One of the dubious benefits of having been a lay preacher for over ten years is that Bible passages often remind me of talks I built on those passages. Recently, this happened with Ezekiel’s vision of God leaving his temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 8 - 11).
Five years ago, I used that as the starting point for my “Dies Irae” exhortation. Ironically, I sub-titled it “Finding our Blind Spots”, but I now see that it was I who had the blind spot: The passage clearly showed the unpleasant behaviour of the God of the Bible, and I was so busy trying to find what we might have done wrong that I just couldn’t see it.
Ezekiel’s extreme experience
In this literally hair-raising vision, Ezekiel is taken by the hair and carried to Jerusalem. Here he is shown the various wrong-doings of the nation of Judah, including various forms of idol worship.
Then, it is time for judgement: First, God sends in six executioners to kill those found unworthy. Later, Ezekiel himself is drawn into it: He is ordered to prophesy, and then someone dies as a result. At the same time as this is going on, God withdraws his presence from his temple and abandons his nation to its fate.
At several points in the vision Ezekiel pleads for mercy for the nation, but each time God refuses.
Since this is a pretty hard-core vision, I wanted to do something a bit different to emphasise how startling it must have been for Ezekiel. Verdi’s Requiem seemed to fit the bill, particularly its Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) and Tuba Mirum (Hark, the Trumpet):
Unfortunately, since there were babies in the audience I didn’t want to make the music too loud, and in the event it was too soft and the effect was lost. But I still wanted my audience to think about the abruptness of the judgement in the vision.
Freedom of religion?
Nowadays, many Christians are quick to talk about freedom of religion. However, it seems the God of the Bible is a little less enthusiastic about this idea.
In a previous post I objected to the Mosaic law’s rules for dealing with individual apostates. But God doesn’t treat them any better at a national level. This example in Ezekiel’s vision certainly isn’t an isolated case: Condemnation and punishments for idolatry is a constant theme through the Old Testament.
In Exodus, God slaughters Egyptians to rescue the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. However, his acknowledgement of them as a chosen nation is conditional on them obeying his rules (remember, at least four of the fabled Ten Commandments are about how Israel should properly worship God). It may be freedom from slavery, but it sure isn’t freedom of religion or freedom from tyranny.
With the Egyptians disposed of, God had to make do with slaughter of the Israelites, and over forty years he got plenty of practice. The religious element here is clear, as is the tyranny - not only was God not happy to countenance rival gods, but he was willing to punish anyone daring to suggest his actions weren’t perfect.
He also got the Israelite leadership and the priestly clan involved. For example, when Israelites exercised their freedom of religion to erect a golden calf, sponsored by Aaron as high priest, Aaron got off scot-free while the Levites were blessed by God for killing their relatives. Later, the grandson of the high priest is commended for killing a civilian in cold blood. Why? It was the only thing that stopped God sending a message by killing more civilians himself.
Once the Promised Land has been captured (with more God-commanded slaughter abetted by the priests and leaders), the shadow of the Babylonian exile begins to loom. Kings and Chronicles foreshadows it, major and minor prophets prepare for it, and book after book goes on and on about how Israel should have obeyed God, how they were wrong to follow other religions, and thus how God was justified in punishing them. Ezekiel’s vision is just a small part of a depressing picture that I very quickly get sick of.
Recently, I heard a believer talking about that vision. Supposedly, God had been very, very patient with Israel, but there came a time when he had to act. And that’s the usual excuse presented for God: Yes, he is patient, but ultimately he is a righteous god honour-bound to punish the wicked.
Though I used to think that, now all I see is the actions of a tyrant. Yes, it make perfect sense for a tyrant to fear rivals and to punish defection harshly. But that doesn’t make it right.
Recently, I’ve been listening to Tear Down This Wall, a book about Ronald Reagan’s speech before the Berlin Wall. And it reminds me a lot of this situation. Reagan talks about how unusual it is for a nation to need a wall to keep its people in. East Germany had lost 20% of their population before they built the wall, and by the 1980s those in East Germany were in a much worse economic position than those in West Germany. Some only remained because they feared being shot if they tried to escape.
Similarly, the God of the Bible was reliant on threats of force to keep his people in line. If he was truly confident in his goodness, he could have allowed those Israelites free exercise of religion rather than making idolatry a capital crime. He could have tried to persuade them that Yahweh worship was good for them, not sent the Babylonian army to destroy them.
However, it seems that the God of the Bible was unable to compete in the marketplace of free ideas, and so he had to turn to coercion and tyranny. And it seems that that coercion has worked so well that many people now are persuaded that he was in the right and in fact very patient for not having punished Israel sooner.
Finding our hidden faults
At the time I gave this exhortation, none of this was visible to me. Though I had serious doubts, I still held to Divine Command Theory, and thus believed God to be in the right by definition. Yes, I was uncomfortable with the idea that I might one day have to carry out some of these judgements, but I think I would have done them if I had believed God had ordered them.
For the rest of my exhortation, I discussed other places in the Bible where the people thought they were OK with God, and actually turned out not to be. Since, by definition, the problem couldn’t be with God, it had to be with us. And so I asked “Is there something we are doing that is wrong, but we don’t know about because everybody does it and it just seems normal?”
This was something that had bothered me for years. I had studied the Bible with great care and tried to follow it diligently, but I had no way of knowing whether I’d done enough or even if I was on the right track. After all, Jesus talked about people who had done miraculous signs in his name and still weren’t true followers. How could I possibly be sure?
The real blind spot
Now I’m able to answer my question: Yes, there was something that we were doing which was wrong. We were accepting the authority of a murderous tyrant. We were finding every excuse we could to blame humans for their supposed weaknesses, without even considering blaming the God who theoretically created them. Nor could we realise that some of those “weaknesses” - self-determination, for example - were actually strengths.
At least I was right about why we didn’t see it: Because everyone around us was making exactly the same assumptions. Divine Command Theory is an awful doctrine, but in a sufficiently religious context it can be very difficult to question. When you start by assuming God is always in the right, how can you possibly see his shortcomings? It took me a couple of years away from the religion before I started to see how pervasive God’s wrongdoings are in the Bible.
I also didn’t see the pure indignity of the cosmic guessing game our God was running. According to standard Christadelphian beliefs, at least 99.99999% of humanity will fail to find the clear truth of the Bible, and thus may face a hostile judgement for rejecting God. However, it wasn’t just outsiders. Even our small remnant holding the Truth contained people like me: sincere, hard-working, and well informed about the Bible, but still not confident we’d discerned the true message of God.
To me now, this looks like a pathetic success rate. Less exclusive Christian groups can of course claim a higher success rate than Christadelphians, but I think they still have to reckon with how many contradictory beliefs have been drawn from the same Bible.
I refuse to continue giving God the benefit of the doubt. Supposedly, he is all-powerful and all-knowing, and yet he seems constitutionally unable to make his message clear. He even warns people that they might not have got the message right - but there is no good way to check it, and anyone who missed that subtle message must look forward to judgement. This may be a useful attribute for an insecure tyrant who just wants control and adulation, but it isn’t a good match for a supposed God of love who wants all humanity to be saved.
Some have tried to grapple with this. For example, Dr John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians, decided that this was because God just didn’t care:
God-manifestation, not human salvation, was the grand purpose of the Eternal Spirit. The salvation of a multitude is incidental to the manifestation, but it was not the end proposed. The Eternal Spirit intended to enthrone Himself on the earth, and in so doing, to develop a Divine Family from among men, every one of whom shall be spirit because born of the Spirit; and that this family shall be large enough to fill the earth, when perfected, to the entire exclusion of flesh and blood. In elaborating this purpose, upon the principles revealed in the Bible, a far greater production of human kind occurs than is necessary. Hence vast multitudes are swept off by disease, war, and so forth, and the multitude left are of but little more use than to keep the world a going until the Divine Family shall become complete. God will take out from the human race as many for His Name as His purpose requires.
Pro-tip: Do not try to apologise for God. Just don’t. It only makes things worse.
One question that I should have asked back then and didn’t: Why should human beings like us even be interested in following this kind of god? It was just axiomatic that following God was the right thing to do. In fact, believers often suggest that non-believers are selfish for not putting this god’s goals above their own. The cry goes up “They just want to sin”.
And yet, doesn’t this god in his turn sound pretty selfish? Here humans, supposedly created in the image of God and at the pinnacle of God’s master creation, are merely incidental to God revealing himself as the big boss. Count me out.
A note for my former self
At the time I gave this exhortation, I was experiencing serious doubts. Yes, I was able to give a powerful exhortation and even believe what I said when I said it - but that confidence didn’t last. I don’t think it would have surprised me that one day I would leave religion. What would have surprised me was that I would ever write something so critical of God.
Over the years as a believer, I had encountered unbelievers with angry polemics against God, and usually quickly dismissed them as uninformed. Arguments that God didn’t exist had made more sense to me than arguments that he was evil. Measured, reasoned arguments had been harder to dismiss than polemics.
I’ve written some such measured articles, and will probably write more. But right now I find the need to write more forcefully, because I’ve had to come to terms with how I could be so wrong for so long. So here’s what I’d say to my former self:
I know you may already have switched off by now, concluding that I don’t really understand God. And that’s the problem: You have been giving your god the benefit of the doubt too long, and the Bible text clearly shows he doesn’t deserve it. You may not be perfect, but you are far too good to waste your time defending a god who isn’t. Right now, you are part of the problem.
Your religion claims to offer you freedom and hope, but right now it is giving you nothing but fear and mental anguish. Out here in the real world you will have less to fear and more to hope for. Here, there is true freedom: freedom from the tyrant you’ve been pledged to from birth. You can be the central character in your own life story rather than a bit player in someone else’s cosmic drama.
Looking back over this exhortation five years on, I’m frustrated. You know that feeling when you’re watching a film or reading a book and the hero is blindly walking into a trap and you want to yell out to them “Don’t trust him! Don’t go there! It’s a trap!”? That’s exactly what I feel like now: The villain was hiding in plain sight, masquerading as an angel of light, and good Christian me just kept walking into trouble on his account.
Now, I’m frustrated by how many years I wasted trying to be a good Christian. I’m frustrated by how often I suppressed my own interests for the supposed good of a cosmic absentee landlord. I’m frustrated that I continued to blame myself for everything and never once questioned God.
I’m frustrated that the suggested remedy - prayer and Bible reading - wasn’t enough, because I lacked the life experience to really question the indoctrination that coloured those texts. I’m frustrated that an exhortation could be so carefully prepared and yet so wrong.
Yes, the religion wasn’t all bad, and yes, my very religious parents brought me up with many good principles, but that is part of the problem: I’m frustrated that I could be persuaded to go against those principles if I thought I was following a command of God.
It’s probably clear by now: I think the God of the Bible is a power-loving, controlling tyrant. When stripped of the standard Divine Command Theory defence, I think it’s very difficult to defend his actions. By his own account, this is a God who has murdered countless thousands in cold blood, and yet his followers praise him for his patience in not killing those people sooner.
It was a shock to discover this, but perhaps the hardest realisation of all is that for many years I was one of those followers. I have personally apologised for God’s actions more times than I want to count. No more! My eyes have been opened. I once was blind, but now I see.