In my last post, I discussed one of two responses to the common complaint of the new Atheist resurgence. That response was to claim that Atheists who embrace physicalism/scientific materialism do not have the moral authority to claim that God is either non-existent or evil. My conclusion was that while I think this criticism is valid, to merely point out this is unsatisfying and serves to only make Christians look defensive. The reason is that merely pointing out the weakness in the moral claim does not answer the genuine moral objections atheists have when they look at events in the Bible. They are not just being snarky (okay some of them are) but most are sincerely puzzled by our irrational faith that God is, not just moral, but morally perfect in the face of seemingly gruesome evidence to the contrary.
By far the most egregious and the most cited example of God’s immorality in the Old Testament is the slaughter of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15:
“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
Now let’s be honest. If you are an agnostic and you read this, wouldn’t you think God is immoral? Sure the Amalekites were monsters. According to Deuteronomy 25, the Amalekites would follow after the Israelites in their wanderings and would “harrass their flanks” so to speak–they would wait for some that were old or weak, or sick to fall behind and then like wolves, they would attack the weakest of the herd. Sure the Amalekites had religious practices which would make a Aztec blush. But, that verse said “children and infants.” God orders the wholesale slaughter of children and infants and gets really really mad at Saul because he decides to keep the Amalekite king and some of his best animals as the spoils of war. Take that verse out of its context and out of its culture and it looks like the justification for every suicide bombing and mass grave in Palestine or Rwanda. Leave it in its context and culture and it still looks like this Old Testament God is a moral monster. I don’t want to cheapen the objection by trying to soften it. This is a problem.It may be THE problem for honest and open-minded atheists and agnostics.
I promised in my last post that my answer would annoy and probably anger some of you. Well here’s why. I don’t think any of the justifications that are normally touted by apologists are very good. In may opinion, it does little good to go the consequentialist route and say that the Amalekites needed to be wiped out in order to produce the most good for Israel and ultimately the world. Some say that the children needed to be wiped out because if they grew up they would later sacrifice their own children to Moloch. Reputable Christian apologists, names you would know and I admire, have said such things. I don’t think these are good answers. They do not make an atrocity vanish in a wave of faith, hope, and love.
I want to try out a new response. Its one that’s been forming in my head for about 6 months. Fair warning. It’s not a a tested response. That’s what I’m hoping the blog will do. It’s also not a attempt to silence the atheist in a wave of embarrassed hem-hawing. But when does any philosophical argument do that? Instead it is a argument that seeks to provide a reasonable basis to believe that God can be trusted. Ready?
I trust that God is not a moral monster because Jesus believed that God was not a moral monster and claimed that he (Jesus) would raise Himself from the dead (John 2:19 – 22) and then did.
I trust Jesus who says I can trust the God of the Old Testament. Jesus has earned my trust by being and doing the things that the Messiah, Son of God does. I trust his character and he says I can trust the God who ordered the slaughter of the Amalekites. In fact Jesus said God loved the whole world, that God was just and kind, that God was not willing that any should perish, and that it is better have a giant mill stone tied around your neck than hurt little children. I don’t understand it. I don’t see how God could order the deaths of children but as Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Is it reasonable to trust someone is not a moral monster on the authority of someone you trust for other reasons? That is a significant debate in epistemology–one I’m just dipping my toe into. However, let’s keep the cookies on the bottom shelf and consider an analogy.
In 2005, a SEAL team in Afghanistan began a counter-insurgency called Operation Redwings. Shortly after setting up above a village, a group of goatherds including a 14 year old boy happened upon their position. The goatherds appeared to be unarmed civilians who should not be detained. On the other hand, they could report to the Taliban and compromise the mission. Because of logistics, there were only two options, kill them or let them go free. Three of the four members of the team voted to kill the goatherds. One member, Marcus Luttrell, voted not to. Suppose for the sake of argument they killed the goatherds. A SEAL team killed several unarmed civilians including a teenage boy? Would they be moral monsters? What if, you knew one of the team and he said the following:
“I know it looks like we are moral monsters. I know it looks like there would be no reason to do what we did. I can’t tell you the details because they are classified. One day, they won’t be, and I can tell you the whole story. Until then, I’m asking you to trust me that we are not moral monsters. As evidence that I am not a moral monster I ask you to remember all the Afghan children I have treated and bandaged, and helped. I ask you to remember the person you have known and befriended for years. Trust that it wasn’t an atrocity because you trust me.”
Would that remove all doubt? No. Would it cease to bother you what was done? No. Is it reasonable for you to trust the relationship you have with this person who knows more than you do? I think it is. One day I will know all the reasons and justifications for what happened to the Amalekite children but not today. However, I trust Jesus not just because “I know him in my heart” but because I genuinely believe there is no other explanation for his resurrection than that he is the Son of God. That makes my trust in his testimony reasonable even if its not satisfying.
Side note: In reality, the SEAL team let the goatherds go. Most likely the goatherds told the Taliban of their position since the team was ambushed and 3 SEALs died. Only Luttrell, the one who had voted to release the goatherds, survived.
I look forward to your comments.