Tom Gilson

When Atheists Say, ‘I Read the Bible, That’s Why I’m An Atheist.’

Note to podcast listeners: The webinar I told you I would be on this weekend was postponed to next Friday due to an emergency situation with the webinar host. This week’s podcast is also delayed, as I’d been intending to use the webinar audio for that purpose.

I saw it again just now. I’ve seen it often enough before: “The main cause of my atheism was reading the Bible.” I give these skeptics points for cuteness, but not much else. All it displays is their intellectual hubris and/or lack of responsible study. Read on and you’ll see why I say that.

I’ve even heard some say that Christians would give up their faith if they’d actually read the Bible. Atheist Guy Harrison tells us, “Many Christians are surprised to hear about the murder of babies, the God-approved kidnapping and rape of female virgins in pillaged cities, the tips on how to be a good slave and an even better slave owner … the execution of homosexuals, and so on.”

 Why Be Surprised When the Old Testament Seems Foreign?

I’m not surprised. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover many times. I know what’s in there. Some of it seems very, very foreign to me. Some of it’s disturbing.

Here’s a hint on the “seems foreign” part, though. If “foreign” means “different lands, different languages, different cultures,” then it is foreign. What else are we supposed to expect of it?

Sometimes “foreign” is disturbing just because it’s different. I spent a summer in China several years ago, and made friends with a young Chinese man. He and I walked across Tian An Men Square holding hands together. Men do that in Beijing and it means they’re friends. It bothered me the whole time because where I come from it would mean something else. It was disturbing, but only because it was different.

Some of the Bible is like that. The poetic images, for example, are unlike any you’re used to if you haven’t read it much. More to the point, there’s the Bible’s unexpected honesty about human sin. Major portions of the Old Testament need an “R” rating for sex and violence. Hint: God doesn’t affirm illicit sex. He only affirms war where it’s for his people’s defense, or where serves as his long-delayed but final judgment upon a nation’s intractable unrepentant sin.

God Isn’t What We Imagine Him To Be, Either

Oops. Now there’s a foreign concept if I’ve ever heard of one: judging sin. God hates sin, actually, and it’s not because he hates people having a good time. He hates it because it’s inherently self-destructive, not to mention how it destroys others.

And that, I think, explains a lot more of the “problem” with the Bible. We don’t get God. We think he ought to be more like us, not expecting too much of us, willing to overlook a fault, and certainly not poking his nose in others’ business.

Except we’re not God, and he is. He has the authority. More than that, he has the perfect loving wisdom and justice it takes to make the right judgment regarding sin. He hates it for two reasons, essentially: Sin denies and rejects his own holy character, and (whether we realize it or not) it demeans and damages our own lives.

Even with that in mind, it’s still difficult for us to understand some of God’s instructions regarding sin in the Old Testament. Some of it confuses me still, even after all the study I’ve done. Here, though, I rely on standard wisdom: When faced with something hard to understand, start from something that’s not so difficult and work from there.

Start With What’s Clear, Not What’s Foggy.

The New Testament is a lot less foreign. God’s love and justice are both still very much in evidence there, but his revelation through Jesus Christ is so much clearer. In Christ’s teaching we see that God still judges sin. Jesus’ warnings on that were as ominous as any of the Old Testament prophets’. In Christ, too, though, we see grace, especially the grace of the Cross, where he accepted that judgment upon himself, for those who will trust him with it.

God revealed both his love and his justice superbly through Christ. (The apostle Paul exposits this beautifully in the first four or five chapters of Romans.) It’s clear beyond any doubt that God is a good God.

So if some murky passage in the much more distant Old Testament casts doubt on that, I can say this to myself:

I don’t get this. In fact, it seems wrong. But since it’s so foreign to the world I live in, that means I have reason to think the problem lies in me and my understanding, not in the text or in the principles the text was prescribing in its original setting. I’ll accept that I know what I know, and I don’t know what I don’t know. I don’t really know what this signified in its original context. I do know God is a good God. I’ll stick with what I know, and I’ll give myself permission simply to wonder about the rest.”

And I think in most cases that’s sufficient. It’s called treating Ancient Near East history and literature with the humility we ought to treat it with. It’s hubris to think we know enough to pass judgment on it.

Good Scholarship Adds Even More Clarity

But I’ve left out one more way to handle these hard texts. There are scholars who’ve studied the Ancient Near East enough to unravel some of these puzzles. The best I’ve seen among them is Paul Copan, in his aptly named book Is God a Moral Monster? Obviously he’s not ducking any questions in a book with a name like that. Through that book and other studies I’ve learned that the “genocide” of which God has been accused isn’t at all what we think of when we think of genocide. Slavery in the Old Testament also bears almost no resemblance to slavery as we think of it.

So between a reasonable humility on my part toward the Old Testament, the clarity we see in the New Testament, and the help of Old Testament scholars, there’s enough there for me to keep on trusting in God’s goodness, both reasonably and responsibly.

The Atheist Quip Has Real Problems

Atheists say they disbelieve because they’ve read the Bible. I think they’ve missed the clear message of Christ, they haven’t read the better Old Testament scholars, or (most likely) they’ve approached both God and the scriptures with way too much hubris. They think they know enough on their own to interpret foreign, ancient instructions. That’s foolish. And it’s even more foolish to think God ought to do things the way they would have.

Image Credit(s): Brett Jordan/Unsplash.

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3 thoughts on “When Atheists Say, ‘I Read the Bible, That’s Why I’m An Atheist.’

  1. Yeah, it’s kind of like me saying I’ve read an article on quantum physics, admitting it didn’t make sense to me or it contradicts what I think physics is, and declaring therefore it cannot be true.

  2. Suggesting atheists reject biblical accounts because of some anti-foreign bias is uncharitable. The claim, so far as I understand it, is more often about perceived contradictions in the text. You may reject this claim still; that’s your prerogative. But, if I can abuse a phrase…”in all things charity,” as Augustine may or may not have actually said.

    I hope you’ll forgive some light chastisement from a friend who hates to see you err.

  3. Hi, Daniel. I owe you an email; your newsletter was interesting!

    In my experience, when atheists use the line I set as the headline here, it’s not about perceived contradictions but about slavery, genocide, etc., especially in the Old Testament. Where it is about perceived contradictions, you’re right; my answer here misses that completely.

    I think “anti-foreign bias” is inaccurate for what I was trying to communicate, by the way. It’s more about the hubris of thinking one understands more than one likely does about these foreign cultures.

    As for those perceived contradictions, I have another answer, but it’s longer: It’s a major part of what I cover in Too Good to be False.

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