In his work renowned Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggemann explains that there is a “troublesome question” that continues to cause significant discomfort for Christians seeking to take the Bible seriously, namely “What shall we do with all the violence and bloody war that is done in the Old Testament in the name of Yahweh?” (Breuggemann, 2009: 13).
The difficulties this poses, says scholar Terrence Fretheim, is the moral and theological question inherent to biblical violence “often associated with the activity of God” (Fretheim, 2004: 21). With remarkable frequency “God is the subject of violent verbs: From the flood, to Sodom and Gomorrah, to the command to sacrifice Isaac, to the plagues, to all the children killed on Passover night…” Like Breuggemann, Fretheim similarly asks “What will we make of this divine violence?”
Violent texts of the Bible in which God commands human beings to commit acts that offend our moral sensibilities have been frequently employed in the arsenal of religious skeptics as well as within counter arguments and rhetoric. One can understand why this portrayal of God presents Christians with a difficulty, hence the need to take the question seriously.
For many, the real contention and difficulty pertains to the nature of God. As Susan Niditch illumined in some clarity, in the biblical scriptures it is not only that we find human violence meted out against other human beings but violence (as she defines as encompassing both psychological and physical harm) commanded by Yahweh himself (Niditch, 1993). God not only commands his people to commit acts of genocide against entire populations (the command for the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites and hill tribes of Canaan in Joshua, for example) but is also actively involved in events that bring about great suffering and pain. Many of the biblical authors make sure that the reader knows that God’s violent judgements don’t occur arbitrarily, but are often the response to sins and evils committed by human beings themselves. It can be difficult to marry such apparent extremes in God’s nature: one of impartial, all encompassing, and unmerited love (which many Christians associate with the ethic of Christ in the New Testament), and one of extreme judgement and violence (which many Christians associate with the God of the Old Testament).
The other issue biblical violence brings to the fore is what philosophers refer to as God as being ontologically the “greatest conceivable being.” God must necessarily be the greatest conceivable being, and any being that could be conceived of greater than God would, in essence, take God’s place, and therefore be God. However, one of the “great making” properties of such a being must be moral perfection. This fact illustrates deficiencies in certain concepts of God human beings have come up with. For example, the God of Islam (Allah) is fully partial. The Qu’ran says that Allah does not love unbelievers (3:31-32; 43-45), sinners (2:277), the unjust (3:57), or the proud (4:36). Such a being, one might argue, cannot be morally perfect for a morally perfect being would be all-loving. One need only imagine the moral flaws within the parent whose love is partial and fully conditional upon his or her child doing well at certain things such as school or sport. Imagine a father saying to his son, “You will only have my love if you play first team [insert sport]. If you fail your are no child of mine!” A moral person would be appalled at such a condition which would no doubt affect the development and psyche of the child. Thus, a God that is all-loving is a greater being than a God who isn’t, and thus the former cannot rightly be said to be God. Now, although this presents an obstacle for an Islamic concept of God, so it does too for a Christian concept when one considers biblical violence.
Just as one ought to be appalled with a God who is partial and whose love must be earned, one ought feel likewise about a God that not only commands genocide but also actively brings about it (i.e. the slaughter of Egyptian infants in Exodus, or in the Genesis flood myth suggesting God drowned many people). The real question, and one that has been entertained frequently by exegetes and defenders of the faith alike, is whether or not a morally perfect being could ever command or actively partake in such things. Often one finds that Christians can be inconsistent on this matter, often criticizing other religions and their gods for being morally flawed in some way but then defending the apparent moral monster that numerous biblical authors make their concept of God out to be. Nonetheless, commentators are split on the issue. Evangelical scholars such as Peter Enns, Thom Starke, and Randal Rauser have argued that God did not, nor could have, actually commanded such violence. In his article Let Nothing That Breathes Remain Alive for Philosophia Christi, Rauser reasons as per the following (Rauser, 2009: 29):
(1) God is the most perfect being there could be.
(2) Yahweh is God.
(3) Yahweh ordered people to commit genocide
(4) Genocide is always a moral atrocity. In addition, it seems very plausible to accept
(5) A perfect being would not order people to commit a moral atrocity.
(6) Therefore, a perfect being would not order people to commit genocide. (4, 5)
(7) Therefore, Yahweh did not order people to commit genocide. (1, 2, 6)
Those who wish to engage Rauser’s views can do so by accessing the article online. Other voices within Christianity have argued in favour of other views. Christian scholars and defenders such as William Lane Craig and Frank Turek have attempted to defend God’s right to command the killings of human beings as a result of punishment for sin, and that God is morally justified in doing so. Others, such as Paul Copan, have disputed that God actually commanded genocide through an analysis of ancient literary motifs such as hagiographic hyperbole. Many others seem yet perplexed by the problem.
Often an engagement with the challenge includes a two pronged approach in which the Christian acts both defensively and offensively. The former being the attempt at providing a model suggesting the compatibility of a loving and just God with many of his harrowing commands, and the latter being a direct counter challenge to the philosophical underpinnings of an opponent’s position. Usually the individual making the charge from the evil nature of the biblical God and the Bible is the atheist-naturalist. There’s no doubt that such skeptics have been vocal about this issue, and using it as a reason to not believe in the existence of the Christian God or the inerrancy or inspiration of the biblical texts. Apologists such as Craig and Turek have argued as to on what grounds can the atheist-naturalist claim anything to be objectively morally evil, including the moral atrocities of the Bible? Atheism has a moral problem, not in the practical sense but the philosophical. Most atheists acknowledge that what humans deem morality to be is merely sociobiological conditioning and relative to individuals and societies. If so, how could the atheist legitimately charge the biblical God with being objectively evil?
This issue yet remains a thorn in the side for many Christians, a testament to the number of print titles seeking to deal with the subject. For many, the real issue is whether or not the Christian God can be shown to be morally flawed. If a skeptic could successfully demonstrate this to be the case then it would impact the entire theological system, and possibly deal a deathblow to the religion given that inherent within it is a logically inconsistent concept of God.
Brueggemann, W. 2009. Divine Presence Amid Violence: Contextualizing the Book of Joshua. Eugene: Wipf & Stock Pub
Fretheim, T. 2004. God and Violence in the Old Testament. Word & World. 24(1): 18-28
Rauser, R. 2009. “Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive”: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide. PhilosoPhia Christi. 11(1): 27-41
Bishop, J. 2016. God’s Marauders. Available.
Niditch, S. 1993. War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence. New York: Oxford University Press.