Quite a few skeptical objections to Christianity center around accusations that the Bible is a deeply evil book. Atheist Richard Dawkins sums up these sentiments succinctly and colorfully when he describes the God of the Old Testament as “a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (The God Delusion, p.51). Because Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God, this charge is quite serious. If the Bible did turn out to be an immoral book, it would call into question whether it could possibly be inspired by the perfectly good, loving, and just God worshiped by Christians.
Now, as a Christian, I obviously don’t believe that these charges are accurate. While I’ll be the first to admit that there are shocking and difficult passages in the Bible, I’ve found that many atheist objections rely on a very superficial reading of the text, with little time spent trying to understand the historical, contextual and theological issues that ought to inform our interpretation. But in this short article, I’m not going to address specific difficult passages in the Bible. Instead, I’d like to focus on an issue that -in my opinion- completely undermines many atheist objections. The question is: what do atheists mean when they call the Bible ‘evil’?
This question is often neglected by both Christians and non-Christians alike, but ought to be the starting point for our entire discussion. How can we begin discussing whether the Bible is ‘evil’, unless we agree on what we mean by the word ‘evil’? Christians believe that ‘evil’ is defined in contrast to God’s moral nature. God himself is the basis for goodness, righteousness, justice, and compassion and ‘evil’ is anything which contradicts his perfect moral standard. But what do atheists mean by this term? This question is specifically directed to atheists who insist that there is no objective moral standard of good and evil. Take Dawkins himself who, while railing against the biblical God in the most lurid terms, also declares that “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (River Out of Eden, p.133) What exactly, then, does Dawkins mean when he denounces the biblical God as ‘evil’? And what does the average moral relativist mean when he or she criticizes the Bible as an ‘evil, immoral book’?
The answer is unclear. Moral relativists hold that morality is relative to either the individual or the culture. In other words, a particular action can be immoral ‘for you’ but moral ‘for me.’ Or an action can be ‘moral’ in one society while it is ‘immoral’ in another society. What moral relativists deny is that there is an objective standard of morality that transcends all individuals and cultures and to which all people are held accountable. But if we adopt this relativistic understanding of morality, it seems that a critique of the Bible as an ‘immoral book’ loses all of its force.
For example, if morality is relative to the individual, then the statement that ‘the Bible is evil’ is essentially a statement of individual preference. It amounts to the declaration “I don’t like the Bible” or “I find the Bible offensive.” But how does this objection provide an objective indictment of the Bible any more than the declaration that “I don’t like classical music” provides an objective indictment of Mozart? Cultural relativism fares no better. To say that “the Bible is evil” as a cultural moral relativist is to say “This book offends the norms of my particular culture.” But does this objection undermine the Bible’s claim to divine inspiration? No. After all, the Bible’s insistence that women are equal to men offended the cultural norms of ancient Greece. Its insistence that greed is a sin offended the cultural norms on Wall Street during the 1980s. So why should the offensiveness of the Bible to any particular culture be an indication that the Bible is wrong?
To summarize my argument, I think that there is an implicit contradiction between two propositions held by many atheists: first, “objective good and evil do not exist” and second, “the Bible is evil.” If the Bible is only ‘evil’ relative to some fluid, subjective standard of morality that varies from decade to decade or from person to person, then this assertion should not be particularly troubling to Christians. After all, if the Bible really is divinely inspired and presents a God whose moral goodness, holiness, and justice transcend all people and cultures, we ought to expect that individuals and communities would find certain aspects of it repugnant. To make the charge of an ‘evil Bible’ really stick, the atheist must adopt some objective standard of good and evil on which he can base his accusations. The difficulty he then faces is explaining where this objective moral standard comes from and why it is binding on all human beings.
Instead of an accusation of objective immorality, I suspect that what most atheists have in mind when they assert that “the Bible is evil” or point to particularly violent passages in the Old Testament is actually a charge of incoherence. While they themselves might deny that objective good and evil exist, they recognize that Christians worship a God who is preeminently good and loving. The atheist is therefore aiming at a contradiction: “You Christians say that the Bible is inspired by a perfectly good and loving God. But look at how evil and unloving the Bible actually is. Therefore, your claims are contradictory.” This objection avoids the problems of moral relativism that I described above, and is therefore more challenging. But fortunately, the objection itself shows us the way forward.
While Christians do believe that the Bible is inspired by a perfectly good and loving God, they also believe that the story of the Bible is ultimately the story of God’s redemption of humanity through Jesus Christ. Jesus himself is the ultimate expression of a perfectly good, loving God, and that is the starting point for how we ought to understand the Bible. Few people, even extremely zealous atheists, can look at the person of Jesus and not admire his gentleness, his moral courage, and his compassion. The same is true for Christians; our faith is based first and foremost on trust in and allegiance to Jesus Christ. But Jesus’ teaching was utterly saturated with the Old Testament. He viewed it as fully inspired, fully authoritative, and -what’s particularly surprising- fully reflective of a God of goodness, mercy and love. Jesus never contrasted the God of the Old Testament with the God of his own teaching, or rejected the Jewish Scripture as primitive and barbaric. Somehow, in some way, Jesus saw his message and the message of the God of Israel as completely consistent. If Jesus believed that his teaching about love and forgiveness (and righteousness and judgment) was consistent with the Old Testament, then we ought to at least consider the possibility that the two can indeed be reconciled and should approach our study of even the most troubling passages in the Bible with this in mind. I’d say that’s a very good place for both Christians and non-Christians to start.
Note that I am not necessarily agreeing with everything stated in the links below. That is part of my point: when dealing with these issues, there are multiple views we should be aware of, even coming from a conservative, evangelical perspective.
- “We don’t hate sin …” – Biola professor Clay Jones on the cultural practices of the Canaanites. Horrifying, but important for putting the Conquest of Canaan into historical context.
- Dr. Matthew Flanagan’s extensive writing on Old Testament ethics
- Is God a Moral Monster by Dr. Paul Copan
- Christian apologist Dr. William Lane Craig on the Conquest of Canaan. Part 1 and Part 2.
- Dr. Matthew Flanagan on the Conquest of Canaan. Part 1 and Part 2.