Does the Bible Teach Love or Hate? Peace or Violence?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

In discussing my new book on violence in the Bible, which focuses on reading the Bible from the perspective of peace and love, I often hear this objection,

"But doesn't the Bible speak of God's wrath?"


"But doesn't Jesus use fear and threat to motivate people?"


"What about this verse here [fill in the blank] that seems to promote violence"

All of these questions are asked by people who want to believe in compassion, who see the moral problems with fear and threat as moral motivators,
who recognize the problem with the connection between religion and violence. They want to have a Bible that is just about grace and peace and love. They stumble over the way the Bible often seems to praise violence as a virtue or paints God in a way that does not seem good or loving to us at all.

The expectation then is that if we could just read the Bible right, we would see that it is really all about grace and peace, and all that other stuff is just a misreading. So when we hear someone talk about how "Paul didn't mean that like that" and how he really was this loving guy and so on... well we are drawn to that like a moth to a flame.

Heck, there is a lot of truth in that, too. I do think a lot of people really do misunderstand Paul. I do think Paul is focused on grace and that people totally misread him and that there is this wonderful wealth of good stuff in Paul's writing just dripping with grace and love, if we would learn how to hear him for what he was really saying.

But there is a much bigger issue that think we need to face first: The Bible does contain troubling parts. Parts that disturb us not because we misunderstand them, but because we do. Parts that are immoral. Parts we cannot embrace.

It is not all about a misunderstanding, as if all we need is better information, a better Bible study, better education, better exegesis, and all would be clear. There are parts of the Bible that really do say just what you are afraid they are saying.

Take for instance a recent post by Rachel Held Evans on Abraham's binding of Isaac. That's the story where God tells this dad to tie his son up with ropes, slit his throat, and set him on fire to prove his devotion to Yahweh. Rachel bravely declares that she would refuse to do that, and that you would, too. It is a post of moral courage which I whole-hardheartedly support.

At the very end of the post she poses this question:
Maybe the real test isn’t in whether you drive the knife through the heart. 
Maybe the real test is in whether you refuse. 
I do think this is the question we need to ask ourselves today. We need to ask ourselves if we would let the Bible override our conscience, whether we are willing to do something that we find profoundly wrong and evil because "the Bible tells me so"? If we say "no" to that question (and I hope we all do) then the next question is: How do we know what is right if we are going to question the Bible? 

What I want to have us realize is that the answer to that question is not in learning some way to read the Bible that will explain away all the problematic parts. For example in the above story of Abraham and Isaac the point of the biblical author was not the point Rachel is making. It is a story about unquestioning obedience. I wish it were not, but it is.

There are many many other stories in the Bible that uphold the opposite value which Rachel is upholding: The way of faithful questioning. The fact is, we find both the way of unquestioning obedience and the way of faithful questioning in the Bible. The Bible contains multiple conflicting views, different visions of what holiness and faithfulness look like that cannot be harmonized because they are quite simply a record of dispute. To harmonize them is to misunderstand and misread them. 

There are parts of the Bible that preach peace, and others that teach war. There are parts that teach love and others that uphold hate as a virtue. So if we are looking to find a way to make the whole Bible be all about peace and love we are asking the wrong question.

The question we need to ask is this: If we have a book that promotes both love and hate, both "love your enemies" and "show them no mercy" how are we to choose? The basis for that choice cannot be based solely on finding the "correct" reading of the text because the text is a record of these opposing  views. The Bible is multi-vocal.

Even when we come to the New Testament where we can recognize a clear focus on the way of radical forgiveness and enemy love, we find this as being deeply situated within the religious and political culture of the time. The New Testament can be read as a protest to the prevalent religious and cultural assumptions of the day that holiness and justice would come through the sword and violence. That's a vision of justice that we still embrace today, especially in this country. 

But while the NT makes these huge steps in the direction of grace, we still find in it pictures of an angry God, and we still find in it women being treated as second class, and we find in it slavery being upheld. In other words, if we freeze things at the time of the NT, rather than continuing to move in the same direction, we land in a bad place. 

That means we need a way to think morally ourselves. We need to have Jesus actually be alive in us, to have the Holy Spirit actually be renewing our minds, rather than basically being a moral blank slate that is filled up with the "right" answer from reading a book. 

Now someone will surely object at this point, "But aren't we fallen and sinful people? What if we get it wrong?" To that I would answer:

We will.

We will get it wrong. That is a reality that all of us as adults need to face. But I can also tell you that reading the Bible blindly is not more safe. In fact history shows over and over that we get it much much more wrong that way. This has lead religious people repeatedly to commit genocide, burn people at the stake, abuse kids, keep slaves, enable wife beaters, and wage holy wars because  reading Scripture in this way entails overriding our conscience and understanding. That is profoundly dangerous.

That does not mean we throw out the Bible. But it does mean we put the Bible in its rightful place. The Bible was never meant to replace God. That's idolatry. That's Bibliolatry. The Bible is meant to act as a window that leads us to God, that leads us to the Spirit, that leads us to goodness, to a Jesus-shaped way of being.

When we read the Bible like that, we truly read Scripture as Scripture, meaning we read it through the inspiration of the Spirit in order to connect with the living Spirit of God speaking to us through the text right now. God is not some absent father who left us some instructions. God is here, right now. God's love is real and available. Jesus wants to enter our hearts and shape us into his image. Reading the Bible plays a vital role in that act of communion and growth. We participate in that however not by shutting off our minds or closing our hearts and conscience as we read, but rather by fully engaging the text faithfully with all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our strength.



At 9:50 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Congrats on the new book. Look forward to reading it.

"The expectation then is that if we could just read the Bible right, we would see that it is really all about grace and peace, and all that other stuff is just a misreading. So when we hear someone talk about how "Paul didn't mean that like that" and how he really was this loving guy and so on... well we are drawn to that like a moth to a flame."

"It is not all about a misunderstanding, as if all we need is better information, a better Bible study, better education, better exegesis, and all would be clear. There are parts of the Bible that really do say just what you are afraid they are saying."

Both of these really struck me as true. There seems to be some a lot more talk lately about what the Bible actually IS. I'd been raised with a "high view" of the Bible being described as "inerrant" - essentially that every statement is essentially a theological proposition and each of them is equally true because it was all basically dictated to the writers (mysteriously) by God himself. In that sense, it's like a gigantic puzzle and if you're smart enough you can figure out how all of the pieces systematically fit together.

It seems like there are people now who say that this kind of a definition is a categorical error - it simply doesn't describe what the Bible actually IS, how it came to be, or what it intends to do. In that sense it isn't a "high view" at all. So in that sense it isn't better hermeneutics that are needed, it's a paradigm shift on what the Bible actually is.

A fair critique of this view is that it could allow people to just pick and choose - you're free to ignore the parts that you don't like. I think it's a fair critique and requires a good answer. How would you respond to the idea that it's just a sneaky way of being able to pick and choose?

I think it's important to note that even the current modernist approaches to scripture "pick and choose". It just usually presents itself as a very sophisticated and scholarly methodology using the newest cultural information and hermeneutical tools rather than "pick and choose" (although there is quite a bit of pick and choose coming from ALL theological persuasions IMO).

At 8:52 AM, Blogger Matthew said...

'The question we need to ask is this: If we have a book that promotes both love and hate, both "love your enemies" and "show them no mercy" how are we to choose?'

What if it's not one or the other? What if it's like it says in Ecclesiastes: "a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace"?

I agree with you when you say that the Bible contain contradictory views. This is much like the Talmud, recording the opinions of various rabbis (and the Jews still consider the whole thing "inspired" despite the fact that it is clearly contradictory). But, I don't think it's necessarily just a matter of "right" opinions and "wrong" opinions. Question to ponder: If the Bible is the inspired word of God, then would it not follow that it is *intentionally* self-contradictory? Why?

Again, I agree with you when you suggest that we should question the Bible. Abraham questioned God, Moses questioned God, Jacob wrestled with God, etc. My favorite example is Job. But, we should also allow the Word to question us. The flood, the binding of Isaac, the plagues in Egypt, etc.--these are still a part of who God is. And we have to wrestle with that. When God declares His name, in the same breath He says that He is patient and forgiving and merciful, but also repaying the guilty to the third and fourth generation. This is not two opposite opinions competing with each other--it is a single paradox spoken by a unified voice. There is tension here.

As you said, we will get it wrong. And though the extremes (blind obedience to the Bible or molding God into one's own image) may seem to promise safety, they will both land us in the ditch. It's the narrow and straight path that we're called to follow--and that's a path I don't think we can ever be fully comfortable with.

At 3:22 PM, Blogger kent said...

Congrats on the book. Must be like giving birth (without the physical pain and mess). ; ) Look forward to reading it.
As an evangelical, I was a staunch believer in the bible being the inerrant, infallible word of God. As time went on, the weight of sustaining such a position became exhausting and untenable. I couldn't pretend that the competing voices within the scriptures were not contradictory just because my a prioris forced me to call them paradoxes. So, for me I had to seek a different view of what the bible actually is and also a different view of how God has and does reveal himself to mankind. The mere fact that Christians cannot decide (as a whole), and the fact that some are willing to ignore the contradictions in their theology of the God presented within scripture, in my opinion, should tell us all that there is a real danger in using scripture for understanding who God is. Sounds heretical, I know, but don't we all pick and choose what fits and what doesn't? So, how do we decide? Is there a revelation that has to come prior to the revelation one gets from reading scripture? If so, doesn't that revelation preclude our "need" for the bible in the first place? For instance, I would say that God has revealed himself to me as love (i.e. his nature is love). Is that in the bible? yes. Did I receive this revelation from studying the bible? No. When I studied the bible, trying to figure out who this God really was, I formulated a god who was both love and hate. He was both love and violence. For an infinite being, this cannot be. So, how did I come to the conclusion that God is love? I would say that it came to me at a deeper level than the mind and unrelated to (or even despite) biblical study. I truly believe that if I had not received this revelation (uneasiness about my paradigm at that time) I would still be comfortable with my evangelical views on the nature of God and the bible. In the end, we can all only believe that which makes sense to us at the point we are at. To me, the bible causes more misunderstanding about God than it resolves because it has to fit within whatever paradigm we are now residing, and we all have different paradigms. Revelation appears to come prior to and (in most cases if not all) unassociated to the bible to even fit it into any of our paradigms. Some paradigms will cause fear that revelation prior to the bible is too subjective. Some paradigms will accuse me of forming God in my own image or in the image I want him to be. I understand these critiques. My only answer I can give is that I am a much more loving person now than when I followed the theology I gleaned from studying the scriptures. I enjoy being with God (as love) instead of spending time doing what I thought had to be done to keep me on the right side of him (even though at the time I would have said that God is love). Do I have God figured out? Of course not. But, I will say this...I never understood a love like this by reading scripture and don't think I ever would have.

At 8:34 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


"If we have a book that promotes both love and hate, both "love your enemies" and "show them no mercy" how are we to choose?"

The proposal I advance in my upcoming book is that we choose by learning to identify what Jesus chose when he read Scripture, and on a deeper level learning to understand how he made those choices. I think that's what Paul meant when he spoke of us having the "mind of Christ"

" If the Bible is the inspired word of God, then would it not follow that it is *intentionally* self-contradictory?"

I think we need to be careful about saying that the Bible "ought to be" a certain way. Instead we need to look what the Bible actually is and begin there. Subtle difference, but an important one.

"we should also allow the Word to question us."

Yes, absolutely. I would only add that when we do this we need to make sure it is leading us to be more moral, rather than less moral. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for being hurtful in how they applied the Bible. So it is possible to get it wrong and think we are doing that for God. That is what Paul said about his "zeal" which he later realized was a great sin.

But for sure Jesus says a lot of stuff that is really challenging and hard that we need to allow to question and deepen us!

At 8:40 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I really relate to what you say about your experience of God's love shaping how you see God. One of the things I try to demonstrate in my new book is that the Apostles completely changed how they understood the law and scripture based on what they had EXPERIENCED of God in Christ and that led them to reject the prevalent view that justified human acts of killing in God's name and instead led them to focus on a message of welcoming enemy gentiles an living a life of radical forgiveness. Their aim in writing is to have us connect to that same experience of God's love that they had. Sounds like you have had that experience of the living God. That changes everything!

The task then (the task for all of us who know God's love first hand) is to learn to be a vessel of that love, to proclaim that love, and to draw out that love in others.

At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Mike H,

We do need to pick and choose. We see stuff like ISIS and rightly recognize it as evil. It would be no less evil if Christians did that. So we do need to reject genocide as wrong. That should be clear to us.

Where it gets harder is with stuff like how to faithfully follow Jesus in the way of enemy love. For example when is "turn the other cheek" a powerful way to expose an oppressor, and when is it simply furthering a pattern of abuse?

The bottom line though is that even if the questions are hard we do need to learn how to think morally. So the question is not whether or not we pick and chose, the question is how can we do that well, and more specifically: How can we do that in a Jesus-shaped way.

The reality is: All of us pick and choose. Progressives do. Conservatives do. No exceptions. The only difference is whether we are in denial about it and thus do it in the dark, or whether we do in purposely, thoughtfully, and prayerfully together in community with the aim of being faithful to Jesus.


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