The Bible describes and encourages a lot more evil behavior than you would expect from a “good book”. Not all of it is like that, of course. But even when the Bible discusses and promotes good behavior, the reasons it gives for behaving that way are usually all wrong.
There’s a Bible verse that addresses the issue of doing things for the wrong reasons. Paul says as long as you’re doing the right thing, it doesn’t really matter why you’re doing it. But that’s not entirely true. Reasons are important. Your reasons for doing things influence which things you choose to do. If you’re not doing things for the right reasons, you’re probably not going to consistently do the right things.
What would be a good reason for, say, showing hospitality? Why should you provide people with lodging and food? In the past, one good reason was that it took a long time to travel, and there weren’t a lot of commercial hotels around. So the only way travelers could get shelter at night was to rely on strangers to offer them a place to stay.
The Bible’s justification for promoting hospitality, on the other hand, doesn’t even have anything to do with helping people! Instead, the Bible says you should let people stay in your home because your guests might actually be angels. That’s a dumb reason, isn’t it? How is it in any way better to provide for angels, who don’t need your help, than to provide for humans, who do?
In the story of Dinah and Shechem, Jacob’s sons may appear to be zealously discouraging rape… except the rape isn’t actually what they’re concerned about. They just think nobody should ever have sex with Dinah. Apparently they want her to stay single for the rest of her life. Does Dinah appreciate this? The women in the Bible tend to be pretty intent on getting married, so I doubt it.
God told his people not to oppress foreigners, because they had lived as foreigners in Egypt. Is that really what he thinks the reason for that is? If the Israelites had never been foreigners themselves, would that make it okay for them to oppress foreigners?
God commanded his people not to sacrifice their children to the Canaanite god Molek. But not because he cared about the children.1 To God, it was all about him; he thought offering your children to other gods was disrespectful to God.
God had a policy of having a lot of the people who joined the army of Israel turned away and sent back home, including people who had recently acquired something valuable but hadn’t had time to enjoy it yet. God had various reasons for doing this, but the reason he gave those people to make them want to stay home instead of going to war was the dumbest, most unnecessarily malicious reason possible.
He said they needed to stay and enjoy their new stuff so nobody else would get to enjoy it. Why would you try to motivate people with a desire to prevent enjoyment, when you could get exactly the same result by appealing to a desire to get enjoyment?
God told his people not to destroy the trees in the cities they captured, which seems reasonable. (So reasonable it should have gone without saying.) But what reason did God have in mind when he gave that rule? One of his reasons was that the trees weren’t people. And if you’re not killing people, why bother?
God said no one was to be punished with more than forty lashes. Not because that would be excessively cruel, but because it would somehow make other people respect the brutalized person less.
God says he wants people to love peace and truth. But instead of actually helping people understand why peace and truth are good things, he tries to convince them in a way that makes absolutely no sense. He reminds his people that he’s regularly depriving them of food. He says he expects that to somehow make them happy. And then that completely irrelevant situation is supposed to somehow motivate them to love truth and peace?
When someone suggested killing Saul, David refused to do it, because Saul was God’s chosen king.2 Why does he need such a specific reason for not killing someone? Does he think it’s generally okay to kill people, as long as they aren’t God’s chosen king?
When Jeremiah’s enemies were trying to get him sentenced to death for prophesying against Jerusalem, some people said he shouldn’t be killed, because he had spoken in the name of God. And some other people said he shouldn’t be killed because there was another prophet who had spoken against Jerusalem once, and that guy didn’t get killed.
Neither of those are very good reasons. Claiming you’re speaking for God doesn’t make you right, and the fact that somebody didn’t get executed doesn’t necessarily mean he shouldn’t have been. How about not killing Jeremiah because it’s generally a terrible idea to punish people for saying things you don’t like?
Love your enemies?
Solomon and Paul both told people not to take revenge, which I’d say is good advice. When people do bad things, doing more bad things back to them3 doesn’t do any good; it only adds to the amount of bad things being done. But these guys weren’t discouraging revenge because they wanted to reduce the amount of unpleasant things that were done to people. They just thought it was better to let God do bad things for you. David had a similar attitude.
Solomon and Paul not only said you shouldn’t do evil to your enemies, but also said you should actively do good things for your enemies. But the reason they think you should do this is bizarrely spiteful. They seem to think that providing your enemy with what they need will somehow be unpleasant for your enemy, like putting a pile of burning coals on your enemy’s head, and that’s why you should do it.
Another proverb says you shouldn’t gloat when bad things happen to your enemies… because if you do, God will stop making bad things happen to them, and you wouldn’t want that, would you? So much for loving your enemies.
Jesus tells people to be good and loving and generous to their enemies, but he says the reason to do that is because God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. That’s not even a reason to do that. It’s a reason to be ungrateful and wicked.
Motivation from repayment
When the Bible mentions reasons for doing good and not doing evil, the reasons it gives tend to be rewards and punishments. But those aren’t the real reasons you should behave morally. Those are selfish reasons. Morality isn’t all about you, it’s about how your actions affect other people. Someone who behaves morally because they care about what happens to everyone else is more moral than someone who behaves the same way just because they expect to be personally rewarded or punished for what they do.
The people in the Bible are the second kind of people. They’re so focused on being personally repaid, they seem to completely forget that morality is about other people. David, for instance, thought it was useless to do good to others if that didn’t lead to them doing good to you. Likewise, his son Solomon wondered what the point of learning proper conduct was, and it didn’t even occur to him that it might be something other than gaining something for yourself. Solomon also thought that doing evil only harmed the evildoer.
Paul at least acknowledges that most sins have external effects, but he seems to think sexual immorality only harms the perpetrator’s own body. This is a dangerously wrong message, because if people think their sexual immorality can’t harm anyone else, and they don’t see it harming themselves, they will think there’s no reason not to commit more immoral sexual acts.
Peter encouraged men to treat their wives with respect (sort of). Not because he thought the women deserved respect or anything, but just to make sure God wouldn’t stop answering the men’s prayers. Peter also told his followers that they should live good lives because they wanted to go to heaven, and not because they care what happens in this world.
Job never did anything to harm the needy, and never failed to give them what they wanted. But did he actually care about those people? It seems he only chose to act that way because he was afraid God would destroy him otherwise. Just like how Solomon tells you to be kind to the poor and not mistreat them because that will please/offend God and make him want to reward/punish you, rather than focusing on the good or bad outcome your actions will have on the people you’re doing things to.
When Pharaoh told the Israelite midwives to start killing all the new baby Israelite boys, they refused. Why? Because they “feared God“. What kind of reason is that? If the only thing keeping you from murdering babies is fear of punishment, you might be a psychopath.
When Esther was hesitant to go ask the king to do something about the plot to kill all the Jews, her cousin encouraged her to go even if it put her own life at risk. You’d think all he’d have to do would be to remind her that all the Jews would die if she didn’t go. But instead, he felt the need to make up a far-fetched selfish motivation for her. He claimed that if she didn’t go talk to the king, that would somehow result in her dying and most of the Jews living. That message was the opposite of the actual situation, and could have easily made her want to avoid going to the king, if she hadn’t been so selfish.
God commanded his people not to take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. But the only reason he could think of for people to follow that rule was a selfish reason,4 because he clearly didn’t actually care about the wellbeing of such people. As evidenced by the fact that he was planning to make more people fatherless and widows.
Jesus said you should love people even if they don’t love you. But the reason he gave for doing that wasn’t that it’s nice to have other people spontaneously be good to you. It wasn’t that being loving to people who don’t like you might make them like you better. And it wasn’t because if people only show love to people who have already shown them love, there will be no one to get the chain of loving behavior started.
No, just like everyone else in the Bible, the only reason Jesus can think of for doing good is that you’ll supposedly get a reward for it. And the only way he can think of to discourage people from making a show of doing good is to tell them they won’t get a reward if they do it that way.
Charity is not about you
The way Jesus talked about why he approved of certain people shows how self-centered his view of morality was. Jesus described a poor woman donating the few cents she had as having given “more” than all the rich people who donated large amounts. But why is he measuring the amount being given against how much the giver has? That only matters to the giver; it makes no difference to what the people in need receive, which is what really matters.
When a woman wasted a bottle of expensive perfume by pouring it out on Jesus “to prepare for his burial“,5 rather than selling it and using the money to help the poor, Jesus defended her by saying this was the only chance his followers would ever have to anoint him, whereas the poor would always be there for them to help any time they wanted. Again, this reasoning seems to assume that your motivation for giving is selfish. It makes no sense if you actually care about what happens to other people. A poor person isn’t going to be satisfied if your excuse for not helping them now is that you can always help other poor people later.
Paul was just as bad. His strategy for getting his followers to make donations was to claim that God would reward them in proportion to their (selfishly motivated) “generosity”. And when he was trying to emphasize the importance of love, he said that if he was to give all his possessions to the poor, but didn’t have love, he would “gain nothing“. As if that mattered. As if the purpose of giving to the poor was to gain something for yourself.
How rewards and punishments can backfire
The Bible notes that when crimes aren’t punished quickly enough, more people are encouraged to do wrong, because they notice the lack of consequences.6 It says when the Israelites saw how often people got away with doing evil, they decided there was no point in trying to do good. Which shows how worthlessly weak and fragile a motivation the threat of punishment is.
The reason a lack of consequences might lead people to be apathetic about morality is that they have the wrong kind of consequences in mind. Artificially imposed personal consequences can easily fail to be carried out, leaving people thinking they have no reason to do right. But if your morality is motivated by your understanding of the real, unavoidable consequences that your actions will naturally have, you won’t have that problem.
Unfortunately, being given extrinsic motivations (like rewards and punishments) can cause you to permanently lose the more powerful intrinsic motivation to behave well that you otherwise could have had. Too bad it never occurred to God to simply teach his people the real reasons for doing what’s right. Then they would never have gotten weary of doing good, regardless of what they did or didn’t reap for themselves.