Is the Bible factually reliable? How does it matter?

Setting aside a point-by-point response to Licona’s argument for the proof of the historicity of the resurrection presented indirectly in the previous post (Which, for the record, is not really convincing to me, especially the points where he says that “100% of scholars agree” (seriously, does such proposition really exist?) I think the reliability question that Tim has raised is an important question for both Evangelicals and Mormons and I think there are some interesting differences in how they seem to approach the question.

Of course the Bible is not very reliable on all kinds of things, such as the definition of Pi, the classification of birds and insects, etc. (most Evangelicals agree on this as well) but the critical question is it a reliable witness for the things that are not seen?

I think some Mormons and most Evangelicals believe in some form of the theory that the writers of the Bible were directly guided to write what they put down on paper (metal or papyrus, as the case may be). That through some “mystical” experience these writers were directed to put the words that ended up on the scripture page. If you believe this theory,(which is not established within the text), the bible is almost by definition reliable.

Some Mormons seem to have a more open understanding of how the bible was written. Understanding it was written by men who were essentially similar to the leadership of the church today, they understand that a multitude of different opinions can be expressed in many scriptural genres without a compelling reason to accept each statement as words from God’s Mouth. The New Testament, excluding the Revelation of John is written from some guys’ perspective, the Gospels and Acts are narratives from (ostensibly) one person’s perspective and the epistles are sermons similar to LDS conference talks. I think from a Mormon perspective we can see that the sermons of Paul and the other Apostles could go wrong by overemphasizing things that those men thought was important and underemphasizing other topics, Mormons also can recognize that they might have just got things wrong on some points (just as we can see this in latter-day apostles’ writings and sermons).

I think some Mormons could say that we listen to prophets and believe the scriptures because they resonate with the source of truth that is inherent to us, our spirit and God’s.

I think writings that claim to be direct revelation from God are more problematic, but I think we should read the statement “according to me” after the statement “Thus saith the Lord” when we read the D&C as well as Revelation. Others may disagree but I think it only makes sense to understand all revelation as coming through a spokesperson who has the ability to put words in the Lord’s mouth wittingly or unwittingly to make the message make sense. Those who believe in this sort of revelation simply don’t have the phenomenological equipment to explain how the voice of God speaks through man since 1) extremely few people have ever had the guts to speak in this manner and 2) those that did haven’t explained the process very well and it usually comes to us second hand. Therefore I class the “thus Saith the Lord” scriptures in almost the same category as other scriptures.

I think some Mormons could say that we listen to prophets and believe the scriptures because they resonate with the source of truth that is within us. The Bible is reliable if an when it speaks from the Spirit.

To such an LDS, the scriptures are reliable in the message that resonates with the Spirit of God and if they are unreliable in every other way then we can live with that.

Evangelicals like Tim seem to be much more rigid, appearing to say that if the scriptures are not reliable as historical documents then we can trust the message, and therefore making the historical accuracy a near tenant of faith.

While Christianity is eminently a historical religion, which depends on the historical events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, I think it’s goes a bit too far to allow historical evidence to either make or break your faith, especially considering the multitude of ways you can interpret historical events.

I think an absolutely central principle to my faith (and Mormonism) is that every person has some ability to determine right and wrong and to discern things of God just as children recognize their parents voices. I also think that there is something central to Mormonism regarding knowing the truth through living it. I.e. We can “know of the doctrine” if we do His will. These sorts of measures of are not really mystical at all but they are not particularly scientific either.

I think Brigham Young explained the Mormon position quite well:

“I believe that the Bible contains the word of God, and the words of good men and the words of bad men; the words of good angels and the words of bad angels and words of the devil; and also the words uttered by the ass when he rebuked the prophet in his madness. I believe the words of the Bible are just what they are; but aside from that I believe the doctrines concerning salvation contained in that book are true, and that their observance will elevate any people, nation or family that dwells on the face of the earth. The doctrines contained in the Bible will lift to a superior condition all who observe them; they will impart to them knowledge, wisdom, charity, fill them with compassion and cause them to feel after the wants of those who are in distress, or in painful or degraded circumstances. They who observe the precepts contained in the Scriptures will be just and true, and virtuous and peaceable at home and abroad. Follow out the doctrines of the Bible and men will make splendid husbands, women excellent wives, and children will be obedient; they will make families happy and the nations wealthy and happy and lifted up above the things of this life. Can any see any harm in all this? … “Now, if we can take the low and degraded and elevate them in their feelings, language and manners; if we can impart to them the sciences that are in the world, teach them all that books contain, and in addition to all this, teach them principles that are eternal, and calculated to make them a beautiful community, lovely in their appearance, intelligent in every sense of the word, would you not say that our system is praiseworthy and possesses great merit? Well, this is all in that book called the Bible, and the faithful observance of the principles taught in that book will do this for any family or nation on the earth.” Journal of Discourses, Vol.13, p.176, Brigham Young, May 29, 1870. Cf. JD, Vol.13, p.235 – p.236,

JD, Vol.14, p.99, Brigham Young, August 8, 1869 – “We believe the Bible and practice it, as far as our weaknesses will permit. Not that we do it perfectly; as it has been stated this morning, we have darkness, unbelief, ignorance, superstition, and our traditions to contend with and overcome; and they cling to us to that degree that we can hardly overcome them.”

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67 thoughts on “Is the Bible factually reliable? How does it matter?

  1. Jared C. said:

    I think writings that claim to be direct revelation from God are more problematic, but I think we should read the statement “according to me” after the statement “Thus saith the Lord” when we read the D&C as well as Revelation.

    I would agree with that statement, but I suspect that many if not most Mormons would not.

    One common formulation of many Protestants is that the Bible (at least in its original form, as there may have been transmission errors over the centuries) is “authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.” I’m not entirely sure I would hold to that, but on the other hand I can’t think of any instance where I don’t believe the Bible or other LDS scriptures in matters of faith and practice (taking into account, of course, context, culture, the use of symbolism rather than literal language, and similar such things).

    As I understand it, evangelicals disagree on the extent to which the Bible has to be reliable in matters of history.

    Jared C. said:

    While Christianity is eminently a historical religion, which depends on the historical events of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, I think it’s goes a bit too far to allow historical evidence to either make or break your faith, especially considering the multitude of ways you can interpret historical events.

    How far are you willing to take that statement?

    I, for one, would have a hard time holding my current faith if I were presented incontrovertible proof that there wasn’t a physical resurrection of Jesus (although I suppose I’d be open to various ideas of what “physical” means). The whole LDS concept of Heavenly Father, Jesus and the afterlife, the whole religious philosophy of Mormonism, is tied up with the idea of physical bodies, so it’s hard to think of how much would be left if all that were mistaken. (If I were an evangelical, I’d say something similar about the historicity of the Resurrection. In my view, if there had been no Resurrection there’d be no Christianity, LDS or otherwise.)

    On the other hand, if I were to find out that Lazarus wasn’t really dead (only very ill), that wouldn’t bother me. If I found out that the account of the Exodus was a huge exaggeration, or that the story of Noah and the ark was a fable, I wouldn’t be all that concerned. And I could live with the idea that Adam and Eve are/were symbolic figures, even though that would open up a huge can of worms.

    But in my view, there are aspects of the faith that are tied to the historicity of scriptural events. The Resurrection is probably on the top of that list.

  2. On the other hand, if I were to find out that Lazarus wasn’t really dead (only very ill), that wouldn’t bother me. If I found out that the account of the Exodus was a huge exaggeration, or that the story of Noah and the ark was a fable, I wouldn’t be all that concerned. And I could live with the idea that Adam and Eve are/were symbolic figures, even though that would open up a huge can of worms.

    But in my view, there are aspects of the faith that are tied to the historicity of scriptural events. The Resurrection is probably on the top of that list.

    I’d loosely agree with that.

    I think it’s goes a bit too far to allow historical evidence to either make or break your faith, especially considering the multitude of ways you can interpret historical events.

    What if a faith stakes itself on a historical event? For example, if the first vision did not happen or if Smith never received the golden plates, wouldn’t that shake the foundation of Mormonism? What if Smith and Cowdery never received the priesthood? (I’m not offering any evidence for or against these events just pointing out that if they didn’t really happen there aren’t many foundational claims left)

  3. Tim asked:

    What if a faith stakes itself on a historical event? For example, if the first vision did not happen or if Smith never received the golden plates, wouldn’t that shake the foundation of Mormonism?

    I may be way out in left field on this, but to me, as I read the accounts of the first vision, it is unclear to me whether we are talking a vision in the way the word is normally used or whether we are talking about an actual physical manifestation. In other words, if I had been standing next to Joseph Smith at the time of the first vision, would I have seen and heard the Heavenly Father and the Son? The answer isn’t particularly important to me (although it might be to some people). I’m agnostic on the issue even though I believe the first vision was a real event. Others may feel differently.

    As to the golden plates, if they were “spiritual” only, that to me would require more explaining to do. I realize that there are those who would argue that some of the well-known witnesses saw the plates through “spiritual eyes” only. But as far as I know, everything Joseph Smith said would suggest otherwise at least as far as his experience. Even though Mormon doctrine relies very little on the Book of Mormon, and even though the actual plates weren’t necessary to do the translation, I’d agree that the historicity of the plates would be foundational.

  4. regardless of what type of “vision” it was, wasn’t even my point. If Smith just made the whole thing up, no vision of any sort, no plates of any sort, no visits by any angels or any apostles, that’s not something Mormonism could survive in my estimation.

  5. The one historical event that I consider absolutely essential to my faith is the Resurrection. I agree with Eric that a lot of the other events described (particularly in the OT) could be exaggerated, metaphorical, or even entirely fabricated, but as long as that tomb was really empty and for the reasons given in scripture, my faith remains strong.

  6. You know, my main beef here is not whether religion is based on fact or not. I think the train of comments have pretty-much established that both Christianity-at-large and Mormonism are based on facts in an important way. That’s fine.

    What I do object to, is a dogged pursuit of factual evidence to back up, what are essentially spiritual truths. It’s not that the facts are irrelevant, but as a practical matter, I just don’t think they are the right place to focus on.

    There’s almost a certain arrogance to it when it gets out of hand. Like in the Intelligent Design movement.

    “By golly, we’re going to find some hard evidence! We’re going to rend the veil between man and God and PROVE He exists! He’s done a good job hiding from us so far, but now, praise be, we’ve got the evidence we need to settle things and make Richard Dawkins eat his words! Gotcha.”

    Intelligent Design, proving Jesus, searching for Zarahemla…

    Taken the wrong way, this stuff really is a modern-day Tower of Babel. The quest to eliminate faith and force God, willingly or not, to show himself to a faithless people who are demanding a sign. The quest for proof can too easily go horribly wrong. Just a word of warning.

  7. My faith, admittedly tenuous, doesn’t really depend on many historical facts, for me the vitality of the teachings speak for themselves. Because I don’t have proof (or very solid evidence considering more plausible counter explanations) of the resurrection or of the golden plates I basically have to decide if the things that Jesus or Joseph Smith taught were worthy of putting faith in.

    As I said above, critical to my faith is the idea that God is accessible now to me, rather than simply showing up in the episodes recorded in the Bible. I also believe that Jesus taught a very demanding way of life and way of thinking that focused on sacrifice and love. My faith is that this way of life is worth pursuing, regardless of whether the tomb was empty. In my mind you don’t have to be able to see or believe much with regard to historical events in order to maintain faith. Jesus also taught about God in a particular way that resonates with me. Joseph Smith did as well. I think Mormonism gets so many things right that other Christian faiths get wrong, regardless of whether the plates were real.

    The reason these historical events are not critical to me: My faith is that God will reveal himself to me regardless of the historicity of stories of remote events and visions of other people and that there is something about living a Christian life is of value even if there is no God and the resurrection is a lie.

    I like Brigham Young’s approach to the Bible because it does not simply focus on simply believing the Bible, but on living by its message. In keeping with this, I think there is a good portion of the Bible that is simply irrelevant or incorrect, and that would be morally disastrous if followed. I happily disregard these parts of the Bible for the same reasons I embrace others.

    I wouldn’t say these beliefs are at all mainstream or orthodox, but I think they are still to some Degree “Mormon”

  8. “I also believe that Jesus taught a very demanding way of life and way of thinking that focused on sacrifice and love. My faith is that this way of life is worth pursuing, regardless of whether the tomb was empty….I think Mormonism gets so many things right that other Christian faiths get wrong, regardless of whether the plates were real….I think there is a good portion of the Bible that is simply irrelevant or incorrect, and that would be morally disastrous if followed. I happily disregard these parts of the Bible for the same reasons I embrace others.”

    Jared, I like your thoughts. I too feel the same way.

  9. When we are speaking of our Lord and Saviour, in the same way an LDS would say, “I know the Church is true.” I can say, I know that Jesus lived, he was crucified, died, was buried, and on the third day rose again.” I believe this with all my heart. I don’t believe there is any way anyone will ever be able to prove or disprove the resurrection. Even if someone purported to have found a tomb with bones in it, how could you ever prove that the bones belonged to Jesus– that he didn’t rise from the dead?

  10. I’m less comfortable than Jared in “throwing-out” parts of the Bible I don’t like. Too much risk of reshaping my religion into what is merely “fashionable” at the time.

  11. Well, it’s not like I believe in “throwing out” large parts of the Bible. The example I was thinking of is Paul’s statement, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” Now, there are many ways to interpret this. Some say it means you shouldn’t be in business partnership or in other close relationships with them. Most seem to believe it means marriage. I don’t disagree with that in theory. I would never have married a man who mocked my faith in Christ, who said, “Why do you believe in Jesus? That’s stupid.” When I look at that verse, “unequally yoked” to me it means, if you do marry an unbeliever, it cannot be someone who will not let you be who you are, who will not support your Christian faith. Also, for me, my biggest non-negotiable came from my LDS influenced upbringing–I was determined to keep the law of Chastity until I married. If I could not have found a man who respected that I would never have married. I was not willing to compromise that–even if it meant remaining permanently single. Fortunately, I found a man I loved who met my standards. He is a United Methodist Christian. He has read his Bible every day since his college days and he prays every day as well. It is built into his life. For him, there is no such thing as “I don’t feel like praying.” Now, this man does not at all meet the born again Evangelical standards. He does not have a born again experience, and he doesn’t believe the Bible is infallible or inerrant. He disagrees with the Evangelicals in many ways, from his own study of theology, he just thinks they are flat out wrong in many areas. Where I was agreeing with Jared is that, I know it would have been disastrous for me not to have married my husband after waiting all those years. If I had allowed myself to be influenced by conservative Evangelical interpretations of the Bible, I know with all my heart my life would have been shipwrecked. That’s really what I meant. I have a testimony about my experience that summer when I was making up my mind and my life was at a crossroads. I would like to share it with you LDS, but here is not an appropriate place.

  12. Seth,

    Regarding throwing out parts of the bible.

    I think you, and most all Christians disregard a lot more that you may admit to. If we witnessed the destruction of Jericho for instance, we would either agree that that was not of God or be convinced that God is monstrous.

    I think we also disregard other endorsements of slavery, mysogeny and inhumanity in the bible.

    I am not for shaping the religion to some fashion, but I think some “fashions” developed over the years, such as the concept of universal human rights can and does temper everything we think about the bible. Many of those in the bible lived a lot more like the Taliban than we would like to admit and most of us would reinterpret or disregard those passages that endorse that sort of lifestyle.

  13. “If we witnessed the destruction of Jericho for instance, we would either agree that that was not of God or be convinced that God is monstrous.”

    That’s not my interpretation of the event at all and that’s a false dichotomy.

    “I think we also disregard other endorsements of slavery, mysogeny and inhumanity in the bible.”

    The Old Testament doesn’t actually “endorse” those things any more than it “endorses” polygamy.

    “I think that Jesus “threw out” large portions of the old testament.”

    Jesus lived and advocated the Law of Moses better than anyone. What exactly was it he “threw out?”

    So, in short, no – I do not throw out parts of the Old Testament all that much. I’m willing to shelf certain parts as “stuff I don’t understand,” but I do not throw things out the way you seem to be talking about.

    I read the destruction of Jericho as being consistent with the God I know and worship actually.

    You don’t get to recoil from the scripture at the first hint of a Biblical dilemma. That’s just a weak response. We’re supposed to struggle with this stuff a bit.

  14. Seth,

    Why don’t I get to recoil from scripture? You either think that Scripture is accurate and reliable or you don’t. If you don’t , you should question and test each part, just like we test the things that modern day prophets say. I think if you don’t accept everything that Brigham Young and Joseph Smith wrote down, why should you accept what the author of Joshua wrote down? Is Adam-God less acceptable than theocratic genocide?

    The battle of Jericho was an invading army totally destroying all the inhabitants of a city (men, women and children) because of their religion to get their land. We can spin it however you want but no matter how you slice it, I would expect you to absolutely recoil and denounce such events when they happen in modern times. (e.g. the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto)

    “So the people shouted when the priests blew with the trumpets: and it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, and the people shouted with a great shout, that the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city. And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword. ”
    Joshua 6:20-21

  15. OK Jared.

    God wants to deliver an entire ethnic group out of slavery and establish them among the nations as his own people.

    How would you propose this be done in the ancient Middle East without killing people?

    I’m all ears.

  16. What is really radical is not that God would destroy an entire nation, but that He would allow any of us to live. We all deserve eternal damnation, so wiping out a nation is nothing. God’s mercy is way more radical than His judgment. Until we understand the true gravity of our sin, we will never be able to appreciate how incredible the mercy of God is.

  17. Josh, I appreciate the idea of humility before God’s perfection and mercy, but I don’t think that sort of thing is really going to address Jared’s concerns. Saying that now, merely avoids the question by saying it’s all beyond us anyway, so we shouldn’t worry about it.

    I don’t agree with this approach. I think we are obligated to try to understand God as best we are able, and wrestle with the tough questions. Saying “God is great, so you have no right to question” is a denial of our God-given capacity for questioning and thought.

    I’ve got my own ideas about Jericho and the other Canaanite genocides, but I’d like to know what alternatives Jared thinks God had back then, and why they would be better.

  18. And Jared,

    You do realize that simply asserting that the Canaanite genocides are not really a part of the Bible – one of those “incorrectly translated” things – doesn’t solve the problem either. Whether the fall of Jericho was really God-ordered or not, the fact remains that genocides indisputably happen, and they happen on God’s watch.

    Trying to sterilize the Bible in this fashion merely allows us to put off wrestling with the inevitable questions about God’s goodness in the face of so much evil. But the questions remain – whether you manage to strike them from the canon or not, the questions remain.

    Even if the fall of Jericho is simply some sort of nationalist Israelite folklore masquerading as a narrative of divine will, I still think it would be best for us to treat it as if it were a narrative of divine will, because that at least forces us to look evil in the eye, and figure out why on earth we are stuck with it.

    I think you are simply avoiding the inevitable questions. Better to keep the horror canonized, so that we may be forced to deal with it. Because the question is important.

  19. There’s an immense gulf between man-ordered genocide and God-ordered genocide.

  20. And when we start to decide what is right in the Bible and what is not simply on the basis of whether we like the God portrayed, we are fashioning an idol. It is not God. You can’t create your own god that you want to worship and then say, “Yeah for me I worship him well.” If you are not worshiping the very God of the Bible then it is idolatry. And the God of the Bible hates sin and judges mankind. Yet He is also merciful. Mercy is meaningless without judgment.

  21. Josh, the same could be said of a rigid adherence to the Bible. You are fashioning an idol.

    I believe that flexibility is needed. You have to be willing to allow the possibility that the Bible writers “saw through a glass darkly” and didn’t get everything perfect. You have to be open to the idea.

    But I don’t like the idea of cavalierly discarding the uncomfortable parts either without actually wrestling with them and trying to reconcile them.

  22. Seth,

    Deciding genocide is not from God or is not Christian is not really being cavalier, is it? Though we have no record of His thoughts on the Matter, I think Jesus could have found a way to spare the Canaanites similar to the way he found a way to spare the adulteress facing stoning.

    “I’ve got my own ideas about Jericho and the other Canaanite genocides, but I’d like to know what alternatives Jared thinks God had back then, and why they would be better.”

    I can’t believe you seriously believe that genocide was the only, or even the most plausible option for resettling people. The resettlement of Israel with Jews during the past 100 years didn’t involve the wholesale slaughter of innocents. One of 10,000 possible alternatives: God could have raised up leaders within the Caananites that taught tolerance and cooperation with the Israelites that would have allowed them to establish communities near them. (That took me all of 30 seconds to think of.)

    Josh,

    If the Bible does not reflect the living God, then you are worshiping and idol if you are worshiping the “God of the bible” The problem is, you are defining the “living God” as the “God of the Bible” even when the God described in the Bible bears no resemblence to the kind, loving and just being you claim to worship.

    This goes back to the question of the factual and historical reliability of the Bible. I would argue that the spiritual and ethical reliability is far important than the historical reliability and I think we have to ask the question of each author, “are they really speaking for God here?” Sure it may take some struggling, thought, contemplation, but you really have no basis to take each book, chapter and verse of the bible as spiritually reliable simply because its the Bible.

    For example, what if we accept that the historical description of Canaanite genocides in the Bible are historically accurate (something that we have no strong outside evidence of, even if you leave out the highly improbable miracles) isn’t the question of whether God ordered them the most critical question?

    Lets say they the description of the genocides in Joshua is not historically accurate, doesn’t the point that is being made by the author regarding how God views people and deals with them remain the most important part of the book?

  23. “The resettlement of Israel with Jews during the past 100 years did not involve the wholesale slaughter of innocents.”

    Uh, Jared, I have two words for you: Deir Yassin. As someone who has studied the Arab/Israeli conflict in both my undergraduate and graduate studies, I can tell you that, throughout the history of this conflict, from the Mandate period up until the present time, in my opinion the Arabs have committed more atrocities than the Jews. However, the Jews are not totally innocent and have committed atrocities. For what it’s worth, I am pro Israel, and I do believe the state of Israel has a right to exist.

    I do agree very much with your other points.

  24. Specifically, your points about the spiritual and ethical reliability of the Bible and the Bible reflecting the living God.

  25. Jared, the resettlement of the Jews happened under backing of a powerful European nation who had gone through a thousand years of enlightened society and governance.

    No basis for comparison whatsoever.

    In the ancient world a new ethnic group or people almost never moved into the neighborhood without a bloody fight. And even in the case of modern Israel, after three wars, riots, relocations and terrorism, you can hardly call that “bloodless.”

    “I think Jesus could have found a way to spare the Canaanites similar to the way he found a way to spare the adulteress facing stoning.”

    So suggest one.

  26. Well, Jared C’s not Jesus, is he.

    Are you really suggesting that an all-powerful God–or even an extremely powerful God–had no alternative but to engage in ethnic cleansing for Lebensraum?

    Not “a smart person.” God. We’re talking about God.

  27. How’s He supposed to do it without coercing people? Part of the package deal is that people do this mortality thing on their own. So even if God’s all powerful, how does He rig the system without violating those parameters?

    In any case, the “God is perfect, so I should be able to have it my way – although I don’t know how” argument isn’t exactly compelling.

    So how else is God supposed to set things up for a region populated with violent, uneducated xenophobes? Before you get to complain about how things turned out, you are obligated to provide an alternative. Otherwise, you really have no answer to the church-goer’s “God moves in mysterious ways” appeal.

  28. Again, seriously? “God can’t coerce people, so when he needs to get something done, he’s left with no alternative but to kill them.” That’s insane.

    God’s got a whole lot of tricks in his bag. I think it’s ludicrous for you to insist that I provide the supreme being with an acceptable alternate.

  29. A bag of tricks? Are you suggesting I just accept this as a matter of faith Kullervo?

    I hope the irony isn’t lost on you.

  30. And by the way Kullervo, what I’m saying is that the confrontation between Israelites and Canaanites was never going to end any other way than in bloodshed. What you have in the Old Testament is a continual narrative of a God engaged in damage control over an irreparably damaged system.

  31. What I’m saying is that divinely-ordered genocide is radically inconsistent with any Christian conception of God, and that the assertion that God had no other choice, though stereotypically Mormon, is flimsy and also inconsistent with any Christian–including Mormon–conception of God.

  32. I still don’t think “divinely-ordered genocide”, or judgment, is radically inconsistentn with the Christian conception of God.

    If sin is worthy of punishment – eternal damnation – then it is really really bad. It is much worse in God’s eyes than we even think it is. God says that the Israelites were an example to us. God sent plagues on them that killed thousands of His own people – because of their sin. We should take note that sin is wicked and deserving of punishment.

    We all have sinned.

    We all deserve punishment.

    Therefore, if God dishes out His wrath on the Canaanites before their natural death, why is that so inconsistent with the character of God? God hates sin and punished it justly.

    The mercy of God is what is amazing. That He lets any of us live and offers His Son as a sacrifice is awesome.

    Where is the incosistency?

  33. Also, with the Bible, I don’t go back and look at the things I think are inconsistent and that I don’t like and then take them out.

    Instead, I begin with the premise that the Bible was inspired by God. I see the fingerprints of God all over it. For examply, over 40 authors from 3 continents, in three languages, over the span of 1500 years wrote these books and they are completely unified. I believe that is a definite sign of God.

    So unless there is historical evidence to contradict the Scriptures or internal inconsistencies, I am going to start with the premise that these texts are reliable and are from God. Therefore, they will inform my view of God.

    If they say God ordered judgment on the Canaanites, I will allow that truth to inform my view of God. God hates sin and judges it.

    What criteria are you guys using when you pick and choose what is true in the Scriptures?

  34. “the assertion that God had no other choice, though stereotypically Mormon, is flimsy and also inconsistent with any Christian–including Mormon–conception of God.”

    Do tell.

  35. Think about what you’re saying. Are you really certain you believe in a God who has no choice but to annihilate nations or mind-control them in order to bring his plans to fruition? Those are some pretty intense extremes, Seth.

    A God who is omniscient and for all intents and purposes omnipotent, who nevertheless can’t figure out a better way to do it?

    How weak is your god? How constrained is your god?

    I mean, yeah, free will, blah blah blah. But seriously, that’s a lamely Mormon cop-out. God is omniscient. You don’t have to mind-control people to get them to do what you want. Even our decidedly not omnicient politicians and media figures have learned this lesson.

    Whatever. You’re the one taking the bizarrely extreme position here, Seth. The burden of proof is on you, not me.

  36. “But seriously, that’s a lamely Mormon cop-out. God is omniscient. You don’t have to mind-control people to get them to do what you want.”

    You’re still not getting anywhere with this. Coercion is coercion correct?

    Who cares whether God mind controls you, or whether He just manipulates your choices? It’s still coercion.

    And calling something “lame” isn’t a substitute for having an actual argument.

  37. Everything is coercion. Offering the Celesial Kingdom is coercion. Degrees of glory are coercion. Sending a prophet and having them say he speaks for God is coercion. Pulling someone one way or the other is coercion.

    Who says God won’t coerce?

  38. Also, for the record, violence is most definitely coercion. Ethnic cleansing is about the most coercive means available to God in the Promised-Land situation. At least, the most coercive indirect means (since God didn;t do the killing himself or anything).

    Why couldn’t God have told the Israelites what to say and how to act so that they could have peacefully coexisted?

    Why couldn’t God have raised up a Canaanite prophet who guided the Canaanites back to their own appointed promised land?

  39. “Why couldn’t God have told the Israelites what to say and how to act so that they could have peacefully coexisted?”

    Did you actually read Genesis?

    He did try. And it was pretty-much a total wash.

  40. Question: if ethnic cleansing of Canaanites was fine in the Old Testament, what makes it not fine in Rwanda or Yugoslavia? What makes the Holocaust monstrous?

    If the only difference is that God said to do it in one case and didn;t say to do it in the other, then that’s splitting hairs awfully fine, especially since people aren’t geenrally in agreement of what God does or doesn’t say.

    And doubly especially if “inspiration” counts as “God said to do it.”

  41. Ok Seth, Lets assume that the settlement of Canaan REQUIRED massacre of innocent people. I would argue that that would not be an option that God would order people to take. Maybe slavery to the Egyptians would be preferable, just as domination by the Romans was not overtly attacked by Jesus.

    I suppose I have a different theory of how God operates than you do, but I don’t know that it matters, I think we both would agree that the book of Joshua provides us almost no moral guidance today, making it nearly irrelevant. I mean would you participate in murdering a bunch of people if Thomas Monson told you to? If not, why?

    Could current Isrealis use this moral reasoning toward the intractable Palestinian terrorists? i.e. we just can’t tame them any other way, either they get out or we murder them. I mean God has said that the Jews will return to the land of their birthright.

    Josh.

    I believe in a God who is just, i.e. dishes out punishment that is worthy of the crime. I don’t think he would dish out eternal damnation on very many at all since few are really worthy of such a punishment. I totally reject the “one sin sends you burning forever.” in part because of the completely backward moral reasoning you are giving as justification for massacre. I think lumping all sins into one bucket is a flaw in evangelical thinking tha tis not consistent with the New or Old Testament, especially if you think it is all “unified”.

    Lisa,

    I agree with you with regard to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am certainly not saying that the current Israelis don’t have a lot of blood on their hands, I think they continue to oppress the Palestinians for precisely the same reasons Joshua is said to have destroyed the Canaanites, they want the land.

  42. It does come down to God said to do it. You have to admit that, if indeed the one true God of the universe verbally told the Israelites to destroy another ethnic group, it would be justified. True? You have to admit that.

    Now how do we determine whether one has a divine command or not? That’s the tricky part, but I’ll take a stab.

    The Israelites were under a special dispensation as God’s holy nation – set apart. He had made a covenant with them to be their God. He established prophets who communicated with God and led the people.

    How would one verify this? With miracles. The plagues, deliverance from Egypt, a cloud by day and fire by night, the crossing of the Red Sea, etc. God did more miracles at that time with that nation than any other time in history.

    Now we cannot go back in time and find out if all these miracles happened to validate Israel’s claim, but we also cannot disprove them. We do see that other nations around Israel at that time believed Israel had a powerful God on their side.

    If a nation today could show through miracles of the caliber found in the Bible that they had a direct line to God, and their beliefs were consistent with Scripture, and they said that they were to wipe out an ethnic group because God told them, I would have to accept that it was right.

    However, none of the modern day genocides can even come close to making these claims. Therefore, they are from the origin of man and subject to judgment.

  43. Josh,

    I think you ask the critical question:

    “What criteria are you guys using when you pick and choose what is true in the Scriptures?”

    I think this is crux of the issue. I would say that the Spirit of God or the light of Christ is in every person allowing them to see good and evil if they listen to it. I think people have the moral capacity to see good things and bad things. Some of what I see in the Bible is bad, and I think God is good so I don’t agree with the author’s take on God in those parts of the bible. How else can you decide if a particular section of the Bible is of God?

    I mean if Joseph Smith can throw out the Song of Solomon for a little sex, why can’t I disregard Joshua for a lot of blood? I just don’t think the author of Joshua really knew a lot about God and his position on violence. I think that God can reveal things to prophets and, simultaneously prophets can misconstrue messages from God. Its up to us to test the Spirit to determine which is which. Isn’t this what Mormonism teaches?

  44. Josh said:
    “It does come down to God said to do it. You have to admit that, if indeed the one true God of the universe verbally told the Israelites to destroy another ethnic group, it would be justified. True? You have to admit that.”

    I don’t believe that the God I worship would order the massacre. (I also don’t believe that the earth stopped turning so Joshua could win battles; I don’t believe the God that is currently running things suspended all known laws of physics just for Joshua to conquer Canaan a bit faster, I think believing that happened is inconsistent with the God that Jesus describes.

  45. Jared,
    Romans 3:23 “For ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

    James 2:10 “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.”

    Romans 5:12 “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

    Matthew 7:13-14 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, a nd there are few who find it.”

    Matthew 25:46 (Jesus speaking) “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    The Bible is clear, New and Old Testament and that we have all sinned, we all deserve eternal punishment.

    You cannot be so arrogant to tell God that your sin isn’t that bad. You need to go to God and ask how bad your sin is.

    Let me give an illustration. If I kill a cockroach, I am not going to jail. If I kill a cat, I might be fined or even imprisoned. If I kill a person, it would be life for life. Why?The act was the same. I am guilty of a greater crime because of the value of the person who I harmed. When I sin against God, an infinite supreme being, I am guilty of an infinite sin.

    When God says that our sin is guilty of eternal punishment, we shouldn’t throw out that part of the Bible. We should adjust our view of sin, humble ourselves, and repent.

  46. Josh, On miracles as justification:

    So do you believe that Arabs like Osami Biin Ladin are justified in destroying the WTC?

    I mean Muhummad did split the Moon in two…..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splitting_of_the_moon

    Why should we not believe this when there were so many witnesses?

    I think that even if Muhummad split the moon we can still question whether or not killing innocent people is of God.

  47. I’ve reread all the posts on this thread. I asked my husband in an email today (during his lunch hour) what he thought of this subject, and he replied with some thoughts that I don’t think anyone has mentioned.

    “When the Chosen People were given the charge to clear out the Promised Land, it was promised to them specifically because the existing inhabitants were considered condemned by God to destruction. Therefore it was a holy command to destroy them. Yes, I believe that the conquests were intended to be total genocides. In fact, God warned them that failing to do so would allow the survivors to become a thorn in their side forever. Flash forward to the Middle East today. The Philistines whose modern day descendants are the “Palestinians” ( I use quotation marks because there is no such thing as Palestine, unless you agree to either re-construct the Roman Empire or return the area to England as the Mandate of Palestine), were not wiped out, and are a continuing plague to Isreal today.

    Now, as to the practical side of this question. It was the accepted practice of all conquering armies in those days to extinguish the existing populations of the conquered territiories. Why? Because leaving survivors would leave somebody to revenge the conquest at a later date, i.e. when the boys grew up to be men and avenged their fathers. And it happened more than once. So to prevent that, EVERYBODY dies, with only a few exceptions for very small infants and some women who were spared for obvious reasons. In many cases, no one at all was spared.

    So, did God order genocide? No. He ordained a just punishment for an un-Godly people, and His instrument was His Chosen People. Characterizing the act as genocide improperly uses a modern day term. We are far too infected with “political correctness” and the concept that we are all just fine the way we are. There is plenty of evidence in the Bible to suggest that God doesn’t think that way.”

    Reading my husband’s thoughts made me remember some things from when I’ve read the Old Testament in the past. I remember reading that the people in Canaan sacrificed their children to idols. I am a mother, and it is hard for me to think of children being killed, but I can see where a just and loving God would be angered by this situation and say, “Enough is enough, I will drive you people from this land, and put my own people in–people who will worship me.” The children who were killed would have grown up to worship the same gods their parents did, and commit the same evil deeds. Although it is still very hard to accept, my husband has given me something to think about.

  48. I have a friend who wrestled with these passages. Then he saw 4 year olds dropping grenades off of bridges in Iraq and started to understand how and why God might call for a reset for an entire culture that becomes so thoroughly wicked.

    I don’t think this completely answers the question, but it gave me some insight into what Jericho might have been like.

    (and hopefully you don’t think I or my friend think every Iraqi should be killed).

    For me, I’d say this conversation is one big “I don’t know”. At times I feel like Peter, I look at Christ and say “where else am I to go?” despite his difficult teaching.

  49. Maybe Lisa. I have heard some pretty disturbing religious practices that were taking place in Canaan at the time. Such as superheating a hollowed bronze statue of a deity and then throwing women and children inside to be burned to death. Sure, it’s quite possible that the Canaanites were not exactly nice folk. But I’m not sure that’s going to be convincing here on its own.

    It’s also a good point that assimilation had it’s own slew of problems for a culture – especially when you had a nomadic society lacking in institutions or culture encountering a urbanized agricultural society. What usually happened in such situations is that either

    a) the nomads would rape, pillage and burn and carry off the loot with them to their tents, or

    b) the nomads would take over, set up shop, and then be inexorably assimilated by the culture they just conquered (due to it being a more complex and generally impressive culture). This is what happened when the Mongols conquered China – China simply swallowed the Mongols and they ceased to exist as anything other than Chinese.

    Neither result was acceptable for the stated objective of creating a holy society dedicated to the One True God. Yet option b is sort of what actually happened to the Israelites, and the rest of the Old Testament is a story of how Israel paid for failing to utterly destroy the existing cultures. The remnants of those cultures and their idols plagued Israel time, and time again. The various conquests that Israel had to suffer later on can be seen as being enabled or even caused by the continuing internal rot caused by the continuance of Canaanite culture within Israel.

  50. Let me give an illustration. If I kill a cockroach, I am not going to jail. If I kill a cat, I might be fined or even imprisoned. If I kill a person, it would be life for life. Why?The act was the same. I am guilty of a greater crime because of the value of the person who I harmed. When I sin against God, an infinite supreme being, I am guilty of an infinite sin.

    Lamest argument ever, and false, as well.

    For starters, there’s a big moral difference between victimizing someone and disobeying them. Maybe if you murdered God, you’d be guilty of an infinite sin. But disobedience? No way. It doesn’t scale the same way.

    Let me put it this way: California is, by almost any standard of measurement, a greater state than Rhode Island. It’s bigger, more politically powerful, more rich, more culturally influential. So am I guilty of a greater crime by violating the laws of California?

    Or how about this, is it more morally reprehensible to disobey state law than federal law? The nation is greater than the state, right? By your logic, telling someone about stocks you’re going to issue before the registration has been filed (a violation of federal law) is morally worse than rape, murder, or child abuse (violations of state law). The securities violation is a sin against a greater being (the federal government), so it must deserve a greater punishment, right? The person who sells stocks in violation of the Securities Act of 1933 is more evil and more guilty than the combination child rapist/murderer. By your logic.

    Or better yet, what about International Law? It’s a violation against the whole world, right? So the Canadian fisherman who fishes in Danish territorial waters off the coast of Greenland deserves a much greater punishment than the child rapist/murderer. The fisherman sinned against all of humanity, which is much greater than just one state.

  51. Seth, yeah, those are the things that happen usually. Why can’t God not intervene?

  52. Now, as to the practical side of this question. It was the accepted practice of all conquering armies in those days to extinguish the existing populations of the conquered territiories. Why? Because leaving survivors would leave somebody to revenge the conquest at a later date, i.e. when the boys grew up to be men and avenged their fathers. And it happened more than once. So to prevent that, EVERYBODY dies, with only a few exceptions for very small infants and some women who were spared for obvious reasons. In many cases, no one at all was spared.

    BS. Make your husband cite a source for that.

    So, did God order genocide? No. He ordained a just punishment for an un-Godly people, and His instrument was His Chosen People. Characterizing the act as genocide improperly uses a modern day term. We are far too infected with “political correctness” and the concept that we are all just fine the way we are. There is plenty of evidence in the Bible to suggest that God doesn’t think that way.

    Also BS. The definition of genocide has nothing to do with political correctness or thinking we’re fine the way we are. Look it up. Genocide means wiping out a people. If God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, then God commanded genocide. If killing an entire people isn’t evil when God commands it, then it can’t really evil at all. It’s just disobedient, and not functionally worse than any other act of disobedience.

    If the only dividing line between good and evil is God saying it’s okay this time and not that time, then there isn’t really a dividing line, beyond the whims of an arbitrary dictator.

  53. Kullervo, how many times could God force a peace between people before people started to notice and began to obey Him simply because they felt they had no choice?

    Human free agency is a rather fragile thing. Something that God could easily overwhelm or crush if He was not careful to avoid doing so.

  54. The state government and the federal government are not beings, they are institutions.

    Killing a cat and killing a person are deserving of different punishments simply because of the being that is killed. That’s true. You can’t deny that.

    Now the degree of personhood is so extreme between the finite human (the greatest of all created beings) and the infinite God that any act of rebellion against that God is deserving of infinite punishment.

    I believe this is true because I believe that (a) God is just, and (b) He says in His Word that apart from His mercy all will go to hell. Therefore, (c) must be true that it is just punishment to send us to hell for breaking His law.

  55. We seem to be going around in circles and the issue comes down to this: Authority.

    Am I the authority or is the Bible when it comes to understanding God?

    I’m willing to throw out the Bible if it can be shown that it or its teachings are historically unreliable, internally contradictory, and/or philosophically illogical. The genocide thing isn’t any of those. It is simply unsettling in your own mind. That’s not good enough. Instead, I’ll trust the Bible and let it inform my view of God.

  56. Josh said:
    “Now the degree of personhood is so extreme between the finite human (the greatest of all created beings) and the infinite God that any act of rebellion against that God is deserving of infinite punishment.

    I believe this is true because I believe that (a) God is just, and (b) He says in His Word that apart from His mercy all will go to hell. Therefore, (c) must be true that it is just punishment to send us to hell for breaking His law.”

    I think this is un-Biblical teaching and ignores large portions of the Bible. Again, even if it is true is this a justification for anybody to murder?

    Whether or not the Canaanites were deserving of destruction is beside the point. Killing innocent men, women, and children is murder and against the law of God and man, Jesus said that even anger and malice is wrong. So, I think that genocide is inconsistent with Christian teachings. If I am a Christian I think I should condemn it and I think its wrong whether or not the author or Joshua said that God ordered it.

  57. Again I think Josh has focused on the right the question:

    “We seem to be going around in circles and the issue comes down to this: Authority.

    Am I the authority or is the Bible when it comes to understanding God?

    I’m willing to throw out the Bible if it can be shown that it or its teachings are historically unreliable, internally contradictory, and/or philosophically illogical. The genocide thing isn’t any of those. It is simply unsettling in your own mind. That’s not good enough. Instead, I’ll trust the Bible and let it inform my view of God.”

    I think evangelicals have the cart before the horse, they accept all of the books Bible as authoritative as a postulate rather than a hypothesis to be tested. I can’t see any reason to do this.

    As a Mormon, at least of some flavor, I don’t take everything written in the Bible as absolutely authoritative until it can be shown that it is consistent with what I know to be right. Because I don’t know if I can be convinced that genocide is right, and because I think it is totally un-Christian, I am going to accept counter-explanations for the events described in the Book of Joshua.

    The question is Josh, why accept Joshua as historical reliable and not accept Muhammad tearing the moon in two? Muhummad’s miracle is more recent and better documented. Why is the Koran not authoritative? Why not the book of Mormon?

    The historical events of Joshua and the moral teachings are as hard to swallow as almost any book I have read. Should I accept them as the inerrant word of God simply because they have been traditionally included in the Bible?

    If that is the case, tradition seems to trump much of what I know or believe about science, ethics and history.

  58. Late to the game, but Seth, here’s an option God would have had:

    Choose a new chosen land and make it be promised. Nature obey’s God’s word–God can make the old land promised and the new land awesome.

    Or, there was a handy promised land across an ocean. God could instruct them to build boats and travel across to… the Americas.

    There’s nothing magical about that land, and if there is, God made it magical, so God can unmagicize it. This has people following God and NOT killing an entire civilization.

  59. Katyjane,

    What makes you think the Lehites didn’t clash with the local cultures in the Americas? I actually think it’s quite likely that they did. Where do you think the dark skin came from?

    There’s not all that much really good real estate on the planet. In ancient times, most of it was already spoken for. And in any case, the idea of God’s chosen people was never to become hermits in a private utopia. It was to be a symbol for the entire world.

    Now, we’re all in speculation land here anyway… but just to add another speculation…

    What about Alma 12:7:

    “And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.”

    So, just a cursory read of that verses… it looks like the verse is implying that Christ/Jehovah DID NOT know “how to succor his people” prior to his mortal experience.

    Am I off-base? It seems like a logical read of the scripture.

    You can also compare with Hebrews 2:18:

    “For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succor them that are tempted.”

    So, let me get this straight…

    Apparently, Jehovah was lacking a bit in the department of nurturing people while he was handling Moses and the children of Israel. Perhaps that helps explain a couple things.

    Just thought I’d throw that in as an aside.

  60. So Seth, what is the compelling reason to accept the author of Joshua’s spin on the conquest? Do you have a testimony of such ethnic cleansing if it is practically necessary to fulfill God’s purpose?

  61. “Do you have a testimony of such ethnic cleansing if it is practically necessary to fulfill God’s purpose?”

    No. What would be the use of that?

  62. Why would I want a testimony of that?

    I’m still working on a testimony of things like Atonement, Restoration, deity, and revelation. The book of Joshua is waaay down there on the totem pole.

    I’m not all that invested. But I do think the Old Testament has its uses, in that it forces us to come to grips with the character of God and how he is obliged to deal with a seriously messed up bunch of people – us.

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