Football Christianity

Bible verses, Christianity, and atheismTim Tebow of the Denver Broncos has made a name for himself (and added his name to the dictionary) with his flamboyant public appreciation whenever God helps him out with a football play.  The interesting thing about his kneeling in praise is that it’s self-aggrandizing while pretending not to be.  It was precisely anticipated in Matthew: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others” (Matt. 6:5).  The verse continues: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

Mr. Tebow, are we to imagine that the Creator of the universe took time out of his busy schedule of not saving starving children to help you make a good football play?  I understand that it’s important to you, and it’s nice to see a professional athlete not bragging about how great he is, but doesn’t football seem a little trivial?  Doesn’t it make your religion look bad to even suggest that?  And doesn’t it seem illogical to imagine God being yanked first one way by you and then in the opposite way by some guy praying for the opposite result on the other team?

Perhaps I’m being harsh.  Let me try to view this more charitably.

Tebow is also known for evangelizing through Bible verses painted in the eye black on his face.  Above, he’s proclaiming Ephesians 2:8–10: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

That’s good advice.  But Tebow has promoted a variety of verses, not just the standard John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world …”) or Luke 2:10–11 (“I bring you good news of great joy …”).

Here he gives us Exodus 22:29, which says, “Do not hold back offerings from your granaries or your vats.  You must give me the firstborn of your sons.”  God’s demand of child sacrifice is often forgotten, but it’s good to be reminded of the basics.

Other verses that show how God used child sacrifice within Israel are Ez. 20:25–6.

Of course, the size constraints of eye black makes Twitter look like an encyclopedia, but these messages are worth parsing.  This one is a nice reminder of God’s limitations.  2 Kings 3:26–27 tells of the end of a battle against Moab.  The prophet Elisha promised Judah a victory.  But when the king of Moab saw that he was losing, he sacrificed his son and future heir.  This magic was apparently too much for Yahweh, because “there was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack and returned to their homeland.”

A verse with a similar message is Judges 1:19: “The Lord was with the men of Judah.  They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron.”

Another oldie but goodie.  Psalms 89:7 says “In the council of the holy ones Elohim [God] is greatly feared; he is more awesome than all who surround him.”  How often do we forget that God is part of an Olympus-like pantheon?  Ps. 82:1–2 gives a similar message.

I’m waiting for someone to reference Deuteronomy 32:8, which describes how Yahweh’s dad divided up his inheritance (all the tribes of the earth) among his sons: “When El Elyon [the Most High] gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided up humankind, he set the boundaries of the peoples, according to the number of the heavenly assembly.”

You rarely see an entire chapter reference, but Leviticus 20 is a meaty one with a lot of good fundamentals.  Everyone knows that homosexual relations are abominable, and verse 13 gives the death as the appropriate penalty.  But it’s easy to forget the other demands of this chapter: eat no unclean animals (:25), exile any couple that has sex during the woman’s menstrual period (:18), death to spiritual mediums (:27), death for adultery (:10), and death for “anyone who curses their father or mother” (:9).  It comes as a package, people!

Eye black references to divine genocide are common—1 Samuel 15:2–3, Deut. 20:16–18, and Judges 21:10 for example—but it’s nice to see this one.  Deuteronomy 2:34–5 says, “And we took all [Sihon’s] cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.”

I’ll skim through a few more that I’ve seen.  Why aren’t more sermons taught on these verses?

  • In our modern unbiblical and slavery-free society, we too often forget that not only did God permit slavery, but he regulated it.  Exodus 21:20–21 says, “And if a man smite his slave with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.  But if [the slave] live for a day or two, he shall not be punished, for [the slave] is his property.”
  • I guess with football players, you’ll find lots of verses about violence.  Isaiah 13:15–16 is a popular one: “Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword. Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.”  Another that’s so common as to almost be cliché is Ps. 137:9: “Happy is the one who seizes your [Babylon’s] infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
  • It’s not surprising that sexual slavery interests football players.  Numbers 31:15–18 says, “Now kill all the boys.  And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”
  • I like to see reminders for racial purity.  Ezra 9:2 says, “They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them.”  Other verses in this vein are Nehemiah 13:1–3 and Deut. 23:3.
  • Finally, a helpful reminder that even Jesus can be wrong: “There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28).  Two thousand years later, and we’re still waiting.  Ah well, we all make mistakes!

I think of these as the Forgotten Verses, and I praise athletes like Tebow for putting them front and center where they belong.  It’d be great to get them back into circulation by making them the subject of sermons.  After all, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).

I’ll finish with a Saturday Night Live sketch that shows Jesus visiting the Broncos after he won another game for them.

Related links:

And God isn’t Good, Either

This post is an homage to Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011), the powerful speaker and eloquent author of God is not Great and much more.  Hitchens fought nonsense till the end, and he has been an inspiration to me and countless other atheists.  In my own small way, I hope I’m continuing the fight against nonsense. 

Thanks, Christopher.

The child’s blessing goes, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.”  Hitchens’ God is not Great is an eloquent rebuttal to the first claim of this prayer.  Let’s consider here the second claim: God is good.  Indeed, the Bible makes this clear: “Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good” (Ps. 135:3).

But does the dictionary agree?  We must use words according to their meaning.

Here is what God commands about cities that refuse to submit to the Israelites: “Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 20:17).

You and I know what “good” means.  If you were a king or general and you ordered the genocide of those tribes—over ten million people, according to the Bible1—would you be considered good?

But you might say that this was wartime, and the rules were different.  Yes it was wartime, but the Israelites were the invaders, displacing Canaanites from land they had occupied for centuries.  God tells the Israelites to destroy the Amalekites: “Attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them.  Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants” (1 Sam. 15:3).

What could the infants have possibly done to deserve to die?

Moses tells the Israelites that they must kill all of the Midianites, with one exception: “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” (Num. 31:17–18).

Who’s ever heard any of these verses made the subject of a sermon?

The immoral commands don’t stop with genocide.  Slavery wasn’t prohibited in the Bible; in fact, it was so much a part of everyday life that it was regulated.  In the same way that God told the merchants to sell using fair weights and measures (Deut. 25:15), he told the Israelites how to handle slaves—how to treat a fellow Israelite as a slave (Ex. 21:4–6 and Lev. 25:39), how to sell your daughter into slavery (Ex. 21:7), how to decide when a beating was too harsh (Ex. 21:20–21), and so on.

And this doesn’t even consider the Flood.  God may exist and he may be powerful, but can the word “good” be applied to a being who acts like this?

Let’s turn from God’s unsavory side to his attempts at encouraging good behavior.  It’s odd that the Ten Commandments has room for “don’t covet” but no prohibitions against slavery, rape, genocide, or infanticide.  Christopher Hitchens cuts through the problem:

It’s interesting to note that the tenth Commandment, do not covet, is given at a time when the Israelites wandering in the desert are kept alive with covetous dreams—of taking the land, livestock, and women from the people living in Palestine.  In fact, the reason why injunctions against rape, genocide, and slavery aren’t in the Ten Commandments is because they’ll be mandatory pretty soon when the conquest of Palestine takes place.2

So they’re not crimes—they’re tools!

Christians respond in several ways.

1. But things were different back then.  We can’t judge Jews in Palestine 2500 years ago with today’s standards.

Can we assent to these crimes at any time in history?  I agree that standards of morality have changed, but I thought Christians were supposed to reject moral relativism.  They’re the ones who imagine an unchanging, objective morality.  If slavery is wrong now, they must insist that it was wrong then.

2. But God’s actions are good—they just are.  His actions are the very definition of good.  That’s as fundamental a truth as we have.

Shouldn’t God follow his own rules?  If God is the standard for goodness (Matt. 5:48), what else can this mean but that we should look to God’s actions as examples for us to follow?

Abraham made clear that God was held to the same moral standards as Man.  He said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” as he argued against God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  And God agreed (see Gen. 18:20–33).

If Christians modify the dictionary so that no action of God’s could ever be bad, assigning the word “good” to God’s actions says nothing.  They hope to make an important statement with “God is good,” but debasing the dictionary has made the word meaningless.

Playing games with the dictionary causes other problems.  If there are two supernatural agents, God and Satan, how do you tell which is which?  If the one that controls our realm is “good” by definition, maybe we’re stuck with Satan and have simply convinced ourselves to call him good.  That’s not a crazy idea, given the world’s natural disasters, disease, war, and other horrors.  Imagine Satan ruling this world and convincing us that the death of an innocent child is part of a greater plan, if you can believe such a thing.  And yet that’s the world we live in!  People look at all the bad in the world and dismiss it, giving Satan a pass.  (… or are we giving God a pass?  I can’t tell which.)

If this thinking is getting a bit bizarre, that’s the point.  That’s what happens if you declare God’s actions good by definition.

3. But the Canaanites were terrible, immoral people!  They sacrificed babies! 

How reliable are these summaries of the Canaanites’ morals?  If these tales come from their enemies, how objective are these accounts?  And even if the Canaanites did sacrifice babies, isn’t solving this with genocide like using a sledgehammer to swat a fly?  Couldn’t an omniscient guy like God figure out a better way than genocide to encourage a tribe to improve their behavior?

4. C’mon—can’t you recognize hyperbole when you see it?  This is just soldiers bragging around the campfire that grew until it was incorporated into Israelite lore.  You don’t really believe the genocide stories, do you?  Indeed, archeologists show no evidence of this mass slaughter.

Take your pick—is the Bible reliable history or not?  I disagree with the Bible literalists, but at least they wouldn’t be so hypocritical as to abandon the Bible when it embarrasses them.

Christians who label some Bible passages exaggerations and others as history are using their own judgment to figure this out.  I’m not complaining—that’s what I do myself—but they can’t then turn around and say that they get their guidance from the Bible.  No, my friend—the interpretation comes from you, not the Bible!

5. A bad thing today sets us up for a greater good in the future.

This is no more plausible than the reverse: “a good thing today sets us up for a greater bad in the future.”  Why imagine one over the other?  Only because we presuppose God’s existence, the thing we’re trying to prove.  And it’s ridiculous to imagine an omniscient God deliberately causing the Haiti earthquake (in which 300,000 people died) because he can act no more precisely than this.

6. But God is unjudgeable.  God said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9).  It’s presumptuous of us to judge God.  If God says that the Amalekites deserved to die, that’s good enough for me.

Okay, let’s not judge God then.  Let’s avoid labeling him.  But then not only can we not label his shocking actions “bad,” we can’t label his pleasing actions “good.”  The good God is no more.

And there’s more fallout from the “we imperfect humans can’t judge God” argument.  Consider this from Bob Price:

[The ultimate certainty in your mind, the believer’s mind, is] the guarantee that [God] will honor that ticket to heaven he supposedly issued you.  Here’s a troublesome thought.  Suppose you get to the Day of Judgment and God cancels the ticket.  No explanation.  No appeal.  You’re just screwed.  Won’t you have to allow that God must have reasons for it that you, a mere mortal, are not privy to?  Who are you, like Job, to call God to account?

Of course many Christians want it both ways.  They want to judge God’s noble actions as “good” but withhold judgment for actions that any thoughtful person would find hideous.  But if you can’t understand God’s actions when they look bad, why flatter yourself that you understand them when they look good?

I think of this as the Word Hygiene argument.  You can either call a spade a spade and acknowledge God’s cruelty or say that he’s unjudgeable.  Take your pick—either way, you can’t call him “good.”

Photo credit: Church Sign Maker

Here’s the math behind that figure: Israel had 600,000 men before entering Canaan (Ex. 12:37), or about two million people total.  These six tribes are all larger than Israel (Deut. 7:1).  That makes well over ten million people in the tribes God orders exterminated.

Hitchens makes this point in videos here and here.

Related links:

  • About the Ten Commandments, Hitchens concludes: “Don’t swallow your moral code in tablet form” (video).