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The Bible Tells Me So… or Does It?

The forthcoming US presidential election has brought to the fore a number of different Christian groups for whom their religion gives an insight as to how to cast their vote. Groups such as “Christian Democrats of America” and “Christians for Trump” have clearly arrived at disparate conclusions in this regard. There is a similar picture in Europe, where there are Christian socialist groups as well as a more conservative “Christian Democracy” movement. Such polarization is not limited to political issues; there are many groups of people who profess to be influenced by Christianity, yet hold conflicting points of view on a range of issues. This raises the question of how they can come to such disparate conclusions on current affairs and modern ethical dilemmas when they are each accessing exactly the same scriptures.

[The books of the Bible] … were written by human beings who had no knowledge of science, little knowledge of life, and were influenced by the barbarous morality of primitive times, and were grossly ignorant of most things that men know today.

Clarence Darrow

There are a number of reasons for such differences. One is that the Bible says little about what can be specifically applied to modern issues. In biblical times, people lived simple and short lives and had no concept of how complicated life would be in the modern era. A book influenced by a genuinely omniscient being might have been able to have given guidance on issues such as global warming, transgender rights, abortion, and so on to guide future generations. Theoretically, it would also give guidance on individual elections happening in the modern era. It might name candidates; it might give a critique of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and an assessment of Joe Biden’s suitability for the presidency. However, the Bible and other sacred texts are exactly what one might expect had they been written by fallible human beings thousands of years ago. In the realm of politics, the writers of the Bible had no concept of modern forms of government. For example, the notion of a country’s rulers providing social goods such as education and health services, paid for by taxation, would have been alien to them.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart…

Jeremiah 1:5

There are a number of ways in which a believer can arrive at solutions to modern issues and maintain a semblance of consultation of their sacred texts. With regard to the issue of abortion, some believers have to resort to looking at isolated words in the Bible and treating them as if they were a timeless message to the whole of humankind. One such instance of this phenomenon concerns the book of Jeremiah, the book that bears the name of a prophet seen as being one of the greatest of Old Testament times. Its first chapter contains the above words, where Jeremiah reports that God had told him that he had chosen him to be a prophet prior to his birth. Many believers, particularly those who are more vociferously pro-life, consider these verses in isolation and treat them as if they were a message to any individual reading its words—even two and a half thousand years later. According to this interpretation, God has a plan for every single human being, and establishes a prenatal relationship with them. All abortion destroys a divine relationship and is therefore morally wrong, in spite of the fact that the one time the Bible specifically mentions abortion (Numbers 5:11-31) instructions are given as to how to perform one safely.

Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.

Genesis 1:26

Another solution to the Bible’s silence on modern issues is to refer to general teachings and seek to apply them to the matter under consideration. The above phrase from Genesis is one of God’s initial instructions to humankind, whom he puts in charge of the world. However, as with many such vague edicts, different interpretations can be made. For some, “being in charge” of the Earth means living in harmony with nature and taking meticulous care of it and its resources. For others, it means using the planet and fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas for our own benefit and enjoyment. In a similar way, how do we apply the New Testament instruction to love one another in the case of a terminally ill patient who wants an assisted suicide? Is it more loving to grant him his wish, or to convince him that his life is worth living?

Any argument based solely on what the Bible says, as though it speaks with only one voice, is fundamentally flawed.

Professor Michael Coogan, Harvard Divinity School[1]

Another reason why different conclusions are drawn from the Bible is because it is not a unified treatise. Instead, it is a collection of books written over the course of many hundreds of years by multiple authors. It actually takes considerable semantic gymnastics to see a consistent stance on many issues. In particular, the contrast between the New and Old Testament seems stark at times. The God of the Old Testament practiced tough love and mandated that homosexuals, rebellious children, those working on the Sabbath, and adulterers be put to death (see Leviticus 20:13, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Exodus 31:15 and Leviticus 20:10).

Conversely, God in the form of Jesus in the New Testament actually prevents a woman from being stoned to death for the crime of her adultery. He draws attention to the hypocrisy of the sinners who were about to mete out this punishment (John 8:1-11). While Jesus does arguably show racism towards a Gentile woman (Matthew 15:21-26) and a lack of concern for animals in allowing a demon to lead a group of pigs over a cliff (Matthew 8:28-34)—and can seem to appear more concerned with the minutiae of internecine Jewish squabbles—he does also show an admirable level of concern for the sick, the grieving, and downtrodden. A crude but helpful division of Christians can be made into those who prefer the judgmental Old Testament God, and those who prefer the more touchy-feely one of the New Testament.

Such was this difference in tone that some early Christians, such as Marcion of Sinope (80-160 CE), went as far as to claim that the god of the Old Testament was a separate entity from the one who appears in the Gospels. There also appears to have been a 13th-century Christian movement in France called the Albigenses, one that went as far as to say that the ‘God’ of the Old Testament was in fact Satan, who had created the world and was subsequently overthrown by the God of the New Testament.

Different conclusions can therefore be reached on a whole range of issues, including what form of government should be supported. Christians who lean towards more socialistic forms of government can point to those passages where Jesus instructs wealthy potential followers to sell their belongings and give the proceeds to the poor (Luke 12:33 and Matthew 19:21), and where he regards the accumulation of personal wealth with disfavor (Matthew 6:19, Mark 10:25, and Luke 6:24), as evidence for biblical support for the redistribution of wealth. Indeed, his disciples went on to share their belongings (Acts 2:44 and Acts 4:34-35) and live in a proto-Marxist way. In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus also says that we need to look after the sick and hungry in order to find favor with him. Left-leaning Christians would argue that the government’s establishment of a strong welfare state is a good mechanism by which all of these objectives can be achieved.

No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.

Margaret Thatcher, UK Prime Minister 1979-1990[2]

Others who prefer a more capitalistic society can hold that these responsibilities are personal rather than collective ones. In Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), a rich man goes to Hell because he took no personal action to alleviate the poverty of Lazarus, a homeless man who lived at the gates of his property. One of the great heroes of the New Testament, the Good Samaritan, after all, pays out of his own pocket for the care of the Jew injured by robbers (Luke 10:35). Therefore, some argue that the precept to provide support for the least fortunate in societies is one that should not be delegated to a collective secular bureaucracy. With regard to personal wealth, in the Bible great riches are sanctioned by God as a reward, as was the case with King Solomon (1 Kings 3:13). Perhaps God wants people to “prosper financially,” as Joel Osteen, the Texan pastor and televangelist, has suggested?[3]

In the realms of law and order, Christians can take a lead from the moral absolutism of the Old Testament and share God’s zeal for the death penalty. On the other hand, they can be mindful of the fallibility of human nature. They might be more influenced by Jesus’ behavior towards the adulterous woman and on Jesus’ instruction to visit prisoners, as he suggested we should in the Parable of The Sheep and Goats. On environmental issues, we can ‘rule’ the Earth by advocating that it is carefully protected and share the stance of such groups as Blessed Earth or the Evangelical Climate Initiative. We could also adopt the perspective of Bryan Fischer, the “Director of Issues Analysis” of the conservative fundamentalist American Family Association. He likens humanity’s growing disinterest in fossil fuels as akin to a child disregarding a birthday present, and suggests that we have to continue to use them prolifically to avoid hurting God’s feelings![4]

If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.

2 Thessalonians 3:10

A stark example of how a teaching can have two diametrically opposed interpretations comes with the above quote from the second letter to the Thessalonians, a recommendation to first-century Christians in Thessaloniki. Written by an author thought by some to be the apostle Paul, but widely believed to have been a later forger writing in Paul’s name, they were intended to give advice to church leaders as to how to deal with some members of the congregation who had become lazy and were beginning to rely too much on the charity provided by the church community. The verse has also, however, been considered to be timeless advice to all humankind, in the same way as the earlier example from the book of Jeremiah.

First, the verse is used by right-wingers to refer to those who cannot earn money to support themselves to justify limiting the support of the state through welfare payments and other such forms of succor. One such instance of its use for this purpose was by Jodey Arrington, the Texas Republican Congressman, when in 2017 he attempted to justify a proposed cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federal program that supports access to food for those with little or no income.[5] However, one can also find the verse in Lenin’s 1917 work The State and Revolution. Here Lenin uses the verse to suggest that the aristocracy should have to work for the common good just like the proletariat; living off accumulated or inherited wealth was not an option in a Marxist society.[6]

No man ever believes the Bible means what it says. He is always convinced that it says what he means.

George Bernard Shaw

If the Bible does not provide definitive answers, then how do Christians arrive at their stance on moral issues? How do they decide what choice to make at the polling station? The simple answer is that they use a combination of their conscience, reason, prejudices, and character, just like any nonbeliever does. In a country where six out ten adults claim that the Bible has “transformed their life”[7], biblical illiteracy is actually rife. Most don’t realize that there are few if any consistent moral messages in the Bible. When challenged, the majority of Americans say they have not read more than “several passages or stories” from its pages.[8] The homophobes of the Westboro Baptist Church and other such Christian groups have probably not studied the so-called “Holiness Code” from the book of Leviticus. If they did, they would learn that it bans the wearing of a piece of clothing made out of two different fabrics (Leviticus 19:19) as well as same-sex relations between men (Leviticus 18:22). Similarly, the Christian who helps out at homeless shelters and raises money for disadvantaged African children is likely to have been a nice person even if he/she had never heard of Jesus’ more worthy actions in the Gospels. Pro-lifers are likely to have had an emotional reaction to abortion whether they had been exposed to the words of Jeremiah or not.

In the case of moral and ethical issues, people look to the Bible for justification for what they already believe, or assume that it says what they believe. The same is true with regard to political matters. Ultimately, the Bible was written at a time when people were typically ruled by an unelected monarch, whose main role was to defend a territory and occasionally seek to gain some from neighboring polities; the Bible contains no conception of any other form of governance. We should therefore be wary of people who claim that their choice at the ballot box is influenced by their religion. We should also treat with much suspicion politicians who disingenuously wave around Bibles suggesting that they are an influence on their manifestos.


[1] Michael Coogan, The Old Testament (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[2] Margaret Thatcher, TV Interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World (January 6, 1980). <https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/104210>.

[3] Joel Osteen, “The Best is Yet to Come.” Joel Osteen Ministries (March 4, 2018). <https://www.joelosteen.com/Pages/MessageViewer.aspx?date=2018-03-04>.

[4] David Edwards, “Bryan Fischer: ‘Enormously Insensitive’ to Hurt God’s Feelings by Not Using Oil.” Raw Story (November 30, 2012). <https://www.rawstory.com/2012/11/bryan-fischer-enormously-insensitive-to-hurt-gods-feelings-by-not-using-oil/>.

[5] Caitlin Dewey, “GOP Lawmaker: The Bible Says ‘If a Man Will Not Work, He Shall Not Eat.’Washington Post (March 31, 2017). <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/31/gop-lawmaker-the-bible-says-the-unemployed-shall-not-eat/>.

[6] Vladimir Lenin, The State and Revolution (Norwalk, CT: Easton Press, 1992). (Originally published 1917.)

[7] Barna Group, “State of the Bible 2019: Trends in Engagement” (April 18, 2019). Barna Research Releases in Culture & Media. <https://www.barna.com/research/state-of-the-bible-2019/>.

[8] Lifeway Research, “Americans are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It” (April 25, 2017). <https://lifewayresearch.com/2017/04/25/lifeway-research-americans-are-fond-of-the-bible-dont-actually-read-it/>.