Does the God we find in the Bible prove himself to be trustworthy, faithful, good and loving? What about those parts of the Bible that actually appear to contradict morality? Isn’t the Bible full of examples of genocide, sexual brutality, jealousy and vindictiveness? This is, after all, one of the arguments Richard Dawkins makes in The God Delusion.
Dawkins offers a number of examples of dubious morality in the Bible, stating
“in Genesis with the well-loved story of Noah, derived from the Babylonian myth of Uta-Napisthim and known from the older mythologies of several cultures. The legend of the animals going into the ark two by two is charming, but the moral of the story of Noah is appalling. God took a dim view of humans, so he (with the exception of one family) drowned the lot of them including children and also, for good measure, the rest of the (presumably blameless animals too).
Then he is particularly taken with the events when the angels visit Sodom and Gomorrah to warn Lot and his family to flee and the interesting parallel with the Levite and his prostitute at the end of Judges. He also draws a comparison between Lot and his family being saved from the destruction of Sodom and Noah’s salvation from the flood. He observes that:
“In the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Noah equivalent, chosen to be spared with his family because he was uniquely righteous, was Abraham’s nephew Lot. Two male angels were sent to Sodom to warn Lot to leave the city before the brimstone arrived. Lot hospitably welcomed the angels into his house, whereupon all the men of Sodom gathered around and demanded that Lot should hand the angels over so that they could (what else?) Sodomize them”
In the Genesis account, Lot tries to reason with the men of the City and protect the angels:
“Lot’s gallantry in refusing the demand suggests that God might have been onto something when he singled him out as the only good man in Sodom. But Lot’s halo is tarnished by the terms of his refusal.”
You see, Lot’s offer is for the men to have his daughters instead. He puts his own family at risk of gang rape. Dawkins notes though that:
“As it happened, Lot’s bargaining away of his daughters’ virginity proved unnecessary, for the angels succeeded in repelling the marauders striking them blind.”
If Lot gives us a problem, then what about his uncle, the even more central Old Testament character, Abraham? Of him, Dawkins says,
“Lot’s uncle Abraham was the founding father of all three ‘great’ monotheistic religions. His patriarchal status renders him only somewhat less likely than God to be taken as a role model. But what modern moralist would wish to follow him?”
A notable example of this is Abraham’s attempt to pass his wife, Sarah, off as his sister to the Pharaoh in Egypt. He does this to protect his own life but he puts Sarah’s life and honour at risk and brings judgement down on Egypt. If that’s not bad enough, he later repeats the same mistake with Abimelech, the Philistine ruler.
Then there’s the events surrounding the Exodus and the Law giving at Sinai. Whilst Moses is receiving the Law, the people of Israel get Aaron to provide them with golden images of calves to worship. They break the first two commandments. Dawkins describes the judgement that follows as
“God’s monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god resembles nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind, and again it should strike a modern moralist as far from good role model material.”
Dawkins concludes that:
“To be fair much of the bible is not systematically evil but just plain weird, as you would expect of a chaotically cobbled together anthology of disjointed documents, composed, revised translated, distorted and improved by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors, copyists, unknown to us and most unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries.”
So therefore, we cannot and should not use Scripture as the basis for our morality. In fact, Dawkins argues that even most believers don’t really use the Bible as the means by which they decide what is good and what is bad. So commenting on the incident where God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac, Dawkins says
“But what kind of morals could one derive from this appalling story? Remember, all I’m trying to establish for the moment is that we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from scripture. Or if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty.”
He sees evidence of Christians approaching the Bible in a pick and choose way when it comes to which parts of the Bible they choose to accept as literal. Going back to Noah’s flood, he observes:
“Of course, irritated theologians will protest that we don’t take the book of Genesis literally any more. But this is my whole point! We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist’s decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation. If one of these is ‘morality flying by the seat of its pants’, so is the other.”
So how do we respond to this? I want to suggest three responses
- We need to distinguish between types of Biblical Genre
Do some people pick and choose which parts of the Bible to accept as fact and which parts to obey? Yes, they do. Some Biblical scholars argue that much of the Bible Is intended to be read as myth and story rather than as fact. This includes people who claim to be Christians as well as atheists. We particularly associate this approach with liberal theology. There are a number of reasons why they do this.
Sometimes, people pick and choose because they don’t like what the Bible seems to say. They find the idea morally repugnant or too close to the bone and too hard to obey in their own lives. There’s nothing new in this. One of Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees was
“Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel!”
Paul has a similar criticism of those who pick and choose when and what to obey in Romans 2 and this criticism reflects something of the complaint raised by the prophets against Israel.
Sometimes, such an approach comes from the assumption that stories about miracles are too incredible to be true. In other words, they start with the presupposition that God does not intervene supernaturally.
Sometimes, the discussion about whether or not to treat a Bible event as fact or fiction arises from disagreement over the evidence. Is the claim supported by the current scientific consensus? Are we happy that the archaeological evidence presented supports the claim? The challenge here is not the absence of evidence, but, as we have discussed before, when evidence is presented, there is usually some debate and discussion about its validity and meaning. Now, we have a problem here because we like instant answers. We want the evidence to serve our apologetic purposes. Historians and scientists tend to appreciate that it takes time to analyse and evaluate. They also know that competing explanations can take it in turns over time to hold the upper hand.
For example, take the Exodus from Egypt and invasion of the Promised Land described in Joshua and Judges. Is there evidence for an invasion of Israel and the destruction of cities like Jericho? The simple answer is that yes, there is substantial evidence of those great cities being destroyed that fits with the descriptions in the Bible. The challenge is that, over the years, different archaeologists have visited the sites, carried out their own excavations and done experiments such as carbon dating to try and date the events. Guess what? Some of the results have suggested dates that fit with the consensus for when the Exodus would have taken place; others have dated the destruction of Jericho and other sites to a couple of centuries earlier. So what do you do when that happens? Well, I would counsel patience. See how the argument develops over time. You also look for the most natural and reasonable explanation for the data. So, for example, if the archaeological evidence matches what happened in the Bible better than any other historical explanation, then either we’ve estimated the date of the Exodus wrong or our carbon dating results are inaccurate.
I would like to suggest three responses to these reasons for picking and choosing.
First of all, I happen to agree to some extent with Dawkins. Saying that something is just an allegorical myth does not really help if the allegory appears to support an unethical way of behaving or thinking. For example, it doesn’t matter if the Flood didn’t really happen if the story told presents a picture of a God who is vindictive and destructive because first of all, we will learn to fear Him rather than to love him and secondly, we will learn to behave like him. We will justify our own vindictive and destructive behaviour.
Secondly, just because something is incredible or hard to believe, it does not mean that it doesn’t happen. Sometimes a team like Leicester City wins the Premier League, humbling Manchester City and Chelsea in the process. Sometimes the “joke candidate” becomes a party leader or a presidential candidate.
Thirdly, just because some people make those arbitrary and subjective choices, it does not negate the point that there is a right distinction to make between the different Biblical genres. The Bible is intentionally a mixture of different genres including historical narratives, poetry, wise sayings, apocalyptic literature and some stories that are meant to be read as fiction. This also means that within the different types of literature, we’ll see rhetorical devices used; we’ll see irony, satire and hyperbole at work. We’ll realise that a story can be told in a number of different ways depending upon the author’s intention. A Bible passage may be intended to argue a case, give supporting evidence, encourage, act as a cautionary tale and even to mock or lampoon.
A genuine and sensitive engagement with the genre and style of writing will help us to understand the message the author is communicating. You see, the author may not always be intending us to treat the characters involved and the events that happen as examples to follow.
- It’s important to identify the author’s intended application
At this stage, we need to deal with a rather mischievous red herring that Richard Dawkins has thrown into the pot. You see, by mixing in those stories that he finds unpleasant and weird, Dawkins blurs the distinction between prescriptive and descriptive literature.
In other words, just because we read that Abraham, Lot, Moses or David did something, it doesn’t mean that the Bible endorses their actions. This seems reasonably obvious, but the purpose of retelling a story may be to caution against those behaviours or to give an insight into the human character. Now, if some of those stories are hideously awful and involve deceit, torture, rape, murder and genocide, then they accurately reflect the world we see around us. In our own lifetimes, we have seen such things repeated in Bosnia, Rwanda and Syria. The Bible does not shrink back from describing the full horror of evil.
The Biblical account shows that even those who are marked out as righteous fail and fall. Noah is exposed and shamed in his drunkenness. Abraham lies and puts his wife at risk; this is also a failure of faith because he tries to solve things himself rather than trusting the God who made promises to him.
So we learn two lessons from the lives of Noah, Abraham and Lot. First of all, existential ethics don’t work. I cannot assume that what I subjectively identify as good, even if I am widely considered to be a good person, will be good.
Secondly, Paul tells us that Abraham is counted righteous through faith not by works. It’s not about him being the perfect example and getting everything right. God chooses Abraham and loves him in exactly the same way he chooses and loves you and me: by grace.
Furthermore, by highlighting the full horror and extent of evil, the Bible points to why there is judgement. We’ve been talking about God being in the dock and that suggests that we’ll be looking for him to provide evidence of his goodness when he speaks but the Bible shows that there is another case being heard. It’s not just God who is put in the dock. We seek to put God on trial but the Bible Says that it is you and me in the dock. We are the ones who have rebelled against God. We are the ones who have exploited creation through greed. We are the ones who have been cruel and destructive towards others. The Bible’s account of human history puts a mirror up to us so that we can see what we are really like.
So, sometimes the author intends to give us a command to obey, or a promise to trust, but not always. Sometimes, the author intends to give us an insight into the depth and depravity of the human condition.
Sometimes, we look at the event and see something so wonderful and amazing that we are not meant to try and imitate it. We are meant to realise that we cannot do these things ourselves. Take, for example, David killing Goliath. We are not meant to take this primarily as an example of how we should face our own giants. We are not meant to place ourselves in David’s shoes. Instead, we are meant to find ourselves looking on with the Israelite army in wide eyed wonder as God sends His chosen deliverer.
Sometimes, we are meant to find wise principles and general truths to wrestle with as we seek to apply them to our own situations. That’s how the Proverbs work. They are not predictions or promises. They are general truths that apply differently to each context.
- We need to read Scripture in the context of God’s overarching Salvation narrative
This is particularly important when we get to those Bible passages where we find God acting in ways that we find difficult to stomach, such as sending a flood to cover the earth, punishing idolatry with death or ordering the destruction of the Canaanites.
So, we come back to the overarching Bible narrative which we can sum up as follows.
God is eternal. He is love, just, sovereign, wise. He is the Triune God who is self-existent. God is not dependent upon anything outside of Himself.
God freely chose to create this World because He is good; His creation was good, beautiful and ordered. Because He is love, He made us to have a relationship with Him and each other. God put boundaries in place to teach us to love, trust and depend on Him. God said that the penalty and consequence of breaking those boundaries would be death.
The first humans chose to rebel against God because they wanted to be equal to Him. They did not trust Him. They believed a lie about Him. So death entered the World.
God has acted to save a people for Himself. Where we deserve the penalty of death, the Son has died in our place, defeating death.
One day, the Son will return as Judge, raising those He died and rose for to eternal life. However, judgement means that there will be a consequence for those who did not put their trust in the Son, who rejected Him and continued in rebellion against God. The death penalty will still stand. This means eternal separation from God’s loving presence. The Bible calls this hell.
So when we come to events like the Flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, what do we see? I want to suggest that we see in miniature little examples of the big picture. Sin brings death, destruction and sadness. Judgement is coming. However, the God who by nature is love is the God who delights to rescue. God is saviour. God saves Noah from the Flood and Lot from Sodom. God provides a substitute in place of Isaac.
The problem of evil does not allow for easy answers. Nor does the Bible ever offer us the simple answer “this is where evil came from.” However, what the Bible does is three vital things.
First of all, it refuses to accept and live with evil. There’s no place for appeasement and accommodation between light and darkness. The fact that God is sovereign and uses evil circumstances for our good and His glory is never used to justify, excuse or minimise the horror of those events and actions. Creation was designed as a place where evil and sin were absent. New Creation is pictured as a place where evil and suffering are banished from forever.
Secondly, it tells us that God has done something about evil. God identifies as the one who delivers and protects His people. God is the one who, in Jesus, steps into history and suffers the consequence and penalty of sin in our place.
Thirdly, the Bible offers us hope. It tells us to look forward to that day when suffering and sorrow will cease. We can face present suffering because that day is coming.
This brings us back to the original question. You may recall that we started out by stating that the God revealed in Scripture is a good and great God. By goodness, we mean his love, wisdom and holiness; by greatness, we mean his sovereignty over time and space (He is eternal and infinite) and over all of his creation.
We said that atheism is a challenge to God’s greatness and goodness. It rejects God’s greatness by insisting that there is no evidence for God’s existence. It rejects God’s goodness by claiming that the God revealed in Scripture is not morally good. In other words, atheism says that God does not exist and, if He did exist, then if he were anything like the God of the Bible, He would not be worthy of our praise and affection.
The Bible’s argument is that God has shown His existence, His infinite glory, beauty and majesty in Creation and in His acts through history. The Bible tells us that God’s goodness is seen in the Gospel in Jesus taking our place and dying on the Cross for our sin. God’s goodness and greatness are seen together in the resurrection of Jesus and one day will be seen most fully when He comes to reign.
 He is not alone in this. Similar points are made by Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason and George Bernard Shaw, Why I am not a Christian.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 269.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 271.
Dawkins, The God Delusion, 272.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 272.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 274.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 276.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion,268.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 275.
 Dawkins, The God Delusion, 269.
 Matthew 23:24. New Living Translation.
 See for example Bryant Wood, Dating Jericho’s Destruction (http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/03/28/Dating-Jerichos-Destruction-Bienkowski-is-Wrong-on-All-C, accessed 11/05/2016) and also, Bryant Wood, Carbon 14 Dating at Jericho (http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/08/Carbon-14-Dating-at-Jericho.aspx , accessed 11/05/2016).
 This means that a full engagement with the problem of evil and the question of God’s goodness does require us to think through what we believe about judgement and Hell. We will cover this when we look at New Creation.