Is God a moral monster?
Richard Dawkins calls the God of the Bible a “moral monster”. For example, Dawkins calls God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as “shameful” and amounting to “child abuse and intimidation.” He describes the murder of the Canaanites as “ethnic cleansing” in which “bloodthirsty massacres” were carried out with “a xenophobic taste”. He says Joshua’s destruction of Jericho is “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland or Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Kurds.” Conclusion? “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most disagreeable character of all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a mean, unfair and ruthless control freak; a vindictive and bloodthirsty ethnic cleaner; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticide, genocidal, filicidal bully, pestilential, megalomaniac, sadomasochistic, capricious and malicious. “
So, is the God of the Bible a moral monster?
When you read the Bible and find examples of seemingly harsh punishments, the call to sacrifice and even the mass slaughter of entire nations – which, I might add, you find – do we still have a good and loving God in our hands? ? Or do we have a terribly evil being to reject, and certainly not to believe?
Let’s just look at one of the concerns about the God of the Bible, arguably the most discussed: the slaughter of the Canaanites. This is what some have called the most difficult and bloody part of the Bible, the one that on the surface is the most ethically troubling. It is found in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. The context is critical. God led the people of Israel out of slavery and out of Egypt. He not only formed them into a new people, a new nation, but he also took them to a new land which would become known as the Promised Land. But it wasn’t just given to them. They had to take it, own it, and sometimes conquer it. And that is what brings us to one of the bloodiest scenes in the Bible: the slaughter of the Canaanites by the Israelites at the direction of God Himself. There are several places where this is referenced in the Bible. Here is a general description:
“When you approach a city to attack it, you must first offer its inhabitants conditions of peace. If they agree to your terms and open the doors for you, then everyone inside will serve you as forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the city. When the Lord your God hands over the city to you, use your swords to kill all the men in the city. But you can keep all the women, children, cattle, and other spoils to yourself. You can profit from the spoils of your enemies that the Lord your God has given you. ” (Deuteronomy 20: 10-14, NLT)
(Before continuing, let me add that it was not a rape and pillage license. It was later clarified that if an Israelite took one of these women, it meant that he was going to have to take her as a bride and treat her with all the respect and decorum that came with that marriage. Now let’s continue reading.)
“But these instructions apply only to remote towns, not to towns of the nations of the land you enter. In these cities which the Lord your God gives you as a special possession, destroy everything that lives. You must completely destroy?? the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God commanded you. This will prevent the locals from teaching you to imitate their hateful customs in worshiping their gods, which would cause you to sin deeply against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20: 15-18, NLT)
So was it indiscriminate massacre, ethnic cleansing like Hitler and the Jewish Holocaust, or Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of Kurds? Something that deserves not only universal condemnation, but a complete rejection of the God of the Bible? Or is there something more here?
First, it was more than just an invasion or conquest. It was God’s planned punishment of the people of Canaan for their ways, long in preparation and to come. Yes, God was driving them out of the land to give it to the people of Israel. But this displacement came because of their fierce, habitual and unrepentant wickedness. And I mean nasty. The Canaanites were marked by the worst possible aspects of slavery, religious prostitution, and sexual cults. (Not that there is anything good about slavery, but consider taking slavery to the darkest place possible.) Scholars have called the Canaanite cult religion the most sexually depraved of all. the old world. They had engaged in all kinds of sexual depravity, including incest and even bestiality. At worst, their orgiastic idol worship even included human sacrifices, both children and adults. There are images of their cult sexual practice of bathing in blood.
The Bible says God tolerated this for over 400 years. Their wickedness kept increasing and God continued to endure it. Four hundred years of restraint and patience. Why? Because no matter what you’ve heard, judgment is always His last resort. But the wickedness reached a point where the Scriptures speak of how God could not stand it any longer and He vomited them out of His mouth (see Genesis 15:16 and Leviticus 18: 24-30). So what comes out of the Bible is not God’s righteous acts, but how merciful He is. By withholding. But it was a time when God determined that there was no other recourse but divine judgment.
A second point to remember is that it was a divine action, ordered by God. In other words, it was God’s call to be made. Not just the chastisement, but the possession of the land — who He was going to give that land to. Israel did not have an inherent right to the land. Neither can the Canaanites. But God made it. He could give it to whomever He wanted. So if someone says, “I cannot believe that God cast out the Canaanites and gave their land,” an appropriate response is, “What do you mean by ‘their land’? It was the land of God. He did it. He could do whatever he wanted with it. Israel would never have been justified in doing this if God had not commanded it. But God made it. So don’t think of it as a simple invasion of one nation by another. Or a strong army beating a weaker army, as if strength or desire gives anyone the right to be aggressive. You will never find it in the Bible. It was God saying, “I tell you, this land is now yours. It is not theirs.
But there is a third observation to be made here, and it is the order to “destroy all living things” in cities. When you read something like this, it seems overdone and unnecessary even for divine judgment. But the command was for the cities, not for the peripheral regions. This is a critical point. In the culture of the ancient Near East, most people lived in outlying areas, not in cities. The towns were military fortifications for soldiers and military officers. This is not where the women and children, farmers and workers lived. So in terms of war, it was not about targeting civilians. Moreover, in the old language of the time, even the phrase about destroying everyone in the city was common hyperbole. It wasn’t about literally taking every life, but about making sure the war was won, the enemy defeated, the task done. Think about how we talk about a sports team these days that knocked down their opponent, butchered them or wiped them out. It is a form of rhetoric. When you study the language of ancient Near Eastern cultures, it was very common. They would talk about how they destroyed each man and then talk later about what they were going to do with their survivors. In other words, destroying everything meant winning decisively, not literally destroying everything. It was more about purifying than purging.
What brings the last point to remember in all this, inescapable: it is the idea of the wrath of God. And that is perhaps what bothers us the most. That God is a God angry with evil, at war with evil, livid with evil. It is as if we have determined that God has no right to any emotion other than love. And, if he is expressing anger, we have an evil or immoral God in our hands. But why does an angry God bother us so much? I once read a few insightful words about it from Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. He was born in Croatia and lived through the nightmarish years of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia, a period that included the destruction of churches, the rape of women and the murder of innocent people. He once thought anger and anger were below God, but he said he realized that his view of God had been too low:
“I used to think anger was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond anger? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. This is exactly why God is angry with some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a victim of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region where I come from. According to some estimates, 200,000 people have been killed and over 3,000,000 have been displaced. My villages and towns have been destroyed, my people being bombarded day by day, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I couldn’t imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the last century, where 800,000 people were killed with axes in 100 days! How did God react to the carnage? By craving culprits like a grandfather? By refusing to condemn the bloodshed but instead affirming the fundamental goodness of the authors? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Even though I complained about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I should rebel against a God who was not furious at the sight of the world’s evil. God is not angry despite being love. God is angry because God is love.”
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, Christianity For People Who Are Not Christians: Unusual Answers To Common Questions (Baker), order on Amazon.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and principal pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the assistant professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can browse past blogs in our archives and read the latest news on church and culture from around the world. Follow Dr White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.