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 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.
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
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?”