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.
I can’t help but wonder if a better approach would be to consider passages like this from a literary perspective. It is my understanding that statements like the one you cite in 1 Samuel are typical of the rhetorical exaggerations we find in ANE war texts. This would better explain, I think, how the Amalekites can be “utterly destroyed” more than once.
I really appreciate your willingness to confront this difficult issue. I agree with you. I also agree that it doesn’t make then sit well in my head and heart but… I too trust Jesus and I too believe that God is Father to the orphan. So, even if it is not satisfying, it is true. This is where our faith gets the rubber meets the road test… It reminds me of “hinds feet on high places”… Much afraid says… “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him”
I tend to agree with you Jonathan. The God that told Saul to slay the Amalekite children is the same God who brought the flood in Genesis that killed everyone, including children, except Noah’s family. He is the same God that destroyed the inhabitants of Sodom (including presumably children), slew the firstborn of Egypt, killed some of the disobedient Israelites who had worshipped the golden calf, and the same God that allowed Satan to kill Job’s ten children. He is also the same God that told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, and also allowed his only son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins. We also have those who say that a loving God wouldn’t condemn those to hell who have never heard of Christ or His sacrifice. As a Christian who believes that God is absolutely holy, righteous, and just, I have to believe that God has always acted according to his nature in the past and will judge everything and everyone perfectly, righteously, and justly in the future.
I thought of this too. Unfortunately I think that 1 sam 15. is only one text that causes these objections. There are plenty more. I don’t think all of them can be solved with a literary justification of hyperbole.
But the war texts are what I am referring to, and given the fact that the Scripture says that these groups are utterly destroyed more than once indicates that this may be the best explanation for these texts. The other texts must be examined in their own contexts.
… The Bible leaves nothing out. It is the most honest newspaper about! (God’s Newpaper).
I say that to say this… God wants us to know what/who God really is… if only seen as a shadow… enough for us to deal with.
Now, of recent times, I have heard folks say… “The Universe has made it so or won’t let you!” or “Don’t trample on mother nature… she is very unforgiving” and a host of other things.
I have had to deal witht the ‘unsavory’ aspects of Biblical reporting of the nature of God and God’s commands.
Like one person said to me at one point… “Because we don’t udnerstand the transient nature of ‘dying’… and because this ‘world’ is all we know… we make moral judgements based on the things that scare us the most… and that is the uncertainty of what lies beyond.”
Then he went on to say… “I wish I were one of those kids becuase I would go straight to heaven and not have to go through the angst and (expletives left out) of an earthly existance!”
Nope… I may not like or understand some of the ‘hard’ things recorded in the Bible… but I won’t make an excuse and mount a high moral horse and criticize the Creator for what has been built into a universe I don’t understand.
I will simply accept the reality of it all and DEAL with that Creator who is Holy, Righteous, terrible and loving. That being that IS the power and authority to give me the promise of eternal bliss or the suffering of an eternal horror… I will not accuse KNOWING that ‘mah hypocriscy knows no bounds” and that it would be insanity to do so.
When the atheistic communist leaders of the 20th century sent millions to their death for whatever reason (believing in a god, disagreeing with their political policies, owning land or any item) how many atheists were so aghast and said they could not believe in something that promoted the killing of innocents for no reason?
When is was found that Madalyn Murray O’Hair robbed and stole from her own atheist organization and then one of her own people robbed and stole from her and murdered her and 2 of her family, did the atheists that supported and sent her money give up their non-beliefs in no god?
I usually say to text like this that trouble me, or doctrines I don’t particularly like, I know who God is and He is altogether good and always acts in goodness. I only know about goodness or care about it because God showed me what is good and gave me the capacity to love goodness. Kind of crazy for me to think I am better at determining what is good than the author of Goodness. And ditto that Jesus also testifies to God the Father’s goodness. Also, what Hamlet said…
Interestingly, Haman whose satan inspired goal was to destroy the Jews, was a descendant of king Agag, the Amalekite king that Saul disobediently saved.
So you believe that the targeted killing of children and babies is, sometimes, under some circumstances, justifiable??
Even in war, the targeted killing of children is considered a war crime. Killing children as “collateral damage” in the act of war is not a war crime, but deliberately targeting children for killing; hunting them down; looking for their hiding places and then running them down as they scream in terror as they see you raise your sword or knife, IS a war crime.
Your god would be arrested, tried, and convicted of the most heinous war crimes if he were put on trial today. He is a monster. How can you teach your children this barbaric nonsense? How can you call yourself a “moral” person and believe this?
There is NEVER any justifiable reason to target children for killing. Never.
I said no such thing. I said I’m remaining agnostic. I don’t know and I don’t understand. If Jesus had risen from the dead and didn’t give me reasons for trusting that the OT was God’s then I would happily jettison alot of it in favor of the “good god” of the New Testament. That’s what I would love to do. Unfortunately Jesus doesn’t make that easier for me. I just can’t. I could wish it away. I could try to justify it. But your remarks And your tone “barbaric nonsense” shows me you really don’t get what I’m saying at all.
My point is that instead of condemning Yahweh/Jesus for his brutality and immorality, you either make excuses for him or throw up your hands and plead ignorance: “I don’t understand why he did it, but I will trust that he had a good reason for doing it.”
That sounds like the excuses of a Nazi concentration camp guard.