The Elephant in the Room: Is God a Moral Monster?
June 16, 2019 / Michael Hearn
Morality is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior and the goodness or badness of human character.
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 misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. – Richard Dawkins
That’s a lot of big words…let me try and translate some of them.
Genocidal—killing people because of their ethnicity or race.
Pestilential—harmful or destructive to crops or livestock
Megalomaniacal—a person obsessed with their own power
Sadomasochistic—the deriving of pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting or submitting to physical or emotional abuse
Capriciously malevolent—impulsive, unpredictable and arbitrary in doing evil.
- Is this really who God is? And is it really what the Bible says He is?
You and I live in an increasingly secularized society where our friends and neighbors don’t take it for granted that belief in God is a rational, reasonable, and logical thing to do. If we are going to be of any worth to them spiritually, we need to be able to speak intelligently into their doubts. That would be the “evangelistic” side of this Christian apologetic coin.
Statistically, we’re losing 3 out of 4 Christian young people in American during the critical college years when they are facing an onslaught of hedonism, secularism, naturalism, relativism, liberalism and atheism on the secular as well as “Christian” campuses of America.
College students aren’t the only ones having a “crisis of faith.” If there are lingering or nagging questions in any believer’s mind regarding the reasonableness of faith in God or the kind of God He is, we will be unable to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength.”
In each case, a thoughtful, informed, contextual understanding of the Bible is all that is needed to provide an apologetic to the thoughtless accusations.
The Bible does not need to be excused; merely understood. A proper hermeneutic that treats the text appropriately reveals that the most common criticisms of Scripture are based on misunderstandings and misinterpretations.
Misconception/ Accusation #1—The God, who gave the Mosaic Law is harsh, arbitrary, and immoral. (An interesting charge coming from people who deny absolute morality.)
Let me give you an example. Someone posted an “Open letter to Dr. Laura” on the internet several years ago. Dr. Laura Schlessinger was, in case you didn’t know, a Jewish author and radio talk show host. Here’s part of the letter.
Dear Dr. Laura: Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to follow them:
- I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
- I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
- Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
- Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19:27. How should they die?
- I know from Leviticus 11:6-8, that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
- My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread…
Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.
Your devoted disciple and adoring fan. [Copan, pp. 57-58.]
- There are 613 laws in the Old Testament; 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands.
- They deal with issues concerning food laws, skin diseases, how to trim a beard, tattoos, cooking a kid goat in its mothers milk, etc.
When we look at the Old Testament, we are viewing it through a lens that is thousands of years removed from the culture and context. As a result, we can discredit things and misunderstand things.
The first major misunderstanding here is the belief that the Mosaic Law was:
a) something for ALL peoples and nations, and
b) is still to be observed by all Christians. That kind of application of the Mosaic Covenant and Law totally misinterprets even the most elementary understanding of the Old Testament.
1. The Mosaic Law, the law of God given to Israel through Moses, was for one nation and one nation alone—Israel. NOT the whole world for all time.
The only case in which it applied to non-Jews was if those Gentiles decided to live in Israel, worship God as He commanded, and become effectively Jewish converts and citizens. This Law was given to set Israel apart from all the nations of the world. It was to visibly demonstrate how God’s people were to be holy (separated from sin) as God is.
2. Thinking that the Mosaic Law is still binding on anyone totally denies the New Covenant instituted through Jesus Christ. That New Covenant which we celebrate every Sunday with the symbols of Communion did away with the Mosaic Covenant.
Are there some of the declarations of moral absolutes that still apply? Of course—thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery, covet your neighbor’s house/wife/goods, etc. Any command/moral absolutes repeated/modified in the New Testament are binding for the people of God.
- God never intended for the whole world to keep the Mosaic Law. I don’t think He even expects that the whole world will try to keep the moral absolutes under the New Covenant. The Mosaic Laws applied to a specific people (Jews), for a specific period of time (from Moses to Jesus), in a specific place in the world (the Promised Land).
Culture and society, in ancient times, had very poor social structures and the effects of sin were apparent all over the world…The purpose of the Mosaic Law was to develop a people who would be holy, set apart for Yahweh, separated from the idolatry of the people surrounding them. Different.
God wanted to show the world and His people that every part of life was to be impacted and dominated by their relationship to Him.
Thus, the Mosaic Laws dealt with everything from sexuality to seafood, clothes to covetousness. And with careful examination, we find that the law brings value, protects, and provides for the marginalized, outcast, orphan, unborn, and even, though it may not be apparent at first blush, elevated women alongside men and adds value, dignity, and respect to them.
- Here are some guides, some of the things the law points to that are not affirmations of actions, but protocol when certain things happen. For example, when Jesus speaks on divorce in the New Testament, He is not affirming it, but saying this is what you can do when you find yourself in this situation. In the same regard, many laws are giving guidance in what to do when you find a man married to two wives. It is not affirming it, but giving guidance in what to do when you come across it.
- Ultimately, God wanted to show His people how much they needed a Savior.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. Galatians 3:24-25
But what about the harsh penalties for breaking some of the laws?
- Here’s the reality. There were some 16 crimes in the Old Testament that called for the death penalty for everything from murder to witchcraft to adultery.
Only in the case of premeditated murder did the text say that the officials in Israel were forbidden to take a “ransom” or “substitute.” The implication is that in all the other 15 cases, the judges could commute the crimes deserving of capital punishment by designating a “ransom” or “substitute.”
That is why Jesus could say in John 8 to the religious judges who brought the woman caught in adultery to him to be stoned, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” And they walked away.
Stoning was the maximum sentence, but a judge could order a fine or “substitute” in place of the stoning. How beautiful is that story knowing that Jesus himself was choosing to become the substitute for that woman’s adultery as the Judge of all mankind. He simply calls her out of her sin and into life made right with God through belief in himself. “Go now and leave your life of sin” was the only charge He gave her.
- The vast majority of the Old Testament laws stipulated far less severe punishments and fines. In fact, the Old Testament law was a gigantic step forward in protecting both the accused and victims.
- Most crimes were punishable by fines and reparations. Bodily mutilation which was demanded by so many other ancient law-codes for property crimes (Code of Hammurabi or Eshunna, etc.) was forbidden in the Mosaic Law. If property was stolen, damaged or destroyed, it was to be recompensed with property, not bodily injury.
- The priority of human life is a remarkably different and distinctive characteristic of Hebrew law. People were always more important than property. Only in the cases of death of someone or bodily mutilation was any bodily harm to the criminal permitted. Even then, it had to follow a rigorous procedure of trial before impartial judges. And bodily injury could not exceed what the victim had suffered. (See Exodus 21 for example.)
Misconception/ Accusation #2. Was the killing of the Canaanites an act of ethnic cleansing in which “bloodthirsty massacres” were carried out with “xenophobic relish”?
Probably the most difficult Old Testament ethical issue is the divine commend to kill the Canaanites. Theologist-turned-atheist Gerd Ludemann wrote, “The command to exterminate is extremely offensive a far cry from the merciful God frequently proclaimed in Scripture.”
Reading Literally vs. Reading Literarily
Deuteronomy 7:1–2: When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction.
Evidence of hyperbole in the next verse…
Deuteronomy 7:3-4: You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.
Not racially-oriented, but culturally-oriented… because of their practices.
Deuteronomy 20:16-18: But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.
Were the Canaanites that wicked?
Here is what we know…Canaanites and Amorites are the same people. Canaanites were a people group of Amorites.
Let’s look at the facts:
- Before this point is stated in Deuteronomy, we see this: “The sin of the Amorites [had] not yet reached its limit,” Genesis 15:16.
- 430 years passed.
- Adultery, bestiality, child sacrifice, so many things were a part of their daily lives.
- They worshipped Anath, patroness of sex and war. She wrapped herself in heads, blood, and gore and she was full of joy.
- Where they irredeemable? Did they even know better? Wasn’t this all they knew?
- No, They had been told this was not right. Amos 1-2
- Moral law…even other cultures all throughout history have acknowledge this type of behavior was evil.
Was this genocide or ethic cleansing?
Richards Dawkins uses these terms to evoke negative emotions; he is not interested in accuracy but rhetoric to sway emotion and as a result, opinion.
- God’s command to exterminate certain cities was not based on race. This was not “genocide.” Ethnic cleansing is fueled by racial hatred. This wasn’t. It was based on God’s command and God’s judgment (not man’s) about the evil nature of a people whose evil had passed the point of no return. This kind of warfare wasn’t the standard for the other stages in Israel’s history either. It wasn’t intended as a permanent fixture in Israel’s story. It was unique to Israel at a particular point in time and was not to be repeated in later history by Israel of by other nations.
- Israel herself would not escape similar judgment when, hundreds of years later, her cities would be judged by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, themselves an evil people. The issue again was not race or nationality; it was evil and sin.
The notion that people can become so evil that they reach a point of no return has no place in an atheistic worldview. Man is the measure of all things in that view, and no one but humans themselves have the right to judge behavior as irreparably evil. (Even then, the notion of “evil” is ridiculous to their sensibilities since they recognize no absolute truths.) People simply are what they are by nature of biology, genetics and environment.
- Biblical history indicates that there have been several occasions in history when the corporate evil of a nation or city have sunk so low as to demand that God bring judgment and an end to ongoing evil.
- It happened in Genesis 6 with the flood. Here’s God’s commentary:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. Genesis 6:5
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. Genesis 6:11
- I don’t think any of us have lived in a situation like that.
- Imagine a world where there is no Holy Spirit at work restraining evil, virtually no God-followers to be salt and light, nothing but constant evil.
- And these people were living not 60-80 years, but 600-800 years.
- Can you imagine how set in their ways humanity could become? How hard hearts could become, how culture could fall apart? This is not just for decades, but for centuries.
Even then, God had Noah preach for some 100 years that judgment was coming…and no one outside his family of 7 responded. There is a limit to the evil God will allow to go unjudged. The world had reached that limit in Noah’s time, yet God chose to take extraordinary steps to preserve just one righteous man and his family.
- It happened in Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19). Out of these two cities, not even 10 righteous people could be found. These cities had hit moral rock bottom. They had apparently passed the point of no return. The description of the level of their depravity in Gen. 19 is one of the most graphic and perverted descriptions of evil in the Bible. So God judged and brought an end to entire cities.
- It happened when God sent his people into Canaan to conquer the land, those cities could have chosen a different path than resistance. Jericho had 7+ days to repent. All the cities that were destroyed had heard of God’s greatness in delivering Israel from the mighty Egyptians and crossing the Jordan on dry ground. God had been more than patient and more than obvious with His call to repent.
We know from other passages that the conquest was a mixed picture of success and failure. By the time we get to the book of Judges, we find that quite a few Canaanites are still living in the land. In fact, they’re oppressing God’s people. (Judges 1:21, 27-28, 2:3).
- While some would claim the Bible is contradicting itself, I think it is more accurate to recognize that Joshua is using hyperbole, a sort of “warfare rhetoric” common in other ancient Near Eastern military accounts.
- God’s concern was with the destruction of false Canaanite religions, not an ethnic group.
- The salvation of Rahab and her household makes it clear that even this severe judgment had its exceptions and was not absolute.
- We know that certain, more cooperative Canaanites were subjected to servitude, not annihilation (Judges 1:27-36; I Kings 9:20-21; Joshua 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13). God’s judgment, as always, showed grace even in the midst of great evil.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf was born in Croatia and lived through the nightmare years of ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia that included the destruction of churches, the raping of women, and the murdering of innocents. He once thought that wrath and anger were beneath God, but he came to realize that his view of God had been too low. This is his own admission of error about our new generation of complaints about divine wrath. He writes,
“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 war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,0000 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 800,0000 people were hacked to death in 100 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.” Yale theologian Miroslav Volf
Truly Paul is right when he exhorts us in Romans 11:22: Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.
Misconception/ Accusation #3 God is misogynistic; He endorsed all kinds of sexism, patriarchy, and oppressive behavior toward women in the Old Testament.
Feminists accuse Old Testament writers of endorsing all kinds of sexism, patriarchy (socially oppressive structures favoring men over women), and even misogyny (hatred of women). Misogynistic is one of the adjectives Richard Dawkins uses to describe the Old Testament God. Why does Sarah refer to her husband as “my master” (Gen. 18:12 NIV)? Why do Hebrew girls belong to their “father’s house” (e.g., Lev. 22:13)?
Genesis 1–2: The Original Ideal
Genesis 1–2 points us to the ideal view of women, which is far from a fallen, skewed, or demeaning attitude.
- God creates male and female in His image (Gen. 1:26–27).
- Eve is taken from Adam’s rib (Gen. 2:22), a picture of equality and partnership, not one of a superior to an inferior. Marriage is to be a partnership partnership of equals, and sex (the one-flesh union) is to be enjoyed within the safety of lifelong, heterosexual marriage (Gen. 2:24).
Although Genesis 1–2 spells out the ideal of male-female equality, laws regarding women in Israel take a realistic approach to fallen human structures in the ancient Near East. In Israel’s legislation, God does two things:
1. He works within a patriarchal society to point Israel to a better path; and
2. He provides many protections and controls against abuses directed at females in admittedly substandard conditions.
- Do we see examples of oppressed women in the Old Testament? Yes, and we see lots of oppressed men as well! In other words, we shouldn’t consider these negative examples endorsements of oppression and abuse.
Theological: Female equality is presumed in the following passages:
Genesis 1:27: God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Genesis 2:24: For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
Exodus 20:12: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you (cf. 21:15; Deut. 5:16; 21:18–21; 27:16).
Leviticus 19:3: Every one of you shall reverence his mother and his father (cf. 20:9).
Proverbs 6:20: My son, observe the commandment of your father and do not forsake the teaching of your mother.
Proverbs 18:22: He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.
Proverbs 19:26: He who assaults his father and drives his mother away is a shameful and disgraceful son.
Proverbs 23:22: Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old.
Proverbs 23:25: Let your father and your mother be glad, and let her rejoice who gave birth to you.
Song of Songs 6:3: I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (cf. 7:10).
Historical: The Old Testament is full of powerful matriarchs who were highly valued and exerted a great deal of influence.
The testimony of the Old Testament authors reveals a perspective that can hardly be called misogynistic. Consider the following list for starters:
Sarah, Hagar, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, and Tamar (all in Genesis); the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah (Exodus 1); the Egyptian princess (Exodus 2); Miriam and Jethro’s seven daughters, including Zipporah, Moses’s wife (Exodus 2, 4, 15); the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27); Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, Abigail, and Bathsheba (Judges. 4–5; Ruth 1–4; 1 Samuel 25; 1 Kings 1–2); and let’s not forget that excellent Proverbs 31 woman. These strong women stepped forward and wielded influence with the best of the men.
Legal: The moral and ceremonial laws of Israel presumed that women were not only equal but also shared equal moral responsibility with the men.
Jonathan Klawans writes that the system of Israel’s ritual impurity laws is “rather even-handed in its treatment of gender.”
Some might quibble with the ceremonial uncleanness of menstruation, which obviously affects women and not men. But as we’ll see, men have their own issues! And the purity laws also address these (e.g., Leviticus 15:16–18, 32; 22:4; Deuteronomy 23:10).
The moral—not just ceremonial—aspects of the Levitical laws that address incest and adultery (e.g., Leviticus 18, 20) apply to men and women without distinction. In fact, those claiming that committing adultery against one’s neighbor’s wife was a “property offense” in Israel are incorrect. Both the man and the woman can be put to death for adultery, but, unlike the Code of Hammurabi, Old Testament law never requires the death penalty for property offenses.
Misconception/Accusation #4 God is proud and arrogant; obsessed with an unhealthy self-preoccupation and command to be worshipped. This is evidenced by his need to be superior over rival gods and receive constant praise and adoration.
So the charge is pride and arrogance. Just what IS pride and arrogance?
- C.S. Lewis and Lewis Smedes says this about pride and arrogance:
Pride in human beings is an inflated view of ourselves, a false advertising campaign promoting ourselves because we suspect that others won’t accept who we really are. Pride is actually a lie about our own identity or achievements, it’s an inordinate opinion of one’s own importance, merit, or superiority… Arrogance is pride manifested in offensive attitudes of superiority or self-importance.
- Pride is to take credit for someone else’s work (plagiarism) or to claim you can do something you cannot.
So is God guilty of an over-inflated view of himself? And do His commands to praise, exalt, worship, and sacrifice to Him prove that?
“I find it interesting that people who deny that there is a God, who deny creation, believe in naturalism and believe there is no being in the universe greater than humanity are accusing God of an over-inflated view of himself. That attitude itself is about the most prideful and arrogant attitude any person can have. Because when you are, in fact, NOT the most intelligent, most wise, most loving, most forgiving, most patient, most holy, most just being in the universe but you claim to be, that is a breath-taking level of arrogance.” Cohon
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Romans 12:3
- God doesn’t think of Himself “more highly” than He ought to think.
- When you really begin to study the Bible, you see that God is a million time more loving, compassionate, self-sacrificing, patient, etc. than we are.
- If God is really who He claims to be, as He is revealed in the Bible, then it is impossible for Him to have an inflated, inordinately high view of Himself.
- In fact, for Him to think less of Himself than He is would be thinking a lie. And to communicate anything but the truth about Himself to us would be a fraud. God can’t do that because it is impossible for Him to lie.
What about the “unhealthy self-preoccupation?” Why call upon people, inferior and sinful beings, to worship, praise, honor, glorify and sacrifice to Him? If He is perfect, then He doesn’t need any of that from us…so why ask for it?
- Either God “needs” all of that from us…in which case He would not be God because He would be needing something outside Himself to be complete.
- OR God invites/commands those things from us because WE need them in order to be who we are created to be…to reach our fullest humanness.
- Remember our worldview and what it means to be human has to understand Purpose and Meaning. Why do we exist? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of life?
- I would argue that is precisely why we must engage in acts of worship, praise, sacrifice, love and adoration of God. WE need it, not God.
- We need all those things in order to fulfill what we were made for, to enjoy the greatest good in life and eternity.
I like the way C.S. Lewis puts it in his Reflections on the Psalms:
“The most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their game…I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is appointed consummation.” C.S. Lewis
As dependent beings created to experience life at its best in relationship with God, praise, honor, etc. changes us. It lifts us up to the enjoyment of God and life in a way that selfishness and self-centeredness never can. That is why the church creed (Westminster Shorter Catechism) tells us that “the chief end/[purpose/meaning] of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
- God doesn’t have any “need” of our worship or our sacrifices. But WE DO!
To detach ourselves from God and all the experiences of praise and worship that go along with loving Him is to rob ourselves of the best existence has to offer.
- “God calling for our worship isn’t a manifestation of pride, of false, over-inflated view of himself. The call to worship means the inclusion in the life of God. Worship expresses the awareness of God, and as a result, it transforms us into what we were designed to be.” Copon
Not only does God NOT have an over-inflated view of himself but He expresses humility in a way that supersedes any act of humility we have ever seen.
What is humility? “The act or posture of lowering oneself in relation to others, or conversely, having a clear perspective, and therefore respect, for one’s place in context.”
- This is precisely what God did in the incarnation. The Triune God, becomes human….He knew He was the only Being in existence who could solve our sin problem and His own need to be both loving, just and holy at the same time. This God takes our place on the cross.
So He “humbled himself”
- …but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:7-8
- God, Christ, took on human nature and flesh, submitted to all the limitations of humanness, lived the only perfect life without sin and then embraced the horrific cross in order to satisfy God’s just and holy wrath against our sin as well as triumph over death.
- God turns out to be actually THE MOST HUMBLE being in the entire universe for willingly lowering Himself so that every human being could be lifted up to God as we were initially created to be.