Richard Dawkins famously wrote: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
That kind of accusation makes sense coming from someone who wants to discredit Gd and the Bible. However, it's not just the atheists who struggle with the Old Testament. I was raised in a pacifist Mennonite community, and there were just large sections of the Old Testament that nobody talked about in polite company. We read the story about David and Goliath with as much detachment and inner condemnation as we could. We wondered how much we should cheer for David’s mighty men, who were the elite forces of their day. We cheered when Sampson brought the temple down, but with some guilt. So what do you think we did with all the God-ordained wars in the Old Testament?
We loved Jesus when he said “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek,” but God? God in the Old Testament was sometimes treated like the crazy uncle who shows up at family reunions. Nobody really knows how to interact with him or explain him to others.
From a Christian apologetics standpoint, this issue is important. I think many Christians remain as confused as I was. But this is an crucial topic to address because those outside the faith aren’t letting this one slide – and rightly so. How could God be “good” if he commanded so much evil? This is the question we must be prepared to answer.
So how do we understand a sometimes confusing Old Testament God, and how do we respond to critics such as Dawkins? Let's tackle this issue by looking closely at this critique of God. In the process, we will see that the God of the Old Testament is not a God for which we need to apologize, but is rather a God who loves the world.
The accusation: "God’s actions as seen in the Bible are incompatible with his character as described in the Bible (with genocidal wars, etc). Either he doesn’t exist, the Bible is hopelessly muddled, or God is a monster.”
First Response: “Is it possible that God knows things and/or has reasons that our beyond our ability to understand, but would make sense if we knew them?”
Sometimes we read stories about alleged police brutality or wartime atrocities, then find out later that the police were justified in what they did. We didn’t have the whole story. Of course, we get in trouble in a lot of situations precisely because we are not God – we don’t have perfect knowledge, and justice, and mercy, etc. But if God has all these things (which is the Christian claim), isn’t it possible that if we knew what God knew, we would understand? This is a modest point, but an important one.
Second Response: “Let’s clarify what we are talking about before we go any further. What do you mean by good and evil?”
The most popular atheist writers today are very outspoken about things they think are wrong, while at the same time claiming there either is no such thing, or that morality is just a personal or cultural preference.
- “Morality is a collective illusion of humankind put in place by our genes in order to make us good cooperators.” – Michael Ruse
- “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect of there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” - Richard Dawkins
- In an interview with Skeptic, Frank Miele asked Mr. Dawkins,“How do you determine whether something is good or not, other than by just your personal choice?” Dawkins responded, “I don’t even try.”
In other words, atheists are criticizing God for being evil when compared to some sort of universal standard - which they don’t believe in. I point this out not to belittle the people holding this position, but to highlight the problem with the criticism. Not liking what God does is very different from God being evil.
Third Answer: "When the Old Testament is read properly, it becomes clear that God in not a monster at all."
Paul Copan has written a book called Is God A Moral Monster? In it, he notes some key things to remember as we think of God in the Old Testament, specifically when it comes to the issue of war. I have written on this in detail at TC Apologetics, but I will summarize here:
- There were justifiable reasons for cultures to be judged.
- God waited and warned the people involved (for example, the high priest Mechizadech lived in Canaan in the city of Salem).
- The Jewish nation exercised lex talionis (a principle which says that punishment cannot exceed the crime). What other nations had done to others was now being done to them.
- Biblical “war texts” record a dispossession of people and destruction of worldview centers. God was destroying sinful cultural strongholds and their perpetrators (priests and military) while dispersing the population.
- God commanded the Israelites to accept immigrants from these nations, clearly showing God was not interested in genocide.
- We continue to see favorable references to people from all nations living in Israel after the wars.
This is not a history of genocide, but of the salvation of an area of the world from specific cultures that were some of the most brutal on record in human history. In an interview with Lee Strobel, Paul Copan quoted Miroslav Volf, a Croatian who lived through unspeakable violence during ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia. I think his perspective contains great insight into the nature of God:
“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days!
How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”
This is one of the messages of the anger of God in the Old Testament: God is not indifferent with respect to those who suffer human cruelty. Is it possible to conceive of a being who embodies love but does not become outraged at injustice? And while not every injustice in this life is addressed immediately, God’s plan offers at least a hope that justice will have its day, if not in this life then the life to come.
“Human anger at injustice will carry less weight and seriousness if divine anger at injustice in the service of life is not given its proper place. If our God is not angry, why should we be? That God would stoop to become involved in such human cruelties as violence is…. not a matter for despair, but of hope. God does not simply give people up to experience violence. God chooses to become involved…so that evil will not have the last word.” – Terence Fretheim
Tactics, Greg Koukl
Is God A Moral Monster? Paul Copan
“How Could God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?” Justin Taylor, at the Gospel Coalition
“Killing The Canaanites,” Clay Jones
TC Apologetics: God of War Series (tcapologetics.org)
TC Apologetics: The Shape of Reality (Identifying Evil)