Did God Commit Atrocities in the Old Testament?
Conversation with William Lane Craig
Did God Commit Atrocities in the Old Testament?
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, a roadblock to faith in Christ and to Christianity is something that is often called the atrocities of the Old Testament. That is, when we read the Old Testament account of God using Israel to judge other nations – literally wiping them out, women, children, animals – people say, “How could God do that?” How could God commit genocide in that way? How could he take the lives of little children and so on? We do find, in fact, these stories in the Old Testament. Have you run into that objection?
Dr. Craig: Oh, yes. It is one I think that any thoughtful Christian feels himself, wholly apart from confronting skeptics. No thoughtful Christian can read these narratives and not find them disturbing, Kevin. I think this is one of the most difficult questions that a Bible believing Christian faces. How could God command soldiers to go in and kill innocent women and children?
Kevin Harris: When we look at this, the first thing I guess we would try to determine is, “What is the context of these events?” So what are some of contextual considerations?
Dr. Craig: First of all, it is important to realize that this is a singular event in the Old Testament. This is not the normal way in which the God of the Old Testament operates. Contrary to what certain people might tell you, the God of the Old Testament is not some sort of moral monster who goes about commanding people to kill women and children. It is the very singularity of these narratives that makes them stand out. These killings tend to be associated with the conquest of the land of Canaan. It is when God calls Israel out of Egypt and now gives them the Promised Land. Living in this land at that time are certain clans or small nations or tribal groups that are collectively called the Canaanites. There were probably about seven of these different clans. What God commands Joshua and the armies of Israel to do is to go in and wipe out these Canaanite peoples to kill every man, woman, and child so that the Canaanites would be literally annihilated. In this way, God gives the land over to Israel as their Promised Land, their dwelling place. This was the land that Abraham was called to originally and then Israel went down into Egypt during the time of famine and were there for around four hundred years or so before now God calls them back out to the Promised Land to give it to them again. But that means wiping out these peoples that are already living there.
Kevin Harris: Right off the bat it seems to go against the grain of our modern sensibilities.
Dr. Craig: Oh, yeah, I certainly think so because we have in modern warfare a distinction between civilians and combatants. It seems morally atrocious to kill these women and children who are non-combatants. So it does present, I think, a real difficulty for the Christian in reading these narratives. Especially, as I say, what is odd is it is so different from God as you read about him in the rest of the Old testament where he is compassionate toward those who are suffering, the down trodden, the oppressed. He is fair in dealing with other people. He even loves pagan nations. One of the most remarkable stories in the Old Testament is the story of Jonah where God sends a prophet to Nineveh, this pagan nation, because he says, “There are a couple hundred thousand people there who don’t know their right hand from their left and I have pity upon these people.” So he sends a prophet to them even though they are not Israelites. So it is so strange to see this narrative in the conquest of Canaan of this same God who is so compassionate and loving and just ordering these Israeli soldiers to annihilate these people groups in Canaan.
Kevin Harris: One thing that emerges from this question is that it is an internal question. The question as the skeptic usually presents it against the Christian is why would God do this? You immediately think, wait a minute, if it were God who was doing this, we are talking about the God of the universe. So it becomes an internal question of “Why God would do this?” as opposed to “Is there a God who did this?”
Dr. Craig: Exactly. I think that’s right, Kevin. If you ask yourself, suppose this objection is unanswerable. Suppose the skeptic is able to demonstrate to our satisfaction that an all-loving, all-just God could not have issued such a command. What follows from that? That Christ didn’t rise from the dead? That Jesus Christ was not God incarnate? That God does not exist? No, obviously none of that would follow. All that would follow is that God in fact did not give such a command as you have recorded in the book of Genesis. Now that would mean either these stories are simply legends, perhaps myths of the founding of Israel that never really occurred, or else if these events did occur then Israel, carried away in a fit of national frenzy, thought “God is on our side” and so they imagined that God had commanded them to do these things.
In other words, what this objection is really an attack on is not the existence of God or the truth of Christianity, it is an attack on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Now that is important, I think, but nevertheless it is not central to the truth of Christianity. If one were forced to, one could give up the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and say, “All right, I guess God really didn’t issue these commands after all for one reason or another but nevertheless I still believe God exists, I still believe in the incarnation of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and so forth.” So it is not an objection to the existence of God, or the resurrection of Jesus, or anything like that. What it really is is a type of criticism of biblical inerrancy.
Kevin Harris: At most, it would harm the doctrine of inerrancy but not Christianity itself.
Dr. Craig: Right. That is the point I am trying to make. It is important to see what is at stake in this objection lest we think the objection proves something that it doesn’t. It has nothing to do with whether or not God exists or whether or not he brought Israel out of Egypt or whether Christ was born of a virgin or fed the five thousand or any of those things. It is really an attack upon the accuracy of the Genesis account of the conquest of Canaan. What is ironic about this is that a lot of critical scholars think that in fact these aren’t historical stories. A lot of critical scholars think that these are just legendary stories that were invented about the national founding of Israel. Sort of like the legends of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus. Therefore, these events never really happened. So for those kind of liberal scholars, this isn’t even a problem. The problem doesn’t arise because they don’t believe God ever gave such commands. They think these are just, in a sense, myths or legends. So while I don’t agree with that perspective, I think it helps us to put the objection in perspective. This is not an objection that strikes at the heart of theism or even Christianity. It would attack simply the accuracy of the Pentateuch with respect to the conquest of Canaan.
Kevin Harris: In the event that one would want to go internally as well and say God could have had good reasons for this judgment against these pagan nations, what are our options on that?
Dr. Craig: I think first we need to set the framework of a theory of ethics that will help us to understand these commands. The framework for my ethical theory is what is called divine command morality. What is that? That is an ethical theory which says that our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands. It is God’s commandments to us that give us right and wrong; that determine what we should and should not do. Therefore, if God issues you a command to do something, that becomes your moral duty and it would be wrong for you not to do it. Since God doesn’t issue commands to himself, he doesn’t have any moral duties to fulfill. Rather, he simply acts in accordance with his nature which is loving, just, kind, compassionate, and so forth.
In that context, what one comes to realize is that God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend anybody’s life. Life is a gift from God and he is not duty bound to prolong your life. He can take your life as he sees fit. That is his prerogative as God. I don’t have the right, as a human being, to kill somebody else. If I did that, that would be murder. But if God were to kill me right now, that wouldn’t be murder. He could do that and he wouldn’t violate any moral duty. That is within his prerogative.
What that means in this case is that God isn’t under any moral obligation to prolong the lives of the Canaanite people. Even the Canaanite children. Children die all the time in the world from disease and accident and other sorts of things. So God isn’t in any way obligated to prolong the lives of any of these Canaanite persons. If he chooses to take their lives, he does no wrong and is completely within his rights in doing so.
So, the problem isn’t that God took the lives of the Canaanites. That is not really a difficulty. The difficulty rather is that he commanded the Israeli soldiers to take the lives of these Canaanites. That is, I think, the essence of the problem.
Kevin Harris: If God were all-knowing and he had the attributives of omniscience and so forth, it wouldn’t be an arbitrary thing. He would have a purpose in taking a life.
Dr. Craig: Yes, that is right. God’s commands reflect his own moral nature and character which is just and loving and wise. So his commands are not issued capriciously or arbitrarily. There would be good morally sufficient reasons for issuing a command like this. If God were to issue a command to the soldiers to kill the Canaanite people, in virtue of divine command morality that would become their moral duty. That would become the right thing for them to do.
Now someone might say, “Are you saying that God can command someone to murder somebody else? Is that what you are saying?” No, I am not saying that God can command you to murder someone. I am saying that God can command you to do something which in the absence of a divine command would have been murder but is not murder in virtue of that divine command because it now becomes your moral duty. God has the right to command you to do things which, in the absence of a command, would have been sin. So think of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. If Abraham had done this on his own initiative, if he had just taken his son and decided to sacrifice him to God, that would have been an abomination in God’s sight. But under the injunction of a divine command to sacrifice Isaac, it is no longer murder. It now becomes Abraham’s moral duty. God tests Abraham to see his faithfulness and obedience if he will carry out this terribly difficult command in obedience to God.
So God gave a command to these Israeli soldiers to do something that they would not have had the right to do under their own initiative, namely, to take the lives of not only other soldiers but also civilians – women and children. And moreover I think we want to say that God had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. We see this already in the book of Genesis. In the book of Genesis when Abraham is confronted by God and God is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah you’ll remember there is a story where Abraham bargains with God and he says, “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you destroy it in that case? Won’t the judge of all the earth do right?” He challenges God with respect to God doing the right thing. What is God’s response? He says, “If there are fifty righteous people in the city I will not destroy it.” Then Abraham says, “Oh, God! don’t blame me – what if there are forty people?” And God said, “I still won’t destroy it if there are forty people.” And Abraham says, “Oh Lord! Don’t think me impertinent. What if there are even ten righteous people in the city?” And God says, “If there are ten righteous in the city, I will not destroy it.” And Abraham doesn’t dare go any lower than that. He is too afraid to bargain with God more. But this story sets the background for the destruction of the conquest of Canaan. It shows that God isn’t going to destroy a nation or a people without just cause. If there were righteous people there he wouldn’t do it.
When he predicts the bondage of Israel in Egypt he says to Abraham that his descendants are going to go down into Egypt and they are going to be there for four hundred years because God says the inequity of the Canaanites is not yet complete. In other words, they had not yet become so corrupted, so decadent, that they were ripe for judgment. So God stays his judgment upon Canaan for another four hundred years. He allows his own people Israel to languish in slavery in Egypt until the inequity of the Canaanites become so intolerable, so irrevocable, that now they are ripe for judgment. And he brings his people out of Egypt in the Exodus and commands them to go in and destroy this nation wholesale in judgment.
In fact, the Canaanite nation and culture was incredibly decadent. They practiced temple prostitution in their worship of Baal, they even practiced child sacrifice where they were killing innocent human beings supposedly in worship to God. God says these things are abominable, I want you to wipe out these people. So this isn’t just sort of making room for God’s people to come back into the land. Rather, these people were ripe for judgment and so God decided to destroy them.
You might say what about the children though? The children hadn’t done anything wrong. So how could God command them to be destroyed? Here I think, Kevin, we need to look at the destruction of the Canaanite children in the wider context of God’s commandments to Israel not to assimilate to pagan nations and practices. God gave Israel incredibly complex law that distinguishes being clean and unclean. Some of these regulations are so bizarre to us as moderns like don’t wear clothe that is a mixture of linen and wool or don’t have milk and meat cooked in the same vessel. The point of these strange and arbitrary distinctions between clean and unclean seems to be to avoid mixing things together. These are parables as it were. They are living illustrations, tangible illustrations, of how you are not to assimilate to these pagan nations and peoples all around you. So the destruction of the Canaanites wholesale, even the children, is just one more terrible, tangible object lesson of the prohibition of not assimilating. They are not even to assimilate racially with these Canaanite children by allowing them to live, grow up, and inter-marry with Israelis. Israel is to be reserved for God alone, set apart for him alone, and not to in any way assimilate the peoples and nations around them. So God has them even take the lives of the children to prevent this. Notice that in doing so, God doesn’t do anything wrong to those children. In fact, if you believe in the salvation of infants as I do the destruction of these children was in fact their salvation. It means that they went to heaven and went to be with God.
Kevin Harris: It certainly spared them the rigors of the horrors of paganism.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, what if they grew up in that Canaanite culture and then ultimately go to hell?
Kevin Harris: But at any rate, it is God’s call.
Dr. Craig: Right. It is God’s prerogative as the divine law giver. He can command people to do things that in the absence of a command would have been sin but in the presence of a command is now their duty. He does so with good moral reason, but also he doesn’t wrong the children. I think that is important to see. He does no wrong to them in doing this. On the contrary, it accords them salvation, eternal life, and a knowledge of God.
So in killing the Canaanites, God doesn’t do wrong by anybody concerned. He doesn’t wrong the adults because they were corrupt and ripe for judgment. He doesn’t wrong the children because they get eternal life. If anybody is wronged by this, paradoxically – and I’ve not seen anybody else make this point – it would seem to be the Israeli soldiers themselves who would seem to be wronged. Because one could think of the brutalizing effect on them of having to go and kill women and children. You would think what a horrible, brutalizing effect that would have upon these soldiers. And yet, that again is looking at it from a modern, Christianized perspective. In the ancient Near East, life was already brutal. I mean, this kind of thing went on all the time. Violence and war and slaughter was common place.
Kevin Harris: Death.
Dr. Craig: Violent death. Gruesome. So we must not overemphasize, I think, the difficulty this would have been for the soldiers who carried it out. And moreover I think there could be no more sobering object lesson of this fact again that God is holy and you are called to be holy and separate. This notion again of not assimilating, of being separate from them, would have been driven into the minds and hearts of these Israelis by seeing what happened to these Canaanite peoples. And God said, “If you are not obedient, if you apostatize, the same thing is going to happen to you. You will be judged.” Eventually, centuries later, God did judge his own people by Babylon and Assyria when they came in and killed and deported the people. So this was a sobering, deep object lesson to them about the importance of maintaining covenant with Yahweh, with God, and being separate from the pagan practices and peoples around them.
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, as we conclude, you’ve answered this in all your comments that we’ve just heard but I want to bring it out and just make sure that we all get this. And that is, when you hear a news report of a woman who kills her children in modern times and claims that God told her to do that, why do we have reason to doubt that that was God commanding her to drown her children in the bathtub as occurred in Houston, Texas?
Dr. Craig: I think a person like that is psychologically deranged and a psychologist could tell that. There are not the justifying circumstances in that case that there were, for example, in the conquest of Canaan. That is why you don’t have this repeated over and over again in the Old Testament. The conquest of Canaan was a unique set of historical circumstances that obtained at that time and is not meant to be a sort of general rule of behavior among mankind.
Kevin Harris: Our question of the day, Dr. Craig: Can creation and Darwinism both be taught in public schools?
Dr. Craig: I think they can. I know that that goes against what the courts have said. But I don’t see any reason in a classroom you cannot say there are opposing points of view about how biological complexity arose. Here is one option and here is the other option and here is where the evidence points. I note that Richard Dawkins would agree with me on this. In his book The God Delusion he says the God hypothesis is a scientific hypothesis that should be assessed as such. Now that implies that the hypothesis of creation doesn’t belong just in the religion class or the philosophy class, but it belongs in the science class. It is a scientific hypothesis and can be assessed there. So I must confess that I am just bewildered why the courts have thought that this is teaching religion. It seems to me that having the notion of a creator and designer isn’t necessarily a religious hypothesis. For Aristotle, for example, the Unmoved Mover was part of his physics. The Unmoved Mover moved the system of the spheres that caused motion. But the Unmoved Mover was not an object of religious devotion for Aristotle. He didn’t worship God. God was simply the sort of invisible motor that turned the crank that ran the system of the spheres. In the same way, I don’t understand how positing an intelligent designer of the universe or a creator of biological complexity does anything to suggest religion. There is no cultic aspect there. There is no worship aspect there that you are trying to inculcate in people. So I guess I find myself at odds with the courts on this issue.
Kevin Harris: Would Dawkins expect that if God were to exist that we could test him scientifically?
Dr. Craig: That is what he says. He thinks that whether or not God exists, the hypothesis that God exists is one that should be scientifically tested. And especially when the God hypothesis is offered as an explanation for biological complexity. This is a scientific explanation he would say and therefore needs to be assessed by scientific criteria. Things like explanatory power, predictive success, explanatory scope, plausibility, and so on and so forth.
Kevin Harris: Wouldn’t it assume that God would have a physical body and somehow we are going to be able to find him and test him?
Dr. Craig: Not necessarily. Think of modern physics, Kevin. It posits all sorts of unobservable entities – quarks, strings, even parallel universes, other worlds that are causally disconnected to this one. I mean, modern physics is rife with examples of in principle unobservable entities. They are postulated simply because if they exist they would be the best explanation for the effects that we observe. So it is perplexing to me why you could not postulate a theoretical entity, namely an unembodied intelligence, as being the best explanation for the origin of biological complexity in the world. That needn’t be connected with the Bible or any kind of cultic worship of this being. So I think that the courts have demonstrated their lack of philosophical understanding in precluding these sorts of hypotheses from being offered in classrooms.
 Total Running Time: 25:29 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)