Is the Bible right? I’m asking a provocative question. Please be assured that I’m not asking it simply to cause a reaction or to be frivolous.
For many Christians, the Bible is the authoritative word of God for all time. They believe in a doctrine they call “biblical inerrancy,” which means that every single word in the Bible is without error and fully revealed by God. This is one of the central understandings of faith for many (although not all) Christians.
As a result, they condemn homosexuality because the Bible says it’s wrong. Leviticus 20: 13 says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death.” Now most of us wouldn’t go so far as to kill gays and lesbians. Even if they don’t go that far, they still use this passage and others like it to condemn gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. They say that God will send them to hell.
So let me ask again. Is the Bible right?
Suspend your answer to that question for a moment. In Leviticus 20:9, just four verses earlier, we read, “All who curse father or mother shall be put to death.”
Now if you believe that the Bible is the authoritative word of God for all time and completely without error, that would cause a problem. Should we really put disobedient children to death? Obviously not!
However, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t condemn the behaviour of gays and lesbians and then say that we ought not condemn kids who curse their parents.
One of the most troubling aspects of this for me is the kind of image of God it presents. Is this a true image of God? Does God really order us to mete out this kind of punishment?
Other stories, if taken literally, are equally troubling. The Bible is filled with images of a violent God — drowning the earth in a flood, commanding the people of Israel to kill all the inhabitants of the land they are conquering, and so on. Let me ask: how is this different from the slaughter of aboriginal populations when Europeans first moved into North America?
Jack Nelson–Pallmeyer poses the question sharply in his book, “Jesus Against Christianity”. How do we deal with such violent images of God as they are presented in the Bible?
The first option is to agree that this is who God is. The Bible is right, and the portrait it paints of God is valid for all time and for every situation.
The second option is to suggest that these are Old Testament references, and that the New Testament paints a different portrait of God. (This also means, however, that we can’t use the passage from Leviticus to condemn homosexual behaviour.)
However, that option doesn’t work either. Early in the story of the early church, Acts 5:1–6 tells of Ananias, who gave only a part of the proceeds of the sale of his land to the communal pot. As a result, he was struck dead for giving only part of the money. Peter attributes that murder to God. Further, the book of Revelation is filled with bloody and violent images of the end of the world, all in the cause of God’s final victory. The New Testament presents equally violent images of God.
A third option is to take seriously the question I asked at the beginning: Is the Bible right? Are these the kinds of images we want to keep of who God is? Do these violent images fit with the picture of God which Jesus taught, a compassionate and powerfully loving God, a God whom we can approach as a God who seeks to find the lost and restore them to the fellowship of the community?
Let me suggest that the answer is that we need to read the Bible carefully and critically. We need to be aware of the context in which the different parts were written. I no longer believe some parts of the Bible to be true. God does not urge us to kill our rebellious children. God simply doesn’t care if we wear clothing made of different kinds of fibres. God won’t kill us if we give only a portion of what we own to the church. Those parts of the Bible are not true for us. They are certainly not the authoritative word of God for all time.
The Bible did not descend to us straight from heaven as the authoritative word of God for all time. It contains the reflection of two communities of faith — ancient Israel and the early church — on what it means to live life in the presence of God.
We are called in the 21st century to continue to reflect on who God is, and to find contemporary ways of discerning and describing God’s presence in our lives.