Monday, August 6, 2012

Theology: Christian God and Evil

A facebook discussion between me and a friend about how the God of the Old Testament could be good part 1.

My friendI know Christians like to say "God hates the sin but loves the sinners" so I thought I'd share this...

For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness; 
No evil dwells with You. The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; 
You hate all who do iniquity. (Psalm 5:4, 5 NASB)

...I'm just sayin'...

Meif no evil dwells within god the father, why did he command the israelites to murder children, take slaves, and rape virgins? just sayin'

My friend:  Murder I unjustified killing. He told them to kill because the people of the region had, for hundreds of years, lived willfully sinful lives. They knew of God an the Israelites before they were conquered (see Joshua 2:10). "Slaves" in that day weren't like the slaves of the recent millennium (for related info, look up "the year of jubilee"). As for raping virgins, I can't recall where that is. Do you have a reference?

Me:  there are many places where the israelites condone rape (judges 21, numbers 31, ) god directly condones rape in judges 21 when he stated when they lay siege to a city that they can take the women and children as plunder and "use them" (or "enjoy them" depending on the version). deuteronomy 20:10-14 god says that if someone sees an attractive woman among an enemy tribe, he could take her as his wife. exodus 21:7-11 says that if a man sells his daughter as a sex slave, she may not go free in 6 years as the men do, but may be bought back if she doesn't please her master. in Zechariah 14:1-2, god condones rape as a punishment for jerusalem. also, if a woman is raped, she is forced to marry her rapist and he is not allowed to divorce her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), and if no one hears a rape victim call for help, she is stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). sounds pretty evil to me.

Me again:  also, how do you know that the slavery in the bible was not as horrific as recent slavery? it's pretty obvious that many people sold their daughters as sex slaves or that women became sex slaves after god told the israelites to "take them as plunder." in 2 Samuel 12:11-14, god says that he will deliver david's wives to his neighbor to be raped and that he would kill his innocent son. (and also killed the family of job just to test him.) also, human sacrifice: Exodus 13:2 and Leviticus 27:28-29 say that the firstborn son is to be put to death. (also japeth burns his daughter as a sacrifice, josiah burned the pagan priests as an offering, and god commanded a whole town be burned as an offering (Deuteronomy 13:13-19) simply for worshiping a different god.) now maybe to you that makes sense, but obviously i don't understand how the christian god was any better than pagan gods and why worshiping them was "destestable". he commanded a bunch of horrible things be done to non-believers, but he doesn't offer any reason why non-belief is such a crime when the israelites were just as corrupt as the rest of the world at that time. maybe you can explain to me why unbelief, or by simply being born into the wrong tribe, warrented being burned alive, raped, "put to the sword", "taken as plunder", etc... or why being born a woman meant that you were viewed by god as nothing more than property.

Exodus 21:20-21 "When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property." how is that NOT evil?

also, god condones killing innocent children for the sins of their parents. (Hosea 9:11-16, Isaiah 14:21, Ezekiel 9:5-7, Exodus 12:29-30, Leviticus 26:21-22, Isaiah 13:15-18, 1 Samuel 15:2-3, Judges 18:27-29 and verse 6 where it's shown that god approves of this slaughter of peaceful people.)

My friend:  Read Judges 21 again. It's completely the plan of the Israelites. God didn't tell them to do it.

Read Deuteronomy 21 to see how they were to treat female captives of war. They either treated them as workers (no sexual relations allowed)
 or they married them. On top of that, if they later decided to divorce the women, then they couldn't return them to "slave" status. They had to set the woman free. ... hardly rape.

Rather than type a bunch in here, I'll just provide reference (

In Zechariah, I see God bringing the nations to battle against Israel and describing what will happen. I don't see Him promoting rape though. Foreknowledge does not imply causation or approval.

Again, the Deut. 22:28-29 reference is actually a law to promote proper treatment of someone who has been doesn't condone the sinful act. It just acknowledges that people will do sinful acts and how to deal with those people.

For Deut 22:23-24, read the context. If they're in the city (i.e. there are a bunch of people around to hear her scream) and she doesn't scream, then they assume that she is willfully engaging in extramarital sex, which was already punishable by stoning. If the sex happened out in the country, then only the man gets stoned because there's a possibility that she screamed and nobody heard. They err on the side of caution. And yet again, it's not promoting rape. It's talking about how to deal with rape.

In many cases in ancient Hebrew culture, "slaves" could own property and get married. They earned money and could buy their own freedom. Most of these rules regard how to deal with sinful behavior not condoning sinful behavior. The USA puts people in prison for murder. Does that mean that we're pro-murder because we have a law that talks about murder?

Ah yes, Exodus 13:2 relates back to the first passover where God lays claim to every first born son. But if you look down at Exodus 13:13 (it's amazing how much reading the context alleviates Bible difficulties) the first born sons MUST be redeemed, which is an awesome picture of New Testament salvation. No first born sons ever died under that rule. However, Leviticus 27:28-29 is about something else entirely. The Hebrew word for "devoted" there is 'charam' which was a term reserved for people who worshiped other Gods, something strictly forbidden by the law of the nation. So, it's not human sacrifice. It's a death sentence for violating a crucial law.

Japeth was an idiot for making the oath to God that he did, but he kept to it. He even gave his daughter two months to go into the hills with her friends to lament the fact that she would die without children...and then she went back to her father for him to follow through on his oath. So, she recognized the importance of keeping one's word to God. If she didn't have peace with it, she could have run away.

And again, Josiah wasn't sacrificing anyone. He was executing judgment against people who violated the law. Whether or not worshiping other gods is ultimately a big deal or not, the people of Israel swore an oath to follow the one true God and accepted the consequences of that oath (covenant, actually). See Deut. 29-30 and Joshua 24 for details on that cross-generational oath. So, Deut. 13:13 is just explaining the consequences of violating the law.

Often times, people read the Bible and assume that all the cultural norms of the time were from God. That's simply not the case. Looking at the main characters in the Bible and the story surrounding them, we actually see God challenging the societal norms (like the unequal ontological value of men and women, first-born privilege, and others) and working outside of those norms. Seeing this at work is difficult without reading the whole story carefully and going out of one's way to read up on the historical and cultural context of the writings.

My friend again:   I think that response deals with some of the issues of your last two messages. Rather than go on about what God said versus what the people decided to do for themselves. I have a basic question that we should probably answer before any headway can be made. What is evil? 

Methank you for your reply. i'm going to re-read those passages, do some more research, and then i'll respond once i've done all that. 

although, before i get into the individual verses, i will try to define evil. evil is intentionally significantly harming innocents, or creating or perpetuating a belief which promotes suffering of entire groups of people. do you agree? 
i know the biblical concept of sin is different- i do not believe in "sin", but i believe in evil. many things that the bible claims are sinful are issues of purity, or of making mistakes. in the old testament time, i can understand why purity was an issue, in order to control diseases, unwanted pregnancies, etc... but i don't really see how purity is relevant in today's society where we have safe sex, birth control, vaccines, good hygiene, and testing and eradication of diseases carried by animals. i do understand that a lot of the ceremonial law in the OT was to promote good hygiene and, like many other cultures, reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. however, i don't see premarital sex as evil, as it doesn't do any harm to innocents... most people expect that their spouse has been sexually active before meeting them- i married a divorced man with children, so obviously i don't have a problem with marrying someone who is not sexually "pure," and the thought of him being with other women honestly doesn't really phase me, because i've actively worked on my jealous feelings and have come to a state of peace and generosity, which feels much more "pure" than when i had expectations that sex=giving away your heart, and therefore i'm allowed to feel hurt by any sexual relationship before marriage. i also think that the expectation of virginity turns sex itself into a dirty thing, which it is not, it is a beautiful thing regardless of the context of marriage, and promotes feelings of jealousy, which is not an admirable trait. (other issues of purity have been dismissed in christian culture, such as avoiding women on their period and dietary restrictions, so i won't argue against those, assuming we are on the same page about that.) i also don't think making mistakes is a "sin", if you do not make the mistakes intentionally, because learning from our mistakes is how we grow in character. there are some people who make the same mistakes over again, and that shows an unwillingness to learn (in that way i sympathize with the frustration of god toward the israelites), but for most people, we need to try something and fail in order to learn. obviously in the OT, god shows an unwillingness to tolerate the worship of other gods. fair enough, since he is trying to promote a monotheistic culture in a time period where polytheism was the norm, although in my opinion the lengths that he goes to to make sure that they worship him and him alone show nothing more than selfishness and jealousy, again, not very admirable in my opinion... and in many cases crosses the line to simple cruelty. is cruelty evil? i do believe it is, especially when you punish innocent people in order to punish the transgressors (i.e. killing of the children of evildoers, etc...). there is an overall theme of god punishing the innocent along with the guilty, and that is just plain evil. how is it not evil to cause suffering to those who had nothing to do with the crime? that is simply guilty by association, which is one of the worst cases of injustice that perpetuates itself throughout history.

i also don't think that the idea of god working within the context of the cultural views is a valid excuse, especially from an all-powerful being who, if you believe the bible, essentially created the israelite culture. most people who believe that the bible is the divine word of god believe that all the rules and regulations therein were prescribed by god, even though they were delivered through the mouths of tribal leaders. i know it is impossible to isolate completely a nation from the surrounding cultures, but god could certainly have steered the isreaelites in the general direction- for example, instead of saying that beating a slave to death is not ok, but beating him until near death is ok, why not simply outlaw beating a slave at all, or instituted voluntary servitude in order to pay off debts instead of forcible slavery (which is definite cruelty)? or instead of allowing israelite men to forcibly take virgin girls as wives or "plunder"(how is that not rape, again?), he could have told them to honor a woman's consent and not have sex with them unless they were willing. or instead of telling the isrealites to completely wipe out peaceful nations so that they could steal their land, he could have instead taught them to emulate peaceful nations and either find unclaimed land to live on, or make peaceful agreements with other lands. the god of the OT doesn't seem to value the lives of women and children, nor value consent, nor value the lives of any nation other than the isrealites. to me, that's a LOT more evil than simply worshiping other gods or have sex before marriage. if god is a husband and the church is his wife, then the relationship seems entirely abusive to me, and i wouldn't blame the church for wanting a divorce.

My friendYou covered a lot of ground. I'll do my best to respond to the points you made, but I have some challenges to your premises.

I mostly agree with your definition of evil but more on that below. I definitely agree that many of the OT laws
were put in place simply for cleanliness purposes ("kosher" laws kept the Jewish community from getting all sorts of plagues experienced by people in Europe). I'd disagree about the effect of pre-marital/extra-marital sex, but we don't have to pursue that rabbit trail just yet. I agree that making mistakes is not necessarily equal with sin. It just depends on what the mistake is regarding. Certainly, God gets frustrated with the Israelites for their rebellion, but he also accepts them back to himself every time they want to return. So, I view much of the OT as God, as a loving father, disciplining his children for behaving in stupid, (self)destructive ways. That's a generalization, I know, but I think it applies in most cases. If your daughter started ignoring you and treating one of her toys as her mother, then you'd probably say, "Fine...let's see how that works out for you." She'd get hungry and eventually come to her senses. That's the typical storyline in the book of Judges, at least.

As far as God being selfish and jealous goes, he does describe himself as jealous but that probably means something different than what most 21st century western culture people think it means. John Piper spoke about the issue of God's apparent selfishness and treats the topic better than I could ever hope to. You can read it or listen to it here (

Certainly, God is external to any human culture. I would expect his laws to transcend culture. Inevitably, when people apply the laws, they're going to do so from within a culture. Much of the OT is about God separating the Israelites from the surrounding nations (via cultural practice like circumcision or by military force as in the book of Joshua). I'm not going to claim total understanding of God's written word (if I could, then that would seriously cause me to doubt my faith). But there are things like bond-servants who are basically people who voluntarily chose to become permanent workers under a family and were largely considered to be on equal grounds as family members. Regarding forcing women to marry, I think that the NT clarifies how that treatment *should* have gone in Ephesians 5:25 ("Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.").

There are a couple challenges I have to some of your definitions that I think we would have to settle before moving on. You say that "evil" is "intentionally significantly harming innocents, or creating or perpetuating a belief which promotes suffering of entire groups of people." I see a few assumptions here. First, for someone to be innocent, they must be innocent in regard to some law. What is that law and where does it come from? On top of that point (and I'm not trying to be argumentative here) why is suffering bad? By what standard do we judge whether something is good or bad anyway? Assuming we have such a standard, what time frame are we considering for a perpetuated belief causing suffering? A week? A year? A millenium? All of time? I'd posit that the belief that we don't need God or that we can be like God has caused, ultimately, more suffering than any other belief...ever. Now, this may be nit-picking so feel free to ignore it but you mention "groups of people." How many people constitutes a group large enough to be concerned about their suffering? Is not a single person's suffering worth noting? But again, all of that hinges on being able to explain why suffering is a bad thing.

Me:  ok, i will read that link you sent me. for now, though, i'll address the "innocent" comments... certainly the term "innocent" is vague. i think you probably believe that no one is innocent. i somewhat agree with you. (i think that anima
ls and young children are innocent because they may harm others but they don't have the capacity to understand that their actions have a negative affect on others. that's what i would consider totally innocent.) as we mature, we begin to understand that what we do affects others, and sometimes we choose to do things that harm others... this is where innocence ends. however, there is a belief in christianity whereby even the littlest transgression deserves endless suffering in hell. (whether you believe that personally or not, i don't know. many christians do, and many don't.) that is complete injustice, because if you look at things from the perspective of harm, you understand that a little child may intentionally bite her brother, but that transgression shouldn't warrent eternal suffering and death.

i understand the biblical belief of sin- sin is "impurity." (this is the "purity" model of sin.) once you sin, you can never go back, because you can never be perfect again. you have tainted yourself forever. thus, adam and eve pass on natural sin to their children, even though, as babies, there is no way we could have intentionally brought that sin down on ourselves because babies are incapable of making conscious decisions. by taking one bite of an apple, adam and eve condemned everyone in existence. one simple impure thought can taint the whole person. however, that perspective is completely unjust. certainly, you can't help being born, so the fact that you are tainted cannot be helped. you are essentially being punished for someone else's sin. that's the part of the bible, and the god of the OT, that i think is evil. from my perspective, it's completely wrong to kill a child just because their father broke some law. it doesn't matter what law it was that the father broke- there is no reason to punish his wife and children for his sin. (i find it very ironic that during the exodus, the isreaelites were mistreated as slaves badly, and obviously pharoh killed innocent babies. yet, during the exodus, god does the exact same thing to the egyptian people, and then later the isrealites enslave and wipe out entire nations. to me that just reaffirms my initial impression that god and the isrealites are no better than any other god or nation.) let me posit a question to you: how is the god of the OT any different than the other gods which other nations worshiped? how is he better? even today, how is christianity a more loving, more just religion, better in any way, from other religions? i have read many holy texts, and jesus' words are commendable, he was a true visionary of his time, but the morality of the rest of the bible doesn't really cut it. if you look at the old testament alone, how would you describe that god, as compared to the gods other nations worshipped? why would a loving, compassionate god set aside one nation of people to go to heaven, and the rest go to hell, simply for being born into the wrong nation, the wrong family? why would a loving, compassionate god command his people to completely wipe out other nations, even peaceful nations, simply because he wanted to give that land to the isreaelites?

the "harm" model of sin is much more just- if you harm someone, your punishment is meted out according to the severity of the harm. sometimes this is shown in the bible- such as "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." that's just, even though it might be harsh. but what kind of justice is in place when god strikes down a man for simply touching the ark even though he was just trying to keep it from falling down, yet he allows women and children to be killed, forced into slavery, beaten, and raped? i'm still rather sickened by the deuteronomy 20:10-15 passage where god basically says that it's ok to kill the men and take the women, children, and livestock as plunder (and either "use them" or "enjoy them" depending on the version.) it seems that, of all the sins people can commit, rape, murder, and child abuse are the most heinous. and god condones them all.

on the other hand, neither the "purity" model of sin, nor the "harm" model take into account forgivenness. i do think that the new testament should be praised as an excellent model of how forgivenness and compassion can be one of the best models of justice. if you sin, and are repentent, then you are forgiven. what a great thing to do. however, some christians still stick this over the old "purity" model of sin and say that jesus' death and belief in him purifies you, so you are no longer tainted. well, that's all well and good, but what about people who die before they can be "purified" by belief? an unborn baby, dying in the womb, before it can be baptised? entire nations who either haven't heard about jesus, or who look at the purity model and see its flaws and injustice, and reject it? the nations who came before jesus, and weren't given the opportunity to believe in a savior? plus, there's the whole free will/determinism thing.

in my perspective, the "forgivenness" model of justice is the best, but when combined with the "harm" model, and not the "purity" one. and that's the kind of justice i find in the beliefs of unbelievers- if you harm someone intentionally, you are punished in the "eye for an eye" model, unless you are truly sorry (not just sorry from the mouth, but sorry from the heart). and in that case, you probably want to do whatever it takes to make amends to the entity you harmed, but beyond that, you have learned from your mistake and can become a more moral person. purity is not the issue, but you try to live your life in a way that's respectful toward others, and make their lives happier and more meaningful, not because you are trying to avoid some punishment, but because you genuinely care for others- not just other people, but the earth, the animals, everything that exists together on this earth. that is why i'm a pagan and not a christian. i feel paganism is much more moral than christianity.

Sorry for the weird font!  It wouldn't let me change it without making the text overlap and become unreadable.  More on a second post.

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