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Is the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster? Part 1

What is God like? The answer depends on who you ask. If you ask me, I think the God of the Bible is a loving, gracious, merciful, all-powerful father. If you ask Richard Dawkins, he would probably refer you to his book The God Delusion where he has painted for us the following vivid portrait of God:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”[1]
I would like to believe that Dawkins’ portrait is quite different from the portrait most people would paint.  However, the ratio seems to be reversing.  More and more people seem to be buying into this re-defined portrait.  The shift is undeniable.  In his book God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis used a courtroom analogy to convey how things have changed:
“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.”[2]
I have no doubt that if CS Lewis were writing today, he would say that the verdict is out, the trial is over, and God has been found guilty as charged. However, for the honest Christian, the questions that matter most are not about how many people embrace the new portrait, or whether Dawkins has issues with God, but rather: what are the arguments presented in support of such a hostile view of God and do the arguments have any merit? Or as Paul Copan phrases the question in the title of his recent book, Is God a Moral Monster?[3]
The Problem
The problem is as important to the non-believer as it is to the believer. For the non-believer, it is an obstacle towards coming to faith. For the believer, it threatens to dethrone God from His place in their hearts. The case against God seems to be based on numerous Old Testament stories that seem to portray a God that does not seem praise-worthy. If God is really loving and all-knowing and perfect, how could He issue a command such as the following in Deut. 7:1-2[4]
1 When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, 2 and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.
Or this one Dt. 13:6-9
6 If your brother, the son of your mother, your son or your daughter, the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul, secretly entices you, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers, 7 of the gods of the people which are all around you, near to you or far off from you, from one end of the earth to the other end of the earth, 8 you shall not consent to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him or conceal him; 9 but you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.
 
And we can site many other passages in the Old Testament that pose similar challenges to the image of God. This type of violence in the Old Testament raises two very serious questions that must not be ignored, because they undermine Christianity.
The first question we must consider deals with God’s worthiness of worship. Is the God of the Bible worthy of our worship? George F. Thomas, who taught philosophy of religion at Princeton, said that the number one obstacle to faith in God is the problem of evil. And the number two objection to faith is unworthy conceptions of God.[5]  If God is truly guilty of the tirade of accusations presented by Dawkins and company then most people would find Him unworthy of worship. Dallas Willard is on mark when he argues that,
“The acid test for any theology is this: Is the God presented one that can be loved, heart, soul, mind, and strength? If the thoughtful, honest answer is; “Not really,” then we need to look elsewhere or deeper. It does not really matter how sophisticated intellectually or doctrinally our approach is. If it fails to set a lovable God—a radiant, happy, friendly, accessible, and totally competent being—before ordinary people, we have gone wrong.”[6]
This is clearly a critical issue because the Bible tells us that God is a being that can be loved with the entirety of our being. We must be able to love God with everything about us including our mind.
The second question is equally important. Is the Bible trustworthy? The attack is not only on God’s character, but also against the Bible itself.  Christopher Hitchens minces no words in providing his opinion on the irrelevance of the Bible,
The Bible does give warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride price, for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude uncultured human mammals.[7]
How do we respond to such a tirade? In an attempt to defend God, many are willing to discredit the Bible. They argue that the Bible must be wrong about God or that some passages must not be considered inspired or worse yet, some passages in the Bible are erroneous. However, any defense of God that undermines the Bible directly undermines Christianity as well.  If we cannot trust some portions of the Bible, we cannot trust any of it.  It is either God’s Word or it is not. So, how do we approach this question? Let us begin.
Responding to the Question: Is God a Moral Monster?
The first step in responding to any argument is to analyze the question. We often waste precious time attempting to answer invalid questions. Other times we misunderstand the question and respond to something other than what the critic is inquiring about.  This particular question assumes an absolute moral standard and then accuses God of falling short of it. This immediately presents a problem, because it is very difficult to account for an absolute moral standard without the existence of the very God that is being dismissed as non-existent.  In other words, the same argument that is being used to argue that God does not exist depends on God’s existence for its validity.  While the question is self-defeating in this regard, we must address the underlying issue itself. The real question is: “What kind of a God is the God of the Bible?” That will be the focus of this series of articles.
Although the task before us is daunting, it is both necessary to engage the arguments and to do so without compromising neither the worthiness of God nor the trustworthiness of the Bible.  During the next few weeks we will consider this question in detail and present a biblically and theologically sound defense of God. My goal is to provide answers that are both rational and intellectually satisfying. I don’t pretend to solve every problem, but rather to provide arguments that prove Dawkins’ portrait is a misrepresentation of God and allow for us to know and love God with all of our being—including our minds.
In next week’s article we will argue that many of the difficulties presented in the Old Testament regarding God’s character can be resolved by understanding the difference between God’s role in the cosmos and ours. God is not subject to morality in the same sense that you and I are.
[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 31.
[2] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970), 244.
[3] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011).
[4] All Bible passages are quote in New King James Version
[5] As quoted by John Njoroge in his workshop titled: “Violence in the OT” at the National Apologetics Conference in Charlotte, N.C. October, 2012.
[6] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 329.
[7] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007), 102.
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