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“Ask a Priest: How Can the God Depicted in the Old Testament Be Worshipped?”
Q: I was forced into the Catholic Church when I was a baby by my father, the choice was taken from me and I blindly followed what was taught to me. In 1999 I read the Bible for the first time, New and Old Testaments, and was appalled with what I read and instantly distanced myself from this fear-driven, sick organization. I hope you appreciate me telling you my feelings and don’t think I’m writing this simply to upset you or your faith. I do, however, know the Bible’s teachings are morally bankrupt and evil. How can you worship a God that kills men women and children for simply not believing? God told Moses to kill thousands of innocents. God sends his own children to a hell he made for being who they are, whether gay, straight or nonbeliever. What makes me angry is that I marry my Asian wife in a few months and have five beautiful whom I adore and love. The God you worship is sending them to an eternity of pain and suffering because they love Buddha’s teachings and don’t believe in your God as the creator. How do you worship such a God? – A.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A. When you say you were forced into the Church as a baby, you probably mean that you were baptized as an infant. In other words, you dad wanted to give you the best he had to offer: food, clothing, protection, love — and the sacrament that took away original sin and made you a member of the mystical body of Christ, his Church.
Christ doesn’t want us to blindly follow him. He wants us to use our faith as well as our reason.
In 1999 you discovered what other people have known for centuries: The Bible has a lot of brutal stuff in it. Does this mean that Christianity is based on fear and revenge? No, of course not.
The Bible, especially parts of the Old Testament, needs to be read and understood in context.
It helps to say right away what the Old Testament is not. It is not a “Lives of the Saints.” Nor is it a simple handbook for moral behavior. It isn’t even a single book; rather it is an anthology of books that records a dialogue of sorts between God and the Israelites, and the Israelites among themselves over many centuries.
Its contents include history, allegories, psalms, poetry and stories steeped in symbols (to transmit deep truths). At times it contains passages that try to interpret past events, sometimes in opposing ways. The Old Testament doesn’t fit neatly into any one category of literature. It is much too complex.
Picking out a few passages here and there in the Old Testament and concluding that that is what Christianity is about is like pulling a few lines from yesterday’s newspaper and concluding that that is the way the world is. Those lines might reflect individual events or interpretations of events, but they aren’t the whole picture.
Interestingly, some of the brutal passages in the Old Testament about the orders to kill Canaanites (men, women and children) were probably compiled at a time when the Canaanites were no longer even in the vicinity of the Israelites. Those passages would need to be understood, then, not as a call to wholesale slaughter, but as a reminder to the Israelites that they had to radically cut with any groups that could lead them away from God.
Suffice it to say that the ancient Israelites were a work in progress. We shouldn’t try to project modern standards of behavior on them, nor take all of their behavior as a model for us.
God’s ultimate revelation was his Son, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament pointed toward the coming of Jesus. So if we want to know who or what best expresses the heart of God in Scripture, it is Jesus. And Jesus is what the Catholic Church is about. He is the head of the Church. He founded it. He guides it.
The question might linger, however, about why God inspired the compilation of an Old Testament so rife with violence.
One answer might be that it is the brutality we see in antiquity that helps us to appreciate the radicalness of Christ’s teaching about love and mercy. Talk of love and mercy isn’t absent in the Old Testament, of course, but the widespread brutality we find there is certainly absent in the New Testament.
Another answer might be that the sheer complexity of Scripture requires a bit of humility from us. We cannot simply interpret Scripture on our own. We need the guidance of a believing community to help us. In a word, Catholics interpret it in the light of Tradition — the living transmission of the message of the Gospel in the Church.
Now, as for non-Christians and God’s attitude toward them, the Catholic Church certainly does not teach that they are lost.
The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium is worth quoting here, specifically its part that focuses on non-Christians. This part deals with the Jews:
“16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God. In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.”
The section then refers to followers of Islam:
“But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place among these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.”
Then the document casts a wider net:
“Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Savior wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.”
That hardly sounds like the language of condemnation of non-Christians.
To sum up the Catholic view of the Almighty: God is a God of love. He sent his only Son to suffer and die for all of us. That is the message that Christians are supposed to share with the world. That we don’t do a better job of that is a bad reflection on us, not on God.
I could only invite you to browse the Catechism and read for yourself what the Church teaches (and doesn’t teach). Pope Francis has called for a Year of Mercy, which we are in the middle of, to remind us of God’s love and desire for all people to be saved.
Perhaps that is a facet of the Almighty that can bring you peace.