As many of you will be aware, I was scheduled recently to debate atheist radio host David Smalley on the problem of evil. After talking with him in person a few days before the event, it was clear that we weren’t on the same page; he wanted to talk about alleged atrocities in the Old Testament, while I wanted to discuss the philosophical problem of evil. We were so at odds that we decided it best to part ways.
During a phone call with him, David remarked how I, as a Christian apologist, ought to be able to engage his arguments. I didn’t bite. The philosophical problem of evil has nothing to do with passages in the Old Testament. Ironically, David doesn’t even think the events described in the Bible actually happened . To build one’s case against God from imaginary suffering is certainly creative, but hardly a problem for Theists.
I thought it appropriate to explain why a debate on the Old Testament did not interest me. In doing so, this will be a guide on how to respond to Old Testament atrocities.
Because of the limited scope of the objection (explained in later sections), I haven’t yet found the desire to engage the literature. It’s important to note, however, that Christian scholars have taken these objections seriously. Below I’ll list some of the most important works (including many free resources) for those interested in delving deeper into the issue.
Is God a Moral Monster? – Paul Copan
Did God Really Command Genocide? – Paul Copan, Matt Flannagan
The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Volumes 1 & 2 – Gregory A. Boyd
Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible – E. Randolph Richards, Brandon J. O’Brien (This one isn’t directly related but is required reading IMO.)
Divine Evil?: The Moral Character of the God of Abraham – Bergmann, Murray, and Rea
War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century – Hess & Martens
Lectures & Articles
Lecture: Does the Bible Support Slavery? – Peter J. Williams
Lecture: Moral Objections to the Old Testament – Peter J. Williams
Christian ThinkTank Article: How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?
Christian ThinkTank Article: …Does God condone slavery in the Bible?
Reasonable Faith Article: Slaughter of the Canaanites
If you want to know how to respond to Old Testament atrocities, you need to begin by investigating the literature. In addition, make sure you are reading commentaries on each verse. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I understood a verse only to learn that I was taking it out of context, didn’t appreciate the history behind it, or missed an important nuance (other times I’ve gotten the verse completely wrong (you’ve done it too)).
Biblehub.com is an amazing free resource. If you want to get even deeper, purchase a good commentary on Deuteronomy or Exodus (or whatever book of the Bible you’re having trouble with).
To reiterate, what I’m saying is that if you want to know how to respond to Old Testament atrocities, inform yourself. Read the literature. Learn the historical and literary context. There are no shortcuts.
Keep in Mind…
Now that you see the importance of reading the literature, here are a few basic things to keep in mind when approaching this kind of issue.
First, this is a very controversial subject. There’s going to be no easy answer waiting for you. We’ve got to take these verses seriously and look at what they actually say. Getting to that point is not as easy as reading them out loud and then thinking you’ve got it all figured out. There’s a lot involved and we have to be grown ups and allow for some nuance.
Second, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Old Testament (or New for that matter) is just filled to the brim with these alleged moral atrocities. The New Atheists have done a good job of taking a few passages and making it seem like the Bible is filled with nothing but atrocity after atrocity. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Bible has far more to do with God’s loving grace and mercy than His commanding judgement.
Third, and this ties back into the first point, we have to be aware of our cultural bias. We read scripture through the lens of a 21st century, scientifically-minded person. We bring presuppositions to the text that weren’t necessarily there when it was written. And that’s obvious, right? The Bible was written literally thousands of years ago in a spot half-way around the globe. They lived differently; they acted differently; they thought differently. In order to really understand and appreciate what’s going on, we can’t divorce the text from it’s historical context.
As an example, other writings from the same time period and place (often referred to as the “Ancient Near East”) are filled with hyperbole. The New Atheists are banking on the fact that we Westerners expect to be able to pick up a Bible and read it word for word and take it at face-value. When we read God commanding the killing of children, for instance, our natural inclination is not to stop and wonder if the language being used is hyperbolic. We just sort of assume we know it’s literal. There’s a natural tendency to divorce the text from its historical context–and here’s why: we are ignorant of the history. The ancient Israelites weren’t because they grew up in it. Fortunately, we aren’t forced to stay that way. We can be adults and learn about the history–learn about the nearby cultures and their expectations and the kind of language they were using. This is why reading the literature mentioned above is so important.
Extremely Limited in Scope
The main reason I haven’t really looked into this issue is because I know argument is incredibly limited in scope. For example, even if we can’t reconcile these passages with an all-loving God (which again is extremely controversial and arguably not the case–see the resources above), it doesn’t follow that God doesn’t exist or that Christianity is false. At most what follows is that the Israelites were wrong in thinking that God commanded these things. That’s it.
Some will say that this at least requires rejecting Biblical Inerrancy and that’s a tough pill to swallow. A couple points. First, it’s false that locating a human error requires ejecting the doctrine of inerrancy. John Walton holds that divine inspiration is on the illocutionary level and human error falls on the locutionary level, so there’s no threat here to inerrancy (for more on this, check out this blog post). Second, even if we grant that Biblical Inerrancy is false (which again, we don’t have to), the truth of Christianity does not hang on whether humans erred in writing the Bible. You do not have to believe in Biblical Inerrancy to be a Christian (much less a Theist!).
Remarkably, even granting everything the atheist wants, nothing interesting follows. I realize that a lot of people will still find these passages troubling, but appreciating the limited scope of the objection should help ease the tension.
A very common objection I hear from atheists (and even Christians) is that once we say that the Bible is wrong about one particular verse, we’re in the dark about the rest of it. Basically, we can have no confidence that any of the Bible is true or accurate once we’ve located an error. To repeat, I don’t think we’ve actually located any such errors, nevertheless, this objection is common enough that it warrants a response. (I’ve even heard atheists like Smalley argue that if we should take these Old Testament passages as hyperbolic, why shouldn’t we do that for something like the Resurrection?)
First, the Bible is not a single book; it’s a collection of books. As such, there are many different genres of literature throughout. There’s Historical Narrative, Law, Wisdom, Poetry, Prophecy, Apocalyptic, Ancient Biography, and Epistles. An error in Deuteronomy (Historical Narrative/Law) doesn’t mean, for instance, that we ought to start questioning the historical reliability of Mark (Ancient Biography) or that we have no idea what’s meant in the Psalms (Poetry). These were written by different authors at different times using different literary conventions. Just because they were eventually collected together under one heading called “The Bible” doesn’t mean finding an error in one means we can’t trust any book. That doesn’t follow.
“Sure,” the atheist might admit, “but we can still ask which verses are accurate and which aren’t.” Absolutely, we can ask that question, but it’s a very different question. No longer are we challenging the entire Bible based on a couple verses, we’re now asking how we can trust that the Bible more generally. The only answer we can give to this question is to look at the evidence. If you want to know whether the Bible is accurate, simply look at the internal and external evidence.
Notice that we’ve answered the original question and have opened a much bigger question (one far beyond the scope of this article). That answer will depend on whether Jesus rose from the dead; as a Jew, Jesus believed in the inspiration of the Old Testament, and, if He is literally God incarnate, then God established the church and inspired its writings. It all goes back to the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. For those interested, I’ve given a talk on the historical evidence for the Resurrection here. More resources can be found here.
In summary, read the literature if you want to know how to respond to Old Testament atrocities. The reason I have not done so personally is because, first, I’m not convinced there’s a problem to begin with, and second, I know how limited of an objection it really is (even granting everything the atheist wants).