The Bible is a brutal document.
I'd like to extend a special thanks to my father, who originally articulated this argument to me.
If a non-religious person, without any prior exposure to Christianity, Judaism, or ancient history, picked up a Bible and flipped to a random page, there is a high probability that this religiously green reader would find something that horrified their 21st century moral and cultural sensitivities.
Murder, genocide, rape, homophobia, intolerance, misogyny and other atrocities, which all appear barbaric to modern sensibilities, are all woven into the Scripture’s narrative.
The Bible’s lack of palatability is frequently cited as a barrier for people to become Christians.
Atheists and anti-religious activists capitalize on the brutal nature of scripture to convince people that the Bible is an immoral document that should never be used to guide anyone’s moral conduct.
The Bible makes it clear that we are supposed to spread the good news of Jesus to our peer brothers and sisters. It’s less prescriptive about HOW we’re supposed to accomplish this. Here are some verses that illustrate the evangelical imperative:
1 Peter 3:15
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
2 Corinthians 5:20
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”
“He said to them, Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
1 Corinthians 1:17
For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
1 Corinthians 1:17-31
The passage from 1 Corinthians has profound implications for how we should interpret the Bible AND for how we should communicate its message to others.
In the verses after 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul elaborates:
17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.
27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.
30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
I admit that it’s dangerous to extrapolate a definitive, far-reaching idea or theory from a single verse or passage. Paul is also specifically only referring to the Gospel or the “Good News” of Jesus, but, I believe that it is appropriate to widen the domain of his prescription to include the entire Biblical canon, since Christian theology teaches that the “Good News” of Jesus cannot be divorced from the Old Testament.
Words of Wisdom
Paul is damning the wisdom and rationality of mankind.
He disdains the theological empiricism of Jewish groups, such as the Sadducees, Pharisees and the Essenes, AND the Greek obsession with philosophy and rationality (this dig is, admittedly, painful to me).
He’s stating that scripture cannot be perfected through style, wit or intellectual horsepower.
The Christian is implored to convey scripture with integrity and NOT to make it palatable through alterations, amendments or omissions.
His message can be distilled down to the popular phrase, “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”
If we adhere to Paul’s imperative, we’re also accepting the assumption that everything in the Bible is in there FOR A REASON.
The narrative was constructed with purpose and intelligent design.
Every gory, putrid and morally reprehensible detail was included in the Bible FOR A REASON.
A detail’s inclusion means that we have something to learn from it.
Again, if we believe Paul is correct, then we believe that the inclusion of EVERY detail in the Bible is predicated on God’s unbounded wisdom.
I’m not talking about details in verses that reflect the legal and cultural parameters of the authors’ time-frames.
I’m referring to details that significantly affect the Biblical narrative AND have severe implications for the character of God, the character of his people and what constitutes righteous living.
Why did we need to know that David sent Uriah to his death so that he could take Bathsheba as a wife?
Why did we need to know that God killed Judah’s second son because he performed coitus interruptus with Tamar and refused to grant her children so that she could continue Judah’s first-born son’s bloodline?
Why did we need to know that God played a sadistic joke on Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac?
Why did we need to know that God ordered Saul to kill ALL the Amalekites – men, women, children, cattle, EVERYTHING?
Why did we need to know that God almost killed Moses because he did not circumcise his children?
Why did we need to know that God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for cheating the church?
Why did we need to know that Jesus said the following verse?
“Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Give it style
For example, I love the 1998 movie, “The Prince of Egypt.”
It’s beautifully animated and has great music, but it omits many inconvenient details and adds many convenient ones.
The History Channel’s 2013 TV series, “The Bible,” which was created by Mark Burnett and his wife, Roma Downey, was a big hit.
Burnett is the executive producer of six hit TV shows, including “Survivor,” “The Voice” and “Shark Tank.”
Each episode of “The Bible” was prefaced with this message:
“This program is an adaptation of Bible stories that changed our world. It endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the Book.”
The series was heavily criticized by both secular and religious groups for its many deviations from the Bible.
Here are just a few of the aesthetic changes made to the narrative to make it more palatable or engaging:
- Genesis 19 describes an angry mob at Lot’s home wanting to rape two angels. Lot tried to convince the crowd to rape his daughters instead. The series did not portray this.
- When Sodom is being destroyed, angels are shown slaughtering residents of the city. This has been called “Ninja Angels”. This is not found anywhere in the text.
The series also omits or alters the narrative of all the ‘why do we need to know?’ examples that I listed above.
And Man created God in his own image
A great example of ‘scriptural sanitation’ is “Love Wins.”
Rob Bell’s 2011 book, “Love Wins” stirred controversy because, critics argued, Bell attempted to amend the Gospel, by implicitly endorsing universalism (everyone ultimately goes to Heaven), to make it more attractive to modern audiences.
Other critics criticized Bell for his arguments, not his conclusions.
Bell started with the premise that God is love – and ONLY love – and interpreted many verses through the lens of that assumption.
Furthermore, he ignored vast stretches of scripture that severely contradicted his premises and conclusions.
One of the most blatant examples of this tendency comes in Chapter 6 of “Love Wins.”
Bell quotes John 12:47 to illustrate how God perfectly conforms to his idea of love.
47 “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world.
Bell neglected to address the very next verse, which severely contradicts his argument:
48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.
49 For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.
50 I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
Are our biases dictating our view of God?
We often like to focus on the warm, syrupy verses that only portray God as a benevolent parent that loves everyone unconditionally.
This is just ONE facet of God. God is infinite and is not bound by our concept of a loving parent or, for that matter, by our limited understanding of what perfect love is.
Perhaps the unpalatable and problematic details of the Bible are included to let us know that Biblical characters were not saints.
They were like us: flawed, unworthy, sinful and stupid.
Are we attempting to approximate the character of God by synthesizing the totality of scripture?
Or are we interpreting the character of God through the lens of our biased desire to believe that God is love – and ONLY love?
Are we trying to construct a mental representation of God based on the Bible?
Or are we trying to bend the narrative of the Bible so that it fits into the cognitive schemas of our contemporary sensibilities – like a frustrated child that grabs a pair of scissors because he can’t solve a puzzle – ‘I’ll make it fit!’?
It seems that when we attempt to limit the character of God to only a loving parent (think the “Prodigal Son” parable), we are committing the sin that Paul warned against.
We are emptying scripture of its power and attempting to infuse our own cultural and moral “wisdom and eloquence” into the Biblical narrative.
Should we censor scripture in some cases to make it more attractive to contemporary audiences?
Or should we follow Paul’s advice and restrain ourselves from adding our own “wisdom and eloquence”?