Is God evil for destroying entire nations in the Old Testament?

God - sign

While this post originally appeared last year, I thought it would be appropriate to reengage with it, given our consideration of the supposed evils of Christianity which we’ll be discussing this Sunday in our Atheism class. 

I recently heard from somebody who said that he could never believe in a God who would command the destruction of an entire group of people—an act of genocide!  Genocide is murdering a group of people because of a hatred of who they are.  And after all, why would God destroy a group of people for being who they are (ethnically) if God made everyone in the first place?  So, obviously the God described in the Old Testament, who did such things, cannot be the true God who made all people.

Have you ever heard or thought of this sort of moral objection to the biblical God?  I think it’s a fair question.  However, I also think that there are misconceptions about God’s actions in the Old Testament (OT).  Further, I believe that if we think carefully about this, taking into consideration all the facts, we’ll see that God was not only justified in all His actions in the OT, but also, through His actions, shown to be good.

A BAD SOLUTION:
One solution that I’ve heard proposed is that the actions of violence in question are those of the God of the OT.  Almost as though there is a completely different God in the New Testament (NT).  What I think they mean is that while God is angry and wrathful in the OT, He is simply more forgiving and full of grace in the NT.  There are at least two reasons why this “solution” is problematic and should be rejected.

(1) Because God’s justice is an essential quality of His, He cannot be more just (e.g., condemning of evil) on one day than another.  Rather, He is necessarily just.  He can’t not be just.  He cannot dismissively turn His head or wink at evil.  He must condemn it.  He must judge it.  So, God’s justice (or any other of His essential attributes) must be as active at one moment (during the NT) as it was when he judged the rebellious in Noah’s day, or as it will be when the rebellious are judged in eternity.  

(2) A second reason why we cannot claim that God’s harsh justice is primarily active in the OT rather than the NT is simply because we do see His justice quite clearly in the NT.  Think about it.  What is the most violent act of God’s justice recorded in Scripture?  It’s not recorded in the OT.  It’s actually the central even of the NT.  It is the crucifixion of Jesus.  In that divine transaction God the Father condemned sin in the Divine sin-bearer—Jesus.  If anyone could complain about the problem of innocent suffering it would be Jesus—the one who was absolutely without sin or error. 

Further, we must remember that the NT ends with a picture of the Great War (though it is a one-sided war).  It will be the final stomping out of evil.  God will conclusively separate wickedness from His righteousness.  Therefore, if someone really wanted to complain about the harshness of God’s judgment, he or she shouldn’t fool about with such faint examples as in the OT.  Instead, he or she ought to turn to these two acts of Divine judgment.

GETTING OUR FACTS STRAIGHT:
One of the big misconceptions about God’s actions of judging in the OT is that they were acts of genocide.  Yet, in reality, they were acts of sin-ocide.  God’s aim was not the destruction of the wicked, but of wickedness (Ezek 18:23).  I say this for two reasons:

1. God used the nation of Israel as a means to carry out His own judgment of those nations which had become so perverted they were beyond cure.  These were nations which had perverted the law of nature, engaging in rampant incest, homosexual practices, oppression of the poor, slave trading, even child sacrifice (Lev 18; Amos 1).  There’s a fascinating statement by God in Genesis to Abram (Abraham) while he was in Canaan.  When predicting the future Egyptian enslavement of Abram’s offspring (the Israelites), God disclosed that that after 400 years the people would come back to Canaan and possess the land (and assumedly push out the current inhabitants—the Amorites).  However, God’s reasoning for the long wait is because “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen 15:16).  So, we get a glimpse of some level of evil, which, before it is reached, God patiently waits for repentance, but after it is reached, God judges.  God’s mercy and patience allowed the people of Canaan 400 years to repent.  But they chose that avenue.

2. It is also important to notice that God’s judgment never favored one people group over another.  While God often used Israelite warfare in the Old Testament as an act of judgment, it was a double-edged sword.  The same God that used the Israelites to kill the Canaanites was happy to use other pagan nations (who were much worst) like the Assyrians, to fight against and destroy the Israelites.  This clearly indicates that God is not hateful against a certain people group, but is serious about right living.  Leviticus 18 recounts a warning to the Israelites before they entered the land of Canaan.  God fiercely warned them not to engage in the perversions that the Egyptians and Canaanites did.  After all, these sorts of practices were the reason for their rejection from the land.  God swore an oath that Israel would also be driven out if they ever engaged the same sort of “defiling” behavior.  And as the ancient Jewish prophets tell us, the Israelites were driven out of their land and judged severely.

The Jews were never “above the law.”  Instead, they were actually held to a higher standard than were other peoples.  If you read through the very short book of Amos you’ll see an interesting accounting of the sins of the pagan nations vs. the sins of Israel.  God, acting as the prosecutor, lists the following crimes:

●  The Pagan nations’ guilt consisted of human rights violations such as slave trading, grave violence (e.g., “ripping open pregnant women” 1:13), greed, breaking their word, etc, (Amos 1:1-2:3).

●  The Jewish nation’s guilt consisted of the above sins and idolatry (Amos 2:4).  What’s interesting to me is that the pagan nations weren’t even judged for failing to worship Yahweh, but for violations of clear and weighty moral rules of the natural law which is written on the human heart.  The Jews were judged for both knowledge of the natural law written on the heart, and God’s revealed Law written on stone.

GOD’S ‘AUTHOR’ITY
Maybe the most obvious realization we could miss is the place of authority which God holds.  And by “authority” I don’t mean the brute power to enforce one’s will.  Rather, I mean the right-of-way in deciding matters of life and death.  If God is the Creator of all that is, and we are merely stewards of His creation, on what grounds might we stand in objection, waving in His face some sort of right to life?  The right to life which each one of us posses translates into a responsibility to honor the right only to other creatures.  It is other moral creatures who are obligated to uphold my right to life—not God.  For, in a biblical worldview, everything that I have—even my own life—I have on loan and possess as a steward.  After all, the Christian affirmation is that even that which is closest to use—our own bodies—“are not [our] own” (1 Cor 6:19, 20).

A ‘GOOD’ GOD
What most complain about in God—His justice—is a thing which, when absent in people, we scream, object, and complain about.  When we hear on the news of some court room judge who has given a convicted child molester a mere slap on the wrist we are outraged and indignant.  Why?  Because we think that crimes should be punished.  The degree to which we call a judge “good” is the degree to which he is just in his punishing the criminal and exonerating the innocent.  If this is true of imperfect human judges, why do we not carry over the expectation to the perfectly just Divine ruler of the universe?  I suspect I know the answer.  Well, at least I can speak for myself.  I don’t always want God to be perfectly just because I find myself standing in the courtroom—in the role of a defendant.  If I believe that people who commit moral crimes should be punished, and also recognize that I’m guilty of moral crimes, then I’ve come up against some bad news.  I suspect this is why the message of Jesus is called the Gospel, or “good news.” 

Therefore, when I’m totally honest, it’s not that I don’t want God to be a good God (e.g., perfectly just).  I just don’t want Him to be perfectly just with me.  Essentially, I want mercy.  I want to somehow find forgiveness of my moral guilt.  So, at the end of the day, the question is not how God can justify Himself before me (though I think He has, and we’ve scratched at it above), but how I, full of sin, pride, and rebellion, can be justified before an infinitely holy God.  There only seems to be one answer . . . Jesus.

“Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD.  Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” — Ezekiel 18:23

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
1. How would you explain the ambivalence we feel toward God’s justice?
2. What questions still remain in your mind regarding God being good?
3. Read and/or think about the story of Jonah.  How does God’s dealing with the wicked city of Nineveh reflect God’s aim to destroy not the wicked but wickedness (Jonah)?
4. Can you think of another example of God responding with lavish forgiveness and grace to a wicked person, or to a person who lives among a wicked nation?  (hint)

For further reading, see the short article by NorthPoint Church, “Why Does God Approve of War and Violence In the Old Testament?”

Categories blog | Tags: | Posted on April 19, 2008

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19 Comments

  1. by Wilbur Lindstrom

    On May 11, 2007

    God is just! Justice cannot stand alone but must be based on law. God has His law and we are to abide by it. If we ask for God’s justice and ignore His law we become aware that we will not have justice. If we were to go before a human court and ask for justice and the judge had no law to work from, no decision could be granted. God’s justice demands that we obey His laws. We do not import the laws of other countries to determine justice in our land. Neither do we design our personal laws and then ask for God’s justice.

  2. by Gavin

    On May 11, 2007

    Brent,

    Your rationalization of human slaughter is chilling. You see conquest and call it judgement, vengeance and call it justice.

    Please offer some advice to readers who might feel called by God to commit acts of just “sin-ocide” against doctors who perform abortions or euthanasia, researchers who use embryonic stem cells, teachers of evolution, unrepentant practicing homosexuals and others whose sins you have highlighted on this blog.

    I drove past Planned Parenthood on Shields this morning. Their sign was shattered in an obvious act of vandalism. Evangelical Christians are starting to scare me.

  3. by Brent Cunningham

    On May 12, 2007

    Gavin,
    you bring up some good points. I certainly would argue with anyone who would “feel called by God” to commit acts of violence in His name for several reasons.

    (1) First of all, if one recognizes the authority of the Bible, he or she must also recognize that there is no “theology of conquest” outside of specific historical occasions in the OT. What I mean is that there is no justification in Scripture for Christians, as the people of God, to any specific warring against another people. For instance, it would be ridiculous to argue that because God at one time commanded the Assyrians to attack the Hebrew’s northern kingdom of Israel (as He did), that we today also have an blank check to attack those who are of Jewish descent.

    (2) Second, as followers of Jesus, he is our standard and model of how we are to personally respond to those with whom we disagree—no matter how strongly. If you’ll remember, when the Apostle Peter drew his sword and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his ear, Jesus not only rebuked Peter but also healed the man (Jn 18:10-11).

    I too would be afraid of those who would inappropriately attempt to employ the name of Jesus or God to justify their personal vendettas. However, we must remember that such a person would be acting in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus. Personal violence is not the logical outworking of following Jesus. Therefore, if someone claiming to be a follower of Jesus blows up an abortion clinic, we must be careful to condemn, not Jesus, but the aggressor. For, he would be acting inconsistently with his faith. As a parallel, I would not accept the condemnation of Buddhism on the basis of one or more Buddhist practitioners who committed some atrocious act. I would realize that their actions were not in accord or keeping with what Gautama Buddha taught.

    I am more afraid of those faiths (e.g., classical Islam) and philosophies (e.g., forms of secular atheism) whose logical outworking can bring about or justify human atrocities.

    Gavin, if you’ll remember from my original blog, included in the sins which you said I “highlighted,” is my own rotten sin of pride. And I would go so far as to say that pride is the greatest of all sins. If I portray a “holier-than-thou” attitude I am a hypocrite, and therefore, judged by God most severely. Therefore, I don’t count any sin as being graver than my own of pride. However, as a follower of Jesus, I am obligated to distinguish good from bad, rightness from evil, to call a spade a spade. So, even though I agree with the Bible that, for instance, homosexual practice is wrong, I must not believe that I am “better” than the one who engages in that sin. I am a sinner saved by God’s unmerited gift of grace and forgiveness.

    God calls us to personally engage our world not with aggression but with truth, winsomeness, and love.

  4. by Gavin

    On May 12, 2007

    Brent,

    Thank you for taking time to address my concerns about the contemporary implications of your post. As you know, this is not an entirely academic issue, so I appreciate the argument for non-violent persuasion from your Christian perspective.

    As an atheist who believes himself to be no more than an elaborate, natural arrangement of atoms, I feel a profound fellowship with the cosmos and its other inhabitants. Their well being is of no less significance than my own, and I have no superior source of truth nor special standing with a higher power. Therefore, I endeavor to treat everyone with compassion and respect.

    I participate at this blog because of our shared desire to “personally engage our world not with aggression but with truth, winsomeness, and love.” (You’ve got me beat on winsomeness, so I’m trying to hone the other two.)

  5. by Nancy

    On May 16, 2007

    Gavin,
    My friend and I are studying the book, “Mere Christianity” and I have some questions for an atheist. In your comment above you state that you are an atheist. Would you be willing to engage in some questions and answers so that I can understand how an atheist might think?

  6. by Gavin

    On May 16, 2007

    Nancy,

    Certainly. How would you like to do that? I am reluctant to post my email address on an open discussion board, but would be happy to send it through Brent.

  7. by Nancy

    On May 16, 2007

    Gavin,
    That would be fine. I will write Brent an email and ask him to forward my email address on to you. By the way, have you read the book I am talking about? It is not necessary for the questions I have but thought you might be interested in how they came about.

  8. by Gavin

    On May 17, 2007

    Nancy,

    I can’t remember if I read the whole thing, and it has been a while in any case. I’ll try to get my hands on a copy today.

  9. by ZZZ

    On June 28, 2007

    The Bible God EXPLICITLY states in the Bible (Book of Isaiah) that He is the Sovereign Lord who does both good evil. What more evidence does one need that that? God has admitted himself that he does evil, so therefore He is the source of evil. It seems that God enjoyed tormenting Job and it seems has also enjoyed tormenting humanity as well, especially the poor victims of 9/11. If God wanted to, he COULD HAVE STOPPED 9/11 events from happening. Thanks God, for not being there!!

  10. by Brent Cunningham

    On June 28, 2007

    ZZZ,
    I think you might be a little confused about what is recorded in the historical book of Isaiah. The author is delivering God’s message of judgment & deliverance on God’s chosen people, Israel. God communicates to them, among other things, that they are being judged because, “They did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me” (Isa 66:4). So, clearly God is not condemning them for something He Himself is guilty of. That would be hypocrisy. You are correct, however, in saying that a significant theme of the book is God’s sovereignty. God claims to be both the one who will judge and destroy wickedness as well as redeem the chaos in the lives of those who turn to Him.

    While God is not the source of evil, He did create a world in which evil is possible. It is humanity (you and I) who did and continues to actualize evil. You are right is saying that God “could have stopped 9/11 events from happening.” However, he didn’t. There are many things that I wish God would not allow. But the fact that He allows the wicked to perpetrate moral evils—for a time—does not mean He condones those actions. If you’ve read very much of the Bible you’ll remember that the primary theme of the entire story of the Bible is God’s ultimate separation of good and evil or righteousness and wickedness.

    Also remember, if God were to simply wipe out all evil right now, guess who wouldn’t be around??? You and I! But God’s plan is not simply to scrap it all. Rather, He has planned to redeem it. He has purposed to do what only God can do—bring meaning out of the ashes of evil. And He’s given us a reason to believe that He will follow though on His promise:

    I’m sure had I been in the streets of Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago, seeing Jesus being flogged, forced with the heavy timber to the place of his execution, or hanging dead on that cruel Roman cross, I would have wondered, “Why, God?” The event of Jesus’ crucifixion could not possibly have been reconciled in my mind while remaining on that side of the resurrection (just as it wasn’t in the minds of his closest followers). However, through that most heinous act, God brought about the greatest act—the opening of Heaven and eternity to humanity. So, if God can redeem the greatest of all evil (the death of Jesus), is it at least possible that He could do so with lesser evils? He’s given us reason to trust.

  11. by Ami

    On August 2, 2007

    Personally I don’t get it. All the children God had ordered to be killed… They were just children. What evil could God see in little babies? I mean, just because a little baby or toddler happened to be born in an evil nation, does that mean that the child deserves to die? Couldn’t a God as capable as ours have at least saved the little babies?

  12. by Seth

    On April 20, 2008

    We like the concept of love, not so much the concept of justice. We don’t like being judged or like people telling us what to do. I have to wonder how much injustice many of us actually experience. When a person has a loved one who is treated unjustly, whether theft, murder, rape, or other things, or perhaps is mistreated themselves, is this person quick to forgive and talk about love…or do they want justice?

    When injustice happens on a large scale, what then? I’m not comfortable with the notion of God destroying a group of people, but I’m also removed from the injustice. I’m not a big fan of violence as a solution, but I have to wonder, like Bonhoeffer, if there’s a point where people are so evil that I’d feel different…

  13. by hb

    On May 3, 2008

    In trying to analyze what really creeps me out about these OT stories, I realized that my discomfort is caused by either:
    1) identifying the ending of a life at all as wrong (which of course it is not, as all lives end), or with
    2) identifying the ending of a life prematurely as unfair (only meaningful from my short-term perspective) or with
    3) the ending of a life by force as wrong (as it is, if the force is of human volition – but can that argument apply to God?).

    Dealing with numbers 1) and 2) are pretty simple: as God is all-powerful, He has the ability to prevent physical death indefinitely (not that it would be a good thing) – but we don’t see it as wrong that He allows an 80-year-old man in poor health to pass on. Of course, if any person murders the same 80-year-old, it is an evil act. From an eternal perspective (as opposed to our

  14. by hb

    On May 3, 2008

    Brent,

    It looks like my post was too long-winded and got cut off. Feel free to edit or repost my posts however you like, but I’ll post the last half of it below. I really need to be more concise. ;)

  15. by hb

    On May 3, 2008

    It seems that the only feasible issue is really with #3. My “gut reaction” is based on my correct instinct that killing is wrong. However, that instinct is given to me as a human to inform my actions. No matter when death occurs God allows it, whether it was in His ideal purpose or not. I’m not saying that God is exempt from morals – I’m saying that God and I occupy different positions in the same moral framework. My 2-year-old daughter is not allowed to turn on the stove. For her, turning on the stove is wrong, and she (sort of) knows that – but it’s not wrong for me. That’s not inconsistent. That’s my job, and my position in our family. Life and death is God’s job. Applying my rules to His position is what makes me uncomfortable with the OT stories.

    One thing that does continue to bug me about these stories is that He used humans to carry out those actions. It seems that it would have to be damaging to those people. Maybe some situations just don’t have a perfect solution. Even given omnipotence and omniscience, maybe sometimes the best course of action in a given case still has bad side.

  16. by Armando

    On May 6, 2008

    Brent,

    Excellent Answers.

    I have been amazed at how some atheists can point to the so-called-atrocities of the OT, and argue it from a moralistic perspective.
    I have pointed out that atheists have murdered more than 100 million people in the last 100 years. How can atheists been so appalled by God judging a nation(s) for their wickedness, and not blink an eye when it comes to atheistic atrocities, which makes any one else look like a choir boy.

    Also, we are all going to die at some point in time. Does God have the right to bring you into the next life if He so chooses? Did God have a right to appoint the people He choose to do His will?

    Last thing. When dealing with some atheists I ask them if God “EVER” did anything good? The OT and the NT is filled with God constantly granting mercy and grace to people who could care less about Him, and do nothing but point fingers, murmer, and complain. God even left heaven, took on flesh, went to a cross, suffered, died, and that still isn’t good enough.

    It’s good enough for me.

  17. by Paul Quelet

    On May 29, 2008

    This discussion is fascinating and intriguing…

    For my contribution, I just want to say that justice is a very difficult concept to establish for human beings like us. Someone has to establish the laws of justice for a tribe, city, society, world, or whatever. History has clearly shown that people are fallen and perform unrighteous acts. I would only like to have someone all-knowing and all-powerful and perfectly good to set up the standard. This being we call “God.”

    With regards to the comments on athiests, let us be gentle toward them. I became a Christian (a follower of Jesus Christ) late in life. I would challenge the atheists in the discussion to seek God with their whole heart (Jeremiah 29:11-13). God will show you and open your eyes if He is really real.

    Let me say to all the Christians, in accordance with 1 Corinthains 5, that we are called to a standard that those who do not believe as we do cannot be enforced to follow. Let us show gentleness, love, and respect as we discuss evil.

    I think this discussion showns that evil exists (it is not an illusion as some worldviews would say). As the same time, let us discuss if evil is written on the heart, if we all “intrinsically” know what it is (see Romans 2:14-15), and why we all want to see good in this world. I think this points us to wanting Ultimate Good which is the same as wanting God.

  18. by blessubro

    On November 29, 2010

    In the bible there are 2 Gods? One is the Devil in the Old Testament and the other is The One True God in the New Testament; who is Jesus Christ.
    In the Old Testament is what is written in Ezekiel 28 about Satan wanting to be like God. After the fall in the Garden of Eden, he the Devil is reigning in the world. The God of this world. Rev 12:9
    So in the Old Testament is does say God; Yes, but this is not the One True God in the New Testament. Because Adam kneed to Satan or the devil in the Garden; he the devil has the right to rule everything that was given to Adam. And God, The One True God; is just and Holy to honor the agreement which He himself gave to Adam to reign. So until the time; whom only the Father knows, when this reign of the devil expires, will then appear and judge the world.
    God is Love: 1Cor 13:4-8; God is Spirit: 1John 4:9; And God does not lie: Heb 6:18; Titus 1:2

    The Devil is a created creature like us, and has the works of the flesh?
    So read Gal 5:19-21 and this shows you why there is so much violence in the Old Testament.
    Jealousies, out bursts of wrath, murder, hatred, etc etc… The reason that the God of the Old Testament killed the Israelites when they were worshiping the golden calve, was because this god is a jealousie god, and he wants everyone to worship him. Read 1 Kings 22:19-24 and see how this god is plotting to murder someone, and using a lying spirit to do it.
    Just in this story, there is so much works of the flesh; from Gal 5:19-21 and slso the One True God is Spirit; which a spirit can not be seen. The only time people saw God, was when they saw Jesus Christ; the One True God and even Jesus states this fact. John 5:37; so who did Moses and the rest of the people in the Old Testament see: The Devil, who was and is still trying to be like God.
    John 10:30 tells us that Jesus and the Father are one? So where Jesus is, so the Father is there too. In John 8:44 Jesus is calling the Jews children of the devil, why because Jesus new that they were worshiping another God. (for Jesus is God; and all knowing) In John 8:54 Jesus is saying to the Israelites that, they are saying they know God, but Jesus is God and the Father, but they don’t know Jesus? Read this slowly and understand the argument between the 2 parties? In John 4:22 Jesus tells the woman that they do not know who they worship?
    In luke 9:55 Jesus is telling the disciples they do not know what spirit they are of?

    The Spirit of Truth was given on the day of Penetcost in the book of Acts; not before Penetcost.
    So what spirit are the Israelites of the Jews of?

    The Devil

  19. by Brent Cunningham

    On November 29, 2010

    Blessubro,

    I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but your rather unorthodox and anti-Semitic beliefs about the God of the Old Testament being evil and a distinct being from the God of the New Testament is nothing novel. Instead, it stems back to a 2nd century heretic named Marcion. Marcion was influenced by a Gnostic teacher named Cerdo, from whom he developed his beliefs. And the reality is, because of his quazi-gnostic and garbled Christian views, Marcion was excommunicated from the church in A.D. 144. He failed to be able to reconcile a God of both justice and love, and therefore was blinded to the ultimate demonstration of God’s love AND the display of his righteousness on the cross.

    Finally, please allow me to give you one significant word of caution (from a place of pastoral concern). It shouldn’t be overlooked that the context of the one time in which Jesus made reference to “the unpardonable sin” (Mt 12:22-32) was in response to people attributed the power by which Jesus was acting (the Spirit of God) to the power of the evil one—Satan. Attributing the acts of God (in the OT or NT) to the person of Satan is no small error. I pray you reconsider your position in light of what the historical Christian church (whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant) has unanimously understood to be the one and same God acting through both the OT prophets and NT Apostles (Eph 2:19-20, “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone”; and, 1 Tim 2:5, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus”).

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