Is the Old Testament God Evil?

by Paul Copan

Apologetics Is the Old Testament God EvilAre the charges made by the New Atheists a distorted representation of Old Testament ethics or is God a moral monster, as the New Atheists says He is?

The God of the Bible is a good God who demonstrates His love for people by giving His Son for the salvation of those who believe (John 3:16). The New Atheists, however, think differently. They question God’s goodness by raising abundant complaints about Old Testament (OT) ethics. Richard Dawkins thinks that Yahweh is a moral monster: “What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh — and even worse, that they should bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us.” Yahweh’s commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is both “disgraceful” and tantamount to “child abuse and bullying.” Yahweh breaks into a “monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god,” resembling “nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind.” Add to this the killing of the Canaanites — an “ethnic cleansing” in which “bloodthirsty massacres” were carried out with “xenophobic relish.” Joshua’s destruction of Jericho is “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland,” or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.” Beside all this, we have to contend with the “ubiquitous wierdness of the Bible” as well as the moral failures and hypocrisies of biblical characters: a drunken Lot seduced by and engaging in sexual relations with his daughters (Genesis 19:31–36); Abraham’s twice lying about his wife Sarah (Genesis 12:18,19; 20:1–18); Jephthah’s foolish vow that resulted in sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judges 11).

According to Christopher Hitchens, the now-forgotten Canaanites were “pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel.” Moreoever, the OT contains “a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human animals.”

Sam Harris boldly asserts that if the Bible is true, we should be stoning people to death for heresy, adultery, homosexuality, worshipping graven images, and “other imaginary crimes.” Referring to Deuteronomy 13:6–11, Harris claims that the consistent Bible-believer should stone his son or daughter if she comes home from a yoga class a devotee of Krishna. Furthermore, once we recognize that slaves are human beings who are equally capable of suffering and happiness, we will understand that it is “patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment.” Indeed, we can be good and recognize right and wrong without God or the Bible: we can know objective moral truths without “the existence of a lawgiving God” and can judge Hitler to be morally reprehensible “without reference to scripture.”

I argue that these charges made by the New Atheists are a distorted representation of OT ethics, which fail to consider issues such as the earliest creational ideals (Genesis 1,2), the warm moral ethos of the OT, the ancient Near East (ANE) context, the broader biblical canon, and the metaphysical context to undergird objective morality. I have attempted elsewhere to address at both scholarly and popular levels the various OT ethical questions — slavery, the Canaanite issue, killing Canaanites vs. Islamic jihad, “harsh” moral codes and “strange” levitical laws, Abraham’s offering Isaac, the imprecatory psalms, divine jealousy, divine egotism, and so forth. I only offer a broad overview here…


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