Gods at War - The Trouble with the Bible

How many wars has it started?

Until a few hundred years ago to find fault with the Bible was a capital offence. As a divine creation the good book (or Good Book) was infallible and burning at the stake was a justifiable punishment for disputing both its facts and instructions. Even today, when numerous publishers bring out regular reprints of the Bible in different languages or slightly more modern versions of English, no literary critics emerge to dispute the contents, there are perhaps just few quibbles about tampering with the beauty of the prose.

So, the passages in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that advocate holy war have over the centuries frequently supported the idea of wars, persecution and even genocide. Jehovah is regularly described as a Lord of Hosts, in other words leader of a large army on its way to war, while the heroic King David is congratulated on committing what we would classify as war crimes.

In more recent times biblical texts have justified the aggressive policies of successive Israeli politicians in snatching further land on the West Bank and insisting on keeping Jerusalem as an exclusive capital, backed by the large Jewish lobby in the United States and contributing to the long-lasting instability of the Middle East. Whilst anti-Semitism in the sense of racial discrimination is now seen as totally unacceptable it is nevertheless quite reasonable to criticise the flagrant aggression of right-wing Israeli governments and the massive arsenal of weapons which they have built up including nuclear.

Other examples of recent support by churches for aggressive war include the encouragement for Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Similarly, there have been wars encouraged by the two main sects of Islam and signs of new religious aggression in India.

Vladimir Putin gave huge support to the Orthodox Church, which in return gave
moral support to his war in the Ukraine. Pictured here is Patriarch Kirill greeting
Putin. (Gods at War, Amberley Publishing)

Not only have the ideas of the Old Testament exacerbated the relationship between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but disagreements over interpretation have regularly caused wars between and within nations. The condemnation of idolatry led to wars between those who liked ikons and those who loved them. In the New Testament the vaguely described concept of the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, a fudge dictated by the Emperor Constantine at Nicaea) led to a succession of wars between peoples who insisted that Jesus was really the son of God and others who insisted he was human.

Then of course we have the succession of brutal wars for and against those who accepted the idea that St Peter was definitely the chosen successor of Jesus, therefore the first Pope and succeeded by a perpetual series of divinely ordained replacements The religious civil wars in France, the Netherlands, and Germany in the 16th/17th centuries cost an estimated 7 million lives. The Bible must share with the Koran the responsibility for justifying the Crusades and numerous other disastrous wars between Christians and Muslims not to mention numerous conquests of so-called heathens.

The Old Testament respect for war is natural enough since it narrated the conquest of the land of milk and honey from the evil Philistines by the chosen people. Similarly, the Bible is understandably archaic in assuming that all nations are monarchies, so that both God and Jesus are referred to as kings and we have ‘thy kingdom forever and ever’. People in democracies must find this hard to reconcile.

This leads to the next unsatisfactory concept so far as the present day is concerned. The statements that the world and its people are everlasting, an idea that now seems tactlessly incredible given global warming and the serious threats to human immortality from excess carbon dioxide.

This in turn leads to another unsatisfactory assumption reiterated in many biblical clichés, the idea of almightiness. In an age when it is quite evident that no acceptable god would perpetrate or tolerate natural disasters such as plagues, earthquakes or tsunamis, nor manipulate humans to create deliberate man-made disasters it has to be accepted that God is more of a toothless spirit who cannot really intervene to prevent humans from self-destruction, He/She simply does not have the physical power to overrule nature nor maintain adequate discipline over the human race. So, God or gods did not create the earth and none of them are almighty enough to save it from unruly comets or any other potential disasters natural or man-made.

Given the current struggles of Christianity it would make sense to cut down on reliance on the Bible, particularly those parts which are in denial about most modern sensibilities. Large sections of the New Testament still express the very best features and ambitions of the human race, so we do not want to throw out the baby with the bath water. Nor of course do we want to upset too may fundamentalists let alone provoke a new religious war.


Oliver Thomson's book Gods at War is available for purchase now.