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Monday, June 23, 2014

"Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do What is Just?" God and Morality in the Bible



            In Genesis 18 the Lord comes to meet with Abraham and tells him of his plans to judge the wicked cities of the plain. Often we think of only Sodom and Gomorrah but in fact there were several city states in the plains that were, at that time wicked and cruel. Abraham is told that the outcry against the people of the plain had become great – they were violent, oppressive, cruel, perverse and engaged in all manner of idolatry including continual human sacrifices. Abraham, undoubtedly concerned about his nephew Lot who went to live in those very cities then begins to plead for their safety and he says something striking. He asks if God will sweep away the righteous with the wicked. How will God discriminate between those who are wicked and those who are not? The text tells us,

23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” Genesis 18:23-26

Abraham then “negotiates” God down to just 10 people in all of the plains before God leaves to go down to the cities. What is striking is Abraham’s question, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” This is the question that confronts us in today’s article.
It is common place in the debates between unbelievers[1] and Christians for the so called “atrocities” of the Old Testament to be brought into play. It is not long into the discussion, especially when the topic is that of morality and the kind of justificatory pre-conditions for morality to exist at all, that God will be called a moral monster and that the Bible cannot serve as an adequate foundation for objective morals because it condones slavery, rape, genocide, and patriarchy, or so the argument goes. Without delving into the merits or viability of those interpretations of the Biblical laws and narratives, I want to instead analyze the form of the arguments that are made. I have been increasingly aware of the diminished view of God in the west and how it impacts not only the unbelieving community but the Christian community as well. There was a time that God was viewed as so holy and righteous that to even use his name improperly was not just a social taboo but a detestable sin. However now it has become almost common place even among believers. We are told to make no image of God in the Bible but we are now in a place where a box off hit like Bruce Almighty portrays God (as played by Morgan Freeman) as a kind, albeit passive, sage-like wise man, more holy man than omnipotent Creator. Family Guy is a hit show across nearly all demographics (Evangelicals included) and what often makes us balk is not that it portrays God as an old white bearded man with a somewhat skewed moral compass but rather the kind of off color sexual or violence based humor that is used. What makes us cringe (but not look away) is the irreverent and sacrilegious material. The problem is that it is culturally irreverent and sacrilegious not religiously so. It pushes the envelope on our Late Modern American sensibilities of sex and gender which seem to not include religious piety even among the conservatives. What we see is that in the West there is an entirely diminished theological view of God, even among those who claim to base their lives on the Bible.
            God, for most Americans, is something like Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty. If he exists, he is an entirely genteel, pedestrian and just wants us to be good and healthy. He wants us to be nice to our neighbors (so long as it doesn’t cost us anything) and helps us out every now and then but largely we are on our own.[2] Even Christians have largely lost the exalted view of God as holy and righteous. I’m not even sure those words would be readily understood by an average church goer. In fact we hardly even know what those terms mean anymore. We no longer live in a culture of monarchs but rather want a president who is down to earth and a lot like us. We are egalitarian through and through and reject any idea of subservience to a higher power unless it makes us better of. So naturally we imagine that God must be just like us. In order for us to think that God is good, his morals must be like our morals and his ways like our ways. He must thinks like us, believe like us, love like us, and act like us or else he is not only foreign to us but inferior. We have no idea what Isaiah could have meant when he wrote:

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Isaiah is here telling us that God is simply not like us. His ways are not our ways. He does not think like us. He is not like us. While I can sympathize with the sentiment that God is one of us because of the incarnation such that Jesus became like us, it seems that the diminished view of God running rampant in the West is incarnational theology gone horribly awry. I should note at this point that I am not trying to here argue that God exists or that he is in fact holy and righteous and worthy of praise and adoration (though I think all of those things are true – and unimaginably greatly so). I am simply setting up what the predominate theological milieu of the day is in the West in which these debates occur.
When the unbeliever challenges the Christian about the morality of God in the Bible, often the kind of responses given by Christians are to give justifications for why what God did in the Old Testament are actually inline with our current moral beliefs and should not be seen as immoral. They are, in essence, trying to make God palatable to modern skeptics and so they try to tame God and cut him down to size. To that extent the unbeliever and the believer seem to be playing on the same field. They both seem to agree that God is subservient to the moral law in the same way that we as humans are. It is this arena of discourse that I would like to challenge in this article.
It is my contention that believers often do a disservice to themselves by agreeing to play on that turf in the first place. When we attempt to defend God as moral just like us we may have good intentions but we are actually capitulating to a weaker concept of God than what is found in the Bible. To put it bluntly, we have lost the battle before a single shot is fired because we simply passively accept a kind of post-enlightenment humanistic slant on what God must be like. Once we realize this, we can see that the demands of the unbeliever for us to defend God are strawmen concepts that we should not feel compelled to respond to. It is simply not the case that God must be moral like we are moral. Not because God is “above the law” so to speak like some kind of tyrannical brut, but because God is categorically not like us. God is not a human. God is not a created being bound to the law of another. God is the ultimate ground of being and is so holy that we strain to comprehend him. As Christians we struggle to defend God because the concept of God we are defending is, in effect indefensible. Not because the Biblical God is indefensible, but the washed out and cheapened concept of God as a being a lot like us is an indefensible idol. One simply needs to read Job or the prophets to understand what it means for the Lord to be a holy and all consuming fire. The reason why we have a hard time understanding the severity of some of the punishments in the Old Testament is because we do not think sin is really all that severe, and we do not think sin is all that severe because we do not think God is all that holy or man all that bad. Both are “basically good.” We place man higher than the Bible places him with regard to rectitude and God far lower than the heavens are from the earth. We do not understand the gravity of sin because we do not think that God is really all that great.
            So it is on that playing field that these debates are played and lost. Let us consider the following two categories of Biblical teaching and narratives.

Theological Backgrounds
God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, holy, righteous, perfect, immutable, jealous, and judge of all the earth.

Humanity is created by God in God’s image, fallen in sin, and deserving of the penalty due to sin which is death (eternal separation from God).
God commands the conquest of the nations of Canaan.

God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac to test him.

I chose some relatively simple concepts that are replete throughout the Bible and so hopefully will not be widely contested as “biblical” concepts. It seems that in order for the unbeliever’s objection to go forward they must be selective on which aspects of the Biblical concept of God that are permitted to enter into the discussion and thus constitute the lesser vision of God than that of the Biblical writers as we have discussed above. This means that when the unbeliever asks the Christian why God would command “genocide” they are poisoning the well so to speak. Because we as humans recognize that mass slaughter of our fellow humans is a grave moral evil the challenge is posed that if God were to do it, he would be evil like the mass murderers of our recent past. The main problem with the question is that God is not like us and we are not like God.
I used to give the example of the difference between a private citizen and a judge with regard to a crime such that we recognize that a judge has a certain authority to pronounce and execute sentencing and justice against a criminal that a private citizen simply does not have. For example, a private citizen cannot take a criminal and lock him away in a cellar whereas a judge has the authority to pronounce a criminal guilty and sentence him to life in prison. The right to judge a criminal is simply categorically different between a private citizen and a judge. I used to think that this was an apt illustration of the difference between humans and God. I have recently come to think that while it is a helpful illustration so far as it goes, it is not completely accurate, not because God is more like us, but because the distance between us and God is greater than the distance between a private citizen and a judge. A human judge is still human. While he has certain rights vested to him by the state to execute justice, he also has certain moral obligations that he must, in good conscious, adhere to. This seems to me where God is not only categorically different from us in the sense that God is the judge of the earth and we are not, but also in the sense that God is not bound to a standard exterior to himself whereas we as humans are. God is not vested with authority to judge. He is, by nature the rightful judge of humanity and we are not. We have in our common nomenclature sayings like “to play God.” These were brought into the language for a reason. Long ago we recognized that God was the author and giver of life and that it was only by his good pleasure that we came to be and continued to live. God quite literally had the right to take life when he saw fit for his good purposes and to execute justice against evil and sin. The saying however hardly makes sense to modern Westerners because we have become so autonomous that even Christians do not believe God would be “moral” if he judged us for sin. No, we think that we can just come as we are and stay as we are and God just loves us like a senile old grandfather who thinks his grandchildren can do no wrong. The common Western Christian, whether they know it or not, who believes that God will not judge sin is like the wicked in Psalm 10 who says to God, “You will not call to account.” One simply needs to read Lamentations to understand that God takes sin a lot more seriously than we do.
            At this point the unbeliever will surely protest that I am simply begging the question not only of God’s existence but also of his holy nature and our sinful condition. I actually concede the point. I am doing that. Yet it seems to me that I am permitted to by the nature of the unbeliever’s argument. This is now where what I have been saying so far comes to full blossom. The objection of the unbeliever that God is a “moral monster” in the Old Testament is actually an arguendo, what is commonly an argument of the form, “For the sake of argument let us assume that X is  true and reduce it to absurdity.” In order for the argument to work, the unbeliever must assume the existence of God and the accuracy of the Biblical text even if they are not aware that this is what they are doing. The argument is, whether they like it or not, if God exists and if the stories in the Bible are accurate then we can examine the morality of it all and conclude that God acted wickedly. It is precisely here that the Christian is then allowed to assume everything that is entailed within the Bible and Christian theology. In order for the unbeliever’s argument to work, it must be successful as an argument for an internal inconsistency within the Bible and the Christian theological system as a whole. It is an attempt to show that God cannot be viewed as moral and benevolent while at the same time being vicious and violent and genocidal for example. The unbeliever wants us to conclude that the Bible admonishes wicked action and therefore the god of the Bible would be evil (if he existed) and so we should reject both.
            So it is precisely here that the argument fails because it does not allow everything that the Bible teaches on the subject or that is held by Christian theology. It selects a slim sliver of the concept of God in the Bible and thus is only a refutation of a lesser concept of God. When the full weight of the Scriptures comes to bear on the issue the problem simply evaporates because the lesser concept of God is plainly not the Biblical concept of God. We can respond by saying that if God exists as described in the Bible (i.e. holy, righteous, judge, omniscient, etc) and if humanity is sinful and wicked as described in the Bible and if the wages of sin is death as described in the Bible then God acting in judgment against a wicked and evil people is not genocide or evil. It is the actions of the judge of creation meting out justice against sin as a holy God.
It is in this regard that I often point out the inconsistency of arguments like those put forward by people like Christopher Hitchens who would say that God was evil for judging the Canaanites but then turn around and say that God is evil for not intervening to stop the Nazis and the Holocaust. This position states that God was evil for judging a wicked nation and was evil for not judging a wicked nation. Besides the problem of ignoring the historic Christian position that Christ is present in all human suffering and oppression, this objection by Hitchens reveals not only an inconsistent standard but also that Hitchens is working on a diminished view of God – something that should not surprise us since he is quite literally a God despiser. He loathes the concept of God so why should we think that he would interact with an exalted concept of God as holy, righteous and pure and humanity as sinful and wicked?
Now at this point the unbeliever may then double back and say something like, “Well you still haven’t shown that God even exists in the first place” and that is all true and fine. We haven’t. Yet at that point he cannot help himself to the conclusion of his objection that the God of the Bible is a moral monster as evidence against the existence of God because once we allow the full weight of the Scriptures to come to bear on the question that diminished view of God is simply not tenable.
While it is not my intention in this article to prove that the Bible is the revealed and inspired Scriptures of God or that God exists and has acted in human history, I think what has been shown is that in order for the “Moral Monster” argument to go through, the believer must be willing to work with the low and diminished view of the unbeliever rather than the high and exalted view of God as holy Creator and Judge as found in the Bible. We should not be afraid to stand our ground and refuse to play on that turf in order to win a battle that can never be won because we have already sacrificed the Biblical view of God before we even start.  
The day after God destroyed the cities of the plain, Abraham rushed down to the cliff where he had negotiated with God and he saw the answer to his question. He may not have known at that time that God had spared Lot and his daughters but he did see that God had condemned the wicked of the plains. What we do not see if Abraham questioning if God was cruel or evil or judging sin. Rather what Abraham saw was that there was not 10 righteous people in all of the cities of the plain. His question was not if God was holy, it was if humanity was righteous. We must come to a place where we understand that God is the judge of all the earth and is holy, and that we are creatures who are created in his image and yet sin against that image and live on borrowed time and in need of grace. The unbeliever may not believe this, but we should not be willing to allow a diminished view of God filter into our theology. The god of the atheist is a moral monster. That diminished and vapid concept of a god that is just like us, who cannot judge us and who has no claim on us is indefensible. We stand shoulder to shoulder with the unbeliever. I am an unbeliever in that god. Thankfully, the holy God who has revealed himself in the Bible is not that God. The unbeliever may not believe that such a being exists, he may hate him and kick against the pricks, but once we allow all of what the Bible tells us about the holiness of God and the sinfulness of humanity, there is no internal contradiction between God being all good and God commanding what he wills in the Scriptures.  

[1] Here I am intentionally avoiding the use of the term “skeptics” because I am becoming more sure that skeptic or its kissing cousin “free thinker” are terms that Christians can consciously adopt for themselves and should no be co-opted by the unbelievers.
[2] Sociologist Christian Smith argues that  the predominate functional religion of most Americans (commonly called “folk religion”) is that of a kind of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I largely agree but would also add that it is functionally Pelagian with a diminished view of sin on top of a kind of American “can doery” mixed in. 

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