The Bible’s sickest cruelty… and it’s not in the Old Testament

Detail of “The Damned Cast into Hell” by Luca Signorelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Skeptics have long made a sport of quoting the Bible’s most hate-filled passages. Everyone has their favorites. A few of mine are Numbers 31 (in which the Israelites slaughter the Midianites, and Moses is angry because they spared the women), Deuteronomy 13 (God demands that you stone your children to death if they worship other gods), and Genesis 22 (Abraham passes a test of faith by demonstrating that he’ll sacrifice his own son when God tells him to).

There are many, many more. But a lot of people mistakenly think that God mellows out in the New Testament when Jesus starts talking about love and forgiveness.

In fact, in some ways God is even more sadistic in the New Testament (NT) than he was in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible (OT). In the OT, God’s wrath ends with sheol—the grave. It’s the NT that threatens hell, which Jesus describes as an eternal fire (e.g., Matthew 25:41).

My nominee for the cruelest and most amoral passage in the entire Bible is the ninth chapter of Romans, written by Paul of Tarsus. It’s the most depraved portrayal of a deity I’ve read anywhere. But it doesn’t often get the credit it deserves, maybe because it takes just a bit more reading and thought to see what’s so awful about it.

The complete Book of Romans (King James Version) is here. I’ll quote brief selections from the New International Version and summarize the rest.

First, the context. Paul is talking about Israel, and how not all physical descendants of Israel are part of God’s elect. Remember, this is when Christianity is separating itself from Judaism, and Paul has to explain how God could make all those big promises to Israel in the OT only to overturn them in the Christian era. Paul argues that it all depends on God’s choice, not man’s will. He cites two examples in which God chose to elevate or condemn someone before they did anything good or bad (verse 11): God’s favored Jacob over his brother Esau; and God raised up the Pharaoh who opposed Moses just so he could destroy him.

Now I’m ready to quote the heart of the passage (verses 18-22):

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. One of you will say to me: ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’ But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’ [quoting Isaiah 29:16, 45:9] Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory…?

God creates some people specifically for the purpose of destroying them.

Stop and let that soak in. Paul is saying—and with multiple examples so you can’t miss his point—that God creates some people specifically for the purpose of destroying them. Not only that, but Paul is saying that God made them evil. Paul makes this clear with his response to the objection, “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” Exactly. If God hardens your heart against him, how can he blame you for it?

Does Paul respond by clarifying that such a thing would be nonsensical and sadistic? No. Essentially his answer is, “Shut up. God can do whatever he wants.”

Nazi analogies are usually unwise, but sometimes even Hitler isn’t evil enough for comparison: This would be like Hitler creating the Jews so he could have the Holocaust—and then making Auschwitz eternal.

If there is a character anywhere in world literature more evil than Paul’s god, I’m not aware of it.

And yet, in an attitude of faith, I cruised through Paul’s words time and again. I’ve read Romans dozens of times. The pages of my Bible are marked up and underlined. In the the above-quoted passage I underlined part of verse 20: “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?”

Telling myself to shut up about it, I guess.

Faith required that I accept this atrocity, and so I accepted it rather than question the faith. But I did what I could to soften it. I remember leaning more Arminian in my thinking, believing that somehow predestination must be compatible with free will (one of the many paradoxes of faith!) partly because elsewhere the Bible seem to assume free will (and the Bible couldn’t contradict itself, now could it?).

In other words I tried to salvage some sense of morality by blaming God’s victims.

Such is the power of faith to blind us even to the most outrageous moral atrocities. To the degree that your identity is rooted in your faith, questioning a doctrine becomes a questioning of your very self and your place in the world—and even your place in your community and family.

But I wasn’t the only Christian to interpret around the plain sense of this passage. Calvinists (think conservative Presbyterian and Reformed) are about the only Christians who fully embrace Paul’s sovereign god. Believers are generally good at ignoring or distorting whatever doesn’t suit them. But what Christians don’t normally do is ask themselves whether they can in good conscience follow a religion largely devised by the man who wrote those words, and who worshiped that god.

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3 thoughts on “The Bible’s sickest cruelty… and it’s not in the Old Testament

  1. Pingback: The best thing in the Bible: a story even nonbelievers can love | Pretentious Ape

  2. Evolution says that humans and farm animals are very close in species, yet we choose to raise some of them just to eat – how cruel is that? It is our perogative though. God is infinately higher than humans and created them with free will (could have forced us to love Him) to choose for ourselves. After sin, we bacame “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1-8) yet God came in human form to pay OUR sin debt. There is still time to change the road you’re on, but it is your choice. You will most likely end up in hell and then gnash your teeth in hatred at God…as you do now.

    • Sorry, Rick, I didn’t check this email account for a while and was slow to get your comment approved. Your comment is a good example of the kind of reasoning I often get from religious believers – a refusal to address any of the points I made, followed by a threat of divine retribution. That’s really kind of a silly way to argue, don’t you think?

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