Is the Bible an immoral book?
Published: 29 November 2011 (GMT+10)
There has been a wave of atheist YouTube videos attacking the morality of the Bible, arguing that not only is it not original in its good moral teachings, but that it also advocates some moral atrocities such as murder and slavery. First, it must be noted that the atheist has no logical ground for saying that anything is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, other than his own personal preferences. Evolution is based on the survival of the fittest at the expense of the ‘unfit’. How can any ethics be based on ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’? Even Richard Dawkins claims that he’s a passionate Darwinian when it comes to biology, but passionately anti-Darwinian when it comes to ethics.
If asked, the majority of people would say that they would rather live in places where people didn’t murder each other or steal from each other. When asked they often cite their preferences as Western countries such as those in Western Europe or American, Canada etc. These perceived more ‘moral’ countries have many principles that can be traced back to their Christian heritage that underpinned their governments and society in general. Of course, this is being eroded quickly.
But ‘Theft and murder are wrong’ doesn’t follow from a choice of preferences, any more than the preference ‘I like chocolate’ makes eating a consistent supply of chocolate into a human right or beneficial for someone. See more about the foundation for ethics at Bomb-building vs. the biblical foundation.
Furthermore, criticisms of the Bible’s morality assume that humans have correct moral reasoning. But this can be easily disproved. Many times in history, humans in various societies have assented to things which we know to be horrific. For instance, in Nazi Germany, most people either thought that Jews were non-persons, or assented to the idea through inaction. Millions of people were killed as a result, but the people involved were, by and large, no better or worse than the average person today. At about the same time, eugenics was widespread in America, with great support from the intellectual elites, resulting in 60,000 Americans sterilized against their will (see America’s evolutionists: Hitler’s inspiration?). Psychological experiments reveal that the majority of people are willing to subject another person to pain and even danger if a sufficient authority commands them to do so, or sometimes if a large enough reward is offered. (See this discussion on the Milgram experiment in The Basis of a Christian Worldview).
Misunderstanding the Old Testament
But now on to the particulars. The first Youtube video we'll discuss tries to criticize some Old Testament laws by envisioning a dictator who institutes four laws that are meant to be analogous to the OT laws (explained in detail below). But this comparison is flawed. First, it fails to realize that the Old Testament Law is largely made up of case law—that is, it presents examples, but gives some leeway for judges to decide individual cases. The Mishnah (codification of oral traditions) reveals the flexibility that the Jews understood the Law to have (see for example the discussion on Deut. 22:13–21 in this answer to a philosophy/religion professor on biblical exegesis and the problem of evil). For instance, they didn’t understand ‘eye for eye’ to mandate literally gouging out eyes and knocking out teeth—they instead understood it to teach the general principle of proportional punishment. It was actually a limitation of private vendettas, so a huge advance over other law codes that might command ‘life for eye’.
Furthermore, as pointed out in the above linked article, Deuteronomy is a suzerain-vassal treaty between God and Israel. Those who are not signatories to this treaty are not bound to many of the conditions which were specific for that time, and designed to prepare the Messianic People for the coming Messiah. See Is eating shellfish still an abomination? and A brief history of the Jews.
Was Sabbath-keeping serious?
The first law is a parody on Sabbath-keeping. Sabbath-keeping only applied to Israel and other signatories to the Sinaitic Covenant (i.e. converts to Judaism), including the Deuteronomic Treaty. This was a commandment that signified Israel’s departure from their life of slavery in Egypt (where they got no day of rest), and also showed respect for God as their Sovereign, in stopping their work just as He stopped His after the six days of Creation. The man who was picking up sticks on the Sabbath was not ignorant of the reasons behind this law, nor the penalty involved for breaking it. By gathering sticks, he was essentially saying, “I reject Yahweh’s Lordship, and I want to return to the way of life I had in Egypt.” This was treason, which in almost all law codes throughout history has been a capital crime.
Another element of case law is relevant here: Ancient Near East (ANE) law codes many times specified the most severe penalty for a transgression, assuming lesser ones, giving the judges leeway to decide which penalty was most appropriate. It is not reasonable to assume that all, or even most, cases of Sabbath-breaking were punished with the death penalty, only that this was an option when the case was particularly flagrant and serious—as in the Numbers 15 case, which was essentially treason. The upper limit reflects both the seriousness and deterrent. A good modern-day example might be if someone made a threat against the leader of a nation—even casual threats are treated (appropriately) with serious investigation and penalties, even if it was ‘only’ a comment made in jest on a social network, for example.
Is God a homicidal maniac?
The second is based on a false premise: that God routinely orders killing, and for arbitrary reasons. In fact, God’s orders for killing are comparatively rare in the Old Testament, and non-existent in the New. But one fundamental principle is overlooked by the atheists: God as the Creator of life has the right to take it. Humans are not, therefore can take life only if delegated this duty by the One who owns life. Failure to understand the Creator/Creature distinction underlies a lot of atheistic fallacies, so it’s important for Christians to understand it. Furthermore God has sentenced all of us to death, first as descendants of Adam (see Romans 5:12 21: Paul’s view of literal Adam), and secondly because we deserve it for our sin, and He even took on human nature to suffer this penalty on our behalf (see The Incarnation: Why did God become Man?)
There are two relevant scenarios here: the first is in the course of the conquest of the holy land where they were commanded to go into the land and kill the inhabitants. But the Bible teaches that the people had lost their right to the land because of centuries of sin (remember, he told Abraham that the people in the land hadn’t committed enough sin to be driven out—‘the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete’ (Genesis 15:16)). Remember that Israel itself was exiled when the nation failed to keep the covenant God made with them as a condition for their inhabiting the land.
The second case is laws where the death penalty is applied. The case of a woman showing insufficient evidence of virginity is brought out as if every woman who was even suspected was stoned. But again, this is the most severe allowable punishment—the wronged husband would have the right to accept lesser punishments. And he would be seriously shamed and face economic consequences if he were proved to be dishonest. Furthermore, the rabbinic commentary on the law shows that if there were any plausible reason why the woman would not show evidence of virginity even though she was innocent, they accepted that. See On the tokens of virginity : A contextual approach for more details.
The video claims that God orders the murder of children for their father’s sins, but this can only be deduced by ignoring genre. The Isaiah 14 example is an example of an imprecatory passage—it’s typical of literature of that period, and is hardly indicative of their intent to destroy Babylon (it wasn’t Israel, but Assyria, that destroyed the old Babylonian empire). And the passages that talk about people eating their children are describing circumstances that will come about due to their rebellion—God is not actively causing or advocating it.
Does God force people to sin, then punish them for it?
The third law basically claims that God can make people sin, and then He kills them for it. This is not the case in any of the examples he actually brings out. God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart, but in an equal number of places he hardens his own heart, so there is at minimum a level of cooperation—and it is simply a reinforcement that God is involved throughout. God wasn’t doing to Pharaoh anything that he wasn’t already doing himself. It could also be said that Pharaoh is being punished for his crimes against the Jewish people—namely attempted genocide by killing the baby boys. This is even more serious on a spiritual level, since the Messiah was to be born from the Jewish people.
The case of David’s census is another case where God is said to act unjustly by inciting David to sin, then punishing not just him, but the whole nation, for it. But God not only permits censuses in Israel, but commands them (Exodus 30), so David’s sin could not be in the mere fact that he carried out a census. Rather, it is probably that he didn’t require every male counted to pay a half-shekel ransom. It could be noted that this would not be the first time that David had ignored the Torah’s instructions regarding an otherwise-permissible action with disastrous consequences (2 Samuel 6). We answered similar charges in God is a liar?
What about Jesus?
The narrator claims that Jesus is evil for endorsing the law for killing the person who curses his father and mother—and then brings out the laughably ridiculous assertion that this would include the person with Tourette’s Syndrome who couldn’t help it.1,2 First, we must understand the law that Jesus is citing. It’s not talking about someone who says in a fit of rage “I wish you were dead!” but someone who undertakes a more serious rejection of their parents, saying in effect, “I am no longer your child, I deny any obligation to support you in your old age, and I wish you nothing but harm.” In an era before widespread charity (brought about by a Christian worldview), or government welfare, people could only rely on their children to support them when they were no longer able to work—it would be tantamount to the death penalty for the parents in their old age, so the death penalty is applied to the person who, in effect, wishes it on their parents.
This explanation makes perfect sense in the context of Jesus’ citation of the law (which is further support that He believed in the divine inspiration of the Old Testament), because he is dealing with a situation where the Pharisees’ tradition of ‘Korban’ makes it possible for a person to do exactly this—withhold essential support from his parents, provided that he do it with a ‘religious’ motivation.
Furthermore, as we have previously pointed out about this passage, violations would not just endanger parents but the whole society:
While this sounds rather harsh for squeamish modern thoughts, ancient societies were always one step away from anarchy. It was especially serious for Ancient Israel, because this is the people from whom the Messiah would come. Rebellion against parents would threaten the entire social order, so God dealt with it very strongly in the Old Testament. The penalty of being stoned to death was imposed because cursing one’s parents and ignoring their authority was considered a serious offense before God, the same as murder or adultery. Just the threat of this penalty was probably enough to curb rebellion, unlike the way that rebellion of youth is encouraged and celebrated today.
The narrator also accuses Jesus of immorality in his statement in Luke 9:61–62, where he seemingly refuses to let someone say goodbye to his parents before he follows Jesus. In fact, this is not so much a refusal as a warning that once someone follows Him, his loyalties can’t be divided between Jesus and his family.
Cruelty to animals and trees?
The narrator waxes eloquent about God’s murder of millions of animals in the global flood of Noah’s day—despite the fact that he believes in neither God nor a global flood. To have any ground for moral outrage, he would need to be a vegetarian, and express similar horror at anyone eating a hamburger. Here, the creation foundation is again essential: the Bible teaches that man is distinct from animals in being made in God’s image.
Perhaps even more ridiculous is his condemnation of Jesus for cursing the fig tree because it didn’t have fruit—especially since it wasn’t the season for fruit. But this simply shows gross ignorance of the Bible, and of fig trees, for that matter. It is extremely unusual for a fig tree to have leaves but no fruit—Jesus wasn’t expecting to find mature fruit, but the tree should have had immature fruit that was nonetheless edible. In short, the fig tree gave every indication that it should have fruit, but had none—Jesus’ curse of the fig tree serves as a caution to people who give indication that they should have spiritual fruit—professing Christians—but have none.
If the narrator has anything made of wood or paper in his house, he has grounds for outrage, because multiple trees have then died for his comfort. If it is acceptable for a tree to be killed to make a desk or a chair for him to use, then surely it is permissible for Jesus to curse a tree as part of an object lesson. But once again, absurdities from evolutionists know no bounds: some have even called for plant rights.
Broken clocks: bad Christian rationalizations
The video is right regarding one thing—there are some bad rationalizations that Christians use for hard passages in the Bible. One is to say that they are merely symbolic, but that doesn’t solve the problem—never mind that the Bible never presents the passages in question as anything other than historical narrative. Nor does it do any good to separate the Old Testament from the New and claim that the Old Testament God was mean and angry, but Jesus is meek and gentile and nice, so there’s no problem anymore. First, the Old Testament frequently portrays God as long-suffering, merciful and kind; and second, Jesus had some pretty severe words and actions too, and frequently taught on Hell. And of course, Jesus endorsed the OT with sayings like ‘Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35)—see The Authority of Scripture; and this endorsement extended to the passages most attacked by skeptics, as shown above (cursing parents) and in Jesus Christ on the infallibility of Scripture. Rather, the answer is to understand the Bible in its historical context, on its own terms.
Jesus: not original and not moral?
Another video making the rounds argues that Jesus’ ‘moral contributions are not original, and his original contributions are not moral.’ The first, well-worn argument is that the ‘Principle of Reciprocity’ predates Christianity by millennia and is found in practically every religious tradition, so Christianity cannot claim the Golden Rule as uniquely a teaching of Jesus. But the positive command ‘do unto others as you would have them to unto you’ is a real moral advance over negative commands to the effect of ‘don’t do to others what you would not want done to you.’ The former encompasses the latter but adds a new element that the other didn’t have. We see this in current American law which has only the preferred doctrine of the skeptics—it’s called non-feasance:
For example, if a bystander sees a stranger drowning and does not attempt a rescue, he cannot be liable for nonfeasance because he had no preexisting relationship with the drowning person. The bystander would not be liable for the drowning even if a rescue would have posed no risk to him.
Jesus’ command is clearly far superior: since we would like to be rescued from drowning, we have a Christian obligation to rescue a drowning person if we can.
The narrator makes the ‘generous’ concession that as a general rule, it’s okay, but we wouldn’t want a sado-masochist following the rule. This, however, is taking something that’s meant as a general principle and giving it a highly unlikely interpretation in a very narrow specific context—not to mention that such aberrations as sado-masochism were unknown in the ancient world. It is unreasonable to expect Jesus to make tangential exceptions based on conditions that don’t even exist in His time. Furthermore, even under its own terms, this can be refuted. A masochist desires pleasure, even though his warped means of achieving this is suffering pain. So his application of the Golden Rule principle is to cause pleasure to others, not pain, since pain causes displeasure in most.
The video claims that Jesus made three new ethical contributions, all of which are deeply flawed. First, it is claimed that Matthew 5:39: ‘But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’ is immoral, because non-resistance to evil allows evil to flourish. But it must be noted that this is only addressing personal interactions, involving offense to oneself. This is shown by the fact that most people are right-handed, so that a slap on the opponent’s right cheek can only be a back-handed slap, a great insult and challenge in that culture. This is not saying that one should stand by without intervening on behalf of people who are unable to defend themselves, and it has never been understood that way. Rather, it is saying that in personal actions, we are to be ready to endure a second blow, rather than retaliate in kind. This would be honorable behavior in the ancient world, and the violent person would be shamed.
Furthermore, commands to individuals must be distinguished from commands to those with the duty of keeping order, broadly called the ‘civil magistrate’. For example, Jesus commended a centurion for his great faith (Matthew 8), and the first Gentile convert was the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10); neither were told that they had to resign from the military.
The second ‘atrocity’ ascribed to Jesus is His claimed ability to forgive sins. The narrator claims this is a blank check for all sorts of evil behavior, since Jesus can simply forgive, meaning there are no consequences. But first, it’s never claimed that God’s forgiveness takes away earthly consequences. A murderer can receive forgiveness in Christ, but is still expected to serve out his prison term or accept execution (as per the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:41), or Paul if he had committed a capital crime (Acts 25:11); indeed, one way that he shows he has truly accepted Christ is his acceptance of the earthly consequence of his actions. And second, the Bible has some pretty severe warnings for people who would presume on God’s grace and use it as a license to sin (Romans 6:1). Finally, the Bible also emphasizes the importance of being right with other people as well as with God, so someone who has wronged another person would need to seek out forgiveness and restitution where possible.
The third ‘ethically questionable’ teaching is that one should love one’s neighbors as oneself. The narrator claims that this is an injunction to love indiscriminately, and ‘brutalizes the notion of love.’ But even the most casual reflection on the notion of love reveals that there are different types of love appropriate for different relationships. A man may love his wife, his children, his best friend, and his dog, but to do so in different ways. The love that Jesus is commanding His followers to have for their neighbor is a desire for their well-being—this does not necessarily involve an excess of emotion. The example He gives of loving one’s neighbor is that of the Samaritan who helps the Jew, a hostile stranger, when he is in need. Rather, it is the skeptical understanding of love that brutalizes it—reducing it to a feeling rather than will and action.
‘Jesus should have taught us about antibiotics’
The narrator goes on to make the claim that if Jesus was truly God, He should have taught us about things like antibiotics, painkillers, and other things that would provide an immediate improvement to the quality of life. On the surface, this may seem persuasive. But Jesus came with a much more important and eternal mission, and His righteous life and sacrificial death made it possible for us to be saved from much worse things than temporal sickness and pain. If one accepts that Jesus actually died and suffered the punishment for sin in our place, to argue that He did not do enough becomes unforgivably arrogant and ungrateful.
It is also said that Jesus should have overturned His culture’s view of sexuality, women’s roles, and other social issues. This ignores the fact that during His earthly life and ministry, He was regarded as a peasant itinerate Jewish preacher. He had no social standing by which to proclaim any of that, even if He would have approved of it (and there is much in Scripture to indicate that He wouldn’t).
Furthermore, advances in science were made possible by the Christian world view, and were stillborn in cultures like Greece and China, which the narrator presumably prefers. Atheism and evolution have contributed nothing to science; note that one of the discoverers of penicillin, Ernst Chain, was an Orthodox Jew who was scathing of Darwinian evolution. See also The biblical roots of modern science and Does medicine need evolution?
It is easy to blame God for things that are the result of man’s sin and selfishness. For instance, the narrator claims that God should keep people from dying of starvation. But the world already produces more than enough food to feed every person alive—it is bureaucracies and corrupt governments that result in food not reaching the starving. It is not fair to expect God to clean up every human mess. In a world where humans hadn’t rebelled against God, there wouldn’t be any starvation, disease, etc., so it’s our fault because every person who ever lived (except Jesus, the perfect Last Adam) has rebelled against the Creator.
Many people ask why God doesn’t do something about death and suffering, if He really is a God of love. But He has; He sent Jesus Christ to die in our place to save us from eternal death and suffering. Temporary suffering, even intense suffering, can be beneficial in an eternal perspective if it leads someone to Jesus, saving them from eternal separation and suffering in Hell.
Biblically-illiterate criticisms of Christianity don’t hold water
There are literally thousands of such videos and articles on the Internet ascribing various atrocities to God and the Bible. But not one of them is based on sound scholarship and an understanding of the Bible in its context. When one examines what Scripture actually says and how it has actually been understood traditionally, it is clear that the atheists are either ignorant of the Bible, or are deliberately distorting its teachings to try to score points against Christianity.
- The Law, and the entirety of Scripture, in fact, is written with the presupposition that it applies to people who are capable of making rational decisions. Someone who is not capable of rational action is not culpable for his actions in that sphere. Return to text.
- Update 10 August 2017: Despite what the atheist narrator implies, only a minority of people with Tourette Syndrome, which is characterized by repeated, involuntary movements (motor tics) and noises (vocal tics), have involuntary swearing (called coprolalia) as a symptom. Return to text.