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Response to J.D. Hughes’s Review

J.D. Hughes has written an interesting review of Human Faces. It mostly consists of restatements of my arguments followed by snide commentary to the effect that my position clearly doesn’t comport with a fundamentalist Christian faith. Yeah, well, no duh. In that sense it’s not a very useful review—anyone can glean that from the blurbs and table of contents. It also contains a small number of attempts to refute a few of my arguments, each of which fails miserably. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Mr. Hughes for taking the time to, sort of, engage my work. I’ll quote his review piecemeal below and respond to each of his statements.

There’s no getting around it, Thom Stark’s book contains rank unbelief.

There is getting around it; I’m not an unbeliever. I’m just not a proponent of inerrancy. If inerrancy is the criterion for being Christian, then I guess I’m an unbeliever. But, for millions of Christians the world over, it isn’t, so I’m not.

What’s so disturbing is that it is written to evangelicals, and is endorsed by (some) evangelicals – and is part of a general trend within the scope of evangelicalism toward what used to be called liberalism. Such a book could never have been written even a decade ago, and it is no coincidence that during this time we’ve seen the emergence of the New Atheism.

I find this claim perplexing. A book like mine couldn’t have been written a decade ago? Hughes must not have been reading books a decade ago. Or two decades ago. Or three decades ago. Or what have you. Books like mine have been on the market for over a hundred years, written by many a believing Christian.

Indeed, Thom Stark must surely have Richard Dawkins’ hearty approval – as he utilizes the very same arguments as Dawkins.

This is false on both counts. First, Dawkins would not approve of my work, since it runs directly counter to his. Second, while Dawkins and I sometimes come to similar conclusions, I am in frequent disagreement with Dawkins’ reading of the Bible, and even where our conclusions converge, the arguments that get us there are usually very different. Dawkins tends toward very superficial readings of the text, as he has no training whatsoever in biblical studies. The comparison to Dawkins tells us more about J.D. Hughes than it does about my book.

I’ve spent the last year or so in regular debate with atheists on Amazon comments threads, and can say with certainty that Stark would be in their camp, not mine! This is truly shocking for a professing Christian.

Well since I’m not an atheist, this is patently false. In fact, the vast majority of the scholarly sources I utilize throughout the book to support my arguments are believing Christians—just, you know, not fundamentalists.

Stark doesn’t believe that Yahweh, as depicted in Scripture, is what God is really like.

Correction: I do not believe that Yahweh, as depicted in some parts of Scripture, is what God is really like. I do believe that Yahweh, as depicted in other parts of Scripture, is what God must really be like. At least, that is the hope I possess.

In fact, according to Stark, Yahweh was something of a ‘junior god’ until coming to prominence in Israel’s later history. This is the sort of thing that is usually proposed by unbelieving academics on BBC television documentaries around Christmas time!

Yeah, the scholarly consensus, even among believing scholars. Shame on them for informing the British public!

There’s a chapter titled, “Making Yahweh Happy”, which is about Yahweh’s approval of child sacrifice – yes, Yahweh wanted the Israelites to sacrifice their children to him.

In some of the earlier texts, this is what was believed about Yahweh, yes. In later texts, no. If we’re going to derisively summarize my arguments without providing counter arguments, let’s at least derisively summarize it accurately.

We read on page 113 about “Yahweh’s meddling.”

According to the text itself, Yahweh intentionally hardened the hearts of the Canaanites and Amorites so that they would not pursue peace with Israel. If Yahweh supernaturally hardened my heart in order to prevent me from doing something good, I’d say he’d have meddled with me. Call it whatever you wish; that doesn’t change what the text says, and my point is not undermined.

We also read on page 114 that “one of Yahweh’s favorite punishments was to force parents to eat their own children.”

Lev 26:27-29.
Ezek 5:8-10.
Jer 19:9.

In each of these texts Yahweh sees fit to punish Israelites by forcing them to eat their own children. If the Yahweh depicted in the Bible didn’t see this as a worthy punishment, why does he keep reiterating it? Of course, I don’t believe God really punished Israel in this way. Rather, Israel’s circumstances brought about the horrible situations in which their children starved to death and their parents had to eat their own children in order to survive. But the point is that the biblical text attributes this reality to the will of Yahweh. Jeremiah goes so far as to say that Yahweh himself feeds the flesh of the children to their parents. Hughes’s problem isn’t with me; it’s with the Bible itself.

Yahweh’s actions are even compared with the psychosis of child killer Andrea Yates (page 120) as part of Stark’s wider response to Christian justification of the conquest of Canaan.

Now this is just false. I didn’t compare Yahweh’s actions to Andrea Yates. I compared Christian apologists’ own justifications of Yahweh’s behavior to Andrea Yates’s justification of her behavior (pp. 117-18). And on p. 120 (which Hughes cites), I was quipping, apparently only in an effort once again to prove that fundamentalist Christians have no sense of humor.

And – last but not least – Yahweh is viewed as a “genocidal dictator” (page 208). Have you spotted the similarities with Dawkins yet?

First, the fact that Dawkins and I come to similar conclusions on some of the issues doesn’t mean I’m using the same arguments as the New Atheists. And of course, my agenda is the opposite of that of the New Atheists. Second, the Yahweh depicted in Deuteronomy and Joshua is in fact a genocidal dictator. (1) He dictates the behavior of his people, making him a dictator. (2) He dictated for his people to commit genocide. Even if one wishes to argue that the genocides were justified, one can hardly object on textual grounds to the way I’ve characterized Yahweh. If Hughes has a problem with genocidal dictators, I don’t know why he’s defending Yahweh. A true defender of Moses and Joshua’s Yahweh would be trying to salvage the term “genocidal dictator” from disrepute. Once again, Hughes’s problem isn’t with me; it’s with the Bible.

Stark can speak this way about Yahweh (i.e. concerning the conquest of Canaan) because apparently God never did command it in the first place – the Israelites rather fabricated the notion that Yahweh commanded it.

Yes, that’s what I argue. We can point to the mounds of evidence I provided that this genocide never in fact took place; it was a literary fiction of the eighth century. Or we can again just derisively summarize my conclusion and leave it at that. It’s not my choice to make.

The chapter dealing with this admittedly difficult subject is cynically titled, “Blessing the Nations” – one of a number of occasions where Stark cannot disguise his sarcasm and contempt for what is recorded in Scripture.

Actually, the sarcasm and contempt is not so much for what’s recorded in Scripture as it is for the arguments employed by modern day biblical apologists to try to justify what’s in scripture. It is people like William Lane Craig who argue that killing Canaanite children was for their own benefit. My contempt is for them. The Bible I’ll happily read contextually and without contempt, as I understand it as a product of its times. Again, the contempt is reserved for those modern-day apologists who wish on the one hand to claim that without Yahweh we could have no morality, and on the other hand to claim that slaughtering hundreds of children for being Canaanite is a kindly service rendered.

It is in this chapter that Stark interacts with Chris Wright on the conquest of Canaan. I know Chris Wright, having attended All Souls, Langham Place for a number of years, and have heard him teach on this very subject. Being an Anglican minister, he is clearly no fundamentalist, and handles Scripture with an integrity and reverence that has no place in Stark’s worldview.

Actually, I demur. I’m positive that I treat Scripture with more integrity and reverence than does Wright, because I’ll allow it to stand as it is without trying to make excuses for it. The irreverent thing is to try to distort the text in order to make it comport with our own moral sensibilities. I offer Scripture a much greater respect when I allow it to stand and state my emphatic disagreement with it than does the minister who would change the text in order to make it more palatable than it really is to us. That said, Hughes has provided no rejoinders to my criticisms of Wright’s misreadings of the texts. He’s simply stated supposedly good things about Wright, and false things about me personally.

On this and other related issues, I would also recommend Paul Copan’s, “Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God”.

I would also heartily recommend Paul Copan’s book. Please read it. And then please read my 350-page critical review of Paul Copan’s book: thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf

There are simply too many issues raised in Stark’s book to respond to in this review, but a quick example of erroneous thinking will suffice.

Terrific. Substance is forthcoming.

Stark contends that the Christian scriptures reinforce the institution of slavery. This is plainly not the case. Slavery was part of the Roman world in which the New Testament was written – but if the N.T. authors approved of slavery, Paul couldn’t have written what he wrote to believing slaves in 1 Corinthians 7:21: “…if you can gain your freedom, do so.”

OK. No substance yet. Just a flagrant mischaracterization of my statement. Note that Hughes (rightly) alludes to my saying that the NT “reinforces the institution of slavery.” But then he goes on to argue against me as if I had said that the NT approved of the institution of slavery. Well, I didn’t. Obviously, anyone from Paul’s class is going to believe it better to be free than a slave. But let’s quote the part of the verse that J.D. Hughes saw fit to leave out. The verse in its entirety says: “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let that trouble you. Of course, if you are able to gain your freedom, then use your freedom [for the kingdom]” (1 Cor 7:21).

I never said that Paul “approved” of slavery, as Hughes implied. What I said was that what the NT has to say about slavery only reinforces the institution. I of course quoted two texts on the page Hughes cited, Colossians 3:22 and Ephesians 6:5, both of which command slaves to obey their masters. Not once does Paul condemn the institution of slavery. I didn’t say he approved of it, but his message reinforces the institution. It exhorts slaves to be better slaves, and, at best, exhorts masters to be kinder masters. I don’t think Paul was intentionally reinforcing the institution; but that’s the effect that putting a kinder face on an immoral institution has. Regardless, telling a slave to take the opportunity to become free should such an opportunity arise is a no brainer, but that doesn’t constitute evidence that Paul opposed slavery as such. Everyone believed it was better to be free than a slave; not everyone believed slavery was immoral. Whether Paul thought it immoral or not is a question he never answered.

Speaking of Paul, this is what Stark has to say about 1 Timothy 2:12-14 and women not leading churches. “The reality is that the author of 1 Timothy was simply the product of a patriarchal society, and was thus blinded to the irony that he himself had been deceived by the misogynist myth of male intellectual superiority. The joke was on him.”. Notice that Stark doesn’t believe that Paul actually wrote 1 Timothy (this is pure liberal Christianity); and notice also that the text says nothing whatever about men being intellectually superior (this is eisegesis, not exegesis). To quote Stark himself – in his own response to a Mark Driscoll quote on page 16 – I see no need for further comment!

First, that Hughes thinks adhering to the consensus position that 1 Timothy is pseudonymous amounts to “pure liberal Christianity” tells us a lot about Hughes but not a lot about reality. The vast, vast majority of NT scholars hold this position, including an exceedingly large number of theological conservatives. Even conservative scholars are in the minority on this one.

Second, as for Hughes’s claim that it is eisegesis to say that 1 Timothy 2:12-14 doesn’t reflect the common belief that males were intellectually superior to females, well, I’ll quote 1 Timothy 2:12-14: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Why did “Paul” say that a woman could not teach? Because Eve was deceived, not Adam. This is an argument from the order of creation. The argument only works on the assumption that Eve’s having been deceived is reflective of a defect inherent throughout all womankind. That is why a woman is not permitted to teach: because they are more susceptible to deception than men. This view was held widely in the ancient world, among Romans and Jews alike. It’s not my fault Hughes can’t follow a biblical argument.

In chapter 8, having already made clear what he thinks about Yahweh, Stark now turns his attention to the person of Jesus. The chapter title is another provocative one: “Jesus Was Wrong”. As far as Stark is concerned, Jesus was merely one of a number of apocalyptic thinkers within Judaism at the time, and on page 160 he likens Jesus to false date-setters William Miller and Hal Lindsey – the reason being that Jesus incorrectly prophesied his 2nd Coming and the end of the world within a generation of his lifetime.

There is a significant mischaracterization here: Hughes says that I say that Jesus was ”merely” one of a number of apocalyptic thinkers. This is in fact false. I think Jesus stands heads and shoulders above them all in terms of his activities and his moral teachings. I don’t think Jesus was “merely” anything. Whereas Hal Lindsey was merely a nutjob.

I did compare him to Lindsey and Miller, but the point of comparison was only one aspect of Jesus’ teaching: his prediction of the imminent end of the world. That doesn’t mean I think (much less that I argued) that Jesus was “merely” another Hal Lindsey. But, like Hal Lindsey, and so many others throughout history, Jesus predicted that the world would end soon, and he was wrong. Nevertheless, Jesus was a lot more than that, and that’s why I strongly disagree with atheist John Loftus’s reverse-fundamentalist view of Jesus. For Loftus, Jesus was not more than a false prophet. For me, Jesus was a champion of justice and truth who got God right a helluva lot more than he got God wrong. I believe so much in Jesus’ message that I’d follow him to the cross even knowing that he would be wrong about when the world would end. But for fundamentalists like Hughes, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. I just can’t understand that kind of thinking. That kind of thinking is so tragic.

This is a big subject, and there is an interplay between futurism (events concerning the end of the age – far horizon) and preterism (events concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70 – near horizon) for any student of Bible prophecy to wrestle with. Rather than live with the eschatological tension, Stark prefers to resort to unbelief and liberalism.

Actually, I would have preferred it if Jesus would not have been wrong. But we can’t always have what we would prefer. We can of course ignore the facts that I established at great length in my 50-page chapter on Jesus’ eschatology and appeal to some sort of ambiguous “tension” that doesn’t exist in the text, and we can do so without mounting a single argument against my presentation of the evidence. But what would that profit anybody?

Stark asserts on page 167 that the Sadducees, who denied the resurrection, were the ‘conservatives’ – whereas belief in the resurrection was in fact “theologically liberal”. Most evangelicals would say that it was the other way around!

And that wouldn’t be the first time that most Evangelicals would have been wrong.

Stark contends that belief in the resurrection was a relatively new thing. Granted, there’s not much in the Old Testament about the resurrection (although note Job 19:25-26 and Daniel 12:2 – no doubt Stark will claim that Daniel was written as late as the 2nd Century B.C.).

Yes, “no doubt” I will, since in fact I argue that this is the case in the very book Hughes is supposedly reviewing. Daniel 12 was written in the second century BCE, at about the same time that belief in resurrection began to emerge among Jews. Even conservatives like N.T. Wright have no problem with this. In fact, Wright makes the case for this in his much-beloved-by-conservatives apologetics book on the resurrection of Jesus. And he’s not alone of course. Many conservatives accept the consensus position on the dating of Daniel. Only the most ardent fundamentalists insist it must have been written in the sixth century when the story was set.

As for Job 19:25-26, I’ve already written on this text. I’ll just copy and paste what I’ve written elsewhere:

Job 19:25-27 is often cited as evidence that Job believed in an afterlife, despite the fact that the translation of the pivotal v. 26 is quite difficult, and despite the fact that Job elsewhere denies the possibility of resurrection on more than one occasion. Here I’ll quote from Human Faces of God to save time:

Job contrasts the fate of humans with that of trees. Unlike humans, “there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will grow up again, and that its roots will not die” (Job 14:7). Water can bring a tree back to life, says Job, but when mortal humans die, there is no coming back. “As waters evaporate from the lakebed, as a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down, never to rise again” (14:11–12). Although such a view of mortality may sound like a council of despair for us, for Job, in light of his afflictions, death is the only thing he has to look forward to. Job despairs not in the thought of eternal sleep, but only in the thought of another day among the living. His life is simply biding his time “until my release should come” (14:14). When death comes knocking at Job’s door, he will gladly answer, for only in death will calamity find him no longer (14:15–17). Indeed, Job sees in death an escape from the tormenting hand of Yahweh. “As the cloud fades and ebbs away, so those who go down to the grave do not come up. They will never return to their homes, nor will they be seen again from whence they came” (7:9–10). This fact emboldens Job to accuse Yahweh: “Therefore I will not hold my tongue; I will speak up out of the torment of my spirit; I will protest out of the bitterness of my existence” (7:11). Without restraint, Job indicts Yahweh for unjustly afflicting him. He can do this because he knows that death is near, and that then he will be beyond Yahweh’s reach: “For I shall lie down in the dust of the earth; you will seek me, but I will not be there to be found” (7:21). [Human Faces of God, p. 9.]

So what does Job 19:25-27 say? Well, the NRSV translates it this way:

25For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed [naqaph],
then in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

Again, the key is the translation of v. 26, and I argue that the NRSV gets it wrong. If his flesh is destroyed, then how would he then proceed to see God, “in his flesh”? But naqaph can mean “peel off, strip off, shake off” or “revolve, recur,” or “round off, trim.” Perhaps the verse should translate, “and after my skin has returned to this [body], I will see God in my flesh.” That would make much more sense of the fact that Job is seeing God “in the flesh.” Another possible translation is this: “and after my skin shall shake off this scab, I will see God in my flesh.” That also makes sense of the fact that Job is seeing God “in the flesh.” And that’s precisely the point here: Job is contending against his companions who are saying that he is at fault. Job demurs, saying that he will in fact live to be vindicated. The redeemer (i.e., vindicator) who lives will stand on the dust “at the last,” i.e., when this ordeal is all over, and Job will be vindicated against his accusers and against God. Job, unlike his wrongful accusers, will get to stand before God as he is vindicated. And, as the very next verses go on to state, Job warns that those who accuse him now will be punished with the sword when he is vindicated. This hardly speaks of a resurrection from the grave. Rather, it clearly speaks of Job’s healing, restoration, and vindication as a righteous man. In fact, this is precisely what happened in the story itself.

Thus, Job 19 says nothing about a bodily resurrection after death, and my position entails that Daniel 12 was one of the first witnesses to the radical new view about life after death that was emerging during times of persecution in Judea. So citing Daniel 12 isn’t an argument against my position.

At any rate, I have no idea why Hughes is so scandalized by this one little statement I made—that the Sadducees were the conservatives and Jesus the radical liberal. I’m speaking perspectivally of course. But there’s hardly anything faith-undermining in this statement. Hughes could just say that Jews didn’t believe in resurrection until the second century because it wasn’t yet revealed to them or something. Leave it to a fundamentalist to harp on a minor issue because calling Jesus a “liberal” is tantamount to calling him a crazed lunatic, or something.

But we need to remember that when affirming the resurrection in his disputation with the Sadducees, Jesus appealed to God’s word to Moses way back at the time of the burning bush encounter – that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Therefore, as far as Jesus is concerned, he is “not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:32). What’s so significant here is that Jesus took the Sadducees back to the Books of Moses – the very ones that they considered to be authoritative. In other words, they SHOULD have believed in the resurrection of the dead!

Hughes needs to reread my discussion of pesher exegesis on pp. 24-26. Jesus is engaging in pesheresque interpretation of scripture here. I don’t fault him for it. That was the way they did things back then. But Jesus’ argument wouldn’t have held any real weight with Sadducees (or with anyone who wasn’t already inclined to Jesus’ apocalyptic worldview). Jesus’ whole argument hinged on this premise that “God is the God of the living, not the dead.” It’s a purely rhetorical argument. There is no reason biblically, logically, or otherwise why we are forced to accept this premise as a priori true. It’s actually really just a semantic game. “You can’t be the God of something that doesn’t exist. Therefore, Abraham must still be alive if God claims to still be his God.” That’s just semantics. In reality, Yahweh was just identifying himself as the same God who was God over the patriarchs of Israel. Jesus’ response to the Sadducees is as fine an example of pesher as one could hope for. It’s not historical-grammatical exegesis.

Throughout the book, Stark presents his readers with old fashioned unbelief and liberalism. The account of David and Goliath, for example, he claims is one of a number of “invented traditions, ideological and propagandistic in nature” (page 208).

Indeed, the facts become old fashioned so quickly these days. (I’m sorry, if you want a real response, then make a real criticism. If you’re going to simply state my position as if the position itself were proof that I’m wrong, then I’m not going to offer the kind of response I normally would.)

Thom Stark concludes that because the Scriptures are not infallible, and Jesus was not infallible, we therefore have no foundation. Indeed!


He then goes on to suggest that this is actually a good thing because it is more beneficial for our “moral and spiritual development” (page 237). An infallible Jesus is “ultimately just a shortcut” (page 237). I kid you not, that’s exactly what Stark is saying. Presumably, this is why another one of his chapters is titled: “Inerrancy Stunts Your Growth”.

Yes, that is a fair presumption.

But it gets even better – or worse, depending on your perspective – as Stark reassures any despondent believers that we needn’t worry because we have the voices of other religions and atheists to aid us in the process (page 238).

Yes, I’d say “other religions and atheists” is a fair summary of the other voices I listed on pp.238-39. And to prove the fairness of Hughes’s summary, I’ll quote those pages:

Yet while we are without a foundation, we are not left without resources. The truth is that God has given us many resources to use together to struggle toward lives that reflect justice and peace. Our scriptures are some of those resources. The unique witness of Jesus of Nazareth within those scriptures is a resource in its own right. But we have other resources. We have our faculties of reason, our experiences, and the experiences of others. We have the voices of the past, the voices of the present, the voices of our elders, our peers, our children, and our enemies. We have the voices of other religions and the voices of atheists. We have the voices of those who suffer. We also have scientific methods of inquiry. We have critical theory, and philosophy, that help us to subject our own basic assumptions and frameworks of thought to critique. We have the Spirit of God. We have our individual minds, and the organic machinations of our communities. We have resources we know not of.

None of these resources is more basic than any other. Each one possesses the right to critique and the obligation to be critiqued by each of the others. Those who ask whether or how we can trust that these resources will lead us in the right direction are motivated by fear—fear of the unknown, fear of uncertainty, fear of the struggle. But the struggle, the pressing on in the face of uncertainties, the commitment to taking the journey together, as Christians, but more basically and more broadly, as human beings—these are the things that make us the kind of virtuous people our scriptures call us to be. The scriptures do not have to be right about everything in order to be useful. They do not have to be the antithesis of darkness in order to give us light. They are clear and cogent and often times conflicting examples of other communities’ attempts to find God in this world, sometimes by means we should reject, sometimes by means we should embrace, and always by means to which we should pay close attention. They are God’s voice speaking to us, but they are not the only place God speaks.

So, yeah… “Other religions and atheists.” A fair summary.

Which reminds me that Stark has previously spoken of Islam in favourable terms earlier in the book – something else that he has in common with a number of atheists today.

Yes, I must only speak of other religions in unfavorable terms. Mustn’t say anything positive about anybody that doesn’t think just like me! That would be… something… really bad!

Stark triumphantly proclaims: “If God can speak to Balaam through an ass, God can speak to a Baptist through an atheist.”

Yes, I proclaimed this very triumphantly. Immediately after I wrote it I threw my keyboard to the ground and claimed everything within a fifty-mile radius for my unmatched brilliance. I also emailed the sentence to my mom to get her approval.

With all due respect, Thom Stark needs to consider something too – that Satan not only masquerades as an angel of light, but he is very, very clever indeed at using Scripture to further his own purposes. Quite frankly, most Christians who love their Bibles and love their Lord will find this book to be diabolically conceived.

So, in other words, “With all due respect” to Thom Stark, he’s under the influence of Satan. Got it.