People are rejecting the Bible and losing their faith for no other reason than its honesty! They do not realize that the Bible very reliably portrays a nation of people who gradually gained deeper insights, whose flawed words and deeds are not always what the Bible teaches.
By Ralph D. Winter (compiled and edited by Beth Snodderly)
Editor’s Note: Today Beth Snodderly continues her four-part series exploring Ralph Winter’s Four Seeds of Destruction by compiling and condensing material from a number of Winter’s essays. You can read the previous installments here: Are We Building an Enduring Christianity or Not?, and Emotionalism vs. Intellectualism.
Insight into God’s Character: Violence, Suffering, and Evil Are Not God’s Will
We see two significant barriers to Christian belief: a Bible thought to have feet of clay beginning with Genesis 1, and the rampant violence and evil in this world. The reason I am so concerned to identify evil, and become known as a believer in Jesus Christ who is fighting it, is because a great deal of evil in this world is blamed on God. How attractive is our invitation to people to turn to and yield to their Father in Heaven if they continue to believe he is the one who contrives for most everyone and everything to die in suffering? Unless Satan is in the picture and we are known to be fighting his deadly works we are allowing God’s glory to be marred and torn down.
Violence in Nature
Is it a hazard to evangelism to be unable to explain why God’s creation pervasively contains so many violent elements, so much horrible suffering and pain? Ruth Tucker’s book, Walking Away from Faith, implies that to be the case. Do Christian missionaries need to think seriously about the apparent incongruity between the Bible’s “good creation” and a violence-filled nature? I think so.
The “good creation” of Genesis 1 describes both animals and humans as eating plants, not each other. The wolf lying down with the lamb (Isa 11:6) seems to be the kind of creation that could be attributed to God without qualification. On the other hand, most people have simply grown accustomed to the violence of the streets and the forests. Some people believe that everything—violent, painful, or not—is of God and we will someday be able to see this as part of his “mysterious purposes.”
But now that we have inklings about how DNA can be altered, is it possible to hypothesize that fallen angels (who are at least as intelligent as humans) have been hard at work in distorting God’s original good creation into the violence in nature we now see? David Snoke, a physics and astronomy professor at the University of Pittsburgh, asks, “Why were dangerous animals created?” He suggests three possibilities: 1) fallen intermediate beings are responsible for dangerous animals, or 2) the Bible teaches that God is responsible for violence in nature, or 3) some process out of God’s control (like an unaided evolution?) is the cause (Snoke 2004, 119). I vote for the first of the three. He takes the second. Darwin, I suppose, chose the third.
But the phenomenal significance of all this for mission is plain. If dangerous animals are part of God’s original plan, and (thus logically) dangerous pathogens as well, we have no “mission” to eradicate dangerous viruses, bacteria, and parasites. And, in that case we have a perplexingly dangerous God to preach. What do you think?
Violence in the Bible
The danger is illustrated by Hector Avalos, former Pentecostal and now Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Illinois, who has lost his respect for the God of the Bible. He says that the Bible ought not to be studied and he is particularly offended by what he sees as the Bible’s “endorsement of violence” (Avalos 2007, 28). But in describing violence, is the Bible teaching it? Have people like Avalos “given up their faith” trying to explain away a number of disturbing things in the Old Testament, as if the Bible asks us to emulate or approve of all the gruesome and barbaric things it reports?
They may not realize that many things in the Bible are the result of a perfectly reasonable, progressively increasing understanding, which the Bible unblushingly reflects without the pretension of insisting that in the Bible there is “no progress of understanding.” At the time the Old Testament was put together as a book, later insights and interpretations were sometimes mingled with earlier understandings. One instance is the startling contrast between 2 Samuel 24:1-24 and 1 Chronicles 21:1-24. I have for some time considered these two passages to constitute the “Rosetta Stone of Biblical Hermeneutics.” In 2 Samuel the NIV says, “God incited David [to do wrong].” In 1 Chronicles the parallel account says “Satan incited David [to do wrong].” As I see it, the centuries-earlier passage speaks from the viewpoint of God’s overall sovereignty, while the post-exilic (post-Zoroastrian) passage adds a new insight. The people of Israel had become aware of the initiative of an intermediate being (Satan) that was created by God, not to be a robot, but with the same kind of freedom that humans have, namely, the freedom to do evil. The Bible does not attempt to pretend that either of these accounts was dictated from heaven.
Thus, here is an example where we do well to “lose our faith”—that is, lose our specious faith in the idea that our Bibles were dictated by God in the way that Muslims and Mormons claim for their holy books, the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon. Rather, we believe that “prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet 1:21, NIV). The key word here is “human,” implying limited, though inspired, perspective. In other words, many simplistic views of the Bible may need to be given up. Believing in an inerrant Bible is different from believing in inerrant interpretations.
The Bible is unlike any other religious book in the world. It doesn’t tell us of perfect people. It records horrendous evils and describes people who condone those evils. It even portrays the flaws of leaders. But it doesn’t teach those flaws. It records the literal truth of a chosen nation both seeking and denying God’s will. Does it intend for us to take its every sentence, its every event, as a model to be followed? Of course not. In one sense it mirrors for us how deep and dark our human past has been, how far we have come in better understanding God and his will for us. At the same time, for the same reason, it intends that we not slide back. Most important, we cannot logically criticize it for its honesty and accuracy!
But people are rejecting the Bible and losing their faith for no other reason than its honesty! They do not realize that the Bible very reliably portrays a nation of people who across the centuries gradually gained deeper insights, whose flawed words and deeds are not always what the Bible teaches, and that the story as it leads into the New Testament reveals an archangel adversary who is the most basic answer for the presence of suffering.
Probably the most vexing and ineffective Christian teaching is what we come up with in the face of tragic and evil events. Why does God allow such things? One young person after his freshman year at college said to his dad, “There is so much evil, suffering, and injustice in the world that either there is no God at all or there is a God of questionable power or character.” This idea is all the more devastating when Evangelicals, having essentially given up believing in an intelligent enemy of God, take to explaining tediously that all this evil must be because God’s ways are simply mysterious. Satan, rampant and powerful in the New Testament, has mainly disappeared from significance following Augustine’s injection of some neo-platonic thought into the Christian tradition.
Avalos, Hector. 2007. The End of Biblical Studies. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Snoke, David. 2004. “Why Were Dangerous Animals Created?” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (June): 117-25. Accessed April 29, 2016. http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/2004/PSCF6-04Snoke.pdf.
Image: Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still upon Gibeon by John Martin
Ralph D. Winter (12/8/24 – 5/20/09) founded the Roberta Winter Institute.
Beth Snodderly is the RWI's Theologian in Residence and Chair of the Board.