Is God a Moral Monster?



Many people — seekers, believing Christians, even some Latter-day Saints — have problems with the portrayal of God in the Old Testament.


Probably even more people just have problems with the Old Testament itself, because they find it hard to follow.  This is, I think, very unfortunate, both because the Old Testament is at the foundation of all Judeo-Christian faith and because, among other things, it’s a rich treasure house of history, moral lessons, inspirational stories, and literature.  But that’s a topic for another day.


They’re bothered because, sometimes, the Old Testament God seems to be arrogant, petty, “jealous,” harsh, and violent.  The Old Testament seems to tolerate or even endorse slavery, the oppression of women, and mass murder (effectively, ethnic cleansing).


The problem is that, for Christian believers (unless, perhaps, they follow the ancient heretic Marcion), the God of the Old Testament is also the God of the New.  How can the loving Jesus be reconciled with the often vengeful and fierce Jehovah?  (For Latter-day Saints, Jesus is Jehovah.)


This is a big and serious topic, much beyond the scope of a simple blog post.  I will say, though, that I believe the contrast to be seriously overdrawn.  There is a great deal of love and mercy in the Old Testament.  And, frankly, the Jesus who carefully braids a whip to drive the moneychangers from his Father’s house isn’t quite the proto-Gandhi or flower child that some portray.


I can’t resolve all concerns here — and, probably, not anywhere.  But I do want to recommend a book that might help.


Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, and a prominent Evangelical apologist.  (I know him slightly, having participated, with him, in a formal Mormon-Evangelical debate a number of years ago during an academic conference in Denver.  He is a bright and decent man.)


Last year, he published Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2011).


In twenty chapters bearing such titles as “The Bible’s Ubiquitous Weirdness? Kosher Foods, Kooky Laws?” and “Child Abuse and Bullying? God’s Ways and the Binding of Isaac,” and “Misogynistic? Women in Israel,” and “Indiscriminate Massacre and Ethnic Cleansing? The Killing of the Canaanites,” Dr. Copan forthrightly addresses the most troubling stories and passages in the Old Testament, comparing them with their ancient Near Eastern environment and subjecting them to careful analysis.


Professor Copan has plainly been driven to defend the biblical texts against attacks from such “new atheists” as Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens.  His first two chapters, “Who Are the New Atheists?” and “The New Atheists and the Old Testament God,” make this explicit, and a later chapter, “The Root of All Evil? Does Religion Cause Violence?” takes on one of their principal accusations.


Is God a Moral Monster? probably contains quite a bit more in-depth analysis than most readers will care to follow.  But those who have been seriously bothered by elements of the Old Testament’s depiction of God will, I think, find it helpful at many points.  Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals differ substantially on a number of theological issues and Latter-day Saints aren’t biblical inerrantists, but we tend to take a high view of the historicity of the Bible, including the pre-Christian part, and there is little if anything in Professor Copan’s analysis and argument that will pose any difficulties for the typical Latter-day Saint.


  • Stephen Smoot

    I have not read Copan’s book, but after looking at a thorough review by Thom Stark, I am a bit leery with regard to Copan’s arguments.
    Still, I am interested in this subject, so I will probably give Copan’s book a try; if nothing else to be fair to Copan and hear his arguments from himself, and not just from a negative review.

  • Steven B

    This looks like an important topic in this information age. Thanks for recommending Copan’s work..

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Brother Peterson, thank you again for drawing our attention to something “of good report” that comes from a sincere follower of anothernstrand of Christianity.

    At the same time, I also wonder how.much modern Evangelical Christianity has facilitated the narrative of the demanding, judgmental Old Testament God by the promotion of the idea among some of its devotees that “commandments” are no longer of force and effect for those who have been saved by their declaration of faith in Christ. I had one friend, an engineer whose intelligence contributed to the work wenwere doing, who explained to me that those who had accepted Chrust wete not only forgiven of past sins, but also had carte.blanche for future sins. I havebread that some.Ebangelicals have argued that the struct behavioral standardsnenjpined bymChrist in thebSermon on the Mpunt do not apply to Chrustians of the prper sort who longer “under the law” and have no need to be conscious of or conscientous about any commandments from God. This particular narrative of salvation appears to heighten the contrast between the all-forgiving.Jesus and thenall-demanding Jehovah, rather than ameliorate it. I know that.thete is substantial disagreement in Protestantism about this interpretation, but that just affirms that not all self-described Christians are united and unuform in worshipping the God depicted in the Old Testament.

    The identity and character of the Old Testament God also ties into thebquestion of how Chrustians regard the ancient patriiarchs and prophets. Are they saved like Christians? Why? And how? Wad it because they had prophecies about Christ? But that is something that Protestants and Catholucs find offensive in the Book of Mormon: that an eternal God, who knows the end from the beginning, would dare to reveal Christian doctrine to people who lived BC. The Book of Mormon obliterates the division between the Old and New Testaments, which most Christians want to maintain. Their Nicene concept of.God may have no use for spatial separation among his persons, but the temporal separation of OT God from NT God seems to be essential to their concept of the “value added” in the New Testament.