Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Does hell exist? If so, who ends up there, and why? Featuring an eclectic group of authors, theologians, pastors, social commentators and musicians, “Hellbound?” is a provocative, feature-length documentary that will ensure you never look at hell the same way again!

We have partnered with Market Street Cinema to bring this film to Little Rock on Thursday, October 25th at 7:00pm.

A limited number of advance tickets are available for purchase at the church Welcome Desk for $5. Tickets sold at the door are $8. For more info on the film, go to:

Thursday, September 13, 2012

When the Bible Gets God Wrong

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2)

Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys. (Joshua 6:21)

The story of ancient Israel going into the promise land is one of the most barbaric and horrifying stories in the Bible. As I will talk about in the message on Sunday, I am not a pacifist. I believe the use of force can be justified under certain conditions, even lethal force on the scale of war. That makes me what theologians and philosophers call a "Just War" adherent. But these passages are a whole different can of corn. The theology of holy war that undergirded wars like the Crusades and the European genocidal actions towards Native Americans is found here. These passages are used to argue that it is sometimes necessary to use unrestrained violence to advance God’s purposes and God’s plans. Keep in mind that this war against the Canaanites was not out of defense, and it involved intentionally and directly killing both soldiers and non-soldiers- including the little kids. 

We leave out the ending when we tell it to children. For some reason children's church curriculum love to include the story about walking around Jericho seven times and blowing the horn, whereupon the walls fall down. There is where we usually stop the story. But after the walls fall down, they didn't go eat graham crackers and drink fruit punch. After the walls fall, everybody dies, and everybody dies, little kids included, because that is what God says to do. 

What in the world is a Christian to do with this?!!

As you can imagine, Christian disagree strongly over what to do with this. Let me offer you three ways you can try to defend this story, and three ways you can try to interpret it so that God doesn't end up looking like a genocidal maniac.

Three Ways to Defend Divine Genocide

1) Don't Ask Questions: One of the ways many people respond is to simply say that God can do whatever God wants to do and whatever God does is right and we should just shut up, suck it up, and accept it. They usually say that we are letting human sentimentality get in the way of accepting divine revelation. 

Response: The issue isn't about letting human sentimentality get in the way of divine truth. The issue is how a story like this can be reconciled with the clearest divine revelation the world has even seen in Jesus Christ (John 1:18, Col. 1:15) who told us to love our enemies. While I believe this command doesn't preclude certain types of coercive force when regrettably necessary, it does seem clear to me that loving your enemies can't mean attacking them unprovoked, and slaughtering their babies. 

2) Unique Situation: This is probably the defense most often given by people who think that God actually commanded this to be done. They would argue that while this is normally very wrong, God had to give his people a place where they could be free to worship and obey him, and this had to be the place. As Mel Gibson's cowboy character in the movie Maverick said of the Indians, "It isn't our fault they got to our land before we could!" 

Response: Attempting to limit this to just one unique situation in the past doesn't resolve the difficulty of the horrible picture it paints of God. Once you allow that this could be right for God to command at one time, in principle there is no reason to think God might not command it again. When Andrea Yates claimed that God wanted her to drown her children, we rightly recoil in horror. The same reaction of horror is required for any such story, whether it is in the newspaper or in the Bible. 

3) They Deserved It: Some will say that the Canaanite society was so dark and perverse that they deserved to be wiped out. Some have compared them to a "cancer" that had to be removed to save the body. 

Response: Even the babies and little children? They couldn't have been adopted and trained up the right way among the Israelites? 

Three Ways to Deny Divine Genocide

1) Allegorical: For most of Christian history (1500 years), church leaders and theologians were prone to interpreting this story, along with a variety of other problematic Old Testaments texts, in a metaphorical way. It isn't really about God actually commanding the slaughter of actual people, they would argue. Instead, the real meaning of the story is about how God wants us to put to death the vices that live within us. Canaanites came to represent inner sinful tendencies and the command to kill them came to represent God's desire for us to cut off our sins at the root. 

Response: Allegorical interpretation fell out of favor during the Protestant Reformation (16th-century), which began to emphasize the literal/historical meaning of a passage. Because this type of interpretation is no longer held in high regard, most people feel like it avoids what the text is really saying.

2) Don't Worry, It Didn't Happen that Way: There is a great deal of external archaeological evidence, as well as internal biblical evidence, that this event never really happened exactly as it described. There is very strong archaeological evidence that Jericho was actually not populated at this time, and several passages in Judges presuppose that not everyone was killed. 

Response: While this might offer some relief, there is still the difficulty that the text presents God as wanting that to happen. It doesn't really get God off the hook.

3) Progressive Revelation: Folks who take this line argue that God always must accommodate his revelation to people where they are. They would argue that this supposed revelation is at a very early stage of God's dealings with his people, and that later revelation through the Prophets and especially in Jesus Christ make it clear that God is not really like this. Earlier parts of the story must be judged in the light of later parts of the story, especially in the light of God's definitive revelation in Jesus. Given their barbaric culture at the time where everyone believed that there was a god who was for their own nation, this is the best they could understand. Think of the movie Sixth Sense. At the end, you discover that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time, and once you discover that, it compels you to go back and reinterpret everything in a different way. That's what the coming of Jesus does- compels us to go back and reinterpret what we thought we knew about God.

Response: This position can contain way more variation and nuance than this short description allows. I believe this is the best approach to the issue, even though it has its difficulties, especially around issues of inspiration and what that entails. I do believe that "scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching" (2 Tim 3:15), but sometimes the inspired scriptures function more as a mirror to the human heart, rather than a window into the divine heart. In other words, these horrible stories are useful for teaching us how easily we can claim divine legitimacy for our own agendas. I know some will say "that's picking and choosing!" No, it is interpreting, and we all must do it. Interpreting the Bible through Christ-centered lenses is central, not optional, to being a Christian (John 5:39-40Luke 24:44-45).