You could boil it down to the conflict between Job and his friends. A complex, mysterious God vs. a simplistic, almost mechanical God who operates according to strict rules. I had no way of processing the difficult parts of life, let alone to face the difficult parts of the Bible.
My fragile faith depended on simple explanations for everything. If I couldn’t explain part of the Bible, then I feared that I would lose the Bible. If I couldn’t explain the hard times in life, then I feared I would lose God.
Atheism isn’t necessarily caused by asking hard questions of the Bible. I came closest to losing my faith when I asked a hard question about God or the Bible and could only find an unrealistically simple answer.
God does not owe anyone an answer or an explanation for the parts of the Bible or life that we can’t understand. However, we do God no favors when we brush away unspeakable tragedy or troubling passages with an explanation that fails to truly grapple with the full testimony of scripture.
Answers that don’t work for me in the face of difficult passages/circumstances include:
God is holy.
God is sovereign.
God is all-powerful.
I started writing this post with the goal of addressing difficult Bible passages like the conquest of Canaan where God essentially commanded the Israelites to commit war crimes. However, after reading about the unspeakable tragedy unfolding in the aftermath of tornadoes in Oklahoma, I’ve found the focus of this post widening a bit. Perhaps working through some of the difficulties in the Bible will help us as we grieve and process this tragedy as well.
A Complicated Picture of God
As I’ve been reading through the most disturbing passages in the Old Testament, I’ve seen the loving kindness, patience, and mercy of God come into tension with the justice, anger, and judgment of God. While God’s defining characteristics are love and patience, it’s a mistake to think they rule out his anger and justice.
There is sin and evil in this world, and God consistently makes it clear that he will not tolerate them forever. In fact, he will punish those who go too far down that road and never repent.
We don’t know how to measure God’s patience or his limits for dealing with evil. There aren’t formulas or clear guidelines. However, the stories in the Old Testament consistently show God giving time and warnings to people about their choices.
The Old Testament also shows that God is sometimes involved in natural phenomena, but isn’t intricately orchestrating every single thing that happens on earth. The “plan” of God is for people to obey him and to one day bring peace and justice to the earth.
When Jesus’ disciples thought that the Tower of Siloam fell on a group of people because they were wicked, he quickly rebuked them.
The Bible shows us that God is deeply invested and involved in our world. Sometimes we can understand the ways of God and sometimes we’re left confused and even disturbed by what we’ve just read. The story of the conquest of Canaan has been among the latter for me.
Why would God command his people to commit war crimes?
There are Two Ways to Ignore the Hard Parts of the Bible
I have found two ways to side step the difficult passages in the Bible.
I can avoid reading the hard parts of the Bible and settle for simple answers and explanations without digging deeper.
Or I can just rule out those passages as later additions, distortions, or myths.
There’s a part of me that wishes I could just rule out those passages.
The story of the conquest of Canaan is quite difficult to handle because I can certainly understand part of the story. The people of Canaan were doing some detestable things. They were killing children in order to worship their false gods. They prostituted women in the service of their gods as well. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, they attacked them.
The Canaanites weren’t powerless, innocent people. I can understand that God would desire to deliver justice and to end their evil actions.
However, when I encounter the story of the conquest of Canaan, I’m also hesitant to say that I understand why the Israelites were commanded to kill off all of the people in several towns. These are war crimes by our standards today, and it’s hard to reconcile that with God and a command for God’s people.
By confronting this story in all of its complexity, I have found that I don’t necessarily have to run from it or explain it away, even if there are still some aspects of it that I can’t quite resolve.
Jesus Makes More Sense
Some have argued that the “violent God” passages in the OT show that Jesus represents a radical change in direction. It’s almost borderline Marcionism, dividing the Gods of each testament. However, Jesus represents the culmination of God’s desires throughout the Old Testament.
There are far more passages in the OT that look ahead to Jesus, predicting a suffering servant, the triumph of God over evil, and the restoration of peace on earth. The matter of the OT isn’t that God is always violent. The picture is complex and difficult to piece together.
I’m all for discussing a variety of ways to interpret or classify a story in the OT. Modern history as we know it didn’t exist back then, so there could be some stories that function more mythically than we would suspect. However, I prefer to make my first move toward reconciling the narratives, laws, and prophecies of the OT based on the assumption that they happened as reported.
And while including a story like the conquest of Canaan puts us in a tight spot, I don’t think it necessarily ruins the whole Bible. We can look back through the ministry of Jesus and see God’s compassion and desire to save all nations. God himself was willing to come down and die for all people.
I can’t reconcile the conquest of Canaan with the radically different conquest of the cross, but there are so many significant stories, prophecies, and poems in the Old Testament that show us a loving, self-sacrificing God is far from a new innovation.
What Does the Bible Reveal to Us About God?
The full picture of the Bible shows us that God is just and holy, willing to punish those who persist in doing evil. However, God is patient, kind, and ready to forgive. God so badly wants to restore people to a relationship with himself, that he sacrificed himself to defeat the grip of evil on us, dwelling among us today through the Holy Spirit.
God chooses to live among us in a world where there is evil, pain, and conflict. While God will one day judge evil and restore peace to this world, things are not yet as God or any of us would want them to be.
I can’t understand everything about the past judgments of God, but I can see that God has taken action against evil on the cross, paying a price that few of us would ever want to pay.
A Complicated Bible for a Complicated World
Avoiding the hard passages of the Bible altered my understanding of God and didn’t prepare me for the complications of life.
If all we have is an easily understood, easily explained, neat and tidy Bible, then it’s not much good in a world that is confusing, mysterious, and extremely messed up.
I’m less and less convinced that the Bible exists to give us straight answers. If that was the purpose of the Bible, then it does a bad job of it.
Rather, the Bible comforts, questions, and disrupts us. We can see that our troubles today are nothing new and that people have been seeking out God for thousands of years, asking questions, making requests, and finding hope in the presence of God.