When conservative Christians claim that the Bible God condones torture, they’re not making it up. A close look at the good book reveals why so many Christians past and present have adopted an Iron Age attitude toward brutality.
The first half of December 2014 was painful to many moderate American Christians who see their God as a God of love: A Senate inquiry revealed that the CIA tortured men, some innocent, to the point of unconsciousness and even death. As is common, evidence suggested that this torture extracted no lifesaving information. And yet, a majority of Americans responded by giving torture the thumbs up, with the strongest approval coming from Christians, both Catholic and Protestant. Faced with moral outrage, including from within their own ranks, Christian torture apologists took to the airwaves and internet, weaving righteous justifications for the practice of inflicting pain on incapacitated enemies.
As morally repugnant as this may be, anyone familiar with either past survey data or Christian history shouldn’t find it surprising. One of the CIA’s favored leave-no-marks torture techniques, waterboarding, was refined by Inquisition authorities during the interrogation of heathens and heretics.
There’s a reason that devout Christians past and present can turn to torture when it suits their ends and then blithely maintain that they are on the side of God and goodness. The Bible itself—Old Testament and New—endorses torture regularly, through stories, laws, prophesies and sermons; including from the mouth of Jesus himself.
Don’t take it from me. The following passages are a sample of those available, but I encourage you to pick up the Bible yourself, starting at the book of Genesis. Here, so you know what to look for, is Wikipedia’s definition of torture:
The act of deliberately inflicting severe physical or psychological pain and possibly injury on a person (or animal), usually one who is physically restrained or otherwise under the torturer’s control or custody and unable to defend against what is being done to them.
I include in this category the act of deliberately inflicting prolonged and intense suffering in the process of killing a person or animal, when the killer has the option to end the life quickly and painlessly. Merriam-Webster adds that the torturer’s goal is “to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure.”
Torture as Punishment: Eve’s Curse –Intense and prolonged pain meted out as punishment appears almost immediately in the pages of the Bible, inflicted by God himself, who curses Eve because she has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. “To the woman He said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth. In pain you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you’” (Genesis 2:16).
As understood by the ancient Hebrews, physical pain would have been just part of Eve’s curse. In generations past, an estimated 1 in 10 women eventually died of childbearing, as they do today in places like rural Afghanistan where modern contraceptives and medicines are unavailable and men “rule over” women. One psychological element of the curse was repeated cycles of fear and uncertainty for a woman who might labor, give birth and then bleed out; or who (in the absence of caesarean section) might labor for days, unable to deliver, until her body gave up and she died. Leading church fathers saw maternal suffering and death as right and proper, because of Eve’s sin and the role God had prescribed for women.
Torture as a Test of Loyalty: Job –In the book of Job, torture isn’t a punishment but rather a test of loyalty. Job, a righteous man becomes the subject of a divine wager between God and Satan, who claims that Job is faithful only because he is blessed with health and wealth. Bets are laid, and over time Job is subjected to first psychological and then physical anguish. His crops fail. A house collapses, crushing all of his children during a family gathering. He is rejected by neighbors and ends up a beggar, covered in painful boils.
After Job passes the test, God restores his health and wealth, and replaces his dead children. Christians to this day frequently perceive inexplicable and unmerited suffering as a “test of faith.”
Torture for Self-Gratification and Gain: The Midianite Virgins—In wars, victors often rape conquered females as a means of further humiliating male enemies. In the story of the Midianite virgins, though, the motivation is more instrumental. God’s command, (“Kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.” Numbers 31: 17-18) The girls are taken as booty of war, tallied along with livestock and gold, and the purpose of their sexual slavery is to provide pleasure and progeny for the men who have slaughtered their families.
While this story may not count as sadist torture in the classic psycho-sexual sense, it does illustrate the Bible God’s approval of inflicting intense and repeated suffering on a helpless victim for the purposes of sexual gratification and/or personal gain.
Torture as a Show of Strength: The Egyptians. The story of Moses leading his people out of Egypt is a cornerstone of Jewish identity, the basis for the Passover holiday. It is also a cat and mouse story, the tale of a supernatural being toying with mortals because he can, inflicting round after round of terror and suffering with the self-admitted goal of displaying his power.
Yahweh speaks to Moses from a burning bush, telling him to go to Pharaoh and demand freedom for Israelite slaves. He promises that the Israelites will be free. But instead of making things easy, Yahweh does the opposite: “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3).
He then methodically terrorizes the Egyptian populace. He turns their drinking water to blood, then fouls the land with a plague of frogs, then sends clouds of gnats to torment man and beast, then fills fields and homes with locusts, then kills their livestock, then infects them with boils and sores, then rains down hail to destroy their remaining crops . . . . The torments go on for pages. After each round, Yahweh again “hardens Pharaoh’s heart.” The awfulness crescendos until we reach the climax—the death of each firstborn male, no matter how young or helpless, including the firstborn of the cattle.
This story endorses not only torture, but vicarious torture. Suffering is inflicted on children and animals to maximize the distress of their adult guardians and owners, producing abject learned helplessness in the face of Yahweh’s overwhelming power.
Torture as Correction: The Law and Proverbs. When it comes time for the Israelite people to devise their own government, torture—as punishment and crime deterrence—gets built into legal codes. A man can beat his male or female slave bloody as long as the slave doesn’t die within 2 days of the beating (Exodus 21:20-21). A judge can condemn a criminal to receive a similar beating after forcing him to lie down (Deuteronomy 25:2). Adulterers are to be stoned—a slow painful death that adds the extra humiliation of broad public participation (Deuteronomy 17:2-7).
The same approach is recommended for parenting. Parents are exhorted to beat their children, who otherwise will grow up foolish, and to ignore their crying (Proverbs 13:24; Proverbs 19:18; Proverbs 22:15). If you don’t think these constitute torture, I would suggest that you read some of the accounts of children who have lived for years in terror and pain because earnest Christian parents decided that godly parenting required breaking their will.
Torture as Vengeance: Elisha’s Curse. Some Bible references to righteous torture appear to simply satisfy the human drive for vengeance. For example, the Law of Moses contains this bizarre prescription: “If an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned” (Exodus 21:28). Consider: The Iron Age Israelites were herdsmen and hunters. They knew how to kill animals swiftly, with minimal pain and tissue damage. In fact, rules for ritual slaughter demanded that they do so. Stoning a large, dumb, horned animal to death, by contrast, was a mob process that might take hours.
In the book of 2 Kings, an equally awful, protracted death befalls 42 youth who taunt God’s prophet, Elisha. He curses them and God sends two bears, who kill the boys by tearing them apart. Remember, if you will, that this is a God who can swiftly and silently strike people dead and sometimes does. Remember too, if you’re willing, the audio recording that the subject of the movie Grizzly Man unwittingly made of his own slow death—the interminable grinding and moaning that followed the bear attack. The moral of the Elisha story isn’t just that those who disrespect God’s messengers will die; it is that they may die gruesome, excruciating deaths.
Threats of Torture as Persuasion: In the New Testament, threats of torture appear regularly as tools of persuasion—the stick half of a carrot and stick approach used by writers who warn repeatedly of torments that will befall those who don’t repent or convert.
The book of Matthew puts these words into the mouth of Jesus: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Matthew 18:8-9).
Later, Jesus tells the story of an unforgiving servant to illustrate how God will treat unforgiving people:
Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart (Matthew 18:32-33).
Grudge holders and bankers beware.
Torture as Redemption: Jesus. The crucifixion story elevates torment to a whole new level, giving torture-unto-death the power to redeem a broken world.
The notion that sacrificial killings can please or appease gods long predates the Bible, and it evolved over the centuries in which the Bible texts were written: from residual human sacrifice in the early Hebrew religion, to animal sacrifice during the temple era, to (in Christianity) the final sacrifice of the perfect lamb without blemish, Jesus himself.
Without the shedding of blood there can be no remission of sin. It’s an old concept, but in the Jesus story, the Hebrew concept of sacrifice morphs into death-by-torture. Perhaps a three-day death follow by glorious resurrection struck early Christians as cheap grace. Perhaps the followers of one Yeshua ben Yosef needed some way to explain the horrible death of their movement founder at the hands of Rome. Perhaps weary people in need of hope found a template for a suffering messiah in an ancient text. Whatever the reason, mythological or historical, torture became a defining feature of the orthodox Christian salvation narrative.
In this version of the story, Jesus doesn’t merely die for our sins, side slit or heart stopped. He is also tortured for our sins, as centuries of bloody iconography, passion plays, imitative self-flagellation, sermons, alter calls, and now movies like Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ attest.
Modern preachers sometimes wax eloquent on this point, elaborating the tortures in graphic Hollywood detail, but the notion of redemptive suffering goes back to a time before Jesus worship: “Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live to righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed,” says the author of 1 Peter. His words repurpose a passage from the Hebrew Song of the Suffering Servant: “He was wounded for our transgressions . . . By his stripes we are healed.”
To this day, Catholic ethicists propose that ill people who are suffering unto death, for example because of terminal cancer, should be offered not aid in dying but rather a Christian understanding of the value of redemptive suffering. Mother Teresa exhorted one terminal patient to think of his pain as “the kiss of Jesus.”
Torture as the Shape of Eternity: The torture most taught by modern Evangelicals is neither redemptive nor terminal; it is infinite. Perdition, hades, Gehenna, the lake of fire, outer darkness, eternal torment—hell represents the most intense and most prolonged torture the Iron Age mind could conceive and the Medieval mind could elaborate.
The concept of eternal torture crystalized between the time the Hebrew Bible and New Testament were written, and early Christian writers elaborated this concept in their efforts to woo converts.
In some of these texts, torture is the fate of fallen angels. Have you come to torture us before the appointed time?, demons ask Jesus when he casts them out of men and into a herd of swine. (Matthew 8:28-31)
It is the fate of the wicked and the wealthy:
The rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. Luke 16:22-24
And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. (Revelation 9:5-6)
And lest we think that days or weeks or months or years of torture are excessive, we are assured that God himself disagrees:
The same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever. (Revelation 14:10-11)
By some accounts, witnessing the much-deserved torments of the damned will be one of the perks of heaven.
Good is what God does. “Be ye holy for I am holy” God says in the book of Leviticus. The author of 1 Peter echoes him: “Be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” For many American Christians, as recent polls show, this model of perfection includes torture, as long as it is committed by and for God’s chosen people.
Religious believers often claim that without a god everything is permissible. I tend to think that the opposite is true. Without gods we are guided, however imperfectly, by empathy, fairness, and truth seeking—impulses that are built into us by our evolution as social information specialists. These impulses are enforced by moral emotions like shame and guilt and by moral reasoning capabilities that emerge during childhood. Humanity’s shared moral core can be glimpsed in every one of our wisdom traditions, religious or secular. It is the reason that our wisdom traditions tend to converge on the Golden Rule. Do unto others doesn’t offer a neat answer in every situation, but it does offer a coherent objective.
By contrast, religious morality, dictated from on high, can be as contradictory or cruel as the god doing the dictation, or the culture that created that god. When god is the supernatural version of an Iron Age warlord, that’s when everything becomes possible—including torture. And God said, let there be torture. And there was torture. And it was good.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.