History’s Most Famous Public Execution

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“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.” -Mark Twain (1835-1910)

The story of a Creator God saving the world by sacrificing his own son has been told countless times over the past two millennia. The death and resurrection of Jesus are central to Christianity, but the familiarity of this story prevents many people of faith from seeing the story with the eyes of those outside of the fold. In this blog post I want to take a few steps back to try and gain a broader perspective on this narrative that has so influenced our world. I’ll do this by asking two questions:

1. Why?
Apart from the fact that there is no external evidence that this event happened exactly as Christians believe, with all the accompanying supernatural drama of the sun darkening, the earth quaking, the veil in the temple being ripped from top to bottom, and corpses being raised up to walk around Jerusalem and appearing to the living*, other than the narratives recorded in the Bible, there is possibly the more important difficulty of making sense of the back story.

Why would an all powerful, loving God set up the universe in such a way that the only legitimate manner in which he could extend forgiveness to people he created, who were fundamentally flawed, was to arrange to have his son (who was in fact himself – see the next question) sacrificed in the most brutal way possible?

At that time, blood sacrifice was an essential cornerstone of the Jewish religion, of which Jesus was a member. From the very beginning of the book of Genesis, it was made clear that:

(a) sacrifices needed to be made in order to appease a god who was angry with humans, and

(b) this sacrifice needed to involve the blood and flesh of animals.

I remember being disturbed as a child by the story of Cane and Abel, and wondered why God rejected Cane’s offering of vegetables (presumably the product of many months of hard work, laboring over the soil and harvest – no insecticides or tractors or automated irrigation for Cane!) in favor of Abel’s offering of slaughtered animals. This seemed very unfair, and also cruel.

David Madison, in his book Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief, wrote the following on this subject:

I suspect that the Old Testament doesn’t get a lot of traffic other than isolated tall tales –Joseph and his amazing technicolor dreamcoat, Moses parting the Red Sea, Samson getting a haircut, David killing Goliath–because there is just too much stomach-churning tedium in its pages, rooted deeply in ancient religious practice. The details about animal sacrifice, for example, don’t hold a lot of appeal these days, and are usually a great puzzlement: Why is this stuff in the Bible at all? How did chopping up living creatures come to be at the heart of religious practice?

Animal sacrifice had its origins in the human quest to get on the good side of divine powers. How do you get a god to stop being mad at you? Or, to put it a little less personally: How do you avert the anger of a god, or the gods, in general? It was the most natural thing in the world for our distant ancestors to assume that all the lightning and storms, floods and droughts, earthquakes and volcanoes, and diseases and deformities were evidence that the gods were angry. (By no means has this idea gone out of fashion.) It’s no surprise that appeasing the gods became an obsession, and very early in our history humans decided that giving gifts to the gods might get them to calm down. Now, what do you get for the God who has everything? Clearly one of the most precious things we possess is life itself, so sacrificing living things seemed a common sense approach. Human sacrifice has occasionally been practiced, but animal sacrifice turned out to be more practical and, as less sadistic people eventually realized, more humane. (Those who have respect for animals understandably find it a dreadful, deplorable idea with no shred of humaneness at all.) In the early millennia of human civilization, after raising cattle was discovered to be easier than hunting wild animals, wealth came to be measured in cattle and livestock. Those with the largest herds had power and prestige. And with goats, sheep, and cows in plentiful supply, they became animals of choice for making sacrifices to the gods. It was concluded as well that the gifts should be of high quality. It wasn’t a good idea to bring inferior goods to the altar or temple. Hence there are chapters in the Bible specifying the animals that will qualify for sacrifice, with excruciating detail on how they are to be slaughtered and chopped up.”

It’s very difficult to reconcile the loving Father God worshipped and adored by millions in churches around the world every Sunday with a god who can only be described as blood thirsty. And yet Jesus himself repeatedly endorsed the Old Testament, even claiming that he had come to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. What was it about blood that was so appealing to this god? Why would nothing but a savage human sacrifice ultimately satisfy this god? The more I think about it, the more disturbing I find this foundational aspect of the Christian story.

The standard response from believers to questions like this is, we can’t always understand the motives and reasoning of God, because he is the creator and we are the creature. Ultimately, we must have faith that he knows best, and that in his wisdom, for reasons we don’t have to understand, this is the course he has chosen.

But the problem is, believing is easier for some than for others. Once these questions are sincerely asked (either on first hearing the story, or after years of grappling with doubts), the genie is out of the bottle, and cannot be put back in again.

2. Who?
Who was being sacrificed on that cross? As Guy P Harrison says in his book, 50 Simple Questions for Every Christian,
“If God the Father and Jesus are the same, then what does it really mean to sacrifice your son if your son is actually you?… Did God sacrifice himself on Earth temporarily and then rejoin himself in heaven? If so, it doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice.”

The early church was in fact almost torn apart by controversy as there were very different ideas circulating about who in fact Jesus was. Was he a man who, due to his closeness to God, was exalted to the highest place (the right hand of God the father) at his death? Or was he a pre-existing divine being, sharing equal status with the creator God? As is frequently the case when there is no evidence either way, people were extremely committed to their views on this matter. Things got so heated that in 325CE Constantine called for a council of bishops to meet and decide the question once and for all. The doctrine of the trinity was made an official, orthodox doctrine as a result of this council, but it was hotly contested and many parts of the church refused to accept it, as they felt it was impossible to have three gods in one as this challenged the monotheistic foundations of Christianity.

The question of who Jesus was, and what the crucifiction meant to those who witnessed it and heard about it in the ensuing decades after Jesus’s death, is explored in great detail in Bart Ehrman’s excellent book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.

Will this god of love judge me and billions of my fellow humans (past, present and future) for not believing a story that seems to many to be genuinely un-believable? Or to put it another way: But for the familiarity of the story and the fact that you may have accepted as “gospel truth” these stories told to you from a very young age by adults you most loved and trusted, would you find this story believable?

*Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:51–53)

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The Mother’s Prayer

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Any parent who has watched their child go through protracted suffering has experienced a particular kind of torment. This experience, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, changes one forever.

A few years ago our seven year old daughter was admitted to hospital with appendicitis. What we didn’t realise was that Emma’s appendix lay against her colon, and trauma from the first surgery would cause that organ to twist, causing her unbearable pain and the inability to digest food. After a number of days during which she lost an alarming amount of weight, the doctor said he had no option but to perform a second, exploratory surgery and hope they could resolve the problem this way. It is a deeply scary moment when you realise that the best surgeon available is worried about your child’s prognosis.

During one particularly long night, a few days after the second surgery and when we were still deeply concerned as Emma was growing weaker by the day, I found myself in the bathroom at 3am, head in my hands, crying out to God. (As one does.) The next day, Emma turned the corner. The crisis was over. A few days later, she was declared well enough to go home. It took three months for her to build up her strength sufficiently to go back to school.

My husband and I were enormously grateful to have our daughter back in the land of the living when we had come so close to losing her. We reveled in everyday family experiences – seeing our children playing together, riding their bicycles, sitting down to a family meal. It all seemed miraculous.

But this experience changed me in unexpected ways. During those long days and nights at Emma’s bedside, I knew that I was not the only parent in that hospital crying out to God for a miracle. And beyond that hospital, there were many others in my city, my country and all around the world, praying and hoping for a miracle. And not just in my time, but in ages past, stretching back hundreds, thousands, millions of years. Parents have sat by their children’s bedsides for millennia, helplessly watching them slip away. My great advantage was that the bathroom I was crying in during that long, dark night was located in a modern, well-resourced hospital, staffed with doctors and nurses who had trained in the scientific method for many years and were using all their knowledge and skill to bring my child back from the brink. Most mothers around the world, praying the same desperate prayer that fell from my lips, are not in so fortunate a position.

According to the World Health Organization, 5.6 million children under the age of 5 years died in 2016 (mostly from illnesses that could have been prevented by access to basic healthcare). This translates into 15 000 deaths per day, just in the under five age group. This also translates into a lot of desperate prayers by parents for their children. Prayers that went unanswered.

Christians would say many of these parents were praying to the wrong god. Studies show that geography and family background are the most significant predictors of religious belief, so according to this thinking, unfortunately these people were born in the wrong place and in the wrong family. (This alone is a thought that should keep more Christians awake at night.) This raises another thorny question: The Bible says that God determines where and when we are born, so if this is true, then he has a direct hand in making it more difficult for these people to believe in him.

In any event, if praying to the Christian God works, one would expect that Christians would enjoy significantly better health and certainly better infant mortality rates than non-Christians. After all, Jesus is quoted as saying: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21,22)

But this is not the case. Some of the most Christian societies on earth are also in the poorest parts of the world. Studies show us that the most religious societies on earth tend to be the poorest. As Guy P. Harrison observes in his book, 50 Questions for Every Christian:

“The poor tend to pray hard and pray often. Extreme poverty and religious belief seem matched in some weird joust between hope and despair.”

He goes on:

“If prayer works, then we should see the most religious societies on earth – the places with the most praying going on – as the most ‘blessed’, secure, and safest places to live … Is this the world we see? Not even close.”

I have observed this in my own country (South Africa), as well as in my travels to Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar and Ethiopia. These countries are deeply religious, filled with Christians who regularly pray through the night, fast often, read their Bibles every day. If anyone’s faith should be rewarded, it is theirs. However, too often their prayers fall on deaf ears, and it is their children who slip away from preventable diseases such as malaria and TB. It is very difficult to reconcile this reality with Jesus’s promise to answer the prayers of believers. Christians often explain this by saying that God does answer all prayers, but sometimes his answer is “No”. It seems that his answer is “No” more often than not, in poorer societies. Or Christians respond by saying, his thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and his ways are higher than our ways. Who can know the mind of God? The creature cannot question the creator.

This leads me to ask the following: How can a believer claim to have a personal, intimate relationship with an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent Father God, the creator of heaven and earth, when this deity seems to turn his back so frequently, on those who need him most? When any compassionate human being with these powers would make it their priority to answer the most common and most desperate prayer of all, the mother’s prayer?

After Emma got better (“was healed”), I found it increasingly difficult to pray. For anything. Because a god who ignores the prayers of the most desperate, all those mothers watching their children slip away, has no business answering any others.

My conclusion is that economic factors play a far more significant role in the recovery of children from childhood illnesses, than the prayers of mothers to a deity. Far from proselytizing and urging more people to put their faith in a God who seems powerless to act in the face of childhood illnesses, we should be using our energy and resources to join hands in fighting against the injustices of our world, in which issues of life and death are too often determined by economics.

Losing my religion

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I didn’t lose my faith all at once. In fact, you could say it was felled by a thousand cuts. Never invulnerable to doubt (one of my most frequent prayers from the earliest days after my conversion was “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief…”) I found myself over the years increasingly confronted with irreconcilable differences between my faith – my understanding of God, the universe and how life worked – and my reality.

From a young age, I wondered how God could be all powerful and all loving, and still manage to gaze upon the world and his creatures without flinching. As we loved and lusted and hated and used and abused. As we rejoiced and grieved and played and worked and grew weary and died. Was it worth it, I wondered? Did he feel he was justified in creating this world and the human race that seemed alternately hellbent on destroying itself, or just desperate to survive in a hostile world? Did he feel guilty, ever, at having put all this in motion without our consent, the very ones who he would consign to hell unless we believed in Him – the unknown God? These were important questions. I was supposedly pursuing an intimate relationship with this God, and yet I couldn’t begin to understand the motivations behind these actions. “His thoughts are higher than our thoughts”, I know. But how does one have a personal relationship with a being who is essentially unknowable? In spite of this, I continued to try and pursue this relationship over three decades (which to my frustration was like grasping the wind). Until fairly recently I did not allow myself to look these questions squarely in the eye, as I knew that the implications – the answers I found, or chose – would be significant.

The great plan of salvation, I confess, never made complete sense to me. Even as I participated in campus outreach (mostly unsuccessfully, I might add) I had niggles of doubt which I usually managed to drown out, given the urgency of the mission. But every now and then, during church or at my devotions, I found myself wondering – why did God need to kill his son, why couldn’t he just forgive, as you and I forgive? The more I considered this, the more the idea of physical, substitutionary atonement seemed an ancient one, adopted by cultures and societies since the beginning of time in their attempts to appease their angry gods.

How could I be held guilty for someone else’s sin (i.e. Adam and Eve, our misguided forefathers)? How could Jesus take on the guilt of the world – substituting our guilt for his innocence? This is not how human justice works…and for good reasons. Why would we assume it was an acceptable modus operandi for the divine?

When did Jesus realize he was the son of God? What about all the other itinerant preachers in Palestine during that era – did they also believe they were God’s son?

Was the Bible really the inerrant word of God? Other religions believed that about their holy books, too. When I started reading about how the canon of scripture came about, I realized that this collection of books was written by men, transcribed by men, interpreted and translated by men, and that at every step along the way, over a period of two thousand years, innumerable errors were made. We no longer have any of the original texts. And yet evangelical Christians insist the scripture has not changed, that it is God-breathed and perfect.

Speaking of the divine, I often puzzled over why God was so exclusive, only known to us, the Christ followers, the blessed ones. What about those who believed in a different God, or were raised in a faith different from ours? I was taught by my church that unless you believed the Bible was the word of God, you were lost in the wilderness and would pay for your ignorance / rejection of the seen-through-a-glass-darkly “truth” for eternity. But what if the version of Jesus you were exposed to was repugnant – a televangelist in an expensive suit, bragging in his private jet about his good deeds in far-flung, poverty-ravaged countries? Or a priest who abused young boys? Or a pastor who had multiple extramarital affairs while preaching that the only acceptable romantic relationships were courtship and marriage?

And where is God during natural disasters, and when couples are desperate to conceive, and in hospital wards where children breathe their last and leave parents devastated and broken? Where was God for ages past when mothers died in childbirth (without modern medicine, I would certainly have been counted among them), and children without number succumbed to fevers in the night? On that last one – let’s remember that it’s not the mercy of God that largely protects our children from this fate now – its antibiotics.

Why pray to a God whose mind cannot be fathomed, whose motivations are unknowable, and whose power seems questionable or inconsistent at best?

There are so many other questions that have arisen over the years. For example, how can homosexuality be a sin against God, when some people are clearly attracted to people of their own gender from a young age, and follow their hearts despite enormous social pressure to conform? Would they choose the pain, the angst, the trauma of this decision, if it was in fact a decision and not a biological reality? What about those people who describe themselves as intersex, with elements of both genders in their biology? Our binary, “biblical” understanding of sexuality and marriage confine these people to the outermost margins of society, in fact gives them no place at all. I can no longer accept that as truth.

It has been said that all thinking Christians ask these questions at some stage in their journey. The way we handle these questions, and the answers we settle on, naturally have far reaching implications for our faith or lack thereof. Have you asked these or other questions? What conclusions have you reached? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Of Worship, Wonder and Natural Disasters

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Last week in church, we sang a song with a haunting melody and lyrics which are still playing on my mind, a week later. The song , “You’re beautiful” by Phil Wickham has as its main idea that our appreciation of the natural world can inform our understanding (and worship) of God.

The first two verses go as follows:

I see Your face in every sunrise
The colors of the morning are inside Your eyes
The world awakens in the light of the day
I look up to the sky and say
You’re beautiful

I see Your power in the moonlit night
Where planets are in motion and galaxies are bright
We are amazed in the light of the stars
It’s all proclaiming who You are
You’re beautiful, You’re beautiful

This idea is an ancient one and is expressed numerous times in the Bible. My favorite has always been Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (NIV)

While singing this song, my mind returned to our friends in Houston who were right then bracing for the impact of Hurricane Harvey and who had been much in my thoughts. I didn’t realize that far worse devastation would be experienced from flooding in South East Asia in the same week (and sadly, predictably, the latter would receive far less media attention that the former).

As I was singing and my mind was wandering, I was struck with this thought: if the beauty of the natural world tells us about the goodness of God, what does the cruelty of the natural world tell us about? Who or what gets the credit for natural disasters?

What are we to think when the natural world unleashes its power and leaves death and destruction in its wake? When the toll of a tsunami reaches the hundreds of thousands? When earthquakes cause mud slides and floods and fires and all manner of chaos resulting in the death and displacement of men, women and children across the globe, every year, with always the poorest being hardest hit?

On a natural level, we know that (a) disasters such as these have always been a part of life on earth, and (b) these events are occurring more frequently, due to climate change.

But I have for most of my life been part of a Christian tradition that believes in the supernatural, a tradition that says that God is intimately and powerfully involved in our lives. This is why we pray, because we believe that God is interested in our lives, and God can effect change. Jesus himself said we should pray, and ask of our Father “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

So natural disasters are a challenge for the believer. How and what are we to pray? If we believe that God is sovereign, then it follows that He has allowed these disasters for reasons unbeknown to us. So either we ask Him to stay His hand and have mercy on the vulnerable, or we accept that His will is being done. This latter view is, for me, irreconcilable with the idea of a God who “so loved the world…” (John 3:16), but not so for conservative Christians.

Dr Erwin W Lutzer of the Moody Institute said in 2005: “The Bible explicitly traces natural disasters to the hand of God. Who sent the rain during the time of Noah? Who caused the darkness during the plagues? Who sent the earthquake that swallowed the rebellious sons of Korah? Who sent the storm that caught the attention of Jonah? And, who stilled the fierce wind on Galilee?…Yes, let us boldly say, that God willed that the tsunami happen. Yes, of course there were geological causes—the massive shifting of the earth’s crust and the confluence of a series of waves and the like. But the God who stilled the storm on Galilee could have stopped that massive upheaval. The tsunami happened because God chose to let it happen; the God of creation and purpose willed that it be so.”

If you find this view abhorrent, like I do, let’s explore the alternatives by looking specifically at what we are thinking while praying for God to intervene. I recently asked a friend, “How do you pray (with respect to natural disasters)?” Her answer: “With many tears.” As beautiful as this answer is, it only raises more questions. So I asked again, How do you see God’s role while you are praying? Do you picture him weeping with you, powerless to help? Or is he the judge from Luke 18 who you are trying to wear down with your prayers, until he eventually relents and does something?

If this sounds like splitting hairs, please understand that for me it is hugely significant. Why would I pray to a God who was powerless? That would be a waste of time and emotional energy, better spent on doing something, going over or sending help. Alternatively, if he was hard-hearted or simply not interested, but could be worn down by the prayers of believers and have his arm twisted to actually do something, then the best approach would be to pray around the clock and activate intercessors around the world to do the same, because one merciful act from God to stay the storm or heal the broken or restore a devastated city would be far more effective than any paltry human attempts to battle against nature.

This issue goes directly to what we believe about God.

In my experience, many Christians, when faced with these kinds of questions, revert back to the idea that the creature cannot know or understand the mind of the Creator. This is a mystery, and who can know the ways or the mind of God? But then I can’t help but ask, how do you engage in a personal, intimate relationship with someone when you don’t know such an important aspect of their character?

This approach to life’s difficult questions, this mental shrugging of the shoulders, just doesn’t satisfy me anymore. I am finding it increasingly difficult to believe in an almighty, omniscient, personal, loving God – when all evidence seems to point to the contrary.

 

Making Peace with Old Testament Violence

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After months of wrestling with what all the violence in the Old Testament means for my decades-long belief in a loving God, I’ve come to a conclusion that I can
(sort of) live with.
So without further ado, let’s dive into the murky waters of the ancient past and try to make sense of this thorny issue.

If you’re in any doubt about the violence of the Old Testament, please go and read it.
Or read my blog posts on the Old Testament God (1, 2 and 3) for a scintillating summary. The thorny question is, how can one reconcile the character of the God of the New Testament (a personal, Father-God who goes to extraordinary lengths to make it possible to enter into relationship with all humans who will have faith in Him) with the capricious, jealous and fearsomely violent God of the Old Testament?

Firstly, I’ve discovered that this is a false dichotomy. As Rob Bell puts it in his new book, “What is the Bible?” many people think that there’s no death and destruction in the New Testament, but this is not true. Have you read the book of Revelation recently? Also, it was Jesus who first introduced the idea of Hell, and he warns his disciples that they shouldn’t fear what people can do to us here on this earth, but rather fear God who can do far, far worse. Persecution on earth is short-lived; burning in hell is forever. That’s plenty of violence, right there in the New Testament. (I’ll explore the question of Hell in a future post.) And conversely, there are a lot of references and examples in the Old Testament of the love, grace and mercy of God. So it’s important right at the outset to get rid of simplistic categories.

Still, in the Old Testament, God-ordained violence seems to be ever-present. Both on a national level (“Those pesky Canaanites are taking up space in the Promised Land – go and kill all of them and take possession of what is rightfully yours”) and on a domestic level (witness the many instructions to stone people who were disobeying the law).
As Peter Enns says in his very readable book “The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending Scripture has made us unable to read it”:

“It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday. This is what we call a theological problem. And it’s a big one, not only because of the whole Canaanite business, but because violence seems to be God’s preferred method of conflict resolution.”

As a modern day believer, this leaves a distinctly bad taste in one’s mouth.

But this is precisely the point. As modern-day readers, we find it incredibly difficult, almost impossible, to understand the context in which the Old Testament was written. What we often forget (and this is particularly true of Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible) is that the library of books which make up the Bible were written by real people like you and I, who lived in real times and places, and just like us, interpreted and wrote their history as they understood it.

In the ancient world, violence was necessary for survival. People were organized into tribes, and your tribe was your everything. Here’s Rob Bell again, helping us understand the world before democracy, dishwashers and diapers:

Tribes had gods and goddesses, forces they followed and worshipped who, they believed, protected and guided them. So when you went into battle against another tribe— usually for land or access to resources or wealth— you were doing battle with them, but at the same time your god was confronting their god. (That’s what’s going on in the David-and-Goliath story.) And when you won, you wiped them
out and took all their stuff. Why? Because what if you left some of the men alive, and then later they banded together— maybe the son of the king you killed was their leader— and they came to get their revenge? You couldn’t risk it. Or maybe you killed the men but took the women for yourselves. And the donkeys, and whatever else you wanted. Those were called the spoils of war. There were rules about how this worked, because tribes had been doing it this way for a long time. Brutal? Yes. Violent? Yes. Primitive? Yes. Barbaric? Yes. Your tribal identity wasn’t just about your bloodline and your gods— it was also about safety. The world was extremely dangerous, and without the protection of a tribe, you could easily find yourself enslaved or worse by another tribe. This was not like picking a political party or religious affiliation in our world— in that world at that time your survival was at stake. When you read those Old Testament stories about So-and-So accumulating so many fighting men and a certain number of swords or horses or camels or making an alliance with King So-and-So, this wasn’t a hobby. This was life or death. Kill or be killed. And no matter how many battles you’d fought and won, you were always one battle away from the enemy crushing you and wiping out your entire tribe, or killing some of you and taking the rest back to be assimilated into the conqueror’s tribe.

Sound familiar? That’s the Old Testament world, right there. So when the writers of Genesis, Exodus, Judges etc sat down to write the stories of their people, which had been passed down orally for generations, this is how they interpreted those events. Their God instructed them to “Go forth and conquer” and promised them that he was on their side. He was bigger and stronger than the other gods, and this was evident when they were victorious. They went to great lengths to brag about Yahweh’s power and strength so that other nations would know that their God was fearsome and shouldn’t be trifled with. When they were beaten, this was because their God was angry with them because they hadn’t been obeying his law.

I don’t interpret the world in this way anymore, and that’s why the Old Testament seems to portray a vastly different God to the one I believed in.

This, in a nutshell, is how I have started making sense of the Old Testament portrayal of God. PHEW, that was a bumpy ride! Now I need a strong cup of coffee.

But wait, what?! Let’s backtrack a little. This way of understanding the Old Testament helps me make sense of one thorny theological problem, but it raises a new one. If we believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, it’s deeply uncomfortable to think that it was written by real people, in real places, with a world-view very different from ours.
A world-view that doesn’t always stand up to the light of reason or common sense as we see it. This would make the Bible a collection of books written in the normal way, and not in essence written by God.

Hmmm.

 

Old Testament God: Monster, Morph or Myth? (3)

Dr Copan repeatedly makes the point that the law of Moses was God’s way of meeting people (the Israelites) halfway, and permitting certain things (e.g. slavery) because of the hardness of human hearts. He refers forwards to Jesus’s comments on divorce in this regard (Matt 19:8).

Please consider the following:

1. There are a multitude of deeply cruel instructions given in the Old Testament, most of which are prefaced with “Thus says the Lord”.

Here’s an example from Deuteronomy 22:20-21. The context here is an instruction for what a man should do if, on his wedding night, he suspects that his bride is not a virgin:

“If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found,  she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.” (italics are mine)

(Naturally, there is no mention of the possibility that the man might not be a virgin. This was clearly no cause for concern.) And unfortunately so much more like this. How is this meeting people halfway? And even if one could rationalize it like this, how could a loving God bear to live with this compromise when it must have meant that countless women lived in genuine fear of their lives, and their daughters’ lives, much like they do in present day conservative Islamic states?

I currently have no rational way to marry this portrayal of God, with that of the portrayal in the New Testament of God as a God of love.

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2. Slavery is regulated in the Old Testament, which was a big step forward in the ancient near-Eastern world.
(In other words, how master’s treated their slaves was subject to certain rules.) However, considering the enormous impact the Judeo-Christian faith has had and continues to have on the world, why would God endorse slavery at all? A simple declaration of “No human shall have the right to own another human, or have another human working for or serving them without compensation” could have saved millions of lives and an unquantifiable amount of suffering and despair. Many sincere (and insincere) Christians have through the ages used the scriptures as a defense for this practice. And yet a simple instruction to the contrary could have avoided this whole issue.

Another argument Dr Copan employs to defend God as he is portrayed in the Old Testament involves the practice of exaggeration. He states that it was common for historical narratives in the ancient near-East to freely use hyperbole or exaggeration.
So e.g. When a leader declared “We annihilated the enemy and left nothing alive”, everyone knew that it was advisable to read this with a pinch (or bag, depending on the size of the ego) of salt. He gives the example of Joshua, who is instructed by Moses to “Kill every living thing.” They go and do the deed, and declare that nothing breathing was left alive, yet in the next few chapters it states that they’re fighting the same enemy – so clearly there were some who escaped the carnage. Dr Copan says this as if it is more acceptable to kill, e.g. 200 people than 300, and then to lie about it. My problem is with the instruction (allegedly coming from a good God), not particularly with how or whether it was carried out.

Finally: Dr Copan concludes his argument that God is not a moral monster by saying that this is a God who is the ultimate cosmic authority, and that he is entitled to do whatever he wills with whoever offends him. Using the analogy of Aslan in Narnia,

“He is good, but he is not safe. We can never become comfortable or complacent.”

This simply doesn’t work for me, as a defense of God’s nature or as an explanation of why God is portrayed so differently in the Old Testament versus the New. If Dr Copan’s explanations were all I had to work with, I would have to conclude that God is indeed a moral monster.

Old Testament God: Monster, Morph or Myth? (2)

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During my search for answers regarding the nature of God (particularly how he is portrayed in the Old Testament), someone recommended I watch Paul Copan’s talk entitled “Is God a Moral Monster?” I also downloaded his book by the same title, with the subtitle Making Sense of the Old Testament.

Before I unpack Paul Copan’s argument, I’d like to preface with this thought: God, being all powerful, omniscient and omnipresent, could have chosen any way to reveal himself to humankind. According to the authors of both the Old and New Testaments, he chose primarily the vehicle of the scriptures for this purpose, which are described as being God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). These scriptures are a witness for all ages about the character and acts of God. Some Christians believe in the inerrancy of the Bible (i.e. that the text contains no errors, and is, at least in the original, the perfect Word of God). Others take a more nuanced view, saying that all texts are written from the particular point of view of the author, which is influenced by culture, education, geographic location etc. This perspective says that we must always be aware of that context before attempting to interpret the text. (Great article re: problematizing biblical inerrancy here if you’re interested.) In any event, regardless of which viewpoint you choose, it is a good idea for Christ-followers to know what you have signed up to.
The current part of my journey, after 26 years as a Christian, is to interrogate those parts of scripture that I am deeply uncomfortable with, so that I can defend my beliefs with integrity and a commitment to truth.

In the video, Dr Copan prefaces his topic of “Is God a Moral Monster?” by referencing Richard Dawkins and other atheists, who make sense of the universe by saying it is morally neutral, pitiless, indifferent. Dr Copan asks why then do they object to a God who performs or authorizes immoral acts, as surely they have no standard for judging what is moral and immoral. This is in fact a superficial reading of the “new atheists”. The fact that the universe is morally neutral means that, e.g. when a tsunami wipes out 230 000 people, this is not the act of an angry God, but simply a morally neutral (indifferent/pitiless) universe acting according to the laws of nature. Ditto for when a three year old child is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

As regards morality, atheists (as well as humanists) say that we don’t need a “revealed authority” to tell us what is right or wrong. We are social animals and therefore instinctively understand that hurting other humans, or doing anything that jeopardizes their welfare, should be avoided. This is why almost all religions have the same basic tenets: do not murder, do not steal, etc. These truths are therefore seen, by the atheists/humanists, as being self-evident. This definition is taken from the American Humanist Association: “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

By contrast, in the Old Testament we see numerous examples of “revealed authority” (God’s instructions) which go against the basic principle of treating every person with inherent worth, e.g. The commandment should be restated as, “Do not kill, except when the Lord commands it”. This contradicts the principle of the intrinsic worth of every human, which Dr Copan address at the end of his talk. He says that God’s instruction to Joshua to kill all the Canaanites was not an ethnic cleansing, since there are examples in the Old Testament of Canaanites who were accepted into the fold when they followed the law of Moses. So the instruction to annihilate the Canaanites referred to all the others (the majority of the population, including women and children) who were offending God by engaging in immoral acts and needed to be wiped off the earth (this calls to mind a previous occasion when God was offended by rampant immorality and wiped out all of humankind, apart from Noah and his family).

Also bear in mind that the Old Testament repeatedly states that the Israelites were uniquely chosen by God for his revelation. This meant that the law was not given to the Canaanites (although perhaps some individuals were exposed to it through interaction with the Hebrews), and yet it seems as if they are being held accountable to it? If you were living in ancient times, illiterate and without access to the scientific discoveries of the modern era, or the richness of the Hebrew culture with its theology, laws and practices, would it be unreasonable for you to worship many gods, hedging your bets in a profoundly unpredictable world? Particularly considering that you were living in a polytheistic society, where everyone was worshiping many Gods. Before harvest, why not pray to the god of the harvest. Wanting to start a family? It makes sense to pray to the god of fertility. Why would the God of the Israelites feel that he must hold these people, outside of the fold of the Hebrew faith, accountable to a law they had never heard of?

Dr Copan’s view is that this is acceptable according to the Christian worldview, as God is the ultimate authority and can enact judgement on people however he chooses.

I find this explanation deeply unsatisfying, and it is certainly not one that I can or would defend.  Who would want to serve a God like this? How would you answer the statement below?

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