A few weeks ago, I posed the question “how do atheists find things morally evil?” It created a big response among several atheists. However, instead of truly answering the question, they made a challenge about the morality that is instituted in the Bible. I thought it might be a good idea to explore this topic a little more in-depth than what a conversation on Twitter could afford. In fact, I’ll have to address this in two parts. First, we’ll look at what the violence in the Bible is really about. Because in all honesty, there is a lot of violence and heinous acts captured in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. And second, we’ll look at why we have an issue with it.
The first thing we must understand is not everything recorded in the Bible is approved by God. So saying that “it’s in the Bible” does not automatically indicate “God approves.” We see that from the very beginning. Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the tree that He had specifically told them not to. Does that mean because that is written in the Bible that God approved? Of course not. Abraham sleeping with Hagar (Genesis 16), the slaughter at Shechem (Genesis 34), Moses murdering the Egyptian (Exodus 2), and David taking Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) are all examples of things done by God’s people that are not approved by God. The Old Testament captures the history of God’s nation of Israel and all they do – the good, bad, and the ugly. In reality, most of what they do is in direct opposition to what God approves of. We know that because of what the rest of Scripture reveals about God’s character. And God’s character is not defined by what sinful people do.
So when Israel does those things that God disapproves of, they find themselves suffering the consequences. How can we say that when Abraham, Jacob’s sons, Moses, and David from those examples were not immediately punished for their sins? Just because God doesn’t strike them down immediately for their sin, does not mean that God approved of their actions – or that it went unpunished. They all ultimately suffer consequences for those sins. But woe be unto us if we demand God immediately strike people down for sin. We should consider ourselves fortunate that God chooses to refrain His hand of judgment from us until His appointed time and that He is able to use us in spite of our sins.
That leads us to the second thing we must understand. Oftentimes, the suffering is from God removing that restraint in judgment. All our sin must one day be punished. God, as our Judge, has every right to punish that sin how He sees fit. That may make God sound very cold and vindictive, but in reality, it reveals His Holiness and Goodness. A person who lets crimes go unpunished, hatefulness run rampant, and evil triumph would not be considered a good person. We cry out to God to judge evil, yet we shake our fist at Him in anger when He brings down judgment. We question God’s very existence when He doesn’t stop suffering but then question His Morality when He does. Deep down, whether theists or atheists, we long for evil to be judged; we just find ourselves disliking the judgment.
In the Old Testament, God enacts His judgment with three methods.
1) God uses His own power. In Noah’s day, the sins of the people were exceedingly wicked. And it says that all men were corrupt, and the earth was filled with violence. Wouldn’t the people be crying out for that evil, violence, and corruption to stop? Wouldn’t someone that is good HAVE to judge against that wickedness? If they did not, they would cease to be good. So God saw fit to judge against the wickedness of humanity. And in His power, God brought the flood waters. It is important to see that He is the Judge no longer refraining from Judgment, but it is equally important to see that He is Love showing mercy to the righteous. And He called Noah into the ark that day.
The exact same scenario plays out in Sodom and Gomorrah. The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah was great, and their sin was very grave. Think about the term “outcry.” Where sin is great, victims abound. How could God continue to turn a deaf ear to the victims of a totally depraved and wicked society? So in His power, God rained down fire and brimstone to destroy the cities. He was the Judge no longer refraining from Judgment. But again, He is Love showing mercy to save the (slightly) righteous Lot and his family.
2) God uses His chosen people to enact judgment on the pagan nations who have chosen to live in idolatry, in wickedness, and in disobedience. He commanded the Israelites to conquer the Canaanites and completely destroy them. The Canaanites were a people who were totally depraved, practicing things like incest, bestiality, temple prostitution, violence, and child sacrifice. We would be exceedingly angry with a God that did not stop those things. And He wanted His nation to have no association with that wickedness and those practices. So God wanted those things completely wiped out. We see God’s judgment on those nations, but we also see God’s mercy. They were given time to repent and the repentant ones were spared (e.g. Rahab).
We must also bear in mind that most of this time of conflict was under the leadership of Joshua in establishing a new nation. Though war is never pleasurable, it is the method by which all nations are founded, and, ironically, it is the method by which to establish peace. Sometimes the only way to restore peace and to remove tyranny is by use of force. Of course, one could speculate why God didn’t find a different way to establish His nation. But He was establishing His nation by using His people. He wanted to use the people and strengthen the people so they could see their weakness and His power all the more clearly. If you read the accounts of how He led them into battle and how battles were fought and won, you can see God’s power in every step through His people so that His name would be known throughout the nations. His victories in battle were known because it was obvious it was not through the power and strength of men. It proved He was mightier than the idols worshiped by the pagans.
3) God uses the pagan nations to enact judgment on His chosen people when they have chosen to live in idolatry, in wickedness, and in disobedience. Even with those examples of God’s judgment on the pagan nations, it is typically the Israelites on the receiving end of God’s judgment throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt–for 430 years. They wandered in the desert for 40 years until an entire generation died. The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians after ample warnings to repent by the prophets. The Southern Kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians. The Israelites were taken away into captivity for 70 years. Most of the suffering in the Old Testament fell onto the Israelites themselves because of their disobedience and sin.
What does all this reveal about God’s character? God judges evil. God is exceedingly patient in His judgment. God provides opportunity for repentance. God shows mercy to the righteous.
As a final example, consider the great city of Nineveh at the time of Jonah. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and was probably the largest city of the ancient world. Nineveh was known for its cruelty and violence, and the people were exceedingly wicked. They now had to face God as Judge. But out of His love, God sent Jonah to warn the Ninevites, even though they were a perpetual enemy of the nation of Israel, and to give them a chance to repent. After receiving that message and repenting, God spared them from destruction. The people of Nineveh had been walking in wickedness and disobedience. God was going to be the source of their destruction as their Judge, but He was also the source of their salvation by sending them Jonah.
A clearer picture cannot be drawn for what God has done for the rest of humanity. We stand full in our sins – our pride, anger, hate, lust, selfishness. And now we stand before the Just God who must punish that sin. God will be the source of our destruction because of His Justice. But because of His Love, He is the source of our salvation by sending us Jesus.
Jesus took on our judgment for us so that we could take on His righteousness and be spared.