Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 1

Everything you know about god(s) is (probably) rubbish

So, one day I’m crossing Park Avenue in Manhattan. The southbound lanes are separated from the northbound lanes by a wide stretch of flowerbeds and trees—our city’s answer to the Champs-Élysées. On this particular day a frenzied street preacher, near one of the flowerbeds, is yelling his message. You can’t miss a word: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. Whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” This guy is stoked with anger. Well, why not? God is angry too.

Even many church folks would rush to get away from this guy. They’re pretty sure that their God isn’t like that. Their Heavenly Father may not like human sin, but they pray and sing hymns to God because he is, above all, loving. God is love, after all, according to I John 4:8, which must have been one of the first Bible verses I learned as a kid. And the favorite verse of all, of course, is John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son…“

But there’s a catch in John 3:16 that gives it a darker tone: “…whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” What about those who don’t believe in him? By implication, they are excluded from eternal life—from God’s love, forever. The Christians who cherish John 3:16 and would distance themselves from the street preacher, don’t realize that the text he’s yelling is from the same Bible chapter; it’s the last verse of John 3: “Whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

It’s a popular notion that Yahweh, the ferocious God of the Old Testament, has been scrubbed from the New. So, did God grow up? Have a change of heart? The New Testament itself undermines this revisionist thinking, e.g.,

• In Matthew 3, John the Baptist scolded the religious leaders who showed up to hear him preach: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?... Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

• In Matthew 25, the last judgment scene, people who fail to show compassion—isn’t this ironic?—will be shown no compassion: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

• In Matthew 10, Jesus instructs his disciples to go out preaching to towns and villages. What will happen if their message is not believed: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than for that town.”

• In Matthew 24, Jesus describes the arrival of his kingdom: “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.

• In Romans 1, Paul assured his readers that “…the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

• In Romans 8 we find a classic statement of Paul’s view of reality: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath.”

Paul compounded the bad theology: he was sure that the blood of a human sacrifice had sufficient magical power to save humans from God’s wrath.

We can identify major Bible blunders here:

1. Assuming that a god is pretty much like we are, with human personality traits. God is nearby, hovering over hapless humans, able to spy and eavesdrop; the biblical authors were operating on their limited understanding of the Cosmos. This is nonetheless a blunder, especially if we’re supposed to believe that the Bible was inspired by an all-knowing god who could have informed humans, early on, of the scope of the Cosmos.

2. The default divine emotion here seems to be wrath. Today we would have to believe that a divine force that oversees hundreds of billions of galaxies—and trillions of planets—tracks the behavior of more than seven billion human beings, and is perpetually pissed off by our failures. Only magic blood can divert his anger.

3. This kind of monotheism is, in fact, totalitarianism. It does no good to speculate about our free will, because this deity is watching every move we make, even monitoring every thought we have.

The massive Christian bureaucracy—theologians, apologists, priests, and preachers—has been committed to explaining and defending these ancient superstitions. To redeem theology—that’s a fitting word for it—its many defenders will have to break free of ancient traditions/speculations/suppositions, i.e., provide evidence: Tell us where we can find reliable, verifiable data to back up these various god ideas.

A place to start would be evidence that there was a divinely generated creation event. Is there a god behind it all? Or is the universe itself eternal and uncreated—instead of God? Theologians should team up with cosmologists…you know, search for real data.

As a thought experiment, let’s suppose that the cosmologists—as a bunch, not inclined to religious sentimentalities—get the surprise of their lives: Yes, there is a Supernatural Force that kicked off the Cosmos. Theologians must be cautioned that this news would not mean that we could rush to affirm/endorse the Bible deity; speculations of ancient minds could still be just so much rubbish.

For one thing, we’d want to know if the Force is a sentient being, one that is conscious of its own existence, able to make decisions. Or is it an entirely impersonal force—such as gravity or electromagnetism?

If the Force is a sentient being, we could explore suggestions that have been offered historically by diverse religious thinkers: there are so many possibilities. Could any of these be ruled out—or in?

An Evil God

How can this be farfetched when Christians already believe in an evil god? They readily acknowledge that God has a powerful evil rival, Satan, a spiritual being who brings so much havoc to the world. No use splitting hairs, “Well, he’s not a god!” If nothing else, he’s lesser deity. Or more? Maybe Christians haven’t grasped that Satan is actually the one in charge. We would need reliable, verifiable data that the Christian God isn’t second in command. So, a supernatural Force has been identified. Is it good or evil? Where do we go to find that data?

Many Gods

Humans have longed believed in many gods. Maybe they’re on to something. Could it be that there is a different deity in charge of each galaxy?—each alone would be a lot to manage. Maybe there’s a Supreme Council of Deities, i.e., the Force is split into multiple realities. Since humans didn’t figure out galaxies until very recently, we can be forgiven for not grasping this God-for-Each Galaxy Bigger Picture.

Gods Who Don’t Micromanage

It’s also possible that the galaxy gods don’t notice—much less care about—anything that happens on planet surfaces. That many of these planets have spawned life, billions of organisms thriving for billions of years, that’s pretty much none of their business. We humans go through life mostly unaware of the microorganisms that thrive in and on our bodies. Maybe humans are microorganisms that have never come to the attention of the god who runs the Milky Way. That would explain why nature shows no favoritism to humans.

Or, Yes, the Christian God, After All

This possibility brings other complications, however. Has God created countless beings on billions of other planets? Who knows how similar to humans they might be. Were they created to worship God too, but have as many design flaws as we do, i.e., prone to greed, selfishness, aggression—and all our other failings—and need to be saved too? That suggests a frightening possibility, as Victor Stenger has pointed out:

“Jesus must be continually dying on the cross, every nanosecond or so, on some planet in the universe, in order to save from eternal damnation every form of life that evolved sufficient intelligence to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.” (p. 117, Christianity in the Light of Science, John Loftus, editor)

These thought experiments offer little hope that Christian theology has any lock on truth, or that it can escape incoherence. It would seem that Christianity just wasn’t designed to fit well within the Cosmos as we now understand it.

And back to the fundamental question: where can we find the reliable, verifiable data to determine what god is like? I’ve often told the story of that day back in seminary when my theology professor gently ridiculed Karl Barth’s 14-volume Church Dogmatics. “Nobody,” he said, “knows 8,000 pages about God.” Which begs the question, “How does anyone know just one page about God?”

Go ahead, I dare you: fill up just one page with reliable, verifiable data about God—and tell us, of course, the source of this data. And all theists must agree that the sources are valid. Hint: scripture is not an honest answer, because theists cannot agree on whose scriptures are authentic. Nor can they agree on whose interpretations of scripture can be trusted. Of course, faith cannot be pulled into the argument—it can be dismissed entirely—since all religions urge followers to have faith in what they’re told to believe. And what you “feel in your heart” is evidence only of what you feel in your heart.

The failure of theology to name verifiable sources is its major blunder—and we can level the same accusation at the Bible. There we have more than a thousand pages based on “God said it”—crappy epistemology indeed. And the god depicted is pretty nasty and vindictive so much of the time. To keep up with the times, the Christian god has been promoted from his humble tribal origins to Manager of the Cosmos. But he still spies on each human—there must be an awesome heavenly CCTV system—and is consumed with wrath at human disobedience (John 3:36). Hey, the New Testament says so. This is silly theology, bad theology—the fallout from so many blunders.

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 published in 2016 by Tellectual Press. It was reissued on 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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