In answer to biblical genocides, bloodbaths, and God’s vengeful wrath.
There are multiple disturbing passages in the Old Testament that many worthy men and women have tried to defend.
Deuteronomy 2:32-36, 3:3-7, 7:2-6 describe the wholesale slaughter of entire cities including women, children, and their museums. In 1 Samuel 15, Samuel is disappointed that Saul did not completely wipe out the Amalekites and Saul consequently loses God’s political backing. David uses numerous images of profuse bleeding, breaking teeth inside mouths, and stillborn death (all in the same chapter). At one point Elisha calls out two malicious bears to maul some youth group kids. This isn’t to mention all the strict Hebrew laws like stoning to death the violators of the Sabbath or swearing in God’s name. Add to this the mainstream suspicion that the Bible condones slavery, misogyny, polygamy, incest, and war.
The great thinkers like C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and Timothy Keller have remained largely quiet over the apparent bloodlust of God. Atheists and philosophers have leveraged such passages in outrage to show the Judeo-Christian God is not only evil and corrupt, but actively against any goodness at all.
My goal isn’t to persuade or even to justify. We all have pre-commitments to worldviews that will influence our conclusions regardless of the contrary explanations. Many Christians will try their best to defend God’s less humane actions with absolute fervor. Though their reasoning may be mostly sound, it is a futile endeavor to convince everyone with a satisfactory answer. No one likes to admit that they’re wrong because we’re so often convinced in our own mind by our own mind.
My goal is only to reflect thoughtfully over these matters. My obvious bias is that I believe God is good, but I will try to empathize on each side and investigate from there. Because of the disturbing nature of some of these passages, it doesn’t always lead to the typical defensive conclusion.
1) God is just as gracious in the Old Testament as the New, and it’s obvious.
These select passages are not the only things we’ve seen of God. He delivered His enslaved people out of Egypt. He showed grace to generations of kings, families, and pagans when He should’ve shown something else. Moses talked God out of blowing up all the wayward Israelites. God made a covenant with Abraham based on his faith alone, and lest we overlook that, God the Creator of everything came down and talked to a dude about Himself. Later he came down as a dude for about thirty years and other dudes killed him, and he let it happen.
A thoughtful reading of the Old Testament will display tons of magnanimous acts of God that literally moved oceans, made food out of nothing, healed dead people, protected civilians, fed widows and orphans, and called for the death of rapists. Even if you think these are just stories or metaphors, they convey a pretty good God. Contrary to any atheist’s opinion, God never explicitly condones slavery. Two verses blow that up but I’ll let you find those: be thorough in your investigation instead of being a Google expert. Even slavery then was different than how we classically view it. And if one more person takes 1 Timothy 2:11-12 out of context, it would be worth renouncing Christ for a moment to punch you.
If you read carefully enough, you’ll begin to ascertain that the Israelites got away with breaking the OT Law all the time — seen mostly in general statements about the stiff-necked people — but God showed them grace over and over. Only the instances of absolute carelessness were punished (more on the Sabbath and taking God’s name in vain next time). Certainly the OT did not record every single instance of law-breaking; usually the sensational stories made it in the accounts to serve as examples.
To be fair, it does not appear the OT God is the same as the NT God. There are weird, almost nonsensical laws in the OT that were punishable by death. This will be further detailed in the next entry, but Jesus did fulfill the Law in himself so that we live under a new covenant now. The OT Law was for a specific, special group of people; mainly the principles remain relevant.
2) God is fully love and fully justice, or else you’re talking about something other than God.
I’ve probably said it a million times in my church: an inaccurate picture of God leads to misery and despair. When someone says, “God is not good,” they might as well be saying, “Monopoly money doesn’t work.” Because it’s for Monopoly.
“My God wouldn’t send people to hell.” You’re right. Your version of God wouldn’t.
Another one: “A real Christian wouldn’t do that.” But real Christians are real people with the same problems we all face: struggling to find a job, kids’ diapers to change, pressure to watch porn, temptation to cheat on taxes, seduction from a neighbor’s wife, and bars across the street to avoid. Your definition of real Christian is like a Photoshopped magazine model with no nose hairs who farts out perfume.
We bring to the table our own filters and conventions. Many of our views on God will have been emotionally motivated by repulsion or instinctual anger. Unfortunately the sincerely stubborn only careen at terminal velocity to their pre-made opinion. Christians do it too. If God is only made up of our self-directed intuition, we will say things like “God on trial” based on our human standards.
The moment we box God into a human category, we’ve removed any sense that we’re dealing with God. It makes sense to begin from a neutral view, scientifically if you will, to draw out His nature. Any good scientist would measure liquids by volume, time by seconds, distance by lengths. But it makes no sense to discover God this way. How do you measure God? Certainly not by a cup, a clock, or a ruler.
Yet I hesitate to say He is not measurable or falsifiable. God gave us the option and intellect to reflect on Him carefully. Entire legions of philosophers and their students have studied His nature to no end. It’s a worthy if sometimes misinformed pursuit. I don’t call for copping out or “letting God be God” simply to ignore the complexities. He has made Himself known so that we are without excuse. But we need some right measuring tools to begin in a sensible place.
If ideas about God inform your concept about God, then really there hasn’t been any reflection at all but only a circular logic that answers to itself. I believe the Bible is the highest court about who God is, but sound human reasoning is helpful too. I can only say on this end that He has certain mysteries He keeps, and that some of our conclusions reveal more about us than Him. At some point all the rumination must stop: God has objective truths about Himself that cannot be ignored.
Part two is here, explaining annihilation and the Law.