I’d like to tell you about the last time I was able to stomach going to church. First you must realize that this was the culmination of years of struggle and tension for me. Back when I was still a teenager, I had only been a devoted Christian for two or three years before I began to see some glaring inconsistencies between Pauline theology and the superficial religious fixations of the evangelical church. Reading the letter to the Galatians (which virtually all scholars agree is one of the authentic letters) I saw a focus on freedom from law and external rule-following. But turning to look at my evangelical surroundings, I saw an almost obsessive preoccupation with appearances, image-keeping, and tradition. Before long I found that I identified more with edgier, non-conformist Christians subcultures—the misfits if you will—and I found these people to be more authentic and loads more fun to be around. Thankfully, for significant chunks of my young adult life I was able to get out of attending traditional Southern Baptist worship services, for which I was ill-suited anyway, having so little natural patience for formality. But to make a long story short, by the time I reached my mid-thirties I found myself once again attending adult Sunday School.
Now let me first say that this wasn’t your ordinary Sunday School class. People didn’t shuffle in half-asleep and sit in rows for 45 minutes to listen to someone teach from a generic curriculum. This was a small class comprised mostly of medical folks, mostly intelligent and upper-middle class, with big hearts and exemplary personal character. The teacher, who designed the lessons himself, was a well-respected medical specialist who routinely flies to Europe to chair committees on research protocols in his field. Highly intelligent group. Perhaps that’s what made our coverage of the next issue so jarring to me. One day the teacher announced that we would be studying the book of Joshua. Knowing how intelligently he approached previous studies, I looked forward to hearing him delve into the historical and contextual issues surrounding the book. And he did that well, as always. The class was attentive and interactive, as they always are. But then we came to the matter of the Canaanite conquest. Leaving aside the historicity of that series of tales (so far archaeologists have been unable to find any real-world evidence that these battles even took place), I was eager to hear how he and the rest of the class would reconcile the violence of the book with the loving character of God as portrayed (in some places) in the Bible. 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 say 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.
I should probably insert here that by this time I had already been an atheist for a couple of years. I was attending Sunday School and church because of my family situation. As many in that circumstance often do, I was attending in order to keep from creating uncomfortable tension for those I loved who were still believers. Since I had a pretty decent theological education from a thoroughly conservative seminary, it was easy for me to participate in a discussion-oriented class like this. To be honest, I still could’ve taught a class in my sleep. 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. For my Sunday School teacher, this was an object lesson in anticipation of the future judgment of the whole world which God would one day execute on the Day of Judgment (and for those of you who are eschatologically inclined, this was no premillennial sensationalism; the good doctor is a preterist. But even they typically anticipate some future judgment, even if it’s just in Hell).
I tried objecting to this interpretation but I didn’t want to cause a scene. I did my best to present an alternative understanding which preserved some kind of moral integrity on the part of the Bible. I had my reasons for that at the time: mostly I was looking to build as many bridges between my own views and the views of the aforementioned loved ones as I could manage. But this was too wide a gulf for me to overcome. Sometimes you come upon a mess so gnarled and tangled that you throw your hands up and say, “Forget it. This is impossible to straighten out.” I consider myself an almost pathologically conciliatory person, a peacemaker to a fault. But even my powers of accommodation have their limits, and this story brought them out. Let me see if I can succinctly explain why the story of the conquest of Canaan alone should throw up several red flags for any person committed to critical thinking; if nothing else, it should warn you against a “high” view of the Bible.
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 presumably thousands of 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. And no, it doesn’t make the situation any better if in some cases only some but not all of the women and children were killed, contrary to the language of the text cited above. I can almost hear someone objecting, “When he said to ‘kill everything‘ he didn’t really mean it like that.” Maybe go back and read it again.
Bill 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.
Religious dogma can put you in the most uncomfortable positions of cognitive dissonance. I recently read a comment from a woman attempting to reconcile a high view of inspiration with an acknowledgement of the obvious brutality of this story. She began by saying that God can kill anybody he wants because, you know, that’s one of the perks of being in charge of all things. He makes the rules. But then two sentences later she turned around and suggested that those were “different times” and that it is hard for people today to conceive of how violent and brutish life was back then. In other words, don’t blame God for their brutality; that’s just how ancient tribes rolled. As we say in the Deep South, “Bless her heart.” She can’t seem to make up her mind about who exactly is to blame for this atrocity. If you credit the Hebrews for this action, you’ve just admitted the Bible incorrectly attributed the decision to Yahweh. But if you credit God, you are stuck trying to justify the actions of a divine monster. Perhaps she is trying to argue that God behaved differently back then because it was a different time? Did he grow up and mature out of the temper tantrum phase? My Sunday School teacher would argue that God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” and that something much worse is coming on Judgment Day, so deal with it.
Another great irony is that these same people have a habit of telling people like me that ethics without (their) 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 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.
I remember one night at bedtime my kindergartner asked for a story from her Story Bible, so I opened it at the bookmark to find that the next story was the conquest of Canaan. This Bible tells its stories at an elementary level using cute cartoons, so I figured I could handle it alright. With clenched teeth, I read her the story as her older sister listened in from her bed nearby. As the story concluded, my little girl asked why God was being so mean to those people. Her sharp little mind instantly knew this situation was all kinds of wrong. I honestly didn’t know what to say. My mind flooded with things to say which would not have gone over well with the older daughter listening nearby (my situation is complicated). I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I think I dodged the question for fear of saying something which would upset a delicate balance that exists in my family life right now. Those who have been in a situation similar to mine will understand how difficult it can be to know what to do when moments like these occur. I quickly changed the subject and finished putting the girls to bed because it was late and I didn’t think this was the best time to open up such a large can of worms.
Now that I’ve had more time to think about it, I don’t think I handled it the way that I should have. In fact, thinking back over my interactions the last couple of years with people I know, I see that I have accommodated and kept my opinion to myself on so many things that I am sometimes guilty of complicit silence. It’s hard to know which battles to pick, you know? I am often unsure, and I tend to err on the side of keeping the peace. But I draw the line at Canaan. When something is so clearly wrong that even your kindergartner is thinking more clearly than a world-class physician, it’s time to say something. No one benefits from reinforcing the kind of convoluted logic which can justify ethnic cleansing and territorial wars (even the fictional kind), much less eternal conscious torment. I will continue to do my best to foster constructive dialogue with all of my believing friends and family who are willing to have rational discussions with me about their beliefs. But do not expect me to be cool with this one, because I won’t.
* I didn’t interview any despotic dictators for my ethics question because all the ones I could think of were either dead or didn’t return my call; but despots don’t follow a moral code, anyway…they just do whatever they want, so frankly they’re irrelevant.