Is God a Moral Monster?

Cave Troll By Kevin Dooley
Cave Troll By Kevin Dooley
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser.” – Richard Dawkins

I imagine you’ve heard this quote before. If not, you’ve almost certainly come across its sentiment. Sadly, this kind of view of the God of the Old Testament is increasingly common, and regularly cited in debates about faith. It’s not restricted to atheistic antagonists either; many within the church struggle with some of the difficult, disturbing or confusing aspects of the Old Testament, and what they imply about the character of God. I was thrilled, therefore, to hear of Paul Copan’s latest offering, Is God a Moral Monster?

In this book, Copan interacts with the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris in a gracious but firm way, seeking to put the record straight about the God of the Old Testament. On the whole, it’s a well-written and brave book for which I am extremely grateful. Copan does us a great service by seeking to explain and celebrate many of the aspects of the Old Testament which might seem offensive, intolerant or downright weird.

His book’s detailed, highly readable and a great resource. He doesn’t ignore or avoid difficult texts. You’ll find gems left, right and centre, and the sheer robustness of his research should send a strong message to the New Atheists that we are willing to engage with their difficult questions, and the God of the Old Testament isn’t some peculiar relative of whom we’re slightly ashamed, and who, given half a chance, we would happily eradicate from the family tree! He’s the same holy, righteous, perfect, merciful God we see in the New Testament, revealed through Jesus.

You can read a brief summary of the kind of ground Copan covers here. I echo the many recommendations, but would just like to register a reservation or two:

Information Overload

This is possibly more of a problem with my limited mind than it is with Copan’s book. After all, I’d always rather there was too much info than not enough. This book is a vast sea of information, statistics, citations and theories, which gave me a couple of problems:

How on earth do I remember this stuff? I struggle with dates and names at the best of times (I still have to count on my fingers to remember my own age, and I haven’t even made it out of the 20s yet!) and there’s absolutely no hope of me remembering even a fraction of the panoply of details mentioned in the book. Thoroughness is no bad thing of course, but in amongst the vast sea of facts, I could have done with a few more clearly set out discussion points, broad principles or key questions to ask. The Study Guide is helpful for further reflection, but I could have done with a cribsheet. But then maybe I’m just lazy!

Also, I’m not likely to go away and check his sources since I don’t have copies of the Near Eastern Law Codes just lying around in my house! In fact, many of the ancient sources aren’t footnoted anyway. So whilst I trust the guy (he’s on my team after all!) I don’t feel I can replicate his arguments with full conviction.

This simply left me wondering: which of Copan’s arguments are worth me remembering and rehearsing, and which I’d feel comfortable using in discussion. I’m not one to gripe about thoroughness! I just think there’s a lot of supplementary thinking and reading work required if you want to apply some of this material with full conviction.

Caught in a Webb

My second point of concern was the reliance on William J. Webb’s Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic. If you’re not familiar with Webb’s work, I won’t try to unpack it too much here. Check out comments in Andrew Wilson’s post the other day, and reviews of Webb’s work by Wayne Grudem and Thomas Schreiner. Copan uses Webb’s trajectory hermeneutic to argue that God makes incremental steps towards the ideal, and we must read the OT laws in that light. It’s an attractive idea, and potentially a powerful way of dealing with some of the more tricky aspects of the OT! But for many of the reasons Grudem and Schreiner point out, I’m not fully comfortable with it as a hermeneutical tool, and if I’m not happy to use it in my everyday hermeneutics, I fear it would be duplicitous to do so in my apologetics!

Now obviously there is some value to Webb/Copan’s line of reasoning (see Jesus’ own words on divorce in Matt 19:3-12), so again, some further thinking will be required to determine how willing you are to use this line of reasoning, lest it take you on a trajectory towards some theological conclusions you may not be comfortable with! I’m not entirely sure I know the answer to that yet…

Also, just a word on tone: if we’re not careful, rather than sounding like an incremental improvement towards an ideal, it can actually come across like an incremental decreasing of compromise on the part of God; like He was happy to let things slip early on and do some dubious stuff, but after a while He decided it was time to stop compromising, pursue integrity and tell us what He really wanted all along! Obviously that’s something of a caricature, and not at all what Copan is suggesting… but if we aren’t careful in the way we frame a point like this, we can sound like we are dissing God’s character. So a little caution and careful wording would be advisable!

Dialling Down the Judgment

Thirdly, I felt that there were a few times when Copan was a little too quick to dial down some of the numbers and details in order to present a historical reconstruction that was a little easier to stomach. Whilst some of his comments on ANE bravado and hyperbole and the usage of ‘all women and children’ language were helpful, I’m not sure I fully bought all of his historical reconstructions. You have to have quite an imagination to read texts like Deuteronomy 25 and 1 Samuel 15 and come to the conclusion that ‘all’ really just means a few military men in a soldiers’ camp and absolutely no innocent civilians. Also whilst some theologians do claim that Onesimus was not a slave, but rather Philemon’s estranged biological brother, I’m not sure that’s the best way of dealing with the subject of slavery in the New Testament; dialling it down by removing one example!

Copan’s arguments were useful and generally well backed up, but I wouldn’t want to dial down the OT stories of wars and punishments so much that (a) we look like we’re in denial and (b) we lessen the force of texts that speak of God’s right to punish disobedience in this life or the next. On which, see Peter Leithart’s Jesus and the Ogre. 

A Regrettable Absence of Genital Mutilation

Not a sentence I ever thought I would write! But one of the subjects (perhaps the only subject) I felt Copan missed, and wished he had covered was that of circumcision. Hitchens is particularly vocal on the matter, especially in videos like this where he takes a rabbi to task in a rather personal and graphic manner for practising circumcision and making an unfortunate un-wise-crack about the subject! I wish Copan had taken a moment to deal briefly with this objection, which does carry some force.


All in all, I would highly recommend the book, and I have no doubt that much of the material will be helpful to many of us as we increasingly interact with these kinds of questions. But it’s not one of those books that will be immediately ‘regurgitatable’. It will require some thinking to decide what principles you’re happy to use, which sources you’re happy to cite, and what language you will use as you put across the arguments. If you’re ready to put in the work, I’m sure you’ll benefit from it… Then if you can produce a slim pocket-guide for oafs like me, I’ll be exceedingly grateful!

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