You are here:

Atheism/Biblical interpretation


Hi Jeffrey , I´m an athesit , and have read some books on the subject and done my homework ,

But can you explain to me why Christians whenever I quote a hideus and highly inmoral verse from the bible especially from the old testament , they say to me "you have to interpret the bible"  , and the get away with it just like that.
Why in the past using the bible they defended slavery , subjugation of women , killing of homosexuals and jews , torture of animals and a large etc.
I know you can´t cherry pick what you like and discard the rest, but can you give me a good argument against biblical interpretation ?

They seem to get away with it quite easily and every time using the "you have to interpret the bible" argument.
Its like an infinite tautology , its always true no mater what.

Why should we have to interpret it in the first place , doesn´t it mean what it says ?

Thanks a lot


Hello Luis. First of all, I apologize for the wait.

Your question describes a common but frustrating experience- A believer tries to stop a conversation critiquing by the Bible by saying “you have to interpret it” and doesn't want to move past that statement. Every person is different, but I have four strategies to recommend.

1) Find something horrendous they will defend:
When a modern Christian thinks about Christianity, they simply don't think about genocide of the Amalekites so it would be difficult for them to be abandon Christianity because of something in the Bible about the Amalekites. Logically, the horrendous things in the Bible should disturb Christians more but I can see why they would be psychologically resistant to that approach.

Instead of presenting acts which a Christian will agree are horrendous but a Christian will not agree are condoned by the Bible, you might try the converse. Identify acts that a Christian will agree are condoned by the Bible but you think are horrendous. Once you get them to agree that it is part of Christianity and the Bible is unambiguous about it, you would proceed to demonstrate that it is horrendous.

My favorite example is Abraham and Isaac [1], so I'll discuss that one in depth, but other good examples include the Flood, killing the firstborn sons in Exodus [2], the Book of Job, God sacrificing himself to himself to save us from himself, letting anyone go to Hell (and blaming them for it) [3], the idea of belief being the basis of reward or punishment [4], the Problem of Evil [5], or any other central doctrine that bothers you [6][7]. Sam Harris hits many of these notes here [8].

The story of Abraham is the foundation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (as well as religion derived from these religions). Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son on an altar because he believed God was telling him to. Now think about what you would do in his situation in a modern context. You are overwhelmed by unreal sensations and told by voices in your head that it is God speaking to you and He wants you to kill someone you love as a sacrifice to him. Hopefully you'd have the good sense to doubt your senses and check yourself into a mental health facility. Even if you could somehow know that you were hearing an intelligent agent speak to you, you couldn't know that it was God (or good) and therefore shouldn't listen to it. Even if you could know somehow that it was God speaking to you, you should reject the immoral commandment to kill someone as a form of worship or loyalty. The Bible got it exactly wrong. A truly moral God should honor that behavior – doing the right thing even when confronted with an opposing authority figure – and not honor the decision to unquestioningly obey.

Believers can't reject the story of Abraham and Isaac or come up with a new interpretation of it. So if you convince them that the Bible is morally wrong here then you really strike at the heart of their Christianity. I think the story of Abraham is particularly relevant to this discussion of horrendous things in the Bible. If a Christian dismisses the horrible things in the Bible, they aren't doing what God wanted Abraham to do. God wanted someone who would do something horrible for him without question. If a believer embraces the story of Abraham, therefore, the believer should also be prepared to commit any atrocity condoned by the Bible. Of course, believers shouldn't commit atrocities, just like Abraham shouldn't have attempted to obey his murderous hallucinations. Instead the believer should recognize that people have enough moral sense to do better than simply listen to divine authorities and that people have enough empirical sense to do better than rely on supernatural revelation like hallucinatory voices and holy books.

2) Argue that historically popular interpretations are relevant:
How should I persuade someone that trusting in the moral authority of the Bible is something that they will come to regret when secular society shows them the error of their ways? Perhaps the best line of evidence would be to examples of past Biblical interpretations that we now all agree are abhorrent. In the past who used the Bible to justify slavery [9-12], persecution of the Jews [13][14], dehumanization of non-Christians [15], treating women as inferior [16][17], and puritanical attitudes about sex. In each case, the individuals involves were certain they were interpreting the Bible correctly and that the misinterpretations were a thing of the past. Yet in each case, looking to the Bible for moral authority produced results equal to or worse then the moral values of secular society. If they are not willing to admit that the Bible has been wrong historically, they should at least admit that the Bible is dangerously ambiguous. Given this bloody legacy, perhaps God himself would recognize the moral conscientiousness of refusing to use the Bible as an authority for moral or historical argument. If they'd like to read the Bible as one would a work of fiction, they are welcome to it, but they should never be content to use a Bible verse without first seeking to justify it in independent terms.

3) Argue that the Bible is not divine in origin:
Your comment “why should we have to interpret it in the first place?” raises an important point. If the Bible is the perfect work of a divine author, why should it be unclear? This isn't just a matter of aesthetics, because as I just described in section 2, there is a heavy moral cost associated with a holy book filled with morally abhorrent or ambiguous material. But we needn't stop there either, since our goal is to demonstrate the Bible is a flawed and man-made book unfit as a moral authority. We can add to argument Biblical contradictions, historical inaccuracies, and the incoherence of the Gospel narrative. You may be interested in a previous AllExperts post I wrote about this [18]. One can further talk about how the Gospels are not written by eyewitness and how the Bible was put together by a messing process of developing the Biblical canon [19][20]. For this I would recommend Robert Price's Incredible Shrinking Son of Man[21], a skeptical book on Bible foundations by an Early Christian scholar. Perhaps most comically, the Bible refers to holy books not part of the Biblical canon[22]

4) Argue your interpretation is more accurate:
If the Bible really is the word of God, one expects that there is only one true interpretations of its passages. If a believer rejects your interpretation, it seems only fair that they put worth a credible alternate interpretation. If they can do that, they still should have to show that their interpretation is more accurate.

Someone usually argues an interpretation is more accurate by examining the original translation, especially as the word appears elsewhere in the Bible. Less clear cut interpretations are supplemented by knowledge of early Christian history, languages, and theology. Typically this sort of analysis has been the work of theologians and other seminarians that are less concerned with whether the Bible is true but what it says (and occasionally, how to make it seem like the Bible says something true). But those same tools can also be used against the Bible itself. If you don't have a background in religious studies or classical history, this may not seem like a natural choice.

However it may be sufficient to find a single passage which either has no alternate interpretations or is simple enough to address the most common apologetics against it. For example, I think of Dan Barker's Godless as a good resource [23] because he both provides lists of contradictions and also in-depth analysis of some contradictions. Barker shows there is a contradiction between God's commandment not to kill [24] and his specific instructions to kill [25], but in order to do so, he first demonstrates that God does not mean “murder” for one and “wage war” for the other (the Bible use the same words). He  does a similar examination for the contradiction between Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9, in which Paul either hears or does not hear a voice in his conversion experience (and both verses refer to hearing in the same sense). So you could use Barker's examples or do the same thing to your own favorite verses.

I hope that helps. Even with the best arguments and resources, there are some people who are simply not ready to listen. Maximizing social and political influence can be a matter of finding a receptive audience as much as is a matter of saying the right words. I wish you the best of luck in your conversations with believers.

[1] I use the example of Abraham and Isaac in a previous AllExperts post. I'm copying the paragraph I used there, but you may also be interested in the context: (reason 6)
[6] Christopher Hitchens had a case against “vicarious redemption” (forgiveness of sins) but its a very difficult argument to pull off correctly:
[7] You could also argue about something only loosely supported by the Bible (but Christians believe to be firmly established by the Bible) such as prohibitions against homosexuality, premarital sex, use of contraception, abortion, evolution, etc. However, you are likely to only change their mind on that one issue rather than Christianity as a whole.
[20] Actually I'm not sure it should matter whether God is supposed to have dictated the Bible to someone or is God is supposed to have nudged hundreds of people to make decisions that correctly assemble the Bible. Both descriptions involve divine intercession without any evidence. Yet somehow its easier for people to see this when they understand the assembly of the Bible to be the work of many actors over a long period of time.
[24] Exodus 20:13, Leviticus 24:17
[25] Exodus 32:27, I Samuel 15:2-8, Numbers 15:36, Hosea 13:16, Psalm 137:9


All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Jeffrey Ellsworth


I am well versed on the arguments for both sides about the existence of God and am especially aware of the philosophical ramifications and psychological reactions to atheism. Also, if you have a question about atheism as that pertains to Science or Skepticism, I may be an especially good pick. However my knowledge of non-Judeo-Christian religions and Biblical archaeology is generally limited to knowledge about directions to more informative resources.


I've been an atheist for 14 years now, open about it for 9 years after being raised in a Roman Catholic family. In that time I have held many different philosophical perspective on the subject and had different emotional and psychological reactions to atheism. I have absorbed many internet articles, video debates, atheist publications, and secular podcasts in my process of understanding and supporting the atheist movement. I routinely hold conversations on the subject.

One article in If Journal, an interfaith publication.

I have a BS in Physics and Mathematics from the College of William & Mary I am pursuing my Ph.D in Physics at Indiana University at Bloomington. I have very little formal training in philosophy or sociology.

Awards and Honors
I was president of the William & Mary Students for Science & Secularism before graduating.

©2017 All rights reserved.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]