How Could God Botch the Bible So Badly?

An epic failure of communication
Confident, enthusiastic believers assure us that God inspired a book to guide humanity. Indeed, since the Holy Spirit has never ceased its work—how could it be otherwise?—this sacred book has expanded continually. Take a look at that Bible on your bed stand; or flip through the magnificent copy on the church alter: Heeding the wisdom of devout theists everywhere, the Christian holy book now includes the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon.

Oh, wait. That hasn’t happened, has it? The most devout theists on the planet—those who fervently champion their scriptures—cannot agree on just exactly which book is God’s holy word. If the claims of all were honored, Christian churches would routinely welcome imams to their worship services to preach from the Qur’an.

And here’s another oh-wait moment. The Bible itself, the Old and New Testaments that Christians revere, provides an embarrassment of embarrassments. Hence pious Christians have shown considerable ingenuity excusing the horrors and immoralities in the Bible. This is hardly breaking news, of course; many who have ditched the faith confess that reading the Bible proved to be—as Penn Jillette has said—“the fast track to atheism.”

One of the tools for keeping sharp on so much of the rubbish in the Bible is John W. Loftus’ essay, “What We’ve Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate,” in his 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. We are pressed by theists to accept that God is mysterious, which actually means that God has chosen to keep us in the dark; the failure to communicate is actually a refusal to communicate. For reasons unknown, God privileged Western civilization to receive his message, until, pretty late in the game, missionaries invaded the rest of the world.

Also for reasons unknown, God’s initial thousand-page revelation—the Old and New Testaments—was short on practical information about the world. Why not let people in the ancient world know about microbes and hygiene, refrigeration, Novocain—and hundreds of other things to make life more bearable? Clever humans would eventually figure those things out—after many centuries of misery. Why was God so negligent? If he did indeed inspire a thousand-page book, how could failing to inform us about so much not be negligence?

At the outset of his essay, Loftus mentions accountability:

“In any business the CEO must effectively communicate to his people. If any company is in disarray or pursuing dead ends, then the buck stops with the CEO. He isn’t communicating very well. The blame is laid squarely at the top. This is obvious and noncontroversial. So I’m going to apply this same line of thought to the God who supposedly revealed himself in the Bible…” (p. 183)

“If any company is in disarray…” Disarray is certainly a good word to describe how human history has unfolded for millennia.

Loftus suggests that God could, at the very outset, have described creation accurately. We all know that Genesis 1 got the story wrong; Loftus suggests a script that God could have used to help humans grasp our place in the Cosmos:

“In the beginning God created an immeasurable universe of millions of stars, some of which are billions and billions of miles away, through a process that took billions of years out of which he finally created the sun, moon, and a spherical earth which revolves around the sun. On it he created water, land, the beasts of the sea, and eventually every living thing on it through stages as one species evolved into the next one. Finally he created human beings to rule over everything he created.” (p. 183).

Loftus asks, “See how easy that was?” We can’t excuse Genesis 1 by saying that it reflects an ancient view of the world; isn’t it supposed to be accurate—if it indeed came from the mind of God? He could have overridden the ancient view. The buck stops with the CEO.

Loftus moves on to fault this CEO “…who supposedly revealed himself in the Bible, especially since he knew how certain texts would be misused by the faithful.” (p. 183) He must have known, right? Theism has a talent for undermining itself when it adds more muscle to God, for example, by saying that he is omniscient: He doesn’t miss anything—how could he? God could certainly have foreseen the consequences of any of his actions or pronouncements.

Loftus devotes eight pages (pp. 184-192) to a detailed description of how Bible texts have been used to justify racism, slavery, misogyny, anti-Semitism, homophobia, dominionism, theocracy—and many other misdeeds and violations of human dignity. This a good catalogue: some of the go-to texts in bringing attention to the horrible role that the Bible has played in causing so much persecution and suffering. Yet, God didn’t issue the requisite warning, “You’re not allowed to interpret these texts to hurt people.” God failed to communicate.

We are driven to an inescapable conclusion: it was just poor policy, bad management by the CEO, to use a book to get a message across to humans. Interpretation begins—and interpretations diverge—as soon as people read the book and claim to know what it means; they enforce their confident misunderstandings about ‘what the book says.’ God’s original meaning—whatever it may have been—vanishes in the clutter of human opinion.

Loftus includes Genesis 19 in his list, and this must rank as one of the most despicable texts in the Bible. It is perfectly understandable as Hebrew folklore; the story culminates in the offhand comment that Israel’s ancient enemies were the product of drunken incest, i.e., Lot’s two daughters got him drunk to have intercourse with him; the resulting babies were the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites. And earlier Lot had offered these two daughters to be raped by the angry crowd at his door, which undermines the traditional take on the story that it was a mob of homosexuals. Why would they be interested in his daughters?

Loftus makes the point that it is not okay that this story has been used to condemn homosexuals. Nor is it okay that God failed to mention that it was wrong that Lot offered his daughters to be raped. Neither was it okay that his daughters got him drunk and fucked him. God failed to communicate the morally reprehensible nature of this story; it is comes along matter-of-factly as Genesis unfolds. Of course we can just accept the story for what it is: the Hebrews had their own Balzac who created a ribald tale to amuse the menfolk. Please don’t even try to rationalize it as ‘God’s word.’

One of the champion bad Bible texts is the authorization of slavery in Leviticus 25:44-46:

“As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property.”

How in the world could a competent God have blundered this badly, allowing a vicious text to remain in his holy book, supposedly the ultimate guide for morality for centuries to come? The American Civil War has its roots in these verses, as Loftus notes:

“What did the southern states do that isn’t found here? Just picture yourself as a slave who was forcibly ripped from her homeland, stripped naked on the auction block and ‘inspected,’ sold independently of her family, brutally broken to obey if disobedient, and forced against her will to be a lifelong servant.

“Would you really want to say that a perfectly good God: (a) could not have said anything different or (b) that this expresses God’s complete and utter love toward you as an individual? I don’t think so. Not at all. Not by a long shot. It can’t. On this rock the Christian faith dies.” (p. 187)

On this rock the Christian faith dies.

It cannot be argued—as Christians attempt to do—that the New Testament represents an improvement, as if God somehow finally got his act together. Loftus provides a sampling of the rubbish in the NT:

• “…there are texts that speak of cutting off body parts if they cause someone to sin…”
• “There are harsh demands when it comes to the conditions allowable for divorce…”
• There are harsh sayings about hating one’s family that cultists have used in brainwashing their young converts…”
• “There are guild-producing texts like the unforgivable speaking sin of blasphemy…”
• “Expressed in the NT we find racism and even anti-Semitism…”
• “In it we find asceticism and the denial of the value of this world…”
• “We find the virtues of faith to be more important than reason in the NT too…”
• “We find texts that offer sexually repressing advice…”
• “We find chauvinistic passages that tell us that women should be silent in churches…”
• “Then there’s the church’s ultimate threat of hell in the lake of fire, the most terrifying cradle-to-grave threat of all.”

It’s no surprise that many Christians have tamed their faith by rejecting many of these texts. As Loftus points out, “Taking these biblical passages at face value is no longer an option for most Christian.” (p. 192). But this doesn’t let God off the hook for putting these verses in his Holy Bible in the first place:

“Even if Christians reinterpret such passages to mean something other than what they appear to say, God is still proven to be one of the worst communicators in history. All of this could have been prevented and clarified right from the start, and to the benefit of countless people, by even an average communicator, much less one with the alleged talents of a God.” (p. 192)

“If God had done a better job of communicating what he wanted the faithful to believe, there wouldn’t have been as much bloodshed, even among Christians themselves, nor would there be as many splinter groups, all calling themselves Christians. Could an omniscient God have foreseen this and communicated better? I see no reason why not.” (p. 192)

The final section of Loftus’ essay is titled, Christian Attempts to Explain God’s Failure to Communicate; he describes eight of ‘the most serious attempts.’ What a useless endeavor! When confronted with so many negatives in the Bible, a reasonable response might be, “We’ve been on the wrong track. How can this book be the word of God?” Maybe even, “Does a caring God who authored a defective book hold up to scrutiny?” Since those options are too scary—so contrary to embedded faith—believers have been tireless in creating tiresome excuses.

One of the slickest that Loftus cites:

The Bible does indeed contain a lot of barbarisms, but through it all God was progressively leading believers to civilized notions about morality, which were either finally realized in Jesus, or later in the Church down through the centuries.

I’m tempted to say, “Close, but no cigar.” But, no, this isn’t even close. Loftus clobbers this excuse:

“…what can morally justify how long it took God to do this, given the massive amount of carnage that took place in the meantime? All he had to do from the very beginning was to give them the correct morals the first time around. And all he had to do in Jesus was to be clearer to the church who even misunderstood him.” (p. 197)

Moreover, to suggest that God was “progressively leading believers to civilized notions of morality” is an admission that the uncivilized notions of morality are in the Bible itself. So God has been helping people move beyond the Bible’s bad ideas? This is just too twisted.

Loftus also describes one of the irritating excuses we’ve heard forever:

What God does is a mystery. We are not in a position to question his actions. God’s way are above our ways.

But Christians seem to be pretty darn sure about God so much of the time. Mystery is a handy dodge to avoid answering hard questions; we suspect, instead, that God has failed as the CEO, as Loftus explains: “…if we cannot understand his ways, when his ways of communicating have caused so much bloodshed, then why should we believe that his ways are perfectly good?” (pp. 197-198) He also eviscerates that part of the Trinity representing the CEO at work in the world: “…Christians must still explain why the Holy Spirit has not done his job by illuminating the faithful with the proper understandings. The Christian claims about such things are all very improbable.” (p. 201)

Anyone who has read the Bible cover-to-cover—and who is candid about the ordeal—suspects that Hector Avalos is right in suggesting that, “going verse by verse, 99 per cent of the Bible would not be missed.” Loftus is right as well that Christians

“…were wrong to believe in the Bible in the first place…there is not a single statement in the Bible that reveals a divine mind behind the human authors. Everything in it can be more credibly explained by the hypothesis that it’s just the musings of an ancient, superstitious, barbaric people—period.” (p. 202)

To avoid this conclusion, Christians might want to opt for God the poor communicator! But how can this possibly be?

“My contention,” Loftus states bluntly, “is that if God revealed his will to believers, he chose a poor medium and a poor era to do so, and that makes an omniscient Christian God look stupid as well as uncaring.” (p. 201-202)

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was recently reissued by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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