I know this topic has been beaten to death by atheists, but I have to deal with it, if only because it reveals something very interesting about the psychology of Christian fundamentalists.
Slavery is one of the most evil and horrific things the human race has ever done to itself. Just try to imagine the pain, hunger, and sadness felt by the average slave on a daily basis.
It’s so inhumane. Of course, most slave-owners don’t think of their slaves as humans. This is absurd, but even if they weren’t human, I still don’t know how anyone could inflict so much pain on another living being. And yet, slavery has existed for all of recorded history, even to this very day.
According to Christians, God is not only a perfectly moral being, he is the foundation of all morality. If that is true, then God must strongly oppose slavery in every form. And yet, his book doesn’t contain a single verse that forbids slavery.
If anything, the Christian Bible is pro-slavery.
If you’re an atheist, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re a Christian, you’re probably feeling very defensive. Hear me out, and consider the following analogy.
The Psychology of Fundamentalists
Have you ever read a self-help book? Most of us have gotten sucked into the self-help world at one point or another. You find you aren’t quite satisfied with your life. You want to lose weight, make more money, have more friends, be more assertive, find your soul mate, or any number of things.
Then one day, you learn about some self-help guru who seems to have all the answers. You watch a bunch of videos and feel really inspired, so you decide to check out the guru’s book on Amazon. The reviews are mostly positive, so you excitedly order it.
As soon as the book arrives, you devour each chapter. This is what I’ve been looking for, you think to yourself. This book is gonna help me get my life on track. You couldn’t be happier.
Then, about halfway through the book, you notice a very strange passage. It says, “If you own slaves, it’s okay to beat them as long as you don’t beat them so hard that they die. If they can get back to work in a day or two, then it’s okay.”
Most people would stop reading and think, What the hell!? How could anyone endorse slavery in this day and age? And say it’s okay to beat them? What kind of self-help book is this?
A passage like that would make you call the whole book into question. If the author is foolish enough to believe that slavery is okay, then how true is the rest of the book?
That would be a normal reaction.
Well, as you may already know, there is a very similar passage in the Old Testament. The passage is Exodus 21:20-21, and it says,
Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”
And yet, when Christians read this passage, most of them just shrug it off and keep reading. I know because I was one of them.
I don’t remember the exact moment when I first read this passage, but I know I read it because I read the entire Bible from start to finish several times (King James and New International).
The fact that I don’t remember reading Exodus 21:20-21 means it must not have stood out to me. It must not have occurred to me that a perfectly moral god shouldn’t be telling his people it’s okay to own slaves and beat them. Apparently, I just kept on reading without even pausing.
It’s like my brain just blocked it out, or I have a type of selective amnesia. (If you know of a better term for this phenomenon, please leave a comment and let me know.)
This is usually what happens when Christian fundamentalists read the Bible. They accept every verse without question, no matter how heinous.
For every Christian who has read this passage and shrugged it off, there are many more who don’t even know about it. There are some who have gone to church for decades without hearing it, and no wonder–preachers and Sunday school teachers don’t want to talk about slavery in the Bible. It’s not a good look.
There are some Christians who vehemently defend Exodus 21:20-21. The most common defense is that it wasn’t slavery in the modern sense of the word (e.g. transatlantic slave trade). Rather, it was indentured servitude. Whereas slaves are imprisoned for as long as the owner wants and get no benefit out of it, indentured servants can eventually earn a piece of land or pay off a debt and be set free.
I’ll grant that indentured servitude is not the same as slavery (although I should point out that indentured servitude was banned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a form of slavery), but let’s not forget what Exodus 21:20-21 says: that you can beat your “indentured servants” so badly that it takes them a day or two to recover!
Slaves or indentured servants–either way, that is evil. What kind of perfectly moral being would approve this?
And besides, I’m still not convinced the author of Exodus was talking about indentured servants. After all, he says at the end of verse 21 that the person in question “is their property.” Servants are not property; slaves are.
Pro-Slavery Bible Verses in the Old Testament
Here are some more Bible verses that seem to endorse slavery. Exodus 21:2-6 says,
If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.
But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.”
So if you buy a slave and he has a wife, then when his six years of slavery are over, he can leave and take his wife with him. But if you give your slave a wife, then when his six years of slavery are over, he is not allowed to take her with him when he leaves. If he wants to stay with his wife and children, he must agree to be your slave forever.
That’s just cruel. Some Christian apologists point out that this only lasts for six years and that afterward, the slave is free to leave.
First of all, slavery is still evil whether it lasts six years or a lifetime (and the six-year rule only applied to Hebrews; gentiles had to remain slaves for life).
And second, if my wife and children were enslaved and the only way I could stay with them was to allow myself to be enslaved for life, I would do it. Would I be free to leave in that scenario? Technically, yes, but that is not what most people mean by freedom.
Let’s move on to Leviticus. Check out chapter 25:39-43:
If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.”
Okay, I admit that this is not slavery; it’s indentured servitude. It even says not to “rule over them ruthlessly,” so that’s good. But wait, let’s keep reading. Here are verses 44 through 46:
Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.”
Aha! So it seems only Israelites get special treatment. Gentiles are pieces of property to be bought and sold. That is not indentured servitude.
I’ve heard some apologists claim that God is obviously against slavery because, in Exodus 12, he frees the Israelites from their enslavement in Egypt. Right, he frees the Israelites. But as we can see here in Leviticus 25:44-46, he’s only against slavery of his own people. He doesn’t seem to care about the enslavement of gentiles at all.
Let’s move on to another book. Numbers 31:17-18:
Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”
It’s pretty obvious that this is sex slavery. Just imagine it: A young girl witnesses her entire family murdered, and then she is kidnapped and forced to become one of the murderers’ wives. This is what God’s chosen people used to do?
Here’s another horrific passage. Deuteronomy 20:10-14 says,
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies.”
So if you march up to a city and the people surrender, you can take them as slaves. If they don’t surrender, then after you’re done killing all the men, you can take the women and children as slaves? Sounds like more sex slavery to me.
Am I missing something here? In what world could this be considered indentured servitude?
God Had To End Slavery Gradually?
Another apologetic I’ve heard is that since slavery was normal and acceptable back then, God couldn’t simply abolish it all at once.
The people wouldn’t accept a world without slavery, and the economy would have completely collapsed. Plus, they didn’t have social safety nets back then. Poor people needed to be able to sell themselves into slavery so they could at least put a roof over their heads. So instead, God chose to end slavery very very slowly, over thousands of years.
But wait a minute, we’re talking about God here. If God’s booming voice came down from Heaven and declared, “Slavery is immoral and I command you to free all of your slaves,” the people wouldn’t accept that? Really?
And the economy? Give me a break. God has the power the create the universe, but he doesn’t have the power to keep an economy afloat without slaves? And as for social safety nets, couldn’t God just command the Israelites to take care of the poor and destitute?
If God is omnipotent, I think he could have found a way to end slavery back then and not let it continue for another three millennia.
A New Covenant?
The most common response Christians give to slavery in the Bible is, “But that’s the Old Testament. We’re under a New Covenant now.”
The idea here is that when Jesus came, he created a new set of rules that apply to Christians. The old rules only applied to Hebrews, so Christians don’t have to follow all of them.
The problem here is, how do you decide which Old Testament laws to follow and which ones to ignore? Obviously, Christians want to follow the 10 commandments, but they’re not interested in the laws that prohibit eating shellfish or wearing mixed fabrics. But if they can ignore those two, why can’t they ignore the 10 commandments as well?
If there’s no clear distinction between which Old Testament laws to follow and which to ignore, then Christians are obviously just cherry picking the verses they like and ignoring the verses they don’t.
Here’s another response to the “new covenant” apologetic, and it’s a thought experiment: If you were Jewish, and you could travel back in time and live with the Israelites in the time of Moses, and you saw your fellow Israelites buying and selling people, would you be okay with it?
If your answer is yes, then you are morally bankrupt. If your answer is no, then you are morally superior to your god. Either way, you have a problem. (That uncomfortable feeling you have is called cognitive dissonance.)
Pro-Slavery Bible Verses in the New Testament
Even if I were to accept the argument that we’re under a New Covenant, Christian apologists still have to explain all the New Testament verses that seem to endorse slavery. There are several of them.
First, let’s check out Ephesians 6:5:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”
Here’s a similar verse. Colossians 3:22 says,
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”
Here’s another. 1 Timothy 6:1:
All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered.”
And another. 1 Peter 2:18:
Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
And yet another. Titus 2:9-10:
Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”
Here’s an idea. Instead of commanding slaves to obey their owners, the Bible should tell them to try to escape from their owners. Wouldn’t that be better? When something immoral is happening, we should try to stop it, not look the other way.
Imagine if Abraham Lincoln had said, “Slavery is perfectly legal, so you should keep obeying your owners.” If the New Testament is the word of God, then this is essentially what God is saying in the verses above.
Despite all of these verses that clearly endorse slavery, Christians insist that these verses actually led to the end of slavery. Here is their reasoning.
Christianity arose in a world where slavery was commonplace, so if God had commanded slaves to rebel and run away, it would have caused a violent revolution that would have failed miserably, with thousands of slaves dying in the process.
So instead, God commanded the slaves to be obedient. Somehow, this wore down many Christian slave owners who eventually decided to free their slaves. And as Titus 2:10 explains, many non-Christian slave owners would become Christians thanks to the positive example set by their slaves.
And over time, the Christian doctrine that we are all God’s children led to the eventual abolishment of slavery… nearly two thousand years later.
Is this the best God can do?
If rebelling against slave owners would lead to a violent revolution that ultimately fails, why couldn’t God simply aid their revolution and ensure their victory? He could have done this without making it obvious that he was intervening, ensuring that he could continue hiding while pulling strings from behind the curtain.
But no, apparently the best solution was one that would take almost two thousand years to work! If you just think about that for a moment, you can see how ridiculous it is. By Christians’ own descriptions, their god is weak and ineffective.
“Anti-Slavery” Bible Verses in the New Testament
Some Christians will point to 1 Corinthians 7:21-22 which says,
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.”
Paul clearly tells slaves to free themselves… if they can. And the way he says it is as an afterthought. He doesn’t tell them to run away. Rather, he seems to suggest that they try to earn their freedom within the confines of the law. So for example, if your six-year contract with your slaveowner is up, you should go free instead of renewing your contract.
If I’m wrong and Paul meant for slaves to run away, then why wasn’t he more explicit about it? And wouldn’t that contradict all his other writings about obeying slavemasters?
There’s one more passage I should mention: the book of Philemon. It’s a letter from Paul to Philemon, a Christian whose slave ran away.
Paul met this slave, named Onesimus, and befriended him. Onesimus became a Christian and hung out with Paul and his friends for a while. Then one day, Paul sent Onesimus back to his owner with a letter encouraging Philemon to embrace Onesimus as a brother in Christ rather than as a slave.
Christians say, See, Paul told a slave owner to free a slave, so the Bible is against slavery.
But wait a minute, where in that book does Paul order Philemon to free Onesimus? If you actually read it, you’ll notice that Paul doesn’t order Philemon to free his slave; rather, he strongly encourages him to do it.
It doesn’t sound like Paul is against slavery at all. Rather, he is against slavery for one particular person, Onesimus, because he became friends with him. He doesn’t seem to care at all about the countless slaves he hasn’t befriended.
If God exists, he could have used Paul to explain the evils of slavery, but apparently, he chose to remain silent on the matter.
To be fair, there is one passage that does appear to condemn slave traders. 1 Timothy 1:9-10 says,
We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”
Paul is talking about various types of sinners, and he includes slave traders in with all the others. But notice that this passage says slave traders, not slaveowners. The difference is that slave traders would actually capture people and sell them into slavery, whereas slaveowners merely bought them.
It seems that Paul is against people capturing slaves, but he’s not against people selling themselves into slavery.
So yes, of the many Bible verses that seem to endorse slavery, there is one–just one–that says slave traders are bad. And again, the way it’s written is as an afterthought. Why make this point so small and easy to overlook while writing lots of verses about the importance of obeying slaveowners?
It seems that for Paul, condemning slave traders wasn’t as big of a priority as telling slaves to be obedient.
And notice that he’s still not condemning slavery itself, just the manner in which slaves are acquired. (And let’s not forget Old Testament verses like Numbers 31:17-18 and Deuteronomy 20:10-14 where God allows the Israelites to capture sex slaves. Seems like a contradiction to me. If slave trading is wrong, why did God allow his own people to do it?)
Any civilized person should realize that people should not be allowed to sell themselves into slavery. Why? Because they might be doing it out of desperation for food and shelter, or the would-be owner might be threatening them into it.
To make sure that never happens, slavery should be banned across the board. Surely God must have realized this, right?
If God Exists, He Is Complicit
Early in America’s history, Christian slaveholders used the Bible to justify slavery. If God wrote or inspired the Bible, he made it very easy for them to do this.
If God is omniscient, then he must have known this would happen. And knowing this, he could have written the Bible differently. But he didn’t, and that makes him complicit.
I could easily make the Bible a much better book. All I’d have to do is remove the passages about slavery mentioned above and add an eleventh commandment that says,
Thou shalt not own another human as property.”
Then I would expand on the commandment by explaining that people of all languages and skin colors are equally human, that way slaveowners couldn’t find a loophole by declaring other races non-human.
If God had done this, he could have ended the practice of slavery centuries sooner and prevented the suffering of millions of innocent people.
So why didn’t he?
Because the Bible wasn’t written by God. It was written by racists who didn’t think slavery was immoral.
Once you realize that, you’ll stop shrugging off passages like Exodus 21:20-21 and see the Bible for what it is: just another ancient religious book filled with legends, superstitions, and terrible ideas.