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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Grasping at Straws Part Two--Evangelicals Defend Genocide

Yesterday I showed how Paul Copan is grasping at straws in his attempt to defend the genocide commanded by his God. Today, I would like to continue that discussion.

In response to Copan's article, Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?, Randal Rauser (Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive) and Wesley Morriston (Did God Command Genocide?) wrote rebuttals. These replies along with a counter-rebuttal by Copan were published in the journal of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, Philosophia Christi (vol. 11, 2009). To anyone that is not already committed to the inerrancy of the Bible, it is obvious that Rauser and Morriston demolish Copan's arguments.

If the account of the genocide of the Canaanites were found in some other document besides the one that Christians have predetermined is inerrant, they too would be repulsed. For example, what Christian apologist today wants to defend the actions of the conquistadors in the 15th century?

They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!” Other infants they put to the sword along with their mothers and anyone else who happened to be nearby. They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim's feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. (Bartoleme de Las Casas, Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies)

I would be willing to wager, however, that if this account were found in the Christian's holy book, they would claim it was justified.

Copan and other evangelical apologists (such as William Craig) argue that modern man is judging the actions of the Israelites in their war with the Canaanites on the basis of contemporary Western morals. They say that is illegitimate, we must judge them based on their historical context.

Morriston (p. 20) responds:
In their historical/cultural context, the ancient Israelites were not more brutal than their neighbors. Israelite warriors who slaughtered women and children would not have been doing anything especially unusual or morally suspect. Certainly, they would not have been “wringing their hands” in remorse! Perhaps the more Canaanites they succeeded in killing, the greater their reputation back home. In the context of the ANE (and of ancient Israel), there was no special moral issue about killing “a terrified [Canaanite] woman and her children.”

However, Morriston (pp. 20, 21) continues:
Craig is almost certainly correct in thinking that the moral sensibilities of the Israelites were not violated by their participation in the genocide. But what he fails to see is that the point about the moral sensibility of the ANE (and of ancient Israel) does not speak to the principal issue, which concerns God’s behavior. God is not stuck with an ANE moral sensibility. He is supposed to be perfectly good. . . .

The fact that genocidal warfare was standard practice in the ANE may excuse those who engaged in it, but it does nothing to exculpate God, or to suggest that He had a morally sufficient reason for commanding such atrocities.

Precisely. The criticism raised is not against the Israelites themselves, they were simply doing what was customary in their culture. The criticism is against the supposedly perfect God who ordered them to do so. Is it more reasonable to believe that the Israelites practiced genocide because "thats the way it was done" in the ANE or because their God commanded them to do so? All of the nations of the ANE claimed that their God(s) ordered them into battle and expected every living thing to be killed. The Israelites were no exception.

Copan also attempts to defend his God's character by saying that the killing of the Canaanite children was simply "collateral damage." Morriston (p. 22) replies:
Copan’s initial suggestion that the death of the Canaanite children should be considered “collateral damage” in a “just war” cannot be accepted. “Collateral damage” is brought about when the means used to attain a just end have consequences that are unintended (though they may be foreseen). If the only way to destroy a band of extremely dangerous terrorists is to bomb a village in which they are hiding, and you are convinced that it is morally necessary to kill them, then the death of children in the village may be a sad but unintended consequence of the means that must be used to achieve a just end.

Whatever one thinks of this line of reasoning, it is not compatible with the OT accounts of genocide. The Israelites are explicitly commanded to exterminate the children along with their allegedly wicked parents. It is not a matter of charging into a village and having some child get in the way. The extermination of the children is part of the original divine intention, and not mere “collateral damage.”

Craig's attempt to answer this problem is even more ridiculous. He says:
God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel. The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God.

Morriston(p. 22)demolishes Craig's contention:
In the first place, it is not clear that the Canaanite culture would have been perpetuated by the children. Had the Israelites spared at least the younger ones, and raised them as members of their own community, those children would likely have been assimilated to the Israelite culture. In the second place, as we have already seen, the extermination plan did not in fact succeed in removing the twin temptations of intermarriage and apostasy. The biblical record makes it abundantly clear that there were always plenty of foreigners in the neighborhood, worshiping gods other than Yahweh. The Israelites repeatedly succumbed to temptation, marrying foreign women and mixing the worship of their gods with the worship of Yahweh. So if the divine intent was to eliminate this particular temptation, the means employed were remarkably inefficacious.

Craig then resorts to the idea that the children are better off anyway since they went straight to heaven. He writes:
Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

Morriston (p. 23) rightly points out that this answer is a contrived one. He says:
. . .the reader must be struck by the ad hoc character of this proposal, and by its complete lack of biblical support. The reasons for the Canaanite genocide are largely drawn from the earlier OT texts. But those texts say nothing about a glorious afterlife for anyone—much less for Canaanite children.

Morriston is right. Craig has invented a solution in order to justify the actions of his God. First, there is no support in the biblical text for Craig's contention; he is guilty of eisegesis. As Morriston (p. 9) points out:
In tackling this problem, biblical inerrantists must operate under an important constraint. The OT texts themselves have quite a bit to say about what God’s reasons were. So it will not be sufficient to make a blanket appeal to the transcendence of God and the cognitive limitations of human beings, arguing that—for all we know—God may have had reasons for issuing these commands that are too complicated or mysterious for us to understand. The reasons actually given in the relevant OT texts are not all that complicated or mysterious, and they will have to be defended.

Second, Christians are not in agreement on what happens to children when they die. Calvin thought that they go to hell if they are not elect. Others say that the fact they die in infancy proves they were elect and therefore go to heaven. Others say they go to some type of intermediate place between heaven and hell such as limbo. The fact is that the Bible does not say, so Christians are just guessing.

In conclusion, I think its evident that evangelical apologists really have no satisfying answer to the problem of their God commanding genocide. They should honestly acknowledge that fact and conclude that either their Bible or their God is in error. Both cannot be perfect.


  1. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for these posts - I love it when conservtaives try and argue that objecting to genocide is cultural!

    I'm an occasional lurker here, and having read your objections to the evangelical answers to this question, I thought like you might be interested in my own (alternative) take on the issue. I did a talk on this issue at Greenbelt Festivla last year here in the UK, you can hear it at


    Matt Page
    (Bible Films Blog)

  2. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the comments. I visited your site and listened to the podcast on horror stories. Excellent work. Keep it up!

  3. Dear Ken,

    Interesting post. However why should and atheists or agnostic care about genocide? What reason do you give based on agnosticism or atheism?Everything you say is important but why care?


  4. Rev. Brown,

    I am giving reasons why I could no longer believe the evangelical Christian faith. It is internally inconsistent and contradictory. (as I show here, God is supposed to be perfectly good but his actions betray that). I suppose I could just "check my brain" at the door and operate by faith but I couldn't live with that kind of hypocrisy.

  5. Hi Ken,

    Ok, but shouldn't by your own standard do that with agnosticism and atheism? They also have huge internal inconsistencies in them. Or is this to do more with emotion that rationality?


  6. Good Day Mr. K. Pulliam,

    I sure that you are getting tired of me (I would be too), but I simply could not let this post pass.

    I have written a full response on my blog at:

    As I did not wish to overburden the comments section of your blog, I will not post it here as it is fairly lengthy, but if anyone wishes to discuss it, they can do so at my blog.

    Just to generate interest, however, let me post my Introduction:

    "...because it concerns a military issue that has been misconstrued and improperly explained, I could not pass up this opportunity. Now as I have stated before, I am a former military officer who has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and as such, I have first-hand experience and training in the subject I will be speaking of here."

    And in light of this, here is my conclusion:

    " My conclusion is that ultimately Morriston does not even know what he is talking about when he refers to military issues with military terms and thus, out of respect for military individuals, he should refrain from doing so unless he corrects his understanding."

    Take care and I hope to see at least a few people over at the blog to discuss the post.

    God Bless,

    RD Miksa

    RD Miksa

  7. Rev. Brown,

    You say: Ok, but shouldn't by your own standard do that with agnosticism and atheism? They also have huge internal inconsistencies in them. Or is this to do more with emotion that rationality?

    First, it has nothing to do with emotion. Second, atheism/agnosticism has no formally systematized doctrines. It is simply an acknowledgement that one does not believe in a deity. Third, whatever philosophical system or world-view that an atheist/agnostic holds to (and there are many possibilities) is not claimed to be perfect as most evangelicals claim the Bible to be. Fourth, your claim that atheists/agnostics have inconsistencies too is not an answer to the problem of the Christian inconsistencies. That is like when I scold my child for going outside without permission and her reply is that her brother went out too. How does that excuse her disobedience?

  8. R. D.,

    I will take a look when I have a moment.

  9. R.D.,

    I have looked at your blogpost.

    First, let me say thanks for your military service. My future son-in-law is on his 3rd tour of duty right now in Afghanistan. Also my nephew is with the 10th Mountain Division and has been to both Iraq and Afghanistan. I have the utmost repect for those who put their lives on the line for our country.

    Second, you say: When a military Targeting Group is considering whether to attack a specific target and are determining how much collateral damage is worth risking to destroy this target, they do so behind closed doors and on a need-to-know basis. . . the military Commander considers the issue and determines that only the destruction of the entire village will ensure the destruction of the terrorists and furthermore, it has been determined that the collateral damage is justified in order to kill these particular terrorists.

    I assume you are talking about an air strike. In that case, collateral damage is unavoidable but still it is regretted that the innocents are killed and our military looks for every opportunity to avoid it. However, a more accurate parallel with what happened in the OT would not be an airstrike but a ground campaign. If infantry is sent into a village to hunt down terrorists do they INTENTIONALLY kill all the women and children? No, they can be court martialed for that. If they INADVERTANTLY kill an innocent while trying to kill an enemy combatant, that is forgivable. But if they go in with the deliberate goal of killing children and infants, we would consider them morally bankrupt. The fact is that the OT says that God commanded them to deliberately kill the infants. That is morally inexcusable.

  10. Well said Ken.

    The "Your human philosophy is just as flawed as our divinely inspired doctrine from the omniscient creator of the Universe" line really doesn't cut it as a rebuttal now does it?

  11. **Copan and other evangelical apologists (such as William Craig) argue that modern man is judging the actions of the Israelites in their war with the Canaanites on the basis of contemporary Western morals. They say that is illegitimate, we must judge them based on their historical context.**

    If this is the case, then how could we ever determine any historical point to be wrong? How could we judge the slave trade? Discrimination? Five year old children working for hours in the factory? If we say those are also wrong, aren't we also applying a modern Western filter to that?

    Not only that, but they're saying that morality isn't an objective standard, but relative to whatever historical context we're discussing.

  12. Onesmallstep,

    You said: If this is the case, then how could we ever determine any historical point to be wrong? How could we judge the slave trade? Discrimination? Five year old children working for hours in the factory? If we say those are also wrong, aren't we also applying a modern Western filter to that?

    Those are excellent parallels. The obvious fact is that our moral sensibilities have evolved over the years and many things that were accepted in the past are seen to be morally bankrupt now. In addition, as Morriston pointed out, the issue is not what the people of that time thought about it but that the all-knowing, all-holy Christian God should have known better. Its apparent to me and should be to everyone that the Bible was not inspired by a divine being but merely reflected the moral beliefs of the people at that time.

  13. RD, my overriding issue with your rebuttal hinges on this:
    > but the Commander knows that he has considered all the factors and that the remainder of the village is simply necessary collateral damage

    Collateral damage is by definition undesired but unavoidable if the objective is to be met.

    The Commander in your analogy is human, with a limited set of capabilities. These limitations are what result in collateral damage.

    However we're talking about YHWH, who can stop the world turning to ensure victory if he so desires. YHWH can achieve zero collateral damage if he desires.

    It follows therefore that he did not desire this. Rather he desired the death of the women, children and livestock.

    YHWH commanding genocide and wholesale slaughter is at odds with YHWH being morally perfect.

  14. "Collateral damage" is a cute name for murder.

    It's saddening to see Americans simultaneously say that slaughtering Canaanites was evil and slaughtering Afghanis is "undesired but unavoidable". I guess it's all a matter of degree once you decide killing innocent people for a greater good is okay.