Saturday, March 6, 2010

Immoral God and Immoral Bible? (Article III) Ten Principles in Understanding God

[Profanity, Blasphemy and personal attacks will get the poster banned without warning.  If you wish to disagree with the article, please be civil and respectful in doing so.]


In order to understand the actions of God and His decrees, we need to understand what is believed about God and His authority over creation.  Atheists and non-Christians may disagree with the Christian understanding of course, but in order to ask of us "How can you worship a God who commands these things?" one first needs to understand the God we worship.  It is only right to attack the God we actually believe in, and not what unbelievers think this God must be based only on their own reading of Scripture.

Playing with etymologies, explanations from followers of obscure sects and views of non-Christian religions are nothing more than the logical fallacy of appeal to irrelevant authority in this case.

The Underlying Unproved Assumption Used In the Charge

To impute evil intent to God (which is kind of ironic, given that atheists deny His existence), one has to know that the intent of God was in fact malicious.  Otherwise, what a person has is seeing an action without knowing the context.  It's like the scene in Dirty Harry where the mayor mentions a past action of Callahan, indicating he acted without cause:

Harry Callahan: Well, when an adult male is chasing a female with intent to commit rape, I shoot the [expletive]. That's my policy.
The Mayor: Intent? How did you establish that?
Harry Callahan: When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher's knife and a [expletive], I figure he isn't out collecting for the Red Cross!

When the reasoning of Callahan was not known, it was assumed by those outside the incident that he acted recklessly.  However, once the reasoning was known, the action was seen in an entirely different light.

The same principle applies here.  To condemn the act of God, we have to understand the circumstances and motive of God if our judgment is to be reasonable.  Christians believe the accounts of Scripture… especially through the Prophetic books… show us what God intends by chastisement.  If God behaves consistently in his actions (which we believe) then we can apply His words of warning for later chastisements as reasons for earlier chastisements.

If this claim that God is unchanging sounds like an assumption of things unproven, let us remember that even Dawkins recognizes that the Christian view holds God does not change… indeed he tries to use this as a proof to argue that God is less than perfect by using a rhetorical trick in The God Delusion:

Incidentally, it has not escaped the notice of logicians that omniscience and omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If God is omniscient, he must already know how he is going to intervene to change the course of history using his omnipotence. But that means he can’t change his mind about his intervention, which means he is not omnipotent. (pp. 77-78)

(Parenthesis: Of course St. Thomas Aquinas demonstrated why this was wrong almost 800 years ago [See Summa Contra Gentiles book 1 for example], but that's outside the scope of this article.  Short answer is: God being perfect, He knows what the best action is when He wills it.  To change His mind would mean the initial choice was faulty.  So the ability to change one's mind is not a sign of omnipotence.)

The point here is that even Dawkins recognizes Christians believe God does not change His mind.  Some may wish to debate this point, but that is outside the scope of this article. (And to be honest, if a person does not believe in God to begin with, why would he want to?)

Getting back to the main point, no doubt some non-Christians will disagree with the Christian view, but one has to recognize that Christian beliefs concerning God's actions are that these actions were not done arbitrarily or out wishing to destroy innocent life. 

An interpretation that God does have malicious intent seems to be based on the assumption that "religion is evil" and therefore a harmful intent is attributed to these sorts of events.

We Must Always Consider Context

Therefore, before one accuses Christians of “picking and choosing” verses, one needs to recognize that to take the statements literally without considering the context of the times, idioms of speech and how Christians have always understood the teachings of Scriptures. Otherwise one is railing against a view of God that Christians do not believe in.

The atheist who overlooks this is falling into the trap of Literalism, taking the Scriptures out of context. The result will be a conclusion which is far from the intention of how Scripture is understood by Christians.

The Christian View of the Bible vs. Other Views

Now Christians indeed may differ on whether it is intended to be “The Bible Alone” (a position I do not hold to) or “Bible and Tradition” (which I do hold) but in either case, the Christian normally believes in the concept of understanding the Bible is as a whole and not by taking incidents in isolation.

In contrast, the non-believer often accepts the idea that the Bible is merely a collection of stories and laws which often contradict each other.

The reason this is important is because it shows how one deals with the claims of the “Cruel Bible.” If the Bible is merely a collection of unrelated stories, then the atheist is justified in asking how Christians can believe in a God who commands such things.

However, because the Christian believes in the idea of the Bible being divinely inspired even though the books are written in different eras, they are all seen as inspired by the same God who has the same intent through all of these incidents.

Therefore, when we look at the acts of God in the Bible regarding the chastisement of people, we need to consider what God has said and not merely assume there are contradictions. For example, God says in Ezekiel 18:

1 The word of the Lord came to me again: 2 “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? 3 As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. 4 Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sins shall die.

5 “ If a man is righteous and does what is lawful and right— 6 if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife or approach a woman in her time of impurity, 7 does not oppress any one, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 8 does not lend at interest or take any increase, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between man and man, 9 walks in my statutes, and is careful to observe my ordinances—he is righteous, he shall surely live, says the Lord GOD.

10 “If he begets a son who is a robber, a shedder of blood, 11 who does none of these duties, but eats upon the mountains, defiles his neighbor’s wife, 12 oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, does not restore the pledge, lifts up his eyes to the idols, commits abomination, 13 lends at interest, and takes increase; shall he then live? He shall not live. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.

14 “But if this man begets a son who sees all the sins which his father has done, and fears, and does not do likewise, 15 who does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor’s wife, 16 does not wrong any one, exacts no pledge, commits no robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, 17 withholds his hand from iniquity, takes no interest or increase, observes my ordinances, and walks in my statutes; he shall not die for his father’s iniquity; he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, behold, he shall die for his iniquity.

19 “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

21 “But if a wicked man turns away from all his sins which he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. 22 None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness which he has done he shall live. 23 Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? 24 But when a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity and does the same abominable things that the wicked man does, shall he live? None of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which he is guilty and the sin he has committed, he shall die.

25 “Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? 26 When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, he shall die for it; for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die. 27 Again, when a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is lawful and right, he shall save his life. 28 Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions which he had committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die. 29 Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, are my ways not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?

30 “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, says the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.”

God calls for repentance and punishes each for their own sins, not for the sins of another, and only punishes them to the extent of their culpability. As we see in Luke 12:

47 And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. 48 But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.

From the Christian view, God exacts punishment on those who are guilty, and therefore, because we believe God is good and just, it follows that if God takes an action of punishment… whether directly or through a human agent… it is done to punish the guilty and not the indiscriminate raining down of destruction.

The atheist may think the God of the Old Testament does evil, but this is an assertion which requires proof, not assumptions.

Introduction to the Objections Against God

Now in Article IV I will look at to some of the other things which are troubling at first glance: The claims of slavery and the actions of Moses and God’s punishment of David. In Article V I will deal with the accusation of Genocide. Because it is recognized that God commands these things, some atheists claim that such a God could not be considered good and neither could the Bible be considered a work of good. Before we do this, I believe we should discuss certain principles Christians hold to understand where we come from.

Christians are viewed by some to believe (and unfortunately, some Christians do wrongly believe) that what God wills is arbitrary and is “good” because “He says so,” and that if God somehow "changed His mind" we might consent to doing evil in the future.

Of course it isn't entirely theoretical.  We have seen the example of extremist Islam (popular with the "New Atheists" as a club to bash all religion), and some may think there is a link between what Islam does today and what the Jews of the Old Testament did then. Certainly I have seen some atheists indicate that Christians are just waiting for the chance to shout Allahu Akhbar and slay all the non believers.

Some Principles to Keep In Mind

Fairness requires us to consider certain things.  We can't just pick the elements out of Scripture we want and give them the interpretation which suits us.  We need to remember that, when looking at a time a few millennia in the past, the expectations of the modern world largely did not exist.  The following are ten principles which most Christians recognize when studying the actions of God in the Bible.  While the reader is free to reject them, this will help one to understand how Christians understand God acting in the Bible.

Principle One: Christians Believe God is Omniscient, Omnipresent, Omnipotent and Pure Good

Any attempt to say God "changed His mind" or "was wrong" is contrary to the Christian view.  We reject motives that God is evil or fallible.  When it comes to the debate with non-Christians about the nature of God, this is outside of the scope of this series of articles.  However, to understand the Christian view of these Scriptures, this point must be remembered.

Principle Two: God, as Creator of All That Exists, Has Authority to Judge His Creation

This needs to be remembered because if God exists, and He has set forth a Natural Law (See Principle Four, below), then it follows that to violate His Natural Law is to suffer the consequences.  If societies in the Middle East did things which were against what we all know is evil, then the consequences will follow if the people refuse to repent.  If God creates a Natural law (discussed in Article I) which all people can know, then He has the right to exact punishment on those who defy it.  If He does so, He may do so directly (Divine Wrath) or He may do so using natural means (such as plagues, natural disasters and the like) or human agents (such as when other nations oppressed Israel for their disobedience).

We also need to remember that while God may command a thing, the Israelites were not mindless zombies who carried out what God commanded with no sense of control.  Nor were those nations who oppressed Israel mindless zombies.  They did have free will in how they carried out what was required of them.  This means that if there is a divergence between the command and the practice, it does not mean God condoned the divergence.

Principle Three: God, as Creator of All Life, Determines How Long All Have to Live

In the "democratic" view of the world, it is often assumed that man is the master of his own fate.  However, this is simply not true.  There are things outside of our control which affect these things.  I might live another fifty years.  I might die tomorrow in a traffic accident.  It is foolish to rail against such a thing being "unjust."

Now, when we remember that God is the author of all life, we can recognize that we only have a limited allotment of time, the amount we cannot know.  If God permits a wicked man a long life that he might repent, this is not unjust.  If He shortens the life of an infant, this is not unjust either.  It would be wrong to see the wicked man as being "rewarded" and it would be wrong to see the infant as "punished."

Now don't confuse this with Fatalism.  We don't believe man cannot help what he does.  If he could not help what he did, there would be no good in being moral and no fault in being immoral.  The evil we do is because of our free will.  Rather I am saying that if God decrees a long life to one and a short life to another, we have no cause to object. 

Principle Four: God Makes Known To Us What Is Required of Us

God does not come out of nowhere to condemn us for something which we have no idea about. While there is a common maxim in criminal justice that “Ignorance is no excuse for the law”, in dealing with God, He does not punish us for what we cannot know and would be impossible for us to know (called Invincible Ignorance), but only for what we do know, or could know if we had bothered to check (Vincible Ignorance).

Now to those whom God gives knowledge of His revelation do not have the excuse of not knowing His will. This is why the Jews would be punished by violating the law, and why the Catholic Church teaches:

All the Church's children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged. (Lumen Gentium #14)

This may explain ideas of God’s judgment of Christians or Jews, but what about the judging of people who did not have this revelation?

We should consider Romans 2:12-16

12 All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

We should also consider Luke 12 and Ezekiel 18 which were mentioned above in the section titled "The Christian View of the Bible vs. Other Views."

As I pointed out in Article I of this series, the idea of Natural Law indicates there is knowledge among all peoples about what is right and wrong, that we are to do good and avoid evil. I also pointed out that if God exists, then Natural Law gives all people the obligation to do good and avoid evil in relation to God.

Because all men know certain things are evil, societies which practice these evils stand condemned whether they accept the authority of God or not.

Principle Five: Free Will Exists

God did not intend to found a perfect earthly kingdom focused on the material world. Rather, He intended to bring salvation to the entire world. However the human race was living in sin because the people abused their free will. However, if God willed man to have free will, the answer was not for God to override our Free Will.

St. Thomas Aquinas mentions in Summa Contra Gentiles Book I, Chapter 84:

[1] From this it appears that the will of God cannot be of the things that are impossible in themselves.

For these have a contradiction in themselves, for example, that man is an ass, in which the rational and the irrational are included. For what is incompatible with something excludes some of the things that are necessary to it, as to be an ass excludes man’s reason. If, then, God necessarily wills the things that are required for what He wills by supposition, it is impossible for Him to will what is incompatible with these things. Thus, it is impossible for God to will the absolutely impossible.

If God's will is for man to possess free will, then the existence of a man without free will is impossible just as a Triangle with four sides is impossible, because the definition of a triangle requires it to have three sides.  If it has four, it wouldn't be a triangle.  Likewise, without free will (or potential for free will in the case of infants and individuals with impaired minds… we don't believe they are not human) the being would not be a human.

With the Christian understanding of free will, we need to remember that the argument of "Why didn't God just make the people do X" is missing the point.  The answer to this is that if God has made man free to follow Him by choice, it also follows that man has the ability to reject God.

Now this doesn't mean that man having the ability to reject God allows man to reject God without suffering consequences.  I may have the ability to buy a gun and go on a shooting spree.  This doesn't mean I am going to avoid prison or to be gunned down by the police if I do this.  I am able to keep the law or break the law.  If I obey the law, I avoid consequences.  If I break the law, I suffer the consequences.

This is also important because if God speaks through the prophets warning oppression, by men, as punishment for Israel's sins (See Preliminary Three below), this does not mean God forces these men to act against their will.  They act under their own motives even when the end result, from God's view, is chastisement.

Principle Six: God's Revelation Deals with People in History

Compared to the myths of the pagans which happened "long ago" the revelation of God reaches people in a certain culture in a certain time period.  Because of this, the laws of God deal with what man is compared to what man should be.  When God reveals Himself to Abraham or to Moses, we see there were certain customs of society which had been long practiced.  Some things which went directly against God's will and natural law were condemned outright.  Other things were restricted with the intention of changing over time.

This doesn't mean we believe in relative values where something which was bad in one era was good in another.  Rather it means we are looking at a society where what kept social cohesion, public order and other elements in line were based on force rather than formal law.  If a king wanted you dead, you didn't appeal to your constitutional rights.  You either fled or died. The people who live in this perspective may not be ready to understand the fullness of God’s revelation.

This also does not mean, as some Modernist Christians seem to believe, that teachings of God on sexual morality can be overturned because of its age.  This is to confuse the ultimate will of God in Christ with actions which were done in preparation for this final revelation.

Principle Seven: Recognizing This Was a Brutal Time

From this point of God acting in history, we need to be clear on something.  The Middle East, some 3000-4000 years ago was not like cosmopolitan New York.  There was no Constitution, no Supreme Court, and no sense of Law.  Let's face it.  If a tribe back then existed which behaved with the sentiments of America today, it would in very short order have become an extinct tribe.

This doesn't mean "the ends justify the means."  It means the ways of enforcing the law and defending oneself from wrongdoers was more brutal than it would be today.

We are dealing with a time when raids among tribes, sacking and pillaging cities, killing the men and kidnapping wives, and taking slaves were practiced by all the cultures which were here before the Israelites came from Egypt.  What is portrayed in Genesis was a common practice and not commanded by God.

Of course there were practices we recognize as offensive today, but were widely accepted then.  This happens in every generation.  Consider the case of racism in America, especially prior to the Civil Rights movement.  Now I was born in 1968, I belong to a faith which says all human beings are children of God and must be treated as such, and I have parents who were raised to think racism was wrong, so for me it is often difficult to understand how so many in America could think of certain races as genetically inferior to others.  However, such practices were indeed common, and not long ago were publically accepted as normal. 

Now I do not bring up this point with the intention of creating a tu quoque argument to say "Well everybody did it!"  Wrong is wrong, whether a society recognizes it or not.  Rather I believe this is important to remember because we need to consider this when seeing if there are differences in context concerning actions in the Old Testament.  The understanding why some actions require immediate action while others can take awhile to become known will come up in the next Principle.

Principle Eight: Chastisement vs. Recapitulation

While in Preliminary Two, I pointed out that God may need to chastise a person or a society in severe cases.  In lesser cases, it may be better to gradually change a society by putting on restrictions a little at a time. All of humanity is fallen, in the Christian view, and needs a savior. However, humanity, being fallen, cannot grasp all of what is expected of them at once. We have, instead, the revelation of God which makes some absolutes and also puts restrictions on other things, with the aim of gradually eliminating them. God can create a perfect set of laws for us and drop it in our laps… but would we have the ability to comply with it? Especially all at once?

God did not intend to create a perfect earthly society.  His intent was saving each one of us.  Cultures have a finite existence, but each human has an immortal soul. However, people are social.  They form societies.  These societies can at times act for good.  They can act for evil.  Now what happens when a society acts in a way which is wrong but does not understand it is wrong?  For most of history and among most cultures, for example, slavery was common.  So common that a simple decree of "No more slaves" could be extremely disruptive and perhaps cause more harm than good.  What other ways are there to turn a society against such evil?

There is the option of gradually bringing people into line by placing restrictions on what one may do in certain circumstances, preparing them for the fullness of salvation.

This is called Recapitulation (or less commonly, Divine Accommodation). The fullness of salvation is in Christ, while in the time leading up to Christ was a time of preparation for this message of salvation.  What will be in time recognized as wrong is restricted and made more difficult.  Remember, the Law was given to the Jews as a preparation for Christ. We can see this in Matthew 19:

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” 8 He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 

The Jews would have made an error about God seeking to gradually bring a fallen people to the right understanding, thinking instead this was a command instead of an act of tolerance.

So, with this in mind, we need to address why is there the difference between the Chastisement of some, and Recapitulation for others. It is a quite valid question, and I will do my best to answer it.

The choice of God is based on what is needed to bring a nation to its senses, and what they can handle. A nation which does not know and cannot know what God wills (Catholics call this Invincible Ignorance) may be dealt with differently than a nation which can and does know what God wills yet defies Him, or even can know His Natural Law and refuses to find out (we call this Vincible Ignorance).

The differences seem to be is that the nations which were chastised (which would include Israel in time) were chastised for things they knew were wrong, and nations which were guided received guidance over things they did not know.

Principle Nine: Societies Can Embrace Evil to the Extent that It Corrupts the People Within

This too is important to remember.  An individual society which rejects the natural law can embrace things which are barbaric.  Consider the Romans who enjoyed the blood sports of the Arenas where men could fight to the death for the entertainment of others.  In such a case, it is not enough to direct an action at individuals when the society encourages the individual to embrace an evil.  Nazi Germany is an example of how a once democratic nation turned to a brutal form of fascism.  So long as the Nazis were successful, most Germans were willing to look the other way when it came to evils.

In such a case we do see that the merely targeting Hitler or Goebbels would not necessarily have changed the society of Nazi Germany so long as people tolerated the evil they did.  It took a war to unmake the evil which existed in Nazi Germany.  In drastic cases, such action is necessary to protect the neighbors of such an evil society. 

In the issue of chastisement versus recapitulation, some evils do such harm that recapitulation is not the response. Yes, Jesus is the fullness of revelation. However, when a society willfully embraces known evil, then chastisement is appropriate.

Principle Ten: Chastisement is not just “Being Mean”

Punishment generally is recognized as having at least one (and usually more) of the following elements:

  1. Incapacitation (The person or society punished cannot commit these actions again)
  2. Deterrence (Others are dissuaded from doing the same)
  3. Restitution (Acts which harm others require recompense)
  4. Rehabilitation (For one who will repent, a punishment can bring about a change of behavior)
  5. Retribution (Justice requires that when one suffers harm, repercussions must result)

Most people assume the chastisements of God fall entirely under Retribution. Dawkins, referring to God as “hateful” and so on, seems to make this assumption. However, this is not the only reason for a punishment. A society which is, for example, as wicked as the Nazis needs to be incapacitated, and a society which may be considering emulating the Nazis can be deterred based on the treatment the Nazis received. So, if God has the right to pass judgment on His creation, we need to remember that our personal beliefs of why punishment is enacted may not be why God decreed punishment.


With these ten principles in mind, we can perhaps look objectively at what happened when God has made laws or gives edicts which seem so barbaric in modern times.  It is not enough to say "God said X.  X is evil.  Therefore God is evil."  We need to look at the contexts of the times and the events, and not merely "fill in the gaps" with our own interpretation.

Atheists may indeed disagree with the points made in this article. However, the God the atheists call “immoral” is not the God we believe in. To understand what God we believe in requires an understanding of the Christian idea of God.  To do otherwise is to commit the Straw man fallacy.

With this in mind, I hope to move on, in Articles IV and V, to the idea of how to look at certain commands of God which seem troubling to modern sensibilities.

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