On God, Genocide, Abortion, and Morality

Evangelical and fundamentalist positions on what happens to those who die as infants or children are all over the map. Some follow the Calvinist line that God has preordained where we are to spend eternity, and that therefore some children who die go to heaven while others go to hell. Some justify this by saying that it depends on what the child would have chosen had he or she lived. Many simply say we cannot know, but must trust God. I was taught, though, that before the “age of accountability,” which is generally somewhere between ages seven and ten, children who die go straight to heaven because they never had a chance to make the choice to accept or reject God. But while this belief was comforting, it was also confusing. 

I remember wondering at an early age why we were fighting so hard against abortion when abortion sends babies straight to heaven, so that they never have to live through the trials of life or face the possibility of going to hell. And since abortion minded women weren’t likely to be Christians (I thought), their babies were likely to be raised without Jesus or his saving gift, and therefore would have a good chance of going to hell. So why not encourage abortion? Why not abort all babies, therefore sending them all straight to the joys of heaven? Wasn’t that the merciful way?

When I heard about how Andrea Yates drowned her five young sons in a bathtub before they reached the age of accountability in order to guarantee that they would go straight to heaven, I was confused at the outcry. Horrific, yes…but didn’t her logic make sense? Even as I joined others in condemning her actions, I was troubled, because even my young teenage mind could see that, given our beliefs, she was right. She might have been ending her sons’ lives, but she was saving their souls in the process – and wasn’t that what I had always been taught was more important? Our lives here are but a moment, but eternity is forever.

Just today I read conservative theologian William Lane Craig’s justification of Old Testament genocides in which God commanded that all be killed, including even the children, and the same themes reappeared.

But why take the lives of innocent children? The terrible totality of the destruction was undoubtedly related to the prohibition of assimilation to pagan nations on Israel’s part. In commanding complete destruction of the Canaanites, the Lord says, ‘You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons, or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods’ (Deut 7.3-4). […] God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel.

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

Before he ends his piece, William Lane Craig becomes only more disturbing.

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgment. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli [sic] soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalising effect on these Israeli [sic] soldiers is disturbing.

Thus William Lane Craig argues that God did no wrong to order the Israelite soldiers to kill all the inhabitants of a town, including even the children, because those children would, through death, be send straight to heaven, whereas if they lived to adulthood they would almost certainly go to hell.

How, then, can Craig also condemn abortion? Does not my childhood realization that abortion sends babies straight to heaven stand? And how, with Craig’s reasoning, can anyone fault Andrea Yates for sending her children straight to heaven by killing them? I know how a Craig and others like him would respond to this, of course. It’s wrong when people take these sort of things into their own hands, but when God does it, it’s not wrong because God is, well, God. It’s wrong to kill children…unless God commands it. Then it’s actually good to kill children, because good is defined as what God commands.

One question my friends and I used to bat around was what would you do if God commanded you to kill your mother? The gut reaction was that he wouldn’t do that, but the question was not whether he would do that but rather what we would do if he did. Our conclusion was always that if we could be absolutely and completely sure that that was his command, we would have to do it. After all, we had been taught that sin is “disobeying God’s commands” and that righteousness was “obedience to God’s commands.”

What now boggles my mind is that we were taught that we had absolute morality while everyone else practiced relative morality. The only thing absolute about our system of Christian morality was this: what God says goes. Commands like “do not kill” are not absolute but rather relative, because morality is not based on some sort of overarching rules or standards but rather on the commands of God. If God commands the killing of whole tribes, it’s right. If God strikes a man and his wife dead for telling a simple lie, it’s right. If God tests his devoted follower by giving Satan permission to kill all of his children, it’s right. There is no absolute system of morality here at all, but rather simply what the big guy says goes.

There appear to be (at least) two positions in Christianity on this point. While some Christians define morality as “what God says goes” others hold God to an ethical standard that must somehow be above even God himself. While conservatives defend Biblical genocide, liberals argue that God could never have commanded such a heinous thing and deny that it is more than myth. While conservatives argue that absolute morality can only be found by tying right and wrong to whatever God commands, liberals hold God to a higher ethical standard and generally accept that one can have morality and ethics without God.

I actually feel like I have a much more solid ethical basis today as an atheist than I did as a conservative Christian where morality consisted of whatever God said goes. As a conservative Christian justified Old Testament genocide as right because God commanded it, asked myself internally why killing children could possibly be wrong when their earthly deaths would send them to heaven and save them the threat of hell, and admitted that if God commanded it, it would be morally right to kill my mother. In contrast, today I can articulate why genocide, the murdering of children, and matricide are wrong. I now follow actual ethical standards rather than defining good as “obeying God’s commands” and basing my system of morality on the caprice of a God who can command humans not to kill and and then order them to commit genocide in the same book.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0154323017c1970c Verity3

    Wow… I thought I knew what I was going to say, but now I'm feeling mentally pulverized. But in a good way, if that makes any sense.You raise some very good points, Libby Anne. "Age of accountability" does make abortion seem like mercy-killing. Conceptualizing God as either above or below an absolute standard of morality can lead to human beings justifying capricious behavior. But I think in all these cases, it is the human rationales that are the problem, not God.(Please hear me out. Yes, I love to defend God, but I think even leaving aside considerations about His infinite value(!), your logical scenarios are worthy of engaging.)I guess I am in the "whatever the Big Guy says goes" camp… but I don't think that means He is capricious. It is possible for actions to seem arbitrary to onlookers, when in fact there is a good purpose behind them.Over the last year, I have come to see God as not so much legitimizing the values and customs of our ancestors, as *accomodating* them. In other words, the people were doing bad things, at times even abominable things… but rather than fix them all at once (like robots simply in need of repair), He drew close to them and led them closer to truth/goodness/beauty than they were before.In the case of OT genocides… isn't it possible that people were using these terrible methods of conquest anyway? Ravaging each other, and using the leftovers (human beings they viewed as dehumanized) however they wished? And into this madness, God intervened and told the Israelites, you better do a thorough job, in a way that won't come back to breed even more strife and harm?I'm not saying this is definitely the case, or that I feel comfortable about it even if it is the case. I just believe that God loves every person He has created, and He is calling us into greater wholeness via baby steps. It is more noticably gratifying (to me, anyway) when He deals with us as individuals, but often He deals with us as groups of people, and sometimes we are hurt — not punished, but suffering consequences — on account of the people we are standing next to. It's horrible… but I believe God can bring good even out of horror.Maybe I'm being naive, but I trust God — even though I don't completely trust any human being on the face of this earth.

  • http://www.ayoungmomsmusings.blogspot.com Melissa @ Permission to Live

    Outstanding! This has always been a big question for me too. I used to wonder about babies who had died, but the idea of calvinism was traumatizing after we lost our first pregnancy and I couldn't wrap my mind around a God who would condemn a baby that had never even lived. I can see where you would come to the conclusion that you would "have to" kill your mother if God commanded it, that sort of thing is considered very godly, just read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12837272331248416010 Bentley Owen

    @Verity3"Over the last year, I have come to see God as not so much legitimizing the values and customs of our ancestors, as *accomodating* them"This would make God a cultural relativist."In the case of OT genocides… isn't it possible that people were using these terrible methods of conquest anyway? Ravaging each other, and using the leftovers (human beings they viewed as dehumanized) however they wished? And into this madness, God intervened and told the Israelites, you better do a thorough job, in a way that won't come back to breed even more strife and harm?"This would make God an "end justifies the means" type- the worst kind of cynical utilitarian. But what Biblical justification is there for this view? The book of Joshua portrays the Israelites as ruthless conquerors acting on specific orders from God, and benefiting from his frequent intervention. Theistic morality seems like a difficult endeavor.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15654013636892916062 Erika Martin – Stampin’ Mama

    This has been on my mind since last year so I was really glad to see your post today. This is why I have so much trouble believing in the God of the Old Testament. I'd much rather follow Jesus' example of peace and compassion.

  • dj pomegranate

    Here are the explanations I got about this as a Christian School Kid:1. In the Old Testament, God was acting pre-Jesus, under the Old Covenant, when everyone deserved death ANYWAY because there was no atoning sacrifice etc., so it was a divine act of grace and mercy that God DIDN'T kill everyone! Now in the New Testament, we have Jesus' sacrifice, so God doesn't need sacrifices anymore so it's all good. Basically, Old Covenant God can kill and stuff, New Covenant God doesn't/won't. 2. A phrase I heard all the time was, "God is not obligated to give freely that which he is not obligated to give at all." Basically this sums up the Calvinist idea that it's God's right to choose who is elect and if you don't like it, just be glad that you're in the elect and stop your bellyaching about fairness. This concept was also applied to the OT genocides, Isaac, etc: What God says goes, so unless you're God you had just better do it and be glad that you even have the chance to be a bit player in His Big Plan! And for the women and children that are murdered, well there is a reason that we just don't understand and who are we to say anyway? And while I agree with the idea that he's God and can do whatever he wants, it's just such3. God used the Old Testament stories to show his wrath and the New Testament to show his love. Different facets of the same character, told over the arc of history to reveal Himself to his people.So obviously I have some problems with this. The overwhelming feeling for me as a schoolkid hearing this was THANK GOD I AM IN THE NEW COVENANT because wtf with the genocide?! I honestly put off really thinking about this for a long time because I just didn't want to deal with the obvious moral implications. And in fact, liberal though I am, I'm ok with saying, "God'll do whatever He wants" because fine, God'll do whatever He wants because He's God and that's what God can do. It's not that I mind not understanding God 100% (because really, who can?) it's that "God is love" does not jive with so many of the other things evangelicalism claims God is. Re: Melissa @ Permission to Live, I think what you say is at the heart of the problem: if the promise of the gospel is life, fulfillment, and hope, why is hearing it very often traumatizing for people going through truly tough times, the times when you need life and hope? There is something wrong with this picture.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13930917517196516292 Jason Dick

    I'll get to reading the rest of your post in a moment, Libby, but for now I think I'll just comment on a part of the first post that practically made me laugh out loud:"Some follow the Calvinist line that God has preordained where we are to spend eternity, and that therefore some children who die go to heaven while others go to hell. Some justify this by saying that it depends on what the child would have chosen had he or she lived. Many simply say we cannot know, but must trust God."Man, I'd heard of Calvinism, certainly. But I had no idea that there were people who apply this to the unborn. And I find that prospect positively hilarious. Here is why:Disregard abortion for a moment. Instead, consider genetic disorders. Many genetic disorders cause certain death either before birth or shortly after. But that genetic disorder is part of who the child is. So is God now supposed to be judging children based upon what they would have done if that child had been a completely different person? Because that's what it sounds like to me! And for some reason I find that morbidly hilarious.

  • Anonymous

    I am so glad I found your blog. I love it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17223859994666636372 Cluisanna

    But isn't one of the chief arguments of people who are against abortions that this gives the fetus no ability to accept Jesus as his lord and saviour, meaning it will go to hell?This reminded me of a post on a christian message board that I found hilarious – it was telling men who are masturbating that by killing all the little sperms, they would send them straight to hell, which made them worse than Hitler because they sent so many more souls into damnation. Someone wrote that that was the reason hell actually is so horrible – since most men masturbate, the vast majority of souls in hell are just sperm souls, meaning hell is essentially just full of sperm. Then someone said that maybe that was why there was global warming – hell was so full of sperms that it was boiling over and heating the world, and the rain clouds in the sky are just all those little sperm souls who didn't have room in hell. Then someone asked if, since some of the maturbators might have HIV, you could get HIV by standing in the rain.I don't know where exactly it became satire or if it was all along, but it was pretty funny.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15141562911812904866 Elspeth

    I don't understand people who are intensely religious. I'm saying it not in a derogatory way, just that I was never one so I can't understand.When I was young, I went to church and to Sunday school. My parents bought us a story bible with gorgeous pictures.The problem was that I was a voracious reader by age 7. Every book had its own set of characters and I never understood why I should believe in the characters in one book (the bible) more than the characters in another book. At best, I saw the bible as historical fiction.Later, I met more "devout" Christians who spoke of having an intimate personal relationship with Christ. This made me profoundly uncomfortable and plopped me soundly into the atheist camp.All this to say, I haven't given Christian ethics a lot of thought. I always sort of assumed that their lives were a little bit simpler: follow 10 commandments. Bang! Done. To be extra keen, say the Lord's prayer and Psalm 23 every so often. Maybe do a rosary if they're Catholic.The main take-away that I've gotten from reading about the fundamentalist types of Christian is how… hard it is. The more literal, keen and intelligent the person, the more carefully they try to follow the actual text of the bible and take it to its logical conclusion. And these literal, keen and intelligent people have to contort themselves into mental pretzels trying to make it cohesive.I saw it in university when my roommate was trying to come to terms with her gay friend who was in her bible study. Christian, good person, nice person… going to hell for being gay. Bible says so.

  • http://www.thedrantherlair.com quietpanther

    This.This, this, this, this, this….

  • Anonymous

    I got wrapped up in a pretty fundamentalist church for a while in high school (anyone heard of Calvary Chapel?) and ended up with many of the same questions. My breaking point was when we were talking about doing mission work and I was asking how God could send people to hell if they had never even *heard* of the gospel and therefore had no chance to believe. My pastor said people would be held accountable for the light that was given to them–people who never had a chance to hear the gospel wouldn't be accountable for not believing in it and could still go to heaven. This begged the obvious question of, why would we go and share the gospel if it only increased people's accountability and risk of going to hell??? It seemed like it would be better for nobody to know about it and then everyone could go to heaven? I was informed that I wasn't a real Christian if I was asking these questions and needed to go pray for my own soul. In retrospect, that is really the only answer to that kind of logic trap. Life is better without these puzzles. Love your blog. Anna

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    The only thing I am not liking about this piece is the idea that conservative Christians believe THIS and liberal Christians believe THAT. I am sick to fricking death of people labeling me and telling me what I believe. It's usually the religious right doing so, but it is no less marginalizing and silencing when a friend does it. *pouty face*Back to finish the article…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    Insomnia sucks, btw.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    Cluisanna, sperm hell FTW! ;pI'm of the opinion that being a disciple of Jesus and being a Christian are two different things. I am swimming in research on the Sikh religion right now, though, so I have that bias. I think it's a good bias. I also agree with Elspeth's life; the best humans are generally the ones who don't get in too deep to religion. I could study the life of Jesus for the rest of my days. I love the humanity of the Psalms, and the way the OT prophets railed against greed and injustice.While they move me, each in different ways, there are a lot of other books and people in the world, just as worthy, thought-provoking, insightful and beautiful. I want to understand and enjoy those too.I do believe in God, and I know him by Jesus, so that does make me a Christian, though I get called a liberal all the time these days and probably soon will be accused of syncretism/agnosticism/atheism or some combination of those labels. I just also see uber-religiosity as an addiction. It keeps people from dealing with their personality issues, and/or tackling the more serious questions facing the human race by a distraction with religion. Seriously, arguing about the soul potential of a sperm when people already born are in such dire need all over the planet? Wtf?It's just a drug, that dulls the mind and distracts from the real pain of life. And, you know, it was a great step for me on the path to healing. But oh my, what has happened to the church in America since fundamentalism blossomed here is NOT GOOD- not for the individual, not for society, not for politics, not for anyone.

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    I once heard of an old Christian woman thanking the lord for sending two of her 7 children straight to him at birth or closely after because they were not corrupted by the world and she could be sure they were in heaven. In a way I understand her and I agree that her children as far as I understand are in heaven but it seemed morbid to me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08189124855157679020 OneSmallStep

    I kind of got into a similar discussion with a Christian friend of mine — I pointed out that if her pro-life stance was because she thought all the embryos/fetuses were innocent, then she should also be fighting to make sure that all the spontaneous miscarriages — and the fertilized eggs that never attached — were made the priority of the medical field. She said that that situation was different, because God was determining that said embryos and such were not supposed to be here on Earth.Me: "Then your argument is really focused on the sanctity of life. Your argument is about women usurping God's authority in determining how long someone should exist." She didn't really have an answer to that.Love your blog, by the way.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0154323017c1970c Verity3

    @BentleyI'm not sure why you say my statement would make God a cultural relativist. Cultural relativism is a tool to help people view other cultures more objectively, and God (according to my understanding) doesn't need such a tool because He is objective already. Nor do I understand Him to be a moral relativist, but rather absolutely understanding morality in all its complexity.I'm also not sure why you take my other comments as necessarily pointing toward utilitarian ethics (though maybe my choice of words triggered an association?). I hope I made clear that I don't see genocide as a good thing even when God commands it. I don't think *He* sees it as a good thing. It's just that human beings ranging from wrong Moral Absolutists to wrong Moral Relativists are all He has to work with. I love my daughter, but I see her limitations; yet rather than refusing to let her live her life until she understands everything, I choose to give her information in small chunks, hoping she can process what she needs, but knowing that life won't always go smoothly.As for Biblical justification, I admit that I am speculating. (I also set it up as a "what if?" question.) I can't tell you how events described in Joshua went down exactly, but I don't believe it's all recorded in the book either. Scripture tends to give the highlights, in a way that makes everything seem cut-and-dry, but usually it seems to me that there must be a lot more going on that isn't said.I guess I'm at a place right now that I don't have trouble believing God is good, but I often have trouble believing the church is. I'm not trying to push more spiritual kool-aid; I'm trying to learn how not to drink it myself. :P While hoping to help others along the way rather than tripping them up with more misinformation.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Adam Lee

    "I hope I made clear that I don't see genocide as a good thing even when God commands it. I don't think *He* sees it as a good thing. It's just that human beings ranging from wrong Moral Absolutists to wrong Moral Relativists are all He has to work with."How can morally flawed human beings be "all" God has to work with? Isn't he, you know, omnipotent? I mean, if I were God, I could think of a dozen ways to make the Canaanite situation work out better than it did in the Bible. How about this: Rather than commanding the Israelites to invade the land and kill everyone living there, showing no mercy even to those who surrendered, I would have manifested myself to both groups of people and said to them: "I'm giving all of you this land to share and to live together peacefully. It is my gift to you, but I won't permit any violence." Then, if there was anyone on either side who attempted to cause harm to others, I'd just paralyze them until the urge passed. Do that enough times, and people would soon learn that it was pointless to even try. Better than genocide, no?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    @ Adam Lee,Kudos. For me, (and I suspect for you, as well) it is always as perplexing as it is unconvincing when people try to defend the Christian biblegod's atrocious behavior. And yes, this is especially true if we are to believe that said "God" is things like "omniscient" and "omnipotent".

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0154323017c1970c Verity3

    Sounds like robots to me. And therefore just another sad option.When I say that flawed human beings are all God has to work with, I mean that those are the only kind of *real* human beings there are right now.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    Well, if you're talking a "God" who is presumably "omniscient", and in which case, this "God" knows the future set of events, then said future is set, making our "free will" an illusion at best; a lie, at worst. IOW, the "flawed human beings" are essentially "robots" anyway.

  • Vivi

    Wow.And here I thought being raised as an atheist/agnostic gave one existential angst… Knowing that most likely you'll stop existing the second your heart stops. The great Nothing beyond death, inconceivable in the same way that physicists can't ever find out what came 'before' the Big Bang… The only movie that gave me nightmares as a kid was "The Neverending Story". (Also, having no-one but people to blame for all the evil in the world makes one a rather terrible cynic by the time puberty comes round.)But even as a kid, reading my kid's bibles right along Grimm's fairytales and Greco-Roman myths (*), I thought that I couldn't ever believe in God as presented in the Old and New Testament. If it really exists, it's a particularly cruel, capricious being. A sociopathic child with an anthill. Certainly not worthy of worship, more like really scary, actually, but I refuse to be cowed in fear. (* My parents always said I had to read the "Book of Books", because it's the basis of Western culture, but no-one asked me to believe in it.)By the way, have you ever read "Small Gods" by Terry Pratchett? I think you'd really like it.