In my previous post on this subject of deconstructing theodicy (a defense of God), I noted that if one wanted to move forward in terms of deconstruction, there are essentially two options available: one, change your views on God; or two, change your views on the way in which you read Scripture–and therefore your views on God will probably change as a consequence of this new hermeneutic (the interpretative lens through which one reads and interprets the Bible).
Change Your Views on God?
Regarding the first option, perhaps this new view of God begins by admitting that perhaps he isn’t all-powerful or all-knowing. Maybe he does have a cruel streak; it is possible that he is capricious, or even sadistic. According to this new way of viewing God, certain biblical texts that speak of him being a “jealous God” aren’t merely explained away as “anthropomorphic language,” or justified as something other than what it sounds like; they actually are taken at face value. Perhaps God is indeed jealous when his followers aren’t obeying him, and therefore he lashes out like a petulant child.
The obvious problem with this position is, of course, this: why would anybody want to worship or serve such a God?
That is a very difficult question to answer.
Given these thorny issues outlined above, it becomes a bit easier to see why someone could become an atheist, given this first option. Taking the biblical text at face value appears to reveal a cruel, sadistic, capricious, jealous, angry God that commanded his people to commit all sorts of atrocities.
Today we would call them “crimes against humanity” and condemn them in the strongest possible terms. So how can a person reconcile this vision of God with the loving, merciful, kind, gracious and forgiving God presented elsewhere in Scripture? This is not a God anyone would want to serve, surely; a two-faced Janus sort of God–loving one day, implacably cruel the next. Atheism or agnosticism might seem a welcome choice in the face of that sort of God.
Change Your Hermeneutic?
The second possibility involves changing one’s view of the Scripture. Moving away from an inerrantist or literalist position, one could argue that the writers of such passages (like God commanding genocide) weren’t actually God doing such things at all, but were merely humans “putting words into God’s mouth” in effect. In other words, the writers of those passages portrayed God as commanding such evil in order to justify their actions; but in reality, God did no such thing. This view involves a fairly radical shift in terms of one’s hermeneutic, and basically destroys a biblical literalist type of reading.
The second option, however, opens up the classic “can of worms” that the fundamentalists accused the liberals of more than a century ago. The fundamentalists claimed that the liberals were on a slippery slope to Hell; where does one stop in terms of dismissing the text as mythological, fables, legends, etc.? The second one questions the veracity of the biblical text at any one point, it’s game over. Why not apply the same interpretative filter to other texts, such as the Gospels, the writings of Paul, etc., upon which core Christian beliefs and doctrines are based? Therefore they argued that if that were the case, the Bible couldn’t be trusted to provide us with any sort of assurance of salvation, and provide correct orthodox doctrines.
From their point of view, the fundamentalists were forced in effect to adopt a literalist and inerrantist position partly as a reaction to liberal theology, and they took a hard-line stance whereby it was all or nothing. You either took the entire Bible as the Word of God: inspired, inerrant, infallible, trustworthy in every single thing it affirms (including geology, history, science, theology, etc.), or you rejected it all out of hand. It was a black-and-white position with no middle ground, and as a result there was barely any room for any sort of civil discourse at all between them and the liberals.
Somewhat ironically, however, there was an unintended consequence to adopting this hard-line stance: it ended up painting the fundamentalists into a corner. For example, within the biblical text, if a mistake were to be found, a contradiction uncovered, a statement that went against the clear findings of modern science, then what happens next? It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” sort of thing.
One would have to admit the Bible to be in error, in which case one’s entire faith is destroyed. God himself would be proven to be a liar and therefore untrustworthy in matters of salvation and eternal destiny. Another option would be to double down, and vehemently argue that science or archaeology are incorrect; that future discoveries will validate the claims of the text; the jury is still out on it, that scholars in the future will solve these problems; and so on.
Historically, this was the position adopted by the fundamentalists, and they became incredibly militant about it. Today, conservative evangelicalism takes much the same line. Rather than admitting that they are living with a certain level of cognitive dissonance, and doing something about it rationally, they often choose to “put the blinders on” and steadfastly plow ahead, certain that they are right (or will be proved right some day in the future).
As I was fond of telling my students, there are no “perfect solutions” to every theological conundrum. While they may solve certain problems, they tend to create others.