There are a number of things about our world, and about the christian faith, that seem hard to explain if God is loving – for example, the pain and suffering people experience, hell, the commands in the Old Testament to kill and even wipe out whole tribes and God’s disapproval of homosexuality.
What should christians say about these things?
Some christians are reconsidering
Some christians no longer believe in the traditional hell, some believe the stories of the invasion of the Promised land are more legend than fact, and some believe that the commands about homosexuality have been misunderstood, and shouldn’t be applied today. Many christians are beginning to reconsider some of these difficult teachings, but this won’t happen overnight, if at all, so difficult teachings will remain. The suffering and pain in the world will still be apparent.
So how should christians who believe such teachings explain them?
Some case studies
These case studies refer to the Old Testament killings, apparently commanded by God, principally during the invasion of Canaan by Joshua (Deuteronomy 20:10-20, Numbers 31) and the killing of the Amalekites at the time of Saul (1 Samuel 15:1-3).
William Lane Craig and the Old Testament killings
William Lane Craig is an eminent christian philosopher, apologist and debater. His book Reasonable Faith is the best and most comprehensive apologetic book I have ever read. He is someone I have a high regard for. (I am sure he is relieved by that! 🙂 ) Nevertheless, he found himself embroiled in some nasty criticisms because of his statements on the Old Testament killings.
Craig wrote a long reply on his website to questions about the killings. He began by agreeing that these stories are “jarring” and “offend our moral sensibilities”, and he pointed out that this is partly because of Biblical teaching on ethics that have shaped us and our culture. But he went on to explain that if we believe in Biblical inerrancy, we must believe the stories are true, and then tried to show why God’s behaviour was justified – by the “debauched” state of Canaanite culture and the need to protect Israel from being assimilated into this culture.
Craig has been strongly criticised for this stance, and Richard Dawkins used it as a reason, or excuse, for refusing to debate with Craig (see Dawkins vs Craig).
John Piper and the Old Testament killings
Evangelical pastor John Piper talked about the same issue on his website, and began with these words:
It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.”
Piper went on to explain that since God is sovereign, everything that happens to us comes from his hand, and since he made us, he has every right to do whatever he wants with us. Old Testament scholar Peter Enns was appalled by Piper’s comments, and said so strongly here and here. Enns pointed out some unsavoury parts of the stories that may not be so well known, including the taking of virgins for the Israelites to “enjoy” or as slaves – though a reader (see comments below) has pointed out that most of these girls would have been young, and it isn’t clear exactly how they would have been treated.
Piper’s comments were subsequently removed and can no longer be read on the website. It may be that he regretted the comments, and so my use of them here as a case study does not infer these are his current views.
Suffering and hell
Christian apologists typically defend God against the problem of evil in the world by claiming that suffering isn’t necessarily evil, or is the result of sin. They generally defend never-ending torture in hell by saying God is perfectly justified in punishing sin in this way.
Are these good explanations?
Do we really believe it is right for God to slaughter?
Is this really how christians feel, and should feel? I for one cannot feel that way. If I thought too hard about what is recorded those parts of the Old Testament, I would probably feel sick at heart. Surely any person who did not feel that way has somehow missed the teachings of Jesus, and missed common humanity?
And does this mean that we would be willing to do the same if God commanded it? Is it possible that we could think God commanded something unsavoury and we might do it?
Surely, and hopefully, the truth is that we feel instinctively that these are morally bad actions. We might be willing to believe that there were circumstances at the time that made these desperate measures somehow necessary (though I don’t personally think that), but surely we should always feel the horror of such a situation?
Do we really believe suffering in this world and hell are OK?
The same surely applies to other issues. If we believe that many people will suffer forever in hell for a lifetime of sin (which I don’t believe), shouldn’t we be desperately sad about that, not, as some christians seem to be, exultant? And when we consider the evil and suffering in the world, shouldn’t we feel appalled, and strongly committed to alleviating it where we can, and not simply explain it as if it was nothing to be concerned about?
Demeaning ourselves, demeaning God
If christians try to explain why they believe God allows so much evil, punishes so severely and called for large-scale killing, it can easily, and understandably, be seen as callous and inhumane. I believe this demeans us and presents a false picture of God.
Christians believe the New Testament revelation of God in Jesus supersedes what went before (Hebrews 1:1-4, 2 Corinthians 3:5). That revelation is built around the clear statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Jesus’ life illustrates this – he taught non-violence, forgiveness and love for enemies, he treated women better than the norms of the culture of his day, he restored people to health and self esteem.
This is the core of our belief and message. If, in defending some other doctrine, we compromise this message of love, grace and forgiveness in word or deed, we are not following Jesus properly and we are not presenting and living out what it means to be part of the kingdom of God. We also misrepresent who God is, giving the impression he is something less than the God who is love.
Communicating truth is not just a matter of saying what we believe to be true – it includes seeking to build up rather than tear down, speaking in ways that ensure the message is heard as intended, avoiding misunderstanding, choosing what aspects of truth are appropriate on a particular occasion, and being guided by the Spirit in this. This is part of what it means to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
A better way?
We can surely improve how we present our beliefs, and perhaps the content of them as well.
Reconsider our beliefs
There good reasons to reconsider some of these difficult beliefs. I won’t go into those reasons here, but you can read some of my ideas at Who’s afraid of Yahweh?, Believing the Bible: the Old Testament – 2 and Hell- what does the Bible say?. Christians have been reconsidering and revising their understanding all through christian history, and in some of these interpretations the early christians were more flexible and less literal than many of us are today.
We surely should not be too afraid to reconsider, and to pray about these matters?
Reconsider our apologetics
We don’t really understand God, and cannot be sure our rationalisations of his behaviour are right. I suggest those who cannot at this time reconsider some of these teachings should focus on what we do know about God, as revealed in Jesus, and not try to justify what we cannot really know. I suggest a response like this is better:
Jesus showed us that God is loving and cares for each person. He will put wrong things right one day and judge injustice and sin, but he will do this compassionately and fairly. If anything (hell, the OT killings, etc) gives a different impression of God, that impression is incorrect. I find these things troubling too, and I will not try to explain them. I remain convinced that I can trust God to always do right, but don’t understand how that works out in this case. I don’t have to know everything, but I know enough of Jesus to keep trusting him.