One of the most popular arguments against God is the fact that the God of the Bible orders the deaths of many people, even entire nations.
In short, the accusation is made that God is guilty of genocide, genocide is a particularly nasty sin, and therefore God cannot be good.
And there’s plenty of evidence in support of the claim. Not only does God tell the Israelites to kill the people of Canaan to make room for the Israelites to claim that land, he floods the entire world to kill off all mankind other than Noah and his family.
These deaths ordered by God often include women, children, and even infants. I mean, any babies around at the time of the Flood drowned.
I’ve often wondered why these facts never bothered me all that much growing up. It’s not that I was insensitive to murder or the value of human life. No, it was more the fact that I was raised on hellfire and brimstone preaching. And the “genocides” of the Old Testament are nothing compared to the perpetual conscious torment of hell that I was brought up on.
But as logical as this might appear, it’s still difficult to see how all this might be consistent with God’s nature as the God of love. If God is most fully revealed in Jesus, and Jesus dies for others, then how can God kill and command others to kill in such high numbers?
First argument: God is the standard and therefore cannot be judged by the standard.
We have to start here. What makes something, anything, immoral? Well, because it violates the will of God. I mean, to a Christian the question is not about culture, law, or conscience. It’s not about the pits of our stomachs. It’s about God’s will.
By definition, God’s will is good. Therefore, it can’t be wrong. And if God wants all the Amalekites dead, well, he’s the standard and therefore it’s okay — even good — to kill Amalekites.
From this perspective, therefore, the question can never be whether God is bad. By definition, God is always good. The question, for a believer, thus becomes: Why is this good? But never whether it is good.
And sometimes the answer may just be that we don’t know because God hasn’t told us. And if we respect the Otherness, the extreme superiority of God, then this should not greatly bother us.
As unsatisfying as this line of reasoning is to many, it’s actually quite persuasive to many believers. I doubt that many unbelievers find it persuasive at all, because to them it’s circular: God is good because God is good. But to a believer, to someone who has experienced the outpouring of the Spirit, who has walked with God for years, it’s just not that hard to accept. Somehow or other, it’s okay because we’ve learned to trust God by experience — and we’re happy to take God’s word for it.
We modern folk are hardly the first to wrestle with these kinds of questions. In fact, the Bible addresses quite squarely. We’ll begin in Romans —
(Rom 9:20-24 ESV) 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory — 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
Notice that Paul’s argument is premised on a “what if.” He’s not saying that this is the complete, utter end of the argument. Rather, this is where the argument begins. It starts with recognition that God, being God, has the right to do with his creation whatever he pleases.
God stands in judgment of us; it’s not our place to judge God.
As many a father has said to his child, “Boy! I brought you into this world and I can you right out of it!” If God is God and God made us from nothing, then we are to do with as he pleases. We have no basis for complaint.
But that’s just the beginning. Nonetheless, it’s true. And it’s actually sufficient — except that it doesn’t help us understand why God makes the decisions that he does. I’m not sure that we’re entitled to know why, but there are some sign posts that might help us.
Second argument: God is not fair, nor is he obligated to be fair.
Two year olds are particularly fond of the whiney claim: “That’s not fair!” But God is not bound to be fair. Indeed, God tends to be much more than fair. That’s the nature of grace.
(Mat 20:1-16 ESV) “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
We Americans really struggle with this parable because it seems just so unfair that some laborers were paid exactly what they deserve and others were paid more. But, you see, it’s never unfair to be fair. Nor can we cry “Unfair!” in response doing more than what’s fair.
God has the right to be more than fair to some and merely fair to others. He is not in any way morally bound to treat all the same. At most, if he’s bound by anything at all, it’s to be at least fair. And if he chooses to elect a few to be treated more than fairly, that his business. Those who are treated merely fairly have no ground for complaint.
This quite naturally raises a question as to whether God treated those drowned in the Flood fairly. I would contend that Noah and his family were treated more than fairly. The rest got no better than they deserved. Some received grace; the rest received justice. And that’s not wrong. (We’ll go a little deeper in a future post.)
Just so, God only elected Abraham and his descendants to receive an eternal covenant built on faith. But that was sheer grace. Abraham did nothing to deserve grace. Everyone else — all those outside the covenant — have been treated fairly.
Let’s put it this way. What we all deserve is justice. Justice is fair. And no one may claim unfairness for being treated justly.
And in justice, none of us deserves to live, to go to heaven, or even to exist. Heaven, salvation, and grace are all unearned, undeserved, unmerited, and thus unfair. And if God wans to give grace to some, that’s his business. The rest have no grounds for complaint.
This brings us to —