“Dear Fr. Spitzer, okay, suppose I accept your argument that there was a creator of some kind. How do I reconcile that creator with the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible, which is full of stories about vengeance, pain and suffering. Why would I believe in a deity who shows such cruelty and inconsistency?
This is not a new question, and it’s one that many of our readers ask us. I can see why you might think the God of the Bible is not loving or caring, especially given that some Christians say you must believe the Bible literally – no matter how many different and seemingly contradictory views of God appear in it.
Now, before I get into your question, I need to point out that this is beyond the scope of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith. We exist to explore whether physics supports the idea of a creator.
Having said that, there are so many people asking this same question that we feel it should be addressed regardless of our limited scope.
The second thing I need to point out is that to really answer this question, you have to start with the assumption that the Bible contains true revelation. Otherwise you’re entering into an entirely different conversation, which is whether or not the Bible is simply a collection of stories that have nothing to do with any kind of ultimate reality.
That isn’t the question I mean to answer, however. Today I will examine how the different sections of the Bible can all be true, even as they appear to contradict each other.
Though it is fair to say that there are many passages of the Bible which seem to imply the Judeo-Christian God can look both irrational and tyrannical, it is important to be aware of the science of hermeneutics, which is a well-developed historical discipline in the employed by academics world-wide.
To attempt to evaluate the Bible (or any other historical text) without knowing something about hermeneutics (the science of interpreting a text according to the concepts, categories, and mindsets of a particular time and culture) is like saying that you are going interpret modern physics without knowing any math or understanding the scientific method.
Garbage in, garbage out.
So what are some important, basic things to know about hermeneutics before you get started?
First, if you assume that God reveals himself to people according to their cultural concepts, categories and mindsets, then you will see that God’s revelation will have to develop along with the intellectual and cultural capacity of human beings.
Throughout time, we have greatly expanded our understanding of the world, as well as our methods for understanding our world – and this is a good thing. But people who had much narrower approaches to the world also had a right to receive revelation from God according to what they understood. Thus, it would not be surprising to find that in 1800 BCE, polygamy was accepted – in the Bible! Then six hundred years later it is prohibited by Moses – in the same Bible!
Did God change his mind or did human beings develop to the point where they could understand monogamy?
There is an old expression in hermeneutics – “whatever is received is received in the manner of the receiver.” What that means is if you were just learning to add and subtract and I put a series of algebraic functions on the board, you would not be able to understand them because you do not have the categorical apparatus to understand the intricacies of algebraic equations.
You’d be looking for the numbers and trying to figure out why there are letters like “x” in the middle of the math problem.
In the Bible, God has the same problem as the math teacher.
The Bible records revelations that were made from 1800 BCE to about 90 CE. The Biblical authors’ view of the world (and I assure you, there were many different authors living in many different times) broadened tremendously during these eras. Israel moved from a warrior culture battling Philistines to a metropolitan culture interacting with ideas from Greece and Rome.
Of course the theology of the prophets developed tremendously, until we get to the time of Jesus, who gives us the notion of God as Unconditional Love.
God as Unconditional Love
This love is illustrated in the character of the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15, 11-32), who unconditionally loves his son and forgives him even after the man commits every imaginable offense against family, country, people and the law – and rejoices in his return.
What does this have to do with the hermeneutical method?
We might say that it illustrates asymmetrical (one-directional) hermeneutics. What does that mean? It means that you can look at older (narrower) revelation through newer (broader and more comprehensive) revelation, but you can’t look at the newer, more comprehensive revelation through the lens of the older, narrower revelation.
The narrowness of the older revelation is simply too constrained to allow the broader, more comprehensive revelation to have its full meaning.
If you try to fit the Unconditional Love of God into the categories of strict justice (appropriate to the Torah in 550 BCE), you are going to get a disconnect. In fact, you won’t be able to do it. It will seem like a contradiction – or, as some of you have suggested, that God changed his mind, or even his identity altogether!
Jesus anticipated this, and indicated that you can’t pour new wine into old wine skins. If you do, the new wine will burst the old skins, and both the wine and the skins will be lost.
To understand the unconditionally loving God of the New Testament, one has to allow the new, broad, comprehensive and full revelation to have its full meaning, which means freeing it from the constraints of a much narrower worldview. Such a worldview is to be expected from a people who have far less experience to draw upon.
If you look at it this way, God is not changing his identity every 200 years, but people are capable of receiving the revelation of God with ever-increasing depth of understanding and love every 200 years.
One could argue that this is just my personal interpretation, but it actually corresponds with good hermeneutical practice – namely that one should never interpret an historical text outside of its historical and cultural framework.
If God has any common sense, then he would not give a revelation of himself that is outside of what is comprehensible to a given people at a given time.
What does this mean with respect to some of the questions that commonly come up about Biblical literalism? Two things – first, you cannot say “God in the Bible says,” because the notion of God moves from the God of the armies in 1000 BCE (a warrior God with a strict law and a narrow notion of justice) to a God of unconditional love, compassion and mercy (reflected by the parable of the prodigal son in 30 BCE).
Science Before Christ
Related to this, you can’t expect the Biblical author in 550 BCE to be writing about science. Even if God wanted to reveal science to the Biblical author, he wouldn’t have been able to understand, any more than your average five-year-old can teach calculus.
God had to wait until the categories of mathematics and method were appropriately broad and complex to accommodate a scientific worldview. When it came, his revelation was intrinsic to it. We don’t need to twist that evidence to find God – he is written large in the equations of the Big Bang, the physical evidence for a beginning of the universe (even if there were a pre-Big Bang period), the second law of thermo-dynamics (entropy), and other clues.
Indeed, if we find that a multiverse requires as much fine-tuning as the phenomenon it is trying to explain (say, in the slow roll of bubble universes necessary to prevent collisions), then there will be even more clues about God’s super-calculating intelligence.
Secondly, if we respect one-directional hermeneutics, then we will want to first turn to the newest (broadest and comprehensive) revelation in the Bible, which would include the revelation of Jesus – that God is “Abba,” our affectionate and trusted father. Just like the father in the prodigal son parable. Perhaps the easiest way of applying this hermeneutic is to first turn to 1 Corinthians 13:4, which I’m sure you have heard at weddings:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
If God truly is who Jesus says he is, then you should be able to replace the word “love” with the word “God,” and you should be able to absolutize every adjective in the hymn:
“God is infinitely patient,
God is infinitely kind.
God never envies or boasts and he is not proud.
God is never rude, God is never self-seeking, and God is not easily angered.
God keeps no record of wrongs.
God never delights in evil and always rejoices with the truth.
God always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres.
God never fails.”
If this is the starting point for a definition of God in the Bible, then all other previous definitions will have to conform to it – and not vice versa.
I hope this answers your question – next time we’ll move back to questions of physics and metaphysics.