Why do good people suffer? Why, if Jesus promised to return, has it been 2,000 years? How do science and faith relate? How do you explain impossibilities in the Bible? How do you explain the violence that is not only prompted, but often orchestrated by God? I see these questions come up a lot. Christians and Atheists alike ask them, and I would like to try and address them from a personal perspective. I will try to remain unbiased where I can, but much of my discussion will be coming from a Christian perspective and will be driven by personal experience. Furthermore, this article will not offer an exhaustive study of each topic, but serves as an overview of each and a study of how they relate to one another. Lastly, you will note that I do not cite conventional sources. This is because I am not a Bible scholar. I have a degree in Creative Writing, and secondly, this is, in part, an opinion piece, and although it might help, I don’t think you need a degree to study theology. If that doesn’t interest you, then I’d suggest moving on.
I can’t prove God’s existence. A lot of people want proof, and as much as I would love to, I cannot provide that. What I can tell you is that proof comes with faith. Proof comes with a willingness to follow, even if you don’t know where you’re going. That’s not the end of anything. That’s where things start. Once you have faith, God will answer your questions, but nothing will happen unless you are willing to suspend disbelief in the first place. My advice is to do your research. You won’t find conclusive evidence for God’s existence, but you will find numerous evidence in history and various scientific fields that point to it. I will leave that up to you because, as I said, I’m not here to prove God’s existence. I’m writing this to try and help make some things make sense.
If this does interest you, we’ll start here: why do good people suffer?
I use the word “good” instead of “innocent” on purpose. People tend to ask why innocent people suffer when I think this is the wrong question. It’s a dicey topic because, for one thing, “innocent” means different things to different people. Is a man who steals from a grocery store only to feed his family innocent or guilty? It depends who you ask. According to the law of the land, he’s guilty. He stole. On the other hand, some might say that his actions were justified because they were for a noble cause, and therefore, he is innocent.
Regardless, no one is truly innocent in the eyes of God. I get that this seems harsh. It doesn’t seem fair that some people get to be born in America, completely by chance, eat what they want when they want, and watch football on Sunday night, while a poor family from Syria has to flee their country and seriously worry about where they’re going to get their next meal. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible and even probable that the people who suffer more have more faith than the people with very easy lives.
Then there are those who choose more difficult lives. They choose to suffer a little to help those who suffer a lot. Sometimes the most wonderful, selfless people suffer the most. There are people in this world who would sacrifice everything to help someone else, whether it’s their child or a stranger who really needs their help. These people go out of their way and make their own lives difficult to help others who have it worse than they do.
And what about the child who is born with a serious birth defect and dies before he’s a year old? Surely he was innocent. Surely a loving God wouldn’t let something like this happen to him and his parents. But it does happen. People die of starvation: are forced to leave their homes: contract treatable diseases that kill them because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I can’t provide a completely satisfying answer. The answer I can provide isn’t even completely satisfying to me, but it’s the best I can do. First, a quick explanation of what actually happened when Jesus rose from the dead and what it meant. The resurrection meant that humans were saved from sin. It did not mean that we were no longer sinful. Even saints are sinners. Quite frankly, it’s extremely difficult, and probably impossible to live a completely sinless life. Whatever happened a long, long time ago, it infused our human nature with something nasty, whether it literally involved an apple or not. Secondly, we need to remember two statements that Jesus makes that help understand the context of this question. He states in Mathew 26:11, “The poor you will always have with you…” and in Mathew 20:16, he says, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”
From the beginning, God tells his people to take care of the poor and vulnerable. He constantly makes mention of orphans and widows, and makes sure that these people are remembered by the Israelites (and eventually everyone as his kingdom grows). What I think we have to remember is that humanity is much more interconnected than we think or even want it to be at times. We’re one big dysfunctional family, and whether we like it or not, it is our duty to take care of the people who need us. God has a special place in his heart for those who suffer, so he certainly hasn’t forgotten them.
But why will the poor always be with us? I think there are several answers to this question.
- It’s human nature. Whether we like it or not, people have selfish tendencies. No matter how good of a person we are, we naturally take things that we want and whether by accident or intentionally, we keep things from other people. This isn’t always a bad thing. It’s partly a survival instinct. All animals do it with territory, water, and food. We just happen to do it particularly with money because in a civilized society, money is a survival resource.
- Socialism doesn’t work. There will always be haves and have-nots. For a similar reason as I just explained, a society will never be entirely equal. There will always be people who work harder than others, and those who want more than others. For some, living on the bare minimum can be satisfying, while to others, it’s just not. Ideally, in a socialist society, the people who are more ambitious or simply have better-paying jobs or just have more resources for other reasons would freely share those resources with the less fortunate. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t work because a) there are selfish people in the world, and b) too many people take advantage of the system. You can’t receive if you don’t give anything.
- This is also related to my previous points. Along with money comes status. While it isn’t necessary to have money in order to have status, they are generally related. Furthermore, regardless of the means by which it is achieved, people strive for status, and while a given social structure may be fluid, there is, and always will be a status quo. In order to be high on the social ladder, by necessity, there needs to be people below you.
So what does Jesus mean by “The last will be first and the first will be last?” A lot of people, including, previously, myself tend to think that this means our social, and perhaps our economic status will be reversed in heaven. However, this article (http://www.gotquestions.org/first-last-last-first.html) suggests that it might be something else. I don’t think a definitive answer is given here, but some good options are presented.
- The first to believe will be the last to enter the kingdom and vice versa.
- Everyone’s reward in heaven will be completely equal, so this actually means that there will be no social or economic status at all. There will be no status quo.
- It is noted that this refers to the reward of eternal life. However, peoples’ rewards for different actions and choices will potentially be different. “Of course, Scripture also teaches that there are different rewards in heaven for different services, but the ultimate reward of eternal life will be achieved by all equally.” Unfortunately, the article does not elaborate on what exactly this means.
When it comes to the question of child labor, child death, sex slavery and other such tragedy involving children, there are a few things to remember. These things by no means make any of it okay, but they can shed a little light into some dark places. First of all, children who die before the “age of moral accountability” are automatically saved. They go straight to heaven. This could mean that a child who would otherwise have a short and miserable life is now in paradise with their heavenly Father. Again, I’m not saying it makes it any more okay. But what about the children who do grow to be a little older, only to be cut short without ever hearing about Christ? I think the answer can be intuited. Never hearing specifically about God or Jesus isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s rejecting him that causes problems. Want proof? “The truth about God is known to them instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Romans 1:19-20, New Living Translation). I found this after a very brief Google search.
That being said, it doesn’t give us license to slack off when it comes to telling people about God and his promises. We are clearly told that we must spread the Gospel throughout the whole world. It’s a pretty clear job description for anyone who calls herself Christian. On the flip side, it also doesn’t give us license not to seek the truth about God when we have the resources readily available. This actually helps answer our question: why do people suffer? It also leads into the question: why has it been 2,000 years since Jesus’ resurrection? First, good people suffer because the rest of us don’t do enough to stop it. Remember that the Church, which ideally encompasses all of humanity, is the body of Christ. Most people just think about it in the context of salvation, in other words, we tend to think of it in a very spiritual sense. What it actually means is that we are here now to do Jesus’ work in the world. We are here to literally heal the hurting and feed the hungry. We are literally here to be his voice and hands and feet in a very physical, real-time sense.
This means finding a cure for cancer through serious medical research. This means starting schools in places where education isn’t really available for kids. This means volunteering for or donating to nonprofits that help refugees. This means blogging and trying to answer the hard questions. This means standing up to the bullies who just want to tell you you’re an idiot for believing in something. It also means praying. It means being proud of what you believe in. It means not trying to change the subject when people bring up religion, even if that’s way easier than having that difficult conversation. It means working together with people, even those who we might not like, or who might not like us. It means keeping in mind the greater good. This is as much a reminder to myself than anyone else, so bear with me.
We are a significant part of God’s plan. What is also important to remember is that God has a different understanding of time than we do, so what seems like a really long time to us, can seem like no time at all to him. At the same time, we’re told to be ready because Jesus could return and things could drastically change tomorrow or within the next hour. We could argue that so much more could get done and the world could be made a lot better a lot quicker if God chose to be more directly involved. In the Old Testament particularly, he is depicted as doing absolutely miraculous things for the Israelites, singlehandedly winning battles for them. These days it seems that miracles aren’t quite as noticeable, or have we just lost our ability to see them? We cured Polio; we figured out how to use electricity; we figured out how to make a smart phone, for crying out loud. Are any of these things not miraculous? A friend of mine pointed out to me that we call something a miracle when we don’t understand it. It’s like magic to us. We are so scientifically and technologically advanced now, and we understand how so much stuff works that I think we’ve stopped seeing miracles for what they are. While things happen slower in our eyes, I think we should consider it a privilege to be so involved in making God’s world a better place. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that the Jewish religion, which was the context in which the Church was born, started out pretty tiny. This could explain why God had to really directly help them out. Jump ahead to the present day, and not only are we much more advanced in many ways, but Christianity is now the largest religion in the world. These two factors really seem to be significant.
We see things in short bursts of time, but God connects things over years and centuries that are difficult to see or understand. Think about it in terms of a really long and complicated Rube Goldberg machine. It might not be immediately evident why things happen, but often when we view the events of our lives in retrospect, even the bad ones, we see how important some of them were, and we can often see how they got us to where we are now. Think of it this way: when my dad was a kid, he grew up in Needham Massachusetts. My mom grew up in Portland Maine. My dad is, and always has been interested in carpentry and woodworking in general, but he also has good business sense, so he went to school in New York for finance. My mom went to school for a year, but couldn’t decide what she wanted to study long-term, so she decided to go work for an insurance company. It was there she met France. It just so happened that my dad’s parents moved to Portland somewhere within that time frame, so when my dad graduated from school, he moved up there, too and got a job working for a local bank. It was there he met Bill, who was married to France. Bill and France decided my parents should meet. Long story short, my parents eventually started dating and got married a couple of years later. What they weren’t expecting; what they found out the hard way, was that they both carried a gene that causes Muscular Dystrophy, which they passed on to me. So if my grandparents hadn’t happened to move to Portland, and my dad hadn’t happened to get a job up there, and if my parents hadn’t happened to have some mutual friends, and if they hadn’t happened to carry the same defective gene, I wouldn’t exist. Jump ahead a few years and I decided I wanted to learn to play guitar. If my friend hadn’t happened to recommend Alpha Omega, I wouldn’t have happened to meet my teacher, who happened to be Christian. I probably wouldn’t have been encouraged to be confirmed in the Catholic Church, and I probably wouldn’t have gone to a Christian college. Years would have gone by, and I probably wouldn’t be writing this. So coincidence, God’s plan, or even a miracle was directly involved in my existence as I am now.
As I said, it all sounds like a long convoluted coincidence. Miracles and answered prayers often do. Sometimes we even forget we prayed for something and weeks, months or years later, our prayer is quietly answered. God sees how things will play out over long periods of time. Sometimes we have big, extravagant plans and ambitions that require years of school or practice or exploring–lots of trial and error–but none of it is assured. We may have our plans, but it could literally rain cats and dogs tomorrow. It might be unlikely, but it could happen. God works in real time, and he works in the physical world. He is capable of literally anything, but he takes into account the fact that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, he takes into account how and when a prayer is answered, and how it will affect other people, and the world in general. That being said, there have always been miracles that no one can really explain.
These medical miracles took place mainly in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Here is the story of an unexplained miracle rescue.
Here is a story of a little girl whose accident cured her of two diseases, and who had a near-death experience, in which she claims to have gone to Heaven.
This is a Facebook page where anyone can write in their miracle stories. There are a lot.
Miracles can happen in many ways that we take for granted. Many times we see them just as coincidence or luck. I have a few miracle stories of my own that might change your mind, though.
- My friend told me that he has often had dreams about things before they happen, and they often happen exactly as they did in the dream. This has been happening to him for years now, and is usually the only kind of dream he has these days.
- My friend also told me that his girlfriend’s family sometimes gets premonitions and intuitively knows things about the past or future that wouldn’t make sense unless they were told these things. For example, my friend’s girlfriend intuitively knew that her aunt’s house once had a balcony that was taken down before she was born.
- Towards the end of high school, into my first year of college I was starting to have emotional problems. I felt very lonely a lot of the time, even though I knew that my family and friends loved me. I was missing something. I thought I needed a romantic partner, and I prayed about this a lot, though at the time I didn’t quite know God. One night, two months into my Freshman year I said “I love you” for the first time in a prayer, without really even meaning to, and an indescribable feeling of love and peace came over me. I’ve felt different ever since.
Consider the fact that life on earth exists. The conditions had to be exactly perfect. The planet had to be an exact distance from the sun. There had to be water. The conditions in the air had to be just right. Narrow it down to human life. I don’t know the exact odds, but it seems unlikely that any species on earth would be intelligent enough to learn to use language, learn to write, understand abstract ideas, or be spiritual. None of these things help us survive, so from that perspective, they are completely useless abilities. There are explanations for why these things happen, but at the same time, they are extremely unlikely. A miracle is something that seems impossible but happens anyway. Maybe one day we will find a scientific explanation for every miracle, but I see science as a way of understanding God.
In some sense, the answer to any prayer can be considered a miracle, even if it looks like coincidence. Many people assume that God only does or would do miracles through supernatural means, but often, God answers prayers by putting people in the right place at the right time or allowing natural events to happen that allow a person to get ahead or even save their life. God is the commander and creator of both the natural and supernatural world, and these two aspects of reality are much more interconnected than one might suppose.
However, many of the events that are written into history are natural impossibilities. We have already seen that God uses natural and supernatural means to do the impossible, but many of the events in the Bible seem quite unbelievable. They just don’t make any sense. How do we explain things like the Creation story, or the flood in the story of Noah, or the parting of the sea in Exodus? To answer this question we need to look at several things. We need to look at the Bible as a whole and determine what, if anything, is supposed to be taken literally or figuratively, we need to look at the historical and cultural context, and we need to look at what these stories are actually trying to tell us if the Bible is supposed to be believed as the timeless Word of God.
First let’s look at the Creation story. The first story we are told in the Bible is about the six day creation of the world. Scientifically, this story is completely inaccurate and could not have happened, if it is taken literally. A world cannot be created in six literal days, and even if it could, everything is created in a completely nonsensical order. The theory of evolution teaches that all species originated from one life form and branched off from there. Species were born and went extinct and continue to do so and will always continue to do so. The Big Bang Theory goes back further and teaches that the Universe was created after a singularity exploded and all matter developed from there. If you want the details, I’m afraid you’re reading the wrong article. The question is, where did the singularity come from? To me this seems to be an unanswerable question, at least for a girl who studied creative writing with a little philosophy and theology thrown in. However, what we do know, in terms of scientific facts seems very compelling, and some use these scientific theories, which however compelling, could still be proven wrong, as evidence against the supernatural. This is where we must look at two things: historical context, and the use of language.
While many teachings in the Bible are timeless, one must remember that many of the stories, particularly in the Old Testament were written at a fixed point in time, about a fixed point in time. The writer of the Creation story would have had no knowledge of evolution or the Big Bang Theory. They would have had no idea about how atoms interact or how life was created, from a scientific standpoint. Therefore, they pieced together from their understanding of the universe, an explanation of how the Earth was made. However, it isn’t the creation that is truly the focus of the Creation story. The focus is God’s relation to his creation, and most importantly, his relation to humanity. God creates the universe peacefully, and it is greatly emphasized that this creation is good. It is also emphasized that humans were created in God’s image and that we are here to take care of his creation. This is the point we are supposed to take from the first part of Genesis. God’s creation is innately good, and we are a significant part of it.
So then what about the story of Noah? What are we supposed to take from a story about the near destruction of the whole human race by the God that created it? The point of this story, it seems, was not to describe literal events, but to demonstrate a point about human nature, the nature of faith, and what a relationship with God provides and entails. Noah survives the flood because he is faithful, while many do not survive the flood because of their sinful behavior. I would like to pause and address a related question before moving on. Stories such as this, including stories in Exodus, Joshua, and Judges depict horrible violence, largely orchestrated by God himself towards large groups of people.
It does seem that many of these stories are meant to be taken literally. The Israelite conquest of Canaan was, in fact, a real, traceable series of events. Jesus tells us in Mathew 5 that we are to love our enemies as well as our neighbors. However, the depictions in the Old Testament of conquest and violence make this command seem almost hypocritical. There are several reasons why the violence committed by God and his people may have been exaggerated, for one thing, and also may have been justifiable. Professor Lawson Stone from Asbury Theological Seminary explains in this article, which I will provide in full.
“It’s hard to imagine anyone today who is familiar with the Bible not being concerned about the violence in the Old Testament. It’s a fashionable bomb tossed by the so-called new atheists, and the easiest way for critics of Christianity to dismiss the Bible. To hear them talk, on every page of the Old Testament cities are burned to the ground, whole populations annihilated. Yahweh, the God of Israel, is in turn portrayed as a wrathful tribal deity constantly calling his people to commit atrocities in his name.
The problem of violence in the Old Testament centers mainly around the stories of Israel’s struggle to settle the land of Canaan. These stories center on the books of Joshua and Judges. So establish some starting points by looking in a general way at the question of violence and war in the Old Testament. Then in the installments to follow, we’ll turn specifically to Joshua and Judges.
All these presentations will share one important conviction: central to getting the Bible right is hearing it in its own cultural and historical setting. This is not just good scholarship; it’s good listening. That’s why I’m excited to be sharing with you from a place called Bedhat es-Sha’ab, a little-known and infrequently visited site just west of the Jordan river that is possibly one of the earliest places where Israelites assembled and worshiped as they settled in the land of Canaan. Being an outsider in this barren, desolate place reminds me that the biblical characters didn’t live in a world of civilian police, ambulance and 9-1-1 service. Nor did they have 2000 years of reflection on the whole Bible. The Old Testament characters need to be seen and heard in their own time, not dismissed from the perspective of our time.
With that in mind, here are seven facts to to help focus the question of violence in the Old Testament:
Jesus and the NT writers never complain about the violence in the Old Testament. That should flash at least a yellow, caution-light on our hasty dismissal of the Old Testament. Are WE more morally sensitive than Jesus and the New Testament writers? Did they see something in the Old Testament that we miss?
Secular historians and the Bible itself tell us that the land of Canaan at the time of the Israelite settlement was not inhabited by a uniform, indigenous population. Canaan was a crossroads and a diverse culture of many different groups: You know, all the “-ites”-Canaanites, Amorites, Perizites, stalactites, stalagmites… If you’d asked a random inhabitant of Canaan “Whose land is this?” You’d have gotten different answers. It was a no-mans-land.
Genesis 12-50 tells us the Israelites’ ancestors had actually lived in Canaan for centuries before their sojourn in Egypt. They were not outsiders trying to take a land from its original owners. In fact, the Pharaohs of Egypt would have seen no real difference between Canaanites and Israelites. They came from the same place, spoke the same language, had the same physical anthropology, i.e. they looked alike. So there is no parallel between the book of Joshua and, say, the European settlers in North America displacing the earlier inhabitants.
This a biggee. By Joshua’s day, Canaan had long suffered under a harsh political system. Canaan in the time of Moses and Joshua had been ruled for centuries by Egypt. Egypt had been ruled by foreign kings known as the Hyksos, who possibly came from Syria-Palestine. A native Egyptian dynasty expelled these foreign kings, pursuing them into Canaan. To insure they never came back, Egypt annexed Canaan and ruled it with two aims: first, never-ever would Canaan be a corridor for anyone attacking Egypt!
Second, Pharaoh exploited Canaan economically. He administered Canaan by appointing rulers in the top 30 or so towns. They managed the country like a giant agricultural plantation, a kind of “factory farm.” They focused on producing a small number of crops valued by the Egyptian upper classes, mainly olives and a type of grape that thrived only in Canaan.
This reality had serious consequences.
The focus on massive production of a few crops not only risked depleting the land, it also destroyed the locally integrated, self-sustaining economies of small villages and towns throughout the hill country. These communities needed mix of farming and herding just to survive. The Egyptians also yanked the best of the work force out of these towns and villages to toil as forced labor, emptying the rural hill country of Canaan. Many people from Canaan, not just future Israelites, wound up slaves in Egypt. Settlement patterns in Canaan about 1300 B.C., just before the exodus and conquest, show the central hill country of Canaan was largely emptied out.
Under this kind of regime, Canaan was unstable and violent. The city rulers fought each other, hired mercenaries, sometimes cruelly treated the local populace. Bandits terrorized the highways. Men stripped of their land and living gathered around warlords, some of whom were good men, others just thugs or gangsters.
So, by the time Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan, the place was dark and bloody ground. It’s just possible that, far from being seen as invaders, Joshua and the Israelites represented the arrival of order, justice, and even peace.
The Old Testament shows us that, even in the conquest stories, the Israelites were not a militarized nation. While other nations boasted of their weapons and crack troops, the Israelites were not a professional army. Likewise, the Israelites were not a huge group. The idea found in some textbooks that there were at least 2.5 million Israelites comes from a misunderstanding of the Hebrew terminology for numbers. Archaeologists tell us that likely weren’t 2.5 million people living in all of Canaan and Syria combined!
The books of Deuteronomy, Joshua & Judges stress that, from a military perspective, the Israelites were out-numbered, out-maneuvered and out-gunned. After Joshua, they had no central authority. They were only a coalition of tribes, often divided, often untrue to their own religion. The Bible says they needed miraculous divine intervention just to survive. Hardly the profile of a nation of bloodthirsty, imperialists!
Warlike nations, and all of Israel’s ancient neighbors, gloried in their superior weapons and firepower. Images of Pharaoh portray him holding his hapless enemies by the hair and smiting them with a mace or battle axe. Or, we see Pharaoh thundering along in his war chariot, horses’ reins tied around his waist, unleashing arrows at cringing, fleeing foes. The Old Testament, in contrast, stresses that the Israelites were poorly armed, confronting fortified cities or huge chariot forces on foot. The Old Testament also emphasizes Israel’s lack of metal workers. Again, not exactly a warrior nation.
Finally, the world of Moses, Joshua, Gideon and David was a world of unspeakable violence perpetrated by massive, well-armed professional armies. The kings of Egypt, Asia Minor and Mesopotamia gloried in their brutality and savagery. In countless inscriptions throughout the history of the ancient Near East, the great kings boasted of boring through their enemies’ bodies, ripping their entrails out, galloping their horses and chariots through the gore of enemy bodies, splashing through enemy blood as if crossing a river, impaling thousands of “rebels” on stakes around conquered cities, flaying the skin off of their defeated enemies in full view of their families, and hideously mutilating the dead. And you know, almost nobody in the ancient Near East found this shocking. Rather, most thought it glorious proof that the gods had favored the king. Compared to the graphic detail, intensity, and sheer mass of these ancient descriptions, the Old Testament looks rather tame, even modest.
Whatever problems we might have with the violence in the Old Testament, it was One who claimed to be the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament, Jesus, whose Hebrew name was Joshua, who appealed constantly to the OT witness. Schooled in the Old Testament, Jesus called his people to love their enemies and to be peacemakers, not in spite of his Old Testament heritage, but because of it.
That’s something to think about.”
This, to me, is extremely compelling. However, does it justify the killing of women and children? This article may help answer that question. Note that I personally do not agree with everything that is said in this article, but as I said, I want to stay at least somewhat neutral.
There are two main points I want to focus on.
- “A basic knowledge of Canaanite culture reveals its inherent moral wickedness. The Canaanites were a brutal, aggressive people who engaged in bestiality, incest, and even child sacrifice. Deviant sexual acts were the norm. The Canaanites’ sin was so repellent that God said, “The land vomited out its inhabitants” (Leviticus 18:25). Even so, the destruction was directed more at the Canaanite religion (Deuteronomy 7:3–5,12:2-3) than at the Canaanite people per se. The judgment was not ethnically motivated. Individual Canaanites, like Rahab in Jericho, could still find that mercy follows repentance (Joshua 2). God’s desire is that the wicked turn from their sin rather than die (Ezekiel 18:31-32, 33:11).”
- “… The Scripture teaches that we are all born in sin (Psalm 51:5;58:3). This implies that all people are morally culpable for Adam’s sin in some way. Infants are just as condemned from sin as adults are…. an argument could be made that it would have been cruel for God to take the lives of all the Canaanites except the infants and children. Without the protection and support of their parents, the infants and small children were likely to face death anyway due to starvation.
It’s worth noting that most people, myself included, like to see the supernatural with rose colored glasses. We like God’s love, and ignore the parts that are scary. God’s justice can definitely be scary. As with more allegorical stories like the Creation story, the Flood account, and parts of the Exodus, there is a timeless takeaway from all this. God is serious, and God is righteous. He isn’t just one-sided, and he expects us to live a certain way. That being said, he does give us a lot of chances to change, and he helps us out in that effort.
One final point I would like to make before we beat this topic into the ground is that these stories are told from the point of view of the victors. In this next article, Professor Stone narrows his focus down to violence in the book of Joshua. You can find the whole article via the link, but I would like to focus on one thing that, I think, is really key.
“Scholars of ancient military texts remind us that in the ancient Near East, battle accounts used very stereotyped, extreme language. Nuance was not their strong suit! A king would claim he killed every single occupant of a land, only to report how much tribute the presumably dead enemies had to pay each year! Clearly, the claim of annihilation there only meant to convey total victory.
We should also remember that our modern notions of genocide and total war come from our knowledge of weapons of mass destruction and the actual experience of genocide by these means. The ancient world, for all its ferocity, couldn’t do better than spears, arrows, swords and catapults. They had no way to envision the literal extermination of whole populations. The language was stock military rhetoric that conveyed an unquestioned, uncontested victory. Maybe that could help us with those statements in Joshua too.”
I think that, with caution, this understanding of exaggerated and allegorical language can be applied in our interpretation of many parts of the Bible. Some would argue that if the Bible is not taken literally in its entirety, then none of it can be taken literally, and therefore, many significant teachings can be dismissed. I disagree. If all parts of the Bible are taken literally, they become inapplicable to our modern world. In some sense, they become meaningless. If the book of Revelation is taken literally, it becomes an interesting, but very confusing, and quite frankly, very unbelievable story. Perhaps what is written in Revelation is literally what the Apostle John saw, but even that does not require that the vision be interpreted literally. On the other hand, it is clear that most, if not all of what is written in the letters of the Apostle Paul should be taken literally, though it is still important to keep in mind historical and cultural context.
The most important thing to remember when trying to answer any of these big questions is that God wants us to know him. His Word is timeless, and it will always reveal truth to us. That being said, the things God says and does won’t always make sense. People don’t always make sense, even when they have the best intentions, so we especially shouldn’t expect an all-knowing, all-powerful God to always make sense to us. God is good, though, and he does love us. This is a personal and emotional issue for a lot of people, and it’s been proven through the personal experiences of millions. Yes, many believe simply because they want to, and yes, faith provides an emotional crutch to lean on sometimes, but if the stories and teachings we believe in are nothing more than just stories, then a very large portion of the world’s population is certifiably insane, claiming to have seen, felt, done, and experienced the impossible. Beyond that, though, it seems that if it weren’t true and if it weren’t still relevant today, Christianity would have died out a long time ago.
That’s not to say that Christianity can’t change. There are many examples of how God’s people have changed over time, most notably with the birth of the Church shortly after the Resurrection, the official adoption of Christianity by the Romans, and the Reformation, which marked the birth of Protestantism. However, Christianity constantly goes through much more subtle changes. Worship style may change slowly, but the music that is used, for example, changes much more quickly with whatever genre of music happens to be popular at the time. This is a good thing, and there are many other examples of similar changes. The Church and the broader culture are meant to be amiable partners.
Freedom of religion means we have the right to believe whatever we want, and we also have the right not to believe anything without being bothered about it. However, it seems that because of this freedom, we’ve largely given up on the idea of absolute Truth for several reasons. Firstly, postmodern society, particularly in America and other first world countries, has become extremely relativistic. In other words, most people believe that anything could be true, but nothing is necessarily true. No one can claim to know the full truth about anything, but there is nothing wrong with asserting that a particular belief system or philosophy is true. This assertion gives us conviction and direction. In fact, this claim is actually made by those who firmly believe that there is no higher power. In a sense, atheists are often some of the most convicted in their belief (or lack there of). It is important to practice humility when claiming something as the truth. This means admitting that, while we know something to be true, we can never know the full extent of that truth in its entirety.
This brings us to my second point. No one is willing to claim any knowledge of absolute Truth because we have become so concerned about offending people. In any given conversation about religion or philosophy, you will often hear phrases such as, “This is just what I believe,” or “I don’t know for sure, but…” There’s nothing wrong with claiming something is true as long as we can back it up with sufficient reasoning, whether it’s scientific or historical evidence, or logical explanations, or even personal observation. The problem is that people often see disagreement as a personal attack, and many have the mentality that if you strongly believe something to be true, and if you are unflinching on the matter, you are arrogant and self-righteous.
Third, “Because God says so,” is no longer a valid reason for anything outside of Christian circles. To be fair, it’s often not a satisfying answer to me at all. I find it extremely frustrating when I’m trying to figure out the reasoning behind a particular teaching, and the only reason I can find is “Because God says so,” or “Because the Bible says so.” The truth is, this should be a valid reason for things, but it’s not a satisfying one.
Lastly, we’ve become impatient, and we’ve turned elsewhere for answers. Biology, Chemistry and Physics tell us about how the world works, and how life works in it. Psychology and Sociology tell us about how the human mind works and why we do things the way we do. Economics and Politics give us a social structure to live in. The list goes on. There’s a field of study for just about every question imaginable, but we’ve erased God from the picture. Some would disagree with me, but I see this as a problem for several reasons.
- Having faith in God gives me a reason for seeking answers. It gives me a reason to keep on living. It brings purpose to life. Knowledge without purpose is empty. One might argue that the purpose of seeking knowledge is simply so we can be better at what we do; so we can have smarter and smaller technology, so we can cure diseases, so we can be more efficient and have a more productive society. But what’s the point? If there’s nothing after this life–if there’s no greater purpose–then why does any of that matter? There are surely selfless people who would want to make life easier for the next generation, or for a few generations down the road, but they would have no reason for doing it other than, simply, they were nice. It’s much more compelling and motivating to me to believe that there is something to look forward to after this, and I am part of a bigger plan.
- Faith in God provides the most stable moral code. Many would argue that you don’t need a god to have a moral code. In a sense, I agree. Whether we have a concrete idea of God or not, morality seems to be partly built into human nature, partly because a lot of it is just common sense. If I’m nice to you, you’ll be nice to me. However, a friend of mine addresses this a little more eloquently on his blog: (https://curtiseschulz.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/living-in-denial/) In short, he says that, at least from an atheistic standpoint, one should conclude that the universe is amoral, and that morality is a matter of preference only.
- If I can’t be reliant on God, I have to be completely reliant on myself. Having faith in God, at least to me, allows “I don’t know” to be an acceptable answer. Furthermore, if I have to completely rely on myself to get things done, not much will get done. I’m only one person. Not only that, but I’m not physically capable of doing a lot of things. If I can rely on God, I can do the impossible. Prayer works, and if I can rely on God I’m never alone.
God is absolute Truth. Therefore, yes, I believe that everyone should believe generally in the same thing, and our world should strive for that Truth as one. I will not back down from that belief. However, what is also true is that God wants us to have the freedom to choose what we believe, and so do I. I support peoples’ right to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster if they so choose. I support peoples’ right to believe in absolutely nothing at all. While it is the duty of the followers of Christ to tell the Truth, it is not our duty to impose it. We should all surround ourselves with people who do not share our beliefs. We may not ever change each others’ beliefs, but we can promote respect, tolerance, and good listening in the world. Remember that Jesus hung out with weirdos and sinners. He didn’t have status or power in mind. His mind was set on love, and so should ours.
We have free will exactly for this reason. God gives us a choice. He allows us to struggle and to fail and to disappoint him so that we learn and understand more fully what it means for him to love us, and for us to love God and our fellow humans. We can’t love or be loved if we are robots. Without a choice, love is empty. Let me explain a little better. Lately I’ve been telling people that I hate Donald Trump. I think he’s arrogant and talks a lot without actually saying anything. I try to pick apart everything he says to find everything wrong with it. The other night I was ranting to my dad about how much I dislike him, when my dad said, “Jesus doesn’t want you to hate him.” He’s been telling me that a lot, but it didn’t sink in until just the other night. I’ve written at greater length about how love is a choice, but what didn’t entirely register in my mind until now was that hate is a choice, too.
God allows people to reject him so that it actually means something when we choose to follow him. It’s easy to think of God as just a benevolent deity who is idly watching from on high, like someone playing Simcity. If we believe that we were made in his image, though, we have to assume that God has emotions and feels things at least somewhat like we do. Anyone who has survived middle school knows what it feels like to be rejected by those we think are cool. Now imagine what that must feel like to a God who is Love; a God who made the very people who reject him. Imagine what it must feel like to be loved and even worshiped by those you loved all along. Something Pope Francis said while he was here in the U.S. really stuck with me. He said he spoke to a child who asked him: “What did God do before he created the world?” His answer was that God loved.
That is what I want to leave you with. No matter how crazy things are; no matter how alone you feel; no matter how unfair the world is, God loves you. The truth is that things might not work out the way you want them to, but the truth is that you are special to God, and he has a place for you in his coming Kingdom. Jesus says in Mathew 5:3-12:
3 God blesses those people
who depend only on him.
They belong to the kingdom
4 God blesses those people
They will find comfort!
5 God blesses those people
who are humble.
The earth will belong
6 God blesses those people
who want to obey him
more than to eat or drink.
They will be given
what they want!
7 God blesses those people
who are merciful.
They will be treated
8 God blesses those people
whose hearts are pure.
They will see him!
9 God blesses those people
who make peace.
They will be called
10 God blesses those people
who are treated badly
for doing right.
They belong to the kingdom
11 God will bless you when people insult you, mistreat you, and tell all kinds of evil lies about you because of me. 12 Be happy and excited! You will have a great reward in heaven. (Contemporary English Version)
It doesn’t make the waiting any easier, and it doesn’t make it any easier to witness war and suffering and sickness and hunger. It doesn’t make it any easier to say goodbye to the people we lose, but it gives us hope. I hope this was helpful in answering some of your questions or at least in giving you a head start. As I said, we can’t expect God’s actions to always make sense to us, but what we can trust is that they are always good, and we can trust that God keeps his promises.