Thom Stark on Blasphemy for God’s sake

Youtube version.


This is the title of a provocative post written by liberal Christian scholar and writer “Thom Stark”.

He responded there to an email from a Christian struggling with ignoble things in the Old Testament.

Thom gave a definition of inspiration I am largely sympathetic to:

“And it would be that the slavery laws are wrong, and that they were written by humans who got God wrong. But we can find God throughout the pages of the Bible by using our God-given moral reasoning. Wherever there is truth, wherever there is justice and compassion, that’s where God is. That doesn’t mean those parts are really inspired by God while the other parts aren’t. The inspiration lies not in the verbatim language of scripture, but in the struggle of God’s community to know God, the struggle that’s reflected in the conflicting views throughout the Bible about who God is and what God desires. The inspiration of scripture is bigger than the words on the page; it goes deeper to the struggles of the people of God who produced them.”

It is formulated in a wonderful way and this logically means we can also find God in many non-Biblical books (a point Thom would obviously agree with).

I was less convinced by his answer to the next question.

3. If I am struggling in my faith, then how am I supposed to evangelize with confidence? In Matthew 16:15 Jesus tell us to evangelize, but it is hard to do so if I question parts of the Bible.

That question is based upon the assumption that an evangelistic message involves some claim about the inerrancy or infallibility of scripture. For me, and for most Christians, it doesn’t. Evangelism is spreading the Good News that in God’s community, justice and peace are available because of Jesus Christ. So evangelism isn’t just about preaching doctrines; evangelism is really inviting people to join a community that exists as an alternative to the unjust and violent structures offered by the world. Evangelism is an invitation to an alternative way of life made possible by the words and deeds of Jesus, and by his victory over the powers of sin (systemic injustice) and death.

I certainly agree with Thom that what he mentions are (important) aspects of the Gospel but this is by no means everything.

The Gospel is all about how people broken by their personal sins and the sins of others can find eternal life and communion with a God who is their loving Father.

Finally Thom has marvelous and very profound things to say about the concept of blasphemy.

Every time one says to a fundamentalists that the being he is worshiping is a monstrous tyrant, he often answers: “how dare you man criticize God Almighty?”.

Here is what Stark has to say:

4. Is it blasphemy to question God’s character? I question many of the laws in the Old Testament, and I am beginning to question God.

It is not blasphemy to question the character of the different portrayals of God in the Bible. That’s not the same thing as questioning God’s character. That’s just saying that the men who wrote the Bible sometimes were very wrong about God’s character. I would argue that it’s blasphemy to affirm some of the ways that God is characterized in the Bible. It’s precisely out of zeal for God’s character that so many Christians throughout history have been forced to reject certain portrayals of God in scripture. For instance, Gregory of Nyssa, one of the chief architects of the doctrine of the Trinity, rejected the idea that the tenth Egyptian plague (the slaughter of the firstborn sons of Egypt) could be an authentic, historical portrayal of God’s actions. A moral God wouldn’t kill children for the sins of their parents, much less for the sins of one man, the Pharaoh. Gregory, a very orthodox theologian, rejected the tenth plague as historical. His solution was to read it as allegory. To him the killing of the firstborn sons of Egypt was a metaphor for the Christian’s need to kill off all the beginnings of evil within ourselves. While I don’t reject his strategy, my strategy is to read the tenth plague as a condemned text—as a text that speaks to our capacity as human beings to misdirect our wrath, to punish the innocent because we’ve been somehow victimized. We all have the capacity to do that, especially as nations, and we continue to do it to this day. So I read that text as a warning—this is the wrong way to characterize God’s justice. It’s there for our instruction, but not as a positive example.

My second response to this question is simply, no, it is not blasphemous at all to question even God’s character. Job did it. And he had good reason to do it. Job never committed blasphemy, but he did call God unjust, and he did say that all the evidence showed that God wasn’t interested in doing what was right. If you want to call that blasphemy, then it’s blasphemy for God’s sake.”

I can only utter a loud “Amen!” after having read that.

Actually, we have the moral duty to defend the true perfect God against religious fundamentalists who are driving people away from Christianity by teaching atrocious non-sense.

When the Calvinist fundamentalist John Piper asserts that It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.

we ought to condemn this egregious blasphemy with the strongest words.

Yet we should do that with love and compassion.

We should not, in a self-righteous manner, believe we are better persons than John Piper but just hope he will give up his extraordinarily morally offensive beliefs.

Actually I starkly suspect that it would be better if Piper was an atheist at peace with his moral intuitions than a fundamentalist believing that killing children in an atrocious way for the sins of their parents can be a good thing.


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18 thoughts on “Thom Stark on Blasphemy for God’s sake

  1. It all depends on what you mean, too, Marc: what exactly are “real” moral values? I would say that there are two basic ways I could defend my morals as a materialist:

    One: as you (and most Christians) admit, atheists can be, and actually are on average, as moral as Christians. If that’s the case, then I would say that atheistic morals, including materialistic atheistic morals, which would include by far the majority of atheists, are just as “real” in any meaningful sense as those of Christians. If I behave just as nicely as a Christians, than my morals are just as real.

    Two: I read your argument, and it leaves out what seem to me to be the most important thing about morals: they do not exist independently from living things, and they evolved with living things. They are not truths (as far as I can tell) like 2+2=4, but only exist in very particular contexts: those of animals living in societies.

    As such, they are not “absolute”, but also evolve. For instance, the Bible condones slavery- you probably do not. Why not? Largely because your society (and mine, and most modern societies) have morals that have evolved further in the direction of extending empathy to everyone.

    If you want me to ground my morals in a syllogism or a proof, I cannot do it. But, I bet, neither can you. That’s alright.

    Liebe Grüße aus kühlem Wien, zilch

    • If atheism just means “absence of belief in God” I strongly doubt most atheists are materialists.

      Do you believe that the moral principle “We always ought to act with empathy” is absolute (given the existence of intelligent sentient creatures) or will it further evolve into something else?

      Lovely greetings from Metz.

      • Marc- I suspect we have different ideas of what “materialist” means. For me, “materialist” is synonymous with “naturalist” and simply means that the material or natural world is all there is- no supernatural forces or beings exist. This is of course different from the political or moral definition of “materialist” as meaning something like “someone who only values money or wealth”. And yes, there are some atheists who are not materialists: they don’t believe in gods, but they do believe in the supernatural: ghosts or astrology or whatever- but they are in the minority.

        I don’t believe there are “absolute” moral values. I believe there are moral values that most people agree upon, because of our shared heritage as social animals, cultural people, and reasoning beings. Empathy is just my label for this general agreement. The Golden Rule would be another possibility, or simply “love life”. These ideals, although abstractions and not “absolutes”, serve me well, and serve others well.

        And yes, morals do evolve. How else do you explain the general trend through history of morals generally (with lots of exceptions) tending to encompass more and more people? Slavery is one example: it was accepted as being moral in the Bible and most other ancient religions and societies, but is now no longer accepted. Same goes for the rights of women. Is this bad?

        As I said, morals only make sense if there is life. What can be “good” or “bad” if there is no life? The evolution of morals is a seamless whole, starting with looking out for number one, to looking out for your offspring, to looking out for your tribe, your country, your race, all male humans, all humans, all intelligent creatures… oversimplified, but you get the point. I personally am all in favor of this kind of evolution.

        Liebe Grüße aus Wien, zilch

  2. “It’s precisely out of zeal for God’s character that so many Christians throughout history have been forced to reject certain portrayals of God in scripture.”

    which portrayals should we reject, and which should we accept?

    how do we decide?

    on the issue of “real morals”: it appears Lothars that i’m not the only one that needs clear definitions, and, like i said before, this is where i butt heads with theists.

    there is a tendency we have to use abstract, abstruse, loaded words to our advantage. when we have words/phrases that are ambiguous, ill-defined, and sometimes too difficult for common understandings and definitions, then one may be able to make assertions that may escape investigation/challenge.

    your phrase “the existence of real moral values:” is a morass of ambiguity. sorry.

    we could spend a few millennia discussing moral values; yet, you use the epithet blithely to question the compatibility of materialism with moral values. moreover, you take the liberty to weigh the epithet down with another value judgement of “real”

    and further, you posit “the existence of… “: do i need to parse this too?

    so, what do you mean by “real moral values”?

    if Zilch, Lothars, and xon-xoff mutually understand that the predation of minors is wrong, is that:

    1 a real moral value

    2 a moral value

    3 an ersatz moral value

    4 a judgement call

    5 ?…

    who determines what is a “real moral value”?

    how do we determine what are “real moral values”?


    PS — i thought long and hard about posting this comment. when i read it, i find that i quibble–not good.

    • Hello,

      you raise very important and fundamental questions, it is true that definitions do matter.

      Frankly speaking, I believe that neither theists nor atheists have been able to PROVE the existence of an objective morality without begging the question.

      I would (tentatively) define an objective moral value as a rule of conduct that everyone ought to follow independently of his or her own behavior.
      I think this fits very well the moral experience of the large majority of human beings.

      But we will discuss all of this during our next Skype conversation :=)

      P:S: I am also chaotic 😉

  3. One problem with saying something like:
    “So I read that text as a warning—this is the wrong way to characterize God’s justice. It’s there for our instruction, but not as a positive example.”
    is, that this is certainly not the natural way to read the text. That this is a *warning* of how to *not* interpret God´s justice instead of an example of God´s justice, does not follow from the text in any way, shape or form.
    The only way to read it like this would be to think “I don´t think this was just, and I expect God to share my views on what justice is, so I assume that this is just included in the text as a bad example / a warning – although the text doesn´t say that in any way.”
    This can of course be done, but why not just get rid of the OT entirely then?

  4. This is kind of just my personal reflection after reading this post.

    This post is what I like to read – alternate ways of thinking that loosen up fear-based rigidity. And which look past that fear, returning to God not as understood by our cultural/traditional defaults but as glimpsed and painted by a thoughtful and resonant combination of historical wrestlings with God and our own experience and understanding and imagining of goodness, redemption, wholeness, love.
    Then from there—now that we don’t have to fudge to compensate for all the questions that had no place in a previous model—I find more energy to engage in the life of love, against systemic injustice and personal wrongs. No longer confused about whether God *really* wants that or not. In my mind it is now de-barbed: moral intuitions are welcomed, not simply suspect, as I interpret other people’s lives and writings, including the bible. ‘Contradictions’—including bible passages that contradict my own understanding and experience of love of God and people, and redemption of the world—those contradictions are not poised to paralyze me in a fog. I can engage with life with the long-term vision of redemption and (en)joy(ment) that somehow I used to feel guilty for. No longer am I at the mercy of fear, where I’d better have right theology, or else.
    This is about individuals’ agency; it’s about validity, not shame, in questioning God. It’s about the feelings we couldn’t fit into our quote-unquote traditional (‘quote-unquote’ because systemic beliefs have always been changing in at least little ways, adding up to big ways, that leave us far from the root message in some cases) template for how all of life is ‘supposed’ to work. And I think all this may be too much rhetoric, but exploring my mind and feelings this way helps me live.

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