What if God commanded murder?
by Randy Everist
A while back I was invited to respond to an article written last year concerning a challenge to the goodness of the Abrahamic God. This article holds a central question: “If God commanded you to kill your child, would you be morally justified if you were to obey?” He then proposes a trilemma, for which he points out various problems. He then concludes, “no matter how one answers [the question] . . . the notion of an omnibenevolent God seems untenable.” The example he uses is the famous one of Abraham and his only true son (with Sarah), Isaac.
He first runs into the problem that one may answer the question with just anything (by the principle of explosion) if one assumes that the question contains an impossible antecedent. He anticipates this response and says that on the contrary such is not “inconceivable.” The problem is this, however: if one considers God to be morally perfect and the antecedent is not morally perfect, then the question is in fact inconceivable. To say it isn’t is just to admit, in the case of the omnibenevolent God (which the argument assumes in order to show its untenability), that such a God’s commanding the actions is possible, and hence the conclusion is false. My point here is that the worst that follows is that Abraham was mistaken and the Bible is not inerrant (a hefty price, to be sure, but one that is somewhat less than an omnibenevolent God’s existence!).
Of course, he may rightly question whether I would take the above route. The answer is that I would not. So, what are the three options? The first (1) is to answer, “No, because this would be murder.” If we do that, then we accept the premise that a supposedly good God commanded murder (and murder is always wrong). (1) is obviously not a viable option.
(2) is to answer “yes,” we would be morally justified in obeying. However, the reasoning is because what “God commands is by definition good.” He offers a two-pronged critique. I will quote his own words here: “If what is good is that which God commands, then, presumably, He may command and perform any act which, ex hypothesi, must be good, in which case morality may be said to be arbitrary and capricious; entirely contingent upon what God may at any time decree.” The other prong of the critique is to say that God’s commands and the good are simply identical, and thus the question of what “good” is really becomes meaningless for the theist here…
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A recent string of popular-level books written by the New Atheists have leveled the accusation that the God of the Old Testament is nothing but a bully, a murderer, and a cosmic child abuser. This viewpoint is even making inroads into the church. How are Christians to respond to such accusations? And how are we to reconcile the seemingly disconnected natures of God portrayed in the two testaments? In this timely and readable book, apologist Paul Copan takes on some of the most vexing accusations of our time, including: God is arrogant and jealous; God punishes people too harshly; God is guilty of ethnic cleansing; God oppresses women; God endorses slavery; Christianity causes violence; and more. Copan not only answers God’s critics, he also shows how to read both the Old and New Testaments faithfully, seeing an unchanging, righteous, and loving God in both.
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