Making Excuses for God: The Erosion of Decency

Stretching and Breaking the Truth
“God inhabits eternity, outside of time and space.” So a pastor friend once told me, perhaps without realizing how much hard work was required for theologians to make God sound so good; they’ve been at it for centuries, redesigning God endlessly: an endless quest for respectability.

It’s just a fact, however, that the god who rampages through both the Old and New Testaments is a nasty-tempered tribal deity. Those who protest this assessment would do well to remember the story of Noah: “drown ‘em all” was old Yahweh’s approach to cleaning up sin—and getting even. And when Jesus ‘returns’ there’ll be a repeat—so Jesus himself promised (Matthew 24:38-39).

Cleaning up God, however, has proved to be well nigh impossible. Even in the most banal formulas of worship, vestiges of the tribal god who had a name remain: “In the name of the father, son, and holy ghost.” Most folks today don’t seem to think of God having a name, but it’s still there, in disguise. In the RSV, whenever you see LORD—the word in all caps—this is a rendering of Yahweh. And the Jehovah’s witnesses brandish the name proudly: Jehovah is Yahweh with different vowels.

By far the biggest challenge for Christian apologists is disguising the ferocious god described in the Bible. They’ve worked so hard to conjure the lofty, decent, compassionate God—his eye is on the sparrow—that people crave today; the God whose everlasting arms will welcome them to heaven.

But the Old Testament, with Noah and so much more, won’t go away; Christian apologists have rallied to the cause of making Yahweh look good. It’s hard to believe they stoop as low as they do, hoping—I guess—that their target audiences won’t notice the subterfuge. Their stratagems call to mind a cliché from my childhood in the 1940s, when we heard the creepy voice on the radio, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Apologists showcase evil in the form of lying, well, shallow scholarship at least, and stunningly grim theology.

Hector Avalos provides a startling demonstration of this in an essay titled, “Yahweh Is a Moral Monster,” in John Loftus’ 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. For a long time Bible ethics have been called into question because of texts such as 1 Samuel 15:3, in which God gives this order: “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

We can assume that even many pious folks have stumbled over this text. Is God really like that? Maybe this in one of those places where the Bible gets it wrong? But the more severe professional apologists, who probably should be under surveillance by right-wing watch, know that throwing shade on the Bible just won’t do.

Avalos quotes two apologists on this matter of God ordering children to be killed:

• Dr. Paul Copan, president of the Evangelical Philosophical Association:

“Death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent culture.”

• Reuben A. Torrey, whom Avalos identifies as a ‘famed fundamentalist apologist’: “The extermination of the Canaanite children was not only an act of mercy and love to the world at large; it was an act of love and mercy to the children themselves.”

So, now we at least know what evil lurks in the hearts of some Christian apologists. Their approach aligns with the argument, sometimes advanced by extreme defenders, that anything God does has to be good. Who are we to judge?

This advocacy of mindless faith is abhorrent. A lot of religious and secular people have well-developed sensibilities about what is right and wrong, and shrink in horror from infanticide and its justification. In a recent book review, Karen L. Garst wrote, “Who would want to believe in a supreme being who couldn’t or wouldn’t prevent the Holocaust where over two million children were murdered? There is no possible rationale, even one cleverly devised, that would work for me.”

Much less a rationale for a God who orders the killing of children. And this can pop up anywhere: ten days after the Sandy Hook massacre of twenty children in 2012, one devout Christian I know suggested that “…God must have wanted more angels.”

In fact the main thrust of the Avalos essay is an analysis of Paul Copan’s deceptive apologetic approach. One problem for zealous apologists is that the milieu of the Old Testament is now well known. For example, the Noah story must now be understood against a cultural heritage that included the Epic of Gilgamesh, which has a flood narrative. But how does Old Testament law measure up to other legal traditions of the Ancient Near East?

Of course, the Bible has to be better, which means that Copan takes on the Code of Hammurabi and other texts, to illustrate the superiority of the Bible—and fails, because of his shallow knowledge and apparently, his assumption that his evangelical audience won’t know any better.

“So, contrary to Copan’s assertion, we do find in the Code of Hammurabi the goal of bettering mankind and a reference to the divine will (Shamash’s will). Clearly, Copan is simply wrong about the CH. That alone speaks volumes about how well he knows these ancient Near Eastern materials.” (p. 211)

As preface to his analysis of ten of Copan’s mistakes (in one of the latter’s major articles defending the Bible), Avalos comments: his “essay contains literally dozens upon dozens of factual errors and half truths that would take a book to correct.” (p. 227)

How can this not be dishonesty? How can this not represent an erosion of decency? Of course, a major challenge for apologists is that they cannot transform the Bible, even with all the ingenuity in the world, into something it isn’t. Namely, a coherent document that throws the clear light of day onto who and what God is.

Those of us raised in the Protestant tradition have been taught from an early age that we can just ‘open the Bible’ to find out about God. But I faced a reality check when I got to seminary; some of my professors didn’t try to fake it: a ‘theology of the Bible’ is impossible since it is a maddening jumble of contradictory God-ideas.

Avalos: “Historically, biblical theology has been preoccupied with finding ‘the central message’ or the major principles of the Bible. This endeavor evaporates when we realize that the biblical materials have contradictory and complex principles that usually cannot be unified…Even if we disregard the chronological problems, contradictory texts usually mean that the interpreter ends up privileging one text over another and declaring that one ‘central.’” (p. 219)

But apologists remain undeterred; they are paid to make the Bible come out right! Avalos exposes another of their sneaky moves:

“Because it is hard to erase all of the injustices found in biblical law, another favorite technique is the ‘trajectory’ argument. Thus, apologists can argue that, while things might look bad, they are heading in the right direction. Of course, this already prejudices what the right direction is, and also plays pick-and-choose with what counts as a trajectory (e.g., why not say the trajectory is enslaving the entire world to Yahweh?).” (p. 220)

It begs the question, moreover, of why God couldn’t have got things right from the very beginning! If he is the perfect divine author, how could so many barbarities and brutal laws have slipped into the Bible—presumably by mistake!—requiring gradual improvement, a trajectory.

Sometimes we can be sure that apologists blatantly exploit Christian ignorance of the Bible. Maybe they could convince their followers that Jesus could ‘leap tall buildings at single bound’ based on Matthew 4:5 (“Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.”) Copan tries to get away with a lot, in this one statement that Avalos quotes:

“Genesis 1-2 undercuts Ancient Near Eastern structures approving of racism, slavery, patriarchy, primogeniture, concubinage, prostitution, infant sacrifice, and the like.”

Maybe you should reach for your Bible right now and see if this is true. Copan claims to see what just isn’t there, and Avalos calls him out especially on the part about infant sacrifice. It is not even remotely mentioned, and it’s not a good idea to bring it up. In the Genesis 22 story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Avalos notes that

“…Abraham seems to assume that child sacrifice is not an impossible request, and it is the substitution of the lamb that is unexpected. For most of Biblical history, Yahweh was not against child sacrifice per se, but rather against child sacrifice to other gods.” (p. 227) And it was the nasty-tempered God of the Exodus story who killed all the first born of Egypt. How can apologists pretend that the Bible is a morally superior document?

Avalos’ skewering of Copan is complete:

“(He) forgets that sacrifice of a son is the foundation of Christianity. After all, Jesus Christ is viewed as the only-begotten son of God, who must be sacrificed to redeem the world because of ‘love’ (John 3:16). Christ’s sacrifice is premised on the sort of blood-magic inherited from the ancient Near East…Christians might claim that their god has the authority to order sacrifice, but this claim is no more verifiable than that of any other religion that practices human sacrifice.” (p. 227)

At the outset of his essay, Avalos notes that Copan and other apologist have their knickers in a twist because of the so-called New Atheism. What a fright to have blockbuster atheist books (e.g., Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris) on the best-seller lists. The only “new” thing about this atheism is that it is so in-your-face, with many other authors in their wake adding their voices. By my own count—by no means complete—there are now well more than 300 titles in this bibliography, books that have appeared since the 1990s (my own term for it is The-Cure-for-Christianity Library©).

Avalos notes three reasons that the apologetic counter-attack is not up to the task.

• “Copan’s critique of the New Atheism fails philosophically and also in matters of simple factuality…his comparisons between eastern Near Eastern law and biblical law are devoid of a thorough reading of ancient Near Eastern legal materials. Talk of superiority or advancement in the Bible is illusory once Copan’s ethnocentricity and religiocentrism are exposed. We can find dramatic regressions in biblical law (slavery is worse in the NT relative to Amos).” (p. 234)

• “Copan misses the threat of the New Atheism, if there is such a thing. The greatest threat will not be a Hitchens, a Dawkins, or a Harris. Rather it will be highly trained biblical scholars who are former Christian apologists. It is they who know best where the rotting corpses of biblical ethics are buried.” (p. 234)

• “The judgment that what God commands is good also a human judgment. So Christians are not doing anything except mystifying and complicating morality. Christians are simply projecting what they call ‘good’ onto a supernatural being. They offer us no evidence that their notion of good comes from outside of themselves. And that is where the danger lies. Basing a moral system on unverifiable supernatural beings only creates more violence and endangers our species.” (p. 233)

Intent on bucking up their base, trying to secure their target markets, apologists seem not to notice that so many serious thinkers don’t buy it. Valerie Tarico, in a recent interview with David Fitzgerald on the dishonesty of Lee Strobel, speaks the truth:

“…there is a broad, ugly pattern of Christian leaders with thinly veiled secrets and people looking the other way because they don’t want to interfere with God’s work. There’s also a broad, ugly pattern of stretching the truth—or breaking with truth—to advance the cause of Christ.”

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The-Cure-for-Christianity Library© is here.