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#351 Problems with the Old Testament

January 05, 2014

Dear Professor Craig,

It's an honor to write to you and I thank you for your Christian apologetics website that's been very stimulating for me to read the past few years.

I am an agnostic (leaning heavily towards general theism) with some family ties to Christianity. The past few years, I have myself been searching quite deeply and investigating the truth of Christianity and I find your work very helpful in this area. As of the moment, I personally find many of the arguments for general theism quite compelling (especially your Kalam cosmological argument). However, I am not sure I can make the leap to Christianity just yet. There are still some things I am working through and investigating and thought I might ask you about one of the areas that's bothered me quite a lot and makes it tough for me to trust in and believe Christianity.

The area that bothers me quite a bit is what to make of the Old Testament of the Bible. What I mean, Professor Craig, is that the Old Testament makes some claims and/or paints a picture of God that seems so far out there compared to the New Testament. Two key examples of what I mean would be:

1.) Extraordinary miracles (such as Jonah living inside of a whale, a talking snake, and the Exodus story, which doesn't seem to have any historical/archeological proof).

2.) A wrathful God, who seems petty and filled with anger (I'm thinking of God's punishments set forth in the Book of Leviticus, which seem scary and extreme).

Professor Craig, I realize that some people caution to not always read the Old Testament literally and I am aware of that and keep that in mind, but on the whole, it does seem my two key areas of concern above would still hold. God really does seem in the Old Testament unusually angry (again, I'm thinking of punishments in Leviticus), as well as, extraordinarily grand in the scale of his miracles, which seem nearly unbelievable when reading about them.

My question for you is essentially how you would respond to these apects of the OT? Is it really reasonable to believe that all of the seemingly outrageous supernatural events reported in the Old Testament were literal and took place (despite, for example, there being no evidence of the Exodus)? And, secondly, is it really reasonable to believe that the Old Testament God who articulated punishments, such as those found in Leviticus, could be the exact same God as the person of Jesus in the New Testament? It's these issues that prevent me from trusting in Christianity at the moment, because the Old and New Testament depictions of God and his interactions with humanity just seem so inconsistent at times.

I thank you for your time, Professor Craig, and look forward to possibly seeing your answer to my question sometime in the future on your site.

My very best,


United States

Dr. craig’s response


We recently returned from England, where we participated in events commemorating the 50th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death. Lewis was famous for his defense of what he called “mere Christianity,” that is to say, those central truths comprised by the Christian world view. If God exists and has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus of Nazareth, then Christianity is true, and the rest is working out the details.

Clearly, Jason, your concerns are with the details, not with the central truths. The unreliability of certain Old Testament narratives would have no impact upon the truth of theism or the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The questions you ask are thus “in-house” concerns to be debated among Christians. Should we accept the Old Testament as inspired throughout by God? To what extent does inspiration imply scientific or historical reliability? These are, I think, open questions to be discussed. But they should not be obstacles to belief in mere Christianity and, hence, faith in Christ.

So I would encourage you, Jason, simply to bracket these questions until you have made up your mind about (1) whether or not God exists and (2) whether or not He raised Jesus from the dead in vindication of his radical personal claims. If you answer either of these questions in the negative, there’s no reason to be concerned about your questions. On the other hand, if you do answer these questions in the affirmative and become a Christian, then you can proceed to explore your questions further. Don’t get hung up on them now. They’re not deal-breakers.

So what might the Christian who believes in Old Testament reliability say in response to your questions? With respect to the miracle stories, I think we need to keep in mind that if God exists, then miracles are child’s play for Him. The real question here, I believe, is interpretive: whether the narratives are to be construed as literal accounts. With regard to the talking snake in the Garden of Eden, I should say that this is very likely to be interpreted as part of a figurative story of man’s fall. The underlying historical events really happened, but they are cast in figurative language. The entire account of Adam and Eve is told in figurative language, from God’s breathing into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life to Eve’s creation out of Adam’s rib to God’s walking in the Garden crying, “Where are you?” These features of the story are plausibly not intended to be taken literally. The talking serpent is part of the figurative, not literal, aspects of the story.

With respect to Jonah, I suspect that Jonah died while in the stomach of the fish (whether this was a whale isn’t said), and that the miracle is God’s raising him from the dead when he was regurgitated on the shore. His prayer to God is a literary or poetic device which serves the author’s theological purposes. Jonah is thus an even closer type (or foreshadowing) of Jesus Christ than he would be were he miraculously preserved alive inside the fish. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12.40).

As for the Exodus, I want to commend to you a book that I have here on my desk by the famed Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen entitled On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003). Kitchen’s lengthy chapter 6 is devoted to a discussion of the Exodus and the Sinai wanderings of Israel in light of archaeology. You’re quite right to say that archaeology does not afford a proof of the Exodus. But Kitchen explains in some detail why no such proof should be expected. For example, he points out,

The Delta is an alluvial fan of mud deposited through many millennia by the annual flooding of the Nile; it has no source of stone within it. Mud, mud and wattle, and mud-brick structures were of limited duration and use, and were repeatedly leveled and replaced, and very largely merged once more with the mud of the fields. . . . The mud hovels of brickfield slaves and humble cultivators have long since gone back to their mud origins, never to be seen again. . . . And, as pharaohs never monumentalize defeats on temple walls, no record of the successful exit of a large bunch of foreign slaves (with loss of a full chariot squadron) would ever have been memorialized by any king, in temples in the Delta or anywhere else. On these matters, once and for all, biblicists must shed their naïve attitudes and cease demanding ‘evidence’ that cannot exist (p. 246).

Kitchen also marshals positive evidence to show the historical credibility of the Exodus narratives (such as the otherwise inexplicable quintupling of the population of the land of Canaan between 1210-1150 B.C.). The salient question is not whether we have a proof of the historicity of the Exodus but whether the evidence disproves the historicity of the Exodus. It does not.

Let’s turn, then, to your second concern, that God as portrayed in the Old Testament seems angry and petty. I suspect that this impression results from a selective reading of the Old Testament that ignores the many passages about God’s compassion and concern for the widow, the orphan, and the downtrodden. The God of the Old Testament is a God of love and justice. His anger is always an expression of His intense passion for justice and holiness. Anyone who thinks that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God revealed by Jesus needs to reflect on the fact that the God worshiped and proclaimed by Jesus as our “heavenly Father” just is the God of the Old Testament!

What about the Levitical laws and penalties you mention? Here a couple of things should be kept in mind.

First, these regulations are not intended to be optimal. They are provisional and temporary, suited to Israel’s circumstances at that time.

Second, in some cases the perceived harshness of the punishments testifies to how seriously God takes the sin involved. You see, Israel was a theocracy, a form of government whose head was God. Her laws were not intended to be laws that would be generally applicable to secular society. Take, for example, the laws regarding adultery. Adultery was in Israel a capital offense. In our secular, increasingly promiscuous culture we are horrified at this prospect. But Israel’s laws expressed how intensely God hates the sin of adultery. In the New Testament Paul quotes Genesis, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh,” and then comments, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5.32). The union of a man with his wife in marriage is thus a living symbol of the union between Christ and his church. Thus, to violate this bond through illicit sexual intercourse, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is a sacrilege, a profanation of the holy union of Christ with his people. In our secular society we no longer have this view of marriage. But in ancient Israel’s laws we see how seriously God takes marriage and its violation. We may be offended at this; but who is to say that we are right in our estimation and God is wrong?

Third, some of these laws may not have been actually enforced. The laws may have been idealizations, the harsh penalties expressing how much God hates the sin involved. But actual practice may have been quite different from these idealizations. Penalties concerning children cursing their parents probably fell into this category.

I think that God still abhors sin today, just as He did in the Old Testament, but that since we (we may be glad!) do not live in a theocracy, His judgement is stayed until the Judgement Day, when we shall have to give account of our lives.

Now you don’t have to believe any of this in order to be a Christian, Jason, as I have explained; but for my part, I don’t see insuperable problems in your questions.

- William Lane Craig