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?