How can the God of the Bible be good when it tells of "horrible" things he
has told people to do?
How is that different than the Jihad of Islam's terrorists?
DR. WILLIAM LANE CRAIG from
www.reasonablefaith.org gives an excellent answer to this question:
"According to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), when
God called forth his people out of slavery in Egypt and back to the land of
their forefathers, he directed them to kill all the Canaanite clans who were
living in the land (Deut. 7.1-2; 20.16-18). The destruction was to be complete:
every man, woman, and child was to be killed. The book of Joshua tells the story
of Israel’s carrying out God’s command in city after city throughout Canaan.
These stories offend our moral sensibilities. Ironically, however, our moral
sensibilities in the West have been largely, and for many people unconsciously,
shaped by our Judeo-Christian heritage, which has taught us the intrinsic value
of human beings, the importance of dealing justly rather than capriciously, and
the necessity of the punishment’s fitting the crime. The Bible itself inculcates
the values which these stories seem to violate.
The command to kill all the Canaanite peoples is jarring precisely because it
seems so at odds with the portrait of Yahweh, Israel’s God, which is painted in
the Hebrew Scriptures. Contrary to the vituperative rhetoric of someone like
Richard Dawkins, the God of the Hebrew Bible is a God of justice,
long-suffering, and compassion.
You can’t read the Old Testament prophets without a sense of God’s profound care
for the poor, the oppressed, the down-trodden, the orphaned, and so on. God
demands just laws and just rulers. He literally pleads with people to repent of
their unjust ways that He might not judge them. “As I live, says the Lord God, I
have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his
way and live” (Ez. 33.11).
He sends a prophet even to the pagan city of Nineveh because of his pity for its
inhabitants, “who do not know their right hand from their left” (Jon. 4.11). The
Pentateuch itself contains the Ten Commandments, one of the greatest of ancient
moral codes, which has shaped Western society. Even the stricture “an eye for an
eye and a tooth for a tooth” was not a prescription of vengeance but a check on
excessive punishment for any crime, serving to moderate violence.
God’s judgment is anything but capricious. When the Lord announces His
intention to judge Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins, Abraham boldly asks,
“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are
fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not
spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a
thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare
as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do
what is just?” (Gen. 18.25).
Like a Middle Eastern merchant haggling for a bargain, Abraham continually
lowers his price, and each time God meets it without hesitation, assuring
Abraham that if there are even ten righteous persons in the city, He will not
destroy it for their sake.
So then what is Yahweh doing in commanding Israel’s armies to exterminate the
Canaanite peoples? It is precisely because we have come to expect Yahweh to act
justly and with compassion that we find these stories so difficult to
understand. How can He command soldiers to slaughter children?
Now before attempting to say something by way of answer to this difficult
question, we should do well first to pause and ask ourselves what is at stake
here. Suppose we agree that if God (who is perfectly good) exists, He could not
have issued such a command. What follows? That Jesus didn’t rise from the dead?
That God does not exist? Hardly! So what is the problem supposed to be?
I’ve often heard popularizers raise this issue as a refutation of the moral
argument for God’s existence. But that’s plainly incorrect. The claim that God
could not have issued such a command doesn’t falsify or undercut either of the
two premises in the moral argument as I have defended it:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.
In fact, insofar as the atheist thinks that God did something morally wrong in
commanding the extermination of the Canaanites, he affirms premise (2). So what
is the problem supposed to be?
The problem, it seems to me, is that if God could not have issued such a
command, then the biblical stories must be false. Either the incidents never
really happened but are just Israeli folklore; or else, if they did, then
Israel, carried away in a fit of nationalistic fervor, thinking that God was on
their side, claimed that God had commanded them to commit these atrocities, when
in fact He had not. In other words, this problem is really an objection to
In fact, ironically, many Old Testament critics are skeptical that the events of
the conquest of Canaan ever occurred. They take these stories to be part of the
legends of the founding of Israel, akin to the myths of Romulus and Remus and
the founding of Rome. For such critics the problem of God’s issuing such a
Now that puts the issue in quite a different perspective! The question of
biblical inerrancy is an important one, but it’s not like the existence of God
or the deity of Christ! If we Christians can’t find a good answer to the
question before us and are, moreover, persuaded that such a command is
inconsistent with God’s nature, then we’ll have to give up biblical inerrancy.
But we shouldn’t let the unbeliever raising this question get away with thinking
that it implies more than it does.
I think that a good start at this problem is to enunciate our ethical theory
that underlies our moral judgments. According to the version of divine command
ethics which I’ve defended, our moral duties are constituted by the commands of
a holy and loving God. Since God doesn’t issue commands to Himself, He has no
moral duties to fulfill. He is certainly not subject to the same moral
obligations and prohibitions that we are. For example, I have no right to take
an innocent life. For me to do so would be murder. But God has no such
prohibition. He can give and take life as He chooses. We all recognize this when
we accuse some authority who presumes to take life as “playing God.” Human
authorities arrogate to themselves rights which belong only to God. God is under
no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to
strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.
What that implies is that God has the right to take the lives of the Canaanites
when He sees fit. How long they live and when they die is up to Him.
So the problem isn’t that God ended the Canaanites’ lives. The problem is that
He commanded the Israeli soldiers to end them. Isn’t that like commanding
someone to commit murder? No, it’s not. Rather, since our moral duties are
determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in
the absence of a divine command, would have been murder. The act was morally
obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had
they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.
On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in
the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally
obligatory in virtue of that command.
All right; but isn’t such a command contrary to God’s nature? Well, let’s look
at the case more closely. It is perhaps significant that the story of Yahweh’s
destruction of Sodom--along with his solemn assurances to Abraham that were
there as many as ten righteous persons in Sodom, the city would not have been
destroyed--forms part of the background to the conquest of Canaan and Yahweh’s
command to destroy the cities there. The implication is that the Canaanites are
not righteous people but have come under God’s judgment.
In fact, prior to Israel’s bondage in Egypt, God tells Abraham,
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not
theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred
years. . . . And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the
iniquity of the Amorites [one of the Canaanite clans] is not yet complete” (Gen.
15. 13, 16).
Think of it! God stays His judgment of the Canaanite clans 400 years because
their wickedness had not reached the point of intolerability! This is the
long-suffering God we know in the Hebrew Scriptures. He even allows his own
chosen people to languish in slavery for four centuries before determining that
the Canaanite peoples are ripe for judgment and calling His people forth from
By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and
cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice.
The Canaanites are to be destroyed “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” (Deut. 20.18). God had morally sufficient reasons
for His judgment upon Canaan, and Israel was merely the instrument of His
justice, just as centuries later God would use the pagan nations of Assyria and
Babylon to judge Israel.
ut why take the lives of innocent children? The terrible totality of the
destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan
nations on Israel’s part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites,
the Lord says, “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to
their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away
your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deut 7.3-4). This command is
part and parcel of the whole fabric of complex Jewish ritual law distinguishing
clean and unclean practices. To the contemporary Western mind many of the
regulations in Old Testament law seem absolutely bizarre and pointless: not to
mix linen with wool, not to use the same vessels for meat and for milk products,
etc. The overriding thrust of these regulations is to prohibit various kinds of
mixing. Clear lines of distinction are being drawn: this and not that. These
serve as daily, tangible reminders that Israel is a special people set apart for
I spoke once with an Indian missionary who told me that the Eastern mind has an
inveterate tendency toward amalgamation. He said Hindus upon hearing the Gospel
would smile and say, “Sub ehki eh, sahib, sub ehki eh!” (“All is One, sahib, All
is One!” [Hindustani speakers forgive my transliteration!]). It made it almost
impossible to reach them because even logical contradictions were subsumed in
the whole. He said that he thought the reason God gave Israel so many arbitrary
commands about clean and unclean was to teach them the Law of Contradiction!
By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any
assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable. It was His way of preserving
Israel’s spiritual health and posterity. God knew that if these Canaanite
children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The
killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to
Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of
Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.
Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die
in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their
salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we
forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable
joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.
So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the
Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgment. Not the
children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think
the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the
Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to
break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The
brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.
But then, again, we’re thinking of this from a Christianized, Western
standpoint. For people in the ancient world, life was already brutal. Violence
and war were a fact of life for people living in the ancient Near East. Evidence
of this fact is that the people who told these stories apparently thought
nothing of what the Israeli soldiers were commanded to do (especially if these
are founding legends of the nation). No one was wringing his hands over the
soldiers’ having to kill the Canaanites; those who did so were national heroes.
Moreover, my point above returns. Nothing could so illustrate to the Israelis
the seriousness of their calling as a people set apart for God alone. Yahweh is
not to be trifled with. He means business, and if Israel apostasizes the same
could happen to her. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “Aslan is not a tame lion.”
Now how does all this relate to Islamic jihad? Islam sees violence as a means of
propagating the Muslim faith. Islam divides the world into two camps: the dar
al-Islam (House of Submission) and the dar al-harb (House of War). The former
are those lands which have been brought into submission to Islam; the latter are
those nations which have not yet been brought into submission. This is how Islam
actually views the world!
By contrast, the conquest of Canaan represented God’s just judgment upon those
peoples. The purpose was not at all to get them to convert to Judaism! War was
not being used as an instrument of propagating the Jewish faith. Moreover, the
slaughter of the Canaanites represented an unusual historical circumstance, not
a regular means of behavior.
The problem with Islam, then, is not that it has got the wrong moral theory;
it’s that it has got the wrong God. If the Muslim thinks that our moral duties
are constituted by God’s commands, then I agree with him. But Muslims and
Christians differ radically over God’s nature. Christians believe that God is
all-loving, while Muslims believe that God loves only Muslims. Allah has no love
for unbelievers and sinners. Therefore, they can be killed indiscriminately.
Moreover, in Islam God’s omnipotence trumps everything, even His own nature. He
is therefore utterly arbitrary in His dealing with mankind. By contrast
Christians hold that God’s holy and loving nature determines what He commands.
The question, then, is not whose moral theory is correct, but which is the true
© 2007 Reasonable Faith. All rights reserved worldwide. "
Choose your response:
For now I'll
consider that God may be good, for the sake of hearing the rest of your argument
for faith in God.