Tag Archives: Sanctification 102

34: Jesus as the Fulfiller of the Old Testament

This book has been a great companion book as I read through the Old Testament.  By comparing Old Testament statements next to their contemporary counterparts, the differences are compelling.  If the same amount of criticism and skepticism were directed at these, they would give Christianity a pass.  The bottom line to any truth claim is does it work.  Like the Apostle Paul discovered, 

Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.

It is like Keith Green said, "I know God is real because He changed me."


  This is a review of Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan with study questions added to turn them into lessons.  These lessons are part of a wider study on Sanctification by Faith which has as its goal the fulfillment of Gal 5:16

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 

  Because sanctification depends upon faith, doubt will be seen as a hindrance.  Misunderstanding can lead to doubt as well as ignorance, deception, and experience like - it doesn't feel right.  This lesson seeks to combat ignorance, deception, and misunderstanding.  By erasing these, our faith is free to function at a higher level.  

  I’ve set all of these studies in a specific order so that anyone may easily build on the foundation of Christ with the finest materials - gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-13).  God has gifted the Church with amazing evangelists, pastors, and teachers to do the mining so that we have these materials to complete the building project. (Eph 4:11-16).  I invite you to study along with me.  You can see an overview of the complete Sanctification by Faith study here.  To go to the start of the current lesson (Is God a Moral Monster) click here. 

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess 5:23 

20: We Have Moved beyond This God (Haven’t We?) Jesus as the Fulfiller of the Old Testament

The Gifts of the Jews

On February 16, 1809, John Adams wrote a letter to F. A. Vanderkemp in which he insisted that “the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation.” Not only did their laws help bring a civilizing influence to the nations, but they preserved and propagated to humankind “the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.”[1]

In his fascinating book The Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill reinforces this argument. This ancient nomadic desert tribe helped introduce to humanity a sense of history-a past, present, and future-and the idea that history is going somewhere, that it has a point.[2] For the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and other ancient peoples, time was cyclical—the same old same old. We could say the same about many Eastern philosophies and religions today; they espouse the doctrine of karma with its reincarnation cycles of birth, death, and rebirth.

What’s more, the Old Testament reveals a God who has a global (cosmic) plan and who involves humans as history-shaping participants in that plan. Yes, humans matter. The Old Testament’s genealogies reflect the important role that humans play in the unfolding of God’s purposes.

On top of this, the Jews introduced a robust monotheism. Rather than being just one god in a pantheon of others or just a regional deity, Yahweh was/is the only deity who matters. Indeed, he is the only one who exists. Along with this, the Jews introduced a new way to experience reality. There is a divine being who regularly, personally engages humans, whose choices really make a difference. Human decision making has great significance, and God interweaves these choices into his overarching plans. We’re not the pawns of fate or at the mercy of the whims of the gods. On the other hand, humans aren’t so powerful that they can manipulate God to do their bidding. These themes are some of the gifts of the Jews to the rest of the world.[3]

The Gifts of the Christians

Horrendous, anti-Christian actions have been carried out in the name of Christ: the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunting, or fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Europe could be named. Not that Jesus wants to be identified with this kind of religious zealotry. Many things can be done in God’s name that cause it to be “blasphemed among the Gentiles” (Rom. 2:24).

The problem with Christopher Hitchens’s claim that “religion poisons everything” is that it’s both vague and extreme. The term religion in the existing literature is notoriously vague and difficult to define. And if Dennett and Hitchens suggest that Stalin was somehow “religious,” then at this point we throw up our hands in bewilderment. Hitchens’s statement about religion’s noxious influence is also extreme in its lopsidedness.[4] Does religion poison everything and bring no benefits whatsoever? More thoughtful, sophisticated atheists would strongly disagree. As atheist philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong responds, this religion-poisons-everything slogan is “inaccurate and insulting.” He advises atheists not to cheer on or laugh at Hitchens’s jokes, nor should they remain silent. To Sinnott-Armstrong, Hitchens’s critique of religion is “like a senile relative” who is constantly making “bizarre statements”; his assessment is neither fair nor very illuminating.[5]

Ironically, the New Atheists’ moral grenades lobbed against the Christian faith in the name of morality are actually historically founded upon the very faith they criticize. Historians have documented that the values of human rights, tolerance, social justice, and racial reconciliation are the legacy of the Christian faith, not some secular Enlightenment ideals. For all her flaws, the Christian church has played an important part in bringing huge benefits to civilization. This impact has often been inspired by devotion to Christ, which overflows to love for one’s neighbor to the glory of God.

These documented achievements include the following:[6] [7]

Eradicating slavery: As the Christian faith spread into barbarian Europe after the fall of Rome, the practice of slavery dwindled. Slavery virtually died out in Europe by the Middle Ages, when Europe was well Christianized. When slavery reappeared, it was strongly opposed by dedicated believers among the Mennonites and Quakers as well as by Christian leaders such as theologian Richard Baxter, John Wesley, and William Wilberforce.
Opposing infanticide and rescuing infants from exposure: This practice, common among the Greeks and Romans, was outlawed in the fourth century, under the influence of Christians.
Eliminating gladiatorial games: These brutal games usually involved slaves and criminals. They were outlawed in the late fourth century in the East and the early fifth century in the West.
Building hospitals and hospices: Unlike Greeks and Romans, early Christians were concerned about health care, looking after the sick and the dying. Once the Christian faith became official in the empire, this ministry expanded considerably. The Council of Nicea (AD 325) commissioned bishops to establish hospice care in every city where a church building existed. The first hospital was built under St. Basil in Caesarea (369). By the Middle Ages, hospitals existed throughout Europe. (Think too of Florence Nightingale, the founding of the Red Cross, and so on.)
Elevating women’s status/rights: Although feminists claim that the Christian faith puts women down and keeps them under, history shows the opposite. Though women have been routinely oppressed in most cultures, we see something different in Jesus’s treatment of women (e.g., the Samaritan woman in John 4, or Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42). Luke’s Gospel highlights the prominent place of women in Jesus’s life and ministry. Early Christians routinely protected women and children from neglect and abuse.
Founding Europe’s and North America’s great universities: The Sorbonne, Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are some of the many notable universities established to God’s glory. In Europe, many universities sprang forth from medieval monasteries; in America, the earliest and most notable universities began as institutions for training pastors and missionaries.
Writing extraordinary works of literature: The remarkable literature of Christians inspired by their faith ranges from Augustine’s City of God and Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History to Dante’s Comedy and John Milton’s Paradise Lost to the works of J. R. R. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Engaging in/writing about philosophy and theology and the life of reason: Some of the leading representatives include Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, and Jonathan Edwards. Today, organizations such as the Society of Christian Philosophers and the Evangelical Philosophical Society attest to this ongoing tradition.
Creating beautiful masterpieces of art, sculpture, and architecture: Think of Michelangelo, Rembrandt van Rijn, Peter Paul Rubens, or the Byzantine and gothic cathedrals.
Establishing modern science: Modern science had its roots in the biblical conviction that the world was created by a rational God. For this reason, it was orderly and predictable, and it could be studied and understood by human minds. We could mention Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Michael Faraday, William T. Kelvin, Robert Boyle, Anton Lavoisier, and many others.
Composing brilliant music: The works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg F. Handel, Felix Mendelssohn, and Franz Joseph Haydn speak for themselves.
Advocating human rights, democracy, political freedoms, concern for the poor: These themes are rooted in the biblical ideals that all humans are made in God’s image, that they have dignity and worth, and that they are equal before the law.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the impact that Jesus of Nazareth has had on history and the countless lives impacted by this one man’s life and teaching—indeed, the transforming power of his cross and resurrection. The historian Jaroslav Pelikan remarked that by the changing of the calendar (to BC and AD according to “the year of our Lord”) and other ways, “everyone is compelled to acknowledge that because of Jesus of Nazareth history will never be the same.”[8]

Dawkins is quite wrong in asserting that the Christian faith—like Islam—was spread by the sword.[9] If he took an honest look at Christian history, he would have to acknowledge that the earliest Christian movement was one of the politically and socially disempowered. This movement was first called “the Way” (Acts 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22) in honor of its Savior (John 14:6), and it often gathered to itself slaves and members of the lower classes. In the first three centuries, the church grew by deeds of love and mercy and the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus. Holy wars had no place in this nonviolent movement.

Rodney Stark—the respected eight-hundred-pound gorilla among sociologists—shows in his book The Victory of Reason how the “success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.”[10] But don’t just take a Christian sociologist’s word for it. Jürgen Habermas is one of Europe’s most prominent philosophers today. Another fact about Habermas: he’s a dyed-in-the-wool atheist. Yet he highlights the inescapable historical fact that the biblical faith was the profound influence in shaping civilization. Consider carefully his assessment:[11]

Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.[12]

In the words of human rights scholar Max Stackhouse, “Intellectual honesty demands recognition of the fact that what passes as ‘secular,’ ‘Western’ principles of basic human rights developed nowhere else than out of key strands of the biblically-rooted religion.”[13]

Consider three fundamental historical facts.

(1)Talk of natural right(s) emerged in the Catholic theology of the Middle Ages, a language which itself was built on the biblical understanding of the image of God in all humans.
(2)The chief movers who established the Universal Declaration on Human Rights of 1948 (which speaks of humans being “endowed with reason and conscience”) were primarily church coalitions and individual Christian leaders who worked closely with some Jewish rabbis to create a “new world order” of human rights.
(3)Even the allegedly secular Enlightenment’s universal human rights emphasis has deep theological roots; this is quite obvious in the two leading documents of the eighteenth century: the Declaration of Independence (which speaks of humans being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (affirming human rights “in the presence and under the auspices” of God, “the Supreme Being”). In short, the Judeo-Christian imprint on human rights in the present is vital for correcting much secularist religion bashing.[14]

Even non-Westerners have come to recognize the remarkable impact of the Christian faith in the West. Time magazine’s well-respected correspondent David Aikman reported the summary of one Chinese scholar’s lecture to a group of eighteen American tourists:

“One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world,” he said. “We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West has been so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.”[15]

This lecturer was not some ill-informed crackpot. To the contrary, he represented one of China’s premier academic research organizations—the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). We don’t just find Western scholarly support for the Jewish-Christian worldview. We find it in the East as well!

Jesus as the Climax

The Scriptures begin with the creational affirmation that all humans are made in God’s image. In many ways, the improvements of the Old Testament over a good deal of other ancient Near Eastern legislation were a significant move toward that ideal. The Old Testament provides us with enduring perspectives about human dignity and fallenness, not to mention moral insights regarding justice, faithfulness, mercy, generosity, and the like.

However, if we stop with the Old Testament, we won’t see the entire story line as it’s brought to completion in Jesus. The Old Testament was in many ways anticipatory of something far greater. So if Jesus truly brought a new covenant for the true Israel and has begun to renew the creation as the second Adam, then we ought to concern ourselves with how his incarnation, ministry, atoning death, and resurrection shed light backward on the Old Testament, with all its messiness. To stop with Old Testament texts without allowing Christ, the second Adam, and the new, true Israel to illuminate them, our reading and interpretation of the Old Testament will be greatly impoverished and, in certain ways, misrepresented.[16]

One day we’ll fully enjoy the realization of pristine goodness and shalom. In the new heaven and earth, no social or racial discrimination will exist. Swords will be beaten into plowshares. Peace will reign. In his own day, Jesus reaffirmed Old Testament texts about loving God and neighbor and called Israel back to live by God’s creational designs. That was then, but hardened hearts are still with us today. Yet Jesus’s approach to the Old Testament should instruct us Christians living in the already/not yet. We’re living with many benefits of the cross of Christ (already), but we still live in a fallen world as we await the new heaven and earth and the receiving of our resurrection bodies (not yet).

Though the New Atheists don’t intend it and though they often go about it in wrongheaded ways, they can serve as a proper challenge for us Christians.[17] How? By reminding us to be more thoughtful in our faith, to live kingdom-centered lives with greater Christian passion and consistency, to deepen our commitment to justice and opposing oppression, to think through contemporary obstacles to belief, and to offer a more compelling vision in word and deed to a watching world. We all need to take a fresh look at Jesus and let our gaze at him shape our devotion to him, our love for others (even our enemies), and our concern for the culture and world in which we find ourselves. Author and pastor Tim Keller gives us a start for our reflection:

If your fundamental is a man dying on the cross for his enemies, if the very heart of your self-image and your religion is a man praying for his enemies as he died for them, sacrificing for them, loving them-if that sinks into your heart of hearts, it’s going to produce the kind of life that the early Christians produced. The most inclusive possible life out of the most exclusive possible claim-and that is that this is the truth. But what is the truth? The truth is a God become weak, loving, and dying for the people who opposed him, dying forgiving them.[18]

While we may stumble or be troubled when reading certain Old Testament texts, we can put them in proper perspective by looking in the right places. The ultimate resolution is found in God’s clarifying Word to us and the One who became flesh and lived among us, who died and rose again on our behalf. The God whom the New Atheists consider a monster is not just a holy God to be reckoned with but a loving, self-sacrificing God who invites us to be reconciled to him.

Further Reading

Hill, Jonathan. What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005.

Schmidt, Alvin. How Christianity Changed the World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004.

Stark, Rodney. The Victory of Reason. New York: Random House, 2005.

Wright, N. T. Evil and the Justice of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006.

Click on the "Is God a Moral Monster" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here.

Questions & Notes

  1. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams, vol. 9 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1856). Available at http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php&title=2107.

  2. Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews (New York: Anchor, 1999).

  3. Contrary to the New Atheists, what contributions have Jews made to civilization? This book lists some of them. Can you think of others?

  4. When Christopher Hitchens says that “religion poisons everything,” what does he mean? What is the problem with his claim?

  5. Walter Sinnot-Armstrong, Morality without God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 154.

  6. Jonathan Hill, What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 176-77. For thorough documentation on these phenomena, see Alvin J. Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

  7. What have been some of the contributions Christians have made to the world? What Christ-inspired effects have brought light, help, and hope to the world? Can you think of any other contributions not mentioned in the book?

  8. Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus through the Centuries (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 33.

  9. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 37.

  10. Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason (New York: Random House, 2005), xi.

  11. Look at Jürgen Habermas’s quotation on the influence of the Christian faith. What do you think of it, and why is this important in light of the New Atheists’ critique?

  12. Jürgen Habermas, Time of Transitions, ed. and trans. Ciaran Cronin and Max Pensky (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), 150-51.

  13. Max Stackhouse, “A Christian Perspective on Human Rights,” Society (January/February 2004): 25.

  14. Ibid., 24. See also Max L. Stackhouse and Stephen E. Healey, “Religion and Human Rights: A Theological Apologetic,” in Religious Rights in Global Perspective, ed. J. Witte Jr. and J. D. van der Vyer (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1996), 486; and Mary Ann Glendon, The World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (New York: Random House, 2001).

  15. David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), 5. This quotation serves as an exclamation point to round out Rodney Stark’s study, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), 235.

  16. How does the coming of Jesus bring clarity to the Old Testament and some of its challenges?

  17. Overall, what have been some benefits you’ve taken away from reading and discussing this book? What have you learned about the character and activity of God across the two testaments? How have you been stretched and even strengthened in your faith?

  18. Tim Keller, “Reason for God,” The Explorer (Veritas Forum) (Fall 2008), www.veritas.org/explorer/fall2008.html#story1.

33: Morality without a Lawgiving God

This section gets to the root of the atheists values for critiquing Christian values.  It turns out, they have no root.  They are like that obnoxious weed that grows in the garden that is easily pulled up and eliminated but appears again and again.  
As seen at healthyfoodhouse.com
  This is a review of Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan with study questions added to turn them into lessons.  These lessons are part of a wider study on Sanctification by Faith which has as its goal the fulfillment of Gal 5:16

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 

  Because sanctification depends upon faith, doubt will be seen as a hindrance.  Misunderstanding can lead to doubt as well as ignorance, deception, and experience like - it doesn't feel right.  This lesson seeks to combat ignorance, deception, and misunderstanding.  By erasing these, our faith is free to function at a higher level.  

  I’ve set all of these studies in a specific order so that anyone may easily build on the foundation of Christ with the finest materials - gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-13).  God has gifted the Church with amazing evangelists, pastors, and teachers to do the mining so that we have these materials to complete the building project. (Eph 4:11-16).  I invite you to study along with me.  You can see an overview of the complete Sanctification by Faith study here.  To go to the start of the current lesson (Is God a Moral Monster) click here. 

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess 5:23 

Part 4: Sharpening the Moral Focus

19: Morality without a Lawgiving God? The Divine Foundation of Goodness

Christopher Hitchens throws down the gauntlet: “I defy you, or anyone, to name one more deed that I would not do, unless I . . . became a Christian.”[1] Sam Harris writes of the “myth of secular moral chaos”—that is, morality and social order don’t need God or religion as their basis. After all, there are plenty of moral atheists and many immoral religious devotees. He rejects the notion that rape or killing children is wrong just because God says so.[2]

Likewise, Daniel Dennett challenges the notion that goodness is opposed to scientific materialism: “There is no reason at all why a disbelief in the immateriality or immortality of the soul should make a person less caring, less moral, less committed to the well-being of everybody on Earth than somebody who believes in ‘the spirit.'”[3] He adds that a “good scientific materialist” can be just as concerned about “whether there is plenty of justice, love, joy, beauty, political freedom, and yes, even religious freedom” as the “deeply spiritual.” Indeed, those calling themselves spiritual can be “cruel, arrogant, self-centered, and utterly unconcerned about the moral problems of the world.” [4]

In his BBC antireligious documentary The Root of All Evil? Richard Dawkins insists that kindness, generosity, and goodness can be found in human nature and that Darwinism explains this. How? We have altruistic genes. We’re genetically wired to scratch another’s back. In other words, genes create morality; God or religion doesn’t. We humans have a moral conscience and a mutual empathy that are constantly evolving.[5]

The message from all of these atheists is loud and clear: people can be moral without believing in God. A more careful examination reveals that the New Atheists are right on one level but wrong on another.

A Matter of Consistency?

Though accusing Yahweh of being a moral monster, Dawkins has his own problem: he has gone on record denying the very existence of evil and goodness.[6]

If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies . . . are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. . . . The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.[7]

In A Devil’s Chaplain, he asserts, “Science has no methods for deciding what is ethical. That is a matter for individuals and for society.”[8] If science alone gives us knowledge, as Dawkins claims, then how can he consider God’s actions immoral or religion the root of all evil? As we’ll see, Dawkins is helping himself to the metaphysical resources of a worldview he repudiates.

Knowing vs. Being

Let’s be clear: the New Atheists are absolutely correct that we don’t need to believe in God or follow the Bible to have a general knowledge of what’s right and wrong. Like theists, atheists have been made in God’s image, and they can recognize the same sorts of virtues and behaviors, as atheists themselves like to point out. Having been made in the divine image, we’ve been designed to function properly by living morally. So if we take our conscience seriously (as we see Gentiles should have done in Amos 1-2), we can get a lot right morally. Those denying that kindness is a virtue or that torturing babies for fun is wrong don’t need an argument; they need psychological and spiritual help! They’re suffering from moral malfunction. When people tell me, “Well, the 9/11 terrorists sincerely believed they were doing what was right,” I reply, “A lot of people in psychiatric wards sincerely believe they’re Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon Bonaparte!” Sincerity isn’t necessarily an indication of proper function.

Some atheists will say that we know rape is wrong because it violates the victim’s rights and rips apart the social fabric. The problem with moral atheism, though, is that it doesn’t go far enough. Notice how atheists who believe in real right and wrong make a massive intellectual leap of faith. They believe that somehow moral facts were eternally part of the “furniture” of reality but that from impersonal and valueless slime, human persons possessing rights, dignity, worth, and duties were eventually produced. These moral truths were “anticipating” the evolution of morally valuable human beings who would have duties to obey them. Yes, atheists can know that rape is wrong, but that’s no surprise if they have been made in the image of God, whom they refuse to acknowledge. The more fundamental question that atheism seems unable to answer is: How did they come to be rights-bearing, valuable persons?* The problem isn’t one of knowing; it’s one of being.[9]


Daniel Dennett, though he claims to believe in objective morality, oddly rejects intrinsic human rights, which would be the basis for the obligation to show respect to others. He calls such rights “nonsense upon stilts”: Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 507.

Let’s change the scenario from a rape on the street to the use of a date rape drug at a party. Wanting to get what he wants, a young man places this drug into the drink of an unsuspecting woman. Suppose he’s nice enough to take certain precautions so that there are no obvious consequences to his actions. The woman wakes up later not knowing the difference. Why is this act still so repugnant? After all, the woman doesn’t know anything, the guy had his pleasure, and no one is the wiser. And why should Dawkins be outraged at such an action? After all, as Dawkins says, human beings simply “dance” to the music of their DNA.[10] If there’s a deviation from genetically produced kindness and generosity, it’s not truly immoral; it’s just a genetic glitch.

It’s wrong to rape a girl—whether she knows what’s happening or not—because she has intrinsic dignity and rights. For the same reason, it’s wrong to mock and insult the mentally challenged even if they don’t seem to be hurt by these verbal assaults. Where then do dignity and rights come from in a world of electrons and selfish genes? The doctrine of the image of God supports our strongest intuitions that humans aren’t objects to use and abuse but persons who should be respected and treated fairly before the law.

Intrinsically valuable, thinking persons don’t come from impersonal, nonconscious, unguided, valueless processes over time. A personal, self-aware, purposeful, good God provides the much-needed context that a God-less universe just can’t. Personhood and morality are necessarily connected; moral values are rooted in personhood. Without God (a personal Being), no persons—and thus no moral values—would exist at all. Only if God exists can moral properties be realized.[11]

Some atheists will claim that moral values are “just there”—necessary truths that are part of the furniture of the universe. If that’s the case, as we just noted, then what a whopping cosmic coincidence that these moral laws were somehow anticipating the eventual emergence of moral creatures who would have duties to obey these laws.

My Comment

So, if I understand this atheist asserting this right, these moral values could have appeared in the universe without any moral beings to see them through. Is that what you are saying?

God’s existence and creation of humans makes better sense of the connection between genuine, universal moral standards (rooted in God’s nature) and human dignity and worth.

Even secular ethical systems—whether variations on the ethical views of the philosophers Aristotle or Kant or perhaps some social contract view—may affirm many truths that believers in God affirm. These systems may agree that we ought to carry out certain moral obligations or cultivate certain character qualities. Even so, these systems are still incomplete because they don’t offer a basis for human dignity and worth.

The Hitchens Challenge

What about the Hitchens challenge? Can we name one moral virtue in a Christian that an atheist like Hitchens doesn’t have? Yes! How about not honoring God or giving him thanks (Rom. 1:21)? What about the sin of human self-sufficiency and the refusal to submit to God’s authority (Ps. 2)? What about Hitchens’s despising God’s offer of salvation or his refusal to depend on God’s grace (Matt. 23:37)? If the two great commands are to love God fully and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and Hitchens is as good as he says he is, then he still flunks the test at 50 percent. He has rejected the “great and foremost command” (Matt. 22:38-39).

I wonder if Hitchens worries about things; he isn’t interested in casting his cares on the One who cares for him (1 Peter 5:7). Does Hitchens love his enemies and do good to them (Matt. 5:44)? Does he take God’s name in vain (Exod. 20:7)? Does he forgive others as he has been offered forgiveness (Eph. 4:32)?[12]

Perhaps we can take things a step further. Guenter Lewy, the agnostic political scientist who taught at the University of Massachusetts, has observed that there are some moral virtues that atheism is unlikely to produce:

Adherents of [a naturalistic] ethic are not likely to produce a Dorothy Day or a Mother Teresa. Many of these people love humanity but not individual human beings with all their failings and shortcomings. They will be found participating in demonstrations for causes such as nuclear disarmament but not sitting at the bedside of a dying person. An ethic of moral autonomy and individual rights, so important to secular liberals, is incapable of sustaining and nourishing values such as altruism and self-sacrifice.[13]

Along these lines, the Christian writer Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that he spent many years in India and Africa, where he witnessed “much righteous endeavor undertaken by Christians of all denominations.” By contrast, however, “I never, as it happens, came across a hospital or orphanage run by the Fabian Society or a Humanist leper colony.”[14] Even if we consider such undertakings of self-sacrifice morally praiseworthy and even heroic, they don’t seem to be very biologically advantageous.

Can Naturalistic Evolution Explain Morality?

Dawkins claims that kindness and generosity are rooted in our genes. We’ve developed an awareness of morality that proves to be biologically beneficial. Although I go into more detail on this question elsewhere, let me offer a few responses here.

Why Trust Our Genes?

If we’re nothing more than the products of naturalistic evolution trying to fight, feed, flee, and reproduce, why trust the convictions of our minds—whether about truth or morality? If we’re just dancing to our DNA—over which we have absolutely no control—how do we know we’re right about anything? We’d only be accidentally right, but this can’t be called knowledge. As Charles Darwin mused, “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”[15]

We could accidentally believe true things that help us to survive. But we could just as well have many false beliefs that help us to survive. For example, we might be hardwired to believe that humans are valuable and have rights or that we have moral duties to perform. Such beliefs might help us survive as a species, but they would be completely false.

The naturalistic evolutionary process is interested in fitness or survival, not in true belief. So not only is objective morality undermined, but so is rational thought. According to atheistic evolutionists Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson, morality is a “corporate illusion” that has been “fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”[16] We think we really ought to love little children, but we’re wrong to conclude that right and wrong really exist. This illusion that we have moral duties is compelling and strong. Without it, we’d ignore or disobey our moral impulses. However, having moral inclinations is far different from having moral duties, which brings us to our next point.

Moving from “Is” to “Ought”

According to the skeptic Michael Shermer, whom Dawkins approvingly cites, asking “Why should we be moral?” is like wondering “Why should we be hungry or horny?” Shermer insists that “the answer is that it is as much a part of human nature to be moral as it is to be hungry, horny, jealous, and in love.”[17] Such drives are hardwired into us by evolution. But as C. S. Lewis noted, moral impulses, given such hardwiring conditions, are no more true (or false) “than a vomit or a yawn.”[18] Thinking “I ought” is on the same level of “I itch.” Indeed, “my impulse to serve posterity is just the same sort of thing as my fondness for cheese” or preferring mild or bitter beer.[19]

In effect, all Shermer can do is describe how human beings actually function, but he can’t prescribe how humans ought to behave. There’s no difference between whether I ought to be moral and whether I ought to be hungry, since both are functions of evolutionary hardwiring. These states just are.[20]

If, on the other hand, humans are made in the image of God and have value from the start, then we don’t have to wonder about how to move from the “is” of nature to the “ought” of genuine moral obligation. A supremely valuable Being is at the heart of reality; no is-ought problem exists if theism is true.

Arbitrary Morality

Ruse and Wilson report that instead of evolving from “savannah-dwelling primates,” we, like termites, could have evolved needing “to dwell in darkness, eat each other’s [waste], and cannibalise the dead.” If the latter were the case, we would “extol such acts as beautiful and moral” and “find it morally disgusting to live in the open air, dispose of body waste and bury the dead.”[21] So our awareness of morality (“a sense of right and wrong and a feeling of obligation to be thus governed”) is of “biological worth,” serves as “an aid to survival,” and “has no being beyond this.”[22] Naturalistic morality is arbitrary and could have developed in opposite directions. We happen to admire the morality that evolution has passed on to us, but we could be singing the praises of the very opposite morality for the same reasons: we dance to our DNA.

To further illustrate, consider the book A Natural History of Rape, coauthored by a biologist and an anthropologist.[23] The upshot of the book is that rape can be explained biologically: when a male cannot find a mate, his subconscious drive to reproduce his own species makes him force himself upon a female. After all, such acts happen in the animal kingdom with, say, male mallards or scorpion flies. The authors don’t advocate rape; in fact, they claim that rapists aren’t excused for their (mis)behavior. But if the rape impulse happens to be embedded into human nature from antiquity and if it bestows biological advantage, how can the authors suggest that this behavior ought to be ended? The authors’ resistance to rape, despite its naturalness, suggests objective moral values that transcend nature. An ethic rooted in nature appears to leave us with arbitrary morality.[24] Theism, on the other hand, begins with value; the is-ought gulf is easily bridged.

Again, it’s hard to see how the naturalist/atheist can move from material, valueless, nonconscious processes to the production of valuable, rights-bearing human beings. From valuelessness, valuelessness comes. Matter doesn’t have the capacity to produce value. Physics textbooks don’t include goodness or even consciousness in their attempted definitions of matter.

By contrast, the God hypothesis doesn’t force us to make a huge leap from valuelessness to value. Rather, we begin with value (God’s good character), and we end with value (divine image-bearing humans with moral responsibility and rights). A good God effectively bridges the chasm between is and ought. Value exists from the very beginning; it is rooted in a self-existent, good God. So for all their criticisms of religion, New Atheists still lack the moral foundations to justify genuine moral criticism of theism, nor can atheism truly ground moral value or human dignity and worth.

Further Reading

Copan, Paul. “God, Naturalism, and the Foundations of Morality.” In The Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue, edited by Robert Stewart. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

-. “True for You, but Not for Me”: Overcoming Common Objections to Christian Faith. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009.

Copan, Paul, and Mark D. Linville. The Moral Argument. New York: Continuum Press, forthcoming.

Hare, John. Why Bother Being Good? The Place of God in the Moral Life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002.

Click on the "Is God a Moral Monster" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here.

Questions & Notes

  1. Cited in Michael Novak, No One Sees God (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 76.

  2. Sam Harris, “The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos,” Council for Secular Humanism, www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=sharris_26_3 (accessed September 19, 2009).

  3. Have you ever discussed the topic of morality with an atheist or skeptic? How have the conversations gone?

  4. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 305.

  5. Richard Dawkins, The Root of All Evil? directed by Russell Barnes (BBC, 2006).

  6. What is the glaring inconsistency in Richard Dawkins’s claim that God is a “moral monster”?

  7. Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books/ HarperCollins, 1995), 132-33.

  8. Richard Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (Boston: Houghton & Mifflin, 2003), 34.

  9. Why is it important to distinguish between “knowing” and “being” when it comes to morality?

  10. Dawkins, River out of Eden, 133.

  11. Why is it so difficult to account for human dignity and worth if God doesn’t exist?

  12. Atheists commonly claim that they are just as good as any religious believer. However, what are some moral obligations that atheists don’t carry out?

  13. Guenter Lewy, Why America Needs Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 137.

  14. Malcolm Muggeridge, “Me and Myself,” in Jesus Rediscovered (New York: Pyramid Publications, 1969), 157.

  15. Letter (July 3, 1881) to Wm. G. Down, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (London: John Murray, Abermarle Street, 1887), 1:315-16.

  16. Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Religion and the Natural Sciences, ed. J. E. Huchingson (Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1993), 310-11.

  17. Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Henry Holt, 2004), 57.

  18. C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 37.

  19. Ibid., 38, 37.

  20. How do you respond to the claim that evolution explains morality? What is missing in purely naturalistic accounts of morality?

  21. Ruse and Wilson, “The Evolution of Ethics,” 311.

  22. Michael Ruse, The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), 262, 268.

  23. Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

  24. How does the existence of a good God who makes human beings in his image offer a more likely context for objective moral values?

32: What About The Crusades?

Copan provides a couple of helpful charts comparing the Crusades with Islamic Jihad.  (Proverbs 18:17)
As seen at medievalists.net
  This is a review of Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan with study questions added to turn them into lessons.  These lessons are part of a wider study on Sanctification by Faith which has as its goal the fulfillment of Gal 5:16

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 

  Because sanctification depends upon faith, doubt will be seen as a hindrance.  Misunderstanding can lead to doubt as well as ignorance, deception, and experience like - it doesn't feel right.  This lesson seeks to combat ignorance, deception, and misunderstanding.  By erasing these, our faith is free to function at a higher level.  

  I’ve set all of these studies in a specific order so that anyone may easily build on the foundation of Christ with the finest materials - gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-13).  God has gifted the Church with amazing evangelists, pastors, and teachers to do the mining so that we have these materials to complete the building project. (Eph 4:11-16).  I invite you to study along with me.  You can see an overview of the complete Sanctification by Faith study here.  To go to the start of the current lesson (Is God a Moral Monster) click here. 

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess 5:23 

What about the Crusades?

Critics mention the Crusades as evidence for the violence of Christianity. We can readily admit that the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Europe’s religious wars were a tragedy, a blot on the history of Christendom. But do these events reflect the essence of Christianity? All this talk of religion causing war raises questions of its own. What do we mean by religion? Every religion that has ever existed? Confucianism, Buddhism, Baha’i, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses? And the religion-war connection assumes that religion has little connection to truth. Any unique, authentic, honest-to-goodness divine revelation isn’t even on the critics’ radar screen. Nor is the question asked, Is violence imbedded in this particular religious tradition, or is it utterly inconsistent with that particular religion?

Those who (rightly) critique the Crusades as morally misguided will go further to lump the Crusades with Islamic jihad. Doing so is a mistake, and I can only sketch out the generalities here.[1] The Arabic term jihad means “struggle,” which can encompass inner, intellectual, or moral struggle as well as militant, violent struggle. However, the more traditional Islamic understanding of jihad is the violent kind that has characterized the sweep of Islam’s history; there’s little support for jihad as mere spiritual/internal struggle.[2]

Even if we compare the Crusades with militant, aggressive Islamic jihad, the Crusades come out looking considerably better:


The Crusades (1095-1291)

Jihad in Islam

The Crusades lasted about two hundred years.

Jihad has been ongoing for more than thirteen hundred years.

The Crusades have been criticized as the beginning of imperialism.

Muhammad’s imperialistic jihad expeditions began more than five hundred years prior to the Crusades.

The Crusades began as an effort to recapture from Muslims land once occupied by Christians.

Jihad began with the intent to take Christianized territory never occupied by Muslims, to establish the umma (Islamic community).

Jesus, in whose name the Crusades were fought, did not teach or exemplify violence against those who refused his message.

Muhammad not only preached violence against nonbelievers but also engaged in it himself in over sixty aggressive military campaigns.

The earliest followers of Jesus and those who wrote the New Testament didn’t advocate violence. In its earliest centuries, the politically powerless Christian faith expanded through deeds of love and communicating the life-changing news of Christ.

The Qur’an includes many militant, aggressive texts. After Muhammad’s death, Islam was extended far and wide through violence. It overran previously Christianized areas and regularly posed a threat to established Christendom (e.g., Spain, France, Vienna).

  Consider the comments of Bernard Lewis, the leading Western scholar on Islam.[3] He nicely summarizes the significant differences between Islamic jihad and the Crusades—despite both being waged as holy wars against infidel enemies for the true religion:

The Crusade is a late development in Christian history and, in a sense, marks a radical departure from basic Christian values as expressed in the Gospels. Christendom had been under attack since the seventh century, and had lost vast territories to Muslim rule; the concept of holy war, more commonly a just war, was familiar since antiquity. Yet in the long struggle between Islam and Christendom, the Crusade was late, limited, and of relatively brief duration. Jihad is present from the beginning of Islamic history-in scripture, in the life of the Prophet, and in the actions of his companions and immediate successors. It has continued throughout Islamic history and retains its appeal to the present day. The word crusade derives of course from the cross [Latin, crux] and originally denoted a holy war for Christianity. But in the Christian world it has long since lost that meaning. . . . Jihad too is used in a variety of senses, but unlike crusade it has retained its original, primary meaning.[4]

Critics of the Crusades or the Inquisition are certainly correct that the Christian shouldn’t advocate atrocities or execution for heresy in the name of Jesus. And we should ask the critics, “Why select these anti-Christian events as exhibits A and B for the Christian faith rather than looking to the example and teachings of Jesus himself, not to mention Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce, and other Christian peacemakers?” Indeed, atrocity and theological reigns of terror carried out in Jesus’s name oppose all that Jesus stood for in his ministry.

Are Yahweh Wars in the Old Testament Just Like Islamic Jihad?

Though I address this topic in more detail elsewhere,[5] we should probably say something about the common accusation, “Aren’t the Old Testament’s Yahweh wars just like militant Islamic jihad?”

We should keep in mind that Islam traditionally has divided the world into two realms: “the abode of Islam/peace” (dar al-Islam/salam), where Islam dominates, and “the abode of war” (dar al-harb), where the rule of Islam should be extended-by war, if necessary. Islam is a dominant creed. Traditionally, the Muslim attitude toward non-Muslims has been ruler versus ruled, victor versus vanquished. Indeed, ancient Islam never gave thought to a Muslim living under a non-Muslim government.[6]

Offensive warfare and quashing the opposition has been the heart of Islam from the very beginning. (1) Its founder Muhammad engaged in over sixty military campaigns; (2) the Qur’an contains many harsh, aggressive, and militaristic passages; (3) ever since Muhammad’s death, his followers have spread Islam by violent means, often taking over vast segments of Christianized territories; (4) most Muslim countries today (with the exception of Mali and Senegal) have a terrible human rights record, and if most Muslims from these countries are to find political freedom, ironically, they must move to the West rather than stay in their country of origin.

Jewish Egyptian scholar Bat Ye’or has thoroughly documented the history of dhimmitude (the condition of Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims [dhimmis] under Islamic law) in Muslim-dominated areas. Any Muslim tolerance shown to non-Muslims could always give way to militant jihad if tribute (jizya) wasn’t paid to Muslims. Ye’or thoroughly documents the oppression and even “open extermination of Christian populations and the disappearance of Eastern Christian culture.”[7]

The “myth of Muslim toleration,” she says, didn’t exist before the twentieth century. That is a modern creation of the West. It was the result of political and cultural difficulties once colonizing powers like England and France withdrew from North Africa and the Middle East—without the will to protect Christian minorities there. A whole literature developed praising Muslim tolerance toward Jews and Christians; they emerged for economic (think oil!) and political reasons. Not wanting to rock the boat, the withdrawing powers preferred an economically profitable pro-Islamic policy.[8] And though the Qur’an declares, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256), compulsion has been part of the Muslim mind-set from the beginning. This isn’t to deny the presence of many peace-loving Muslims throughout the world; I myself have come to befriend many of them over the years. We can be most grateful for such peace-oriented Muslims, though perhaps more of them could speak out more forcefully against violence carried out in the name of Islam.

What then should we make of the comparison between Islamic jihad and the approved Yahweh wars in the Old Testament? Here’s a brief overview of the key differences:


Yahweh War in the Old Testament

Islamic Jihad


War was geographically limited to the Promised Land.

There are no geographic limitations to jihad. The non-Muslim world is the “abode of war.”

Historical Length/Limit

Such war was limited primarily to one generation (around the time of Joshua), though minor conflicts continued with persistent enemies of Israel.

There are no historical/temporal limitations to jihad.

Objects of War

War was to punish a hopelessly corrupted culture (morally and theologically), not because they were non-Israelites or even because they didn’t worship Yahweh. This punishment came after a period of over four hundred years when the Canaanites’ sin had ripened fully (Gen. 15:16).

Aggression/war is directed toward non-Muslims (including Christians and Jews-“people of the book”).

Objects of God’s Love

Yahweh loves even his enemies/ those who don’t love him (cf. Gen. 12:3; Jonah). His redemptive plan encompasses the traditional enemies of Israel (Babylon, Assyria, Egypt) and incorporates them into the people of God.

God loves only those who love and obey him.

Standard of Morality

God’s compassionate and gracious nature is the source of God’s commands.

The Qur’an stresses God as sheer will (as opposed to a morally good nature), who commands whatever he likes.

Fulfilling God’s Plan

The Messiah’s Kingdom is to be characterized by peace (Is 9:6; 11:1-10). In the New Testament Jesus’ task is to undermine the true enemy, Satan and his hosts (John 14:30; Eph 6:10-18; Colossians 2:15) not Israel’s political enemies.[9]

Mohammad’s military aggression is viewed by many Muslims as normative, which sets back the clock on what the Messiah came to fulfill undermining God’s ultimate purposes. Note: As traditionally understood, the Koran’s tolerance verses are earlier and thus outweighed by the later and more militant verses.

Normativity of War

Fighting against Canaanites was not intended to be normative and ongoing, having the force of divine command, but unique. God has a new non-nationalist covenant in mind for His people (Jer 31; Ezek 36).

The military aggression of Mohammad, Islam’s founder, supported by the Koran’s militarism, Islam’s aggressive history, and present political realities in the Muslim countries suggests an intrinsic pattern.

  Does religion cause violence? Is religion dangerous? To say yes to these questions would be a crass generalization. For one thing, this view fails to account for many variations within all the world’s traditional religions, some of which are fairly tame and nonthreatening. Second, those who support this notion fail to ask whether militant texts in certain holy books are normative and permanent or unique and nonrepeatable. Third, this assumption doesn’t distinguish between the essence of a religion and tragic abuses by its practitioners. Fourth, it doesn’t consider truth in religion—that some religious viewpoint may actually be true and therefore its competitors would be in error where they disagree with the truth. Finally, the view that religion is dangerous because it excludes other views is itself incoherent. It leaves us wondering, “Doesn’t this mushy pluralism exclude or marginalize the very ‘narrow’ religious views of, say, monotheism?” To make any truth claim is to assert that its opposite is false.

Further Reading

Copan, Paul. When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.

Volf, Miroslav. “Christianity and Violence.” In War in the Bible and Violence in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008.

Ye’or, Bat. Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide. Teaneck, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.

Click on the "Is God a Moral Monster" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here.

Questions & Notes

  1. See my three chapters on Yahweh wars and Islamic jihad in Paul Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

  2. For documentation on Islam’s track record, see Bat Ye’or, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Teaneck, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997); The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (Teaneck, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985); and Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (Teaneck, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002).

  3. The Crusades are commonly mentioned as a critique of the Christian faith. How do you respond to this? How do the Crusades compare to Islamic jihad?

  4. Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 37-38.

  5. Again, see the chapters on Islamic jihad and Yahweh wars in Copan, When God Goes to Starbucks.

  6. Norman Anderson, “Islam,” in The World’s Religions, 4th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1975), 128.

  7. From Michael Cromartie’s interview with Ye’or, “The Myth of Islamic Tolerance,” in Books and Culture 4, no. 5 (September-October 1998): 38, www.christianitytoday.com/bc/8b5/8b5038.html.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Why are Old Testament Yahweh wars so unlike Islamic jihad?

31: Does Religion Cause Violence

The claims that religion causes violence always appeared to me to be rather shallow thinking. What do you think? Does Copan's explanation support that thought?
As seen at thebrooklyninstitute.com
  This is a review of Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan with study questions added to turn them into lessons.  These lessons are part of a wider study on Sanctification by Faith which has as its goal the fulfillment of Gal 5:16

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 

  Because sanctification depends upon faith, doubt will be seen as a hindrance.  Misunderstanding can lead to doubt as well as ignorance, deception, and experience like - it doesn't feel right.  This lesson seeks to combat ignorance, deception, and misunderstanding.  By erasing these, our faith is free to function at a higher level.  

  I’ve set all of these studies in a specific order so that anyone may easily build on the foundation of Christ with the finest materials - gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-13).  God has gifted the Church with amazing evangelists, pastors, and teachers to do the mining so that we have these materials to complete the building project. (Eph 4:11-16).  I invite you to study along with me.  You can see an overview of the complete Sanctification by Faith study here.  To go to the start of the current lesson (Is God a Moral Monster) click here. 

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess 5:23 

18: The Root of All Evil? Does Religion Cause Violence?

In Mark Juergensmeyer’s book Terror in the Mind of God, he claims that religion is violent by nature. How so? It tends to “absolutize and to project images of cosmic war”—even if a religion’s ultimate goal is peace and order. Juergensmeyer’s recommendation? Injecting into religion the softening Enlightenment values of “rationality and fair play”; this will help stop the violence and killing to produce peace and harmony in this world.[1]

Three years earlier, Regina Schwartz wrote The Curse of Cain, challenging the “violent legacy of monotheism” (which includes Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). Belief in one God (monotheism) and exclusive truth claims go hand in hand, which allegedly leads to problems for everybody else. Those embracing the “one true God” will reject, hate, and remove all outsiders, who don’t accept their God or their worldview.[2] Monotheism and exclusive truth claims create an us-them mentality: to preserve our identity and religious purity, they must be removed. This is what Richard Dawkins means about Israel’s God being obsessed with “his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe.”[3]

That’s why Cain, whose offering was rejected by God in favor of his brother Abel’s, rose up and murdered him. Likewise, God unfairly chose the younger Jacob over Esau, which produced conflict between them. For similar reasons, the chosen Israelites ended up killing the un-chosen Canaanites; God was on Israel’s side, not the Canaanites’. Alienation and murder are the predictable results of monotheism. So we shouldn’t be surprised by acts like the September 11 terrorist attacks—the very claim the New Atheists make.[4] The alternative to coercive religion would be Enlightenment values of tolerance favoring diversity and pluralism; these values generously welcome outsiders and don’t stifle creativity.[5]

Do We Just Need Enlightenment Values?

To the contrary, we could argue that we don’t need less religion and more Enlightenment values. Ironically, the barbarity of the Enlightenment’s French Revolution turned the pursuit of liberty, equality, and fraternity into inhumanity and a nightmare of cruelty. As many have argued, institutionalizing pluralism and diversity in society can have the effect of excluding and eliminating traditional religion from the conversation.

Properly understood, we actually need more religion, not less. But we need the right kind of religious values, not simply anything that calls itself religious (think Jim Jones, David Koresh, and jihadists). When given proper consideration, a truly biblical worldview should have a place at the table given its foundation for morality and its positive culture-shaping influence, a point we’ll explore in the last chapters. The biblical faith actually supports tolerance: despite our disagreements, human beings are still God’s image-bearers, and we are to seek to live at peace with all insofar as we’re able (Rom. 12:18). It supports diversity: because of Christ’s death, he has broken down dividing walls of race, class, and gender (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-22). While the apostle Paul talks about warfare, he refers to spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6. But while we can bracket the topic of fighting a just war (e.g., to stop Nazi aggression), the Christian’s war doesn’t require earthly weapons (2 Cor. 10:4). The kind of conquest Paul calls for is overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:21).

So we’re not talking about generic religion, as though all religions are alike and that any one religion is as harmful as the next. Also, we should ask if a religion is true. Does it square with and explain reality?[6] We shouldn’t make the mistake the conquering Assyrians did, who “spoke of the God of Jerusalem as of the gods of the peoples of the earth, the work of men’s hands” (2 Chron. 32:19). So when we’re talking about more religion, we’re also talking about one that’s true.

What about Schwartz’s claim that monotheism leads to violence? It’s hard to see how God’s oneness could lead to violence in itself. For one thing, Schwartz ignores Old Testament references to God’s grace, compassion, patience, and mercy (e.g., Exod. 34:6-7). Theologian Miroslav Volf argues that if one gets rid of monotheism, “the division and violence between ‘us’ and ‘them’ hardly disappears.”[7] In the eyes of pagan, Roman, emperor-worshiping polytheists (i.e., worshipers of many gods), Christians were persecuted as atheists: belief in one God was close enough. Ironically, monotheistic Christians were singled out for attack by the diversity-affirming religionists in the Mediterranean world!

Beyond this, history (in addition to tomorrow’s headlines) is littered with not-necessarily monotheistic tribes warring against each other or this communist government attacking that religious group. And why the focus on religion per se? Why not attack politics and political abuses of religion? What about ethnic tribalism that gives rise to hostility and violence, as in the former Yugoslavia? Why not consider complex sociological and historical factors that contribute to conflict? Alienation, poverty, disempowerment, racism/ tribalism, power structures, historical feuding, and animosity may give rise to anger and then to violence. Religion often turns out to be the label used to justify violence between warring parties.[8]

So why think that religion is the sole factor, the entire cause of blame? Rather than dragging God into the situation to cover over the root problem(s), we should resist the manipulation of God for our purposes. And what about the positive effects of a religion? What if more benefit than harm comes from a particular religion? The notion that religion causes violence or harm typically obscures a complexity of factors involved.

Raising Cain

What of Schwartz’s problem of Cain? God didn’t choose Abel at the expense of Cain. God had warned Cain of his sinful attitude, saying that he must master the sin that is “crouching at the door” (Gen. 4:7). Cain could have offered an acceptable sacrifice if his resentment had turned to humility. Though Cain was angry and his “countenance fell” (Genesis 4:5-6), God reminded him that such a condition wasn’t inevitable: “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up?” (Genesis 4:7). Plainly, God didn’t favor Abel at Cain’s expense. In fact, even after Cain killed Abel, God still granted a protective grace to Cain.

The same applies to Jacob and Esau. Though Esau didn’t receive the inheritance rights, he was still reconciled to his trickster brother at story’s end (Gen. 33:4). Esau succeeded while Cain failed. God shouldn’t be blamed in either scenario.[9] And when it comes to Israel and the nations, God’s choosing Israel didn’t exclude other nations from salvation (e.g., Rahab, Ruth, Nineveh in Jonah’s day). Indeed, God’s desire is to include all who will come to him.

Even within Israel, God chose the tribe of Judah, through which the Davidic Messiah would come. Again, this was a means of bringing salvation to the Jews but also to the Gentiles. Just because God chose to work through Judah, who had a besmirched reputation (Gen. 37:23-27; 38), didn’t mean that Joseph (a man of faith and integrity) couldn’t experience salvation or receive God’s blessing through trust and obedience.

Besides this, consider how some persons are more intelligent, athletic, artistic, or pleasant looking than others. We don’t have perfect equality here, except in the dignity and worth of each individual. Yes, those apparently less endowed can become resentful or jealous of those seemingly more endowed, or one can recognize the graces one has received and constructively deal with disappointments. In fact, some of the presumed assets of money, good looks, or intelligence can actually be spiritual hindrances and sources of pride and self-sufficiency.[10]

Think of the blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby (1820-1915). When she was six weeks old, a doctor applied the wrong medicine-a hot poultice-on her inflamed eyes, which resulted in permanent blindness. Rather than becoming resentful, she vowed to be content with her lot in life. She wrote some of the most uplifting hymns sung by Christians such as “To God Be the Glory, Great Things He Hath Done” and “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.” Reflecting on her blindness, she wrote these stanzas:

Oh what a happy soul I am,
Although I cannot see;
I am resolved that in this world
Contented I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy,
That other people don’t;
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot, and I won’t.[11]

The Rights of Self-Exclusion

Schwartz’s problem is that she hasn’t taken the doctrine of the Trinity seriously enough. The Triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is not a self-enclosed deity. He graciously creates human beings to share in his life, joy, and goodness. God is indeed humble and other-centered, serving his creatures and showing kindness to all (Matt. 5:45). A central distinguishing feature of God—and of those who take his rule seriously—is love for one’s enemies. This isn’t the easy love of being good to those who are good to us but the tough, gritty, and most complete love over all other types of love (Matt. 5:46-48).

Someone may object: “Isn’t there the doctrine of hell, the ultimate exclusion? Why doesn’t God show absolute hospitality to all without exclusion? Isn’t this the truly peaceful alternative?” Miroslav Volf astutely observes that “absolute hospitality” becomes difficult when the unrepentant perpetrators sit down with their unhealed, violated victims.[12] Such a perverse view of hospitality would actually “enthrone violence because it would leave the violators unchanged and the consequences of violence unremedied.”[13] The older brother in the prodigal son story (Luke 15) was left with a decision: would he stay outside to sulk and pout, or would he come in to celebrate the return of his younger brother and thus show honor to his gracious father?

Hell itself is the act of self-exclusion from God, the final act of self-assertion and control.[14] If we want a divorce from God, he will grant it. Hell isn’t a torture chamber of everlasting fire. Hell is ultimately a realm of self-separation and quarantine from God’s presence (2 Thess. 1:9). Spirit beings (the devil and his angels) will have the final separation from God that they desire. C. S. Lewis puts it this way:

I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully “All will be saved.” But my reason retorts, “Without their will, or with it?” If I say “Without their will” I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say “With their will,” my reason replies “How if they will not give in?”[15]

No, the problem isn’t religion, although many religiously inspired actions are certainly perverse and grotesque. In the Old Testament, we see that God desires to include Jew and Gentile, friend and enemy alike in his saving purposes. When we come to the New Testament, this vision of one people from all ethnic groups is finally being realized.

Properly understood, the Christian faith (and not some generic category called religion), with its doctrine of the self-giving and other-centered Trinity, is actually a beacon of hope for peacemaking and reconciliation (Rom. 5:6-11; Eph. 2:14-17). Some may refuse to participate and continue the conflict, but that is not the fault of the Christian faith.

Questions & Notes

Click on the "Is God a Moral Monster" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here.
  1. Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 242, 159, 243.

  2. Regina Schwartz, The Curse of Cain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 63.

  3. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 37.

  4. In this chapter, I’ll be following Mirsoslav Volf, “Christianity and Violence,” in War in the Bible and Violence in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008); and R. W. L. Moberly, “Is Monotheism Bad for You? Some Reflections on God, the Bible, and Life in the Light of Regina Schwartz’s The Curse of Cain,” in The God of Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 94-112.

  5. What do you think of the claim that monotheism leads to violence? Are exclusivistic truth claims the problem? Why are Enlightenment values not the solution?

  6. Why is the term religion in this discussion often being used unfairly?

  7. Volf, “Christianity and Violence,” 8.

  8. What do you think about the claim that sociological, historical, ethnic, or economic factors commonly lurk behind religious hostilities? Can you give some examples?

  9. Regarding Regina Schwartz’s critique, why is Cain not a good example of monotheistic exclusion? What about Esau?

  10. Must all gifts from God (e.g., intelligence, artistic abilities) be distributed equally to show that God is truly just? Why or why not?

  11. This poem can be found online at ChristianHistory.net, “Fanny Crosby,” August 8, 2008, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/131christians/poets/crosby.html.

  12. Why is absolute hospitality a picture of injustice?

  13. Volf, “Christianity and Violence,” 13.

  14. What do we mean by speaking of the right of self-exclusion?

  15. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 118-19.

30: The Killing of the Canaanites Pt 5

God's wrath becomes more appealing the more you experience man's wickedness. You begin to plead for someone to step in to stop the madness. Copan discusses this. He also addresses the critiques claim that because God kills infants (which in some cases is true as Copan explains) then we must be able to practice infanticide in order to send all children to heaven. Copan's explanation is difficult for me to grasp. It helps to remember that God has the right to do what He wants with what He created. The closest thing I can think of that relates to that is to imagine a gardener who purchases a property to build his house upon. After the house is built he discovers an invasion of ants. Does he not have the right to clear his property of those ants? He doesn't have to eliminate them from the world, but from his property which he purchased for his purposes. He therefore sets out to kill every man, woman, and child of those pesky insects. He does this to have a home from which he can live in order to be the gardener to make the world a better place to live.
As seen at nadaarts.com
  This is a review of Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan with study questions added to turn them into lessons.  These lessons are part of a wider study on Sanctification by Faith which has as its goal the fulfillment of Gal 5:16

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 

  Because sanctification depends upon faith, doubt will be seen as a hindrance.  Misunderstanding can lead to doubt as well as ignorance, deception, and experience like - it doesn't feel right.  This lesson seeks to combat ignorance, deception, and misunderstanding.  By erasing these, our faith is free to function at a higher level.  

  I’ve set all of these studies in a specific order so that anyone may easily build on the foundation of Christ with the finest materials - gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-13).  God has gifted the Church with amazing evangelists, pastors, and teachers to do the mining so that we have these materials to complete the building project. (Eph 4:11-16).  I invite you to study along with me.  You can see an overview of the complete Sanctification by Faith study here.  To go to the start of the current lesson (Is God a Moral Monster) click here. 

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess 5:23 

An Untamable God

We sensitized Westerners wonder why God gets so angry with Israel. Why all the judgment and wrath? Why does the Old Testament seem so undemocratic? We live in a time when we’re very alert to racial discrimination and intolerance, but we aren’t as sensitized to sexual sin as past generations were. We live in a time that sees death as the ultimate evil. Perhaps we need to be more open to the fact that some of our moral intuitions aren’t as finely tuned as they ought to be. The same may apply to our thoughts about what God should or shouldn’t have done in Canaan.[1]

Yale theologian Miroslav Volf was born in Croatia and lived through the nightmare years of ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia that included the destruction of churches, the raping of women, and the murdering of innocents. He once thought that wrath and anger were beneath God, but he came to realize that his view of God had been too low. Here Volf puts the New Atheists’ complaints about divine wrath into proper perspective:[2]

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.[3]

The apostle Paul brings these features together: “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Rom. 11:22).

Maybe the ideal “God” in the Westerner’s mind is just too nice. We’ve lost sight of good and just while focusing on nice, tame, and manageable. We’ve ignored sternness and severity (which make us squirm), latching on to our own ideals of comfort and convenience. We’ve gotten rid of the God who presents a cosmic authority problem and substituted controllable gods of our own devising. We’ve focused on divine love at the expense of God’s anger at what ultimately destroys us or undermines our fundamental well-being.[4]

Philosopher Paul Moser observes:

It would be a strange, defective God who didn’t pose a serious cosmic authority problem for humans. Part of the status of being God, after all, is that God has a unique authority, or lordship, over humans. Since we humans aren’t God, the true God would have authority over us and would seek to correct our profoundly selfish ways.[5]

Unlike ancient Near Eastern deities, the Savior of Scripture (like Narnia’s Aslan) is not safe. As a fellow church member, Ellie, recently put it, he is “a butt-kicking God.”

Today’s version of spirituality is tame and makes no demands on us. A mere impersonal force behind it all doesn’t call us on the carpet for our actions. We can play games with a pantheon of these kinds of deities. By contrast, the living God-a “hunter, king, husband,” C. S. Lewis says-is trying to get our attention by pulling from the other end at the cord of our lives.[6] Because life isn’t about us as the center of reality, God becomes the “transcendental Interferer”[7] and the hound of heaven to help our restless souls ultimately find their rest in him.

If we take God seriously, he will most certainly mess up our lives, make us uncomfortable, and even disorient us. After all, we can easily get accustomed to our own self-serving agendas and idols. The atheist has it almost right: humans regularly do make gods in their image. Yet the biblical God isn’t the kind we make up. He refuses to be manipulated by human schemes. He makes us all—including his true devotees—uncomfortable, which in the end is what we truly need to overcome our self-centeredness. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25).

Even so, this God also shows himself to be a promise-making God who is worthy of our tenacious trust, despite the puzzles, discomforts, storms, and even horrors we may endure. C. S. Lewis commends this “obstinacy of faith.” He asserts that trust in a personal God (as opposed to a mere proposition) “could have no room to grow except where there is also room for doubt.” Lewis goes so far as to say that love involves trusting a friend beyond the evidence, even, at times, against the evidence. He reminds us that we should give the benefit of the doubt to a friend, even if the friend may display seemingly puzzling and uncharacteristic behavior. For example, if a trusted friend pledges to meet us somewhere but fails to show up, which of us “would not feel slightly ashamed if, one moment after we had given him up, he arrived with a full explanation of his delay? We should feel that we ought to have known him better.”[8]

The God Who Commands

Some critics argue that because God commands the killing of the Canaanites (a specific action in a specific historical context for a specific theological purpose), then we can generalize: “action X is always permissible.” And, of course, if you allow this, then terrorism becomes permissible in the name of whatever authority: “Allah said it; I believe it; that settles it!” This isn’t very good reasoning, of course, but it’s all too common when it comes to the Canaanite question. The earlier discussion of Genesis 22 (see “Philosophical Reflections on God’s Command to Abraham” in chapter 5) overlaps with the Canaanite question; you can revisit that chapter with the Canaanites in mind. However, here we’ll look at things from another angle.

If infants are killed by God’s command, they aren’t wronged, for they will be compensated by God in the next life. So why not support infanticide? Why not kill all infants to make sure they are with God in the hereafter? This question commonly raised by critics doesn’t follow, of course, for at least four reasons:

1. In the context of God’s ongoing special revelation to Israel, God gave an unrepeatable command for a specific purpose, which the Scriptures themselves make clear; this command is not to be universalized.

2. Since life belongs to God, any harm caused due to specific purposes in a specific context would be overshadowed by divine benefits in the afterlife.

3. While the infant would go to God’s presence, the killer has not only taken another’s life but also sinned (primarily) against God (cf. Ps. 51:4).

4. The killer is responsible for the consequences of his own actions—namely, taking innocent life. He is not responsible for granting heavenly life. The giver of heavenly benefit cannot be the human agent but only God himself (another agent).

So when the killer takes matters into his own hands, he is acting presumptuously. The killer is not benefiting the infant; he is only harming the infant. The killer brings only death, not benefits; it is God who bestows the benefit of heavenly life. The killer isn’t “responsible” for getting an infant to heaven; he isn’t the one bestowing the highly valued benefit. The killer neither causes these benefits nor is responsible for them.[9]

By contrast, in this worst-case scenario, God commands the Israelite soldiers to take the lives of some civilians, including children. In this special circumstance, the soldiers would be instruments of bringing heavenly life to these young ones. Given God’s specific purposes, this scenario would differ from the infanticide committed by, say, Susan Smith, who strapped her children into her car and let it roll into a lake. No, Smith didn’t “give” her children a better life in heaven by drowning them. She defied God’s purposes and sinned against God and her children.

Humans and the Worm’s-Eye View

The book of Job sheds helpful light, reminding us that the full picture is not always available to us. We aren’t necessarily in the best position to decipher God’s purposes. Like Job, we may find ourselves left with a puzzling gap between what we clearly know of God and what seems to be a harsh exception. (Job’s friends certainly thought they had the correct perspective regarding “when bad things happen to good people.”) Though blameless yet severely afflicted, Job received no answers to his questions. And while he did eventually receive his audience with God, he still received no answer to his “why” question. Though baffled as ever, Job did obtain assurances of God’s wisdom, which far surpasses ours. He learned that God’s character is trustworthy and his presence sufficient, even when we remain stumped in the face of unanswered questions.[10]

Back in 1997, my family was involved in a serious auto accident on a county highway in rural Wisconsin. The other driver tried to avoid a dog and struck our van instead. Peter, our second child, was five at the time. He was injured when his head struck the side window, resulting in a skull fracture and multilayered lacerations to his forehead. He needed several surgeries—and daily applications of a sticky ointment called Kelo-cote—to get his forehead back to normal. Our last great task was removing Peter’s postsurgical bandage from his crusted-over-but-healing forehead. (Previous experience told us this was at least a two-person operation.) We had talked up the event as a momentous occasion to celebrate. But Peter screamed, cried, resisted, and tried to run away, as though we were trying to harm him. An ignorant eavesdropper outside the bathroom door—no, the house!—could possibly have concluded that we were evil torturers.

No doubt, children may draw all sorts of faulty conclusions about their “immoral” parents simply because they don’t understand what their parents are doing. Parents, in order to train their children, may seem overly strict when they insist that kids apologize even when they don’t feel like it. Parents may appear tyrannical when they override the freedom of a child who happens to be making all the wrong decisions about friendships or dubious activities. Parents may do things that strike their young children as utterly out of character or even immoral, yet the problem will be resolved with further information or the maturity of years and experience.[11] Couldn’t the Canaanite question fit into this category?

Think again of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. He tells his faithful friend, “I can’t do this, Sam.” But Sam tries to put his task in proper perspective:

I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo—the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you—that meant something—even if you were too small to understand why.[12]

Likewise, we may not be in the best position to understand the nature of God’s commands regarding the Canaanites in light of his overarching purposes. Perhaps we have more of a worm’s-eye view than we would like to think. As Isaiah 55:8-9 affirms:

“‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.'”

Several stanzas in William Cowper’s hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” express quite well the gap that exists between God and us—and how we may misperceive what God is doing:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.[13]

Jesus and the Bigger Picture

As we grapple with difficult Old Testament questions, we can go beyond Job’s limited perspective to glimpse God more clearly, as revealed in Jesus. In Christ’s incarnation and atoning death, we see how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob brings his unfolding purposes to fulfillment. As the Israelites had hoped, God showed up on the scene, though not in the way they had anticipated. He stooped to share our lot, enduring life’s temptations, injustices, sufferings, and cruelties. However we view the Canaanite question, God’s heart is concerned with redemption. This becomes especially evident in how low God was willing to go for our salvation, dying naked on a cross, enduring scorn and shame, and suffering the fate of a criminal or slave.[14] Michael Card’s song “This Must Be the Lamb” depicts this powerfully. He writes that the religious leaders mocked Christ’s true calling, laughing at his fate, “blind to the fact that it was God limping by.”[15]

Since God was willing to go through all of this for our salvation, the Christian can reply to the critic, “While I can’t tidily solve the problem of the Canaanites, I can trust a God who has proven his willingness to go to such excruciating lengths-and depths—to offer rebellious humans reconciliation and friendship.” However we’re to interpret and respond to some of the baffling questions raised by the Old Testament, we shouldn’t stop with the Old Testament if we want a clearer revelation of the heart and character of God.

In the New Testament, God redeems his enemies through Christ’s substitutionary, self-sacrificial, shame-bearing act of love (Rom. 5:10). Though a Canaanite-punishing God strikes us as incompatible with graciousness and compassion, we cannot escape a redeeming God who loves his enemies, not simply his friends (Matt. 5:43-48). Indeed, he allows himself to be crucified by his enemies in hopes of redeeming them: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Further Reading

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Vol. 3. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009. See esp. chap. 5, “City and Nation.”

Hess, Richard S. “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview.” In War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The God I Don’t Understand. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

-. Old Testament Ethics and the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006.

Click on the "Is God a Moral Monster" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here.

Questions & Notes

  1. Thanks to Alvin Plantinga for his insights in his “Response to Fales” paper presented at the “My Ways Are Not Your Ways” conference, University of Notre Dame, September 2009.

  2. What do you think of Miroslav Volf’s comments on God’s wrath? Does this help shed light on various Old Testament scenarios, including the Canaanite question?

  3. Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 138-39; see also Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).

  4. Why do we need to recover the concept of an untamable God?

  5. Paul K. Moser, “Divine Hiddenness, Death, and Meaning,” in Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008), 221-22.

  6. C. S. Lewis, “Miracles,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco: Harper, 2002), 383-84.

  7. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1955), 166.

  8. C. S. Lewis, “The Obstinacy of Belief,” in The World’s Last Night (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960), 25-27.

  9. From Mark Murphy, who kindly sent me his essay “God beyond Justice.”

  10. How may the story of Job give insight into the Canaanite issue?

  11. Murphy, “God beyond Justice,” inspired these thoughts.

  12. From The Two Towers, directed by Peter Jackson (New Line Cinema, 2002), based on J. R .R. Tolkien’s work by the same title.

  13. William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” 1774. This hymn can be found online at http://nethymnal.org/htm/g/m/gmovesmw.htm.

  14. How do the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ provide us with resources for thinking through the Canaanite problem?

  15. Michael Card, “This Must Be the Lamb,” Legacy, compact disc, Benson Productions, B00004RC04, 1983.

29: The Killing of the Canaanites Pt 4

Are there any holy wars going on in the world today? I mean real holy wars. Will there ever be another? Need there be? These are some of the thoughts raised after reading this section of Copan's work.
  This is a review of Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan with study questions added to turn them into lessons.  These lessons are part of a wider study on Sanctification by Faith which has as its goal the fulfillment of Gal 5:16

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 

  Because sanctification depends upon faith, doubt will be seen as a hindrance.  Misunderstanding can lead to doubt as well as ignorance, deception, and experience like - it doesn't feel right.  This lesson seeks to combat ignorance, deception, and misunderstanding.  By erasing these, our faith is free to function at a higher level.  

  I’ve set all of these studies in a specific order so that anyone may easily build on the foundation of Christ with the finest materials - gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-13).  God has gifted the Church with amazing evangelists, pastors, and teachers to do the mining so that we have these materials to complete the building project. (Eph 4:11-16).  I invite you to study along with me.  You can see an overview of the complete Sanctification by Faith study here.  To go to the start of the current lesson (Is God a Moral Monster) click here. 

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess 5:23 


17: Indiscriminate Massacre and Ethnic Cleansing? The Killing of the Canaanites (III)

Critics argue that the killing of the Canaanites set a negative, brutal precedent for national Israel. Curiously, professing Christians (during the Crusades, for instance) who were inspired by the Canaanite-killing texts to justify their actions completely ignored Jesus’s own kingdom teaching.[1] Jesus had informed Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting” (John 18:36). Again, “all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

On the other hand, we can confidently say that, precisely because of their commitment to Christ’s kingdom not being of this world, Amish and Mennonite communities would most certainly not appeal to Joshua to justify engaging in atrocities. The difference is that some professing Christians are far more consistent in applying Jesus’s teaching than others. It’s one thing to say that holy war is at the very heart of a religion and its theology and another to misuse a religion’s texts to justify warfare.

Furthermore, national Israel itself didn’t utilize these Joshua texts to justify attacking non-Canaanite peoples. They may have defended themselves against other enemies, but that’s a different story. Israelites throughout their history have not sought to commit non-Canaanite peoples to destruction.[2] To quote John Goldingay once more: “Saul does not seek to devote the Philistines and David does not seek to devote [to destruction] the surrounding peoples whom he did conquer. Neither Ephraim nor Judah took on Assyria, Babylon, Persia, or the local equivalents of the Canaanites in the Second Temple period.” He adds that Deuteronomy and Joshua do not set a pattern that “invites later Israel to follow, or that later Israel does follow.”[3]

The Canaanites as the Redeemed People of God

Another factor to include in our discussion is God’s promise to bless all the nations through Israel, including the Canaanites! Israel’s prophets after Solomon came to view the nations once singled out for judgment as the ultimate objects of Yahweh’s salvation. Peoples who historically had been Israel’s fiercest, most brutal enemies would partake in a new covenant as God’s multiethnic people.

For instance, in Zechariah 9, God begins with a promise to humble and judge the Philistines (Zechariah 9:1-6). And “then they also will be a remnant for our God, and be like a clan in Judah, and Ekron [a city in Philistia] like a Jebusite” (Zechariah 9:7). In other words, the Philistines—Israel’s longstanding enemies—will become a redeemed remnant and will be incorporated into God’s people, like one of the tribes of Israel. They will be “like a Jebusite.” The Jebusites were a Canaanite people (Deut. 7:1) that were eventually absorbed into the fold of Israel (1 Chron. 21:15, 18, 28). But beyond this, God’s salvation extends to all peoples, even the Canaanites, some of whom ultimately become part of God’s redeemed remnant.

This theme is reinforced in Psalm 87, which lists (among others) Israel’s chief oppressors: Egypt, Babylon, and Philistia. These nations in Israel’s Hall of Infamy will one day be incorporated into the people of God.[4]

I will record Rahab [Egypt] and Babylon among those who acknowledge me-Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush [Ethiopia]—and will say, “This one was born in Zion.” Indeed, of Zion it will be said, “This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her.” The Lord will write in the register of the peoples: “This one was born in Zion.” (Psalm 87:4-6 NIV)

Isaiah prophesied that the Gentile nations of Egypt and Assyria would become incorporated into the people of God. These nearly topped the list of Israel’s oppressors:

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrians will come into Egypt and the Egyptians into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third party with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.” (Isaiah 19:23-25)

In the New Testament, we begin to see this prophecy fulfilled, as Gentiles become incorporated into the new Israel, the church (Eph. 3:1-11; cf. Acts 15:16-17). In fact, in Jesus’s own ministry, he extended concern to a Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt. 15:22). God’s ultimate concern to save even his own (people’s) enemies comes full circle with the redemption of the Canaanites.[5]

The Canaanite Question and Noncombatants

We’ve given abundant evidence for claiming that approved Yahweh wars in the Old Testament were limited to a certain window of time in Israel’s history, to a certain smallish geographical location, and to a specific grouping of people. (Indeed, these specific divinely given parameters and controls were in marked contrast to other ancient Near Eastern nations, which had no such limits.)[6] This act of judgment was a corporate capital punishment that could be carried out only with the guidance of special, divine revelation.

Some people might argue that this scenario is a stretch. It may require too many qualifications. For example, what if Canaanite and Amalekite women, children, and the elderly really were targeted? What if the “all” doesn’t apply only to combatants in Canaanite fortresses (cities) but is much more sweeping than this? Don’t too many contingencies have to be just right to arrive at a palatable moral conclusion regarding the Canaanite question? If this were the case, then we could imagine how critics might exclaim, “I can’t trust that God’s character is the standard of goodness if he commands the killing of innocent children!” or “If that’s the kind of God you worship, I want nothing to do with him!”

For anyone who takes the Bible seriously, these Yahweh-war texts will certainly prove troubling. This issue is certainly the most weighty of all Old Testament ethical considerations. We shouldn’t glibly dismiss or ignore such questions. On the other hand, we hope that critics won’t do a surface reading of these Old Testament texts.

If our scenario doesn’t cover all the bases, it still goes a long way in providing perspective on what happened and didn’t happen in Canaan. Simply put, the damage to and death of noncombatants would have been far less serious and extensive than what critics and believers alike have maintained based on a traditional surface reading of the text. Just review the previous chapter for a summary of all the qualifications and exceptions (e.g., exaggerated ancient Near Eastern language, the meaning of “driving out,” destruction of idolatry over people, and so on).[7]

Second, let’s assume that women weren’t combatants, like Joan of Arc against the English (1412-31) or Budicca (d. AD 60) against the Romans. Even so, Canaanite women would have participated in immoral, degrading activities (which we’ve reviewed). Deviant morality wasn’t just the domain of men. We’ve seen how temple prostitution was religiously justified adultery, and how Canaanite gods themselves modeled adultery, bestiality, incest, and a host of other activities that their devotees practiced. Even before we get to Canaan, notice how readily the Midianite women sought to seduce Israelite men (Num. 25). Women may not have been combatants, but they were hardly innocent. And we could add that elderly Canaanites clearly shared blame in the moral corruption of their culture.

Third, if the evidence doesn’t offer a complete answer, the lingering crucial question is, Why kill Canaanite infants and children? Surely they were innocent. From a theological side, we can say a couple of things.

1. God is the author of life and has a rightful claim on it as Creator. Therefore, humans can make no demands on how long a person ought to live on earth (Job 1:21). If God is God and we aren’t, then our rights will necessarily be limited to some degree.

2. If any infants and children were killed, they would have entered the presence of God. Though deprived of earthly life, these young ones wouldn’t have been deprived of the greatest good-enjoying everlasting friendship with God.

Perhaps more could be said here, but we must address another aspect of the Canaanite problem. But keep in mind that this noncombatant, worst-case scenario isn’t the position I’m taking.

Psychologically Damaging?

On March 16, 1968, American troops brutally slaughtered over three hundred Vietnamese civilians in a cluster of hamlets, now infamously known as My Lai. They disregarded all Geneva Convention protocols, which regard harming noncombatants or the sick and wounded as a crime.[8] Wasn’t the killing of the Canaanites a brutal task comparable to the My Lai massacre? How could God command such an undertaking? The theologian John Stott admits, “It was a ghastly business; one shrinks from it in horror.”[9] In the context of another war, Confederate general Robert E. Lee affirmed, “It is well that war is so terrible; otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”[10]

In the ancient Near East, however, warfare was a way of life and a means of survival. Fighting was a much less grim reality back then. In the ancient Near East, combatants and noncombatants weren’t always easily distinguished. We’ve also observed that the hardness of human hearts (Matt. 19:8), in conjunction with the existence of fallen, morally blunted social structures in the ancient Near East, likely means that such actions would have been considerably less psychologically damaging for the ancient Israelite than for a citizen of Western culture. There is no evidence that Israelite soldiers were internally damaged by killing the Canaanites.

Beyond this, we should ask, What if there are some tasks that we would shrink from and that could even psychologically harm us but that still need to be done? The apostle Paul willingly gave himself up to “fill up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (see Col. 1:24). These are the allotted afflictions, tribulations, or birth pangs all believers must endure; they could include even the horrors of death itself. All that Paul endured for the sake of the gospel is startling (e.g., 2 Cor. 11:23-33), but he willingly shouldered this heavy burden.

Jesus reminded his followers to take courage because “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Christ permits his own people to endure persecution and even death’s terrors (Heb. 11:36-40), just as he himself did. Yet he reminds his people that he suffers with them and doesn’t forsake them (Matt. 25:40; Acts 9:4).

The Lord of the Rings describes the harrowing journey Frodo Baggins must take to Mount Doom, accompanied by his faithful Hobbit friend Samwise Gamgee.[11] Into Doom’s fires Frodo must throw the odious ring that has brought trouble not only to its wearers but to all of Middle Earth. This harsh, even detestable task fell to Frodo. It was perilous and emotionally exhausting. To fulfill this mission was in many ways psychologically damaging for him, though character-shaping in others. He loathed the burden of carrying the ring, which seemed to tear him apart inside. Yet Gandalf the Wise reminded him, “We cannot choose the time we live in. We can only choose what we do with the time we are given.”[12]

We may not understand the tasks God assigns to us (whether we are thinking of Abraham with Isaac or the killing of Canaanites), and a certain task or calling may bring its share of traumas and sorrows. Theologian Vernon Grounds’s wise words are insightful and widely applicable:

An individual, quite completely free from tension, anxiety, and conflict may be only a well-adjusted sinner who is dangerously maladjusted to God; and it is infinitely better to be a neurotic saint than a healthy-minded sinner. . . . Healthy-mindedness may be a spiritual hazard that keeps an individual from turning to God precisely because he has no acute sense of God. . . . Tension, conflict, and anxiety, even to the point of mental illness, may be a cross voluntarily carried in God’s service.[13]

A grander context should also be considered, something that couldn’t be fully understood by Joshua’s generation. If the Israelites hadn’t done serious damage to the Canaanite religious infrastructure, the result would have been incalculable damage to Israel’s integrity and thus to God’s entire plan to redeem humanity. Much was at stake in creating the necessary context-including a set-apart people in a set-apart land-in order to bring about redemption and an eventually restored creation. Just as Frodo’s success was precarious from start to finish, so was the journey from God’s promise to Abram (Gen. 12) to the coming of the Messiah. God’s plan involved a certain mysterious messiness, but this shouldn’t deter us from seeing God’s ultimate purposes at work.

The Broader Picture

God’s overarching goal was to bring blessing and salvation to all the nations, including the Canaanites, through Abraham (Gen. 12:3; 22:17-18; cf. Gen. 28:13-14). The covenant God made with Abraham is unique in its sweeping, outsider-oriented, universally directed nature. It is unlike any other ancient religious movement.[14] Yet, for a specific, relatively short, and strategic period, God sought to establish Israel in the land with a view to fulfilling this long-term, global (indeed, cosmic) plan of redemption. God would simultaneously punish a wicked people ripe for judgment. Not doing so would have erased humankind’s only hope for redemption.[15]

God’s difficult command regarding the Canaanites is also a limited, unique, salvation-historical situation. We could compare it to God’s difficult command to Abraham in Genesis 22. John Goldingay says it well: “the fate of the Canaanites is about as illuminating a starting point for understanding First Testament ethics as Gen 22 [Abraham’s binding of Isaac] would be for an understanding of the family.”[16] Behind both of these harsh commands is the clear context of God’s loving intentions and faithful promises.[17]

The first harsh command involved Abraham and the miracle child Isaac. God had promised Abraham that through Isaac he would become the father of many. Previously, Abraham had seen God’s provision for Ishmael and Hagar when he reluctantly let them go into the wilderness. God had reassured Abraham that Ishmael would become a great nation. In light of Abraham’s previous experience, he was confident that God would somehow fulfill his covenant promises through Isaac even as they headed toward Mount Moriah. He was convinced that God would keep his promises even if it meant that God would raise Isaac from the dead. Thus, Abraham informed his servants, “We will worship, and then we will come back to you” (Gen. 22:5 NRSV; cf. Heb. 11:19). Abraham knew that God’s purposes wouldn’t be thwarted, despite this difficult command.

With the second harsh command regarding the Canaanites, we can’t ignore the context of God’s universal blessing to all nations, including national Israel’s ancient enemies. The troubling, exceptional commands regarding both Isaac and the Canaanites must be set against their historical and theological context-namely, the background of Yahweh’s enemy-loving character and worldwide saving purposes.

This is illustrated in the book of Jonah. God didn’t punish the Ninevites—to the great disappointment of Jonah, who knew that this is the sort of thing Yahweh does: he loves his (and Israel’s) enemies. “I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity” (Jonah 4:2; cf. Exod. 34:6).

Click on the "Is God a Moral Monster" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here.

Questions & Notes

  1. For example, Karen Armstrong makes this Crusade-Canaanite connection in her book Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World (New York: Anchor, 2001).

  2. What’s the problem with the claim that fighting against the Canaanites would inevitably set a terrible war-making precedent for later generations of Israelites?

  3. John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, vol. 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 572.

  4. Christopher J. H. Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 102. Cf. Joshua 16:53; 2 Samuel 5:6-10. Wright says that the Jebusites moved from the “hit list” to the “home list,” an indication that these enemy nations could be incorporated into God’s people.

  5. How does God’s concern for redeeming Canaanites and other enemies of Israel strike you? How does that help put the Canaanite warfare issue into clearer perspective?

  6. Richard S. Hess, “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview,” in War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), 29.

  7. Compare the approaches to the Canaanite question in the previous chapter and this one. What is your view regarding these alternatives? What are the merits of each position?

  8. For a penetrating analysis of My Lai, see chapter 6 in M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).

  9. John Stott’s response in David Edwards, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 263.

  10. Lee made this statement during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.

  11. How do you respond to the question of Israelite soldiers being psychologically damaged by killing noncombatants? What if God calls us to endure what is extremely difficult or psychologically taxing? Would this necessarily be inappropriate or unjust? Does the analogy of Frodo and the ring offer any insight?

  12. From The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson (New Line Cinema, 2001), based on J. R .R. Tolkien’s work by the same title.

  13. Vernon Grounds, “Called to Be Saints-Not Well-Adjusted Sinners,” Christianity Today (January 17, 1986), 28.

  14. Paul K. Moser, The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 91-92.

  15. Discuss this statement: If the Israelites hadn’t done serious damage to the Canaanite religious infrastructure, then the result would have been incalculable damage to Israel’s integrity and thus to God’s entire plan to redeem humanity.

  16. Goldingay, Israel’s Life, 569. I address the specific question of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in “How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong?” (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).

  17. Compare God’s command to Abraham regarding Isaac to his command to Israel regarding the Canaanites. How is this comparison useful?

28: The Killing of the Canaanites Pt 3

The tie between the land and the people as explained in this section is fascinating. Also, do you realize the first expulsion or dispossession was there at the Garden of Eden? It seems as if there are too many light absorbing entities (sinners, those holding back the glory of God) in the land, those persons need to be removed. The land has a limit to how much darkness it can take.

  This is a review of Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan with study questions added to turn them into lessons.  These lessons are part of a wider study on Sanctification by Faith which has as its goal the fulfillment of Gal 5:16

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 

  Because sanctification depends upon faith, doubt will be seen as a hindrance.  Misunderstanding can lead to doubt as well as ignorance, deception, and experience like - it doesn't feel right.  This lesson seeks to combat ignorance, deception, and misunderstanding.  By erasing these, our faith is free to function at a higher level.  

  I’ve set all of these studies in a specific order so that anyone may easily build on the foundation of Christ with the finest materials - gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor 3:10-13).  God has gifted the Church with amazing evangelists, pastors, and teachers to do the mining so that we have these materials to complete the building project. (Eph 4:11-16).  I invite you to study along with me.  You can see an overview of the complete Sanctification by Faith study here.  To go to the start of the current lesson (Is God a Moral Monster) click here. 

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Thess 5:23 

Making Offers of Peace First

In light of Deuteronomy 20’s warfare procedures, many scholars argue that Israel was to offer terms of peace to non-Canaanite cities but not to Canaanite cities. This is the majority view, to be sure. However, others (including traditional Jewish commentators) have argued that the destruction of Canaanite cities wasn’t unconditional and that treaties could have been made under certain conditions. As with Gibeon (despite being sneaky treaty makers), a straightforward peace pact could have been available to any Canaanite city.[1] As we saw with Jericho, a sevenfold opportunity was given for Jericho to make peace with Israel, which it refused to do. Consider Joshua 11:19: “There was not a city which made peace with the sons of Israel except the Hivites living in Gibeon; they took them all in battle.” Like Pharoah, who opposed Moses, these Canaanite cities were so far gone that God simply gave them up to their own hardened, resistant hearts (v. 20).

Again, the primary focus in passages like Deuteronomy 7 and 20 is on Israel’s ridding the land of idols and false, destructive religious practices. The ultimate goal isn’t eliminating persons, as the inspection march around Jericho also suggests.

Driving Them Out

What adds further interest to our discussion is the language of “driving out” and “thrusting out” the Canaanites. The Old Testament also uses the language of “dispossessing” the Canaanites of their land (Num. 21:32; Deut. 9:1; 11:23; 18:14; 19:1; etc.).

I will send My terror ahead of you, and throw into confusion all the people among whom you come, and I will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. I will send hornets ahead of you so that they will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you. I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land. (Exod. 23:27-30)

Driving out or dispossessing is different from wiping out or destroying. Expulsion is in view, not annihilation (e.g., “dispossess [yarash]” in Exod. 34:24; Num. 32:21; Deut. 4:38 NET). Just as Adam and Eve were “driven out [garash]” of the garden (Gen. 3:24) or Cain into the wilderness (4:14) or David from Israel by Saul (1 Sam. 26:19), so the Israelites were to “dispossess” the Canaanites. The Old Testament uses another term as well—”send/cast out [shalach]”—that sheds light on the Canaanite question: just as Adam and Eve were “sent out” from the garden (Gen. 3:23), so God would “send out” (or “drive out,” Lev. 18:24; 20:23) the Canaanites. And upon examination, the driving out references are considerably more numerous than the destroying and annihilating ones.

In fact, even the verbs “annihilate/perish [abad]” and “destroy [shamad]” aren’t all that the critics have made them out to be. For example, God threatened to destroy Israel as he did the Canaanites. How? Not by literal obliteration but by removing Israel from the land to another land. Both verbs are used in Deuteronomy 28:63: “it shall come about that as the Lord delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the Lord will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it.” Even when Babylon destroyed the city of Jerusalem, all cooperative Jews were spared (Jer. 38:2, 17).[2] In short, fleeing Canaanites would escape; only the resistant were at risk. This brief examination of terms connected to Yahweh wars provides yet further indication that utter annihilation wasn’t intended and that escape from the land was encouraged.[3]

How then does this dispossessing or driving out work? It’s not hard to imagine. The threat of a foreign army would prompt women and children—not to mention the population at large—to remove themselves from harm’s way. The noncombatants would be the first to flee. As John Goldingay writes, an attacked population wouldn’t just wait around to be killed. Only the defenders, who don’t get out, are the ones who would get killed.[4] Jeremiah 4:29 suggests such a scenario: “At the sound of the horseman and bowman every city flees; they go into the thickets and climb among the rocks; every city is forsaken, and no man dwells in them.”

Again, the biblical text gives no indication that the justified wars of Joshua were against noncombatants.[5] We read in Joshua (and Judges) that, despite the obliteration language, plenty of Canaanite inhabitants who weren’t driven out were still living in areas where Israel settled. Moreover, Canaanites (in general) were to be displaced or driven out, not annihilated.

Joshua Utterly Destroyed Them Just as Moses Commanded

In the following texts, Joshua’s utter destruction of the Canaanites is exactly what “Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded”:

• “Joshua captured all the cities of these kings, and all their kings, and he struck them with the edge of the sword, and utterly destroyed them; just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded” (Josh. 11:12).

• “All the spoil of these cities and the cattle, the sons of Israel took as their plunder; but they struck every man with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them. They left no one who breathed. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:14-15).

• “that he might destroy them, just as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Josh. 11:20).

Remember Moses’s sweeping commands to “consume” and “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, not to “leave alive anything that breathes”? Joshua’s comprehensive language echoes that of Moses; Scripture clearly indicates that Joshua fulfilled Moses’s charge to him. So if Joshua did just as Moses commanded, and if Joshua’s described destruction was really hyperbole common in ancient Near Eastern warfare language and familiar to Moses, then clearly Moses himself didn’t intend a literal, comprehensive Canaanite destruction. He, like Joshua, was merely following the literary convention of the day.[6]

Scripture and Archaeology

With its mention of gradual infiltration and occupation (Josh. 13:1-7; 16:10; 17:12), the biblical text leads us to expect what archaeology has confirmed-namely, that widespread destruction of cities didn’t take place and that gradual assimilation did.[7] Only three cities (citadels or fortresses, as we’ve seen) were burned-Jericho, Ai, and Hazor (Josh. 6:24; 8:28; 11:13). All tangible aspects of the Canaanites’ culture-buildings and homes—would have remained very much intact (cf. Deut. 6:10-11: “cities which you did not build”). This makes a lot of sense if Israel was to settle down in the same region—a lot less clean-up!

Furthermore, if we had lived back in Israel in the Late Bronze Age (1400-1200 BC) and looked at an Israelite and a Canaanite standing next to each other, we wouldn’t have detected any noticeable differences between them; they would have been virtually indistinguishable in dress, homes, tableware, pottery, and even language (cf. 2 Kings 18:26, 28; Isa. 19:18). This shouldn’t be all that surprising, as the Egyptian influence on both these peoples was quite strong.

What’s more, Israel itself wasn’t a pure race. For example, Joseph married an Egyptian woman, Asenath, who gave birth to Manasseh and Ephraim (Gen. 41:50); a “mixed multitude” came out of Egypt with them (Exod. 12:23; Num. 11:4); and other Gentiles like Rahab could be readily incorporated into Israel by intermarrying if they were willing to embrace the God of Israel. So how might Israelites distinguish themselves? Typically, by identifying their tribal or village and regional connections—for example, “Ehud the son of Gera, the Benjamite”(Judg. 3:15), “Izban of Bethlehem” (Judg. 12:8), “Elon the Zebulunite” (Judg. 12:11).

On the religious front, again, the Scriptures lead us to expect what archaeology supports. Yes, like the Canaanites, the Israelites sacrificed, had priests, burned incense, and worshiped at a “shrine” (the tabernacle). And though the Israelites were called to remain distinct in their moral behavior, theology, and worship, they were often ensnared by the immorality and idolatry of the Canaanite peoples. For example, Israel mimicked the Phoenicians’ notorious practice of ritual infant sacrifice to the Baals and Asherahs and to Molech (e.g., 2 Kings 23:10; cf. Lev. 18:21; Deut. 18:10).

However, archaeologists have discovered that by 1000 BC (during the Iron Age), Canaanites were no longer an identifiable entity in Israel. (I’m assuming that the exodus from Egypt took place sometime in the thirteenth century BC.)[8] Around this time also, Israelites were worshiping a national God, whose dominant personal name was Yahweh (“the Lord”). An additional significant change from the Late Bronze to Iron Age was that town shrines in Canaan had been abandoned but not relocated elsewhere—say, to the hill villages. This suggests that a new people with a distinct theological bent had migrated here, had gradually occupied the territory, and had eventually become dominant.

We could point to a well-supported parallel scenario in the ancient Near East. The same kind of gradual infiltration took place by the Amorites, who had moved into Babylonia decades before 2000 BC. (Hammurabi himself was an Amorite who ruled Babylon.) They eventually occupied and controlled key cities and exerted political influence, which is attested by changes in many personal names in the literature and inscriptions. Babylonia’s culture didn’t change in its buildings, clothing, and ceramics, but a significant social shift took place. Likewise, we see the same gradual transition taking place in Canaan based on the same kinds of evidence archaeologists typically utilize.[9] We’re reminded once again to avoid simplistic Sunday school versions of how Canaan came to be occupied by Israel.


Let’s summarize some of the key ideas in this chapter.

The language of the consecrated ban (herem) includes stereotypical language: “all,” “young and old,” and “men and women.” The ban could be carried out even if women and children weren’t present.
As far as we can see, biblical herem was carried out in particular military or combatant settings (with “cities” and military “kings”). It turns out that the sweeping language of the ban is directed at combatants.
The ban language allows and hopes for exceptions (e.g., Rahab); it isn’t absolute.
The destruction language of ancient Near Eastern warfare (and the Old Testament) is clearly exaggerated. Groups of Canaanite peoples who apparently were “totally destroyed” were still around when all was said and done (e.g., Judg. 1).
The greater concern was to destroy Canaanite religion, not Canaanites per se, a point worthy of elaboration (see the next chapter).
The preservation of Rahab and her family indicates that consecration to the ban wasn’t absolute and irreversible. God had given ample indications of his power and greatness, and the Canaanites could have submitted to the one true God who trumped Egypt’s and Canaan’s gods, sparing their own lives.
The biblical text, according to some scholars, suggests that peace treaties could be made with Canaanite cities if they chose to, but none (except Gibeon) did so (Josh. 11:19). The offer of peace was implicitly made to Jericho.
The biblical text contains many references to “driving out” the Canaanites. To clear away the land for habitation didn’t require killing; civilians fled when their military strongholds were destroyed and soldiers were no longer capable of protecting them.
From the start, certain (more cooperative) Canaanites were subjected to forced labor, not annihilation (Judg. 1:27-36; 1 Kings 9:20-21; Josh. 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13; cf. Ps. 106:34-35). This was another indication that the ban wasn’t absolute.
Joshua carried out what Moses commanded (Deut. 7 and 20), which means that Moses’s language is also an example of ancient Near Eastern exaggeration. He did not intend a literal, all-encompassing extermination of the Canaanites.
The archaeological evidence nicely supports the biblical text; both of these point to minimal observable material destruction in Canaan as well as Israel’s gradual infiltration, assimilation, and eventual dominance there.

We have many good reasons to rethink our paradigm regarding the destruction of the Canaanites. On closer analysis, the biblical text suggests that much more is going on beneath the surface than obliterating all the Canaanites. Taking the destruction of anything that breathes at face value needs much reexamination.

Further Reading

Goldingay, John. Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Vol. 3. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009. See esp. chap. 5, “City and Nation.”

Hess, Richard S. “The Jericho and Ai of the Book of Joshua.” In Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, edited by Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray Jr. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008.

-. Joshua. Tyndale Old Testament Commentary 6. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996.

-. “War in the Hebrew Bible: An Overview.” In War in the Bible and Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Richard S. Hess and Elmer A. Martens. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008.

Wright, Christopher J. H. The God I Don’t Understand. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

Click on the "Is God a Moral Monster" tag below to see all the posts in this series. To go to the start of this series click here.

Questions & Notes

  1. Though Tigay takes the former view, see his discussion in Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, Torah Commentary Series (Jerusalem: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), 474.

  2. Ibid., 470; and Magyarosi, “Holy War,” 110-18.

  3. What is the significance of the predominant “driving out” language used in the Pentateuch?

  4. Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, 570; also Hess, “War in the Hebrew Bible,” 30.

  5. Hess, “War in the Hebrew Bible,” 30.

  6. From Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Reading Joshua,” presented at “My Ways Are Not Your Ways” conference, University of Notre Dame, September 2009.

  7. This section is taken from Alan R. Millard, “Were the Israelites Really Canaanites?” in Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention?, ed. Daniel I. Block (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 156-68.

  8. James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel in Sinai: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Wilderness Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

  9. How does archaeology support a more gradual infiltration of Israel into Canaan rather than a sudden, dramatic conquest?