The Five Stages of Bible Grief

Brought on by actually reading it

Bart Ehrman, with several best-selling books about the Bible to his credit, has taught undergraduates:

“… part of the deal of teaching in the Bible Belt is that lots of my students—most of them?—have very conservative views about the Bible as the Word of God. A few years ago I used to start my class on the New Testament, with something like 300 students in it, by asking the students a series of questions, just for information:

• How many of you in here would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired Word of God (PHOOM! Almost everyone raises their hands)
• OK, great: Now, how many of you have read the Harry Potter series? (PHOOM! Again, almost everyone raises their hand).
• And now, how many of you have read the entire Bible? (This time: scattered hands, here and there, throughout the auditorium)

“Then I’d laugh for a minute and say, ‘OK, so I’m not telling you that I think the Bible is the inspired Word of God; you’re telling me that you think it is. I can see why you might want to read a book by J. K. Rowling. But if God wrote a book—wouldn’t you want to see what he had to say?’”

More formal research has also been done:

“LifeWay Research surveyed 1,000 Americans about their views of the Bible and found significant splits in how familiar they are with the Christian scripture. One in five Americans, LifeWay Research found, has read through the Bible at least once. That includes 11 percent who’ve read the entire Bible once, and 9 percent who’ve read it through multiple times. Another 12 percent say they have read almost all of the Bible, while 15 percent have read at least half.

“About half of Americans (53 percent) have read relatively little of the Bible. One in 10 has read none of it, while 13 percent have read a few sentences. Thirty percent say they have read several passages or stories.”

Come on Christians, That’s Pretty Bad!

What can be done? It’s not uncommon for Christians to adopt the ‘enforcer’ mentality, i.e., there should be school-sponsored prayers, the word “God” must be on money and in the Pledge of Allegiance, and government policy itself should heel to Christian theology. These folks want a Christian Nation.

Well, how about some enforcement right back at them?

How about a requirement that Christians read the Bible? Maybe a constitutional amendment to that effect, i.e., that all baptized, practicing Christians must read the Bible and prove they’ve done it, and undergo testing. That’s not unreasonable, right? They want a Christian Nation anchored to Bible law, so they need to become experts, instead of just posing.

Once the New Rule has been adopted, by constitutional amendment or federal law, they’ll have one year to get it done. Of course, there should be no outcry or resistance. We’re just asking them to be good Christians.

We do have some data about possible results, based on what we’ve seen in the past when folks read the Bible. One possible model borrows vocabulary from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ analysis of the five stages of grief following diagnosis of fatal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.


Many busy Christians, who have never shown any interest in reading the whole Bible, might deny that they need to do it. Their spiritual lives have been coasting along pretty well for years without it. And reading for pleasure isn’t much of a thing anymore; according to a Washington Post article last year:

“In 2004, roughly 28 percent of Americans age 15 and older read for pleasure on a given day. Last year, the figure was about 19 percent. That steep drop means that aggregate reading time among Americans has fallen, from an average of 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017.”

You’re not going to make it through the whole Bible in a year at 17-minutes per day, so the pleasure-reading commitment will need a boost. And, of course, the Bible has to be classified as ‘pleasure reading’—how could soaking up the Word of God be considered anything else?

For the Christians who haven’t bothered to pick up a Bible and take a close look, this can be daunting. A thousand pages of fine print: “What’s in here that I really need to know?” And that brings us to…


Those chaffing under the new law, forced to cut back on movie-going and attending baseball games, are likely to get really pissed off:

“The Book of Leviticus presents a formidable barrier to those who aim to read the Bible from cover to cover. The reader is likely to be repulsed by the gory and repetitive descriptions of the proper procedures for the killing and dismemberment of sacrificial animals, by the ritual uses of blood, by the rules governing the examination of skin diseases, or by the discussions concerning the excretion of various bodily fluids.” (The Bible from Cover to Cover: How Modern-Day Scholars Read the Scriptures, Peter J. Brancazio, p. 114)

“The reader who has proceeded in order through the books of the prophets may feel a great sense of relief upon completing this trying task. The prophetic writing are often tedious, repetitious, and undistinguished. Memorable passages are few and far between. The same basic theme is repeated again and again: the people of Israel have sinned against God; they will be punished severely; they will be forgiven anda triumphal restoration will follow. With a few exceptions—notably the poetry of Isaiah, the personal torment of Jeremiah, the bizarre images of Ezekiel, the fanciful tale of Jonah—the prophetic books leave no lasting positive impression.” (Brancazio, p. 232)

No wonder the folks in the pews, who have heard feel-good Bible verses read from the pulpit—of course the preachers choose very carefully—will feel betrayed and abused by reading great swaths of the Bible that “leave no lasting positive impression.” The Bible is supposed to the better than that!

And it doesn’t get all that much better in the New Testament. Yes, that favorite Bible verse of all time is there, John 3:16, but so are the lengthy, tedious Jesus monologues in John’s gospels—and worse…

Many times over the years I’ve heard Catholics say they were never encouraged to read the Bible, so they’ve missed the frightening, inept sayings of Jesus; said one Catholic woman to me: “I never realized that Jesus is supposed to come back.” Not too long ago I asked another devout Catholic how she felt about Luke 14:26: Jesus says you have to hate your family to be a disciple. She got mad at me for lying: she had never, ever, heard of that text; it couldn’t possibly be in the Bible. She was content with the Jesus she’d been taught to adore. I guess Catholics especially need the New Rule.

Then we come to the dense theological ramblings of the apostle Paul:

“Paul is extremely difficult to understand. Our efforts suffer from standing at so many removes from him, both temporal and cultural.” (From Jesus to Christ: The Origins of New Testament Images of Jesus, Paula Fredericksen, p. 160)

“His highly idiosyncratic ways to thinking and expressing himself already make the problem of understanding him a daunting one. And his blend of Jewish thought with Greek expression—a forcible bringing together of two alien cultures—merely serve to make it more daunting still. In consequence, it has always been possible to take widely differing views of what he intended to say.” (St. Paul, Michael Grant, p. 8)

So, Christians, you’re reading the whole Bible. Are you having fun yet?

All episodes of my Flash Podcast series, Bible Blunders & Bad Theology (under five minutes each) are now on a playlist.


Once Christians have their own religion forced on them—and get a feel for what it’s like when they force it on others—we might expect some bargaining.

• How about if I go to church every Sunday for a month? Can I get out of reading a few Bible chapters?
• Is there a Reader’s Digest condensed version I can use instead?
• Can I get away with studying the CliffsNotes version?
• Or an audio version I can listen to (and tune out!) while I’m driving?
• Or a modern paraphrase version, so it’s not quite so boring?
• How about a children’s storybook version?

No, the law is the law: Christians have to read the whole thing, every word, verse, and chapter, to the bitter end, the wacko Book of Revelation.

Bargaining can take other forms as well. ‘Good’ Christianity is damaged by so many Bible texts. So, what to do with them? Well, they’re symbols, metaphors, right? “You can’t take that literally,” “What is the spiritual meaning behind that?” No matter how bad it is, “How is God speaking to us through these verses?” We’ve heard all of these dodges and maneuvers. This is bargaining to make mediocre and horrible texts appear far better than they are. I guess people hold their breath until they come to the next mediocre/horrible text. Are they having fun yet?


Can you imagine how glum churchgoers might look when they show up—and they’re accountable for the homework? The preacher has to make his weekly report to the Department of Bible Enforcement, so he has his clipboard: “Mr. Baxter, do you have your paper on Ezekiel ready to hand in?” “Mrs. McCarthy, have you finished your essay on I Thessalonians?” “Mr. Stevens, why so miserable…have you been having a tough time with Paul’s Letter to the Romans?”

Of course the pastor himself/herself hasn’t read these books cover-to-cover recently either, and doesn’t have time to tutor hundreds of parishioners plowing through the texts. They’re on their own, and they’re not having fun. A few of them might be, but—outside of evangelical circles—being required to read/study the Bible has never been part of the bargain.

Finally, Acceptance

Acceptance—and Walking Away

Many people soldier on reading the Bible to the very end. Others don’t make it that far, but in either case they decide to bail. Hector Avalos called it correctly when he said, “Going verse by verse, 99% of the Bible would not be missed.” It has achieved status as a talisman in our society, largely because the church has hyped the Bible for such a long time. But I made the point in an earlier article that God gets a big fat F as an author. Too many gruesome stories and too much bad theology. For some people walking away is a matter of grieving, but for others it is a source of relief. They’re ready for a reality-based approach to life.

Acceptance—and Doubling-Down

There are the faithful, however, who are masters of damage control. A woman I know holds on to faith for dear life because she wants to see her mother again in heaven. She works hard to make sure that nothing dents her beliefs. She really doesn’t care that there’s so much bad stuff in the Bible. She embraces the explanation of the church that “it’s a Mystery,” so that she can get on, unimpeded, with her fervent piety.

Acceptance—and Accepting Their Role

This is a time of distress for Christian apologists. These are the die-hards who brag that they are devotees—in a professional capacity, no less—of the ancient Jesus mystery cult. They feel compelled to defend it at whatever cost. But times are changing, and they face challenges unknown to earlier apologists. What has happened in just the last twenty years?

Christianity and theism in general have been subjected to withering critique by serious thinkers. Since the turn of this century more than 300 books have been published on the falsification of Western monotheism; a full frontal attack of this quality and intensity has never happened before, ever (see the link below to the Cure for Christianity Library©). Moreover, hundreds of books have been written by Christian scholars who have tackled the hard job of identifying parts of the gospels that may be authentic history—because there is so much folklore, superstition, and magical thinking in the Jesus stories. No, no, no! How can that be? Apologists have to deal with sedition even in Christian ranks.

I mentioned Bart Ehrman at the outset; who could have imagined, anticipated, that an academician’s books detailing the flaws of scripture would have made the bestseller lists? The word is out, as never before, and is accessible via the Internet. There was a time when George H. Smith’s classic Atheism: The Case Against God (1979) was hard to find because copies disappeared from libraries. Now just do a Google search under his name and the title, and see what happens. The book-burners have been defeated.

It’s no surprise that there has been a steady rise in the number of “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation.

And now we’re in the era of The Clergy Project. This online support group for clergy who have become atheists was founded a few years ago; there are now about a thousand members, and we can expect robust growth. A few years ago, I asked a prominent Italian TV journalist if he thought the Catholic hierarchy in Italy really believed so much of the silly church dogma. He shook his head: “No, maybe only half do, but it’s a business.”

Why this level of doubt? Why would clergy, of all people, jump ship? Tim Sledge, a former Southern Baptist preacher, has noted, “I felt angry at the religious system that pulled me in when I was a child and robbed me of a more rational process of selecting my vocation.” (p. 105, Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief. My review of the book is here.)

It would seem to be a chronic problem as well with Catholic clergy, but with another significant factor. In Italy especially, young men who are not attracted to women choose the priesthood to escape suspicion. Critical thinking about the faith doesn’t come into play until later—if at all—when they’re caught up in ‘the business.’ Thus the Vatican hierarchy is top-heavy with gay men in denial. How many closet atheists are there as well? (See Frédéric Martel’s In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy. My review of the book is here.)

So the burden of the apologist has become heavy indeed, and some don’t handle the anguish well. They vent and rage at critics, like toddlers throwing tantrums when a threadbare security blanket gets tossed out. We can smell their panic. Engaging with the ranters serves no purpose—any more than it does to engage with Flat-Earthers, Chemtrail conspiracy theorists, and those who argue that the moon landings were faked.

The five stages of Bible grief provide opportunities to initiate dialogue. I prefer to engage with NON-obsessive-compulsive-hysterical Christians, those who have spotted rubbish in the Bible, and might already have one foot out the door.

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 reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here. A short video explanation of the Library is here.