Judging our Judge
Is God a moral monster because he commanded the slaughter of whole groups of people, including children? Are the records in the Old Testament of God ordering the nation of Israel to mercilessly kill even innocent infants evidence and reason for disbelieving in him? It’s a stumbling block to many, and though I can’t remove it completely, I hope to be able to at least shrink it a little.
It’s totally reasonable (and that’s what I’m all about on this here blog) to expect the moral Lawgiver to act in line with his own morals. The objection voiced by many atheists that God is capricious and cruel, because of all the human destruction he decreed, is an important and understandable one. I’m sure many of them believe it to be an insurmountable one as well. If I am able to show that the stumbling block does not necessarily hinder, I believe I will also show that the positive arguments for the veracity of the Bible are worth considering.
Our sensibilities are such, and I believe rightly so, that just reading those first two lines draws a wince and stirs up misgivings we’d rather not address, if it doesn’t repel us completely. Is God more evil than a mass murderer? If we look to him as the standard for morality, does this mean he’s schizophrenic or that all that talk about love and compassion is just a ruse to get us to submit to him? I believe wholeheartedly that the answer to all the above questions is a resounding ‘No’ and that wrestling with them is well worth the effort and will strengthen our faith.
So, let’s look at the facts. The Old Testament is a record, in part, of God choosing a man to father a nation sanctified to himself as his representatives and agents of revelation and redemption. This man Abraham became the father of the Jews, to whom God revealed himself through great signs and through his law and promises, not for their redemption only but even more so for the redemption of the whole world through them.
Being chosen by God to be a people set apart was a blessing indeed, but it must have felt like a curse to the Israelites at times, because of the odd dietary and wardrobe restrictions, for one thing. But also because they were sometimes expected to carry out God’s judgment on the surrounding nations.
Let me back up a little. God’s perfect holiness demands that he punish sin. Not to do so would denigrate his character, and lead to more and greater sins. But the Old Testament picture of God is not one of a malicious tyrant, as some have charged, who brings the hammer down on every little failure to toe the line. It depicts a loving, compassionate, merciful, patient, forgiving God who gives second, third, and fourth chances and more. Yet sometimes the sin is so great that drastic measures are called for. I’ll come back to that one in a minute.
Other times the sin itself seems quite minor, like when Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offered “unauthorized fire” before the Lord and he struck them dead on the spot (Leviticus 10). In cases like this, God took drastic measures because the Jews needed to be shown in no uncertain terms that God means what he says and even if his commands seem unreasonable, we would do well to obey them. Because of their unique relationship with God as his representatives, he required more of them, which sometimes meant extreme discipline.
But, and this is crucial to keep in mind, a sentence of death is not an automatic one-way ticket to Hell. In God’s judicial system, capital punishment is often more instructive than destructive. Those who are left behind learn some very important lessons in a powerful way. And those who are taken away may go directly to Heaven where there is no pain or sorrow. Even a sin that warrants such divine retribution does not condemn one to Hell because salvation is and has always been by faith.
So, back to the sin so great. Whenever God commanded the Israelites to go in and completely destroy a city and everything and everyone found there, it was because there was wholesale wickedness in it. The sin was particularly abhorrent – the Canaanites were sacrificing their children to other gods – and everyone was complicit. Before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, he allowed Abraham to question him about his justice. “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?” (Genesis 18:24) God answered that he would not. And with each reduction in potential righteous persons, all the way down to ten, God said he would not destroy it for the sake of those few.
But what about the little ones? Surely there were innocent infants and babes in those cities who could not be said to have been complicit in the sins of their parents. It is not difficult to imagine and believe that God, in his mercy, wanted to spare them even the opportunity to sin and instead welcome them to his side for eternity. It is also conceivable that in the moment of their death, he divinely protected them from fear and pain.
There is much more that can and should be said about this. Will you check back for Part 2?
I know you are not going to approve my comment but I just wanted to tell you that your reasonable faith is completely unreasonable.
Put yourself in God’s position and ask yourself if you could even think of killing little kids for something that they have not done, and it was either their parents’ or even their neighbors’
Yes as you said it, it only requires faith to believe in such horror and wickedness
My God bless you and leave me alone
Sorry you feel that way, Mike. For your sake, I pray He doesn’t.
Ah, but an all knowing God knows what they will do.
Oh dear. I thought you’d be above censorship. You disappoint me.
Hmm, I’m not sure what I think yet. Will stay tuned. I appreciate your willingness to deal with these difficult questions.
And I applaud you for keeping an open mind. If we are seeking to understand something or someone quite beyond our own capabilities, we should not expect it to be easy.
Thank you for being willing to stay tuned.
Okay, let’s take Cain and Abel as an example.
When Cain gives the only thing that he is capable of giving—produce of the land—God is unhappy with him. This seems to make a mockery of God’s own commandment in Deuteronomy 16:17, “Every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which he hath given thee.”
This sends, to me, a message something like “Don’t walk on the grass. You will be fined for walking on the path.”
How can a person, or a god for that matter, be seen as just, when they instruct something, yet reject offerings made in the very spirit of that instruction?
Thank you for your comment, Daz. You demonstrate an important truth: if God is real and completely sovereign, as of course I believe he is, we are not to be a judge over him, as in declaring him guilty, but…that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to examine his actions in light of how he has revealed himself. Your objection is valid in that, according to your understanding, God is not acting in line with his character and morality.
But, as with anything, fairness dictates that we look at the whole picture, that we do our best to gather all the facts before we pronounce sentence. Perhaps you’ve heard this simple lesson in not jumping to conclusions: A man with a knife cuts open a pregnant woman’s belly. Cold-blooded, murderous, child stealer….or care-giving, compassionate, obstetrician? A better knowledge of the situation can dramatically change your assessment of it.
Here are some things about the story of Cain and Abel that might shed some light on God’s response. First of all, the Bible says that Cain brought “an offering” but Abel brought “the firstborn of his flock.” So God’s non-acceptance of Cain’s offering may have been because perhaps he neglected to bring the “first fruits” of his crop…the very best, as would have been God’s instruction.
It has also been suggested that because even back in the garden when Adam and Eve sinned and God “clothed them with skins” before sending them out – which required that an animal be sacrificed – and foretold a Savior (Gen. 3:15), that the offering spoken of was to be a sacrificed animal specifically. This is not clear from the text though.
What IS clear is that Cain was an angry, violent, jealous man. God’s rejection of his offering may simply have been in line with Proverbs 15:8 which says, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.” But look at how God gave Cain a chance to humble himself and repent, warning him of sin’s danger in verses 6 and 7 of Genesis 4. Yet Cain wanted nothing to do with that and sealed his own fate by murdering his brother.
Interesting discussion and interesting way of justifying God’s actions. I really read your blog three times trying to understand and read between the lines, trying to figure out if I have missed something. For me it is really hard to understand this. If my 2.5 year old girl gives me a drawing that she has made at school, one of her first drawings, which if any other person looks at, it would definitely look like chicken scratch with meaningless design, but since it comes from my kid, my own kid, I would welcome her initiative with warm heart and encourage her to draw even more. I have some of her drawings (really chicken scratch) in my office and I cherish them.
So for God to refuse his creation’s offer is like me screaming at my daughter that the drawing was not nice. Think how frustrated she would feel is her beloved father had made fun of her drawing and screamed at her because he “thinks” the drawings are awful!
“May have been.” “It has also been suggested.”
That’s my problem with apologetics in general, and the claim that the Bible is a clear guide to morals, etc, in particular. These things just aren’t clear-cut, and apologists need to constantly assign the best possible reading they can imagine—usually unsupported by the text—to the “maybes” and the “possiblies,” in order to show God and his followers as good. They/you appear to be starting with the assumption of a benevolent god, and then reading the text in such a way as to support that assumption.
But, okay, try this one: How about God purposefully hardening the Pharaoh’s heart to prevent him letting the Israelites go, and then punishing him for not letting them go?
Isn’t that “Don’t walk on the grass,” followed by forcing the Pharaoh onto the grass?
How about, for instance, the entire story of Job: a man tortured by his god, merely so that his god can vaingloriously boast of what an obedient man Job is?
Daz, I don’t believe it’s fair to charge that apologists’ arguments are basically unsupported guesses or wishful thinking. They/I do have good bases for our conclusions, but the fact that not everything is clear is not a valid reason to throw out the whole argument.
I will address the hardening of Pharoah’s heart in my follow up post. And I refer you to my two-part post On suffering, Job, and the goodness of God in answer to your last point.
No, but it should be a valid reason to hold off judgement until and unless clarity is found. Theists, on the other hand, seem to take the best possible judgement and proceed to base their entire moral viewpoint on it. (And, more worryingly, all too often, try to pass that viewpoint into law, so that people who haven’t reached the same conclusions from that scant evidence are forced to abide by it. Which is when you get people like me standing up to shout “Hold on a minute…”)
Oh, and isn’t the lack of clarity on the first-cause problem a major professed reason many theists throw out the big bang theory, and natural abiogenisis?
No, a lack of evidence is why we reject abiogenesis. And the Big Bang, which does have good supporting evidence, and is totally compatible with the Bible, is largely accepted.
Could you explain how big bang theory is compatible with the Genesis mythology please?
While the exact mechanism by which abiogenisis took place is unknown, and will probably stay that way, vast amounts of mutually supporting evidence point to it having happened. This is disputed by no biologist that I know of, with the exception of ID/Creationst kooks like Michael Behe.
But even if we accept it as merely a “leap,” all it calls for is the “sudden appearance” of some relatively simple molecules. Which seems much less of one to me than the idea that a fully-formed, complex and sentient being popped into existence from nowhere in order to create those molecules.
Genesis 1 might be said to convey truths about the creation in dramatic, story form. It was not meant to be s scientifically precise explanation but instead a creative way to describe the origin of the universe that was fundamentally accurate yet simple enough for anyone to understand. Whether the six “evenings and mornings” were six literal days is open to interpretation and Christians have different opinions on this.
That it fits with the Big Bang theory is attested by numerous scientists like the late astronomer, physicist and cosmologist Robert Jastrow. In his book God and the Astronomers, he opens by stating his personal agnosticism regarding “religious matters,” yet concludes with “Now we see how the astronomical evidence leads to a biblical view of the origin of the world. The details differ, but the essential elements in the astronomical and biblical accounts of Genesis are the same: the chain of events leading to man commenced suddenly and sharply at a definite moment in time, in a flash of light and energy.”1
British astrophysicist from the early 20th century Arthur Eddington, an expert on the theory of relativity, said this about the origin of the universe, “The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural.”2
And Nobel Prize winner for Physics Robert Wilson, co-discoverer of the Radiation Afterglow, said “Certainly there was something that set it off. Certainly, if you’re religious, I can’t think of a better theory of the origin of the universe to match with Genesis.”3
You can find an extensive list of scientists who are skeptical of Darwinism here:dissentfromdarwin.org/index.php
And the sudden appearance of “some relatively simple molecules” from literally nothing – no quantum field, no energy, no gravity…no thing – is quite remarkable in itself, but to suggest that somehow these molecules, without any outside direction, gathered themselves into even the simplest life forms, which are really not very simple at all, is simply incoherent.
And if the “fully-formed, complex and sentient being” you refer to is God, he did not pop into existence. He has no beginning…no cause. He is self-existent and eternal and his eternality is a rational and necessary conclusion. If you acknowledge that everything that came into being had a cause, and charge the theist with special pleading because we maintain that God had no beginning, where is the logic in the endless and pointless causal chain that must be traced if you begin asking, Who created God? Then who created him? And him…or it…or whatever?
Eternal existence is beyond limited human understanding. But is it logical and reasonable? Yes.
1 Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers (New York: Norton, 1978), 14
2 Arthur Eddington, The Expanding Universe (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 178
3 Robert Wilson, An interview with Fred Heeren; Show Me God: What the Message from Space Is Telling Us About God,(Day Star Publications, 2000)157
Hey, Daz…just letting you know I posted about hardening Pharaoh’s heart just now, in case you want to read it. Hope it helps a little.
I cannot edit my post so I’ll add this to my reply.
Why did God make understanding the bible so difficult and full of words and sentences that makes people like me mistrust it? Couldn’t he just make it plain Hebrew or whatever that language was?
Mike, I’m really glad you are continuing to engage in this discussion, and of course I understand your viewpoint as a father with a child he loves. But this story is not one of a willing gift offered in love. If your daughter hated you, and really, that was Cain’s attitude towards God, and only begrudgingly obeyed you, giving only the minimum required – no…not even that – would you be pleased with her?
And I feel your frustration about the difficulty in understanding much of the Bible. Do you suppose it might be easier if you were less opposed to what you read there?
“Do you suppose it might be easier if you were less opposed to what you read there?”
It is not a matter of agreeing or opposing… I am a physicist and I really hated quantum mechanics when I was introduced to it at the University and I thought that it would be a matter of time that some scientists would demonstrate its fallibility as it really does not make sense to our daily observed world. And as times went by this theory proved to be true and all our nowadays technology depend on it. There is a proof you can touch and feel and verify… Science is the Witch that even if you close your eyes, it is still there.
What I mean by this is that there is a proof to an idea that seems absurd and you cannot deny it.
Now the idea of a loving father extracted from a harsh content to read full of counter intuitive ideas with total zero proof is a heck of a hard idea for me to digest.
Mike I am intrigued by your appeal to quantum mechanics. What do you mean by “proof” and “verify?” What is your test for what is true?
You’ve said quantum mechanics don’t make sense to our everyday world. I accept that it describes physical behavior on the subatomic level, and Newtonian physics describes behavior in “our daily observed world.”
What doesn’t make sense to me in our daily observed world is how evil is real, objective, and compelling if there is no moral lawgiver. Or, for that matter, how the quantum vacuum, chance, and mathematical objects exist necessarily without cause.
I think this makes clear what Mike and I are trying to convey:
You actually set out the problem very well, and that is something a lot of people who defend God against the accusation of being evil don’t do. So thank you for being up front about the nature of the problem.
But, as I see it, you don’t then resolve the problem. Let us take the city of Sodom as an example. With the exception of Lott and his daughters, every Sodomite dies. All of them. Even the young. And they don’t die lightly, either; it’s not a instantaneous coronary where everyone dies instantly without suffering. The infant Sodomites are burned to death. They suffer. It doesn’t matter if the young and the innocent (which I assume you agree the very young are!) go to Heaven, the point is they were burned alive.
A painless death, and then the appropriate sorting of souls into heaven and hell I might be able to understand. But only if God is less than omnipotent, or less than just. Because at Sodom God judged and punished the young, apparently for no reason other than that He chose to blanket punish everyone because of the asks of the majority.
I’ll grant for the moment that we have freewill and God cherishes that above life itself and so doesn’t get in the way of freewill. I’ll also ignore the fact that killing everyone gets in the way of freewill. And so I’ll take the option of adjusting the behaviour of the Sodomites off of the table. He could have made the sinners infertile. He could have killed only the sinners, and commanded infertile but good parents from neighbouring cities to adopt the children left behind.
(Also, turned to pillar of salt for looking back to watch her city burn doesn’t fulfil any criteria of mercy of justice, to my mind. It fulfils the criteria of “I am a tyrant, obey me”)
Now, if I think that about the burning to death of a few children in Sodom, how do you think I feel about “except for any girl that has not known a man by laying with him, whom you may keep for yourself”, or Noah’s flood; drowning hundreds of thousands of blameless and helpless children, globally?
Allallt – I am not going to be able to answer all your questions. There are a few things I can and will say in response to your comments, but in the end, I have to admit that I cannot fully explain all of God’s actions that disturb our souls. Please see my latest post for more about that.
But none of God’s deeds as recorded in the Bible are new to me, yet they do not sway me from believing. Why is that, when they present such a stumbling block to many people? It is not because that’s just how I was raised and I don’t question it. I have looked into other faiths and have long wanted just to know the truth, whatever it is. It is because I have studied the Bible, not just what is in it but also how it was put together and why it can be trusted. And because the God revealed there and the truths contained therein provide the best explanation for my own existence and for why things are the way they are.
They don’t shipwreck my faith because there is more than sufficient evidence in the Bible, in creation, in my own moral sensibility, of a God that is good…perfectly, wholly good. And since such a God cannot also be evil, I know there must be a level of understanding that is yet beyond me.
But about Sodom…you are making several assumptions that, though reasonable, are just assumptions nonetheless. The city was evidently quite small, as Genesis 19:4 said that “all” the men of Sodom, “to the last man,” surrounded Lot’s house. So it is conceivable that there were no children, especially when you consider the homosexuality that the city was known for. But even if there were, you are assuming again that they suffered pain from the fire and brimstone. But couldn’t God have made their deaths as instantaneous as a coronary? Or, as I said in my post, divinely shield them from fear and pain?
I don’t see how “killing everyone gets in the way of freewill.” Having free will doesn’t mean we have absolute control over our lives and are not subject to God’s punishment.
And proposing things that God “could have” done to avoid killing any children is no more valid than proposing that he could have divinely shielded them from pain.
As for Lot’s wife, she was told, along with the others, not to look back “lest you be swept away.” She didn’t listen, didn’t believe, and likely did not want to leave. Genesis 19 records how Lot and his family “lingered” after first being warned to flee, such that the angels had to seize them to get them out. Her continued hesitancy and apparent lack of faith led to the consequence she was warned about.
I hope as you are examining the passages that cast doubt on God’s goodness, you give equal attention to ones that demonstrate it. Psalm 103 is one of my favorites.
The idea of God being a tyrant–which is the conclusion I’ve drawn, but I also think I’ve drawn it about a fictional being–doesn’t disprove God.
God doesn’t have to be -absolutely- anything. It doesn’t have to be that simple. And, in fact, it is not. “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5).
He is not wholly good. I don’t understand why people want to defend infanticide and genocide and religious persecution. Just accept that He is a jealous and capricious tyrant.
If you think this behaviour is “good”, by that circular reasoning of ‘anything God does is good’, then you are closing yourself off. God’s actions have caused more death and anguish than the acts of any human, and humans are down right evil.
I want to end on a point of agreement. I think morality is borne out of the phenomena of suffering and happiness: wellbeing. And to a certain extent you agree, because you reason that the killing of children is less evil if they were protected from suffering. We agree here, but I can’t get so far as to say that it is “good”. He killed the children. Apparently, you can.
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