Objection #4: God isn’t worthy of Worship if he kills Innocent Children
The chapter involves an interview with Norman L. Geisler PhD who teaches at the Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina, and is an author of numerous Christian apologetics books. Strobel begins with a quote by Thomas Paine:
“Thomas Paine wrote in the Age of Reason: ‘Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the work of a demon, than the word of God.’” …
“How would you respond to him if he were sitting here today?”
Geisler adjusted his gold-rimmed glasses, then remarked with a chuckle, “First of all, I’d say too bad he didn’t have a Bible. When he wrote the first part of The Age of Reason, he didn’t have one. But apart from that, I think he’s confusing two things: what the Bible records and what the Bible approves.”
“For instance, the Bible records Satan’s lies and David’s adultery, but it doesn’t approve of them,” he explained. “It’s true that there are a lot of gross stories in the Bible. The book of Judges reports the raping of a woman, then cutting her in twelve pieces and sending one piece to each of the tribes of Israel. But the Bible certainly doesn’t approve of that. Secondly, I think that Paine is just factually wrong. The Bible doesn’t have any cruel and torturous executions that God commanded.” (p.164)
Wait. What? My eyes got wide just reading that. “The Bible doesn’t have any cruel and torturous executions that God commanded”? Wow. Strobel protests with a wimpy example of David torturing his enemies. Even if Strobel’s example was 100% true, he has a hard time connecting David’s actions to God’s will. It’s amazing that Strobel will start out with a pretty good question, and then immediately buckle when any poor explanation is given, and he can’t seem to raise a decent counter-argument. Does Strobel (and Geisler for that matter) even know the Bible?
Strobel moves on:
“Isn’t there a big difference between the often-cruel God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New Testament?”
Geisler smiled. “It’s interesting you ask that,” he replied, “because I just did a study of every time the Bible uses the word that the King James Version translates as ‘mercy’. I found it occurs 261 times in the Bible — and seventy-two percent of them are in the Old Testament. That’s a three-to-one ratio. Then I studied the word ‘love’ and found it occurs 322 times in the Bible, about half in each Testament. So you have the same emphasis on love in both. (p.165)
Geisler ignores the fact that the Old Testament is quite a bit larger than the New Testament. The Authorized King James Version has 1291 pages. 987 of them (76%) are the Old Testament. This means “love” occurs three times more frequently in the New Testament than the Old. Additionally, it depends quite a bit on the context that the words are used. Song of Soloman (a collection of poems, often describing a man’s lust for a woman) probably uses the word “love” quite a bit, but it has nothing to do with religion.
But, Strobel raises no questions, and buckles again under Geisler’s argument:
“There’s no evolution in God’s character, then?”
“That’s right. In fact, the Bible says, ‘I the Lord do not change.’ In both testaments you’ve got the identical, unchangeable God — the one who is so holy he cannot look upon sin, and yet the one whose loving, merciful, gracious, and compassionate heart wants forgiveness on all people who repent.” (p.165)
Ah, and that’s the reason apologists can’t have the Old Testament God being any different than the New Testament one: it raises too many questions and hints that God was evolving along with the culture – i.e. imaginary. So, they have to squash any hint that the Old Testament God and New Testament God are too different to be the same person.
Already, I’ve got a hint about Geisler’s strategy for explaining God’s actions in the Old Testament: when it involves killing, it’s because of he is “so holy he cannot look upon sin”.
Fortunately, Strobel comes back around and raises the question of mass killings in the Old Testament:
“God ordered the execution of every Egyptian firstborn; he flooded the world and killed untold thousands of people; he told the Israelites: ‘Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ That sounds more like a violent and brutal God than a loving one. How can people be expected to worship him if he orders innocent children to be slaughtered?”
Despite the force of the question, Geisler retained a calm and reasoned tone. [Of course he did. He knows Strobel isn't seriously antagonizing him.] “This shows,” he said, “that God’s character is absolutely holy, and that he has got to punish sin and rebellion. He’s a righteous judge; that’s undeniably part of who he is. But, second, his character is also merciful. Listen: if anyone wants to escape, he will let them.” (p.166)
Now, Geisler never ends up addressing the global flood or the killing of the firstborn of Egypt. (And, I’ve talked about the killings of the firstborn children in another post: The Bible you haven’t read – Part 3). The killings of the firstborn children is, in my opinion, the least defensible of the three – partly because God “hardens the Pharaoh’s heart” preventing him from making the decision to let the Jews go, and so everyone in the entire country suffers because of it. Further, the book of Exodus tells us why God kills the firstborn and hardens the Pharaoh’s heart: it’s so that God’s “wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt”.
And the LORD said unto Moses, Pharaoh shall not hearken unto you; that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt. And Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh: and the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he would not let the children of Israel go out of his land. (Exodus 11:9-10)
The Bible explicitly says that the Ten Plagues happen so that God can show his power to everyone. It never says that the Egyptians are evil and need to be punished — although, some Christian apologists have made-up stories where the Egyptians are evil so that the killings are “justified”.
But, back to the book, Geisler never talks about the killing of the firstborn in Egypt. He does talk about the genocide in Deuteronomy, though. He tries the same tactic: the neighbors of the Israelites are very, very bad and deserve death (apparently in the same way that governments use capital punishment against criminals).
“Let’s start with the Amalekites,” he began. “Listen, Lee, they were far from innocent. Far from it. These were not nice people. In fact, they were utterly and totally depraved. Their mission was to destroy Israel. In other words, to commit genocide. As if that weren’t evil enough, think what was hanging in the balance. The Israelites were the chosen people through whom God would bring salvation to the entire world through Jesus Christ.”
So you’re saying they deserved to be destroyed?” I asked.
“The destruction of their nation was necessitated by the gravity of their sin,” Geisler said. “Had some hardcore remnant survived, they might have resumed their aggression against the Israelites and God’s plan. These were a persistent and vicious and warring people. To show you how reprehensible they were, they had been following the Israelites and had been cowardly slaughtering the most vulnerable among them — the weak, elderly, and disabled who were lagging behind.
“They wanted to wipe out every last one of the Israelites off the face of the earth. God could have dealt with them through a natural disaster like a flood, but instead he used Israel as his instrument of judgment. He took action not only for the sake of the Israelites, but ultimately for the sake of everyone through history whose salvation would be provided by the Messiah who was to be born among them.” (p.167)
So, Geisler wants to make them criminals who deserve death — thus justifying their genocide as justice. First of all, there were many different groups God told the Israelites to “totally destroy”: the Amalekites, Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, and Midianites. Further, the Old Testament makes clear that the reason they must be killed was because they owned the land God was giving to the Jews, they might intermarry with the “Chosen People”, and lead the Jews to worship other Gods. Geisler shouldn’t be able to get away with talking about one and only one group as if it was the entirety of the genocide God commanded. According to the Bible, it was primarily about purity – purity of the “Chosen People” and their allegiance to Yahweh. In other places, the Old Testament does say that they are wicked people, but it’s amazing how many times other reasons are given.
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you- and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.”
Further, as far as I can tell Geisler makes up all these terrible things about the Amalekites. The history of the Amalekites as told by the Old Testament is that they hounded the Israelites in the desert – even killing those who were lagging behind (Deuteronomy 25:17-18). The Israelites and Amalekites are involved in some battles (Exodus 17; Numbers 13), including Jews attacking the Amalekite cities. Hundreds of years later, they were involved in destroying the Israelites’ crops. The Old Testament does describe them as wicked (Deuteronomy 9, Deuteronomy 18, Leviticus 18), but not in the terms Geisler uses (attempting to commit genocide). Additionally, their warfare against Israel is hardly surprising considering that the Israelites were attempting to conquer their lands. For example, Numbers 13 shows the Jews plotting to “go up and take possession of the land” – and explicitly mentions the lands of the Amalekites among other tribes. What would you do if a bunch of people started invading your lands, and what was the typical response of ancient Middle Eastern nations to invading people? Never are the Amalekites described as wanting to commit genocide against the Jews (although, they were probably pretty unhappy about the Jews moving into their neighborhood and trying to “take possession of the land”). It would be understandable that the Jews would hate the Amalekites (and vice-versa) after this bitter conflict, but that’s a different issue than whether the Amalekites were somehow “totally depraved”. Compared to the Old Testament version of events, Geisler seems to be making up all kinds of horrible crimes the Amalekites are guilty of. (For verification, here are all the places “Amalekite” appears in the Bible.)
I should add that the Midianites are also supposed to be wiped out in a similar way – kill all of them (Numbers 31). The major crime of the Midianites was that they were having sex with Jews, intermarrying with the Jews, and some of the Jews were even starting to worship their gods. As a result, they had to die — all of them except the virgin women, whom the Israelites were allowed to keep. Which is very strange – if God didn’t want the Jews having sex with them, marrying them, or having the Midianites influence them, then what was the point of keeping these virgin Midianite girls? They were either turned into slaves or wives for the Jews. The Old Testament specifically teaches that the Jews were allowed to marry any female captives (Deuteronomy 12:10-11).
So, that’s nine different groups of people that the Israelites were supposed to completely destroy.
“But the children,” I protested. “Why did innocent children need to be killed?”
“Let’s keep in mind,” he said, “that technically nobody is truly innocent. The Bible says in Psalm 51 that we’re all born in sin’ that is, with the propensity to rebel and commit wrongdoing.” (p.168)
Uh, yeah. I’m sure lawyers will want to have that argument in their playbook the next time they want to defend a murderer who has killed a child. “The child totally had it coming, your honor.” Does Geisler seriously want us to accept that children are not only “not truly innocent”, but that they are so guilty that they deserve death? By the way, keep this argument in mind because Geisler will contradict himself on the very next page.
I also can’t imagine what it would be like to be an Israeli soldier – you are commanded by God to take your sword, club, or any other weapon you had – and kill a child. Isn’t there something reprehensible about commanding a human being to live with themselves – with the emotional guilt and memory – of killing a child?
“Also, we need to keep in mind God’s sovereignty over life. An atheist once brought up this issue in a debate, and I responded by saying, ‘God created life and he has the right to take it. If you can create life, then you can have the right to take it. But if you can’t create it, you don’t have that right.’ And the audience applauded. (p.168)
This always sounds like the abusive dad who shouts at his kid, “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out.” Is Geisler going to support parent’s killing of their children because they “created” them? I’m sure he’d use some sort of dodge like “God actually forms children in the womb” to prevent parents from using that same principle. Personally, I believe that the fact that someone possesses consciousness gives them certain inalienable rights – which not even a creator can ignore. If I were to create an artificially intelligent robot that was conscious, then I would have certain limitations on what I could do it it. Also, if a robot designer constructed a conscious-robot, and then slowly cut the thing apart sadistically – to the robot’s horror – I would regard that person as evil.
Further, if God can do anything to anyone he created, and that action does not reflect badly on him, then is there anything God could do that would make him bad? If he routinely stole babies away from their mothers and sadistically tortured them to death, would that make God bad? According to Geisler’s logic, the answer is “no”.
“People assume that what’s wrong for us is wrong for God. However, it’s wrong for me to take your life, because I didn’t make it and I don’t own it. For example, it’s wrong for me to go into your yard and pull up your bushes, cut them down, kill them, transplant them, move them around. I can do that in my yard, because I own bushes in my yard.
Well, God is sovereign over all life and he has the right to take it if he wishes. In fact, we tend to forget that God takes the life of every human being. It’s called death. The only question is when and how, which we have to leave up to him.” (p.168)
Again, I think consciousness is the primary question here. You can do that to your own bushes because you own them and they are not conscious. Further, theists like to couch death in terms of “God’s will” and “it’s their time” to the extent that it’s comforting, but many other Christians would simply explain death as a natural event which is a consequence of sin which God does not intervene to prevent. If we truly took the “God takes the life of every human being” claim seriously, then it would mean all our efforts to protect people and prevent death – through vaccines, medicine, seatbelts, etc – were somehow unnatural and against God’s will.
Additionally, Geisler’s logic (“we tend to forget that God takes the life of every human being”) ignores the fact that we see the death of elderly people as less tragic than the death of children. This is because elderly people have lived a complete life, the most time any human can expect to have. Children barely had a chance to live before their life was ended.
“Socially and physically, the fate of children throughout history has always been with their parents, whether that’s for good of for ill,” he pointed out.
“But, Lee, you need to understand the situation among the Amalekites. In that throughly evil and violent and depraved culture, there was no hope for those children. This nation was so polluted that it was like gangrene that was taking over a person’s leg, and God had to amputate the leg or the gangrene would spread and wouldn’t be anything left.” (p.168-169)
Again, Geisler brings up the Amalekites were totally evil claim – even though the verses commanding their slaughter specifically referenced attacks on the Jews which happened hundreds of years earlier. He says their evil would spread, so they had to be killed – you know, along with all the other tribes who had the audacity to live on the lands God told the Israelites to forcibly conquer. But, if they were like “gangrene”, and their crime was attacking the Jews hundreds of years earlier, then why was this “gangrene” left to “spread” for hundreds of years?
I can’t help but be reminded of other genocidal campaigns in history and how they involve words like “they are a cancer” and “their evil justifies our killing them”. A while back I saw some books produced by the Nazis in the 1930s, and they were full of information about the “evils” of the Jews, how the Jews were keeping the good German people down, etc.
“In a sense, God’s action was an act of mercy.”
“Mercy?” I asked. “How so?”
“According to the Bible, every child who dies before the age of accountability goes to heaven to spend eternity in the presence of God,” he replied. “Now, if they had continued to live in that horrible society, past the age of accountability, they undoubtedly would have become corrupted and thereby lost forever.”
“Isaiah 7:16 talks about an age before a child is morally accountable, before the child ‘knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.’ (p.169)
So – remember Geisler’s earlier statement one page earlier: “technically nobody is truly innocent… we’re all born in sin”? Well, ignore that. Children are innocent when we want them to be, and not innocent when we don’t want them to be. Children aren’t “truly innocent” and they are “born in sin”, but they still go to heaven. However, they are evil enough that killing them isn’t really that bad. Got it?
I’m sure Geisler’s argument will give much comfort to Andrea Yates, the crazy Christian woman who killed her five young children to save them from hell. Yates told her jail psychiatrist: “It was the seventh deadly sin. My children weren’t righteous. They stumbled because I was evil. The way I was raising them, they could never be saved. They were doomed to perish in the fires of hell.” Maybe she wasn’t so crazy afterall – maybe she was just reaching the logical conclusion of Christian teaching. Strobel raises the question of “why isn’t abortion okay, then” and Geisler says parents aren’t justified in aborting children – even if aborted children go to heaven. Additionally, he claims that our culture isn’t as corrupt as the Amalekites, so children have a chance of being saved. Geisler ignores the obvious counter-argument that if 100% of children go to heaven before the “age of accountability” and a lower percentage of adults go to heaven, then even though the act of killing is wrong, it is undoubtedly beneficial to the children to kill them before that age? Thus, what Andrea Yates did was take the blame of murder five times over, but she guaranteed her children’s future in heaven.
Geisler then goes on to say that the Amalekites could have changed their ways, but they stubbornly refused for centuries. Nevermind that: (1) Geisler seems to be making-up their crimes, (2) God tells the Israelites to totally destroy numerous tribes at the moment they enter the “Holy Land”, (3) and it’s clear that their worship of pagan gods plus their influence on the Jews is the reason the Old Testament says to kill them. (And, it should be added that Old Testament law says that they are supposed to kill anyone who attempts to persuade them to worship other gods.) Giesler claims that they had “lot of warnings”, but fails to actually detail what those warnings were.
“And consider this: most of the women and children would have fled in advance before the actual fighting began, leaving behind the warriors to face the Israelites. The fighters who remained would have been the most hardened, the one who stubbornly refused to leave, the carriers of the corrupt culture. So it’s really questionable how many women and children might actually have been involved anyway. (p.171)
First of all, it’s all fantasy to say that the women and children would have left. Certainly, there are refugees in times of war, but not everyone leaves even when they know something is coming. The poor, in particular, are in a bad position to leave their cities and homes. Remember how many people were still in New Orleans when Katrina hit? Further, according to Numbers 31, when the Israelites attacked the Midianites, they captured 32,000 virgin women. If 32,000 virgin girls were captured, then it tells us that lots of different people were still in the cities – including lots of children. It certainly wasn’t just a bunch of battle-hardened, depraved soldiers. And, if their culture was so evil it had to be cut out like a “cancer” (as Geisler says), then why did God permit the Israelites to keep these women?
While Giesler doesn’t address it, I’ve heard apologists also claim that it was okay to kill the children because their evil parents were killed. They were orphans, and that means either the Israelites would have to raise them, leave them (probably to starve), or kill them. All of these options avoids the obvious fact that God is omnipotent. Theoretically, if God wanted to eliminate the Amalekites and their “evil” culture, the most humane way to do it would probably be to simply lower their fertility. Fewer children means they would eventually shrink down to nothing, and their culture would disappear. It wouldn’t involve killing anyone – and certainly not any children.
“Besides, under the rules of conduct God had given to the Israelites, whenever they went into an enemy city they were to first make the people an offer of peace. The people had a choice: they could accept that offer, in which case they wouldn’t be killed, or they could reject the offer at their own peril. That’s appropriate and fair.”
I had to admit these insights shed new light on the situation … And as troubling as these passages are, it helped to know that Israel would offer peace before engaging in a fight and that the biblical pattern was that repentant people are given opportunities to avoid the judgement. (p.171-172)
First of all, I think it’s clear that option was never offered to the Amalekites. Just read 1 Samuel 15:2-3: “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (And this justification for killing the Amalekites is rather bizarre when you consider that the Amalekite’s attack on the Israelites happened hundreds of years earlier than this command to kill them. Talk about delayed justice. If God was so angry about it, why didn’t he do something hundreds of years earlier? And, why do the great-great-great-great grandchildren have to pay for it now? I don’t know about you, but I would hate to think that God would suddenly decide to punish me for something my ancestors did hundreds of years ago – and even more bizarrely, he didn’t punish them.)
Regarding the more general claim of making peace, Geisler doesn’t tell the whole story. Here’s what the Old Testament says regarding attacking cities that don’t belong to their immediate neighbors:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby. (Deuteronomy 20:10-15)
Geisler says nothing about the fact that cities who surrender are put into slavery under the Jews. He calls it “appropriate and fair”. And that’s how the Jews were supposed to treat cities that don’t belong to the seven nations mentioned in Deuteronomy. The Jews were supposed to treat the seven nations more severely, as described in Deuteronomy: “you must destroy [the seven nations] totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.”
They then move on to an odd story of Elisha where some kids start making fun of his bald head, Elisha curses them, and then some bears come out of the forest and maul them to death – 42 children mauled to death for calling him names. Predictably, Geisler uses a little bit of imagination to turn “little children” (from the King James Version) or “young men” (in other translations) into “As best we can tell, this was a violent mob of dangerous teenagers, comparable to a modern street gang.” (p.173) Clearly, the Bible isn’t providing any of the details that Geisler needs to justify God’s actions, but that won’t stop him from making them up. Geisler goes on to say they were contemptuous of God and his prophet, Elisha’s life was in danger, and that God jealously guards the authority of his prophet. He also says that killing them wasn’t wrong because God was their creator – which means he can do whatever he wants to them, and it’s okay.
They move on to the question of why God created a world where animals must kill animals for food to survive – isn’t that unnecessarily cruel? Geisler argues God didn’t create the carnivorous world that we see today – the original creation was vegetarian (and, yes, Genesis does say this). Geisler claims that they became carnivores after the Fall – that Adam and Eve’s sin affected everything, including animals’ eating habits. Nevermind the fact that many animals cannot live on a vegetarian diet. Cats, for example, are incapable of getting the proper nutrition without eating animals. Lots of animals clearly have body parts “designed” for a carnivorous diet – like snake’s venom, the scorpion’s tail, the spider’s venom and web-building abilities. From within their worldview, they still have a hard time denying that God must’ve designed animals to be carnivores. Or is he claiming that Adam’s sin was a magical force that attached new body parts and new genes to God’s nice little vegetarian animals?
“What about all the pain in the world as a result of animals hunting and killing other animals?” I asked. “The sum total of suffering that God allows in the world is absolutely enormous.”
“I think that entire presupposition is wrong,” he replied. “As C. S. Lewis said, there is no sum total of pain. It’s a misnomer. No one person or animals experiences the sum total of pain. In fact, no one person experiences at one time the sum total of pain of their lifetime. If you had thirty ounces of pain spread over thirty years, you only get an ounce a year and therefore only a fraction of an ounce a day.
“As far as animals are concerned, we have to remember that the Bible clearly forbids their abuse. Christians should oppose any mistreatment of animals… it’s morally wrong to be cruel to them. (p.177-178)
I just had to quote that section because of the bizarreness of the response. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t figure out what Geisler is talking about here. Strobel asks a perfectly reasonable question about the suffering of animals, and Geisler digresses into some odd commentary on the words “sum total of suffering” without answering the question. I also can’t figure out why Strobel even put it in the book.
The second half of this chapter is spent talking about the evidence that the Bible is actually true (despite the fact that the chapter is named “Objection #4: God isn’t worthy of Worship if he kills Innocent Children”).