In part 1, we looked at the popular Christian notion that biblical slavery was a benign form of servitude, quite unlike American slavery. In fact, it turns out that they were almost identical.
Now, let’s look at a companion article from the Cold Case Christianity blog, “Why Would God Have Permitted Any Form of Servitude or Slavery?” Christian Jim Wallace tries to salvage God’s reputation despite his support of slavery.
What’s the big deal?
Let me again start with a positive observation. There’s a popular but flabby apologetic that Wallace didn’t appeal to. This argument says that the difficulties in our lives here on earth will count for nothing in the grand scheme of things. In other words, finite difficulties on earth ÷ an infinite afterlife in heaven = nothing to complain about. Paul said, “Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
So you lived in barbaric conditions as a slave—big deal. A trillion years from now as you’re helping yourself to hors d’oeuvres at heaven’s all-you-can-eat buffet, that life will be an insignificant memory.
As our own appetizer, let’s dismantle this argument. Compare it with an analogous situation: you and I are arguing, and I get so frustrated that I punch you in the face. After a moment to collect myself, I realize that I’ve made a big mistake, so I offer you a million dollars in compensation. You accept and promise not to press criminal charges.
Yes, you’ve received overly generous compensation, but of course the injury was still morally wrong. Compensation acknowledges the injury; it doesn’t erase its existence.
The same is true for the fate God gives you. Trying to dilute the Problem of Evil (why would an all-good God permit the evil that we see all around us?) with the infinite time of heaven doesn’t get God out of his moral jam. He’s still responsible for the problem.
Wallace begins his defense of God by arguing that hardship can improve us, using the analogy of sandpaper shaping wood. This doesn’t explain why some of us get growth-encouraging hardships while others get devastating hardships such as abusive relationships or devastating disease or injury. Hardship can improve, but it can also tear down.
And, of course, this simply presupposes God and selects the facts to support that conclusion rather than following the facts where they lead.
Slavery, according to Wallace, is spiritual sandpaper.
We mustn’t confuse God’s use of an institution to accomplish something good, with God’s approval of an institution as something inherently good. Even though slavery is not part of God’s heavenly plan . . . He does use human evil here on earth to accomplish his goals for all of us.
So God used slavery without approving of it? Let’s test that with another institution. The book of Proverbs admonishes merchants to use fair weights and measures—four separate times, in fact. For example, “The Lord detests differing weights, and dishonest scales do not please him” (Prov. 20:23). Does this mean that God used the wicked institution of commerce without approving it? There’s no evidence to imagine this. A smart guy like God who spoke the very universe into existence, who drowned the world for its wickedness, and who demanded the death penalty for breaking his commandments wouldn’t feel shy about making his feelings known about human institutions. His regulation of commerce makes clear that he approves of it when correctly done, and his many rules about slavery—nicely documented in Wallace’s previous post—make clear that he approves of that, too.
The slavery question is no better dealt with in the New Testament.
All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves. (1 Timothy 6:1–2)
Societal vs. individual focus
Wallace tries another gambit. He argues that God’s focus is at the individual level, not the societal level. Sure, slavery was bad, but so what? Society’s problems aren’t on God’s radar.
God can (and has) used what is clearly evil at a societal level to accomplish something beneficial at an individual level.
But what’s “clearly evil”? We moderns agree that slavery is evil, but you’re reading your own morality into the Bible imagine that condemnation there.
Overturning slavery in the time of Jesus?
Wallace quotes Paul’s letter to Philemon, asking him to treat his returning slave with kindness. Wallace concludes,
The Bible does reflect God’s desire to seek the end of slavery, but it does so one heart at a time.
Huh? Of course it doesn’t! If God desired the end of slavery, he could just end slavery. Failing that, he could make clear in the Old Testament that he disapproves and that we should stop it. Failing that, his earthly representation as Jesus could make clear that he disapproves. Failing that, one of the epistle writers could make clear that he disapproves so the Bible could say at least something against slavery.
Fail. Don’t say that God doesn’t like slavery when there is no evidence for this. Don’t imagine your own morality coming from God, playing God like a sock puppet.
Wallace anticipates this:
The Roman Empire had 60 million slaves living amongst its citizenry. To call for an end of slavery in this culture and context would have resulted in mass murder and civil war.
God is magic, remember? If God wanted a different world—one with a healthy Roman economy not dependent on slavery, say—he could make it. To imagine God constrained by mankind’s social institutions is to imagine a puny God.
The shackles that hold God back
Wallace also asks us to “remember the cultural context of the ancient world.” But can God be constrained by the social conditions of the moment? God didn’t feel bound by the status quo when he introduced the Ten Commandments, with the death penalty backing most of them. Whether it was convenient or not for stick collection on the Sabbath to suddenly become a capital crime (Numbers 15:32–6) didn’t bother God.
It would be . . . unfair to judge God based on what we think God should do about slavery.
What do we do then? What do we make of this conflict between the obvious wrongness of slavery and the obvious support of slavery in the Bible? Should we just presuppose God and then figure that he has his own good reasons for acting in a way that, in any other situation, you’d call “immoral”? Or should we drop any special pleading and evaluate the Bible as we would any other claimed moral source? I’m certain Wallace wouldn’t take this approach to avoid critique of any other holy book.
The problem for Wallace is that if you evaluate the Bible, you’ll find no baby. It’s just bath water.
than closed by belief.
— Gerry Spence
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 8/27/14.)
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