A Christian reader named Paul wrotes to me from New Zealand with the following common question. With permission, I am posting his question and my answer on my blog.
St. Paul writes:
A few months ago I discovered your blog via the Biologos website. It has been a real encouragement for me to read your articles and I can honestly say that I enjoyed everything that I've read.
Anyway, a Church friend and I have been meeting up every few weeks to have discussions about tricky issues in Christianity and something that has come up (and was always bound to...) is the depictions of God in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, God is often depicted as acting violently and sometimes in ways that can seem barbaric. For example, God gives instructions for the Israelites to kill people. Likewise, an atheist friend of mine was shocked when I referred to God as "just" because he had just read about the exodus and the plagues.
The issue for me is not that God doesn't have a right to judge/ punish guilty people (for example the Canaanites), but the fact that innocent people are also involved in some of these situations. For example children and babies. In some verses they seem to be explicitly mentioned (i.e. 1 Samuel 15:3). I realise this is only a single example, but there are one or two other examples that are quite easy to find.
The most common response of Christians seems to be that God created all of us and therefore He can do whatever He wants. I agree that God is sovereign, but these actions seem inconsistent with the nature of God revealed clearly in Jesus.
I have some ideas about what to make of it all, but I thought that I would ask you what you make of these sorts of verses? I realise that you must be very busy (and you don't know me!) so please don't feel obligated to reply! However, if you have the time and the inclination I would really appreciate it.
This is a tricky problem in theology, isn't it! But it isn't just an Old Testament vs. New Testament thing. The following verses are all God speaking in the Old Testament:
- "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Ex. 20:5-6)
- "My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out." [including the children, as other parts of Scripture make clear] (Ex. 23:23)
- "Fathers are not to be put to death for their children or children for their fathers; each person will be put to death for his own sin. Do not deny justice to a foreigner or fatherless child, and do not take a widow's garment as security. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. Therefore I am commanding you to do this." (Deut. 24:16-18)
- "Yet you ask, 'Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?' Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The one who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them." (Ezekiel 18:19-20)
The tension lies within the pages of Hebrew Scripture itself. We have to understand in what sense all of these Scriptures can be true.
The Righteousness of God
Let me start by demolishing the idea that "God created all of us and therefore He can do whatever He wants." If this were true, there would be no meaning in saying that God is just and righteous in how he treats us. It wouldn't allow us to predict anything whatsoever about what he would do. Yet St. Abraham—our father in faith—pleads for Sodom and Gommorah by asking: "Far be it from you to do such a thing--to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen. 18:25). God does not respond by saying "Whatever I do is just by definition". Rather, he grants Abraham's requests, and goes beyond them to ensure that, in this case, the innocent are not punished alongside the guilty. The fact that God is just, implies that there are some things which he won't do—because they are unfair.
Because of this, I reject any "divine command theory" in which morality is simply a matter of what God happens to arbitrarily command. No, morality is rooted in God's own character, in his essential and immutable goodness and love!
As St. Geroge MacDonald wrote:
If you say, That may be right of God to do which it would not be right of man to do, I answer, Yes, because the relation of the maker to his creatures is very different from the relation of one of those creatures to another, and he has therefore duties toward his creatures requiring of him what no man would have the right to do to his fellow-man; but he can have no duty that is not both just and merciful. More is required of the maker, by his own act of creation, than can be required of men. More and higher justice and righteousness is required of him by himself, the Truth;--greater nobleness, more penetrating sympathy; and nothing but what, if an honest man understood it, he would say was right. If it be a thing man cannot understand, then man can say nothing as to whether it is right or wrong. He cannot even know that God does it, when the it is unintelligible to him. What he calls it may be but the smallest facet of a composite action. His part is silence. (Unspoken Sermons)
St. MacDonald himself was famously unwilling to accept any doctrine (however much theologians might claim it was supported by Scripture) that would paint God's character in a bad light. I myself take a more conservative point of view regarding the reliability of Scripture, but this does not change the fact that, as I wrote in another post:
The doctrine that God is good is more fundamental even than the doctrine that the Scriptures are inspired. So that if it were necessary to choose between them (which it is not!) one should certainly pick the former over the latter. This is the faith of Abraham, who lived before any part of our current Bible was written.
Even Abraham, when he God asked him to sacrifice his son Isaac, started to obey God only because he believed that God intended it for good. As the New Testament interprets the story:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
And this interpetation can be shown to be reasonable in the original text based on Abraham's own words:
He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (Genesis 22:5, emphasis added)
In other words, Abraham believed that Isaac would somehow be returned to him, even after having been sacrificed. He made the decision to interpret even God's most terrible command in a way that was consistent with his goodness, and faithfulness to his promises. In this way he is a microcosm of our decision, whether to obey God even when it may (falsely) appear that he is acting malevolently towards us, or another person.
Furthermore, as Christians, we interpret the entire Bible (as well as all the evil that appears in the world) in light of the love which Jesus showed on the Cross. Jesus is the highest revelation from God, the place where God's character becomes most clear. Every other place in the Bible (especially the Old Testament, where God was revealing himself in a more imperfect way to people at a lower stage of spiritual development) must be interpreted in light of this.
So in light of all this, what do we make of passages in which, e.g. God orders the genocide of various ancient Caananite tribes?
Wrestling with the text in silence is one possible answer, as St. MacDonald suggests above. But I think there are at least a few things that can be said, from our own limited human perspective. (If nothing else, we can always remind ourselves just how limited our own perspective must be, in comparison with that of God, who sees everything!) As the sovereign Lord who loves humankind, God's orders to kill simply cannot be regarded as being at all similar to that of a human murderer. This is true for at least four reasons:
I. God has rightful authority over human life, humans do not
God IS the ruler of the universe. This gives him the authority to make decisions which ordinary human beings are not allowed to make. Just like an earthly Governor or Judge has authority to do some things which ordinary citizens don't have the right to do, God has the authority to do anything, i.e. any type of act. For example, everything belongs to God, so when he takes things from us it is not stealing, but doing what he likes with his own property. Similarly, if God kills people it is not murder, because our lives belong to him (Deut. 32:39).
(This does not, I think contradict the point of the previous section, in which I rejected the theory in which morality reduces to arbitrary divine commands. The scope of authority is different from how one uses that authority. God has the authority to do anything, precisely because, since he is perfectly good, he never abuses this authority, but only does what is just and right.)
Note that, as the ruler of the universe God actually kills everyone. All people are mortal, some of them die young, and God is responsible for this state of affairs. Sometimes he does it miraculously in order to make a special point, but more often it he causes it to happen naturally. Before I ask whether I can trust a God who killed the Caananite children, I first need to ask whether I can trust a God who will kill ME. As Christians, we trust that God is using death as a tool in order to turn us into the people he wants us to become. Partly, we trust him because he came to Earth as Jesus, and died for us on the Cross, so he isn't asking us to suffer anything which he hasn't gone through himself.
II. God is always benevolent, human killers are not
God's motivations for killing people are not the same as that of a human murderer. Most of the time, people kill other people out of hatred, because they want something bad to happen to them, or because they don't care about them. But God solemnly swears to us that this is not why he does it. "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live" (Ezekiel 33:11)
To illustrate this: Suppose that a baby is very sick and a surgeon cuts his chest open in order to operate on his heart and save his life. Now the surgeon's act of cutting open the baby cannot be regarded as being in the same moral world as if he were a Nazi, cutting open the baby's chest cavity out of callous indifference. It is in fact totally the opposite because it is done with the intention of healing, rather than harming, the innocent.
Now Jesus is "the Resurrection and the Life" (John 11:25). So when he chooses to take a child to himself (ending its earthly life), this is because he is able to give it a heavenly life which is far superior to anything it would have on Earth, in the bosom of the Father who cares for him. If we have faith in God, then we must believe that whenever he takes the life of an innocent person, he is much more like the diligent surgeon, then he is anything like the Nazi. In other words, we believe that he is acting for the good of the person concerned.
Since we on this side of the curtain of death and can only speculate about what is on the other side, we do not have any such authority over the lives of our felow human beings. God expects us to obey the commandment "Do not murder", which means that, apart from exceptional situations (just war, punishment for crime, etc) we are not to kill other human beings. However, this situation does not obtain in biblical situations where God himself orders people to kill, since there God is exercising his own authority over life and death, and is using the humans involved only as his instruments.
III. God is incorruptible, humans are not
God is unchangable. If you or I killed somebody, we would become more violent and hateful people who would be more likely to kill someone else. Whereas God's character, being eternal, cannot be corrupted. Paradoxically, this means that a perfectly good being may be more likely than a good human to do bad things in order to produce good consequences. Unlike us, he doesn't need to worry about his motivations being wrong, or it producing bad habits of character.
(This consideration does not apply completely to cases in which, rather than taking a human life himself, God orders another person to do it; since that human being could certainly be norally corrupted. In this case, it would have been important to make sure that the humans are acting solely based on obedience to God's command, and not for the sake of the benefits they might receive. This may be why God strictly commanded the Israelites not to take any plunder from the Canaanite cities they conquered—a rule that was enforced in Joshua 7—in order to make it clear that they were acting as agents of divine wrath on those cities, and not for personally selfish reasons.)
IV. God has complete knowledge, humans do not
God is omniscient, so he knows when a group of people have become so wicked that it would be bad for them, and for their children, and for the rest of the world, if they remain alive to keep sinning. For example, the Canaanites sacrificed their children as part of their religion, and if God hadn't put an end to them, we might still be doing that today. It may seem ironic that God also ordered that their innocent children be killed, but remember that they would not have remained innocent if they had been able to come to maturity. Instead they went to Heaven, which might not have been possible if they had been corrupted by the religion of their parents.
We humans, on the other hand, have a very limited ability to guess the future. Therefore no human being could ethically order a genocide on his own cognizance, because we are never really in a good position to be morally certain that the speculative goods arising from the elimination of a culture outweigh the immediate and obvious evils involved in killing a large cultural group. Furthermore any such decision would almost certainly be tainted by prejudice and racism, rather than being an act of impartial justice.
Unlike humans, God is free from such favoritism (Acts 10:34), and only acts in ways that he knows are just and merciful (even if his reasons may sometimes be obscure to us).
Group vs. Individual Justice
This brings us back to the group justice vs. individual justice question. Ultimately, I believe God is committed to bring justice and vindication to every innocent person, including those who were victims of bad circumstances. On the other hand, God has also set up the world in such a way that our good or bad actions can have an effect on other people: if we sin against others, they are harmed, and can be tempted either to hate or to imitate us. This is especially true in the case of our parents, who bring us into being and choose what enviornment we will come to maturity in. Because of this strong moral influence, it is inevitable that to some extent our moral and cultural condition is inherited from others. Alcoholic parents often have alcoholic children. We may resist this influence and become different people than our parents, but there is a correlation which cannot be entirely removed.
As a result, in his role as Judge of the Earth, Guardian of Human Culture and Supervisor of the Gene Pool, God must necessarily engage in some amount of group justice as well as individual justice, because that is the nature of how humans propagate ourselves (and our ideas). He does not, however, delegate this authority to us. The ordinary Israelite judicial system was based strictly on individual actions (although even there, indirect punishment of others is inevitable: see the story in 2 Samuel 14:6-7 for an example). Apart from this, the Israelites were also commanded to exterminate certain people groups, but had no authority to decide which ones—God provided them with a specific and limited list.
In the end, God will provide us all with individual justice. But I think that once everything is revealed, our moral interdependence will prove to have been a means of grace. If no innocent people ever suffered punishment for guilty people, then Christ could not have saved us, and we would be dead in our sins. If we ourselves struggle, if sins have been transmitted to us by others, or if the punishment of others has ruined our lives as well, then what?
I think that by forgiving our forbears, and by seeking God's help for our problems, we become imitators of Jesus, as St. Peter says:
For you were called to this,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example,
so that you should follow in His steps.
He did not commit sin,
and no deceit was found in His mouth;
when He was reviled,
He did not revile in return;
when He was suffering,
He did not threaten
but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly.
He Himself bore our sins
in His body on the tree,
so that, having died to sins,
we might live for righteousness;
you have been healed by His wounds.
For you were like sheep going astray,
but you have now returned
to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1 Peter 2:21-25)
If Christ—the Innocent One—suffered for the sins of others and brought about the redemption of the world, then all of us who in lighter measure bear the sin of others, will also recieve through Christ this redemption. From the the infants killed by St. Joshua for the sins of the guilty Canaanites, to the infants killed by wicked Herod in place of the innocent Christ-child, everyone who has a share in the sufferings of Christ will also rise with him in eternal glory. This is both a justice and a mercy beyond our comprehension.
[Note: I expanded this blog post significantly on Aug 16, 2021.
Also, there are a lot of people who have read this post and comment on it solely for purposes of expressing their anger against the God of the Bible, or that anyone could believe in such a Deity. Most of these comments don't engage in any substantive way with the things I've written. If you wish to make an argument against this blog post, please make sure to re-read the four sections labelled I-IV and then make sure that what you are saying is actually responsive what I've written. Thanks!—AW]