I am now completing a book called Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. The project has turned out to be extremely time-consuming, so it will be quite a while before I resume Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible. This site already contains a lot of material, however, and I welcome comments and correspondence about this important subject.

Roger Christan Schriner

I’ve recently come across a book called Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life by Louise M. Antony, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Christianity Today has recommended this book to Christians who want to understand why some people reject theism.

Most of the authors grew up in Christian or Jewish families, and as children many of them took everything in Scripture literally. Joseph Levine, for example, “was taught that the world was literally created in six days almost six thousand years ago, and that the theory of evolution was mistaken” (p. 17).

College was often the turning point. In religion classes students can take the time to carefully examine sacred books, and they are often shocked at what they find. As Walter Sinnott-Armstrong recalls: “I was convinced that studying the Bible would enable me to argue better for my Christian beliefs. It had the opposite effect” (p. 72).

When we read a book slowly and thoughtfully, we spot things that we formerly missed. Dr. Antony, for example, discovered that Genesis says God lied to Adam and Eve: “… He tells Adam that if he eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, ‘in the day that thou eatest, thou shalt surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). The serpent (who is never identified as evil, only as ‘more subtil than any beast of the field’ – Gen. 3:1) is the one who actually tells the truth: that they won’t die if they eat from the tree and that the reason God has forbidden them from doing so is that He is afraid of their becoming ‘as gods, knowing good and evil’ (Gen. 3:5)” (p. 58). (Notice also that according to this story, humans do not know the difference between good and evil until they eat the forbidden fruit, but God punishes them terribly anyway.)

Many of these authors acknowledge the positive aspects of religion and religious books. Stewart Shapiro emphasizes that there’s “a lot of wisdom in the Torah. It has enormous insights on how human beings should treat each other, centuries ahead of its time. The laws concerning gossip and idle speech (lashon hara) are jewels, well ahead of the mores of our own time.” But Shapiro is disturbed by many other teachings. “Democracy, freedom of speech, and religious tolerance are not among the values of the Torah. Within Torah Judaism, all serious decisions, even personal decisions, are vested in a male-dominated hierarchy. The Torah tolerates and, indeed, encourages and in some cases require slavery, and the laws concerning divorce, illegitimacy, and other issues related to women are nothing less than pernicious” (p. 9).

In earlier posts I have quoted several Bible passages in which God allegedly orders humans to commit mass murder and even genocide. Levine saw a link between these passages and the idea that Israel belongs to the Jews. “We came into another people’s land – admittedly, after enduring centuries of oppression ourselves – kicked them out brutally, and treated those who remained like dirt. We continue to oppress Palestinians horribly, and shamelessly exploit our own history of oppression and guilt-trip the rest of the world into letting us get away with it. This is how God’s people act? Not any God I wanted to have anything to do with” (p. 27). “My point is just that the Torah, to which I used to look for moral guidance, seemed to be part of the problem here, not the solution” (p. 28).

Many people cling to the idea that all of the Bible is literally true, fearing that people will lose their faith if this is not so. They also worry that we will begin relying more on human wisdom than on supernatural guidance. I understand these concerns, but in a great many cases it is actually Biblical literalism that drives people away from traditional spirituality.

Roger Christan Schriner

I’m heading into an extremely busy time, so I’ll need to suspend postings for a while. Later this year I will pick up where I left off. Eventually I hope to write a book about the Bible and divine inspiration, so I would value any feedback about what I’ve posted so far.

Roger Christan Schriner

 

In my previous posting I reported an experiment in which I opened the Old Testament at random five times and glanced through the text of the two facing pages before me. It turned out to be very easy to find verses that did not seem divinely inspired. I could imagine a loving deity shuddering at the thought that these passages are part of a book that people read for divine guidance.

Example: Execute anyone who has the wrong theology, which is commanded in II Chronicles 15:13.

Now let’s try the flip side of this experiment. Go back through the pages you selected at random and look for statements that do sound divinely inspired, or that at least express keen insights.

Here’s what I found when I tried this, and I realize that “your results your vary.”

The pages I picked at random began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4. Out of the five two-page segments that began with these verses, I found uplifting material only in Proverbs. Even in that section most statements were common-sense platitudes that essentially told the reader, “Be good, work hard, and treat others well.” No doubt we need to hear such messages repeatedly, but a normal individual of average intelligence should discover these principles without a revelation from on high.

Here are the verses that seemed insightful, beyond mere “let’s-be-good” platitudes:

“Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” (Proverbs 9:8)

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19)

“A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight is his delight.” (Proverbs 11:1)

I especially appreciate the first of these items. It pushes against the peculiarly-common human inclination to waste time arguing with fools. I still fall into that trap at times, so it’s a good lesson for me personally.

Again, try this yourself. Open the Old Testament to five different places at random, revealing ten pages. Look for passages that sound like genuine divine revelations, statements which give you that spine-tingling feeling that something transcendent has broken into our human world. (“Love your enemies” is a good example.) Then do the same with the New Testament. See what you learn.

Roger Christan Schriner

This blog deals with the question of Biblical inerrancy. Is every verse of the Bible literally true, due to being inspired by a loving and all-knowing God? As I have indicated, I am impressed by the very large number of Bible passages that do not seem to have been inspired by such a deity.

Today I tried an experiment. I opened the Old Testament at random five times, and briefly scanned the text of the two facing pages before me. I was wondering how often I would find the sort of troubling statements I’ve discussed in earlier posts. The pages I opened to began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4.

This experiment has its limitations, because to understand a Bible passage one has to read it in context. Old Testament material is often part of a long historical account of the nation of Israel and its relationship with surrounding nations and with God. But even without spending much time establishing context, it was clear that certain Biblical themes are very often encountered:

God wants us to carry out elaborate rituals to do penance for our sins. Carry out these rituals precisely “lest you die” (Leviticus 8:35). Example: “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not rend your clothes, lest you die….” (Leviticus 10:6).

The men of that era often slaughtered each other over theological and moral issues (Judges 20-21). God supposedly intervenes in such military campaigns (Judges 20:28). Physically seizing women and forcing them into marriage was considered acceptable behavior (Judges 21).

Those who do not accept the established religion shall “be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman” (II Chronicles 15:13).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….” (Proverbs 9:10). “The fear of the Lord prolongs life….” (Proverbs 10:27).

Military invasions, victories, and defeats often result from obeying or disobeying divine commandments. “Because you sinned against the Lord, and did not obey his voice, this thing has come upon you” (Jeremiah 40:3).

I can imagine someone contending that all of these passages reflect God’s will, but it would be a bit of a challenge to make that case.

Try it yourself. Open the Old Testament five times and read the two pages revealed, seeing if you encounter statements that do not seem divinely inspired. And do the same for the New Testament. (I’m obviously not saying that every human action reported by Scripture is divinely inspired. The question is: Does it seem as if God wanted the text written as it was? Does God, for instance, want people who don’t believe in the correct theology to be put to death?)

Try it. Think about it. If you pray, pray about it. See what you discover.

Roger Christan Schriner

The Bible repeatedly claims that God caused the death or injury of thousands of people, including those who had done nothing wrong but were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have suggested that rejoicing in such carnage is a human failing rather than an expression of divine wisdom. And it is striking that so many religious people manage to read these passages with an easy conscience.

We humans have a remarkable ability to distance ourselves emotionally from tragedy and cruelty, as long as it’s not happening to anyone we personally care about. I remember singing a jubilant song in Sunday school about Joshua and the battle of Jericho – “and the walls came tumbling down.” I identified with the Hebrew soldiers who gave a mighty shout that pulverized the walls of Jericho. But I did not think about what happened next, as the invaders stabbed and speared the city’s inhabitants.

Here’s another example: In Genesis 7:11-24, God becomes angry about human sinfulness and decides to kill every living thing that walks, runs, or slithers on the Earth, except for Noah’s family and two animals of each species.

As a child, I was captivated by the picturesque imagery of Noah’s ark, with cheerful little beasties marching up the gangplank two by two. Perhaps like me you sang that happy little ditty: “The animals went in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo.” Catchy songs can make it easier to “heartblink” evil, temporarily immobilizing our own moral instincts.

If I had reflected more deeply I might have considered what it would have been like if my dog had been caught in that flood, bewildered, terrified, struggling to stay afloat through exhausting hours or even days, and finally drowning. I might have imagined that tragic scene being multiplied by millions of living creatures who had done nothing to deserve such a fate. I would have realized that it made no sense to punish animals for human misbehavior and that this passage could not possibly have reflected the will of any God worthy of worship.

Some studies seem to show that as a general rule religion doesn’t make people more moral. Certainly churches try to teach us to be good. But if spiritual communities teach both adults and children to overlook troubling aspects of Bible stories, it is teaching them to dull their own moral faculties.

Churches should urge people to read the Bible with their moral instincts fully functional. If they see something that doesn’t make sense, intellectually or ethically, they should be encouraged to bring it up and talk about it. But that would mean abandoning Biblical literalism, the doctrine that every bit of the Bible is literally true.

It is not literally true that a perfect deity would destroy the innocent with the guilty. Congregations and clergy need to say so, clearly and courageously.

Roger Christan Schriner

I once thought Bible passages portraying God as commanding (and committing) mass murder could mostly be found in its first few books. Mark Johnston’s Saving God, however, makes a more troubling case:

“Yahweh’s thoroughness in inciting and supporting mass killing is consistent, and extraordinary” (p. 58). The idea that God “is a very dangerous person to mess with . . . is a central theme of the prophetic literature of the Bible. That will be denied, but only by those who have skipped over, or forgotten, the rather demented reiteration of the theme” (p. 60).

I found this comment disturbing, but I have to admit that he’s right. So does Johnson believe that God is a mass murderer? I don’t think so. As I read him, he does not see the Bible as a perfect record of God’s messages to humanity. Instead, Scripture shows how people’s understanding of deity changed down through the centuries. At first Yahweh is portrayed as a “jealous” war god. Later prophets spoke of a god of love.

For Johnson, it’s important to recognize how frightening God seemed to the early Hebrews. As Psalms 111:9-10 puts it, “… Holy and terrible is his name! The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Those who play down God’s ferocity “underestimate the dramatic character of Yahweh’s transformation, his second life as the advocate of justice and compassion” (p. 63).

In Sunday School, many of us were taught that God is love. That’s one reason the passages I have been discussing seem alien and even reprehensible.

Roger Christan Schriner

I have been emphasizing the first five books of the Bible because they contain so many disturbing passages that claim to express God’s will. But such questionable verses can be found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (which became the Christian Old Testament).

There are troubling passages in the New Testament as well, but perhaps not as many. If that is so, it’s partly because the Hebrew Scriptures focus more on the history of Israel. In most of the historical sections God is either smiting Israel’s foes out of love for his chosen people, or using Israel’s enemies to punish them for disobedience. Here are a couple of examples which are distressing enough that you may just want to skip past them:

Zechariah 14:2: “For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle, and the city shall be taken and the houses plundered and the women ravished …” The text goes on to say that God will then turn around and attack those who have invaded Israel.

Hosea 13:16: “Samaria shall bear her guilt because she has rebelled against her God; … their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.”

I apologize for presenting such grisly material, but if we want to know whether every verse of the Bible is literally true, we need to know what’s in that book.

What shall we make of the way God seems to see-saw back and forth between boundless love for the Israelites and blistering rage against them? Does this love-hate relationship really reflect the behavior of a perfect being?

Here’s another interpretation which seems more likely: Sometimes the Israelites won battles and wars, and sometimes they lost. Humans often explain victories and defeats by saying that great forces controlled the outcome – fate, karma, gods, demons. So when they won a war – or today, after a team wins the Superbowl – God was with them. When they got clobbered, God was punishing them for their sins. This sort of thinking reflects human ignorance, not divine inspiration.

Roger Christan Schriner

In my last few entries I’ve been discussing inherited guilt and punishment. A related idea is collective guilt. According to the Bible, if most people in some group do bad things God may punish the whole group. In fact, God may do that even if only a few group-members transgress.

Or even one! In Second Samuel 24, David, ruler of Israel, ordered his assistants to carry out a census. Even though God had actually put this idea into David’s mind, the Lord was very angry that David wanted his people to be counted. “David’s heart smote him after he had numbered the people.” He confessed that he had sinned and asked God for forgiveness. God then proposed three possible punishments, and he and David agreed that the punishment would be a three-day pestilence.

The pestilence was not directed against David, but against his people. Seeing their terrible suffering David protested, “… but these sheep, what have they done?” God had evidently already decided to cut the pestilence short, so for David’s sin only 70,000 of his people died. Could have been worse.

The theme of this blog is: “Did God Really Say THAT!? In this case the answer is, absolutely not. A loving, all-knowing, perfect being would not kill 70,000 people because their leader took a census. That Bible passage cannot be accurate.

Roger Christan Schriner

Many Bible passages include the peculiar notions of inherited guilt and punishment. For example, one standard interpretation of the Garden of Eden story is that it resulted in “original sin.” Every human being has inherited the guilt of Adam and Eve for disobeying God in Eden.

The apostle Paul thought our inherited guilt was canceled out by a vicarious sacrifice. We became guilty by being children of Adam and Eve, but we could be forgiven because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Romans 5:18-19: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

I don’t mean to oversimplify here. There are several major interpretations of the Christian doctrine of salvation through Jesus, and within each interpretation there are subtleties and sometimes profundities. My point is simply that in Biblical times many believed in inherited guilt, so for them this was a plausible interpretation of the Eden story. If we do not believe that guilt can be passed on to one’s offspring, that should influence our response to religious theories of sin and salvation.

So what do you think? Is the inherited-guilt concept entirely defunct? If not, how is it meaningful to you? And if we believe it is an obsolete idea, how should this opinion influence our assessment of Christian theology?

Roger Christan Schriner

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