Most individuals that have kept up with the current trend of “new” atheism are quite familiar with the names Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens et al. Now, while I vigorously disagree with much—mostly on the philosophical side—that these individuals have published, I do, occasionally, find myself agreeing with a few of their insights. And one of these insights that I believe illuminates a hint of truth is Richard Dawkins’ famous jab at the God of the Old Testament in The God Delusion:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Ouch. Now, while I wouldn’t agree with Dawkins that this is the only, or even the dominant, portrait of God painted by the Old Testament, I would agree that this is a version of God that is peppered throughout the Bible. Moreover, this barbaric rendering of God is not restricted to purely moral acts; it reaches to the over-all cultural viewpoint that the ancients had of the divine. The Bible (though, admittedly, mostly the Old Testament) many times paints a picture of God that one finds difficult not to describe as primitive:We’re told that God had a garden that he used to walk through. That in that garden he planted a tree that literally and intrinsically contained the knowledge of good and evil. That he built a firmament (that is, a solid clear dome) above the earth. That he punished all of humanity for the sins of one couple. That he physically wrestled with a human being. That he was not competent enough to exercise his will for humanity and, therefore, drowned all life he had created to start his divine plan all over again. That he ordered the massacre of hundreds of men, women, children and animals. That he fought a fire-breathing sea dragon with multiple heads. Etc etc.
Now, it seems quite plausible to attribute such predications of God to the primitiveness of the Israelites. All the above descriptions make sense as promulgations of a society surrounded by barbaric ancient Near Eastern cultures. These are the cultures that believed that every single event was caused by its own respective god; the cultures that believed that their own gods could be manifest in inanimate objects (i.e. idols); the cultures that believed that the gods could be manipulated and deceived by the actions and rituals of humans; the cultures that believed that the gods were just like humans except to a higher degree of being; and that’s why they could make mistakes, or feel anger or regret, and even eat. Thus stated, Why would we expect the Israelites not to mimic and, least of all, be greatly affected by the cultures that influenced them and gave rise to them in the first place!
This is nothing to shy away from. The Israelites wrote Hebrew scripture, and the Israelites were, by all means and even by the Bible’s own standards, far short of sophisticated. Through the Israelites worldview we see the evolution, growth, and the first-fruits of the formulation of orthodox theology; but it should be observed that this process was very long and did not always progress in a straight line. The picture of God that we hold today did not emerge overnight through some sort of once-and-for-all revelation. Rather, it is a picture that took hundreds of years to formulate. A picture that was argued about; a picture that was questioned; a picture that was constantly revised and expanded; a picture that was immature and only progressed towards maturity; a picture that was stunted by our own imaginative shortcomings as human beings; and a picture that, many times, mirrored our own faults rather than Gods.This picture of God evolved throughout the Bible. It illuminates our struggle as finite human beings to grasp and understand the divine. I maintain that it reflects our own shortcomings, and not God’s.
Now, by the time one closes the Bible they are left with an impression of God that is infinitely greater than the above primitive renderings. One is left with a God that is spirit; a God that is love itself; a God that is forgiving and desires that all reconcile themselves to Him; a God that does not admonish evil and wrong-doing; a God who is a loving father who welcomes all people into His kingdom no matter their past, present, race, ethnicity, or gender. In short: it is the God Jesus served and revealed to the disciples. Now, this is not to say that the Old Testament does not contain many of the aforementioned impressions as well. It surely does. But while these impressions are only scattered in the Old Testament, they are fully culminated in the later writings of scripture—though I would argue that even the later writings of scripture still contain pictures of God that we should regard as adolescent.So, why should one get so upset at Dawkins’ remark above? His comment is not wholly true, but it does speak with some forceful insight. Why should this trouble us as Christians? Why can we not recognize and take possession of the primitive cultures and beliefs whereby our current picture of God had its genesis? The reason is this: fundamentalist formulations of scripture. To one that holds to the inerrant and one-dimensional truth of scripture, admitting any sort of erroneous pictures of God into the Bible is the worst sin one could commit. For the fundamentalist, all portraits of God in the Bible are valid portraits, and any seemingly contradictory or primitive renderings of God are attributable only to our own finite shortcomings—and yet they hold that these shortcomings could not have influenced the very same human beings who formed such portraits of God in scripture! Their Bible is a static bible; a bible with no room for growth of the understanding of the divine. For them, the God that walks in a garden and drowns the whole human race is the same God that is spirit and admonishes us not to repay evil for evil.
Has any idea ever seemed so contrary to reason? Is it any wonder that Christians by the dozens are losing the faith they grew up with? Is it any wonder why atheists mock and ridicule Christians? These fundamentalists Christians are my brothers and sisters, yes; but, they are making a mockery of the faith that I take so seriously. They have turned the beauty of Christianity into a primitive superstitious Bronze Age fable; and I maintain that as long as their adolescent picture of God is paraded around, Christianity will continue to lose adherents.The portrait of God that we as humans expound to ourselves will never capture the true majesty of God. Even our modern conception of God must be considered primitive compared to His actual being. Our ideas of God have evolved and will continue to evolve. To turn to any one portrait of God and regard that as the final insight into God’s nature is, simply, spiritual immaturity and intellectual laziness. The Bible might be God’s word, but it is not, by all means, his final word.