I have become aware that many people consider the Bible to be an evil or wicked book. There are more than just a few with that opinion. I like to believe that is because there is a lot of ignorance of the Bible behind many of those opinions, and maybe it is also in part due to our Postmodern culture where you choose what you want to believe. Part of the issue is there are some Bible passages that can sound horrible if we do not put those passages in proper context. The Bible is not a wicked book.
My awareness peaked this last January when a commenter said this on Joe Biden’s inauguration:
“Out of all the books your choose, the bible must be one of the worst examples of a text on which you swear an oauth. Can anyone think of another collection of stories that demonstrates worse morals, ethics and which lacks any basis for system of right and wrong that could be used by a just society?” (slashdot)
Because there is so much wrong with that comment, I am not going to discuss it since it would require me to spend the entire blog post on that comment. (Okay, the most obvious rebuttal is “the Ten Commandments are from the Bible”.) But that comment started quite the discussion between a variety of people, and I learned that a lot of people believe that the Bible promotes horrible morals.. I also learned that there is a website called www.evilbible.com, which uses Bible passages to show how evil God is. The website takes some misunderstood or hard to understand passages as well as some completely misinterpreted passages and puts the worst possible spin on God. This website expresses the horrible morals of God. Fortunately for us, the website has it all wrong.
Note you can put the same spin on the movie “Mary Poppins”. You think “Mary Poppins” is a sweet family friendly movie. Well with the right clips from the movie you end up with “Scary Mary”. So instead of the family friendly movie, you have a horror short. I think that is what the evil Bible website is doing.
Providentially, also in January, my adult Sunday school class started going through the book “How (Not) to Read the Bible’‘ by Dan Kimball, in which the book addresses many of these misunderstood passages and gives four helpful facts for reading the Bible. You have to admit there are some passages in the Bible that from today’s viewpoint suggest that the Bible is anti-women, anti-science, pro-violence, and pro-slavery, as well as being intolerant. These are the hard to understand passages. I will focus on the four helpful facts that will allow you to navigate these tough Scripture passages.
The Bible is a library not a book. The Bible was written over about 1500 years by many authors in three languages. There are 66 books in two volumes, the Old Testament and the New Testament. These books have several different literary styles. The Bible consists of letters, history, poetry, law, apocalyptic literature, and prophecy. So you must take those differences into account. You do not read a chapter in 1 Kings the same way you would read a Psalm.
The Bible was written for us, but not to us. Each book of the Bible was written to a particular people in a particular situation. This truth can be clearly seen in Paul’s letters. Most of the time he dealt with real problems the local Christians were having at that time, in that culture, and at that location. Things today have changed. The culture is different, and yet God’s truths are still found in those letters. We need to take into account those cultural differences to understand what is being conveyed. Many times the meaning is clear, but with some of those harder to understand passages you need to look at what the passage meant to those in that time and place and culture. Ask yourself what is the purpose of the passage? Is it dealing with a problem? Is there a cultural issue? What is the principle that the passage is trying to convey? Does your interpretation agree with the rest of Scripture? It is important to note that God works within the culture, so for an example the Old Testament laws concerning slavery does not mean God approved of slavery, rather the laws were there to lessen the bad effects of slavery and to provide some protection to those enslaved.
Never read only a Bible verse. Read the verse in context. Look at the Bible verse in context with the surrounding verses. Zoom out some more and ask yourself what is the verse in context to the Bible book. And then look at the verse in context of the overarching story of the entire Bible. Your interpretation of the verse should fit in each one of those contexts. If it does not then you are missing something. To help you with getting the context, the Bible Project has great overviews of each book of the Bible.
All the Bible points to Jesus. When we read the Bible we should always keep Jesus in mind, because Jesus is at the center of that overarching story of the Bible. His story is what is really important. There are six acts to the big story.
- God created the universe and was in relationship with Adam and Eve. (Genesis 1-2)
- Adam and Eve rebelled and due to disobedience the relationship was broken. (Genesis 3-11)
- Redemption was initiated. (Genesis 12 – Malachi)
- God chose Abraham/Israel to bless the nations.
- Israel failed.
- Israel was exiled and then restored. Hope remains.
- Redemption has been provided through Jesus. (Matthew – John)
- We are sent to all nations. (Acts – Revelation 21)
- Restoration will be completed. (Revelation 22)
Jesus also believed that his teaching of love and forgiveness was consistent with the stories and teaching of the Old Testament. If he believed that, then one should be able to reconcile those hard to understand passages. The God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. He is not a mean evil god, rather he is loving and good as Jesus shows us. That should be our starting point when encountering these hard to understand passages.
To summarize, context is very important. For a Bible passage one needs to consider the literary context, the historical context, the cultural context, and the Biblical context with a focus on Jesus. Doing so will help you gain some understanding of these tough passages.
There are many resources available to counter the evil Bible meme and the misrepresentation of the hard to understand Bible passages. I will suggest a few resources. The book I read, “How (Not) to Read the Bible’‘ by Dan Kimball, is one good resource. The book “Is God a Moral Monster?” by Paul Copan is a more complete resource that is widely recommended. On the web, you need to be careful of the resources you use. They can and do vary a lot in quality. However, www.gotquestions.org seems to be a good resource. Another good resource is the “What Would You Say?” video series from the Colson Center. (An example from that series is “Is the Bible Sexist?”. Note the importance of context in the video.) Unfortunately you may find on the web several different answers for these hard to understand passages. So you will have to evaluate the answers, but remember it is ultimately about Jesus and what he did for us.