The Problem with Literal Meanings

By:  Robert D Brinsmead

Wendell Krossa wrote:  change the core themes of the meta-story of humanity and you change everything for the better.  The real liberation of humanity is the liberation of consciousness from all those old dark themes.    Change the perception, and that will radiate out to change all else, for the better.  Unconditional is the new core to replace the old core metaphors. and it turns everything upside down.

Robert Brinsmead replied: Powerfully put and incredibly true!  This is even more powerful and penetrating than James Carrol’s Constantine’s Sword who shows that the horrors of the Holocaust find their original root in the Christian doctrine of the cross.  Of course this is scandalous.  It is the 2000-year tragedy of the West.  All hell will break loose over this claim because the axe is being laid at the root of the tree.

The doctrine of the blood atonement as the propitiation of God’s wrath is cut from the same piece of cloth as the doctrine of Hell.  I used to think that nowhere does the Bible teach that God will torture some people in Hell for ever and ever.  I used to cite passages which indicate  that God would administer to them the appropriate amount of punishment (suffering for their sins) and then they would be annihilated.  I helped Edward Fudge of the Churches of Christ background to publish this argument in his book, The Fire that Consumes.

The problem is that Fudge is a Biblicist.  He begins on the premise that what the Bible teaches must be infallibly true and therefore he tries to harmonize the conflicting views of the Biblical authors. There is now no doubt at all in my mind that some Biblical passages support the traditional Christian teaching of an ever burning Hell in which the lost will suffer eternal torment.  It can be shown that Apocalyptic Judaism, which became the mother of all Christian theology, taught this hideous doctrine and it was taken up in some NT passages, and words to support it were even put into the mouth of Jesus himself.  Now this is the most horrible, inhuman, sadistic, pornographic evil and hideous darkness to warp the human mind and turn millions to outright atheism.  It just happens that the overarching grand narrative of the Fall of Man, the blood atonement and the holocaust of the Second Coming with its corollary of Hell is all the one piece of cloth.  Here are the theologies of violence that have been used and are still being used to justify man’s inhumanity to man.

Some of the deeds attributed to God and God’s people in the Bible are as horrible as the deeds of ISIL today.  Imagine the outcry if these Muslim Fundamentalists started cutting of the foreskins of their non-Muslim opponents, just as David, the man after God’s own heart, is depicted doing to the Philistines.  We may shrink in horror at the thought of that Muslim religious thug in Northern Nigeria plundering a village and taking two hundred or so girls out of school, to be made Muslim wives or sold as sex slaves to Muslims.  But was that worse than JHWH telling Joshua to kill everyone in a non-Israelite settlement except the female virgins which the Israelites could keep for themselves?  These Muslims believe that the OT was inspired just like the Koran.

We need to understand that Muslim terrorism is an expression and outgrowth of Islamic Fundamentalism.   Just as a significant proportion of Christians are Fundamentalists (although some of them prefer a less odious term as an identity) so a significant proportion of Muslims are Fundamentalists.  The people who get into trouble are those who take the claims of their religion or ideology seriously –  with Muslims, it is those who believe in taking the Koran and the words of their prophet literally, even those  words  which were written in another age and another cultural and historical setting – then they give an absolutist status to those words taken literally and interpreted strictly literally, and elevate those words to the status of their First Great Commandment that takes precedence over the Second Great Commandment of love to fellow man.  Muslim terrorism is religious terrorism and is born of Islamic Fundamentalism.  The marks of Protestant Fundamentalism is generally taken to mean things like six-Day Creationism (reading the Bible literally) and Biblical inerrancy), belief in Noah’s flood as a literal event, Tower of Babel story.  Most would stress a literal Hell that is very hot and eternal.

I have no doubt that the historical Jesus was revolutionary enough to reject the violence portrayed in the OT just as he rejected the Mosaic injunction of an eye for an eye justice. The two things that got him killed was his rejection, even lampooning, of apocalyptic violence on which the Jews pinned their hope, and the entire sacrificial system of the Temple.


The core of the overarching narrative – the Fall of man, the blood atonement, the holocaust of the End of the world – and lots in between is that God overcomes evil and his enemies by violence.  To use an expression of G.E. Wright (was that his initials?) the Bible is often a recital of the mighty acts of God.  Problem is that those acts are acts of violence.  Do you really think God killed every first born child throughout the whole land of Egypt?  Were events like this something to sing about? Even when God is depicted as doing a supreme act to reconcile the world to himself, he is supposed to have done it in an horrific act of violence.  Or does God win against evil and enemies by the power of love – alone?