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Best-Selling Errancy: An Essay on Inconsistencies in the Bible

Best-Selling Errancy

An Essay on Inconsistencies in the Bible

Mark D. Ball, Ph.D.


“The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason,” says Thomas Paine in the preface to his treatise on religion, The Age of Reason. In this day of cancerous acrimony across political, ideological, and, especially, religious spectra, Paine’s words have never been more apropos. To achieve peaceful coexistence in a shrinking world, reason must be the medium of exchange among people of differing views. Religionists and non-religionists alike must beware the fallacy of converse accident in characterizing each other, remembering that “if you’ve seen one, you haven’t necessarily seen them all”.

In that spirit, this essay seeks to challenge a particular mind-set in the Christian community, one that is not universal among professing Christians, but a mind-set nonetheless tonitrual in the public arena. For many Christians, the Bible is the infallible and internally consistent revealed Word of God. Every word therein, though penned by a man, God himself inspired. Every verse not only harmonizes with every other but also accords with the laws of Nature. One should not doubt the Bible, but endeavor to understand it, to glean the Truth from its pages. Any perceived errors or inconsistencies in the Bible are problems not with the book, but with the interpretation of the person reading it. To exemplify this particular mind-set, I offer the words of a Christian minister, who, directing this disquieting remark at listeners skeptical about the supernatural, said, “You’ve been educated, and that’s a shame” [1].

As I intend to argue, however, many “perceived” contradictions are true ones, and efforts to reconcile disparate verses often involve contortions of reasoning, amounting to what one might euphemistically call “creative interpretation”. Despite its imperfection, though, the Bible is a valuable book, rich with accounts of historical events and with insightful apothegms. The Bible affords us glimpses of antiquity, and in its stories, whether factual or fictional, one finds the elements of great literature: comedy and tragedy, triumph and defeat, hope and despair, hedonism and asceticism, war and peace, heroism and poltroonery, virtue and vice, reason and faith, and so on.

Perhaps the Bible assuages the fear of mortality or of being otherwise alone in the universe. Perhaps the Bible prevents societal chaos, through its many mandates and proscriptions, which the promise of heavenly reward and the threat of eternal punishment reinforce. Whatever the reason for the Bible’s appeal, though, it has regrettably supplanted critical thinking in the minds of too many people. No single book should have a hammerlock on the human mind. Even the Christian apologist Elton Trueblood believed “It is the vocation of the Christian in every generation to outthink all opposition” [2].

This essay examines biblical incongruity within four specific issues: the goodness of God, the requirements for salvation, vowing, and the relationship among fear, love, and punishment.

The Goodness of God

Although the Bible is replete with references to God’s goodness, many scriptures reveal him as shockingly cruel. Indeed, God himself confesses to being capable of evil in Jer. 18:8. The believer might dismiss these inconsistencies as only “apparent” ones, which, upon closer examination, prove not to be inconsistencies at all, whereas another believer might dismiss them simply by citing humankind’s inability to comprehend God’s actions or to ascertain his motivation.

The question: is God good, or is he not? Ex. 34:6 describes God with a string of glowing adjectives that should dispel any doubt:

…The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness [3] and truth

Similar praise comes from David in Ps. 145:7-9:

They shall abundantly utter the memory of thy great goodness, and shall sing of thy righteousness. The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.

Of course, understanding any Biblical passage requires, at the very least, understanding its component words (and some would argue that such understanding further requires guidance by the Spirit). The multitude of religious denominations and sects present in the world bears witness to the inevitable conflict arising from the Bible’s use of abstract, polysemous, and pliable words.

Dictionaries define the word “good”, for example, as “virtuous”, “honorable”, “right”, and “benevolent”. Despite the plasticity of these words, though, there is a consensus among rational people, believers and nonbelievers, about the notions that these words represent. If so, then, what is goodness — and what is it specifically in a human-to-human context?

Many people define goodness in terms of certain actions, such as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, treating the ill, or educating the ignorant. For others, goodness is found in the willingness to risk one’s life for another, perhaps by serving as a soldier, firefighter, or police officer. Some see goodness as neatly encapsulated in the aphorism “live and let live”, whereas others salute the ancient Golden Rule (which, by the way, Lev. 19:18 paraphrases).

Although these various notions of goodness, and others not mentioned, are different prima facie, their common motif is simple: respect for human life. Nearly all people agree that the unjustified taking of human life or the intentional inflicting of pain and suffering on human beings, especially innocent ones, is evil (even people who argue that warfare is sometimes justifiable call it “a necessary evil”). Thus, what may be easier than defining “goodness” in terms of what it is, is defining “goodness” in terms of what it is not, or in terms of attitudes, behaviors, and actions that it does not encompass.

Clearly, goodness does not encompass such crimes as murder, rape, enslavement, or child abuse. On this point, humanity can be proud of a strong consensus (even though what humanity preaches is sometimes diametrical to what it practices). This proposition becomes the first premise in a syllogism with the conclusion of which most believers, and nonbelievers for whom a hypothetical God must be worthy of worship, would not disagree.

Goodness does not include murder, rape, enslavement, or child abuse.

God is “abundant in goodness” (Ex. 34:6), his goodness is “great” (Ps. 145:7), and he “is good to all” (Ps. 145:9).

Therefore, God does not engage in murder, rape, enslavement, or child abuse.

The Bible itself itemizes exclusions from goodness in Gal. 5:19-23, many so-called “works of the flesh”. Among them, not surprisingly, are murder, as well as certain attitudes and behaviors that can culminate in murder: hatred, variance (discord), emulations (ambitious rivalry), wrath, strife, seditions, and others. Because murder is listed only as one of several works of the flesh, however, the others are also presumably antipodal to goodness, i.e., goodness excludes them whether or not they culminate in murder.

Sharply contrasted with these “works of the flesh” in this passage is “the fruit of the Spirit”, comprising several virtues listed in verses 22 and 23: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness [4], faith, Meekness, [and] temperance” (my italics). By collecting goodness and parallel virtues in a passage clearly distinct from the one in which he collects murder and parallel vices, the author of Galatians confirms the irreconcilability of goodness and murder, of goodness and wrath, etc.

The Bible is rife with examples of God’s acting in a manner inconsistent with goodness. Revisiting the syllogism above, consider the passage relating the story of Israel’s war with Midian (Num. 31), wherein, as I intend to show, God sanctions the very crimes that he should abhor, namely, murder, rape, enslavement, and child abuse.

First, he orders Moses to lead Israel in a war against the Midianites:

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites… (vss. 1-2)

Moses and the children of Israel obey:

And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males. (vs. 7, my italics)

The slaying continues in verse 8. Then in verse 9, the children of Israel take captive all the Midianite women and children, confiscating as well “the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods.”

Eventually, the captives are brought before Moses, who condemns to death all the male children and all the unvirginal women:

Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. (vs. 17)

Moses then encourages his men to use the female children for (presumably) sexual pleasure:

But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. (vs. 18)

Thus, in the 31st Chapter of Numbers occur God-sanctioned murder, rape, enslavement, and child abuse. First, God specifically orders the war — he does not simply allow the Israelites to visit pain, suffering, and death upon another people, in which case God’s role would be a passive one — on the contrary, he assumes an active role by demanding the carnage. Second, all the men are summarily killed. Third, all the Midianite boys and unvirginal women are ordered to their deaths. Fourth, the Israelite men are urged to (presumably) enslave and rape the virgin Midianite girls. Most civilized people abhor all such actions as these (with less accord on the issue of war itself), considering them so evil that they must be prevented, even at high cost, and punished when efforts at prevention fail. Murder is still a capital crime in many states, imprisonment is the punishment for rape, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids slavery, and convicted child abusers face not only incarceration but also a stigma, arguably deserved, that will follow them perhaps their entire lives.

Although the believer must concede God’s demanding the war, he or she may still reject the notion that God sanctioned the postbellum savagery of Moses and the Israelites. Whereas verses 1, 2, and 7 state clearly that God ordered the war, the believer may insist that what happened to the Midianite captives after the war was ordered by Moses, not by God. Verses 8-18 do not explicitly implicate God in the atrocities inflicted on the captives — Moses issues the orders.

Nonetheless, it is not less than sanction to intervene in the affairs of Israel and Midian to start the war, while not intervening on behalf of the helpless victims to palliate their pain. If God does intervene in human affairs, and is abundant in goodness, then surely he intervenes not to start wars, but to stop them. Surely he intervenes not to cause pain and suffering, but to end it. Thus, because God was willing to intervene to demand the war, his refusal to intercede afterwards, i.e., his postbellum silence, must be tacit approval of the Israelites’ cruelty toward the Midianites.

Although the believer may still correctly argue that silence is not necessarily endorsement, harder evidence for God’s approval comes in verses 25-30, in his directing the distribution of the spoils, which include the captives:

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take the sum of the prey that was taken, both of man and of beast…And divide the prey…” (vss. 25-27)

This explicit command from God punctuates his earlier tacit approval. Instead of rebuking Moses and the Israelites for their violence against the Midianites, he rewards them with the plunder. Clearly, God approves of Moses’ treatment of the Midianite captives. Neither God nor Moses has mercy on the most helpless and innocent of the Midianites, the women and children. Such mercilessness cannot be reconciled with Eph. 2:4, which declares that God is “rich in mercy”, or with Ps. 145:9, which claims he “is good to all” and which mentions his “tender mercies”, or with Ex. 34:6, which calls him “merciful”, or with Deu. 32:4, which calls him “just and right”. Neither can such mercilessness be reconciled with the spirit of Jesus’ own words:

…Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Mat. 25:40)

Darkening the scenario further is God’s reason for the war, namely, vengeance (vs. 2). To even the score, God initiated a chain of events that would earn for any human world leader the status of a villain. Even though 1 Jn. 4:8 equates God with love [5], Lev. 19:18 proclaims the irreconcilability of love and revenge:

Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord. (my italics)

Instead, according to the Bible, love entails forgiveness:

He that covereth a transgression seeketh love… [NIV: He who covers over an offense promotes love…] (Pro. 17:9)

The pivot point in Lev. 19:18 is the disjunction “but”, placing vengeance and love on opposite sides of the line demarcating goodness from non-goodness. This scripture presents love and vengeance as mutually exclusive propositions: one who engages in activity mentioned before the “but” in this sentence is not engaging in activity mentioned after the “but”, and vice versa. Of course, the famous biblical passage on love (1 Cor. 13) also plays at cross-purposes with God’s role in the Midian affair.

With revenge as his motive, God is acting contrary to goodness and peace, at least according to Gal. 5:22. His action clashes thunderously with several unambiguous biblical directives on dealing with one’s enemies:

…Love [6] your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you… (Mt. 5:44)

And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other… (Lk. 6:29)

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:20-21)

God’s reported behavior in the Bible is dichotomous. God is love in the New Testament, but does not seem to be so in the Old Testament. He is praised as merciful in some passages, while he withholds mercy in others, even from the helpless and innocent. Finally, vengeance seems to motivate him, notwithstanding precepts to the contrary elsewhere in the Bible.

Oddly enough, Jesus declares in Mk. 10:18 that only God is good [7]. According to 1 Tim. 4:4 [8], however, “every creature of God is good” (my italics). Admittedly, this equivocation arises from the use of the same English word for rendering two different Greek words. Along this line, the believer may defend God’s actions in the Midian affair as inherently good, claiming they were only apparently bad because man, being flawed, cannot discern the goodness in them (i.e., God works in mysterious ways). In effect, then, the believer would be arguing that child abuse may per se be good under some circumstances or may per se be bad but, by leading to some good that only God understands, is sometimes acceptable. Either of these two scenarios is morally obnoxious. Furthermore, forget not the Lord’s own confession about his being capable of evil:

If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil [9] that I thought to do unto them. (Jer. 18:8)

The 31st chapter of Numbers, however, is not the only scripture in which God’s behavior is morally puzzling. The 19th chapter of Genesis is another, the famous story of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Lot. This narrative begins with two angels of the Lord arriving at Sodom (Gen. 19:1), which city the Lord will soon destroy because its people fornicate (Jud. vs. 7), unless he finds at least ten righteous people living there (Gen. 18:32).

[Earlier in Gen. 18:20-21, the Lord turns a phrase curiously. In explaining his intentions to Abraham concerning Sodom and Gomorrah, the Lord seems to admit to ignorance of the situation in those cities:

And the Lord said, Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know. (my italics)

In no uncertain terms, the Lord confesses to not knowing, even as he speaks, just how unrighteous Sodom and Gomorrah are. He is going down to “see”, to ascertain, the degree of the two cities’ sinfulness, because he does not know. Punctuating these words, the Lord then states plainly that he will know, meaning, of course, that he does not know at present. The theological conundrum arising from this confession is self-evident: how could God be omniscient and unaware of something simultaneously?]

The two angels newly arrived in Sodom encounter the man Lot, who persuades them to spend the night in his house (vss. 2-3). Later that evening, the men of Sodom surround Lot’s house, demanding that he surrender the two men to them for sexual purposes:

And they called unto Lot…Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them. (vs. 5)

Hoping to placate the men of Sodom at his door, Lot then offers his two virgin daughters to them instead, encouraging the men to do as they please with the girls:

…let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes… (vs. 8)

Then becoming violent, the men of Sodom try to break into Lot’s house, but the angels stop the men by striking them blind.

The next morning, because the angels will soon destroy Sodom and its denizens, they urge Lot to flee with his wife and daughters to escape the cataclysm. Ironically, the Bible then says that the Lord was merciful to Lot (vs. 16), merciful to a man who offered his own daughters to be raped (vs. 8)! The enigma here is not so much the apparent forgiveness of Lot, but the inconsistency. Why would God, merciful and gracious (Ex. 34:6), and full of compassion (Ps. 145:8), show mercy to such a man as Lot, but withhold mercy from the innocent Midianite women and children? God has condemned the innocent but pardoned the guilty, despite his being extolled as “just” in Is. 45:21 and Deu. 32:4.

Perhaps the believer is tempted to defend Lot by claiming that he had no choice but to offer his daughters to the men of Sodom. Had he been a respectable father, however, Lot would have protected from the aggressors not only his visitors, but his daughters as well, and by physical force if necessary. Instead, Lot cowers to the men of Sodom, offering his daughters to them in verse 8. In a parallel with Israel’s treatment of the Midianite captives, discussed above, God rewards Lot’s turpitude and cowardice by sparing him from annihilation, as he rewards the Israelites for their cruelty by granting them the spoils of war.

Punishment by fire is yet another response to transgression that most civilized people regard as draconian. Even advocates of “an eye for an eye” justice would reserve such drastic retribution as fire for the most heinous crimes. Although one could argue easily that murder, rape, enslavement, and child abuse are indeed heinous crimes (and this list of four is certainly not exhaustive), whether burning at the stake is a suitable punishment even for these offenses is, at the very least, debatable. What transcends debate, however, is the gross absurdity of treating breaches of courtesy, and other comparatively minor transgressions, as capital crimes.

Nonetheless, in Num. 11:1 the Lord punishes some querulous Israelites by killing them with fire — not for a heinous crime like murder, rape, enslavement, or child abuse — not even for a crime — but for the act of complaining:

And when the people complained, it displeased the Lord: and the Lord heard it; and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp.

The people were complaining about their circumstances, including culinary ones, recalling the fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic that they evidently had enjoyed in Egypt (Num. 11:5), despite their captivity there.

He again punishes the Israelites for complaining in Num. 21, though not by fire this time, but by snakebite:

And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. (vss. 5-6)

In punishing complaining with fire and snakebite, God is not only acting contrary to the myriad biblical characterizations of him as good, just, and merciful, but he is also, and perhaps more notably, ranking the impropriety of complaining as worse than the crimes of murder, rape, enslavement, and child abuse. Thus, not only does complaining become a capital crime, but a capital crime for which fire and snakebite are seemingly fitting penalties.

To justify this gradation of wrongs, the believer might reply that it is not the admittedly trivial offense of complaining per se for which God punishes the Israelites; rather, he punishes them for some substantial transgression that manifests in their complaining — perhaps ingratitude for the Lord’s having delivered them from bondage in Egypt, or a lack of faith that the Lord will thereafter meet their needs. Are ingratitude and faithlessness, however, capital crimes commensurate with murder? What transgression implicit in these two passages from Numbers is more egregious than rape, enslavement, or child abuse, the last of which encompasses offering one’s own daughters to be raped?

Child abuse is a recurring theme in the Old Testament, with both God and his prophets seeming to lack the respect due children in general. God’s role in the killing of the Midianite children, and of the children who presumably lived in Sodom and Gomorrah as well, I have discussed already. In Lev. 26:22 God threatens to “send wild beasts among [the Israelites], which shall rob [them] of [their] children…”, and in Jer. 6:11 the prophet warns that even children are not exempt from the Lord’s wrath:

Therefore I am full of the fury of the Lord; I am weary with holding it in: I will pour it out upon the children abroad… [NIV: But I am full of the wrath of the Lord, and I cannot hold it in. “Pour it out on the children in the street…”]

Later, in the 18th chapter of Jeremiah, the prophet angrily urges the Lord to starve, and then slaughter, the children of certain unrepentent wayward Israelites:

Therefore deliver up their children to the famine, and pour out their blood by the force of the sword… (vs. 21)

The reasons for Jeremiah’s gruesome petition are (a) the refusal of the children’s parents to heed the prophet’s admonitions (vs. 18), (b) the parents’ plotting against him (vs. 18), and (c) the parents’ ingratitude for his prior intercession with the Lord on their behalf (vs. 20).

The principle that punishment should befall the transgressor’s innocent child(ren) pervades the Old Testament, even though the Lord decrees that

…The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children be put to death for the fathers; but every man shall be put to death for his own sin. (2 Ki. 14:6; also 2 Ch. 25:4)

Echoing this passage are Jer. 31:29-30 and the entire 18th chapter of Ezekiel, the essence of which this excerpt captures:

…The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father… (Ezek. 18:20)

Speaking to Moses, the Lord himself breaches those very words by promising to punish children for their fathers’ evil:

…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. (Ex. 34:7)

In contrariety to 2 Ch. 25:4, Jer. 31:29-30, and Ezek. 18 stands Ex. 20:5, in which God ordains vicarious punishment:

…for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me…

Innocent children suffer not only in Num. 31, discussed above, but also in 1 Sam. 15, where God orders Saul to lead Israel against the Amalekites to exact revenge:

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (vs. 3, my italics)

The children of froward priests are not safe either:

Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces… [NIV: Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will spread on your faces the offal from your festival sacrifices…] (Mal. 2:3)

Moses explains God’s targeting of Egyptian children:

And it came to pass, when Pharoah would hardly let us go, that the Lord slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt… (Ex. 13:15)

In Ps. 109 is still another call for children to suffer for the sins of their fathers. Rather than killing them in this case, though, David wants the children to beg for food in the streets (vs. 10), after they have been made “fatherless” (vs. 9).

Another striking example is Ps. 137, wherein the psalmist unabashedly advocates the violent murdering of children as retaliation for their fathers’ sins:

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (vss. 8-9)

To be sure, this psalm is macabre. The choice of adjective for the man smashing children against rocks in this passage clearly calls into question not only the psalmist’s moral values but also his mental health. This scripture, which God himself purportedly inspired, teaches that, at least when righteous indignation is the motivation, happiness can derive from savagery directed against children if their parents consequently suffer. This precept, an affront to decency, is wholly irreconcilable with the notion of God’s infinite goodness.

In Gen. 22 God tests Abraham’s loyalty by ordering him to kill Isaac, his own son, sacrificially. The believer might argue that because the Lord intervenes before the knife breaks Isaac’s flesh, the act is not one of child abuse, and in God’s eyes, Abraham’s readiness to plunge the knife into his son obviates the actual slaying. Nonetheless, Isaac is an innocent victim of both God’s truculent megalomania and Abraham’s blind obsequiousness.

First, Abraham lies to Isaac when the boy asks about a lamb for the intended offering:

…but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. (vss. 7-8)

Although a lamb does appear eventually (vs. 13), Abraham is not expecting one. Second, Abraham ties up Isaac and lays him on an ad hoc altar:

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. (vs. 9)

Third, Isaac presumably watches his father prepare to plunge the knife into him:

And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. (vs. 10)

Despite the Lord’s intervening at this juncture to stop Abraham, Isaac is already a victim of cruelty, having been bound and placed on an altar by his own father, and now fully expecting to be killed by him at any moment.

Neither God nor Abraham respects Isaac’s intrinsic value as a human being or his comparative innocence as a child. In this passage, Isaac’s value to God derives only from his usefulness as a tool. Because God sees him as something Abraham cherishes (vs. 2), Isaac becomes a means for God to evaluate Abraham’s faithfulness. Furthermore, notwithstanding the trauma that Isaac suffers during this ritual, God rewards Abraham for obedience:

And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham…And said…because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son… I will bless thee… (vss. 15-17, my italics)

Either God is unaware of Isaac’s torment, or, despite being aware, he regards faithfulness as more important than a child’s peace of mind. An omniscient God, however, would not be unaware of Isaac’s torment, and an infinitely good God would not psychologically torture an innocent child for any reason, least of all to ascertain the father’s faithfulness to an omniscient God who should already know whether or not the father is faithful.

By his own admission, in fact, God’s reason for ordering the sacrifice is ignorance, which the angel of the Lord reveals after intervening:

Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. (vs. 12, my italics)

This scripture is unequivocal. God was uncertain about Abraham’s faithfulness until the latter had proven his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Omniscience and ignorance remain mutually exclusive states.

More behavior inconsistent with God’s image as the paragon of goodness underlies the eschatology of Revelation. Consider Rev. 9:3-5, for example, which foretells torture in the last days for those without God’s seal on their foreheads:

And there came…locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. (vs. 3)

And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads. (vs. 4)

And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man. [NIV: They were not given power to kill them, but only to torture them for five months…] (vs. 5, my italics)

The torture is indeed deliberate. Verse 5 squarely declares that torture itself, not death, is the express objective, and verse 6 reiterates it:

And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.

The believer might argue that, in the last days, those without God’s seal deserve this comeuppance; such people, after all, are God’s enemies. But who are these people without God’s seal on their foreheads?

Two chapters earlier, Rev. 7:3 broadly identifies the recipients of the seal as “the servants of our God”, whereas verses 4-8 specifically identify them as 144,000 “children of Israel” from the twelve tribes. The author of Revelation continues by describing his vision of “a great multitude” of people, people “of all nations”, standing “before the throne” (vs. 9), who serve God (vs. 15), and who have made their robes “white in the blood of the Lamb” (vs. 14), i.e., they have accepted Jesus as their redeemer (see Rom. 3:25). Consequently, if the multitude bears God’s seal, then being a servant of God (Rev. 7:15) must require salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Does this mean, then, that unsaved people who otherwise qualify as “good”, are doomed to five months of torture in the last days?

The Requirements for Salvation

The relationship between salvation and goodness is unclear. The plurality of Christian denominations in the world bears witness to the Bible’s lack of clarity on the requirements for entry into heaven (i.e., for salvation), and this confusion, in turn, arises from a bewildering web of scriptural incongruities.

Jesus himself enunciates the requirements for salvation in the 3rd chapter of John:

vs. 3, “…Except a man be born again [10], he cannot see the kingdom of God”;

vs. 5, “…Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”;

vs. 15, “…whosoever believeth [11] in [the Son of man] should not perish, but have eternal life”;

vs. 16, “…whosoever believeth [11] in [God’s son] should not perish, but have everlasting life”;

vs. 18, “He that believeth [11] on [God’s son] is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already…”.

John the Baptist echoes:

vs. 36, “He that believeth [11] on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”

Whereas verses 3 and 5 are nebulous, all the others specify the key to salvation as belief in Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God, as the Son of Man. Mk. 16:16, coupling verses 3 and 5 with the others, specifies the conjunct of belief and baptism as the qualification for eternal life:

He that believeth [11] and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. (my italics)

Silent about baptism, verses 15, 16, 18, and 36 above point to belief as the necessary and sufficient condition for salvation, in contrast both to Mk. 16:16 and to verses 3 and 5 above.

Belief in Jesus Christ is cardinal according to other verses as well. In Ac. 16:30-31, for example, Paul and Silas’ jailer asks them how he may be saved, to which query they reply

Believe [11] on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved…

In Jn. 6:47, Jesus himself says

…He that believeth [11] on me hath everlasting life.

Other verses confirming the centrality of belief (faith) are Heb. 10:38-39, 2 Tim. 3:14-15, and 1 Pet. 1:9. Belief is so important that the Bible even proscribes the extension of ordinary hospitality to anyone not embracing the “doctrine of Christ” (2 Jn. vss. 9-10). Paul fears critical thinking among his followers so much that, with overtones of cultic mind-control, he declares imperiously in 2 Cor. 10:5-6

[We bring] into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience… [NIV: …we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience…]

Along the same line, Rev. 2:10 urges the believer to be faithful even if doing so means death:

…be thou faithful [12] unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.

Finally, referring to those whose faith is wavering, James ominously warns

For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. (Jas. 1:7)

The 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians stands in stark contrast to the many scriptures that elevate belief above all else. In this passage, belief is not paramount:

…and though I have all faith [12], so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity [5], I am nothing. (vs. 2)

And now abideth faith [12], hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity [5]. (vs. 13, my italics)

These two verses are plain and unconditional, with the latter verse clearly placing charity (“love” in the NIV and RSV) above faith in the hierarchy of virtues. This passage does not qualify the superlative by saying “the greatest for earthly happiness” or even “the greatest for salvation”; it says simply “the greatest”. If 1 Cor. 13 is correct, the many scriptures identifying faith rather than charity as the key to salvation must be incorrect.

According to Jas. 2:14, even faith is no guarantee of salvation:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith [12], and have not works [13]? can faith [12] save him? (my italics)

By its peculiar phrasing that anticipates a negative answer, James’ second question powerfully implies the ineffectuality of faith. If James regarded faith as necessary but insufficient for salvation, he surely would have phrased his query “can faith alone save him?” or “can faith without works save him?”. Not only would such alternate phrasing have reinforced the complementarity of faith and works that he implies in the first question, but it would also have agreed with later admonitions in the second chapter of his epistle:

…faith [12], if it hath not works [13], is dead, being alone. (vs. 17)

…But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith [12] without works [13] is dead? (vs. 20)

…by works [13] a man is justified [14], and not by faith [12] only (vs. 24)

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith [12] without works [13] is dead also. (vs. 26)

Verse 24, moreover, flatly contradicts Rom. 3:28:

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified [14] by faith [12] without the deeds [13] of the law. (my italics)

The believer might try to reconcile the two by interpreting “works” in the former to exclude “deeds of the law” in the latter. If keeping the law (circumcision, etc.) may be categorized as “works”, the contradiction is undeniable. If keeping the law is not a “work”, however, the word “works” must refer generically to good deeds or acts of kindness. But because acts of kindness are part of Jewish law, circuitous reasoning then restores the contradiction. Even so, James lifts up the law as summarized by Lev. 19:18 (discussed above in another context), as a criterion whereby God will judge:

If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well. (Jas. 2:8)

So speak ye, and do so, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. (Jas. 2:12, my italics)

Finally, James underscores his caveat in 4:11-12, where he once again urges being a “doer of the law”, while he cautions against judging it.

In the 19th chapter of Matthew, a young man asks Jesus the question, “what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” Differently than in Jn. 6:47, Jesus replies unambiguously

…if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. (Mat. 19:17)

Jesus continues by reiterating several of the Ten Commandments, and then concludes by mandating poverty. According to this scripture, what secures salvation is works, not faith. Furthermore, in Mat. 22, Jesus is asked for the “great commandment in the law” (vs. 36). He responds with two:

…Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart… (vs. 37)

…Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (vs. 39)

Although faith is again not part of his answer, the believer might argue that loving the Lord entails such faith, and that faith is therefore mentioned, though implicitly. Even so, verse 39 is clearly an ethical teaching, standing apart from faith, that Jesus himself includes as one of the two supreme commandments. Consistent with this verse is 1 Cor. 13, which distinguishes love from faith.

James stresses works throughout his epistle, not just in the 2nd chapter. In his eyes, effective faith operates in concert with ethics. In 1:22, for example, James urges his fellow believers to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only”, while in 1:27 he goes so far as to present “pure religion” as action, not as faith:

Pure religion [15] and undefiled before God the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

An allusion to faith is conspicuously absent. Because it is capable of being impure and defiled before God, religion is evidently important for James — and faith is not even a component.

Nonetheless, many scriptures focusing on belief (e.g., the 3rd chapter of John, Ac. 16:30-31, Jn. 6:47) altogether fail to mention works as a requirement for salvation. For the Christian, expecting Jesus himself to tell the whole truth about any grave issue, especially eternal life, is axiomatic. As noted above, however, Jesus seems to reveal only half the formula for salvation in Jn. 6:47. According to his own words in Mk. 16:16, the missing half is baptism, whereas according to James, it is works.

In his second epistle to Timothy, Paul muddles the issue even more by disclosing something other than salvation as the very reason for scripture itself:

All scripture is…profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works [13] . [NIV: All Scripture…is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.] (2 Tim. 3:16-17, my italics)

This passage, in line with James’ teaching, elevates good works above faith by identifying the former, not the latter, as the raison d’&#234tre of scripture. Because Paul does not say to Timothy that scripture prepares people for salvation, one may conclude that if salvation is the ultimate objective of Christianity, then scripture fails by preparing people only for good works. Jesus’ own words corroborate this inference:

Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. [NIV: You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me] (Jn. 5:39)

The believer might interpret this passage to mean that although scripture per se does not save, it does lead one to Jesus and, hence, salvation. Thus, scripture’s ultimate goal, albeit only implicit in the above passage from 2 Timothy, is indeed salvation; the explicit reasons for scripture that Paul cites therein become the means to the implicit end. Because, however, Paul unequivocally declares good works to be the goal of scripture, good works must be among the requirements for eternal life, another conclusion in conflict with those aforementioned scriptures that identify faith as the singular essential for salvation.

Thus, on the subject of salvation, the scriptures are rife with disparity. In some passages, belief, or faith, is the way to eternal life, whereas in others baptism, rebirth in the Spirit, keeping the law, or doing good works is requisite. Resolution of these conflicts is left to the individual believer, who is forced either (a) to interpret the scriptures in accord with his or her own rationality and conscience, (b) to seek from someone else the “proper” interpretation, or (c) to discontinue treating the Bible as inerrant and internally consistent.

If faith is the critical criterion on Judgment Day, persons not saved, even if they kept the law and did good works, will not enter paradise. Torture is the punishment for those who have chosen to interpret the scriptures as metaphor because of the honest confusion arising from semantic muddiness. The metaphor in question is that “belief in Jesus Christ”, expressed in such verses as Jn. 6:47, is not necessarily belief in his divinity, but rather is assent to his ethics. After all, might argue the damned, not only did James stress ethics in his epistle, but Jesus himself devoted most of his teaching to ethics as well (including the issue of salvation) — and he did so parabolically.

Treating faith as the critical criterion on Judgment Day, however, conflicts with Paul’s words in Rom. 2. In describing “God’s righteous judgment”, he says that God

…will render to every man according to his deeds [13]. [NIV: …according to what he has done.] (vs. 6, my italics)

Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth [16] evil… (vs. 9, my italics)

But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh [16] good… (vs. 10, my italics)

Because the Bible’s presentation of salvation is so foggy, the appearance of heterodoxies should be expected, with many people reasonably concluding that the scriptures inculcate something other than simple faith in Jesus Christ, such as the leading of an ethical earthly life, as the way to an eternal heavenly life. If simple faith is the way, however, God is punishing people for honest confusion, which behavior is antithetical to his image as good, merciful, and loving.

Is honest confusion, or ignorance, an excuse for not knowing God? The Bible itself is contradictory on this question — or God is inconsistent by changing his mind. Consider, for example, the 17th chapter of Acts, wherein Paul discovers that the Athenians had been worshipping a god whom they could not identify. Paul says to them,

For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. (vs. 23)

Paul then delivers his Christian message to the Athenians, revealing his God as the one they had been unwittingly worshipping all along. In Paul’s eyes, the Athenians must now understand and accept God. In his noting that God has overlooked the Athenians’ ignorance, it becomes clear that God accepted ignorance as their excuse for not knowing him:

And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent… (vs. 30)

Conflicting with this passage is Romans 1, wherein Paul declares that there is no excuse for not knowing God:

Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. [NIV: since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.] (vs. 19)

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. [NIV: For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.] (vs. 20, my italics)

Evidently, God is perspicuous in the things of creation, and no one cannot know him — reason alone will bring one to an understanding of God (good news for disciples of Thomas Paine). Thus, ignorance of God is not an excuse for not knowing him.

The second verse above (Rom. 1:20) implies free agency; one may accept or reject the notion of God, notwithstanding the overwhelming preponderance of evidence for his existence. This verse, though, stands in contrast to others that are strongly deterministic:

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. [NIV: All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast — all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.] [RSV: and all who dwell on earth will worship it, every one whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.] (Rev. 13:8, my italics)

Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will enter heaven (Rev. 21:27). Although the issue of determinism is contentious, the question here is not whether predestination is the way of things but whether the Bible is clear and consistent in its treatment of issues impinging on that of predestination.

Jeremiah’s choice of words leaves no doubt:

And it shall come to pass, if they say unto thee, Whither shall we go forth? then thou shalt tell them, Thus saith the Lord; Such as are for death, to death; and such as are for the sword, to the sword; and such as are for the famine, to the famine; and such as are for the captivity, to the captivity. [NIV: And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the Lord says: Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity.’] (Jer. 15:2, my italics)

According to Jeremiah, then, destiny operates. Furthermore, Rev. 6:11 declares that select individuals are destined to be killed:

And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled. [NIV: …until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.] (my italics)

Although the believer might reply that these verses are referring to prescience rather than determinism, the Bible once again fails to settle the issue.


Jesus clearly forbids vowing in his Sermon on the Mount:

But I say unto you, Swear [17] not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne…Nor by the earth…Neither shalt thou swear [17] by thy head… (Mat. 5:34-36)

James reiterates:

But above all things, my brethren, swear [17] not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath… (Jas. 5:12)

The words of both Paul in the New Testament and Moses in the Old, however, conflict with those of Jesus and James.

For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife. Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: (Heb. 6:16-17, my italics)

Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear [18] by his name. (Deu. 6:13, my italics)

Thus, not only does Paul advocate vowing but he also reports that God himself is not above making an oath, while Moses actually instructs his people to swear, and to do so by God’s name.

The Relationship Among Fear, Love, and Punishment

There is no fear [19] in love [5]; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth [20] is not made perfect [21] in love[5]. [NIV: There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The man who fears is not made perfect in love.] (1 Jn. 4:18)

Nonetheless, threats of punishment and torment abound in the Bible, examples being Lk. 6:25, Mat. 25:44-46, 2 Th. 1:7-9, Heb. 10:29-31, Jude vss. 6-7, Mat. 24:50-51, and 2 Cor. 10:6. The author of 1 John firmly contraposes fear and love, as the author of Leviticus does revenge and love, discussed earlier. Even though, according to 1 Jn. 4:18, fear and love are mutually exclusive states, Moses imparts to Israel God’s dual imperative to fear and love simultaneously:

Thou shalt fear [22] the Lord thy God… (Deu. 6:13)

And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. (Deu. 6:5)

Jesus also clashes with the author of 1 John by issuing the same two directives. In his missionary discourse related by Matthew, Jesus instructs his twelve apostles to

…fear [20] him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. [NIV: …be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.] (Mat. 10:28, my italics)

whereas, recalling the “first and great commandment” from Deu. 6:5, he also enjoins them to

…love [23] the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. (Mat. 22:37)

Notice that the NIV translates as “be afraid of” what both the King James and the RSV translate as “fear”.

While one obeys Jesus’ mandate to be “perfect” [21] (Mat. 5:48), one must “fear” God (Mat. 10:28), even though one “who fears is not made perfect in love” (NIV, 1 Jn. 4:18). If the last of those three verses is true, then the simultaneous fulfillment of the first and second is logically impossible — unless, as the believer might reply, the root word “fear” in the first and third instances carries different denotations. In other words, because they differ contextually, “fear” in Mat. 10:28 and “fear” in 1 Jn. 4:18 are not equivalent definitionally. The two contexts, however, are virtually identical. In no uncertain terms, the fear in both 1 Jn. 4:18 and in Mat. 10:28 arises from the threat of punition, although in the former that punition is general “punishment” and in the latter it is specifically the destruction of “both soul and body in hell”. Thus, the impossibility of simultaneously obeying Jesus’ two commands in Mat. 5:48 and Mat. 10:28 stands.

Furthermore, in relating love, fear, and punishment, the verse in 1 Jn. collides with yet another, this time one from Hebrews:

NIV: But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. (1 Jn. 4:18)

NIV: …the Lord disciplines [24] those he loves, and he punishes [25] everyone he accepts as a son. (Heb. 12:6)

By linking punishment directly with fear, the former passage avers the incompatibility of love and punishment, whereas the latter passage, by uniting love with punishment, accomplishes precisely the opposite.

As there is a difference between arguing against a position and arguing against the right to hold that position, so there is a difference between looking to scripture as a resource, or even as a guide, and surrendering one’s rationality to it. In view of the presence of inconsistencies in the Bible, the believer must decide how to identify the apodictic verses. Furthermore, what other errors might scripture contain? How heavily should one defer to the Bible in his or her search for truth? Although these questions lie beyond the scope of this essay, the believer who wishes to evangelize must be prepared to answer the skeptic’s concerns about the private and public dangers of placing blind unquestioning faith in a flawed, albeit best-selling, 2000-year-old book that purports to reveal the ultimate truth.


[1] R. W. Schambach, delivering a televised sermon on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Sunday, 19 January 1992, 6:45 p.m. EST.

[2] Quoted by Roger E. Olson in Christian Scholar’s Review XXIV:5 (Sept. 1994).

[3] The Hebrew word appearing here is chesed, generally meaning kindness. Although efforts to translate chesed accurately have stirred debate, most renderings converge on a sense for which the word kindness is not inappropriate. At the elementary level, chesed is what one feels and extends to someone piteous. Thus, LXX renders chesed as ele&#235mon, which denotes active compassion. Accordingly, the Vulgate renders the word as miseracordia, meaning pity or compassion, while the RSV translates it as steadfast love, and the NIV simply as love.

[4] In the original Greek text, the word for goodness is agathosyn&#235, meaning uprightness or moral honorability.

[5] In this passage, the original Greek text uses agap&#235 to denote the kind of love characterized largely by goodwill and beneficence. Such is the love of Christian for Christian (Gal. 5:13), man for God (Jn. 5:42), and God for man (Rom. 5:8).

[6] From the same root as the noun agap&#235 [see endnote #5], the imperative verb agapat&#235 is used in the original Greek text here. Jesus’ command is to love one’s enemies, in the sense of regarding their welfare or advocating their best interest.

[7] The original Greek uses agathos, meaning excellent in whatever respect the context indicates. This adjective encompasses several acceptations, including fruitful, useful, agreeable, and moral.

[8] The original Greek uses kalos, which means good in the sense of being well-suited for the intended purpose.

[9] The Hebrew word for the noun evil is rah, standing in contrast to chesed [see endnote #3]. Thus, rah is antipodean to good, implying misery, injury, wickedness, distress, violence, etc.

[10] The phrase born again appears in the original Greek as genneth&#235 anothen, meaning literally begotten from heaven or begotten from the first. Begotten may symbolize having been successfully proselytized or excited toward a new way of life, which progression of thought leads to an even more-liberal rendering, such as imbued with spiritual life, especially when coupled with from heaven or from the first. In effect, then, upon being born again one begins living anew.

[11] The original Greek word is a form of the verb pisto&#246, meaning to believe, with various acceptations: to think true, to be convicted of, and to place confidence in.

[12] From the same root as pisto&#246 [see endnote #11], the Greek words pistos (adjective) and pistis (noun) both refer to believing, to having confidence in.

[13] The original Greek word is a form of ergon, meaning deed or act.

[14] The Greek verb used here is dikaio&#246, meaning to declare righteous or innocent.

[15] The Greek noun is threskeia, meaning worship.

[16] The Greek verbs for doeth and worketh, respectively, are forms of katergazomai, meaning to perpetrate, and ergazomai, meaning to labor or to perform. Denotatively and connotatively, each word involves action.

[17] The Greek verb is omnuo (omo&#246), meaning to swear.

[18] The Hebrew verb is shawbah, meaning to swear. LXX renders this word as om&#235, a form of the same Greek verb for to swear used in Mat. 5:34-36 and Jas. 5:12 [see endnote #17].

[19] The original Greek uses the noun phobos, from which derives the English word phobia, an exaggerated or irrational fear. In the context of this passage, phobos was not fear in the complex sense of veneration or reverence, but rather was fear in the simpler sense of dread or of being afraid, inasmuch as this verse posits the mutual exclusivity of fear and love, going so far as to connect fear with “torment”.

[20] With the same root as the noun phobos [see endnote #19], the Greek verb used here is phobeo, meaning to fear or to be afraid of.

[21] To be “made perfect”, rendered in the original Greek as a form of teleio&#246, is to be complete or to lack nothing.

[22] The Hebrew word is yawre, meaning, in this case, to venerate or to revere. The other color of this word, however, is that of conventional fear, i.e., dread or being afraid. Thus, conceding God’s power over man stirs affright, and, capturing the consequent alarm in man’s veneration of the omnipotent deity, LXX renders yawre as phobeo [see endnote #20], despite the alternatives to phobeo that were available to translators and that conveyed the idea of respect: (1) sebomai, meaning to revere or to worship (e.g., Mat. 15:9), (2) timao, meaning to honor or to venerate (e.g., Jn. 5:23), and (3) proskyneo, meaning to prostrate or to pay homage (e.g., Jn. 4:20). The Vulgate renders yawre as timeo, meaning to fear in the sense of dreading or apprehending.

[23] To love, in this case, is the Greek verb agapao, the same as Jesus used in Mat. 5:44 [see endnote #6].

[24] The Greek word is paideuo, meaning to discipline, to castigate, or to chasten.

[25] The Greek verb here is mastigo, meaning to scourge or to flog.


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