By Robin Schumacher
In his book The God Delusion, atheist Richard Dawkins writes a scathing rendition of God as he sees Him in the Old Testament. Dawkins says: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”1 Such words are echoed by atheist Charles Templeton who states: “The God of the Old Testament is utterly unlike the God believed in by most practicing Christians … His justice is, by modern standards, outrageous…. He is biased, querulous, vindictive, and jealous of his prerogatives.”2
What is it in the Old Testament that elicits such strong language from Dawkins and Templeton who want nothing to do with God? What causes others like Thomas Paine to write: “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the work of a demon, than the word of God.”3
Are such portrayals of God accurate? Does the Old Testament paint a picture of God as nothing more than a cosmic bully with a hair trigger who is ready to torture or end the lives of anyone who so much as neglects a seemingly small request of Heaven?
The answers to these questions are critical because Christians today are quick to tell unbelievers about a God of love who is patient, forgiving, and slow to anger. In fact, Jesus Himself describes God as a tender Father who loves His children and creation, and someone who longs for His prodigal to come home rather than desiring the lost son’s demise. Was Jesus just wrong? Did the Son of God miss what Dawkins, Templeton, Paine, and others see in the Old Testament writings? Is there a disconnect between what Christians profess about God vs. what is actually recorded in the first thirty-nine books of the Bible?
This paper takes a look at the assertions by Christianity’s critics that the God of the Old Testament is nothing more than a merciless monster. To adequately address the issue, a survey of key examples in the Old Testament used by critics to back up their case will first be performed. Because of the brevity of this work, not all cases can be examined; however care will be taken to not omit any of the major/common illustrations used by opponents to label God as cruel and unjust.
Afterwards, each surveyed example will be examined in detail to understand the situation in a more exact manner so that an informed decision can be made for each as
to whether the critic’s charge against God still sticks. Once this has been completed, a quick study will be given to how atheists and other skeptics can justify their moral stances in the absence of any absolute moral standard. Finally, some conclusions from the previous sections will be provided in hopes of providing a summary of arguments that showcase why the God of the Old Testament is no different than the One represented by Jesus and evangelical Christians today.
A Brief Look at Some Old Testament Examples
The adversaries of God’s depiction in the Old Testament point to a number of Biblical references that seem to portray the Creator in a bad light. For example, front and center in their arguments is the Genesis flood that erased all life from earth except for one particular family: “Behold, I [God], even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life, from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall perish." (Gen. 6:17). From this verse, it is crystal clear that it is God Himself who is choosing to cause the deaths of untold numbers of men, women, and children.
Later in Genesis is found the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and all its people via a direct supernatural act of God: “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground" (Gen. 19:24-25).
Charges of genocide are very common among the critics of God, with Israel’s charge of what to do with existing people in the promised land being called out as an example: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, and when the Lord your God delivers them before you and you defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them” (Deut. 7:1-2, emphasis added). To the skeptic, it seems plain that God is ordering the deaths of innocent people whose only crime is living in the land that He wants Israel to possess. This is reiterated several chapters later in the same Old Testament book: “Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you” (Deut. 20:16-17, emphasis added).
Critics also point to the overthrow of Jericho and the violent nature of how it was carried out: "They [Israel] utterly destroyed everything in the city [Jericho], both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword" (Joshua 6:21). The seemingly merciless nature of God’s similar forms of extermination is also decried in God’s command to Saul in the Old Testament to wipe out the people of
Amalek: “Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him; but put to death both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey." (1 Sam. 15:3, emphasis added). Why, the critic asks, did the children and even animals have to be killed in the Jericho and Saul campaigns? Certainly such treatment appears extreme and ruthless, doesn’t it? Referencing such events, Robert Anton Wilson states: “The Bible tells us to be like God, and then on page after page it describes God as a mass murderer.”1
In addition to these examples, various Old Testament personalities – ones who God seemingly approved of and helped – are targeted by the Bible’s detractors. For example, in the book of Judges, the story of Samson is relayed, including an episode where Samson is about to be married and makes a bet with thirty men who are to be part of the event. After he loses the bet and is forced to make good on it (he must provides thirty sets of clothes to them), Samson goes down to Ashkelon and kills thirty ‘innocent’ men for their garments: “Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon him mightily, and he went down to Ashkelon and killed thirty of them and took their spoil and gave the changes of clothes to those who told the riddle. And his anger burned, and he went up to his father's house” (Judges 14:19). As can be seen in the first part of the verse, God’s Spirit enables Samson to carry out this act – how could such a thing be empowered by a God of mercy and love asks the critic?
Not only are acts such as the above held out as examples of ruthlessness by those disapproving of God’s behavior, they also incredulously point to what they consider extremely barbaric and harsh penalties instituted by God. For example, a case in point is the punishment for a disobedient son: “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his hometown. They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst" (Deut. 21:18-21, emphasis added).
Another example often cited is the killing of a man for violating the Sabbath as recorded in the book of Numbers: "Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, just as the Lord had commanded Moses" (Num. 15:32-36, emphasis added). As can be seen, the verse ends with the endorsement of God being on the Sabbath breaker’s execution. Such examples cause atheist like George Smith to comment: “The Old Testament God garnered an impressive list of atrocities. Jehovah himself was fond of directly exterminating large numbers of people, usually through pestilence or famine, and often for rather unusual offenses.”5
1 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Great Britain: Bantam Press, 2006, 31.
2 Charles Templeton, Farewell to God, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999, 71.
3 Thomas Paine, Age of Reason, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations, 1944, 18.
5 George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God, New York: Prometheus Books, 1980, 77.