How Do We Respond to Claims the Bible Is Intolerant?

Excerpted From
How the Bible Can Change Your Life
By Josh Moody

Does the Bible Prevent a Tolerant Society?

The answer to this question would seem to be a self-evident no to many people. The interesting part of the question, though, is that there is another fairly large group of people in the contemporary world who would think that the answer to this question is a most definite yes. Wherein lies the discrepancy?

For one group of people, the Bible is a book about love, mercy and kindness. They think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). They think of Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). They think of the well-known saying, “Do not judge” (Matt. 7:1, NIV). They think of the great summary of the Law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength … love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30–31). Given all this emphasis on love, kindness, putting God and then other people before your own desires, how could anyone think that the Bible prevents a tolerant society? Surely it calls us to something far more than mere tolerance; instead to active service, love and compassion.

But, for another group of people, the story of the Bible is far from clear on this matter of tolerance. In fact, they would say, the Bible makes it quite apparent that while, of course, it does talk about love and all the rest, there is another part to its message which is more sinister—and puts the rest of it into a wholly different perspective. That other part of the Bible’s message includes things like the conquest by Israel (the book of Joshua); the total destruction of men, women and children at the command of God in that conquest (Josh. 6:17); Elijah, for instance, killing the prophets of Baal at his own hand (1 Kings 18:40). And even when you come to the New Testament (for these sort of people would not say that the question is merely a matter of distinguishing between a purported difference between a “God” of the Old Testament and a “God” of the New Testament), there is plenty of evidence of wrath. Jesus, let it be remembered, warned of hell, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48), more than any other biblical character. Paul talked of “handing over to Satan” those who were sinning in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 5:5). And the book of Revelation? Well, when you read of the grapes of wrath being pressed out in the “winepress of the wrath of God” so that the blood of those so killed rises to the level of a horse’s bridle for about 184 miles around (Rev. 14:19–20), you can’t help but wonder exactly how tolerant the Bible is.

And then you add in some of the history of religion, even so-called Christian religion, presumably at least to some extent influenced by this Bible, and you talk of (for sure) the Crusades, or the way the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and the Americas were treated—as complicated historically as all that is—and you can see how people begin to think that those who say that the Bible is liable to prevent a tolerant society might have a point.

What can we say in answer to this question? The following principles are helpful.

Remember How the Bible Fits Together

If you interpret the Bible flat, as intending to present ideal models to be followed in all cases and at all times by all people, then you will fall into all sorts of egregious mistakes. People who object to this kind of answer immediately cry foul and say, “Well, hold on now, you’re just making it all a matter of interpretation, and who’s to say that your interpretation is right?”

But think with me for a moment. What would it be like if we lived in a world that interpreted all of our communications in exactly the same way? If we interpreted a Charles Dickens novel as being the legally-mandated pattern for all behavior for all time, or a Hollywood horror movie as being an intended moral statement of how America wants people to behave, or we interpreted a piece of poetry in the same way we interpreted flight instructions for a passenger jet (or, even worse, vice versa)? We would have chaos and confusion. But people think that we should interpret all of the many different books in the Bible the same way! But, no, not at all. All the Bible is authoritative. But it is not all the same. All is written to teach us. But some of the examples we are meant to avoid; others we are meant to copy.

So then how does the Bible fit together? Christians have an easy answer to this: and this is why you want Christians to take their Bibles seriously (and you want people of other religions to ignore large parts of their faith-writings). Everything in the Bible is assessed through the lens of the person of Jesus Christ (Luke 24:27). He is the Word (John 1:1). Even more particularly: Everything in the Bible is assessed through the lens of “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Any time we are interpreting something in the Bible that does not fit with the loving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we are interpreting the Bible incorrectly.

Remember Who God Is and Who We Are

It is not true to say that the Bible teaches us that God tolerates everything. Thankfully not. Would you want God to tolerate rape, incest, murder or the Holocaust? There is a Day of Judgment. God is a holy God. He is greatly to be feared. But his judgment is his judgment. We are not the judges. (That does not mean we are not meant to exercise discernment; it means we are not meant to pretend that we can decide who is going to heaven and who is going to hell.) His judgment is eternal. It is a fearsome thought, this word “forever,” when it is applied to hell.

There are aspects of that judgment that are expressed even in the here and now. When God expresses that judgment and his wrath now, he does so by “giving us over” to the consequences of our own sin (Rom. 1:18–24, 26, 28). This means not only that when we behave in a certain way, “sin is its own reward” and has its own consequences, but that behind that apparently natural and logical process stands the wrath of God actively being asserted. Nations that are immoral become depraved and weak and are more likely to be invaded, destroyed and suffer as a result. The same with individual people who give in to all sinful desires and ill discipline. They are unlikely to flourish.

Because God is sovereign, he sometimes uses natural forces to express these consequences, sometimes even human figures and nations. The judicial system in a country is an agency of God’s wrath against wrongdoing (Rom. 13:4), a very imperfect agency in even the fairest countries, but still setting up some standard of right and wrong, however that may be evilly twisted sometimes by malicious human authorities—who themselves will come under judgment.

When you read about some of the conquests and butchery in the Old Testament, it is important to remember two things: Who God is and who we are. The Israelites themselves were also on the receiving end of invasion and exile as discipline for their own idolatry. Deuteronomy 28 sets out for Israel blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, the curses being the same judgment that Egypt and the nations they had conquered had experienced; this prophecy was fulfilled in the exile as the righteous kings and prophets at the time understood. In other words, the truth of the matter is that fairness or justice is that we all go to hell. Because God is holy and because we are sinners, the right, true, fair, just consequence is eternal damnation. Unless and until we drill into our minds that we are sinners and that God is holy, we will understand precious little of what the Bible has to say (Rom. 3:10, 19).

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Excerpted from How the Bible Can Change Your Life by Josh Moody. Used by permission of Christian Focus Publications.