One of the distinguishing marks of the new atheists is that they not only think religion is false, but that it is dangerous and immoral too. Even God himself is not above their judgment. They regularly chide the God of the Bible as being a moral monster! They accuse Him of being pro-genocide, anti-women, pro-rape, pro-slavery, etc. Rather than the paradigm of moral goodness, God is an evil despot that is to be shunned. You know it’s a bad day when even God is evil!
Is what they say true? Is God – particularly as He is portrayed in the OT – morally evil? Many Christians are sympathetic to this charge because they themselves struggle to understand God’s actions and commands, particularly as revealed in the OT. Thankfully there have been some well-written responses to the problem of “theistic evil” written in recent years to dispel this negative portrait of God.
Philosopher and theologian, Paul Copan, has written an excellent book on the topic called Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. He tackles the following subjects:
- Divine arrogance and jealousy
- The binding of Isaac
- Weird OT laws such as kosher foods
- Harsh penalties for seemingly minor offenses
- Laws regarding semen, menstrual blood, and sexual mores
- Lex talionis
- Infant sacrifice
- Conquest of Canaan
Copan does a great job of showing how the OT Law was a major improvement over the law codes of other ancient-near-eastern nations. The Law was never intended to be the moral ideal. God was working within the culture to raise it to a higher moral standard. “He adapted his ideals to a people whose attitudes and actions were influenced by deeply flawed structures” for the purpose of humanizing that culture incrementally.
The great thing about Copan’s book is that he is thorough: all of the relevant OT texts related to these topics are addressed. And he does a good job demonstrating how the picture painted by the new atheists is not accurate. In short, Copan demonstrates that a closer reading of the text in its linguistic and historical context makes it clear that God is not the moral monster many have made Him out to be.
OT scholar, David Lamb, has also written a book on the so-called problem of theistic evil titled God Behaving Badly. He addresses some of the same topics as Copan, but from a different perspective and in a different manner. Lamb’s book is more conversational, and not nearly as technical and detailed as Copan’s. It’s more of a light-hearted approach to a heavy-hearted issue, with humor injected throughout the book. Lamb does an excellent job showing how people (including Christians) who see the God of the OT as a mean, angry ogre are badly misinterpreting the Bible. While God did exercise judgment in the OT, we often see God being kind, generous, patient, and loving. If you think the “God of the OT’ is mean while the “God of the NT” is nice, you need to read this book.
Both books are good contributions to the subject, and I would highly recommend them to both Christians and atheists/agnostics alike.