Justifying God's behaviour


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.

Photo: Wikipedia

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  1. Enns does not understand Christianity else he would not say: “… forming their own Christian Taliban to be God’s agents of wrath in this life.” While he mentions views and books, he does not engage in a scholarly fashion with the complex issues of his topic. Rather, he makes emotional arguments when he assumes that virgin slaves in the ANE are chattel slaves for sexual exploitation. Nowhere does he present evidence that they were.

  2. Hi Chaz, thanks for visiting and commenting.
    Re the Christian Taliban, he has undoubtedly used colourful language in a way that I would not choose to do. But his point was that a very few apparent christians have killed abortion doctors and gays, and many more seem to hold “a brand of Christianity that is agitated, judgmental, suspicious”. Would you disagree?
    “Nowhere does he present evidence that they were.”
    Why do you think all the others were killed but the virgin girls were, as Moses is reported to have said to the soldiers, “saved for yourself”?

  3. Even if there were many ‘agitated, judgmental and suspicious’ Christians, just what would that do for his argument which is about theodicy? Appeals to the acts of Christians (improper or otherwise) instead of the essence of theology makes his argument emotional. The man has a PhD, should he not argue as if he has one? One argument is that the virgins were mercifully assimilated; not sex slaves as in other cultures. But that’s another issue. The issue is not what I think but what actually occurred, to which he has not presented anything but conjecture. Enns analysis is facile when compared to that from Glenn Miller [http://christianthinktank.com/midian.html] who doesn’t yet have his PhD.

  4. Hi Chaz, thanks for clarifying. I think I can agree with you in part, but not totally.
    1. I think Enns is raising a reasonable point when he suggests that a certain view of God may affect behaviour in a bad way. But I agree with you that it is peripheral to the main point.
    2. I think your criticism of Enns’ comments on the fate of the virgin women is again partly valid. The reference you quote goes into a lot of detail to explain what (he believes) did and didn’t happen, more detail than Enns gives. But Enns is not attempting to explain in that detail. I have looked up other sources, some of which take the line in your reference, others take the line that Enns does. But the fate of those girls isn’t clear, and I have amended the text of my post slightly to take note of this. Thank you for that.
    3. But in the end, I was using Enns’ comments as part of a brief case study, not to endorse everything he said. So I have gained from your comments, but the matters you raise are not crucial to my post’s main point.
    In fact, this brief discussion illustrates the point of what I was saying, that any attempt to explain things will end up giving a worse impression than the text already gives us. That is certainly true of the reference which you give, which seems to accept the cold-blooded killing of thousands of boys and women as if it was nothing. I think it is true that this was what happened in wars back then, but trying to justifying God following the norms of the day seems to be worse than just letting the story stand and commenting as I suggested at the end of my post.
    But thanks for clarifying and for your interest.

  5. Two books to suggest, neither of which I have read, but both of which address this kind of thing.
    First of all, published by a professor from my seminary, “God Behaving Badly” by David Lamb. While not written as a scholarly, theologically academic apologetic, it is written as an accessible conversation about those “bad” God passages. Knowing Lamb and the kind of teaching from my seminary, I’d recommend it.
    Second of all, coming out soon (and hence, since not published yet, I haven’t read it), “Crucifixion of the Warrior God” by Greg Boyd. If you’ve been following his ReKnew.org website, he has been, lately, putting forward some of his thoughts that are in that book. It looks to be an intriguing way of addressing those problematic Old Testament passages without denying them as historically possible and accurate.

  6. UnkleE I find your approach confusing,
    How can you say some parts of the Bible are incorrect and others aren’t?
    Is this removing what you don’t like, what grinds and offends many in society – while keeping what is attractive and esteemed by many in society? Is this a form of adaptation?
    Surely you can see that this is trying to have it both ways? Isin’t it?
    I really do appreciate your focus on compassion and love. This is something I need to strive for more, since I have been very inconsistant lately. I think you have a big heart, thats what I get from your posts, and that you care alot for others.
    Honestly, it seems to me that you focus on keeping your faith because it essentially works for you. Because it possibly is a strong way to connect and pray with loved ones, to share with them.
    Because it cultivates a strong community and a strong sense of purpose, and also creates fantastic friendships. Because it provides a purpose that transcends and continues, despite circumstance. Because you have invested into it for so long, and there is truly worth in the teachings of Christ.
    Sorry if Im assuming too much.
    Thanks for caring 🙂

  7. I also appreciate UnkleE that you don’t use rational gymnastics to explain these controversial passages away. Thanks for not asserting that only the truly faithful and the scholars who have studied for years can truly understand these more unsettling passages 🙂 You don’t side step the passages, thats very refreshing.

  8. Thanks unkleE but I don’t agree on some issues. (1) Enn should know that under a NT dispensation, the rules of the ANE do not apply to Christians as we are not OT Hebrews. Even a rigid theodical view of God (i.e. what Enns has issue with) will not turn us into mass murderers or benevolent assimilators. (2) Miller mainly uses scholarly sources for his work so he does not simply present his opinion as with Enns. (3) With anything historical, it is very difficult to know what happened unless we have eyewitness accounts which even then by the scholarly method, can only be verified to a certain extent. What Enns is doing is poisoning the well with the suggestion (which he cannot historically sustain) that the virgins were to be sex slaves. His intent is thus indeed not to explain in detail, but to make a broad smear. (4) We have precedent from Christ and the apostles so I would suggest we follow them even if the message is not immediately palatable for non-Christians.

  9. unkleE-
    Thanks for laying this out in a post.
    I definitely see where you’re coming from, and am interested in learning a little more about this perspective.

  10. Thanks everyone for your comments (and to those who have read without commenting. When I began this blog I wrote (in ‘About’):

    I doubt anyone has more than a handful of answers, but together we probably have many helpful ideas. But the way? is my attempt to address some of these issues and seek comment and input, in the hope that together we may “see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly” in this 21st century.

    This discussion is achieving that. There are some things here I feel strongly about, but many things I am still exploring and wondering. All the comments help.

  11. “Two books to suggest, neither of which I have read, but both of which address this kind of thing.”

    Robert, thanks for these references. It is easy to find books & websites defending the literal view, or putting a fairly sceptical view, not so easy finding books that seek to historically accurate, humane, faithful and honest. Hopefully these will achieve that – I will check them out.
    But just to say what I will repeat to others – this post isn’t so much concerned with the correct understanding of these passages, but how we present them, and is probably written more from, or for, the viewpoint that takes them as accurate accounts of God’s commands.

  12. “How can you say some parts of the Bible are incorrect and others aren’t?”

    Hi Ryan. Sorry to confuse you.
    1. This post was written for those who believe the Bible describes God’s commands accurately, and suggests trying to explain or justify God’s actions is a mistake that only makes us, and God, appear inhumane. I argue it is better to simply say we cannot understand or explain, and find the passages difficult, but believe God is good.
    2. But I do also say, and think, that christians should reconsider our interpretation or understanding of these passages. This isn’t an unusual thing for christians to do – we have been changing our understanding of the Bible ever since it was written. For example: the Reformation; the Copernican revolution; apartheid, racism and slavery; the charismatic movement. In our day we have seen new understandings of sexism, the environment, materialism, evolution and war beginning to appear. I think most of these have been the work of the Holy Spirit leading God’s people into new and more appropriate understandings. We should not be afraid of reconsidering provided we are also praying about it – in fact to be unwilling to learn and grow is a rejection of the Holy SPirit in favour of a legalism which the New testament clearly calls us away from.
    3. In this case, two things make it seem right to me to reconsider. (1) I believe the Holy Spirit has been teaching christians to be more non-violent and to be more sensitive to the suffering caused by violence. This should cause us to reconsider these passages. (2) The historians tell us that much of the “history” in the Bible prior to King David is probably exaggerated or fictionalised, at best, or quite unhistoric at worst. CS Lewis actually said the former more than 60 years ago, and I have had this in mind ever since.

    “Honestly, it seems to me that you focus on keeping your faith because it essentially works for you.”

    Thank you for some nice things you say, but really, I continue to believe because I think the evidence makes it the only thing that could be true – even though I find many difficulties in christian belief.
    Thanks for you comments and your continued interest. How’s your own journey going?

  13. Hi Chaz, thanks for your continuing input – I am finding it helpful even though I don’t agree on everything.
    As I have said to others, my main point in this post was not to re-interpret these passages, and not to necessarily endorse the comments by WL Craig, J Piper, or P Enns. I agree that Enns may have been inexact in some of his comments, but in his defence: (1) It was a blog post, not a scholarly article, so he was being brief, (2) he has written books on these topics and quoted several other books, so there is a basis to what he says generally, (3) in the very next chapter, Deut 21:10-14, there are instructions about marrying a captured woman, and what to do if she has been “violated” or “dishonoured”, so Enns isn’t just making things up.

    “We have precedent from Christ and the apostles”

    What precedent are you thinking of here? Do you mean supporting a literal interpretation? I see Jesus and the apostles re-interpreting scriptures freely on occasions (see Interpreting the Old Testament), and the New Testament quotes known legends in some places, so I’m not sure if that can be sustained. As I said to Ryan, the history of christianity has seen many re-interpretations, so I don’t think we can oppose the possibility, or settle on one interpretation as the correct one for all time.
    Thanks again for bringing your ideas to this blog. Best wishes.

  14. Glad to help :). Your points really impacted and make sense to me. Still wrestling with the passages themselves, but definitely the presentation of it makes a lot of sense to me.

  15. Hi again,
    My own journey feels like going around in circles.
    I try to stop sinning, and then I do for a while. By the way, these sins are in the secular world would be considered as really nothing to worry about. Eg, lust. But I assume from what I have read and have been told that they mean a lot to God.
    Then in a moment of selfishness I’ll sin again. Then I’ll beat myself up. Then I repent after a while, after going through the motions of feeling sorry for myself 🙂
    I find personally that when I sin, the last place I want to be is praying to God. Maybe this says something about not wanting to be in the light, because then things would be exposed.
    Then ask God to forgive me, then I tell him I will try again to not sin ever again, I will try again and then work on not sinning. Hopefully this time around I will do better. Then time will start to heal my shortcomings. But I’ve been living like this for years to one degree or another.
    I think really my journey doesn’t feel usually like Gods part of it, if feels like im reporting back to Him for afar. And Sometimes it seems like im just talking to myself.
    There have been times when I feel and believe that I have had a real connection with God. And admittedly those have been times when I have sought after Him and been open to Him. Those were beautiful and peaceful times. So maybe I just have to just be open and seek. Maybe is all about focus.
    Honestly though, I am worried that if I do accept and focus on some beliefs wholeheartedly, while also avoiding those things these beliefs tell me I should avoid, that I will be conditioning myself, and I will no longer be able to see the world in the same way, in fact I couldn’t see same way, my beliefs would outline this as sinful and therefore I had to flee from it.
    I might gain peace, but at what cost? To embrace these beliefs wholeheartedly also then opens up the unsettling prospect that I should not be only focusing on being a good person, on having a career, on buying a house, but I am also on a the Great Commission, and that my friends, and family members may need to hear my beliefs, ie the good news.
    Not only that, there’s a freaking cosmic battle going on for peoples eternity, and although its disguised and invisible, we all play a part!?
    And the Bible, with its beautiful poetry and kind teachings also outlines how people are inherently bad, and this is something you have to take on board in order to believe. After all, if you don’t think you need saving, why would you want a Saviour?
    As much as I want a real relationship with God, and to try to follow his teachings on love, Sometimes I think that one of the main reasons I still come back to faith is because I fear the consequences of not doing so, based on what has been outlined in the Bible.

  16. And one of the reasons I say I have had experiences with God, is because I fear denying God, and to explain those experiences away and attributing them to any other process brings that fear in me, the fear of denying.
    But if its just fear that is holding me to belief, and wanting follow the more compassionate teachings of Christ, then what then? I still want a relationship with God, but only if he exists, I don’t want to spend my whole life trying to affirm something in my own mind, while blocking off anything that challenges it.

  17. Fear in and of itself is not evidence to believe. And we can dismiss any new information that challenges our current beliefs, even if we provide answers to them. Even if it externally looks to others like we are seriously considering this new information that challenges our beliefs. But are we seriously considering them, really? Why would we seriously consider them if meant we were at risk of denying God?
    By merely not placing any value on the challenging information from the get go, because they go against our current beliefs I think is very powerful. I think this is why it’s so hard for theists and atheists to make connections at times. This works both ways I think.

  18. And we can dismiss any new information that challenges our current beliefs based on this fear. The fear of denying God.
    But like phobias, fears can be misdirected and exaggerated. If this fear colours how we process all new information that challenges our current beliefs, how can we really consider what is true?
    That’s all I have to say for now.

  19. Hi Ryan, there is some pretty deep stuff there. I think maybe I will email you if that is OK. One thing I feel sure of – fear may sometimes be the way we come to God, but it is not the best basis for continuing to relate to him. The Bible says perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18) and the Spirit is not a Spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind (2 Tim 1:7). So I believe God wants to lift us up from there.
    Thanks for all your contributions and ideas. I’ll get back to you some more.

  20. Yeah ok, I do agree that it would be best that love ,expressed through those passages you mentioned, is our focus.
    I’ve expressed this elsewhere, but sometimes I just wish that God could come around for a cup of tea, sit down with each of us and gently explain what He wants Himself.
    Then we could have a laugh. He can let us know what we have to work on for other peoples benefit, and after such a fantastic chat He could give us a phone call from time to time 🙂 We’d part ways with a bear hug.
    I know this sounds a bit like “buddy god” but why not? Its much more accessible for me I think than the “I’m going to send a famine!!!” kind of god.

  21. There isn’t a God. The Old Testament is just a lot of stories, some of them complete myths, made up to try to explain things people didn’t understand, and some of them containing what had been handed down about historical events. Slavery was common so they had God telling people how to treat them. He wasn’t in favour of slavery because he isn’t real. Neither did he urge genocide for the same reason. The New Testament was put together about 80 years after Jesus died. What an amazing message of love he produced especially when you consider the times he lived in. It doesn’t however need any of the spernatural stuff. No-one walks on water, is born to a virgin or, sorry, comes back to life. These things were regularly made up by all sorts of cults at that time and are just not necessary.

  22. Hi Mwalimu,
    Thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. I always appreciate feedback. May I ask you a couple of questions please?
    1. You say “There isn’t a God.” with great certainty. Do you think that is a verifiable truth, or are you just offering an opinion to counter my opinion that there is a God?
    2. You say “These things were regularly made up by all sorts of cults at that time and are just not necessary.” What cults are you referring to here?

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