The Bad Theology of Favorite Bible Verses

Which we’ve been trained not to notice

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see…” These words were written by Anglican clergyman John Newton in 1772. About the same time these words were also written: “There is balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole; there's power enough in heaven, to cure a sin-sick soul.” To be saved and cured: one of the most common claims about religion is that it brings comfort. Atheists are sometimes accused of insensitivity: why are we trying to destroy this source of comfort? People count on their religion to get them through the day, but they’ve been prompted in this hope by bad theology: The church has pushed the idea that, in our natural state, we are wretched and sin-sick.



But does faith really deliver as much as is claimed? Moreover, just how honest is it in when the clergy who push the “comfort factor” are also champions of the Bible that undermines comfort? The Bible has to be read very selectively for comfort to come out on top. Moreover, many of the favorite Bible verses that have won so much praise don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Just how much comfort derives from texts that are bad theology? A lot, it would seem, when the clergy conspire to keep the bad theology out of view, and there’s a lot of it in the Bible. But this can be difficult to spot in texts that we’ve been encouraged to memorize and cherish since toddlerhood. I have two texts in mind especially; let’s start with the 23rd Psalm.


Theologians have always disagreed about God—sometimes to the point of bloodshed—and this psalm is a good example of dissent from the common depiction of God’s rage and wrath; such texts are common in both the Old and New Testaments. These texts were written by theologians who counted on God punishing sin as severely as possible. These were angry people who projected this emotion onto their god. The author of the 23rd Psalm preferred a kinder, gentler deity, hence his poetry has always had wide appeal—despite its thorough detachment from reality. It’s admirable theology in the sense that the vengeful god is muted, but it’s bad theology because the sentiments of this psalm are falsified by life as we experience it. 


In an article here a few weeks ago, I said that the first rule for reading this Bible is to question everything. As children we were all encouraged to memorize this text, but our adult minds should be filled with questions. First of all, is it really smart to accept our comparison to sheep? Religious leaders appreciate followers who don’t ask questions, who follow obediently; who accept the “truths” promoted by the leaders. It is not to the credit of the author of John’s gospel that he picked up on this imagery in his Jesus-script, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11-18).


The author of this psalm made clear at the outset that his intent was to improve the image of his particular god; thus he starts by stating the name of the god. Gods commonly had names, and the Hebrew god did as well. But as theologians sought to knock off the rough edges of this god—as they sought to boost monotheism—god no longer needed a name. So translators have disguised the name in their renderings. No, the psalm does not start with the words, “The LORD is my shepherd.” Wherever we see lord in all-caps, LORD, that’s a disguise for YHWH, i.e., the name of the Hebrew god. This is commonly spelled Yahweh, but if you put in different vowels you get Jehovah; there is confusion because the Hebrew was written without vowels. But it sounds much better—to our modern ears—when we read:


“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”


This is indeed an idyllic version of the god, who settles his sheep in pastures near peaceful waters. We often say that we need quiet time to recharge our batteries, and this author mentions restoring the soul; the translators here opted for “soul”, while “life” would do just as well. In the religion of ancient Yahweh, people didn’t have souls as Christians usually think of the word: an eternal soul that can end up in heaven or hell. Upon death, souls descended to sheol and after a time vanished forever. But the translators knew very well that soul would resonate with Christians who are concerned with the fate of their souls. And the author returned to his agenda of refashioning Yahweh into a benevolent deity. Here this god becomes a guide and counselor, as opposed to a raging punisher: “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” God wants to enhance his reputation: it is for the sake of his name that he helps his worshippers lead virtuous lives. 


To hold on to an idealized version of God, theologians commonly indulge in theobabble, i.e., they say things that just don’t make sense, indeed that are thoroughly falsified by human experience:


“Even though I walk through the darkest valley [or the valley of the shadow of death], I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” (verses 4 – 6)


So the reward for following this god will be getting to live in Yahweh’s house (notice LORD in all caps) “my whole life long,” which is a rendering of the Hebrew “for length of days.” The King James translators sought to align this text with Christian theology: “I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.” This makes it sound like an endorsement of eternal heavenly rest.


But these verses, 4-6, are full-blown theological delusion. We are not protected in this life by an attentive god: “I fear no evil, for you are with me.” Even the most devout believers, who try with all their heart, mind, and soul to follow God, suffer as much as the rest of us: they see no special privilege. The new anthology edited by John Loftus, due out in a few days, God and Horrendous Suffering, makes the case powerfully that the god of the 23rd Psalm is falsified: there is no benevolent protector of humanity. Darrell Ray has driven home the point: 


“It took two world wars for the Europeans to realize that the prayers of millions of people were not answered. It doesn’t take too much intelligence to see that the god isn’t working too well when 92 million people died in two world wars.” (The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Cultures


Nor does it take much intelligence to see that the 23rd Psalm is delusional, bad theology. But it reinforces the comforting image of god that the church has an interest in promoting. 


Now, the second text: We find more doses of bad theology in those verses that most Christians recite every day, because Jesus told them to: the Lord’s Prayer, as found in Matthew 6:9-13, with verses 14-15 as an addendum: 

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial but rescue us from the evil one [or evil].”  

And the addendum: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Because of verses 14-15, many Christians pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” That’s the version I learned as a child. 

Here again we urge Christians to question everything. They should be bothered by a lot here.


Our Father: It can only be considered a major mistake that a human gender category was projected onto god, i.e., male, father. There is too much baggage associated with this; it’s hard to calculate the damage this has caused, just in terms of encouraging misogyny. There is perhaps no better example of MAN creating god in his own image. “Well, it’s metaphor, it’s symbolic”—so the argument might go. But religion needs to divest itself of such silliness. Consider what we now know about the Cosmos. If there was/is a creator god who has many hundreds of billions of galaxies under management, what an egregious error to claim that this god possesses gender that happened thanks to evolution on one particular planet. Other ancient cults, by the way, imagined female gods, and Catholicism recognized the value in this by elevating the Virgin Mary to god-like status. The ancient theologians who imagined male and female deities had no grasp of the Cosmos as we know it today: so why not make their gods exaggerated humans? Our father is bad theology because it doesn’t help people abandon this small-minded way of viewing the Cosmos. 


In heaven: The ancient gods were thought to dwell “up there.” Jesus was supposed to arrive on the clouds to bring his kingdom. People went to mountaintops to get closer to gods, e.g., Moses at Mt. Sinai, Jesus at his transfiguration. There were layers of heaven, structured below the orbit of the moon. Even my devout mother was savvy enough to tell me that heaven wasn’t “up there” after all. It was a state of being, a relationship with God: heaven was being in the presence of God. These represent adjustments, trying to rework ancient concepts to accommodate what we have discovered about outer space, our galaxy and countless others beyond. Trying to hold on to the possibility—actually, the certainty—of eternal life. But this has been the gimmick that so many cults have used to win followers. There were other rising-and-rising savior cults in the ancient world that promised the same thing. 


Hallowed be thy name: We might be tempted to ask, “Jesus, why in the world include this?” But the gospel writers who invented Jesus-script were Yahweh worshippers—and Yahweh had been modeled on autocratic tribal chieftains (naturally, theologians have worked so hard over the centuries to rework this thinking, to upgrade the concept of god). But there it is: it’s the obligation of the worshipped to boost the god’s ego, remind him that his name is holy. Do the billions of Christian who say this prayer realize what’s going on? And would they even be able to tell us that their god’s name is Yahweh? Especially here the rule applies: question everything.


Your kingdom come: Matthew copied most of the text of Mark’s gospel, one of the main themes of which was the soon-to-arrive kingdom of God. Hence we’re not surprised that Jesus (in the script supplied by Matthew) asked his followers to pray for the arrival of the Kingdom. If there’s any better proof that prayer is useless, what could it be? Christians have uttered this prayer countless billions of times, yet here we are 2,000 years later—and still no kingdom of God has shown up: no Jesus descending on the clouds. And there’s precious little evidence that God’s will is being done on earth, whatever success God might have with it in heaven. Why are Christians wasting their breath? 


Being forgiven by God only happens if we forgive others. Hey, this is actually good theology! And it is so blatantly ignored by so many Christian. I served as pastor of two parishes, and it didn’t take long to figure out the members of the congregation who couldn’t stand each other—with precious little hope of reconciliations. Forgiveness wasn’t even on the table. On a much larger scale: what a scandal that the major Christian nations of Europe—each of which was sure God was on its side—fought savagely against each other in World War I. These words of Jesus mattered not at all. Yet everyone still prayed The Lord’s Prayer!


A few days ago I did a Google search for Top Ten Favorite Bible Verses, and this one was on the list, Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in Yahweh with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding.” In other words—the words of countless priests and preachers—just believe that your religious leaders are custodians of the truth. Don’t bother to think about it. And that’s how they get away with so much bad theology. So the advice still stands: Question everything




David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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