Does the Bible promote or prevent a tolerant society?
One group says the Bible is a book about love, mercy, and kindness. They think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). Of Jesus telling us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). Of his well-known words, “Do not judge” (Matt. 7:1). Given all its emphasis on love, kindness, and putting God and others before yourself, how could anyone think the Bible prevents a tolerant society? Surely it calls us to something far more than mere tolerance—indeed, to active service, love, and compassion.
But for another group, the Bible is far from tolerant. There’s the conquest of Canaan. There’s Elijah killing Baal’s prophets by his own hand (1 Kings 18:40). And in the New Testament, Jesus talks often about hell. That’s not tolerant.
What then can we say in answer to this question?
1. Remember How Scripture Fits Together
If you interpret the Bible flatly, assuming it intends to present ideal models to be followed in all cases at all times by all people, you’ll fall into all sorts of egregious mistakes. People who object to this kind of answer immediately cry foul: “Well, hold on now, you’re just making it all a matter of interpretation, and who’s to say your interpretation is right?” But think with me for a moment.
What would it be like if we lived in a world that interpreted all our communications in exactly the same way? What if we interpreted a Charles Dickens novel as being the legally mandated pattern for behavior for all time, or a Hollywood horror movie as being a moral statement of how America wants people to behave? Or if we interpreted a piece of poetry the same way as flight instructions for a passenger jet (or worse, vice versa)? We would have chaos and confusion.
All the Bible is true and authoritative, but it’s not all the same. It’s all written to teach us, but some of its examples we’re meant to avoid; others we’re meant to copy.
2. Remember Who God Is and Who We Are
The Bible doesn’t teach that God tolerates everything. Would you want God to tolerate rape, incest, murder, or the Holocaust?
There is a day of judgment (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10). God is holy (1 Sam. 2:2; Isa. 6:3) and greatly to be feared (Deut. 6:24; Ps. 31:19). But judgment is his. We’re not the judges. And his judgment is eternal (Matt. 25:46; Mark 9:43). It’s a fearsome thought—“forever”—when applied to hell.
Regarding the conquests and butchery in the Old Testament, it’s vital to remember two things: who God is, and who we are. Moreover, the Israelites were also on the receiving end of invasion and exile as discipline for their idolatry. Deuteronomy 28 sets out blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience, the curses being the same judgment that befell Egypt and the nations Israel had conquered. Indeed, this prophecy was fulfilled in the exile, as the righteous kings and prophets of the time understood (2 Kings 22:13; Jer. 25).
3. Remember the Difference Between Tolerance and Relativism
The idea that all truth is only relatively true—depending on your perspective, upbringing, and personality—is practically a universal doctrine of our secular age. Many think relativism prevents people from judging each other and therefore prevents intolerance. This is ironic, because few doctrines have proved more intolerant than the doctrine that everything is relative.
Few doctrines have proved more intolerant than the doctrine that everything is relative.
True tolerance depends on a contrary notion. Tolerance says, “I disagree with what you’re saying, but I allow you the right to say it.” But relativism says, “What you are arguing for is only relatively true, so you and I already agree.” Relativism is intrinsically intolerant because it rejects right and wrong—and therefore any need for toleration.
4. Remember Where Tolerance Came From
The Roman Empire had a version of relativistic tolerance. Only religions that worshiped the emperor and his gods were tolerated. That didn’t play out too well for many—including the Christians who were tortured and killed for refusing to say, “Caesar is Lord.” Medieval Christendom then exerted massive energy attempting to pick up the pieces after the Roman Empire fell. The church aligned closely with various military powers and leaders to protect the church and civilization. That strategy sullied the church through close association with military action.
Tolerance is a specifically Christian idea.
The Protestant Reformers sought to return the church to the Scriptures. In doing so, they aligned themselves with various kings and princes to protect the church against the attacks of what remained of the Holy Roman Empire and the pope. Modern tolerance was birthed in Protestant reflection on this history through the work of John Locke and Roger Williams, among others. This development caused people to ask whether it’s possible to create a society where freedom of religious is tolerated. That kind of society was increasingly practiced in England—where Huguenots and other religious minorities, including Jews, fled to London and then America for safety.
Tolerance is a specifically Christian idea. At its basis is the belief that “the truth will come out.” It was never intended to prevent public exercise of religious beliefs, nor advocacy for Christian morality in the public realm.
Of course, the Bible calls us to do far more than merely tolerate our neighbors. We’re called to love them.
Nevertheless, it is important to understand that true tolerance is a deeply Christian idea, derived from principles in God’s Word.