Sunday, April 6, 2014

Whose problem is the OT's wrathful god?

So I was wasting time on the internet :), when I came across a piece on CNN's religion blog by author and Yale Divinity School associate professor Joel S. Baden, regarding the movie Noah -- and the problem of a vengeful, blood-thirsty god. It being unusual to see an honest acknowledgement that the topic even exists, much less followed by a discussion of it, my interest was piqued. It's a good discussion of some of the larger questions surrounding not only the flood story, but many aspects of the Bible.

In particular, Baden discusses the ever jarring contrast between the god of love and mercy and sunshine that modern Christianity references, and the god of blood-lust, vengance and darkness that the Old Testament reveals. He observes that "the merciful God reigns" today, but that this was not always the case.
The God of the Old Testament is not uniquely protective of children. After all, this is the same deity who commands the Israelites to slaughter their enemies, “man and woman, young and old.”
The same God who accepts without comment Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter, who allows children to be mauled by a bear for taunting one of his prophets, who threatens Israel with such devastating famine that they will be forced to eat their own infants.
Innocent lives are rarely a moral problem for Israel’s God.
Baden offers a good list. I suspect a comprehensive list of massacred children would be quite large. Off the top of my head, in addition to those Baden mentions above, and, of course, those wiped out during the flood, the Bible alleges that the following children were likewise butchered at the hands or command of god.
  • all of Egypt's firstborn, preceding the exodus
  • David and Bathsheba's firstborn
  • unruly children killed by their parents/city elders
  • numerous instances when god punished Israel with foreign conquerors/massacres

(Of note to pro-life Christians: these lists also ignore the incalculable fetuses, embryos and zygotes that your god is alleged to have massacred. If you're curious, I explore that topic more here).

At any rate, Baden is absolutely correct that the Biblical god is hardly the kindly creature of today's mainstream Christian theology. And, it's worth noting, even there he is no so kindly as it might at first seem. He's not just a god of deliverance and self-sacrifice and forgiveness and paradise forever after; he's also a god who decided that unbelievers deserve to be burnt for all time. He's a god, as the story goes, who metes out infinite punishment for finite crimes, a god who gives free will and exacts an impossibly heavy price for the exercise of it. Granted, there are Christians who downplay and even reject hell, who genuinely have a merciful god who offers a reward for his followers but does not demand a sadistic penalty for failure to comply; but such theology is -- alas -- in a minority among its peers.

Still, though, the Christian god who actively orders massacres and mutilations is nowadays relegated to pages of the old testament, and the minds of select psychopaths. So what are the moral implications of that? For those who -- as I saw recently stated, rather cleverly I thought -- "take the Bible too seriously to take it literally" the vengeful mass murderer of the Bible is the product of people attributing their own foibles, flaws and furies to a perfect deity. This is a view that I do not hold, but can at least respect. It is intellectually consistent in that God is and always has been loving/kindly/forgiving/merciful/etc. -- instances that allege otherwise are the result of human error, and do not reflect God's divine nature. It is a humane and non-harmful -- I've no doubt, for some people, very helpful -- philosophy. Fair enough. I don't believe it, but can respect it.

The other options are less easy to respect, however, because they are less consistent and very far from benign. Baden lays them out rather well, so I'll cover them one at a time.

One possibility is simply to take the Bible at its word: All of humanity, and indeed all of the animals too, was wicked, and even Noah was not entirely righteous but only the most righteous of his wicked generation, as an ancient Jewish tradition stated.

The moral problem is then not why everyone perished, but why — as the movie version asks — anyone was saved at all.
This option leaves an essential question unanswered, and is by its very nature horribly pessimistic and defeatist: we are a wretched species whose existence was only prolonged so that our ancestors, many years ago, could kill animals (also wretched beings) to appease our vengeful maker. This bleak understanding of humanity gives rise to its own set of problems -- not least among them, what sort of all-knowing, all-wise, all powerful creature would bring to life such a flawed and miserable set of creation, knowing from the get-go that it would do exactly the opposite of what he wanted, he'd get insanely pissed off at it, and eventually have to all-but wipe it out? Knowing from the beginning that his plan would be a failure, carrying through with it despite that knowledge, and then winding up angry and vengeful? It is completely illogical, and paints a portrait of a disturbed and foolish being -- not an all-knowing, wise one. And certainly not a merciful one.
Another possibility is to attribute a shift in personality to the deity: from wrathful to merciful, in line with the division between the Old and New Testaments.
For those who believe in a new dispensation with the arrival of Jesus, this option seems relatively easy. For those who don’t, not so much.

This is where Christianity often finds itself today -- that was god then, this is god now! This interpretation in turn gives rise to a host of its own problems, all as self-defeating as the original question. Religion often bolsters itself with the concept that, while other things may be temporal, God is eternal. Religious morality, eternal life, god, etc. -- these things are all eternal. It's a firmly held belief by many that moral relativity is a satanic construct devised and embraced by people who have lost sight of the eternal wisdom and unchanging nature of God and his laws. This absolutism, this claim to a definitive truth, is a core strength of religion's: "your godless secular ideas are temporary, our god-given ones are permanent."  Certainty is comfortable, uncertainty is not...but to admit that god changed his mind, that what was once right (massacring children, enslaving nonbelievers, etc.) is no longer is to admit that God's morality is not eternal. It is not constant. If God is changing, you've more or less gutted the last few millenniums of theological thinking. Not to mention contradicted the Bible multiple times ("I the Lord do not change" [Malachi 3:6], "God is not human, that he should lie,  not a human being, that he should change his mind" [Numbers 23:19], etc.). So short of embracing one of the other options listed,  this leaves you with two choices: either god is unchanging like the Bible says -- and thus the blood thirsty monster described -- or he has "changed", rendering the Bible and Christian theology since the inception of the religion a completely unreliable source for knowing your god -- since the unchanging nature of god is a cornerstone of that.

In other words, this view is entirely self-defeating: it either doesn't answer the dilemma it set out to answer, or it cuts even deeper to the core of that belief than the question it sought to nullify.
A third choice is to fall back — quite easily — on the essential unknowability of God.

We are not granted the same understanding or perception as is the deity. Which is to say: We have to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I cannot see this is something that can be done "quite easily" -- not while maintaining an intellectually honest or mature conversation. It is, essentially, the grown up version of the childhood cop-out "because".

"Why do you get to go first?" 
"How does massacring almost everyone in the world for behaving exactly as you knew they would when you created them make sense, God?"
For an argument like this one to work, definitive proof of the deity would be required. This is lacking. Furthermore, proof that the stories told in the Bible (or just about any holy book, for that matter -- these flaws, the petty vindictiveness attributed to supposedly divine and perfect beings, transcend specific faiths) were accurate would also be needed. Again, this is lacking.

Ideally, religious searching is a way to discover truth...not to shrug it off as unknowable. It's the ultimate cop-out. Instead of confronting the big questions that arise from an honest examination of most strains of Christian theology, it's simply sidestepping the question altogether with, "The answer -- indeed, whether it's even a question or not -- is beyond our knowing."

Unfortunately, this, or some hybrid of this and one of the aforementioned answers, is all too common. I think it is ultimately the worst answer of all those presented: whereas the others display faulty reasoning, this displays none. This is the "don't even try" solution.

While Baden doesn't offer an opinion on any of these choices, he concludes that

In other words, it is our changing concept of God, over two millennia, that is responsible for the moral dilemma. It’s our problem, not the Bible’s.
I think it's an interesting perspective, and I am inclined to agree in a sense. The Bible, as a piece of literature, is just a collection of stories, a chronicle of beliefs and myths mankind has held to for some time. That the brutal god it depicts comes into conflict with a god consistent with modern morality is not its problem, any more than it matters that that the morals held by the divine brutes of Greek mythology are squarely at odds with our morality. They are stories. The theology is what we build around them. It's our problem when we decide that those stories are meant to be read literally -- and that the immorality depicted therein must, somehow, be moral, because to be otherwise would be to conflict with the unmerited reverence our species has attached to a literal interpretation of those stories. When viewed as a collection of stories, the wrathful, blood-thirsty god of the Bible is just a character. Not a terribly likable one -- but are any of humanity's gods?

But if we take seriously the Bible's claim that it is truth -- which, really, is why there is even a conversation:  because enough people do that it impacts us all -- it becomes a moot point. It might not be the Bible's problem, per se, but it is Christianity's; and the two are so inseparable that it renders the distinction, while technically accurate, more or less devoid of meaning. Particularly to me, as an atheist who sees all religion as a product of humanity rather than divinity, the question is pointless. The Bible is a book, created by men. The theology attached to it is a philosophy, created by mankind. It is, all of it -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- ours. Of course, to a religiously minded individual, this might not be the case. Regardless of perspective, though, I'm not sure the distinction -- while technically true -- is necessarily useful.



  1. I think an additional rationale is being left out here, namely that moral law in Christianity has always been consistent, from the Old Testament to the New, and consists of only one command: "Obey God." In this view, acts have no inherent morality apart from how closely they hew to whatever God has commanded. Killing is only murder, and therefore wrong, if it violates God's command. That's why there are so many rules in the Old Testament -- you need rules for everything if the uber-rule is "Obey God".

    Note that in this case the people who are commanded to dash the heads of babies against rocks in the Bible are not evil or immoral, because God commanded them to do it. Abraham would not have been committing murder had he killed Isaac because he was following God's command. When God told him to stop seconds before it happened, however, it WOULD have been murder had he continued against God's command. That's why that episode is so key to the faith, it's a direct example of morality being derived from obedience.

    In the New Testament, we're given new orders. Jesus/God tells us it's all both much simpler and much more complicated. The new commandment is simply "love each other". That's easier to understand than the Byzantine labyrinth of instructions in the Old Testament on one hand, but it's also much harder because we have to interpret exactly which of our actions fulfill the still-in-force uber-commandment of "Obey God" through "loving each other". The burden has been shifted from simple obedience to all the rules to us having to sort of figure it out on our own. It's more vague, which puts more responsibility on us. But still, morality is based on obedience, it's just obedience to a much harder to understand order.

    Under this view, if God/Jesus comes by this afternoon and orders us to, say, set each other on fire, instead, then the moral act is to obey that command. Disobeying it in favor of "loving each other" becomes immoral.

    The only moral act is obeying God; the goodness comes from the obedience, not from anything inherent in the at itself.

    To me as an atheist/outsider, that's the most consistent way to understand Christian morality. It's consistent, it's clear, and it reconciles the Old and New Testaments. It's just utterly repulsive and not, I think, something modern Christians (especially Americans with our tradition of personal liberty) are prepared to accept.

    1. An excellent analysis of an additional option, Jeff. Thanks. As you say, that is both consistent and repulsive, so the mainstream appeal of consistency is more or less negated by the repugnant concessions it demands. I have actually heard this one used, but -- luckily -- rarely. I say luckily because, when someone has reached that level of immorality in the guise of morality, there's not much progress to be made.