I am painfully aware that to many of my fellow Christians, especially those who have walked some way along life’s road with me, my rejection of the inerrancy of Scripture and of a Penal Substitution understanding of atonement has seemed like an abandonment of my faith. I also realise that many take my criticisms of certain theological positions quite personally. And I need to warn such readers that this post might well be received in that way. But here is what I wish they would see: I reject these doctrines not because I am rejecting God, nor because I intend to insult those who see God through the lenses of those doctrines, but because these doctrines (the doctrines, independent of the people who hold them) are not worthy of God. I am not rejecting God, but inferior ways of seeing God, and even then, not on a personal level, but one a meta-level. In essence, I am making the broad case that we need to choose the God revealed in Jesus over the “God” revealed in the Bible. And they are distinctly different.
Now I have no doubt that when the authors of the various texts that comprise the anthology that we call the Bible penned their words, they absolutely believed that God had inspired them to do so. But be that as it may, when you compile the composite picture of God from the various authors’ descriptions, what you get is – to put it mildly – disturbing. Please pardon me if I get a little facetious in the examples to follow, but I assure you that my intent is not to mock God, nor those who hold to the Sola Scriptura way of thinking. It’s just that sometimes we need to see exactly how silly an idea is – especially a deeply entrenched one – before we will accept the necessity of abandoning it.
How concerned should we be, for example, that the God of all the universe, who can countenance all manner of atrocities, like the cutting off of the thumbs and big toes of the kings opposing Israel (Judges 1:6-7) cannot tolerate the sight of poo (and, I suspect, the writer doesn’t fully trust God not to inadvertently step in it either. After all, it is very dark, and who knows what God’s response would be to that… )?:
12 Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. 13 As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. 14 For the Lord your God moves about in your camp to protect you and to deliver your enemies to you. Your camp must be holy, so that he will not see among you anything indecent and turn away from you. (Deuteronomy 23: 12-14)
The God depicted in many places in the Biblical texts seems suspiciously human in his outlook. He (and my regular readers know by now that I only use the masculine pronoun for problematic God-constructs)also has a number of very human failings. For example, God seems very poor at planning, for an omnipotent deity. A perfect illustration of this can be found in a story beginning in 1 Samuel 9:15-17, God comes up with a brilliant plan to rescue Israel from the Philistines:
15 Now the day before Saul came, the Lord had revealed this to Samuel: 16 “About this time tomorrow I will send you a man from the land of Benjamin. Anoint him ruler over my people Israel; he will deliver them from the hand of the Philistines. I have looked on my people, for their cry has reached me.”
It seems fair enough: God sees the plight of the people and unequivocally raises a leader to sort things out. Only, Saul turns out to be a complete disaster. Shortly after Samuel has warned Saul that: “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”(1 Samuel 15:29), we learn that God does precisely that: “the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:35). And not long afterwards, Saul is killed by an Amalekite/commits suicide by falling on his sword (depending on which of the accounts in the Bible you wish to believe is inerrant: 1 Samuel 31 or 2 Samuel 1), and in 1 Samuel 31:7, God’s rescue plan collapses entirely: “when the Israelites along the valley and those across the Jordan saw that the Israelite army had fled and that Saul and his sons had died, they abandoned their towns and fled. And the Philistines came and occupied them.”
God’s plan to raise up a king to rescue the Israelites from the Philistines is an epic fail. Perhaps it is not surprising that God cannot cope with military might of the Philistines, because he had previously had difficulty getting to grips with sophisticated weaponry:
“ The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron.” (Judges 1:19).
In fact, if the Bible is inerrant in its depiction of God, then God has a fairly well-established problem with both the planning and the execution of his schemes. Quite early on God starts to suspect that the whole Creation thing was a mistake to begin with: “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” (Genesis 6:6), so he devises a solution that entails destroying the world in a flood, saving the only ‘righteous’ man – Noah and his family – so that he can start again. God does not seem to have factored human nature or sociological and cultural forces into the equation, because things go pear-shaped again relatively quickly.
In the book of Exodus, for example, we see God about to throw yet another temper tantrum (I know it sounds like I am being blasphemous, but if you used the same description to convey the responses of a four-year-old in that situation, that is precisely what God’s actions would amount to), but fortunately Moses is there to talk God out of actions God might later regret:
9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
It seems to me like a God who is not in control. And even if the people are a bunch of ungrateful whingers, how is it justifiable to counter challenges to Moses’s leadership by burning dissenters to death (Numbers 16:35) or inflicting the whole nation with a plague that kills 14700 people (Numbers 16:49), for example?
But these levels of extreme violence should hardly be surprising. This is the same God who gives permission for people to sell their daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), to beat slaves to the point of death (Exodus 21:20-21), who encourages the Israelite men to essentially rape the women of their conquered enemies (Deuteronomy 21:10-13), who sanctions the slaughter of the Canaanites and Amorites under Joshua, who “left no survivors” and “totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded” (Joshua 10:40), who commands the wholesale extermination of the Amalekites and a whole host of other assorted -ites (the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, Joshua and Judges). This is the God who was content to kill David’s son as a punishment for David’s crime (2 Samuel 12:13-23), who thought nothing of sending a couple of bears to maul to death some boys who jeered at Elisha, calling him “baldy” (2 Kings 2: 23-24) ,who would without hesitation wipe out the firstborn children of an entire nation (Exodus 12:12). This is a God whose responses to being offended seem grossly out of proportion to the offense, and who is completely at ease with shows of extreme violence. Yet this is also a God, as we have noted earlier, who cannot abide to look on human poo.
Forgive me for the lengthy quote from Deuteronomy 28 that is to follow, but persevere with it; it really does give you a fabulous sense of the God we are dealing with here:
15 However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:
16 You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country.
17 Your basket and your kneading trough will be cursed.
18 The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
19 You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.
20 The Lord will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him.21 The Lord will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land you are entering to possess. 22 The Lord will strike you with wasting disease, with fever and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew, which will plague you until you perish. 23 The sky over your head will be bronze, the ground beneath you iron. 24 The Lord will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed.
25 The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth. 26 Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. 27 The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt and with tumors, festering sores and the itch, from which you cannot be cured. 28 The Lord will afflict you with madness, blindness and confusion of mind. 29 At midday you will grope about like a blind person in the dark. You will be unsuccessful in everything you do; day after day you will be oppressed and robbed, with no one to rescue you.
30 You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit. 31 Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them. 32 Your sons and daughters will be given to another nation, and you will wear out your eyes watching for them day after day, powerless to lift a hand. 33 A people that you do not know will eat what your land and labor produce, and you will have nothing but cruel oppression all your days. 34 The sights you see will drive you mad. 35 The Lord will afflict your knees and legs with painful boils that cannot be cured, spreading from the soles of your feet to the top of your head.
36 The Lord will drive you and the king you set over you to a nation unknown to you or your ancestors. There you will worship other gods, gods of wood and stone. 37 You will become a thing of horror, a byword and an object of ridicule among all the peoples where the Lord will drive you… 53 Because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you. 54 Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, 55 and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. 56 The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter 57 the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For in her dire need she intends to eat them secretly because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of your cities.
58 If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name—the Lord your God— 59 the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants, harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses. 60 He will bring on you all the diseases of Egypt that you dreaded, and they will cling to you. 61 The Lord will also bring on you every kind of sickness and disaster not recorded in this Book of the Law, until you are destroyed. 62 You who were as numerous as the stars in the sky will be left but few in number, because you did not obey the Lord your God. 63 Just as it pleased the Lord to make you prosper and increase in number, so it will please him to ruin and destroy you. You will be uprooted from the land you are entering to possess.”
You can be forgiven for scoffing in derision at the irony in David’s claim, the same David who habitually left no enemy alive – man, woman or child – in the towns he destroyed (1 Samuel 27:11), that God’s “steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:26). Call me a hopeless romantic, but isn’t it missing the point to have to threaten somebody into loving you? Imagine receiving that Valentine: “Dear Peter, I love you unconditionally. But if you do not believe me and accept my love, and if you do not love me in return, I will cut you into a million little pieces and torment and torture your family for the rest of their miserably short lives. And I will enjoy doing it. Love God”. Are you convinced? I sure as Gehenna am not.
But then I do not believe that what we see in the Bible is God; no, what we see in the Bible is human perceptions of God. The problem with seeing the Bible as the inerrant Word of God is that you have to reconcile all of these disparate and contradictory depictions of God into one cohesive whole, and the result is a God who is needy, petty, vindictive, capricious and mentally unstable. The doctrine of the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible diminishes God, and locks you into a way of relating both to God and to other people that is rooted in the bigotry and violence of the cultures through which those texts were generated.
But if you are willing to abandon that doctrine, which is not one that was held until the Reformation anyway – you will be abandoning a relatively recent doctrine, not an age-old one – you will be free to see that these disturbing pictures of God have been drawn by people who were confined by the limitations of their times. Like all of us, the way they understood God and how God was at work in the world, was limited by their contexts, their daily struggles. We can only ever make sense of the invisible and unfamiliar through the filters of what is visible and familiar to us. We conceptualise God, whom we cannot see nor know, through the frameworks of what we can see and what we do know. That is why the writer of Deuteronomy, who had probably spent a large portion of his life in military encampments, developed a picture of God as a zealous, masculine warrior who desperately wanted to avoid stepping on turds at night. We cannot blame him; we always construct a God who can relate to us.
So I do not think that we should automatically accept that it was God who acted or spoke simply because a Biblical author believed that to have been the case. But nor do I believe that we ought to dismiss everything that those writers have to say just because they happened to be limited in their understanding of God by their contexts. I think we still need to accept that although these writers may have occasionally completely misrepresented God, that they were nevertheless – in their own ways – spiritual beings, searching after truth. Like us, they did not have perfect understanding. Like us, their prejudices and circumstances occasionally got in the way of revelation. But we also need to accept that they sometimes had moments of astounding clarity.
Theology is a collective journey, a pilgrimage. And like any field of knowledge, it grows and shifts over time. When it comes to understanding God, as Michael Hardin constantly reminds us in his writings, we are a pilgrim people, always on the road. We can learn of the pitfalls along the way from those who have gone before us, just as those who will come after us will learn from our mistakes. We will also learn from their wisdom, just as our children will benefit from ours. We cannot dismiss David and Moses, Augustine and Constantine, Calvin and Zwingli and Luther, for example, simply because they framed God in their own images. We all, invariably, do that. But there are other insights in the Biblical texts too – and it is why I insist on a Jesus-centred rather than a Bible-centred theology – that frame ways of seeing God that are far more helpful in moving us along the road towards our ultimate destination – not the discovery of the secret formula for entrance into God’s divine presence (I thought that Jesus made it pretty clear that we were already in God’s presence – Matthew 28:20), but – through the transformational work of the Spirit in human hearts – the restoration of the world to what it was always intended to be: a city where the structures and systems have not been shaped by our sinful (hate-driven, fear-filled, exploitative) ways of relating.
But the destination is a way off still, and if we are to get there, we need a change of heart, a transformation of the mind. Contrary to what much of our Modernist-informed, post-enlightenment personal-Jesus theology would have us believe, we cannot get there alone – personal piety is more or less meaningless when the primary goal of a godly Kingdom can only ever be realised through loving relatedness. It is likely that such a change of heart will necessitate reshaping the way you understand God, that you will need to leave unhelpful God-concepts on the side of the road. And I know that they do not go willingly, and that sometimes your fellow travelers will try to persuade you to pick them up again, afraid of how those God concepts might react to separation. I know that when you have carried them for so long, it can feel unnatural to set them aside. I know the emptiness. I know the anxiety. But you are not alone. And anyway, I have a helpful tip I have gleaned from my studies of the Scriptures: if you are battling to shake off a violent and xenophobic God-construct, I am fairly reliably informed that iron-clad chariots ought to do the trick.