The behaviour of God, as described in the Old Testament, is a common target for sceptics. How could anyone worship such a tribal, warlike God, they say?
Many christians, on the other hand, see no problem. They think God’s actions are quite compatible with the revelation they see in Jesus, and the New Testament teaching that God is love.
I think both “sides” are mistaken because I think they are ignoring important evidence.
Yahweh according to the atheists
Atheist criticisms of the morality of God in the Old Testament are based on reasonable evidence. God is described as commanding all manner of violence and bloodshed as the Israelites enter and conquer the Promised Land. For example, Deuteronomy 7 details how the Israelites are to eliminate and drive out the nations living in Canaan, with verse 16 saying:
You must destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you. Do not look on them with pity
Now other passages in the Bible, and the archaeological and historical record, suggest that these commands were never carried out to the extent described, but this doesn’t alter the fact that God is portrayed as commanding things that would be war crimes today.
Two sides to the story
But this isn’t the whole story, and atheists tend not to point out the other side to the Old Testament God. The warlike Yahweh seems to be a tribal god just like the gods of other nations – Chemosh, Baal, Dagon, etc – but something remarkable happens within the Old Testament.
Alongside the terrible warlike commands, God is portrayed as loving, concerned about people, caring for the Israelites like a mother cares for her child, or a lover cares for his beloved. The tribal god Yahweh is seen more and more as the one true creator God, who doesn’t support he king, but cares for justice for the poor. Psalm 10 is just one of many examples:
You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
defending the fatherless and the oppressed
Apart, perhaps, from the brief reign of Akenhaten in Egypt, this ethical monotheism is far “above” the beliefs of the surrounding nations. The God of this insignificant tribe became the most believed and arguably most ethically influential of any God in the entire world.
So side by side in the Old Testament we see commands to kill and commands to show mercy. To fairly describe and assess the Old Testament, we need to recognise both sides of this dilemma.
The Christian view
Christians tend to see a totally different God than the the one condemned by atheists. God is both loving and just, they say. Do an internet search on the angry God of the Old Testament and you’ll find any number of christian websites explaining that God’s love and justice are two sides of the same coin, that justice requires judgment of sin, and so the supremely loving God was quite justified in wiping out evil nations that threatened his saving work via the Jews. In fact his holy love demanded this judgment and punishment.
Yet more and more christians are uncomfortable with this. The sins committed by the Canaanites seem no worse than some committed today, so why should they be punished so severely, but not us? It doesn’t look like love, it doesn’t look like what Jesus would do. Genocide and war crimes cannot and should not be overlooked and called anything other than what they are. Admittedly there are difficult passages and judgments in the New Testament too, but Jesus condemned striking out against enemies, and demanded love and forgiveness even for those who persecute or even kill.
It should also concern christians that many episodes of violence committed by christians (or apparent christians) – e.g. the crusades, killing of Native Americans, the genocide in Rwanda – have used language reminiscent of the Old Testament commands to justify atrocities.
So conservative christians also seem to me to have not correctly considered the evidence. Anyone who can justify mass killing may not have understood Jesus – his non-violent teachings and the claim that he is the best picture of God that we have.
When all else fails, start with the facts
It seems to me that both sides are starting with their dogma and emphasising and explaining the facts accordingly. But if we start with the apparent facts as determined by historians, the picture is clearer.
It appears that the original belief of the Israelites was in a tribal god, just like their neighbours. They were a small tribe, often sandwiched between stronger powers, and their hold on their land was sometimes tenuous. So they saw their God as giving them a divine right to the land and fighting on their behalf.
They had their founding stories. Their creation and flood stories appear to be monotheistic re-workings of more ancient Akkadian, Sumerian and Babylonian myths. The stories of their nation’s beginning via the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the exodus from Egypt under Moses and their conquering of the Promised Land under Joshua, are written as historical sagas, but it is uncertain how much of these stories are legend and how much history. (Scholars differ in their views from minimalists who think very little of these stories are historical to maximalists who think a significant amount is historical.)
Commands to wipe out enemies, and reports of successfully doing so, appear to be part of the culture of the day, but don’t mean these things actually happened. They were likely more rhetoric than real, both for the Jews and for the neighbouring nations.
But in the case of the Jews, the unimaginable happened, and a much higher and more ethical form of religion gradually came into prominence through the teachings of the prophets and the writings of the priests, reaching a high form that has endured to this day in the teachings of Jesus.
And so, scholars tell us, the Old Testament is the work of different hands, some who thought God supported ethnic cleansing, and some who thought he wanted mercy and compassion, especially towards the poor and downtrodden. The former gradually gave way to the latter.
If this is basically true, then we can see that both atheists and conservative christians begin from a wrong place.
The atheists find the most damning picture of God and act as if that was the only picture in the Bible. They ignore the development of a much higher ethic and a more altruistic monotheism. The christians too ignore the development of the understanding of God in the Bible, and try to equate the early primitive form with the later “higher” belief, and try to justify the unjustifiable.
So is God in the Old Testament, or not?
Many christians find this historical understanding a problem. They have been told that the Bible is the very word of God and correct in all it says and for all time. They have to somehow affirm the different sides of the picture of God they find in the Bible, even if that is a stretch.
But the Bible doesn’t claim to be all that conservative christians claim on its behalf. It might be that we would like God to have revealed himself in a dictated textbook of divine facts, but he doesn’t seem to have done so. But our faith doesn’t need to leak out because of that.
I can see no reason why God couldn’t have used a gradual process to prepare people for Jesus, just as he used a gradual process to create the universe from the initial big bang, and to create human life from the initial single cell life forms.
CS Lewis, one of the most influential christians of the past century, and an expert on ancient languages, literature, myth and history, thought exactly that. He said:
If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels …. was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself. That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature. At first hardly anything comes through but mere power. Then (v. important) the truth that He is One and there is no other God. Then justice, then mercy, love, wisdom.
I believe this understanding is true to the historical facts and to the Bible. It preserves and emphasises the truth that God is revealed most fully in the non-violent Jesus. Murder and mayhem were not his commands at all, but early misunderstandings that were later corrected. The Bible is inspired by God, but is more a record of his process of revelation than an ethics textbook. We can read it and be edified – much more than we would be if we believed God really commanded all that bloodshed.
A challenge for atheists to get on board
Many atheists accept this historical understanding too, even though they don’t believe there was a God was behind the events, but just see it all as cultural evolution.
But too many atheists prefer to ignore the historical facts and use the early books of the Old Testament as an argument against christian belief. That may be an effective line of attack against conservative christians, but it is largely meaningless against a christian who begins with the known historical and cultural facts.
Christianity stands or falls with Jesus.
Graphic: Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia
Finally, a post where I can somewhat agree.
My experience growing up (in Australia) was of a sharp difference between the Old Testament God and the New Testament God. And, worse still, the Old Testament God was changing over time. But God was supposed to be changeless, so how could that be.
To me, this suggested that man created God, rather than the other way around. And as culture evolved, the God created by that culture evolved along with the culture.
This does not prove that there is no god. But it does suggest a different way of looking at the Bible. Instead of seeing it as the story of God and his relations with man, it can be seen as the story of the struggle of men to understand what they took to be their god.
I disagree with that. At best, you can say that some Christians tend to see a different God from the one condemned by some atheists. You tend to see this with your own biases. You see the best of Christians and the worst of atheists.
I disagree with that, too. You should have said “anti-theist” rather than “atheist”. Most atheists are not anti-theist.
And for me, that is where it fell.
Reading the gospels, I could not find convincing evidence that Jesus had ever claimed to be God. He often referred to himself as “the son of man”. Yes, he did refer to God as father, but this seemed to be mainly in the metaphoric sense in which God was seen to be everyone’s father.
So I began to doubt the divinity of Jesus. And I began to suspect that much of Christian theology was made up by theologians.
This, by itself, did not settle things. I could still admire Jesus as a great moral teacher. And I considered continuing with Christianity because of that. But what destroyed that idea was the rank hypocrisy that I encounted in the Churches.
“Finally, a post where I can somewhat agree.”
We can be thankful for small mercies! 🙂
“My experience growing up (in Australia)”
I didn’t know this. Where did you live? You don’t still live in Australia I presume?
“But what destroyed that idea was the rank hypocrisy that I encounted in the Churches.”
I am no fan of the church, I think it is often quite contrary to Jesus, but I have found christian people to be mostly very genuine. What was your experience?
Perth (or, to be more precise, South Perth).
I’m now in the suburbs of Chicago.
Some are. Some aren’t.
I don’t regret my years as a Christian. There were some good people. There were also other kinds of people, but I could mostly avoid those.
OK, I’ve been to all the other states, but never to WA. Were you born in Australia, or just living here for a while?
Yeah, obviously there are nice and not-so-nice people everywhere, but what hypocrisy did you find in churches? Are you talking about belief or living?
Born in South Perth. Moved to USA for graduate studies (in mathematics).
As for hypocrisy, that was a long time ago. I’m not going to try to dig out old memories.
Do you think you will ever return?
What branch of mathematics did you study? Are you a maths educator?
I have visited.
I have children and grandchildren in the USA. So I don’t expect a permanent return.
I’m now retired.
Yes, family is a good reason to stay.
I looked up functional analysis and it looks a little beyond me, I have to say. I used to be reasonably good at maths, but when my son studied electrical engineering and now works in speech recognition, he uses maths that is beyond my capability and I realise how little I know.
You don’t have to be an expert at everything. What’s important, is to be good at what you do.
Yeah, that’s true. I guess I was just reflecting on the fact that what is an important part of your life is something that I have virtually no understanding of.
Dear UnkleE and readers ,
you still don’t undertand. There is no two sides, only “gods side”.
To understand reality demands a bigger view. = even above Gods view =
Instead of being sidetracked by apologists – take a hard-assed look at god and what really happens.
Imagine eternity as an unending tube in which everything happens
Now – invision our physical universe ( where we exist) – as a long bulge inside the eternity tube = like a saugage with a start , middle and and end ..
It starts when god when god starts it and ends when god stops it
God commands every detail. Everything and each little detail of everything that happens in the physical universe. He knows the begginning and the end of physical universe. Don’t forget he made it happen. It is His-Story.
OH, Each human has a soul that exists forever from the point each is created.
Bsed upon the gods holy books, including the New Tesatament = God the Father commandments shall be enforced forever = even after the end of physical universe. Jesus said he DID NOT come to change the commandments.
Some beliving folks estimate the the wide road to hell carry more than 80% of all humans -= add it up yourself = Add all the non Christians ( including those born before Abraham ) = with all the folks who followed the wrong Christian theology = and those to who Jesus says “I never knew you” ..
ALL THESE humans are condemmed to eternal hurt and exist in pain as your holy books command.
AFTER ENDING PHYSICAL UNIVERSE = Human souls have only two places to exist.
HEAVEN =God in his heaven includes the human souls who passed the judgement process
HELL = The 80% (plus) of all humans who were created suffer for all eternity.
The final question? Why ?
Why did god create the humans- that He created – would suffer and be in pain during life and also in hell forever ?
He planned it all before creation.
Perhaps god just enjoys the sounds that the humans in hell generate.
I request counter views from any one who reads this, but from the point of reference I started from
I recall you posted here a few weeks back. Did you want to discuss, or just make your statement?
I would like a discussion. Your posting said that there are two choices ,however I observe that there is only one. The scripture said that Jesus did not come to change or eliminate the commandments. My posting takes a step back .to see the bigger picture to understand Gods reality, not the smaller theology of one religion/theology.. .. .. .
Hi Norm, thanks for your reply. I’ll start my side of the discussion by asking you a question and making a comment.
The question: you say “My posting takes a step back .to see the bigger picture to understand Gods reality, not the smaller theology of one religion/theology.. .. .. .” Can you tell me please what you understand by “God’s reality” and where you obtained that information? Thanks.
The comment: Very little of what you say seems to apply to what I believe. For example:
* I don’t think eternity is “an unending tube in which everything happens”.
* I don’t think “God commands every detail. Everything and each little detail of everything that happens in the physical universe. ”
* I don’t believe “Each human has a soul that exists forever from the point each is created.”
* Contrary to what you say, I think Jesus DID come to change some of the commandments.
* I think this isn’t right: “ALL THESE humans are condemmed to eternal hurt and exist in pain …. would suffer and be in pain during life and also in hell forever “.
My answer to your question (Why did god create the humans?) is given in this blog post.
Interested in your comments. Thanks.
Jesus said: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?
5.they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”
6.So the Yahweh sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died.
Haha! Hi Robert. I think you have summarised what I was talking about. Not sure where you fit with my conclusions?
Yes, Jesus does say He is God in the gospels. Matthew 11:27, John 14:9, John 5:18,Mark 14:61-62.
Also the reason we see a contrast of God from the Old Testament to the New Testament is because there is a old and new covenant. In the old God required man to follow law (revealed to Moses) and brought judgement and wrath on the wicked because he is just. The law required (animal) sacrifices for sin. (Leviticus)
Jesus is the new Covenant and if we seek Him (and truly repent of our sin) we are forgiven. His spirit lives in us in that moment (Acts 3:18-19)We will find Him through surrendering He becomes our living sacrifice. God will no longer hold us under the law because Jesus is the lamb of God. The new covenant is revealed in Grace and mercy. Galatians, Ephesians, Romans
Thanks for your thoughts, Missy. I used to think the same once, and I agree with a lot of what you say. But I and many others can see problems with that view. If you have no problems, then this post wasn’t really addressed to someone like you. But thanks for reading.
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