During my search for answers regarding the nature of God (particularly how he is portrayed in the Old Testament), someone recommended I watch Paul Copan’s talk entitled “Is God a Moral Monster?” I also downloaded his book by the same title, with the subtitle Making Sense of the Old Testament.
Before I unpack Paul Copan’s argument, I’d like to preface with this thought: God, being all powerful, omniscient and omnipresent, could have chosen any way to reveal himself to humankind. According to the authors of both the Old and New Testaments, he chose primarily the vehicle of the scriptures for this purpose, which are described as being God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). These scriptures are a witness for all ages about the character and acts of God. Some Christians believe in the inerrancy of the Bible (i.e. that the text contains no errors, and is, at least in the original, the perfect Word of God). Others take a more nuanced view, saying that all texts are written from the particular point of view of the author, which is influenced by culture, education, geographic location etc. This perspective says that we must always be aware of that context before attempting to interpret the text. (Great article re: problematizing biblical inerrancy here if you’re interested.) In any event, regardless of which viewpoint you choose, it is a good idea for Christ-followers to know what you have signed up to.
The current part of my journey, after 26 years as a Christian, is to interrogate those parts of scripture that I am deeply uncomfortable with, so that I can defend my beliefs with integrity and a commitment to truth.
In the video, Dr Copan prefaces his topic of “Is God a Moral Monster?” by referencing Richard Dawkins and other atheists, who make sense of the universe by saying it is morally neutral, pitiless, indifferent. Dr Copan asks why then do they object to a God who performs or authorizes immoral acts, as surely they have no standard for judging what is moral and immoral. This is in fact a superficial reading of the “new atheists”. The fact that the universe is morally neutral means that, e.g. when a tsunami wipes out 230 000 people, this is not the act of an angry God, but simply a morally neutral (indifferent/pitiless) universe acting according to the laws of nature. Ditto for when a three year old child is diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
As regards morality, atheists (as well as humanists) say that we don’t need a “revealed authority” to tell us what is right or wrong. We are social animals and therefore instinctively understand that hurting other humans, or doing anything that jeopardizes their welfare, should be avoided. This is why almost all religions have the same basic tenets: do not murder, do not steal, etc. These truths are therefore seen, by the atheists/humanists, as being self-evident. This definition is taken from the American Humanist Association: “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.”
By contrast, in the Old Testament we see numerous examples of “revealed authority” (God’s instructions) which go against the basic principle of treating every person with inherent worth, e.g. The commandment should be restated as, “Do not kill, except when the Lord commands it”. This contradicts the principle of the intrinsic worth of every human, which Dr Copan address at the end of his talk. He says that God’s instruction to Joshua to kill all the Canaanites was not an ethnic cleansing, since there are examples in the Old Testament of Canaanites who were accepted into the fold when they followed the law of Moses. So the instruction to annihilate the Canaanites referred to all the others (the majority of the population, including women and children) who were offending God by engaging in immoral acts and needed to be wiped off the earth (this calls to mind a previous occasion when God was offended by rampant immorality and wiped out all of humankind, apart from Noah and his family).
Also bear in mind that the Old Testament repeatedly states that the Israelites were uniquely chosen by God for his revelation. This meant that the law was not given to the Canaanites (although perhaps some individuals were exposed to it through interaction with the Hebrews), and yet it seems as if they are being held accountable to it? If you were living in ancient times, illiterate and without access to the scientific discoveries of the modern era, or the richness of the Hebrew culture with its theology, laws and practices, would it be unreasonable for you to worship many gods, hedging your bets in a profoundly unpredictable world? Particularly considering that you were living in a polytheistic society, where everyone was worshiping many Gods. Before harvest, why not pray to the god of the harvest. Wanting to start a family? It makes sense to pray to the god of fertility. Why would the God of the Israelites feel that he must hold these people, outside of the fold of the Hebrew faith, accountable to a law they had never heard of?
Dr Copan’s view is that this is acceptable according to the Christian worldview, as God is the ultimate authority and can enact judgement on people however he chooses.
I find this explanation deeply unsatisfying, and it is certainly not one that I can or would defend. Who would want to serve a God like this? How would you answer the statement below?