires Hinduism to be true, and if you reject Hinduism, you have no ethics and are not allowed to critique my holy books!” Would you not feel cheated, tricked, maybe even a little offended? This is because your conversational partner is “begging the question” and starting off by assuming her conclusion is true, and telling you that it cannot be critiqued, because its true. Anyone can play that game, but it’s a very sloppy way to seek the truth.
That’s exactly what is happening with the Christian assertion “you cannot judge the Bible.” Those that have made the Bible their foundational starting point are unable to discuss it as the subject of a conversation, instead Scripture must be assumed and accepted as true from the very beginning! Real life doesn’t work like this, I don’t first assume “science is true” or “Hinduism is false,” instead I assume “I don’t know the answer to this question, so let’s do our best to first look at the evidence and only then come to a conclusion, not the other way around!”
In any case, as a skeptic, I do have a system of ethics by which I can judge the Bible (and I can ground my system of ethics in reason). However, I will be extra generous and simply scrutinize the ethics of the Bible according to its own ethical standard, not just by my own standard. If some part of the Bible teaches that “lying is always evil” and another part says “go to this town and lie” then the Bible has failed its own test! It doesn’t even matter how it fares according to my ethical standard, if it fails its own ethical standard, it has already proven itself to be inaccurate and flawed when dealing with questions of ethics and morality.
What principles does the bible teach about harming others?
If you were to survey the Christians of the world, you would get a wide array of answers about what is moral, immoral, or perhaps neutral/barely permissible. Yet, there are certain areas that most believers would undeniably agree upon, certain laws and edicts that they say are universally taught by the Bible, that must be followed at all costs. I will pick just a few of these. I believe that most Chrsitians would agree on the following two principles:
1. Do not cause physical harm, torture, or injury to a person with the end goal of harming them (only if it’s a last resort aimed at ultimately helping them or preventing them from harming other people).
2. Do not cause the deaths of any person, unless it’s the only way of preventing them from killing/harming others (i.e. only kill someone if it’s the only way to prevent them from killing others).
These principles can be distilled from texts like the Ten Commandments, but they are most evident in Jesus’ sermon on the mount and certain New Testament passages (i.e. Rom 12.17-21, 1 Thes 5.15.) See Matthew Chapter 5 (specifically texts like 5:44) for all of these principles, which are therein applied far more stringently, I have been extra generous and lax in describing these, by adding extra clauses. In actuality, where Jesus says “don’t harm your enemies at all, ever”, I have changed this to a more laid-back command of “Fine you can harm the enemies who will kill you, but at least don’t harm people who are not going to kill you.” Jesus’ commands strongly support total pacifism and “turning the other cheek” but I will be extra generous and saying “you don’t have to be a pacifist, but only use violence when it saves other lives.”
I want you to note this, I am being far more lenient and accommodating, I am removing all the grey areas that could be debated, and sticking to that which is undeniably black and white. If you cannot agree to these two principles, then this post doesn’t apply to you. If you think harming/killing someone who does not wish to harm others is morally good, then this post is not for you. But please note that makes you are a terrible follower of Jesus, and worse than that, you terrify me, I want nothing to do with you and hope you don’t live in my neighborhood.
I will also note, there are dozens of other passages and ideas, where I believe it’s patently clear that the Bible fails its own moral standard (for example it’s claimed that deception is a sin, yet elsewhere it’s claimed that God decieves: 1 Kings 22:23, Ezekiel 14:9, Jeremiah 4:10, 2 Thess 2:11) but for the sake of brevity, I’m only going to examine the two general principles above.
FAILURE #1: Do not harm
“Do not ever cause physical harm, torture, or injury to a person with the end goal of harming them, unless it’s a last resort aimed at ultimately helping them or preventing them from harming other people’
Case study 1 – The Bible endorses slavery
I’m sure you have heard a positive spin on this, something like: “slaves were workers, I’m a slave for my employer today” or “this was a temporary job that lasted for a few years.” This apologetic spin is blatantly dishonest, and demonstrably so. I have written a longer article on biblical slavery, citing texts that confirm slavery was indeed the permanent ownership of people, not a job. Here are two key points: (a) the Bible allows the beating of slaves, so long as they survive (Exodus 21:20-21) and (b) it permits slaves to be kept permanently and passed down for generations, so that children of slaves are themselves slaves. (Exodus 21:5 and Leviticus 25:46). Slavery is undeniably cruel and harmful.
Case Study 2 – The Bible endorses physical torture
There are many strange laws that command violent and painful torture to be inflicted on people. For example, if two men are in a brawl, and a woman tries to intercede and grabs one of the men by the testicles, her arm is to be butchered off from her body, “without pity” (Deut 25:11-12). Likewise, there are many proverbs that endorse using sticks and rods to beat those who are foolish or mentally handicapped, even while education would seem more prudent (Prov 18:6, 19:29, 26:3). In addition, there are dozens of “crimes” for which persons are to be stoned or burned. Notice that stoning and burning are lengthy and extremely painful processes that cause immense suffering and anguish. Some things that you can get “tortured to death” for include: (a) touching a mountain (Exodus 19:13), (b) picking up rocks on Saturday (Numbers 15:32-56), (c) being a bad teenager (Deut 21:18-21), and (d) getting married as a non-virgin (Deut 22:13-21). There are also plenty of future descriptions of torture in the Bible, from severe torments caused by giant supernatural scorpions (Deut 25:11-12) to the idea of hell. None of these punishments are meant to correct the subject, they are meant to inflict pain, misery, and suffering, for the sake of causing that suffering as an act of vengeance. A parent may spank a child, for the ultimate good, but biblical tortures like hell, are solely for the ultimate harm.
Case study 3 – The Bible endorses rape/sexual exploitation
This is one that most people have a hard time believing. First off, the Bible never forbids rape wholesale, it only forbids stealing another man’s woman, for that woman is his property. Virgins who are raped must be purchased from their father and the only solace to the woman is that her rapist may never divorce her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Second, the Bible actually endorses rape, so long as victims are from another tribe. For example, the Bible allowed women to be forcibly taken captive and (after their husbands/fathers were killed) the women can be forced into “marriage” (Deuteronomy 21:10-11). There is some relief, however, because in this case only, if you don’t like your captive woman after raping her, you are not permitted to sell her, but must let her go. And of course, there are still biblical descriptions of rape as a tool that God uses to chastise the nations, further demonstrating that sometimes rape is morally good. (Isaiah 13:15-16)
Case study 4 – The Bible endorses misogyny
There are many cases of misogyny (prejudice and maltreatment of women) in the Bible. Prof Chris Rollston, a biblical scholar was recently fired from his Christian University for writing that many biblical authors promoted mysogeny. For example, he states that “the custom of a marital “bride price” (money given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family) reveals that marriage was… a property transfer, as payment had been made to acquire the bride (Genesis 34:12; Exodus 22:16; 1 Samuel 18:25; Genesis 24:53).” There are many other cases, however, mysogeny starts with the characterization of women in Genesis 1. I don’t accept Genesis 1 as historically accurate (in fact, many Christians, even prominent apologists like C. S. Lewis agree), but this narrative wove itself into the fabric of our culture and defined how women are viewed. First, in the story itself a woman is the cause of sin, perpetuating the tendency to depict women as the blameworthy sex, causing untold injustice and discrimination. Second, in this tale all women are cursed with severe pain as a punishment for something one woman did, showing that all women are deserving of severe pain because of their gender.
FAILURE #2: Do not kill
“Do not cause the deaths of any person, unless it’s the only way of preventing them from killing/harming others”
Case Study 1 – The Bible endorses genocide
This is an undeniable fact, there are dozens of scripture passages that openly endorse genocide, the act of utterly destroying a whole people group by butchering the elderly, middle aged, teenagers, children, and infants. Hitler attempted to commit genocide, but he was only continuing a long tradition that is endorsed by the Bible, and one could argue that at least Hitler’s gas chambers offered more quick and painless death than the repeated stabs with a crude bronze age sword. There are dozens of passages that depict (a) God commanding genocide and (b) the Hebrews committing genocide, and claiming that their victory was assured because God was on their side. These horrific passages include, but are not limited to: Exodus 32:27-29, Deuteronomy 2:34, Deuteronomy 3:6, Deuteronomy 7:2, Deuteronomy 7:16, Deuteronomy 13:15, Deuteronomy 20:16-17, Joshua 6:21, 10:40, 1 Samuel 15:2-3.
Case study 2 – The story of the Midianite Children
This may be the most horrifying story in the Bible, and it depicts such cruelty and savagery, that I cannot imagine how a pacifist could claim this book teaches the ultimate truth. First some background: The Hebrews recently invaded Canaan, destroyed many cities, killed many people and then, as they were camped near Midianite territory some of the Midianite women “invited” the Hebrew men to join them in sexual exploits and worship of locals gods (Numbers 25:1-2). The Hebrew men were not forced to participate, they chose it themselves. Moses, purportedly at Gods initiative issues the command to be hostile against the Midianites. Some time passes and the Bible depicts God as urging the Israelites to go back, and wreak revenge on the Midianites for inviting some of the Israelite soldiers to join them. So the Israelites attack and utterly destroy all of the enemy combatants, leaving only the defenseless women (many who are no doubt pregnant or elderly), as well as the little boys and girls. These little women and children are spared to be kept as slaves. (Numbers 32:9-10). Then Moses angrily commands that these defenseless captives be killed. This includes weeping grandmothers, pregnant women, mothers with their children weeping in their arms. (Numbers 31: 17-18). The little boys, all those who were too young to fight as well as babies, are also to be brutally executed.
And finally, when it comes to the little girls, those that are virgins are given away as booty to the soldiers, while all others are to be massacred. In every single military victory in recorded history, the winning army rapes girls, this is an unchanging historical regularity. And while this is not explicit in the text, it’s more than likely these girls became concubines (sexual slaves) as this is accepted elsewhere in Israelite culture, and there are even biblical laws that permit Hebrews to take captives for sexual purposes (Deut 21:10-11). Little girls given away to the same men who had just brutally executed their families. Even if these girls are not used for sexual purposes, one must imagine the absolute horrors that these girls experienced. Imagine a small seven year old sweetheart, seeing her defenseless pregnant mother being viciously sliced open and falling dead on the ground. Imagine the agonizing screams as she sees her younger brothers, grabbed by calloused soldiers hands, and heartlessly stabbed, beat, pierced until they choke on their own blood.
Does the Bible meet its own standard?
No, as we can see it does not. Yes, you can certainly argue that “the God of the Bible has a right to do anything he wants” and I’ll grant you that. The God of the Bile could murder everyone he wants, and nobody would be left to tell him that he was wrong. Yet, if he first asserts that (a) killing children is wrong and then (b) proceeds to kill children, then he has broken his own law. So you see, it is no longer I who judges the Bible, it is rather the Bible that judges itself.
Finally, even after we have seen the biblical text fail miserably and hopelessly at its own standard, let me add one more ethical standard that the Bible severely fails.
FAILURE #3: Do not be unjust
“Do not force an innocent person to suffer the punishment deserved by another.”
Justice is the act of fairly distributing rewards and punishments to those who deserve them. If I told you that a rapist received a reward while his rape victim was brutally executed, would not your blood boil at the injustice?! Mine would! It is a unfair when one person takes another’s reward (unless of course it’s a gift), but the real injustice is when one person is forced to receive another’s punishment.
I contend that the Bible is full of such cases of injustice and therefore is an unjust book.
Case study 1 – Injustice for the Egyptian slaves
In the story of the Exodus there is an oft missed tragedy, the fate of all other Egyptian slaves. As the story shows ten plagues descend on the land, these are shown affecting everyone besides the Hebrew slaves. We can say the Egyptians deserved it for keeping the Hebrews in slavery, but did the other slaves deserve punishment? What for? The biblical text presents a picture where all these other slaves who were already suffering the terrible injustice of slavery, were punished for their masters sins, and thats okay! Consider the suffering a slave mother would hypothetically endure by this injustice the Bible dictates: “Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill” (Exodus 11:5). Little children are described as being killed, the most unfortunate in society are harmed rather than helped, mothers weep, and all of this is punishment falls upon those already in misery, simply because the rich Egyptian masters deserve it. This is a colossal injustice! (Fortunately, there is strong evidence none of this happened, so the Bible merely promotes the idea of injustice in this case, but the idea is cruel enough).
Case study 2 – Injustice for the children punished for parental sins
How would you react if the president commanded little children to be brutally murdered if their parents break the law? Would you feel this is a fair punishment? No! You would know this is injustice at its vilest. In the Bible there is debate (a discrepancy between authors) whether children should be punished for their parents sins. Ezekiel says no! And yet, many other authors say yes, in command and in example. There are principles that allow and command the punishment of children for parents sins (Exodus 20:5-6, Exodus 34:7, Deuteronomy 5:9, Leviticus 26:22, Jeremiah 15:7-8). There are edicts to go and kill (not just “punish”) children for their parents sins (Isaiah 14:21, Isaiah 13:16, 1 Samuel 15:3, Ezekiel 9:6).
Also there are countless of examples that purportedly show God killing children simply to punish their parents (Genesis 7:4,21; Genesis 19:24, Exodus 11:4-5, 2 Chronicles 21:14, 2 Samuel 12:14-15, Jeremiah 2:30, Nahum 3:10, Hosea 10:14, Jeremiah 9:21-22). For example, consider the flood, all of the children, infants, and fetuses in pregnant women were supposedly drowned. Why? Because of their parents sin. Well did anyone stop and ask if the children deserved it? Nope. There is also a slew of passages that show non-death punishments given to children for their parents sins (Deuteronomy 23:2, Deuteronomy 28:18, 1 Kings 11:11-12, 2 Samuel 21:6-9, 1 Kings 2:33, 1 Kings 21:29, 2 Kings 5:27, Jeremiah 16:10-11, Jeremiah 29:32). If all of that is not enough, why there are even passages where God purportedly threatens to force parents to eat their children as punishment, and yet, not once is it considered that children are the real victims of this cruel and unusual “punishment”!! (Leviticus 26:29, Deuteronomy 28:53, Jeremiah 19:9, Ezekiel 5:8-10)
Case study 3 – Injustice for humanity in being cursed for Adam
I am told that I am a sinner who is destined to burn in hell forever and ever and ever. I am a sinner and because of that I must be tortured. It gets even weirder, Augustine, pretty much the most important church father of early Christianity, thought little babies who weren’t baptized deserve to be thrown into hell. But why? Why should I have this sin nature that forces me to sin, or forces me to be punished in hell? Well, as it turns out, it’s all because a long time ago, some guy named Adam, did something bad, and *insert magic* now it’s my fault. Some people who are extra clever change *insert magic* to something lofty sounding like “Federal Headship” (ooooohh) which, in the end, still just means “if your father sinned, you get punished for him.” In the end, whatever fancy lingo we dream up, the fact is I did not choose to have a sin nature, it was *forced* upon me because of some guy named Adam, so why am I judged for it?
Case study 4 – injustice for humanity in an eternal hell
No finite being is good enough to deserve eternal pleasure, and no finite being is bad enough to deserve eternal torture. To deserve eternal punishment or reward, your crime or virtue must also be infinite, but we are finite creatures who are only capable of finite crimes. The end. The clever theology to explain all that away is that “our crime is against an infinite being so deserves infinite torture.” But this is rather silly, it matters not who the crime was against, but what it was! Otherwise you end up with an absurdity like this: Steal a dollar from a poor man, and you owe him two dollars as compensation. Steal one dollar from an infinitely rich man who has infinite money, and you now owe him infinite money as compensation. What?! This is absurd and foolish! In fact, if the infinitely rich man has infinite money, you cant even harm him by stealing anyhow.
Here is a quick analogy to elucidate this: If you shoot two people in the leg, a child who can be harmed, and superman who cannot, ought you really deserve more punishment shooting superman? Not at all, since superman can’t even be harmed by this in the first place. Why should he avenge himself? For what exactly? Since he’s impossible to harm, can it even be called attempted harm? It would be rather cruel of superman to try to punish you by torturing you forever and ever because “you dared shoot me, and even if it can’t hurt me, you still deserve eternal punishment!” Only those who are harmed can seek retribution, God is by definition, unharmable.
In any case, torturing someone for trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions for trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions for trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillion of trillions of trillions of trillions of trillions of years, because of a few minutes of “sin” is completely unjust, and frankly, evil.
Case study 5 – Injustice of substitutionary atonement
The very idea that slaughtering innocent animals can alleviate guilt is patently irrational. Guilt does not transfer persons, moral responsibility cannot be transferred without destroying the whole foundation of justice and fairness. If John raped and murdered a little child, and in court he pulls out a lamb, cuts its neck, and proudly asserts “don’t worry judge, this lamb just took my guilt, so I’m free now, right?” all of us would look at him with disgust and bewilderment. And yet that is exactly what Biblical justice is.
In the case of sacrificial animals in the Old Testament, there is extra harm in the fact that these animals are unwilling victims. In the story of Jesus and the substitutionary sacrifice, at least Jesus is depicted as dying voluntarily. And honestly, I admit, it’s a valiant and immensely noble idea, that someone would choose to die to save me. But at its core the theology is utterly unjust. How does Jesus dying make a rapist no longer guilty of rape? Or a murderer no longer guilty? How can guilt transfer? How can a person who lived a long evil life, raping and murdering millions simply say a prayer, and never be held responsible for his sever evil? How can another who strives to be good his whole life, makes one small mistake, and doesn’t say a prayer, is now considered more guilty than the former?
If you were in court, and a serial killer was freed because his innocent father chose to receive the punishment of lethal injection instead, would you think that justice? No! Its double injustice! Not only did (a) the criminal go unpunished, but (b) an innocent person was punished! Two wrongs don’t correct one wrong!
Consider that this theology means the following story is “perfectly just”: There is a Nazi officer who brutally rapes, mutilates, and tortures helpless Jewish women for years. One particular woman is begging and screaming “God help me” as she is being tortured and raped, and in the last few moments of her agony, she says “since God did not help me I refuse to believe in him” and dies. Her Nazi rapist later escapes to Brazil, lives a long happy, healthy life, and finally, before death prays to Jesus for forgiveness. According to Biblical theology, the victim is now burning in hell, feeling the most horrendous torture, while the Nazi tormentor simply took off his guilt like a coat, and is now enjoying paradise. Is this fair? Christianity says yes. I say its miserable, cruel, ugly, and the very definition of injustice and evil.
Ultimately if this book that claims to speak for God, and claims to promote justice is filled with so much injustice, and fails its own ethical standards, I believe we should reject that this book is written or inspired by God.