How Can we Believe in the God of the Old Testament? Apologetics 101 -No 5 – Answering Accusations about God

For many it is the most puzzling question and it is the easiest and second most common accusation made against Christianity – how can we believe in the God of the Old Testament.  I have wrestled with versions of this for years and my latest articles in the Apologetics 101 series is not on Christian Today and can be read – HERE   As usual your comments and thoughts appreciated.

The text is below and links to the other articles will follow:

How can we believe in the God of the Old Testament?

It’s like an evangelical rally. The main speaker comes out on to the stage and begins a reading from the book, his voice full of emotion. And the ‘congregation’ respond – often with applause, raising of hands and a standing ovation. You would hear the ‘Amens’ and the ‘Praise the Lords’ if it were not for the fact that this particular group are atheists who have come to mock the Lord, not praise him. And their prophet does not let them down. The author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, often began his tours of the US with a reading from chapter three of his book:

“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.”

Cue applause, cheering, laughter and sage nodding of heads. In passing, note how strange it is that those who don’t believe in God waste so much emotion hating him!

However Dawkins is on to something. It is perhaps (along with suffering) the Achilles heel of the Christian faith. How can we believe in the God of the Old Testament? The God who apparently commands genocide and mass slaughter? It is for me the most difficult question of all to answer.

Bible Problems – Not long after I became a Christian, many moons ago, I was given a book with the sub-title ‘101 problems from the Bible solved’. I was a new believer and still at the phase of the ‘grass being greener, the sky being bluer’ and everything being wonderful seen through the eyes of my newfound faith. I had no problems with the Bible. I loved it. It lived for me and it brought me Jesus. But after I read this particular book, I had 101 problems with the Bible – because while the problems were real, the answers given seemed to me largely superficial and shallow. It caused my first crisis of faith. The feeling was dreadful, but then the rationality and renewed mind that Christ had given me kicked in. Wait a minute, I thought, I am a baby Christian who cannot be expected to know everything and I cannot sit in judgement upon God. Of course there are things that will be hard for you to grasp and understand, just take a deep breath, take your time and trust in the goodness and mercy of God, and he will eventually answer your questions. He is good and wise and all knowing. You are not.

And so gradually over the years I have come to appreciate more and more the wisdom and goodness of God and have seen these problems being answered one by one. Of course there are still some that remain and even additional ones that I have come across – the devil, after all, constantly wants to accuse and cause doubts in the believer’s mind about the goodness of God and the truthfulness of his Word. And I am still very limited in my understanding and knowledge and will be so until glory!

A Genocidal God?  – However this question of the OT genocidal God is one that I have really struggled with, until recently. And I have to thank Richard Dawkins for pushing me to wrestle with it even more. I knew when I read Dawkins that his description of God was a grotesque caricature, based upon ignorance and prejudice, but how could I answer the accusations for what is surely one of the ultimate defeater beliefs?

No Problem for Atheists – Firstly I realised that this could only be a problem for Bible-believing Christians. For the consistent atheist it cannot be a problem; it just becomes an accusation. It was actually Dawkins who put me on to this when he was seeking to defend the writer HG Wells, a liberal social Darwinist, who had suggested that for the sake of humanity the Africans and the Chinese would have to be wiped out. Dawkins simply pointed out that we could not judge people from other ‘zeitgeist’ with the values of our own. And thus with one fell swoop he destroyed all his criticism of the portrayal of God by people from a vastly different zeitgeist. At various times human cultures have decided it is OK to kill infants, enslave adults, mass murder Jews and abort the handicapped. For the atheist each culture determines its own meanings and morals. Only if there is an absolute God can there be an absolute moral law which applies across all nations throughout all ages.

For the consistent atheist there is ultimately nothing but chemicals, and chemicals don’t have morals. People being killed is really just a rearrangement of chemistry within the amoral universe. Morals and concepts of good and evil are just human social constructs. There is no absolute morality and therefore no one is in a position to judge whether what anyone else does is right or wrong. In other words, the atheist has no philosophical or logical basis on which to judge the God of the Old Testament, and so they have to resort to Christian ideology to do so – ultimately a self-defeating position.

No Problem for Liberals – Which brings us on to the Christian position. There are of course those professing Christians for whom this is not a problem. They have their own personal ‘Jesus’ and they just know what their Jesus would or would not do. They don’t accept the whole Bible as the Word of God and so they chuck out anything that they don’t like, or that they think is not quite appropriate for today’s culture. Anything you don’t like in the Bible you can just remove and then claim Jesus/the Holy Spirit/scholarship told you to. No problem. No answer. But ultimately no Christ. As Augustine pointed out, if you believe in the Bible what you like, and leave out what you don’t like, it’s not the Bible you believe, but yourself.

So how can I as a Bible-believing Christian be comfortable or live with my faith in a God who apparently commanded genocide? We have to be very careful how we answer this. Beware of shallow and superficial answers that do not seem to recognise the depths of the problem or the answer. I remember a young deacon who heard someone speaking on the destruction of the Amalekites and eventually turned away from the faith. The sermon lacked passion, compassion, logic and Christ. Far too often our answers come over as if they were the result of a computer generated logic machine, rather than something that involves the nature and justice of God, and the fate of our fellow human beings. If we in Milton’s words “seek to justify the ways of God to men”, we had better be sure that our answers are biblical and from the heart. This is very emotional and right on the edge of human understanding and comprehension.

In my own struggles this is as far as I have reached. I apologise if this is not philosophical or evidenced enough for you, and if it does not provide all the answers you are looking for, but I hope it may help at least some.

Firstly I start with the Old Testament picture of God. I live with the psalms. They are my spiritual lifeblood and they express every emotion I have. Immediately when I read Dawkins I thought of Psalm 86:15, “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” or Psalm 103:8, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

You will note that there is a common misunderstanding which is now deeply ingrained in the biblical illiteracy of Western culture. The God of the Old Testament is an ogre; the Jesus of the New is Love. Apart from the fact that the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament and that he is the same yesterday, today and forever, what this meme fails to see is that the portrayal of God in the OT is primarily as a God of mercy. Watch this wonderful sermon jam that Solas produced with the inimitable Dick Lucas:

“The New Testament message foretells the coming of the Lord in judgement, the Old Testament message foretells the coming of the Lord in salvation… so much for those ignorant people who say the Old Testament God is an ogre and a monster.”

Then I set my boundaries. We all have boundaries in which we think. You cannot understand the small picture until we get the big picture. Here are the biblical boundaries in which I think about this particular question – the North, South, East and West of theology.

God is love. What that means will take an eternity of searching out, but I know this there is nothing that contradicts the love of God in the commandments of God. When I look at Christ, I see God. There is nothing unGodlike in Christ, and nothing unChristlike in God. The Father, Son and Spirit are One God.

God is just. He cannot do anything unjust or wrong. For us to accuse God of injustice is for us to set ourselves as more righteous than he is. We judge the Judge. A foolish and immoral thing to do.

God is holy. His eyes are too pure to even look upon evil. Therefore he by definition cannot command that which is evil. The holiness of God is a much neglected doctrine, because too often we have confused it with the holiness of man. He is good. We are not.

God is all-knowing. He knows past, present and future. He knows circumstances, hearts, thoughts and ‘secret’ actions.

When I combine all of these it makes me realise that I cannot sit in judgment upon his actions. When I see this it teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.

With that as my framework and context I then go on to ask what does the text actually say? I need to work out what is descriptive rather than prescriptive (for example, God did not command Jepthath to kill his daughter – Judges 11). Then when we come to the commands I need to work out what they mean. For example the word often translated ‘destroy’ means to ‘irrevocably hand over’; it does not necessarily mean kill. Then I need to try and understand why it is being said. For example the Amalekites for hundreds of years consistently sought to wipe out Israel, they were warned to leave, they represented a culture in which infanticide and gross sin were present. Usually the judgement of God is pronounced long before and all people everywhere are commanded to repent. Explusion from the land was the primary judgement rather than death. However it should be noted that the judgement for sin, according to the New Testament, is death. We are all ultimately going to die.

And it should be added that none of the historical incidents recorded in the history of the Old Testament are precedence or authority for Christians to do such actions today. Indeed the very opposite. It is ONLY God who could command such actions. The fact that he did so, albeit rarely and sparingly, is a warning to us of a far greater judgement to come. It is appointed unto man, once to die, and after that to face judgement.

In summary I would argue that a society which kills millions of human beings in the womb every year and is happy about euthanising the elderly, sick and depressed, is not really in a position of moral superiority where it can sit in judgement upon a holy, just, loving and all-knowing God. Once we understand the horrors of sin as the ultimate rebellion against such a God, once we get both the text and the context, then, and only then, will we begin to understand why God permitted and, in a few cases, commanded something that appears so evil. The surgeon’s knife may appear cruel but ultimately it brings greater mercy. The commands of God are always gracious, true and good. I see through the glass darkly. I am the pot. I don’t accuse the potter. I rejoice in his goodness. And I thank him for his revelation of himself in Christ.

This weeks recommended book is one that has helped me enormously with this question: Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? (See also his follow up – Did God command Genocide?)

The Previous articles in this series:

  1. An Apologia for Apologetics

2) The Demand For Evidence

3) The Evidence of Science

 

4)  The Bible as Evidence


38 thoughts on “How Can we Believe in the God of the Old Testament? Apologetics 101 -No 5 – Answering Accusations about God

  1. David, I appreciate your honesty in not only grappling with the kind of problem you describe here, but also your willingness to subject your thoughts to the scrutiny of others. I particularly appreciate the wisdom of trying to separate the descriptive from the prescriptive and, of course, the reminder that we see through a glass darkly. I too try to work my way through some of the problems these difficult texts present and would appreciate your comment on this one. In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan confronts David with his sin in respect of Bathsheba and Uriah. He then goes on to declare (v7) ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and lists the things God had given David, including his master’s (Saul) wives into his bosom. I don’t question that this is part of the word of God, in that it is intended to be included in the text but, to me, this is contrary to God’s purpose in the matter of marriage – one man, one woman – nevertheless it is couched, apparently, within the authority of a prophetic decree. This makes me consider whether OT prophetic words need to be subjected to the same scrutiny and process of weighing as NT (and present day church) prophecy. i.e., ‘Let one speak and the others judge’ 1 Cor 14:29. I would appreciate your thoughts.

    1. Mmmmm! Interesting one. I’ll be interested ed in David’s reply. I’m not keen on the notion that Nathan may be wrong. He clearly has a message from the Lord (12:1) and the narrative contains no suggestion he has got it wrong (in part). Is our Lord’s discussion re divorce germane? Divorce was never God’s ideal yet the law permitted it because the people could not live with the ideal. Polygamy is (I think) never formally denounced in the OT though the narratives frequently reveal the problems it causes, a tacit criticism. That Lamech, in Gen 4 is the first example is surely telling. Perhaps God tolerated it because war made men more scarce than women and women without a husband were vulnerable. Certainly, the OC divorce law was intended to protect the woman not champion divorce.

      We should remember that these OT saints, whatever their relationship with the Spirit, we’re not baptised and I dwelt by the Spirit as we are thus the gospel makes it possible for believers to live by creational ideals in a way that was not possible in the OT (Matt 19).

      That David had taken Saul’s wives without divine judgement was proof that God had ‘given’ them to him but not necessarily proof that God approved; the principle of the divorce law again.

      Incidentally, the OT divorce law and the tolerance of polygamy is one reason why we should be chary over too zealously seeking to impose Christian marriage ideals on a non-Christian world. We may be trying to impose more than our world can morally bear. If the law of a theocratic people accommodated human sinfulness how much more the law of an essentially pagan society.

  2. For me the bigger issue is hell. Beside hell and its associate words and concepts ( all NT teaching) the destruction of the Cannanites is a side show.

    Of course, the answer to both is the same… the righteousness of God. It’s ironic that the very issues that appear to challenge God’s righteousness actually confirm it. Of course, to understand this righteousness we must see sin as he sees it. We are too comfortable with sin most of the time to see it for what it really is.

    Nevertheless, praise God for his righteousness revealed not in judgement but salvation. A salvation that helps us grasp a little the gravity of sin in God’s eyes.

  3. PS. Good post by the way. Liked two observations in particular; the hypocrisy of a society that tolerates abortion in judging God’s actions with the Canaanites and the sentence ‘There is nothing ungodliness in Christ and nothing unChristlike in God’.

  4. God’s judgement on the seven nations of Canaan was not based on race or anything else but morality, and it was delayed for many years until it was appropriate: “But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” (Genesis 15:16)

    It differs from judgements like the Flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, in that God did not carry it out Himself but through the agency of His people. This is what makes it notable. If God had brought judgement on these nations, including their children and animals, by natural calamity, would there be the same sort of question mark? We never have complete answers to any person’s suffering and death, or to their life and blessing, because we only know so much.

    It points to the judgement of sinners by God’s Word, when they fail to embrace the Gospel (Heb 4:12-13), and the judgement of the world by the saints at the Last Day (I Cor 6:2) – whatever that involves.

    1. He also prophesied the destruction of the city with dreadful death and destruction on men women children and infants, even the unborn. This judgement fell on AD 70 and was a direct result of their refusal to embrace him.

  5. I like that approach you took with atheists appealing to morals in order to judge God being self defeating. Also with what you say about seeing dimly.

    It’s a tricky one isn’t it with the question of genocide? All I have is questions and no answers about that. I suppose how I would engage in dialogue about that would be to ask what is worse in that than any humanistic approach. I couldn’t make a convincing argument as to how genocide could be a loving act of God.

    The best outcome in my experience with such a debate is to come to the conclusion that the answers aren’t all there yet, just as they are not with science, and that’s OK. And that an atheist can’t be convincing through a scientific argument that God does not exist just as a Christian can’t through faith that God does exist objectively and indefatigably.

    But I wouldn’t want to live in a world without God. That would be my idea of hell.

  6. 1 Science, per se, doesn’t have a vocabulary for dealing with morals, nor evil, yet Dawkins and others assume a higher morality. Who gets to define evil and good? Who is evil and who is good? Both testaments reveal what and who is evil and good.

    2. I’m pleased I didn’t by-pass listening to Dick Lucas. Like so much of his preaching/teaching, it is deeply edifying. marvellous. The answer is there – in Christ Jesus, in the Old and New Testaments. Scripture is all about Him. In His salvation, His goodness, righteousness my sin and evil judged in love and mercy on the cross.

    5 We are either in Adam, or in the last Adam, Christ Jesus. Either we are part of the rebellious, treasonous, old humanity, deserving of death, no matter how it occurs, or part of the new humanity, already dead in Christ and raised to life eternal and glory in Him. Death where is thy sting? Praise be to His Name and Glory.

    Geoff

  7. David, I just wanted to thank you for tackling this difficult issue so openly and honestly in such a short article. I think it does remain as something of an ‘Achilles heel’ for Christians today and one of the subjects that few apologists for the Christian faith seem prepared to face with any intellectual rigour. Even in your excellent ‘Dawkins Letters’ I couldn’t help feeling that ch 4, dealing with Dawkins caricature of a ‘cruel old testament God’ was the least convincing, although I accept that these were brief letters.

    As someone who has been a professional soldier for many years, it makes me shudder to think that a soldier of Israel in the time of Joshua, might have been commanded to hack babies, children and young girls to death as part of the reality of taking the land, even if the Canaanites were thoroughly evil and deserving of judgement. I guess the answer lies in understanding the context and the unique nature of these events but I confess it continues to trouble me. Of course, its no argument against the existence of God; only the nature and character of God as portrayed in the history of His people. I’m going to read the books you recommend – thank you.

  8. Surely the Amelekite children cannot be punished for the sins of their parents, it would be like hanging the children of the Nazis convicted at Nurenburg on the same gallows! If sinful, fallen men were able to implement a successful policy of de-nazification, how can an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God resort to putting them to the sword?

    1. Part of the answer is to note that in history one way (among others) God judges is by people groups. In the flood we have a whole world of people, bar eight wiped out. In the cities of the plain all in the cities are destroyed. The evil of these societies merited annihilation. The sin of the Amalekites flourished to such an extent that God considered this people a depravity to be crushed and a pollution of the land that must be purged. This time he uses not a flood or some form of volcanic eruption but another nation, Israel. He warns Israel that if they should become culturally depraved like the Amalekites they would suffer the same fate. They did and they did. The Assyrians and Bablonians were used to crush and all but obliterate Israel. Only because God loved them and had chosen them were they (as a nation) preserved from obliteration. Yet judgement was severe. God will not allow nations to sin with impunity. Further he will not forever allow land that is his to be polluted.

      This pattern is repeated again and again in the OT: the Babylonians are destroyed by the Medo-Persian, the Medo-Persians by the Greeks and the Greeks by the Romans (almost certainly these nations are Zechariah’s horsemen). Other examples abound in the prophets; nations are used by God to judge nations. Floods, droughts, earthquakes etc are also used. In every case there is a universality and in discrimination; all ages suffer.

      This does not change in the NT. Jesus prophecies the destruction of Israel and his credentials as a prophet are authenticated in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 and the forced exile of the people. Revelation goes on to describe in the horsemen of ch 7 and subsequent images (trumpets, bowls etc) how God uses throughout history and at its end so called natural disasters and war to bring his judgements.

      In fact, if God is sovereign, it is impossible to reach any other conclusion. We need to read the Bible through its own eyes and on its own terms rather than through our own eyes and terms; that is what faith does.

  9. “That is what faith does”! Theodicies are some of the most reprehensible examples in the history of human intellectual endeavour. Your definition of God is internally contradictory, his morality is incoherent. A better argument against his existence couldn’t be made, thank you David, with apologetics like this, who needs atheism?

    1. Jon- why is it that your posts just consist of a series of accusations and nu evidence or substantive arguments? Let me try you with a couple of questions – please explain how ‘my’ definition of God is internally contradictory? And could you let us know on what moral basis you attack the morality of God (although you admit you don’t understand it)…try to have some reason and facts in..not just rants…

  10. Thom Stark has also written a clinical analysis of Copan’s “Moral Monster”. If you wish to read a further compelling rebuttal of this dreadful argument, it is available on line as a PDF.

  11. Jon

    In none of us is reasoning objective, however much we may like to think it is. How far is your reasoning influenced by your culture and other factors. How far is it guided by what you want to think… Our hearts have reasons that our reason knows nothing about. Is the reasoning truly incoherent or do you have ‘reasons’ for wanting to view it as incoherent.

    In a world without God all morality is subjective and simply a construct; today’s vice is tomorrow’s virtue and vice versa. All we are left with is taste and opinion.

  12. Jon

    I’m not sure whether you are arguing from an ‘alternative’ Christian position or from a non-Christian one. If from a ‘Christian’ perspective I await your (biblical) rebuttal of the various arguments already made. I would also point out that various biblical books are essentially theodicies; Job in the OT and Romans in the NT for example.

    If you come from a non-Christian perspective let me say something about how Christian Faith operates. God, in the gospel, presents us with Jesus, his works (miracles), words (teaching) and life and says ‘trust in him’. Enough is revealed in Jesus (what he says and does) to find him reliable and trustworthy. Enough is revealed so that trust is an altogether reasonable thing. God expects us to respond to this sufficient ‘evidence’ that Jesus is his Son, sent to be the Saviour of the world by trusting him as our Lord and Saviour. Christians are those who see Jesus and believe upon weighing the evidence that he is who he says he is. In this sense their faith is a reasonable faith.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that we have all the answers. Nor does it mean that God gives us answers to all our questions. He gives us sufficient reasons to trust and leave other queries and questions in abeyance. He reveals enough to meet our intellectual integrity but does not pander to our intellectual conceit. We are creatures and creatures are not given all the answers, this prerogative belongs only to the Creator.

    In fact, this mechanism of trust is how we function in most walks of life. When we make close friends or choose a partner in life we do not know everything about them but we know enough about them to know they are reliable and trustworthy and on this basis relationship is established. God simply asks that we apply the same mechanism of trust to him.

    John

  13. God’s essential moral character is changeless. Every action is loving, even when his actions are also just; his loving nature is never suspended.

    If clear instances of a moral property cannot be distinguished from clear counter instances of that moral property, then the property in question has no intelligible meaning.

    Clear instances of God’s moral properties cannot be meaningfully distinguished from clear counter instances of these moral properties.

    God’s moral character is unintelligible.

    1. ‘God’s moral character is changeless’ Agreed. ‘ I am the Lord I change not’. The God of the OT and the NT are the same.

      Why must every action be loving? Where does the Bible teach this? We must build on what the bible teaches not our philosophies. Was it love for the pre flood people that made him wipe them out? It was to be sure love for his holiness and righteousness that occasioned the flood but not love for the people. Of course, he loved the people before the flood but eventually his patience ran out. Eventually his holy anger at their sin and moral nature decided wrath and no longer love was the wise and proper way to proceed.

      Human beings, made in God’s image, even fallen human beings, recognise that it is right and proper for good and loving people to punish wrongdoers and evil. Not all moral attributes operate in any one action. If a serial killer is imprisoned for life (or executed) that is not a loving act towards him nor is it an unloving act; it is a righteous act. It is love for righteousness and perhaps his victims that motivates the act but not love for the killer. It does treat the killer with respect and dignity; it treats him as a responsible human being.

      In any case what kind of love are you referring to? There are different kinds of love. Relationships define different forms of love. For instance, it would be completely immoral for me to love other women as I love my wife. Some forms of love are exclusive and rightly so. Some love by its very nature must choose. Does God love evil? The question answers itself.

  14. “Why must every action be loving”?

    He is omnibenevolent! It is almost the most fundamental aspect of God’s nature. It has been central to theological doctrine since Augustine.

  15. That’s because I’m an atheist who doesn’t believe that scripture is the truth! I am making arguments based on the illogical nature of the doctrines of Christian theism.

    1. And thats why you can’t make the arguments – you don’t even begin to understand them! You are making arguments based upon your own prejudice that the doctrines of Christian theism must be illogical….and not doing a very good job!

  16. David

    You asked me to make an argument and not merely statements, I have done so. Please explain why the argument above fails? Show which premiss is false and why the conclusion does not follow. My views on Christian theism have no bearing on whether or not the argument is valid.

  17. Jon – I have no idea why you think your argument makes any sense. Perhaps you need to re-read Aquinas and make sure you understand him….Gods moral actions are always intelligible – unlike your arguments…

  18. If it makes no sense, then explain how. Otherwise, you are simply making a bare assertion fallacy. Given your earlier criticism of my initail post, you are also rather a hypocrite. I don’t think I need to remind you what Jesus’ view of them was do I?

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