William Lane Craig on being “the apologist who defends genocide”

I’m sure most of you are aware of this abomination by William Lane Craig, the article where he states his belief that if God tells you to slaughter women and children, then by gosh that makes it morally right. But Craig also has a follow-up piece that I never read (or looked closely at, I’m not sure) until it was tweeted by Richard Dawkins a couple days ago:

Let’s have a look shall we?:

Dear Dr Craig,

You are becoming increasingly known as “the apologist who defends genocide and infanticide in the Old Testament”, mainly due to your Q&A response on the question of the Canaanites.

Many people seem to react emotionally, without engaging with the detail of your arguments and without providing their own moral foundations on which their outrage can stand…

Blah blah blah… okay, you get the point. What Craig’s fan said here isn’t really the point, I’m mainly quoting this because it’s amusing to see even a dedicated fan notice that Craig is becoming known as “the apologist who defends genocide,” and that Craig would feel the need to quote this observation in an article on his website. On to Craig himself:

I’ve seen those kinds of responses, too, Peter, and find them disappointing because they fail to grapple intellectually with the difficult questions raised by such stories. Emotional outbursts take the place of rational discussion, leaving us with no deeper understanding of the issues than before we began.

Wow. First the hypocrisy of this: Craig would never let an opponent get away with dismissing, say, his moral argument as an “emotional appeal.” He’d take that as proof that his opponent didn’t understand him and was, in fact, incompetent.

But more importantly, trying to dismiss objecting to genocide as “emotional” is obscene, as should be obvious from a second’s thought about more recent genocides. Just imagine someone complaining about “emotional” reactions to the Holocaust (or perhaps a bit more plausibly, the Armenian Genocide) by saying that “they fail to grapple intellectually with the difficult questions” it raises.

Back to Craig:

I find it ironic that atheists should often express such indignation at God’s commands, since on naturalism there’s no basis for thinking that objective moral values and duties exist at all and so no basis for regarding the Canaanite slaughter as wrong. As Doug Wilson has aptly said of the Canaanite slaughter from a naturalistic point of view, “The universe doesn’t care.” So at most the non-theist can be alleging that biblical theists have a sort of inconsistency in affirming both the goodness of God and the historicity of the conquest of Canaan. It’s an internal problem for biblical theists, which is hardly grounds for moral outrage on the part of non-theists. If there is an inconsistency on our part, then we’ll just have to give up the historicity of the narratives, taking them as either legends or else misinterpretations by Israel of God’s will. The existence of God and the soundness of the moral argument for His existence don’t even come into play.

Notice that there is no actual attempt at an argument here. Not that there usually is when Craig is making his moral “argument,” but here Craig doesn’t even bother insisting there are tons of atheists who agree with him. He just quotes Wilson, a fellow evangelical who’s also a slavery apologist.

The topic of God’s command to destroy the Canaanites was the subject of a very interesting exchange at the Evangelical Philosophical Society session last November at the Society of Biblical Literature Convention in Atlanta. Matt Flannagan defended the view put forward by Paul Copan in his Is God a Moral Monster?that such commands represent hyperbole typical of Ancient Near Eastern accounts of military conquests. Obviously, if Paul is right about this, then the whole problem just evaporates. But this answer doesn’t seem to me to do justice to the biblical text, which seems to say that if the Israeli soldiers were to encounter Canaanite women and children, they should kill them (cf. Samuel’s rebuke of Saul in I Sam. 15.10-16).

Old Testament scholar Richard Hess took a different line in his paper: he construes the commands literally but thinks that no women and children were actually killed. All the battles were with military outposts and soldiers, where women and children would not have been present. It is, in fact, a striking feature of these narratives that there is no record whatsoever that women or children were actually killed by anyone. Still, even if Hess is right, the ethical question remains of how God could command such things, even if the commands weren’t actually carried out. Whether anyone was actually killed is irrelevant to the ethical question, as the story of Abraham and Isaac illustrates.

Okay, it’s nice that Craig isn’t going to take refuge in dubious interpretation. I guess.

So even if Copan is right, I’m still willing to bite the bullet and tackle the tougher question of how an all-good, all-loving God could issue such horrendous commands. My argument in Question of the Week #16 is that God has the moral right to issue such commands and that He wronged no one in doing so. I want to challenge those who decry my answer to explain whom God wronged and why we should think so. As I explained, the most plausible candidate is, ironically, the soldiers themselves, but I think that morally sufficient reasons can be provided for giving them so gruesome a task.

Yup, Craig thinks slaughtering children isn’t necessarily wronging them.

There is one important aspect of my answer that I would change, however. I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God’s command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land. It was the land that was (and remains today!) paramount in the minds of these Ancient Near Eastern peoples. The Canaanite tribal kingdoms which occupied the land were to be destroyed as nation states, not as individuals. The judgment of God upon these tribal groups, which had become so incredibly debauched by that time, is that they were being divested of their land. Canaan was being given over to Israel, whom God had now brought out of Egypt. If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.

It is therefore completely misleading to characterize God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated. There may have been no non-combatants killed at all. That makes sense of why there is no record of the killing of women and children, such as I had vividly imagined. Such scenes may have never taken place, since it was the soldiers who remained to fight. It is also why there were plenty of Canaanite people around after the conquest of the land, as the biblical record attests.

No one had to die in this whole affair. Of course, that fact doesn’t affect the moral question concerning the command that God gave, as explained above. But I stand by my previous answer of how God could have commanded the killing of any Canaanites who attempted to remain behind in the land.

Oh wait, Craig is taking refute in dubious interpretation after all. Since few of Craig’s readers are unlikely to do the work of actually looking up the relevant passages themselves, it’s worth going over them in detail.

Before I do that, it’s worth emphasizing that the word “genocide” was never intended to mean “trying to kill every last member of an ethnic group, and only that.” Here’s how Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word genocide, defined the term in an early article on the subject:

New conceptions require new terms. By “genocide” we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group… Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.

Under that definition, there’s no question that the destruction of the Midianites described in Numbers 31 qualifies. Here’s the story: the Israelites go to war against the Midianites, kill all the Midianite men, and capture the Midianite women. Moses, however, is mad the fact that the women were allowed to live, and orders the Israelites to kill all the women and young boys, but to “save for yourselves” all the virgin girls.

The Bible doesn’t explicitly say the command to kill was carried out. Instead, it skips straight to listing all the “plunder” the Israelites got from their war against the Midianites, giving numbers for how many thousands of sheep, cattle, donkeys, and virgin girls the Israelites got from their war.

In a different, but still undeniably genocidal vein, in the Old Testament God seems to have a real grudge against the Amalekites specifically, out of all the Canaanite tribes. In Exodus 17:14, God memorably promises to “utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” Deuteronomy 25:19 uses similar language, except that the Israelites are commanded do the blotting out on God’s behalf.

And you know David, the great Israelite king whose killing of Goliath is taught to all Sunday school students everywhere? He got to be king because the previous king, Saul, disobeyed God by letting one Amalekite, the Amalekite king Agag, live when God had commanded him to kill them all. (The prophet Samuel fixed this mistake by personally hacking Agag to pieces.)

Now, it’s true that there are passages in the Bible that “merely” talk driving people out of their land. Yet even these can be kind of genocidy. Here, for example, is Deuteronomy 20:16-17:

As for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded.

When God here says “You shall annihilate the Hittites” (etc.), He doesn’t actually qualify that He only means the ones in the land He gave the Israelites, but you can argue that based on the previous sentence it should be read that way. However, there’s no actual mention of giving the Hittites etc. a chance to get out.

Compare that to the previous verses of Deuteronomy 20, where God says that when you make war against a far away city, you should give them a chance to be your slaves before you kill all the men and enslave the women and children (a passage I already noted here).

In any case, remember what I said about the definition of genocide earlier. It doesn’t have to mean killing every last member of a group. I suppose you could argue that on Lemkin’s definition, driving out the Hittites etc. wasn’t genocide because their “essential foundations of the life” could have survived being “driven out.”

But if you want to argue it wasn’t technically genocide, consider this slightly broader definition that’s been given for “ethnic cleansing”: “the planned deliberate removal from a specific territory, persons of a particular ethnic group, by force or intimidation, in order to render that area ethnically homogenous.”

Deuteronomy’s program is pretty clearly ethnic cleansing by that definition. And while “ethnic cleansing” was originally a euphemism used by those who committed it in Yugoslavia, it has since fallen off the euphemsim treadmill and–rightly–come to be seen as morally equivalent or at least near-equivalent to genocide.

In fact, I feel a bit dirty indulging Craig’s semantic hair-splitting as far as I have, given how closely it resembles the rhetoric of apologists for non-mytholigical atrocities, including the Armenian Genocide, which some (mainly the Turksih government) have tried to argue wasn’t technically genocide, even though it was one of the things Lemkin specifically had in mind when he coined the term “genocide.”

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  • http://twitter.com/blamer @b

    “…without providing their own moral foundations on which their outrage can stand” is very revealing.

    It’s naive to insist that feeling upset can be explained in the language of morality. The relationship between emotion and cognition is reversed: the rationale of the smart ape describes which acts result in uncomfortable feelings. Or in WLC’s case; which biblical event doesn’t.

    The quotes above leave me with the impression that WLC is seeing that genocide event as both a fiction that might be historical AND as a fable that might be useful to the living. And if historians and ethicists hadn’t already thoroughly dealt with that teaching within that text, then some academic radical’s latest insights –even WLC’s opining– might be worth taking seriously. But we here in the 21st century know better.

    Alas many confused about “immorality” will be fooled by his nostalgic and quite backwards approach to biblical teachings about goodness, its enemies, a 14.6B year-old king, his 2000 year-old successor, and the divisive book those characters appear in.

  • Steven Carr

    Here is Craig recommending that some people become Nazis because they will then commit so many crimes that they will repent and find salvation.

    ‘God loves Heinrich just as much as He loves you and so accords him sufficient grace for salvation and seeks to draw him to Himself.

    Indeed, God may have known that through the guilt and shame of what Heinrich did under the Third Reich, he would eventually come to repent and find salvation and eternal life.

    Paradoxically, being a Nazi may have been the best thing that happened to Heinrich, since it led to his salvation.

    Of course, one may wonder about those poor people who suffered in the death camps because of Heinrich. But God has a plan for their lives, too,…’

    Yes, Craig did say that his god planned the lives of people sent to death camps…

    • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

      It’s nice of Craig to shed a tear for all those poor people who suffered because of Heinrich in his glee at Heinrich’s supposed salvation. Shame all those people had to suffer to save one soul. Would’ve been nice of the supposedly omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent deity who loves us all to have a better, less bloody way to save him.

  • http://double-woe-seven.blogspot.com/ Ben

    Let’s not forget Thom Stark’s excellent, thorough, and in depth response to all these evil apologetics: http://thomstark.net/copan/stark_copan-review.pdf

    • AndrewR

      From that PDF: “I’m not an atheist (neither new nor old), and I
      don’t plan on becoming one unless God comes down from heaven
      to tell me personally that he doesn’t exist”


      • http://oldtimeatheism.blogspot.ca/ andyman409

        Seriously, Thom Stark’s review of Copon’s book is really good. Don’t be offput by the fact he’s a christian- it doesn’t show in hiw scholarship.

        • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

          It’s interesting that, for all that he claims not to care what atheists have to say about the Bible or Copan’s book(he mentions Dawkins and Hitchens specifically), his entire document basically boils down to the most basic of atheistic arguments: “Stop reading bullshit into the text.” Although an atheist might go further and say, “Stop reading new bullshit into the bullshit that’s already there.”

  • Annatar

    “But more importantly, trying to dismiss objecting to genocide as “emotional” is obscene, as should be obvious from a second’s thought about more recent genocides. Just imagine someone complaining about “emotional” reactions to the Holocaust (or perhaps a bit more plausibly, the Armenian Genocide) by saying that “they fail to grapple intellectually with the difficult questions” it raises.”


    Craig’s favorite tactic (other than appeals to authority, consensus, and strawmen) are to say that your objection “fails to intellectually deal with the problem.” His fans love to hear that, cause it justifies their sense of smug superiority have they have a “great philosopher” like WLC on their side.

  • MNb

    “on naturalism there’s no basis ….”
    Correct. Naturalism isn’t an ethical system. There are several who don’t need any god. The Universe doesn’t care; I do. That’s called empathy, something christians like Craig obviously lack.

    • Ben

      irrelevant. you have no rational basis for assigning empathy a positive value. You should call it an ethical “belief” system which, being grounded in the reality of a meaningless universe, is itself meaningless and no more valid than any other religious belief system.

  • JHendrix

    Absolutely amazing. His argument boils down to: How dare atheists object that god commanding genocide is wrong “…without providing their own moral foundations on which their outrage can stand”

    He must have completely forgotten that atheists CAN provide an objective foundation for moral values and duties. He was shown one in his debate with Shelly Kagan, and then just goes on to say that even if the atheist can give him an objective basis for morality that it doesn’t matter because the universe will go through a heat death in 40 billion years.


    • smrnda

      That’s like saying I should quit my job, because the company I work for might be hugely successful during my lifetime, but in 1000 years it might not exist.

    • Ben

      If the universe is meaningless and whether or not mankind exists is also meaningless, it must be conceded that mankind’s thoughts are also meaningless. If a man’s thoughts have meaning, man has meaning- he has his thoughts. And if the man has meaning then so does the universe- it has man. We have just undermined our original assertion that the universe is meaningless- it is a chest containing man’s meaningful thoughts. If man is the source of all value, then he is intrinsic- which is another way of saying “divine” (read economist Gary North). We cannot claim that objects derive their value from man and then claim that mankind has none to give! You’ve exited atheism and jumped onto the New Age self-divinity bandwagon.

      If value only exists in the mind as Hawking states, then it’s “all in your head”… the same place we are told God exists. How do we justify valuing one over the other? Value is mysticism. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, the existence of value makes necessary the existence of a supreme value which for any given person is his own life. The belief(religion) in value makes it necessary to acknowledge a “supreme value” (God- see websters) which for any given person is the “self”. To acknowledge value is religion, and to deny God as supreme is to exult “the self”. One cannot have an objective foundation for moral values and duties apart from religion because one cannot separate it from value which demands supreme intrinsic value (God- whether it be the guy in the clouds or the guy in the mirror).

  • Chris L. Robinson

    This is such a morally bankrupt position to take that when I first heard it, I think in the Swinburne/Ehrman debate, I didn’t believe I was hearing it correctly. I parked my car to listen more carefully. It is terrifying to me that it can be posited in such measured and reasoned tones.

    • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

      Watch the movie Conspiracy, about the birth of the Holocaust. I don’t know how true to history the movie is in its details, since we know what happened in the end, it’s very disturbing to watch it on screen, with its measure tones and perfect oratory.

  • Pat Griffin

    Even if we grant that an atheist has no grounds for saying genocide is bad, an atheist at least is not compelled to say that genocide is good.

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com Quine

    Just before going off to the Reason Rally in March (I was writing a review of a Christian counter publication), I read Lane Craig’s last two books on apologetics. I kept running into the same things you have listed here, and it was very hard to resist throwing the books against the wall in disgust. The only reason I was able to restrain myself is that I had ordered the books on Kindle, and throwing that against the wall would have taken many very good books down with them.

  • http://skepticgriggsy.wordpress.comhttp://skepticity.blogspot.com Lord Griggs[ IgnosticMorgan,InquiringLynn,Fr. or Rabbi Griggs, CarneadesofGa]

    I find that he deserves contempt. And the Israelites were themsevelves Caananites, and the events never took place! He bekueves the uncorroborated say-so of misanthropes! Creduolous cretin!

  • http://skepticgriggsy.wordpress.comhttp://skepticity.blogspot.com Lord Griggs[ IgnosticMorgan,InquiringLynn,Fr. or Rabbi Griggs, CarneadesofGa]


  • http://goodgrieflinus.blogspot.co.uk/ Mark Jones

    FYI, Stephen Law has linked to a video that casts more doubt on WLC’s intellectual integrity, as if more were needed:


  • eric

    I have come to appreciate as a result of a closer reading of the biblical text that God’s command to Israel was not primarily to exterminate the Canaanites but to drive them out of the land.

    That doesn’t make it better. Its exchanging “he did [undefined bad thing], kill him” for “I’ve decided to give you his stuff, kill him.” Its still force far far in excess of what’s warranted.

    But there’s a much bigger issue here. The God of the OT regularly and consistenly uses collective punishment – of which this is just one example. Punishing an entire population for the actions of a few isn’t the exception, its the norm. WLC, other theologians, and divine command theory all fail to address the fact that God, by his actions, apparently condones the use of collective punishment. In contrast, modern humans find it odious. We might use it in extremis, when we think punishing or stopping a gulity person is really important and we can’t identify who that is. But when we use it, we do so because we are limited in our knowledge and power to punish only the guilty. God doesn’t have that excuse. If he’s condoning it, it must bebecause he finds it truly morally acceptable, not just a ‘least worst’ option.

  • smrnda

    Craig seems to excuse these things by arguing there is no such thing as a crime by god against humans. the usual defense is that god is so holy that even are tiniest faults are infinite crimes against him, but this seems to fall apart when you realize that pretty much the only reasonable standard for judging moral behavior is how you treat other people. god’s flipping out over some incredibly minor shit and beyond that, the idea of ‘holiness’ makes no real sense. given that god’s omnipotent, it’s kind of impossible for anyone to harm god, and impossible for him to come to harm, so they only things he should be judging people for are their actions towards others.

    i mean, in terms of how to deal with bad behavior, we would expect and demand that people show no more brutality than necessary at any time, to the extent to which they are capable. the only way god gets around this seems to be if we consider people to be god’s rightful property, but this isn’t really a view compatible with the christian notion of a loving god.

  • MNb

    @CLR 1:25 “It is terrifying to me that it can be posited in such measured and reasoned tones.”
    That’s why I always get concrete and expressive. Ask an apologist to tell Elizabeth Fritzl (don’t forget the gory details) this and he/she tries to duck the issue. Or gives up.

  • Eric Weathersbee

    “As Doug Wilson has aptly said of the Canaanite slaughter from a naturalistic point of view, ‘The universe doesn’t care.’ ” Christopher Hitchens deals with this, the Canaanite’s care.

  • rick_w55

    Quite an emotional response! The writer made clear how unhappy he is, but a good, reasoned response wasn’t made. The bulk of the article is like this sentence: “Yup, Craig thinks slaughtering children isn’t necessarily wronging them,” which assumes that it is obviously crazy to think God would command such a thing. In Dt. 20, God said to kill all the males in nearby cities but not the women and children. Then he said that in the cities He was giving them, “you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction.” How hard is that to understand? The fact that it troubles the sensibilities of people today is no reason to reject it or explain it away. The writer also didn’t do himself any favors by tossing out the condescending put-down, “Since few of Craig’s readers are unlikely to do the work of actually looking up the relevant passages themselves, it’s worth going over them in detail.” Overall, the article gave no good reasons to reject Craig’s position beyond the fact that the writer doesn’t like it.