In recent years a moral outcry has arisen against the Bible among secularists. Many of the actions/commandments in the Bible are moral abominations to them. Three noteworthy examples (or types of example): God’s command to Abraham to burn Isaac on the alter, God’s wiping out, or commanding Israel to wipe out, entire peoples, and God’s prohibition of homosexuality.
As a Christian I might feel compelled to defend these actions of God. But I know that such defenses (e.g., God wiped out peoples because they were exceedingly evil and deserved it) would not only fail with secularists, but would make them question my own morality for offering such a defense.
Indeed, I would argue that there is no defense of the actions of Yahweh in the Old Testament that could work within a modern, secular moral framework. That is because of some of the assumptions of that framework. These assumptions have been with us for so long, and feel so right, that they seem axiomatic. Here are some of them:
- All persons have the same basic rights (e.g., from the American Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, pursuit of happiness).
- All of morality is to be based on these.
Things that follow:
- We have the right to do whatever we want, just so long as we are not interfering with others.
- We have the right to have our lives and property protected.
- No one has the right to take away our lives, freedom, or property, except as a means to protect the rights of others, and in ways approved by a government formed by the people on the authority of the people.
If these are true, Israel’s wiping out groups of people at God’s command couldn’t be justified, as no one person or society could ever have that kind of authority to kill. Prohibiting homosexuality is wrong as well; we have the right to whatever lifestyle we want if no one is hurt by it.
In addition to these, there are factual (that is, non-moral) assumptions secularists make that would make the Bible unjustifiable:
- There is no life after death.
- There is no clear, unquestionable revelation from God.
If these last two are true, no one could have the right to kill because “God told me to,” for there is no clear revelation from God. And killing a person is the worst thing you can do to someone because there is no life after death. A dead person cannot be compensated. Given all of the above, the only possible justification for killing a person would be to prevent further killings. Thus the command for Abraham to kill Isaac (and the genocides, for that matter) has no justification at all! To kill Isaac would be merely a horrible, pointless act commanded by an imaginary divine fiend.
So, at bottom, the Bible cannot be justified within a modern, secular moral framework based on the principles of modern, liberal democracies.
What can a Christian say in reply? To start, Christians cannot accept the two factual claims. As I am focusing on moral principles, I won’t argue against them here. But it’s pretty obvious that secularists and Christians must disagree on these. On to the moral principles.
First I want to admit that the secular moral principles are correct in a human-to-human sort of way. That is, they work in providing rules regarding how human beings ought to treat each other. I also think they are grounding principles for governments: we humans ought not to govern ourselves any other way. But are they the deepest truth regarding morality?
What if they are only a special case? For example, there are also principles regarding ethical treatment of animals that aren’t like the above principles. Not all secularists are vegans or vegetarians — many eat animals. They often have pets. Some visit zoos, Sea World, and other such places. They might kill household pests. They definitely allow the killing of fetuses. That is, they would agree that not all life has the above rights, only persons do. Sure, there are some rights subpersonal life forms have; we might be okay with killing pigs for pork, but we wouldn’t be okay with torturing them for fun. Still, subpersons have less rights than persons.
What about superpersons, beings with a higher level of consciousness, ability, intelligence, emotion, and awareness than humans have? Might they be to us as we are to pigs? That is, the claim that all humans have the same basic rights might only apply to humans. If, for the sake of argument, God did exist, it seems plausible to me that He wouldn’t be at the same level of rights as human persons.
To support this idea, consider, for a moment, the source of human rights. Two basic competing notions have been offered. John Locke, the one responsible for much of the discussion of rights behind the Declaration of Independence, claimed the source was God (so does the Declaration itself). God is the granter of rights. If so, then might he also be the revoker of rights? One thing is clear, the rights God enjoys would have to be of a higher level than our rights if our rights get their authority from God.
The other notion is that of Thomas Hobbes: we humans are roughly equal in ability and intelligence. Since we know that we are not strong or smart enough to dominate everyone else and keep safe, we agree to sacrifice some of our freedom by granting basic rights to ourselves and others. That is, human rights are really a contract between completely selfish people who know the limits of their own physical and intellectual power. On this view, human rights are the result of a political process, not, as in Locke, the motivation for it. If this is the case, then if God existed, He wouldn’t need to grant any of these rights, as a self-interested being, as he in no danger from the likes of us.
If these are the only two basic kinds of options, then it seems that God would be beyond and above the rights listed above. God is not beholden to them.
But Christians insist that God is good, not merely that he isn’t violating any social contract. In other words, what would be God’s morality that would make Him this wonderful being, if He doesn’t respect our rights? From the Bible we can find two parts: a part about our relationship with God, and a part about how we humans should treat each other. Regarding the former, from what I can tell, it seems that God has both great wrath and great love. Regarding wrath, He wipes out people who deface His name in the Old Testament. He is extremely jealous when it comes to who Israel worships, and punishes them when they “cheat on” Him.
God sounds horrible here, but think of it this way: have you ever been in love? Didn’t you feel jealous when he/she flirted with (or had sex with) other people, especially when you thought you were in a committed relationship with him/her? You felt betrayed, hurt, and angry. The God of the Old Testament is a superperson in love with an unfaithful people. A jilted lover at that. Read the OT yourself with this in mind (a good example the Book of Hosea —There he promises to punish Israel for her infidelity, and then restore His relationship with her, all with rather romantic sounding poetry); it will explain a lot.
Add to this the bad things these people were doing to each other (the lack of justice we find the prophets often preaching against), and we have the reasons God punishes them so horribly.
Now as human beings, we are limited in how we may treat unfaithful lovers. Again, we have agreed to a social contract to live in a democratic society, and we need to respect each other’s basic human rights. All we can rightfully do is break off the relationship with the unfaithful partner (and maybe rant about them to a friend). As for injustice, we can point to the law, or engage in peaceful protest, or, at the very most, defend ourselves. But God isn’t limited in His rights in the way we are. He isn’t in our social contract. Democracy is for us, not for Him. God may be within His rights to destroy an unfaithful creature He brought about.
The above view of a God in love isn’t a very flattering view of God at first glance, I admit — a superperson in love with creatures so far beneath Him that He justifiably wipes them out when they are unfaithful to Him. My justification is very counterintuitive. This is because we (or those of us fortunate enough to grow up in a democracy) have been taught from early childhood that democracy is right, that all humans have basic human rights, and so forth. And I agree with this, as far as human-human relationships go. But I’m treating that as a special case here: if it is, God’s morality might be beyond this.
I maintain that God still would be a good being, nonetheless, with all of the above. The fact that God would condescend to such a relationship with us is noble. And His anger at our refusing it is justified by the fact that God is so much higher than us and worthy of us. And our infidelity is all the more punishable for this. And let’s not forget: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” God’s Son was his most beloved; he was willing to give him to us for our salvation.
What about the other part of morality: how we ought to treat each other? There are the God-given rights that Locke and the Declaration of Independence list. But God never speaks of “rights” in the Bible. Still, Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” In fact, Jesus captures the whole of morality in this same passage. From Matthew chapter 22:
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Modern democracies with their rights don’t go this far. Jesus commands us to love other people as much as ourselves, even our enemies. The key word here is, of course, love. It’s a morality of love, not rights. Modern ethical systems don’t mention it.
Back to the original problems. Regarding genocide, God has this right. God is still good, for God condescends to love the human race, despite its comparative insignificance and ubiquitous evil. And humans are pretty evil; when I look a the thoughts in my own mind, I know I have evil in me. So will you, if you are honest. God commanding Israel to kill, again God has the right. Add to that the view that clear revelation is possible, then Israel is also justified in wiping out groups of people (If the revelation is true, of course. Most of the killings in the name of God are not the result of genuine revelation.).
What about Abraham and Isaac? First, God has this right as creator. Second, there is the possibility of God raising Isaac from the dead. If God exists and life after death is possible (secularists assume neither is true), then God is justified in asking for this to test Abraham’s faithfulness. He could restore Isaac. And Abraham might have thought this too.
The prohibition of homosexuality is harder. Honestly, I don’t have an answer to this one, other than God finds it offensive. But again, we are talking about God, not us. Just because I might find it distasteful doesn’t mean I have the right to prevent others from enjoying it. I’m a citizen of the United States; so are they. We, as citizens, have a civil right to our lifestyles. But God is not a citizen of the United States (or any other democracy). He’s God. He designed humans to be a certain way, and has the right, as a superperson, to prohibit them from departing from it.
So I did try to justify God, as I said I shouldn’t do. No doubt a secularist would not accept this justification. There’s no way she can, with her assumptions about reality and morality. But if these aren’t the ground truth, and if a case could be made for God and for life after death, then I think my justifications do have some weight.
So what this amounts to is that Christianity is consistent in its own worldview regarding how it views reality and morality. So is secularism. But these views are not consistent with each other.
I did a lot of work to come to an obvious conclusion. I did it to make a related point. The the point is regarding the fact that that secularists think Christians ought to be ashamed when God doesn’t fit into their secular idea of morality, or that God’s not fitting into this morality is a legitimate objection to Christianity. My point is that of course the Bible doesn’t fit into secular morality; it’s not supposed to.
Bottom line: God cannot be justified in a secular moral framework. Nor should He be.