Neil Carter on the Old Testament Atrocities

Neil Carter on the Old Testament Atrocities February 21, 2017

Neil Carter writes about the slaughter of the Canaanites in the Bible and how that played a pivotal role in his leaving Christianity. It echoes very much my own thoughts, though the key trigger for me was the slaughter of the Midianites in Numbers 31.


Speaking about an adult Sunday school class that focused on that story, he writes:

To be honest, I fully expected him to distance the God of Jesus from the violent portrait we get from reading the conquest stories. Many interpreters, even some conservative ones, simply conclude that the Hebrews got it wrong. People are fallible, and their perception of “what God wants” can be flawed (more on the issues this raises in just a second).

But a high view of the inspiration of the Bible constrained the good doctor to maintain that Israel correctly understood that Yahweh wanted them to run swords through the men, women, children, and babies of occupied Canaan. This I found unconscionably bad—so bad that it was very difficult to sit through those lessons. By the time we got done with that book, I was ready to leave for good…

But something clicked in me when we got to Canaan. All of a sudden, the appalling injustice of the whole storyline came crashing down on me. I became physically ill listening to our teacher rationalize why it was okay for the Hebrews to rob the Canaanites of their land through violent conquest. Retributive justice, he said, comes from God one way or another, and they had it coming…

If you maintain that the Bible is infallible then you have to accept that the Hebrews were commanded by God to kill every man, woman, and child who stood in the way of them getting the land occupied by the Canaanites because that’s what it says. Presumably those attacked were to be given the option of fleeing for their lives, but that’s little consolation since in either case the Hebrews were told to take their “promised land” by violent force. No one was to be left alive including women, children, babies and even the livestock.

For many Christians (well, non-Calvinists anyway) this is just too much. If you maintain that Jesus was the real-world expression of the nature and character of God, and if you maintain that Jesus taught love for all people, not merely those like us, and that you should turn the other cheek, then this story (among many others) presents a major problem. Here you have Yahweh personally demanding the killing of thousands of people, not only adults but also infants and children, who could not possibly be held responsible for whatever their parents did to deserve genocide. This essentially makes Yahweh a war criminal…

William Lane Craig famously argued that God was acting in mercy when he commanded the execution of those children because they would have grown up to be something awful, like child-sacrificers (Killing babies to appease a god? Anybody besides me see the irony there?) Craig went on to theorize that this was okay because these children would have gone directly to heaven when they died since they had not yet reached the age of accountability (still waiting to hear which Bible verse teaches that, btw). By this logic one could construct a justification for abortion which would make the typical evangelical sick to her stomach.

In the end it was a belief in Hell which enabled our Sunday School teacher to accept this story at face value because, as he reasoned, if God’s just gonna punish everyone who disobeys him someday anyway, then this mere physical destruction pales in comparison. He had a good point. In the end, the doctrine of Hell justifies absolutely any injustice we could imagine.

Exactly right. When I was 16 and 17 years old, this bothered me profoundly. I asked my pastors and older Christian friends how to reconcile all of this and got the usual variety of answers, none of them remotely satisfactory. The most irritating to me was “you’re using your human understanding, but God’s understanding is what matters.” That’s a surefire way to make me stop taking you seriously ever again, though none of the people I spoke too knew that at the time. And I think Neil also nails the question of moral relativism:

Another great irony is that these same people have a habit of telling people like me that ethics without (their specific) God leads to moral relativism. But when I survey atheists I can’t find any who believe you can morally justify the kind of ethnic cleansing this story represents. I’ve never had one even try. They seem unanimous.* But then if I put five Christians in a room and ask them the same question, I will likely get five different answers even though they’re all working from the same religious text.

So which worldview really leads more to relativism? The ethical theory of most believers I know is what Craig and others call the Divine Command Theory, which says that “whatever God does is good.” This means that if at one point God tells a man to kill his son, that’s cool. I mean why not? God did that too, right? If God wants to drown millions of people with one massive flood, that makes it alright. Any action you can think of has a possible justification under Divine Command Theory. All you have to do is say “God told them to do it” and you’ve got your justification right there. You can’t get any more relativistic than that.

In the end, nothing could reconcile this for me. Nothing could explain it. Either God is a monster on a scale that makes everything in human history pale by comparison, or the Bible lies repeatedly and none of these things happened. In either case, my belief in Christianity was dead.

Browse Our Archives