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Does the Bible condone torture?

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Published: 4 April 2015 (GMT+10)

J.M. from Australia asked if we could address an Internet article, ‘9 ways the Bible condones torture’. While we cannot respond to every article of this type, occasionally these sorts of responses can serve as a valuable teaching aid for how one can respond to these sorts of challenges.

CMI’s  responds:

    1. Is ‘Eve’s Curse’ torture?

    The first instance cited as ‘torture’ is “Eve’s Curse”. First, God did not curse Eve; He judged her (but God never turns around and curses individuals He previously blessed in Scripture). Second, it does not fit the definition of torture. The pain that women suffer related to childbirth is only part of the general fallenness of Creation, and no more torture than the pain Adam suffers in relation to working the ground for food. Many women voluntarily have many children even knowing the pain they will suffer, while people generally don’t line up for genuine torture.

    2. Was Job tortured?

    Job certainly suffered more than almost anyone we can think of, both physically and spiritually. But this was not really torture. First, God set definite limits as to how much Satan could afflict Job. Second, God restored everything that had been taken from Job (of course, Job’s sons and daughters who died would have gone to Paradise or judgment depending on their own faith—the new sons and daughters, while a comfort to Job, would hardly be a replacement for the ones he lost). Third, Job himself refused to accuse God; so it is presumptuous of someone else to do so.

    3. Were the Midianite virgins tortured?

    Numbers 31 recounts the judgment on the Midianites, people who led the people of Israel into idolatry intentionally to bring them under God’s judgment. Many of the women killed would have been those who had taken part in the seduction. The virgins who were spared would have been far too young to be suitable wives, or even useful servants, so sparing them was in fact mercifully absorbing them into the population of Israel years before they could benefit the nation in any meaningful way.

    4. Did the plagues torture the Egyptians?

    The suffering of the Egyptian nation as a result of the ten plagues is undeniable. But the Egyptians had enslaved the Israelites, killed their sons, and refused to let them go free. Each time Pharaoh was given a chance to let the Israelites go, and each time Pharaoh hardened his heart (the varied description of Pharaoh hardening his heart and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart shows that likely in each case Pharaoh was hardening his heart, but God was behind it). The article focuses on the last plague in particular—the death of the firstborn sons. There is no indication that the death involved torture, per se—there is no mention of a painful death. However, this was a perfectly just response to the Egyptians’ murder of the sons of the Israelites.

    5. Does the Law condone torture?

    The list condemns the biblical laws about corporal punishment. There are basically three situations where the Bible condones corporal punishment—a master can use it against his servant; a father can use it against his son; and it is a judicial punishment. Beating is assumed and regulated: 1) It must be proportionate to the offense, 2) it cannot be used in a dehumanizing fashion, and 3) it cannot cause permanent injury or death. This is a huge advance over other law codes that treat slaves and children as complete chattels. Even the far later Roman law included paterfamilias: the father of the family had power (potestas) over his wife and children.
    The list also condemns stoning as a capital punishment. However, the crimes punishable by stoning are severe offenses in Israel, and the public spectacle would serve as a deterrent to any people who were thinking about committing the same sort of crimes themselves.

    6. Did God torture the youths who mocked Elisha?

    An atheist outrage piece would not be complete without a reference to Elisha and the bears (2 Kings 2:23–24). I’ve answered this in a previous article, but to summarize, this was a large group of young men who were mocking Elisha’s mourning of Elijah and threatening him. The bears in Israel at that time were much smaller than the brown bears that one is used to seeing in nature shows, and two of them would not be able to maul 42 of the youths unless they had been trying to fight the bears, instead of scattering.
    istock photo cross

    7. Did Jesus advocate torture?

    In Matthew 18:8–9, Jesus is recorded as saying to cut off a hand or gouge out an eye if it causes one to sin. This was not meant literally, but as a hyperbole to show the seriousness of sin as a barrier to the Kingdom of God and the need to root it out of one’s own life. This should be obvious, since Jesus had previously explained the real source of sin, the heart (Matthew 15:19), which in the Bible normally means the mind, not the hand or eye. And the parable in 18:23–35 of the unforgiving servant was of course a story to illustrate the need to forgive others, in the light of God’s overwhelming forgiveness of our sins. But the list interprets these in a woodenly literalistic fashion, and therefore calls both of these instances of torture.

    8. Jesus’ torture on the Cross

    The list finally gets it right about torture—Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion was torture by any definition. Crucifixion was devised to be as painful and drawn-out a death as possible (Jesus’ death after a few hours was an aberration—people often lasted more than a day in agonizing pain). But as unbelievers, the authors of the list are unable to see Jesus’ death as the amazing sacrifice for the atonement of sin that it was, and instead see it as another atrocity. What we have to understand is that Jesus freely chose to die in our place, so that those who believe in Him will not have to suffer an eternity in Hell.

    9. Hell as torture

    Unsurprisingly, the unbelievers who don’t believe in an Almighty God have a problem with Him judging unbelievers forever in a place of unending punishment. However, one either accepts Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of those who trust in Him, or one must face the penalty for sin. Only people who rebel against God and reject His salvation will populate Hell.

The problem with the premise

We can easily condemn a political leader or psychopath who tortures people, but the same criticisms don’t apply to God—the skeptics commit a category mistake. For one thing, God is morally perfect and completely holy, so everything He does is just. Moreover, we are not in a position to judge our Creator—how could we be more ‘moral’ than the One who made us—we get our very idea of morality from Him! For another, God is the Creator, while humans are creatures; the Creator has rights over His creatures that the creatures do not (Romans 9:19–24).

But also, while people have misused Christianity to commit atrocities inconsistent with Christ’s teachings, they pale in comparison to the bloodstained 20th century that was filled with horrors inspired by and consistent with godlessness and evolution. The Holocaust was Darwinism applied to one man’s vision of racial purity, for example.

God’s judgments are terrible—but that is because they are against terrible sinners. The only exception is when He judged the righteous Christ in the place of those who will trust in Him for the forgiveness of sins. For believers, there is no judgment, because Jesus has taken it all. And those who reject God’s provision of salvation cannot accuse Him of being unloving when they are justly condemned for their sins.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Paul S.
It would have been better to not respond to the article than to make such a logically flawled response. Just a few examples:
(1) So there were limits as to the extent that Job could be made to suffer by Satan. Yes, Satan couldn't kill him! Well, there were limits as to how far the CIA could go in water boarding prisoners -after all they had to be sure not to kill them either! This point is utterly irrelevant to whether someone is being tortured unless you DEFINE torture to include death, and nobody does. There is nothing presumptuous in calling something what it is. That Job took it all stoically is also irrelevant to what it was.
(2) Regarding the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues we are treated to a catalogue of the bad things that they did to the Hebrews. This is a case of providing a JUSTIFICATION for the suffering inflicted on the Egyptians, and is thus irrelevant to the characterization of that suffering as torture or not torture. It doesn't even touch the issue.
(3) The response to Elijah and the bears is once again a justification of what occurred combined with unsubstantiated speculations regarding the ages of the victims and the size of the bears - as if the latter were relevant!. I would agree with the author in this case - that we don't have an instance of torture here - but the argument presented does not make the case.
(4) The poorest response of all was the last one, regarding Hell. The fact that "Only people who rebel against God and reject his salvation will populate Hell" is utterly irrelevant to the nature of the actual sufferings they are to endure.

In the end, it is best to acknowledge, with St. Augustine, that the Bible does, under certain circumstances, condone what would be characterized as "torture" in the 21st century
Lita Cosner
(1) Yes, Job suffered terribly, and he was not all that stoic about it as his speeches throughout the book indicate. Job did not accuse God of torturing him, however.

(2) Suffering was inflicted on the Egyptians because of their idolatry and their enslaving of the Israelites. Every judgment was tailor-made to attack the gods of Egypt, and the final plague was retaliation for the murder of the Hebrew boys.

(3) The young men who mocked Elijah were probably not killed, and they did not feel as though they were in any particular danger, as they fought long enough for 42 of them to get hurt, rather than scattering which would have resulted in only a few being hurt.

(4) The offense for which people are sent to Hell is absolutely relevant when we are evaluating the severity of their punishment.
Bill P.
Hello Lita: Could you comment on a passage that Dawkins mentions specifically in The God Delusion: Judges 19:24-30, and the equal criticism of Lot almost doing the same to protect the angels? They are both criticized as righteous people giving in and allowing or going to allow what is characterized by unbelievers as torture. Thank you
Lita Cosner
It is possible that Lot knew that the men were not interested in women but only wanted the (male) angels. Also, in the ancient world, hospitality was taken so seriously that if you took someone under your roof, you were obligated to defend them, even at the cost of your life or your children's lives.

And both passages are supposed to horrify us with the degree of sin. Both Sodom and Gibeah were wiped out as a result of their sin.
Rob H.
Lita - Item 7. I am a Christian, but! I find it hard to accept that perfectly decent, even saintly people - the late Fred Hollows would have to be an example - are going to screech their guts out in Hell just because those of us who do believe, were unable to convince them to receive God into their hearts.
Lita Cosner
People do not go to Hell because Christians fail to convince them to believe. They go to Hell because they rejected whatever knowledge of God they had, whether from nature or the preaching of the Gospel. They sinned, and God is just to judge that sin. In fact, He must judge sin. Either it is paid for by the sacrifice of Jesus, or it must be paid by the sinner eternally in Hell.
Dean R.
One response I got recently (Easter) regarding Christ’s atonement /crucifixion in a media blog was “Nothing was accomplished. He knew he couldn't die, so it was an empty gesture.” So much for Psalm 22…I think, because God is Almighty, people make the error of believing He doesn’t care or He doesn’t feel pain. Yet Scripture when considered carefully is full of God’s mercy & healing but also His justice & morality for us, our neighbours, creatures & even the land when it came to farming so that we might function as we ought receiving God’s goodness after the fall. And what is the atheist’s response to eugenics & abortion I wonder. Nothing like shifting some data to reach a desired outcome it would seem & the reality is Christ suffered & died, then rose again, that we might be restored or regenerated. This is an accomplishment that cannot be measured by human or natural terms alone. What he endured that day was not just an ugly & brutal death but the wrath of God for the sins of the whole world.
Lita Cosner
Of course, the point is Jesus did actually die; He did suffer more than anyone else on earth ever has to atone for the sins of those who believe. The Resurrection doesn't mean that His death was some sort of illusion; it means that His death did what He set out to do.
John E.
"but God was behind [the hardening of Pharaoh's heart]" What do you mean by that?
Lita Cosner
I simply mean that even though Pharaoh hardened his heart, God was involved in that 1) He allowed Pharaoh's heart to be hardened (nothing happens without God's permission because He is omnipotent and could direct events any way He wants and 2) He planned for Pharaoh's heart to be hardened as part of how He would free the Israelites from slavery.
Errol B.
Worth noting in point 2; ‘Was Job tortured?’ Although God takes responsibility, Job 2:3, it was literally Satan who caused the suffering (Job 3:6). This seems to suggest that the curse was a withdrawal of God’s protection while at the same time, God taking responsibility. In a postmodern society, blame is a dirty word… except when blaming God. Such an important message can be learned from Job & this relates to the fall of man.

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