Teach the Bloody Bible
You don't have to read Richard Dawkins anymore to encounter objections to the Christian faith. Just log onto Facebook or Twitter. Many of the objections center on the "problem passages" of Scripture, those stories where God seems capricious or cruel. The Genesis flood, the Canaanite genocide, Levitical laws, Sodom and Gomorrah, Ananias and Sapphira—all have become fodder for Internet memes and reverse apologetics sites attempting to undermine the Bible and the God it proclaims. We can no longer avoid these parts of the Bible. So how can we teach them in honest and redemptive ways? We talked to two pastors who have tackled the topic head-on. Joshua Ryan Butler is pastor of outreach at Imago Dei Church in Portland, Oregon, and author of The Skeletons in God's Closet (Nelson, 2014). Dan Kimball is a teaching pastor at Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California, and author of the forthcoming Crazy Bible? (Zondervan, 2016). Leadership Journal managing editor Drew Dyck sat down with Butler and Kimball.
Many Christians avoid the hard passages in the Bible. Both of you were drawn to them. Why?
Josh Butler: When I was writing Skeletons in God's Closet, I imagined writing to myself 15 years ago. That's when I was a new Christian and confused about how some of these "problem passages" could be reconciled with the goodness of God as encountered in Jesus. So part of it was personal.
The other reason was pastoral. People in our church and community are wrestling with these topics. Some have friends and family who are leaving the faith because of it, and they don't know how to address them. We did a class at our church addressing this topic called "Is God Good?" It was by far the best-attended class I've ever taught. There's a real hunger to learn about this.
Dan Kimball: For years I kind of swerved around those tough verses. I just thought, Well, somebody's figured those out. But then I received a series of emails from a guy named Brad, asking about blood sacrifice and the strange things in Leviticus. One of his questions: "Why does the Bible say a woman has to marry her rapist?"
I'd try to answer them, but then I'd get another one from him almost instantly. Finally I wrote back and said, "Brad, can we meet?" So after a service one Sunday, this kid approaches me, and introduces himself as Brad. I couldn't believe it. He was in eighth grade! I asked him, "Where are you getting these verses?" He said told me it was a website: EvilBible.com. He was just copying the questions on this website and sending them to me.
In the past, you might come across these problematic passages if you went to a bookstore or library, or read the Bible very carefully. You'd have to dig for it. Now you just go online. It's being propagated through the Internet. A 13-year-old girl asked me, "Why did God kill the Amalekites?" The guy that cuts my hair asked me why there are unicorns in the Bible. There aren't, of course. An early King James Version just mistranslated the Hebrew word for "wild oxen." But these kinds of ideas are all over the Internet.
A generation ago young skeptics could read Josh McDowell's More Than a Carpenter or more recently Lee Strobel's Case for Christ. But today's questions seem to be of a different kind.
Kimball: In recent years I've distributed more than 1,500 3x5 cards to people and asked them to write their most pressing questions about the Christian faith. Many of those writing questions have been youth. Not one asked, "How do you prove the Resurrection is true?" They're not asking is-it-true questions. They are asking about sexuality, blood atonement, and child abuse. Those are the questions today.
Butler: The question used to be, "Is this rational?" Today it seems to be, "Is Christianity ethical?" Is God is ethical? Does God act in accordance with the rules he expects us to live by?
When people come at you with these objections, is there usually a deeper question behind the question?
Butler: People first and foremost want to be heard. In these situations I try to restrain my need to get my voice in. I just hear the person out. Often the immediate question that people pose is not the deeper, underlying issue. And they won't divulge that deeper issue unless they're heard and you gain their trust.
There's a time to provide answers, but I avoid being a Bible answer man. It's essential to ask clarifying questions, so you make sure of what they're asking. If someone asks, "How can God send people to hell?" I'll ask, "What is your picture of hell?" If they describe an underground torture chamber where Satan is poking people with a pitchfork, I will say, "I don't believe in that hell either."
Have you seen hard passages of the Bible taught poorly?
Butler: Sometimes there's a tendency to pit Jesus against the Old Testament. If you find anything in the Old Testament that you don't like at first glance, you just dismiss it and go with Jesus. The problem is that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament. Yes, there are tensions between the New and Old Testaments. But we have to grapple with them. Plus we can't fully understand Jesus until we understand the Old Testament, because that was Jesus' framework for understanding his own identity.
Kimball: There are Christians of a certain theological bent that too easily say, "Well, God is God and he's going to do whatever he wants. Deal with it." Or they talk about examples of divine judgment in a callous way. You almost get the feeling that they take delight in it. But when you're talking about real lives and the horrific things that do happen in Scripture, we need to be sensitive. We need to remember that the Bible describes God as slow to anger and one who relents from sending calamity.
Butler: We need to do the work of trying to connect the acts of God with the character of God. God acts out of his character. So we need to try to understand why this holy and loving God did what he did. That's more helpful than just saying, "He's all-powerful so he can do what he wants." I tell our people that it's okay to feel tension when you hit parts of the story that don't immediately make sense. We're dealing with the Word of God, but it's 66 books, written over thousands of years, in different cultures and languages. We should expect there are going to be parts that we have to wrestle with.
When you teach a problem passage, whether it's the Canaanite genocide or others you've mentioned, what is the ultimate purpose you want to achieve?
Kimball: Knowing God more. When we study the hard parts of the Bible, it enables us to see God holistically. And that's especially important right now because we have a generation that's not thought of God as holy. They lack an understanding of the consequences of sin. And some of that comes from turning God into an application. You go to him for certain things. We paint him a certain way. And I think that's why some of the stories showing God's holiness and wrath freak people out-because they didn't know this part. That's why we have to teach the whole Bible. Ultimately it's about knowing God more fully.
Butler: If you can help people see God's goodness, even in the tough places of Scripture, their faith becomes more unshakeable. I think the ivory tower and the suburbs have influenced a lot of American evangelical theology. We end up with a protected, safe, sanitized faith. But the God of Scripture is untamed. So you have this safe, sanitized god and then you encounter the hard reality of the world, and you think, Where the heck is God in this? How does this fit in?
I've worked in some tough spots around the world, like genocidal war zones. I've seen kids coming out of sex trafficking. It's made me realize that I need the untamed God, not the sanitized god, to be able to make sense of his goodness in this bizarre, raw, jacked-up world. We need to help people see God's goodness even in these hard passages, so they can reclaim a greater confidence in the goodness of God. But it's also about unleashing our vision of God. We want them to see God as he is—untamed. Holy. Just. Hating evil. Doing good. That's a God you need when you encounter the raw, hard realities of our world.
The Bible is full of hard stories. You can do a lot to clear up people's misperceptions by providing historical context. But ultimately some stories, even when properly understood, are still really difficult. Do you have to sometimes admit you don't know God's reasons? That it's a mystery?
Kimball: I do it all the time. You can't understand everything. Why did God kill the guy who was picking up sticks on the Sabbath? (Num. 15:32-36). That makes no sense to me. I have to admit that I don't know. But what I do know is God's character through the entire Old Testament, through the entire Bible. I know that "God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love" (Ps. 103:8). I don't understand why Egypt's firstborn children had to be killed. But I trust God does. There's a lot we just don't know. And it's okay to admit that.
Butler: My daughter was in the hospital recently with some serious symptoms. She's five, and the nurses are holding her down, putting needles in her arm. She's confused, scared. Of course I'm there with her, holding her hand. She's looking up at me, as if to say, "What the heck is going on?" She's raging. She wants out. But she knows me. My hope is that she trusts me in that moment, that she sees the rest of our story, our life together, and trusts that I'm doing what's best for her. If you just isolated that moment, where I'm allowing people to hold her down and put needles in her arm, it looks bad. But there's a broader story. We've developed trust. She knows I love her.
When we hit those passages that seem strange and disturbing, and that's all you have, it's like looking at a stranger holding you down to put needles in your arm. You won't understand because you don't know what's going on. But if you have that broader narrative, the bigger picture, a history with God, then you can hit those tough spots and say, I don't know, but I trust the Person at work. And it's okay. My end game is not to figure it all out. It's to know God.
Kimball: There's a humorous video online called Scary Mary. It's a short video that has taken snippets of Mary Poppins to make her look like a murderous villain. There's a shot of her looking out the window, then one of the kids blowing away. In one shot, she's in the room cleaning, then it cuts to the kid getting sucked into the closet and the door slams. The last scene is of the two kids running down the street, and it flashes the words "Scary Mary. Hide your children." It's funny because if you had not seen the whole movie, you wouldn't know the real story of Mary Poppins. You'd think she's evil because you've isolated a few clips from the story and robbed them of their context.
Unfortunately that's what a lot of people in the broader culture do with the Bible. They know a few scary parts, but not the rest. Inside the church, it's often the opposite. We've focused exclusively on the sunny parts of Scripture and neglected the scary ones. This presents us with an exciting challenge. It's forcing us to be better teachers, because we have to start teaching the whole Bible, hard passages included. I'm hoping there's a resurgence of better Bible teaching in response to the time we're in.
Have you seen spiritual growth in people's lives as the result of teaching hard passages?
Butler: There's a young woman who recently joined our Bible study on this topic. We're going through holy war and Old Testament violence—and she comes to faith! Now she loves Jesus. I think there was something attractive about being able to get into the grit of the faith and not feeling like you're being shown the shiny front door and always wondering what we're hiding.
Kimball: When we do a series in our church on this topic, attendance goes up. There's more interest, a hunger for this. There's one girl who is a brand-new Christian. She started reading through the Bible on her own, and she got to some hard stories, including the one about Lot and his daughters, and asked, "What is this about?" But that's given us the opportunity to walk through these stories with her and help bring a sense of perspective to the text and teach her about the whole scope of Scripture.
How can we make teaching on this topic a priority in the church?
Kimball: Leaders have to see this as important. It's especially crucial that youth pastors get on board because they're often the first ones fielding questions about the Bible. Bottom line: we all have to take theology more seriously. Instead of being so worried about things like video venues and the latest programs, let's get serious about the Bible. We have to raise up theology once again in the average evangelical church.
Butler: Often churches don't see study time as valuable as programs. But we really need to push back on that. Studying the Word is not retreating. It's not time away from ministry. I know 85 percent of our church body would be bored to death reading the stuff I read—and that's fine. They shouldn't have to read fat theology books. But they are interested in the issues that good theology addresses. There are so many great authors and theologians writing on these topics, but the average person will never read them. We can bridge that gap by working to make the theological understanding accessible to everyone.
Kimball: Increasingly I think the role of the pastor-teacher needs to be as a translator of scholarship. When we teach, instead of just jumping to the application, we need to slow down, unpack the difficult parts of the text, and provide people with the tools to navigate these passages. Ignoring these parts of the Bible really does a disservice to people. Besides, because the culture is raising questions about the Bible, they're hungry to explore what these stories mean.
In some ways, I'm glad there's a lot of skepticism and criticism coming at the Bible. I think it's going to cause us to be better teachers. It's going to force us to examine the text and become better stewards of God's Word.
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