I don’t know what else to do, except to constantly acknowledge the absurdity of a punk guy in his 30s spouting off Sunday blog posts on such weighty matters… Now on to business:
I think it’s safe to say that beyond the sheer implausibility of some of the Biblical accounts (feeding 5,000 people with some loaves and fish, bringing people back from the dead, parting a sea in order to escape Pharaoh’s army, etc.), perhaps the biggest problem atheists/agnostics have with Christianity is the seeming unfairness of God, in particular His depiction in the Old Testament. So I want to try to get you folks to see the analogies and considerations I’ve developed to help make sense of it, because of course when I read passages like those in the beginning of Jeremiah 15, it gives me the heebie jeebies too. It’s no joke to say I fear the Lord.
So here are some points to consider:
===> I’ve said it often before: The only reason it even occurred to me to try to understand, “How could the God of the Old Testament be infinitely good?” is that Jesus thinks He is (here and here). There is nothing irrational or “unscientific” about me deferring to someone (namely Jesus) who is clearly my better in this type of judgment.
My younger brother did graduate work in mathematics and the area he was going into (before he changed career course) he obviously knows far better than I do. So if he and I were attending a talk by a world-renowned mathematician lecturing on that area, and the famous guy said some things that I thought were violations of linear algebra, but my brother assured me the guy was right–I would assume I was wrong. Or at least, I would try really really hard to understand how something that seemed so obviously wrong to me, could be right. I wouldn’t merely take their word for it, but I would really go over my own reasoning since it would be so odd for them both to be so cosmically wrong. Well, same thing with goodness, Yahweh and Jesus.
===> At first this point is going to sound flippant and perhaps absurd, but if so it’s because atheists/agnostics have a hard time imaging the implications of the existence of the Christian God. Here goes: If such a Being exists, then whether you die from a heart attack, an earthquake, a Nazi gas chamber, or an angel of death…in all cases it is correct to say that God killed you. He is omnipotent; nothing happens that is inconsistent with His will. The reason you die a certain way, is that God designed it to happen that way.
So all of the stuff that seems monstrous in the Old Testament–with God ordering the Israelites to slaughter infants, for example–is not a reflection on God’s morality. Now you can still argue that it was a terrible example for Him to teach His people, and I think that’s quite a valid objection to raise. But my point is, whether those pagan infants died at the hands of Joshua’s sword, or from “natural causes” 100 years later after a lifetime of peace and prosperity, in both cases “God killed that person.” So it’s simply incorrect to recoil in horror at the first method and say, “Oh my gosh, your sick God kills innocent babies!!” To talk like that shows that you are not taking seriously the hypothesis that there is a Being who created the entire universe and designed the course of history from the beginning. (This reminds me of a funny bit Ricky Gervais had in a stand up special where he criticizes insurance companies for withholding payment after a freak storm. “I mean, if you believe in God, then everything is an act of God!”)
===> I think when we shudder at how God talked (through the prophets) to the ancient Israelites, we are forgetting just how savage the people in those days probably were. Think of it like this: In our own recent history, we can see quite clearly that there is a general trend for people to become more civilized with each succeeding generation. Now it’s true, there are countervailing trends of course. But I’m talking about stuff like treatment of minorities, or even civilians in times of war. As much as I am horrified by the stuff Bush and Obama have done, we don’t have the equivalent of the Japanese internment camps of World War II. It would take a heck of a lot more to get the American public to tolerate something like that nowadays. (Don’t get me wrong, they might, if nail bombs start going off in Walmarts across the country.) But c’mon, in general, you probably think you are “fairer” or whatever with your kids, than your parents were with you. But that’s not a knock against your parents, because they in turn were much fairer with you, than your grandparents were with them. The point is, every generation tries to correct the mistakes it perceives in the preceding one.
So now run the process in reverse. Can you possibly imagine what uncivilized savages people must have been, in the days when the Old Testament prophets were speaking out? Not that these examples will shock libertarian atheists, but just to give a sense of what I mean: When Moses was up on the mountain getting the Ten Commandments, the people who had just been rescued from Egypt with a series of miraculous plagues, and who had seen the Red Sea part before their very eyes decided to create a golden calf to worship. And then, part of the “backsliding” through the years would be having sex with pagan prostitutes at their religious temples. These aren’t minor slips; this is crazy stuff.
Now then, is it so surprising that God would talk to those people in a manner that sounds a bit harsh to us? Listen to your friends talk to their 2-year-old sometime. Then imagine if they talked that way to their 20-year-old children. What is perfectly acceptable when it comes to disciplining the former, would sound outrageously dictatorial for the latter.
So I think it’s a similar thing with the way God deals with people over the generations. Early on, He had to be a thundering authority figure, because that was the only way to get through to those people who were basically ignorant of the multitude of sins they were committing daily. But over time, we matured and were finally ready to understand the example of Jesus. And then those of us who have grown up in a culture imbued (however imperfectly) with His teachings have an even greater advantage. We all still sin, but it’s of a different type because now we know so much better that what we are doing is wrong.
To lend support to my claim that the God of the Old Testament was just as much of a “nice guy” as Jesus, when that’s what was needed to teach a person, look at the ending of the book of Jonah. To refresh your memory, after spending three days in the belly of a fish (or whale in some translations of Jesus’ recollection of the event), Jonah goes to Ninevah and tells the people God is going to blow up their city for its evil ways. The people repent, and God spares them. Jonah is mad and here’s what happens:
1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. 2 So he prayed to the LORD, and said, “Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!”
4 Then the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
5 So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. 6 And the LORD God prepared a plant[a] and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. 7 But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. 8 And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah’s head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
9 Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
And he said, “It is right for me to be angry, even to death!”
10 But the LORD said, “You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?”
I love that last phrase–the Lord is asking, “You even want me to destroy that perfectly good livestock?!” So it’s clear, the God of the Old Testament is fully aware that killing infants is a serious thing. For whatever reason–and I confess I don’t have a great answer for the cynics–giving those orders to Israelite warriors was the right thing to do in that situation, whereas with Jonah, God is instructing him in ways that sound more pleasing to modern ears.
(And no, this isn’t situational ethics: Again, on standard libertarian principles, God owns everything in the universe, so He has the right to do whatever He wants to His property. If you don’t like that argument, then I’ll repeat the one from above: If you say God is a murderer for telling Joshua to kill people, then God is also a mass murderer for telling microbes to kill billions of other people throughout history.)
===> Last issue for tonight: People bristle at my insistence that Jesus is the way of salvation. Now when Jesus says “no one comes to the Father except through Me,” that could actually mean a whole lot of things. It could mean (a) you need to explicitly “accept Jesus” by name, or it could (b) almost be a tautology in the sense that if anybody is saved and gets to be with the Father in heaven, the only way he or she could have done it is through Jesus, since Jesus and the Father are one.
For now, I will just say that there is clear Biblical support for some people going to heaven who came before Jesus and thus couldn’t have accepted Him as their personal Lord and savior in quite the way that a modern evangelical would want, just to be on the safe side. Specifically, if anybody is in heaven, it is Moses and Elijah. When Jesus took some of His apostles up a mountain, He was transfigured before them and those two appeared, talking with Him.
Now it’s true, prophets in the Old Testament referred to the coming Messiah, and so in that sense you could say (for example) that King David (of Goliath fame) “accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and savior.” But this seems to open the door to what the critics of Christianity want, when they worry that “good, holy people” in some jungle might die without ever learning about Jesus, and then what happens to their souls? I’m not saying I know. I’m just pointing out that the Bible clearly indicates that some people before Jesus’ time “got into heaven.”