Here we go again.
This topic has been visited, and re-visited, and re-re-visited hundreds of times. I guess it’s never too late to take one last swing at the dead horse, is it? After all, this is an allegation the atheist seems to bring up time and time again no mater how many times Christian’s respond to it.
I mean, it’s not even as if Christians give bad responses.
The church has responded to this allegation effectively almost every time it’s been in the spotlight (cf. Marcionism). Now, to be fair, most scholars will not even go here anymore.
They’re tired of beating this horse.
Most of this rhetoric is coming from the pop-atheist community on social media and blogs written by the likes of Richard Carrier, the never-wrong skeptical wonder-boy. It’s amazing, everything that guy says seems to be right! Magic!
Even when his own atheist buddies critique his stuff like, “Nobody believes what you’re saying anymore because it’s irrational,” he still seems to be right.
Crazy how that works, huh?
Anyway, this claim that the God of the Old Testament was evil, or at least encouraged evil, continues to plague the landscape of theological discussion. Why? Well, I’m not exactly sure, but I have a hunch that it’s simply an easy way to make Christianity look mean on a popular level.
Think about it, God being supposedly evil in the Old Testament is rarely brought up throughout the course of rigorous academic debate. This is because thinking people usually recognize certain distinctions, like descriptive/prescriptive texts and word-definitions in the original Hebrew language (e.g. “slave”).
Below I have outlined key assumptions made by many atheists who like to go on about God being evil in the Old Testament. These three points are not exhaustive, but they may serve as a descent starting point for the honest inquirer.
The Flood of Noah continues to upset atheists around the globe. Why? Well, because they have a presupposed sense of entitlement. In fact, their sense of entitlement stretches across the globe itself! The problem with this is that it’s completely inconsistent with a biblical worldview. They are essentially saying that the Flood of Noah is wrong because… all those poor people and animals! What they fail to understand is that, fundamentally, those people were murderers, adulterers, and idolaters. Not even Noah and his family deserved to live in God’s eyes because all people are sinners and deserve death (Gen. 3; Rom. 3:10, 11, 23).
No one is entitled to general comfort or physical life on this planet. The only thing we are ‘entitled’ to is eternal punishment. Now, they’ll object to this, but usually their objection comes straight from their worldview which never seems to be argued for. In other words, God did bad things because what He did was obviously bad! This isn’t an argument. It’s an assumption based off of misguided emotional convictions.
What the atheist needs to do is to show why it’s bad that God drowned the world, save Noah and his family. As Christians, God’s moral standard provides the explanatory power for this situation. It’s just the nature of the case that all people are deserving of death because all people have sinned against God. Sure, people may perform civil duties which are generally good acts, formally speaking. But this doesn’t mean those people are absolved of their cosmic crime before God. Does a criminal get out of prison just because they give the other guy their lunch? Of course not!
The atheist has some explaining to do!
Descriptive vs. Prescriptive Texts
There are many atheists who like to ask questions and actually learn something about their opponent’s worldview. Then there are those who, well… don’t (there are Christians like this too, unfortunately). Those who ask questions typically discover that a common sense perusal of the text requires one to make a distinction between descriptive texts and prescriptive texts. There are texts that describe certain situations historically, and then there are texts which are commands (prescriptions), binding on God’s people at all times and in all places.
An example of a descriptive text is Joshua’s battle of Jericho (Jos. 6). Joshua was, at one point in history, charged with the invasion and conquering of Canaan. This text is not a command to all God’s people at all times and in all places. There’s simply nothing in the text indicating such a thing. It is, however, God acting in a particular way during a specific period in time.
But, what about the atrocities brought about by this conquering? Men, women, and children… why? How is that able to be justified? Well, first, if an atheist asks this question, they presuppose a certain standard of ethics which they have no basis for assuming in the first place. Second, see point #1. The assumption is that all people are entitled to physical life by God, but this is not the case. It’s God’s prerogative to give, and His prerogative to take away (See Job).
An example of a prescriptive text would be Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments, or properly called the Ten Words. These are commands given by God to His Old Testament people. The Ten Commandments have always been understood to be a revelation of God’s character expressed judicially. How do we know these laws apply to us today, and not just to the ancient Israelites? Their applicability continues to be affirmed in the New Testament by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5) and by the apostles in their epistolary writings (Rom. 1:30; Eph. 6:1). Aside from these New Testament affirmations, the Ten Commandments can be found in full force throughout the Genesis account, meaning they did not originate with the Old Covenant (Gen. 2:2; Gen. 4:13; Gen. 6:5, 7; Gen. 3:1-23).
In concluding this point, one cannot logically point out a descriptive text and act as if that somehow universally binds all God’s people, nor can they use it to say God is “evil.” They would have to demonstrate their standard of morality and justify that standard over against God’s as revealed in Exodus 20, Romans 3:10, 11, 23, etc. This also applies to the texts mentioning slavery, which brings me to my third and final point.
Culture & Language
The Bible wasn’t originally written in English… surprise!
Most people know this, but it almost seems as if some atheists forget this well-known fact when it comes to concepts such as slavery. Now, the argument is sometimes posed in terms of slavery being wrong at all times and in all places. But again, one has to ask the atheist where they even get this morality from, much less what their working definition of “slavery” is.
For the sake of argument, however, let’s set aside their lack of moral foundations and assume they have an argument worth hearing. One still has to ask where they’re getting their definitions from and how, exactly, they perceive slavery from an ancient near eastern (ANE) vantage point. They need to get out of their shoes and throw on some cool Israelite sandals so they can understand what’s going on back there!
First, it must be noted that slavery, in the ANE, was not a monolith. That is to say that slavery could hardly be defined as one single thing. Slaves had various functions, were treated differently depending on the culture, and had differentiating social statuses contingent upon their leadership.
So, it’s not true that slavery was always thought of as “bad,” not by the people at the time anyway. Sometimes, slavery was a positive concept allowing one to pay off a debt. Let’s give an example. John racks up $40,000.00 on his credit card one day shopping at the mall. He realizes that this was a ridiculous idea, but doesn’t return the items he bought because he lost all his receipts!
According to the civil structure in Old Testament Israel, John could go to the creditor and commit himself to their service for up to 6 years in order to pay off his debt. Terms were contingent upon amount of debt owed, but no matter what, on the 7th year, the Hebrew slaves are always set free (Deut. 15:12-18). Pagan slaves, from other countries, were usually slaves their entire lives, but God’s civil law gave provision for their fair treatment; and ethically speaking, this was relatively non-controversial at the time (Ex. 21:6, 20).
Linguistically, it must be understood what “slave” sometimes meant. Many tend to read an 18th and 19th century American, racially driven, concept into the Bible when it comes to its mentioning of slavery. However, atheists need to avoid reading their near-cultural context into the Bible because what something means now, and what it meant back then, are often two very different things. Below, I have included a lexical table for better understanding.
Slavery, therefore, really just meant “servant.” The slavery of the Bible is less similar to abusive American slavery and more similar to indentured servanthood. Because of this, I think atheists ought to take a second look before using their “God is a moral monster” arguments.
If unbelievers would open their eyes to see God’s Word for what it is, they wouldn’t have the interpretive problems they often perceive. However, as Christians, we know that atheists will never just decide one day to open their eyes on their own. They will always suppress the truth in unrighteousness until God Himself is pleased to open their eyes and renew their hearts unto the pleasures of His revelation.
I hope this helps atheists understand that their claims are often off-base and ignorant of the biblical data (I say this in the nicest way possible). If atheism wants a fighting chance, it must do better than that. But, I contend it cannot do any better because God has already rendered foolish the wisdom of man (1 Cor. 1:20). He has brought down their lofty thoughts and opinions raised against His knowledge (2 Cor. 10:15). They have no base to stand upon to justify their moral claims or demands for empirical evidences.
Their worldview is deprived of all the tools necessary for logical consistency and ethical objectivity.
In light of the data above, in light of God’s Word and who it says God is, it must be concluded that the Lord is necessarily incapable of evil. He is, by nature, good and therefore exists accordingly. God does kill people. Why? Not because He’s evil, but precisely because He’s good, and we are not. God is holy, and we are not. God is life, and we deserve death, every one of us (Eph. 2:1).
This is precisely the reason He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to take God’s punishment of sin upon Himself so that we could live with Him, eternally reconciled to His just Father. The people in Canaan were killed because God was being just, Noah’s world was destroyed because God was being just, and the Israelites often lived because God was demonstrating His grace, and the grace to come in His Son.
The Israelites lived because they hoped in the promise of the Messiah (Gen. 3:15). They lived because of the then-future work of Jesus Christ. The wrath the Israelites justly deserved in the Old Testament, the wrath we all presently deserve, was poured out on Jesus as He stood on the cross. That is the center of the gospel, and the focus of all the Scriptures.