Is the god of the Bible a moral monster? Those who believe he is often site barbaric passages in books like Leviticus or Deuteronomy. In response, Christians often offer the following hair-splitting caveat: “but that was the Old Testament.” As the statement implies, God’s behavior and methods are notably different in the first half of the book. It understandably troubles Christians that, in these passages, he doesn’t always live up to today’s standards of goodness and decency. It is supposed to be impossible for this god to make mistakes, change his mind, or otherwise behave less than perfectly. To them, this isn’t just another god we’re talking about – this is God, who was and is Goodness itself. Ditto for Love and Mercy and every other becoming quality you can name.
The question is whether God’s actions are justifiable under an older set of rules and circumstances. The answer is an emphatic “no.” But why the confusion? What are the Christian arguments, and what motivates them to justify these passages in the first place? As a former devout Christian and defender of the faith, I’d like to share a few words on all of that.
The Old Testament
Christian apologists often speak of the Old Testament in vague, academic tones. They say, for example, that the Old Testament commandments must be viewed within a certain historical context. Those who enjoy “drinking games” should be advised that downing a shot of vodka each time an apologist says the word “context” will send you to the hospital. They assure us God intended to reveal moral truth to mankind in stages, and Leviticus was a step in the right direction. It looks ugly to us today, but it’s what God’s people needed at the time. This is sometimes referred to as God’s “progressive revelation.”
These assurances crumble when you get down to specifics. In what context, exactly, was it ever moral for a father to crack open his daughter’s skull for the crime of working on the Sabbath? Stoning is the Old Testament god’s favorite method of execution, often for petty crimes, and occasionally as a means of killing disobedient children. The Bible also commands husbands not to take pity on wives who so much as suggest worshiping another god, but to stone them. Take a moment to imagine dragging someone you love into the street, shouting for your neighbors to join you, and then hurling rocks at this person until they are dead. Hear their bones breaking amid screams for mercy which you were specifically commanded to ignore. Imagine you did this to them because they offended the god you worship.
Who would rise in defense of such a policy? Sophisticated Christians, it turns out. It’s acceptable in the right context, they tell us.
These are more than academic exercises and word problems. Real men, women, and children were executed or taken into slavery, allegedly on God’s orders. Would it have been a comfort to them that he was “progressively” unfolding his perfect revelation to his future people? Of course not. These are empty words. He could have issued any commands he pleased and empowered his people by any means to follow them. He could have said, “Israel, don’t slaughter and enslave others,” but he didn’t. Those who deny that this would have been a vast improvement are lying to themselves.
Recall that the Jewish god is supposed to be all-powerful. How might you choose to lead people, given infinite power and means? He chose to drown, burn, stone, starve, slaughter, enslave, and to command his people to do the same. This was sometimes punishment for crimes but at other times it was to enforce his arbitrary preferences on diet, attire, recreation, and sexual activity. Bible apologists would have you believe worries over this barbarism result from our own intellectual and moral failings. If only we understood the “context” correctly. If only our minds were not so clouded by sin. In reality, the problem is that we do understand what we’re reading. And our goodness and compassion, not our “sinful nature,” recoils at it.
The New Testament Isn’t Much Better
The New Testament doesn’t contain a formal apology from Yahweh; he just provides a marginally better set of rules. It’s no coincidence that society at large was already operating under a better set of rules. Still, it is definitely the Bible’s “better half” and easier to sift through for the bits we like. But it is far worse than the Old Testament in one key respect: in the Old Testament, suffering by all accounts ended at death.
Enter Jesus, the peaceful hippie who taught us that death marks the start of eternal torture for theological crimes. That could be why the Apostle Paul stopped killing people who disagreed with him. Though he did remind the Romans that adulterers and homosexuals deserve to die, actual threats of death were unnecessary, tame as they are compared to the horrors of hell.
There are a host of other troubling passages in the New Testament, but I needn’t belabor the point here. It’s damning enough that no one can point to a single sentence of either testament that doesn’t sound like a product of its time and culture. The laws, prejudices, and superstitions align with their respective cultures to a tee, as do the various depictions of the Jewish war-god, Yahweh. What better evidence could one have on hand to suggest this god is, like the others, man-made?
Frankness is long overdue on this topic. Yahweh was a moral monster. If he, in spite of all the best evidence we have, turns out to be a real god, prayers should be directed to rival deities and curses toward whichever of them saw fit to create such a fiend. It is scandalous that Christians living in the 21st century refuse to denounce the horrors attributed to him.
It’s true that the Bible, like most holy texts, satisfies our desire to escape death, purports to explain why we are here, and assures us that bad people are punished in the end. But it’s also true that it fails in every respect to back up these claims, and in the process gets some of our easiest ethical questions wrong. The words and actions of the god it describes violate all reasonable notions of goodness and compassion, period. How might worshiping such a monster, declaring him Holy and Perfect, warp one’s perspective on ethics and morality?
In reply, we need look no further than the Old Testament itself, wherein the Prophet Isaiah declares: woe to those who call evil good.