Archive for August, 2009


God and the Promised Land: A War to remember

     In my last two posts, we have looked at two major topics that I have done research on for my senior research paper in college. In the first post, the idea of divine command ethics was discussed and then in the second, the problem of evil. I would now like to move on to my third and final part of the research, and that deals with the issue of the Canaanite extermination in the Old Testament. Many modern scholars such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others attack Christianity in this way and argue that the God of the Old Testament cannot be the God of the New Testament. In what follows is my brief and introductory attempt at answering this question. After reading, if anyone would like to discuss further, please email or message me because this issue can go so much deeper.

     I would like to remind everyone that in this section specifically, I have quoted some work by Dr. Paul Copan and an Old Testament scholar by the name of Richard Hess. They make some interesting claims about the Canaanite issue, but in the end I am not sure I totally agree with them. It will take more study on the matter.

     The attack on God’s morality does not stop with the problem of evil however, but continues with the question of how a loving God can permit a moral atrocity such as genocide? In the Old Testament book of Joshua, readers can find God commanding the Israelite army to basically exterminate a group of tribes collectively known as the Canaanites. “Then they devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6. 21). How could an all-loving God that Christians so often talk about be so harsh and destructive in the Old Testament?

     Just like the problem of evil, the issue of the Canaanite annihilation is not easy to deal with, even for a strong Christian believer. Since this is such an extreme situation in the biblical narrative, it has been ammunition for some of the world’s leading opponents of the Christian faith. Take Richard Dawkins for example, an Oxford University distinguished professor, he states, “The ethnic cleansing begun in the time of Moses is brought to bloody fruition in the book of Joshua, a text remarkable for the bloodthirsty massacres it records and the xenophobic relish with which it does so” (247).

     This quote from Dawkins is not even the most aggressive when it comes to display of emotions from people towards this situation. Consider what Dr. Mirabello has to say about this issue, “Joshua, the legendary warlord who led the armed forces of the “children of Israel” into Palestine, committed war crimes and genocide and destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (1). Consider also, another quote from Christopher Hitchens, a journalist who wrote a book titled, God is not Great, “However, one mutters a few sympathetic words for the forgotten and obliterated Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites, also presumably part of the Lord’s original creation, who are to be pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel” (101).

     Every one of these quotes convey detailed emotion and dedication to the position they hold. These quotes, however, do not fully communicate the raw passion as well as Richard Dawkins himself does. Again, consider Dawkins on this issue, “The point is that, whether true or not, the Bible is held up to us as the source of our morality. And the Bible story of Joshua’s destruction of Jericho, and the invasion of the Promised Land in general, is morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs” (247).

     With unsympathetic acquisitions such as these, how can the Christian worldview possibly give an acceptable answer to a situation of this magnitude? There have been a great number of writings dedicated to answering this topic from a Christian perspective. There are several ways in which an answer can be given, but there are two that prove to be beneficial in trying to give an answer.

     In the book of Deuteronomy, the writer engages the reader with information as to how the Canaanites were dealt with, “And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king Hesbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children” (Deut. 3. 6). This passage seems to clearly communicate that every person associated with the Canaanite tribes was executed and that there were none left alive.

     In an article by Dr. Paul Copan, a philosopher of ethics from Florida, he suggests that maybe when the Bible speaks of the annihilation of every person, it could be nothing more than just a type of war hype. Consider what Copan says, “I observed in my previous essay that the language of total obliteration is an Ancient Near East rhetorical device, an exaggeration commonly associated with warfare”. If what Copan is saying is true, his analysis proves to be pivotal in answering this objection.

     Copan goes on in his article to back up what he is saying by using the Bible itself, “After all, the books of Joshua and Judges themselves make clear that many inhabitants remained in the land”. What Copan is saying becomes evident from a biblical passage found in the book of Judges, “But the people of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem, so the Jebusites have lived with the people of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day” (Judges 1. 21).

     Copan’s argument, though persuasive, does not fully do the trick. So what if everyone was not killed, what about the ones who were? Were small children and women included in the killings? Copan, in the same article, quotes and Old Testament scholar named Richard Hess. Copan suggests, “Hess’s research has led him to conclude that the ban (war commands from God) refers to the ‘total destruction of all warriors in the battle not noncombatants”.

     It seems now that Copan’s argument comes full circle. Copan suggests that the command to “kill all” in the Old Testament does not literally refer to all, but is a “rhetorical device”. If Copan’s biblical interpretation holds together then it becomes difficult to label what happened to the Canaanites a true genocide as critics suggest. However, though Copan’s argument is good, it only holds up on one front. There is still the question of why God would command the Israelites to go to war with the Canaanites and cause intense fighting in the first place. How does a Christian answer this question?

     There are many Christian scholars who say that in order to answer an objection of this magnitude; it is wise to call upon a method of theological study known as “Biblical Theology”. C. Stephen Evans, a professor of philosophy at Baylor University defines Biblical Theology as, “An attempt to develop theology out of the study of biblical texts” (114). When applying his definition to the Canaanite issue, it would be wise to see what the biblical narrative as a whole has to say about the problem. Once the broader picture of the Bible is seen, then it will clear up any misconceptions that people may have of the issue.

     Dr. Iain Duguid, professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, states, “the Israelites acted as the agents of God’s righteous judgment against sinners” (107). Taken at face value, this statement seems a bit judgmental on the part of Duguid, but this is an example of how the practice of good biblical theology will help. Just as it is explained in the beginning of this essay that human nature, according to the Christian perspective, is naturally prone to evil, this same concept is also applied to the Canaanite tribes. Just every person born throughout all of history is born at enmity with God; there is no difference for the Canaanite people.

     When considering possible reasons for why God would command such an order for the Israelites to do, the primary question that comes to mind is why God would do this to innocent people. Though this is a great question, it assumes that the Canaanites were in fact, innocent people. Just by nature the Canaanites were evil and in active rebellion against God. Furthermore, the Canaanites we involved in some nasty practices that anyone would see as evil. Dr. Walter Kaiser, academic dean, professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, suggests,

     “Why then were the Canaanites singled out for such severe treatment? They were cut off to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted (Deut. 20. 16-18). When a people starts to burn their children in honor of their gods (Lev. 18.21), practice sodomy, bestiality, and all sorts of loathsome vices (Lev. 18.23, 24, 20.3), the land itself begins to “vomit” them out as the body heaves under the load of internal poisons (Lev. 18.25, 27-30)” (268).

     As a holy God, just as the Bible suggests God is, it is by His holy nature that God is in total opposition to evil and rebellion. This is why the Bible makes the claim that God is a just and righteous God. By the very fact that the Canaanites were evil, makes it perfectly clear as to why God would pronounce judgment on them. The Canaanites were deserving of a just judgment.

     This brings this third objection to its final question. Why did God use Israel to execute judgment? Was it because there were better than everyone else? The answer to that is no, and the bible actually makes it clear as to why God used Israel. This passage comes from the book of Deuteronomy,

     “Not because of your righteousness of the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deut. 9.5).

     The answer becomes apparent now, it is not that the Israelites are better, but that God is actively and rightfully judging the nations as they deserve. The same goes for the nation of Israel to at the time. They too, for practicing evil deeds, are judged by God. Just as Dr. Tremper Longman, a professor of Old Testament, suggests, “It would be wrong to say that God was on Israel’s side pure and simple” (175). Israel was in covenant with God and if Israel somehow “broke” covenant with God, they too would be judged for their wicked ways. Consider what would happen to Israel in the event of breaking covenant with God,

     “The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You shall go out one way against them and flee seven ways before them. And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth” (Deut. 28. 25).

     In review of this last section, many concepts have been learned. It is very difficult for any reader of the Old Testament to breeze by stories of war and extermination without questioning, but a deeper look into the matter reveals true facts of the matter. It is quite possible that not every person from the Canaanite tribes were wiped out, but only the combatants fighting the war. It has also been made clear that not one person is innocent to begin with and that God is a righteous judge who judges truthfully. With these ideas in mind, a light in the distance can be seen to make way out of this problem.


a quick defense against the problem of evil

     Every single human who is alive and fully aware of the world today knows that there is seemingly a problem of evil all over. Everything from sickness, natural disasters, and even moral evils plague or earth everyday and people are powerless at times to stop it. The question though, is how do we provide an answer for why this is happening? In what follows is a second section from my senior research paper in which I engage the problem of evil. Just as a to reminder readers, I engage the problem of evil a philosophical and theological basis and attempt to provide an answer to skeptics who are against the Christian faith.

     Another quick reminder is that in writing this section, my intention was to show two of the most popular answers to the problem of evil from the Christian faith. Though, these two answers do work, my convictions are more towards the greater good defense rather than the free will defense, especially when it comes to libertarian free will. I am not a proponent of the libertarian view. With those thoughts in mind, here we go! 

     A second common assault on the idea of God’s morality comes from both a philosophical and personal slant. This objection is universally known as the problem of evil. The question is always asked, if there is an all-good and all-powerful God who really exists, then how could He allow so much evil to exist in the world? This question is such an important issue, that the very outcome of this argument may persuade a person to belief or non-belief in God. Timothy Keller, a pastor and theologian, quotes a woman on this issue,

     “I just don’t believe the God of Christianity exists. God allows terrible suffering in the world. So he might be either all-powerful but not good enough to end evil and suffering, or else he might be all-good but not powerful enough to end evil and suffering. Either way the all-good, all-powerful God of the Bible couldn’t exist” (22).

     It becomes clear from a testimony such as this why the problem of evil even matters. Every human being on the face of the planet has to deal with evil of some kind in their life. Evil can result from an event in nature, such as the 2004 tsunami, or evil can be caused as a result of an action or lack of action by another human. This kind of evil is known as moral evil.

     The problem of evil, though very emotional, has also been at the forefront of heavy academic debate by many scholars across the academic spectrum. In one specific essay by the late contemporary philosopher J.L. Mackie titled, Evil and Omnipotence, Mackie lays out a massive case for why the problem of evil is logically inconsistent with the belief in Christian theism. Mackie’s argument for his thinking is stated in this way, “In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false” (305).

     Just by reviewing what Mackie is trying to say, it may not be clear as to why his point even matters at all. How could Mackie’s conclusion show that belief in the Christian God is incoherent? In his book, Letter to a Christian nation, Sam Harris, an avid writer on issues concerning the validity of religious worldviews states, “If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities, or He does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil” (55). Along with Mackie’s philosophical definition and Harris’ practical application, a picture of why the problem of evil presents a problem for rational belief in God becomes clear.

     Though the problem of evil is simple is description, the path that seeks to find an answer is a tough one to travel. Even the late great Christian philosopher Dr. Ronald Nash agrees, “Every philosopher I know believes that the most serious challenge to theism was, is, and will continue to be the problem of evil” (177). This is an extraordinary claim coming from an academician who was himself an ardent believer in the Christian God.  How then does the Christian answer the objection of the problem of evil?

     Throughout the course of theological and philosophical history, there have been many theories presented that try and deal with the problem of evil. Of the several arguments offered, there are two that seem to fit the bill when providing an answer for this dilemma. They are known as the “Free Will Defense” and the “Greater Good Defense” arguments. Both will prove to be satisfactory answers to the question at hand.

     The first objective is to take another in depth look at the argument that Mackie and others make. Mackie suggests that if God is all-powerful, if He is supremely good, and evil does exist in the world, then belief in God is logically inconsistent. However, just as big time philosopher of religion Dr. Alvin Plantinga suggests, “One wonders, therefore, why the many atheologians who confidently assert that this formulation is contradictory make not attempt whatever to show that it is. For the most part they are content just to assert that there is a contradiction here” (323).

     Plantinga’s assessment is right. Why must the argument that Mackie defends lead to a contradiction for the Christian? Could it be that the human mind cannot possibly contemplate the way God works due to God’s position in eternity? Christianity affirms that God is, “Declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying ‘My counsel shall stand and I will accomplish all my purpose”, (Isaiah 46.10). If Christianity is true in its claims then, how can humans argue that the way in which God is dealing with the problem of evil is not the best way possible? If God exists, it would be purely self-centered of humanity to claim that they know better than God on an issue like this.

     Could it also be stated that, if Christianity is correct, then humanity is to blame for why there is evil in the world?  If these questions are right, then just as the Christian worldview suggests, God is still all-powerful because He has set in motion a plan of “redemption” to eradicate evil. God is also supremely good in the fact that He has established an arrangement to make “right” what is morally “wrong”, and evil does exist in the world now because of human free will. If all three can be proven to be true, then Mackie’s argument and the alike contain no positive arguments for their case.

     The first of the two major Christian defenses is what philosophers call “The Freewill Defense”. Nash explains this position well, “According to this argument, God has good reasons for creating a world containing creatures that are significantly free, that is, free with regard to actions that have moral significance. To say that they are significantly free means that these creatures are free either to do A or not to do A, where A is a morally significant action” (189).

     If one were to apply this argument to the Christian worldview, it is not hard to see how it would work. When God created humanity, He created them with the ability to make morally free decisions. From the book of Genesis, we see that God gave a command to humanity that in the event of disobedience, the result would be death. “And the Lord commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in that day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen. 2.16-17).

     As the book of Genesis progresses, the outcome would end in the human’s disobedience to God, thus the reason for evil and corruption entering the world is given. Due to human’s free action of immorality against the command of God, the world now has the problem of evil as a result of humanity’s actions. One arguably could then make the counter that if God knew this would happen, why did He create humans in the first place?

     This is the logical response to the free-will defense, but it too does not prove to be effective. God obviously saw that the value of human life is worth more than the corruption it caused. This would make sense given the Christian perspective since God Himself ends up dying on a cross to redeem a fallen humanity. The Free Will Defense then seems to work despite the problems that opponents bring to the table.

     The second of the two Christian responses is known as the “Greater-Good Defense”. Dr. John Frame, a philosopher at Reformed Theological Seminary, states in his book, “Another approach to the problem of evil is to claim that the presence, or at least the possibility, of evil in the world is good, when seen from a broader perspective. Such observations have been called “The greater-good defense” against the problem of evil” (169). This argument against the problem of evil seems to carry extreme promise in answering this dilemma.

     When Christians present this argument, there are normally two examples from biblical literature that are used. The first is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery from the book of Genesis. Dr. Keller in his book, simply and accurately summarizes Joseph’s story,

     “Joseph was an arrogant young man who was hated by his brothers. In their anger at him, they imprisoned him in a pit and then sold him into a life of slavery and misery in Egypt. Doubtless Joseph prayed to God to help him escape, but no help was forthcoming, and into slavery he went. Though he experienced years of bondage and misery, Joseph’s character was refined and strengthened by his trials. Eventually he rose up to become a prime minister of Egypt who saved thousands of lives and even his own family from starvation. If God had not allowed Joseph’s years of suffering, he never would have been such a powerful agent for social justice and spiritual healing” (24).

     In the Bible, this account is summed up very well by the very words of Joseph when he interacts with his brothers’ years after the act of violence they had done. “As for you, you meant this for evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50.20). An example would be a surgeon who cuts a person ultimately not to harm, but to heal. God intended for Joseph to go through major suffering for the later saving of thousands from death. Evil was permitted to happen for sake of a greater-good being brought about.

     Another example, and the most important within Christianity, has to be the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Frame states, “But the chief example of God’s astonishing ways is found in the cross of Jesus” (172). It is through the death of Jesus that the greater-good model is truly displayed. The Bible claims that God sent Jesus to endure some of the cruelest and most abusive punishment that eventually leads to His death. All of this was for the purpose of redeeming humanity’s fallen nature. Inside Christianity, the death of Jesus results in the ultimate good for humanity.

     In review of all that has been addressed in this section, it is clear to see that J.L Mackie’s formulation of the problem of evil does not stand in light of careful theological and philosophical evaluation. Not only does Mackie’s argument fail to prove the inconsistency of the existence of both God and evil, it cannot account for humanity’s free-will or God using evil for a greater-good. Just as Paul says in his letter to the Roman church, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8.28).


The Reality of Divine Command Ethics and Euthyphro’s Dilemma

     The society we live in today is filled with differing views and opinions about the religious pluralism throughout the world. Of the many world religions, there is much debate over the issues surrounding each system of faith, and debates over the validity of the Christian faith seem to be at the forefront everywhere. In what follows, is a section of my undergraduate research paper in which I dealt with three issues surrounding the nature of morality when it comes to the God of the Christian faith.  Being a Christian myself, I am defending the claim that God from the Bible is in fact a morally sound agent who loves and cares for His creation. Please consider the following argument as it deals with heavy philosophical and moral implications.       

     One of the major attacks on God’s morality comes from a strong moral and philosophical angle. This objection takes in to consideration a theological theory known as “Divine Command Ethics”. Within the Christian circle, there are many scholars who hold to this view. Among a few would be Dr. William Lane Craig from Biola University, Dr. John Frame professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, and Greg Koukl the president of Stand to Reason. All three advocate the idea of Divine Command Ethics.

      Divine command ethics is a view that seeks to formulate the true basis for morality, namely, that it comes from God Himself. Consider what Dr. James Rachels, a moral philosopher who was University Professor of Philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has to say when defining this concept, “Essentially, this theory says that “morally right” is a matter of being commanded by God and “morally wrong” is a matter of being forbidden by God” (54). In other words, morality results specifically from what God commands.

     Rachels goes on to point out in his book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, that the concept of Divine Command Ethics “has a number of attractive features” (54).  One of these “attractive” features would be the solving of the problem of morality being objective. If God does exist, then there is no reason to think that morality is subjective because there is a higher authority giving morality a true objective grounding in reality.

     Another striking quality about Divine Command Ethics is the fact that it answers the question of why anyone should trouble themselves with morality in the first place. Again, just as Rachels states, “If immorality is the violation of God’s commandments, there is an easy answer: On the day of final reckoning, you will be held accountable” (54). If God does exist then that should be enough motivation for anyone to get their “act” together morally.

     Though the theory of Divine Command Ethics seems attractive at first glance, there seems to be an apparent fallacy within the theory itself that seems to present a problem for the Christian worldview.  As Rachels explains further, “The main problem was first noted by Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived 400 years before the birth of Jesus” (55). But what exactly is this problem?

     The predicament that Rachels is referring to has come to be known as “Euthyphro’s Dilemma”. Several hundred years before the Common Era there was a major philosopher named Plato and some of his writings were in the form of conversations that took place between another philosopher known as Socrates and other thinkers. “In one of these dialogues, the Euthyphro, there is a discussion concerning whether “right” can be defined as “that which the gods command” (Rachels 55).

      This discussion in Plato’s writings would eventually lead to a question that Dr. James Rachels and other skeptics use to show how God’s concept of morality is flawed. Consider how Gregory Koukl, a strong evangelical Christian and president of Stand to Reason states this problem in his own words, “Is a thing good simply because the gods say it is? Or do the gods say a thing is good because of some other quality it has? If so, what is that quality”?

     Rachels, being a skeptic of Christianity, takes these two questions and applies them in the same way that Plato did, but in this case to Christianity. Rachels point in doing this is to show that morality from the Christian perspective has no ground if ethics are commanded by God. So the problem is now presented as, “Does God make moral truths true or does he merely recognize that they are true” (Rachels 55). In other words, is morality good because God commands it, or does God command morality because He recognizes morality as good?

     Rachels, in his book, focuses on both questions and shows how the Christian, if asked these questions, cannot seem provide adequate answers. As for the question of if God commands morality because He sees that morality is good, if the Christian accepts this view then the implications are devastating. If God commands morality because it is good, then this means there is a higher standard to judge morality than God Himself. As Rachels states, “When we say that God commands us to be truthful because truthfulness is right, we are acknowledging a standard of right and wrong that is independent of God’s will” (57).

     Rachels actually makes a valid point here. If the Christian believes this to be true, then they are not staying true to the theological convictions of historical Christianity. In this circumstance, God would be an inferior being even to morality. Just as Koukl states and agrees with Rachels, “If the standard itself is absolute such that not even God can violate it, doesn’t this make the Almighty Himself beholden to a higher law? The sovereign becomes the subordinate”. The Christian in turn would be forced to give up the belief that, “you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him” (Deut. 4.35). If God recognizes that there is some kind of higher moral standard, then not even God is the final authority, there is something else co-eternal or even above God Himself.

     What about the second question that Rachels presents? Is morality good because God commands it? Even in this question the Christian appears to be caught by the powers of philosophical logic. On this view, morality is seen to be an arbitrary command. As Koukl states, “The content of morality would be arbitrary dependent on God’s whim”.

     Dr. Rachels continues in his book to give a great example of his argument. Rachels takes the example of child abuse and applies it, “God could make an instance of child abuse right—not by turning a slap into a friendly pinch of the cheek, but by commanding that the slap is right” (56). Most everyone would agree that child abuse is wrong and even if God commanded an act of child abuse to be “right”, people would still think it is wrong. If God could get away with what Rachels describes, then morality would be arbitrary and meaningless. This would go for any other concept of morality as well. Again, consider Koukl, “Though God has declared murder, theft, and debauchery wrong, it could have been otherwise had God willed it so. Any immoral act could suddenly become moral by simple fiat”.

     So it seems that an advocate of the Christian worldview is at a standstill at this point in the argument. Does Rachels make such a good argument that there is no answer to be given from the Christian on this issue? At first glance the apparent answer would be yes, Rachels does make a convincing argument that is logically consistent. In fact, it is such a good argument that Dr. Rachels is right. There is no way for a Christian to get out of this dilemma just by choosing one of these two options. What Dr. Rachels has not considered though, is the fact that neither of these two options describes Christianity in its true light.

     Rachels has missed the notion that within the Christian worldview morality cannot be seen as wholly separate from God rendering it arbitrary or higher in authority to God, but rather, God is the essence of what morality is. Consider what Koukl has to say concerning a new third option for the Christian to grasp, “The third option is that an objective standard exists. However, the standard is not external to God, but internal. Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness”. If morality is “rooted in God’s holiness” then it cannot be arbitrary because God cannot make moral whatever He wishes. It would go against God’s character completely. Morality also cannot be separate from God either because God is not separate from His own character. God’s perfect goodness is a personal trait that cannot be taken away from Him.

     There is, however, biblical evidence to support what Koukl is saying. One example comes from the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of His purpose, He guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6. 17-18). This passage seems to suggest that there is no way in which God could possibly lie. This biblical passage puts a damper on Rachel’s argument that morality is arbitrary when God commands it. If morality where arbitrary to God, potentially God could deem lying as morally “right”. Since within the Christian worldview God cannot lie, He could not change His mind on the issue of lying as Rachels suggests in the example of child abuse.

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