A lot of Bible skeptics accuse Scripture of portraying a God who, if He existed and did what was recorded of Him, would be deeply immoral. Many Christians struggle to answer these arguments, and some try to draw a distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament to avoid these hard questions. But this approach is flawed, because the same God inspired the Old Testament and the New Testament. Indeed, both Testaments teach that God is loving and patient, but also cannot abide sin. Also, Christ Himself affirmed the Old Testament (e.g. Luke 24:44–47, John 10:35).1 Furthermore, it is unnecessary, because the skeptics’ attacks are based on fundamental misunderstandings.
There is no passage where God condones actual human sacrifice. In fact, some of the worst condemnation in the Bible is directed at those who sacrifice their children to Moloch (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 32:34–35)—and archaeological evidence shows that these were usually infants. When the Israelites disobeyed God and sacrificed their sons and daughters, the Bible says they sacrificed them to demons (Psalm 106:37).
Human sacrifice is detestable to God because it falls into the category of murder—intentional killing of innocent human beings, which is always condemned. But skeptics cite a number of passages that they claim command human sacrifice.
In Genesis 22:1–8, Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac. That this was a test and that God never intended for Abraham to harm his son doesn’t make any difference in the minds of the skeptics. But there are several things to consider in this case. By this time, Abraham was an old man, and Isaac was probably a teenager or young adult who could have struggled and escaped if he wanted to. That Abraham was able to bind him and put him on the altar suggests that Isaac was cooperating.
Also, Abraham himself didn’t expect Isaac to die, or at least, he expected that God would raise him from the dead. Abraham told his servants that he and his son would return (Genesis 22:5). God had promised Abraham that He would build a great nation through Isaac, so the only options were that God would provide another sacrifice at the last minute (as eventually happened) or that God would resurrect Isaac. As Hebrews 11:17–19 says about this passage:
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
In Exodus 13:1–2; 11–16, God gives instructions for the consecration of the firstborn. Some skeptics misread this as commanding the killing of firstborn sons. But this is actually commanding animal sacrifices to redeem the firstborn children. Notice in verse 13 where it provides for the redemption of donkeys (which were unclean and therefore could not be sacrificed), it says that an unredeemed donkey should have its neck broken; however, there is no such option for sons. Rather, sons must be redeemed with a lamb. And later this command is changed to apply to all the Levites instead of the firstborn of every person (Numbers 3:11–13).
Leviticus 27:28 lists people as one thing that can be ‘devoted to the Lord’—some skeptics say that this means that the person was sacrificed. But this is only one form of ‘devotion’—lifelong Temple service and vows like the Nazirite vow are others (Numbers 6; 1 Samuel 1: 10–11). So this has to be read in the context of what is actually allowed to be sacrificed, and in the context, it’s talking about someone who is devoted to lifelong Temple service. For example, this was likely the fate of Jephthah’s daughter after his rash vow (Judges 11:29–40). This would explain why she bewailed her virginity and thus the extinction of her father’s lineage, not her impending death.
The next verse says, “No one devoted, who is to be devoted for destruction from mankind, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 27:29). This is talking about someone who has been sentenced to death for breaking one of the capital offences of the Law—their sentence cannot be commuted.
Genocide and war crimes?
Wars between people groups dominate ancient history, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the Old Testament records a lot of wars. But some skeptics object to some of the commands God gave for the Israelite’s conquest of the Promised Land, i.e. Canaan.
Probably the most cited ‘atrocity’ is the Lord’s command to destroy the Amalekites totally, including their women, children, and property. However, God commanded their destruction because they had opposed Israel when they came up out of Egypt. Deuteronomy says, “Remember what Amalek did to you as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God” (Deuteronomy 25:17–18, 1 Samuel 15:2–3). God swore that He would utterly destroy them (Exodus 17). They were going to be driven out of the Promised Land and replaced by Israel because of their sins—which included heinous immorality and child sacrifice. This was God’s judgment against them—Israel was merely God’s agent for that judgment—and so Israel was to destroy everything completely and not take any of it for themselves. When Saul and his army spared King Agag and took some livestock, it was such a serious offence that God in turn judged Saul and permanently removed His favour from him (1 Samuel 15 ff.). In fact, some Amalekites were left in other locations—David defeated a raiding party of Amalekites in 1 Samuel 30.
God’s action against the Amalekites is only immoral to those who do not recognize God’s right to judge the people He created when they rebel against Him. God has the right to deal with His creations the way He chooses (people said to be ‘playing God’ usurp these privileges). In fact, God warned the Israelites that if they practised the abominations of the Canaanites, they would be driven out of the land as well (Deuteronomy 29:18–28).
Moral standards require the existence of a good God
When atheists attack the morality of the Bible, it is important to ask where their standard for right and wrong comes from. Christians believe that God Himself is the standard; because He is the Creator, He gets to say what is right and wrong. And He does not do so arbitrarily; right and wrong are defined primarily by how they align with or oppose God’s own nature.2 The atheist has no objective standard for morality, so he cannot appeal to an authority over a person’s or group’s subjective opinions. And if their standard is subjective, they have no basis for imposing it on others, let alone on people who lived in a vastly different time and place.
A loving God speaking and acting in a fallen world
Many of the things in the Bible that people object to are objectionable. Many of the things that disturb us when we read Judges or Deuteronomy should disturb us, and should remind us of the Fall. But we should remember that not everything reported in the Bible is approved by the Bible. Many times when He gives the Law, God takes our hardness of heart into account (Matthew 19:8) and this means that a lesser evil is allowed to prevent a greater evil from occurring. But at the same time, we see God revealing more and more of Himself, and setting out a trajectory that will ultimately lead to the elimination of all evil (Revelation 21–22).
"A lot of Bible skeptics accuse Scripture of portraying a God who, if He existed and did what was recorded of Him, would be deeply immoral."
Well let’s presume as atheists do, that God does not exist and that all mankind was created by the concept of evolution, and see where that line of reasoning leads us. It leads us to the conclusion that the whole of Scripture must be a God myth, a lie that evolved in the minds of mankind. Can atheists tell us how they came to fabricate this God Lie who is so deeply immoral in their view, that He cannot possibly exist? After all, it is logical to conclude that a non-existent God has no ability to think, let alone direct mankind to do evil as atheists claim. “I think, therefore I am.” — René Descartes. “I AM, who I AM” — God to Moses.
God says in the Bible: “Do not commit murder” and “Do not bear false witness (lie and deceive)”. On the other hand, atheists claim their evolution creator is unintelligent, does not think, and does preclude evils such as lying and murder, if it is in the cause of self-interest and survival. Why do atheists claim God is deeply immoral, for forbidding humans to do the very things which their evolution god sanctions?
Peter B., Australia, 16 March 2014
If God was so loving he surely would have mended the world by now.
Lita Cosner responds
Just a quick thought: part of God mending the world will be to judge the evil deeds of sinful people. But God has not saved all the sinful people He intends to. So the Bible teaches that one reason Christ delays His return is so that He can save every single person who is going to believe in Him.
james p H., Australia, 17 March 2014
atheists love to cherry-pick bits and pieces out of the Bible and use those out-of-context passages to try and denigrate the entire text.....even though the validity of such an approach is dubious *unless* you concede the validity of major portions of the Bible to start with.....(why should they care what a non-existent God commands any-way?)
of course, they don't want any-thing to do with the innumerable Scripture passages that might convict them of sin and highlight where they actually stand before a holy God....so.....they never mention those.....
Victor B., Australia, 17 March 2014
Hi Lita - Why I agree with what you say about "human sacrifice" (and murder) for his creatures - humans (ie he does not condone it and he detests it). We need to remember that the Father sent his son (the Lord Jesus) to be a human sacrifice (He was a descendent of Adam yet without sin) and the Lord Jesus willing laid down his life for sinners. Indeed we are told that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. To forget this is to forget the "Good News" and the awesome love of God for us. Those who would say that "God is a moral monster" such as Christopher Hitchens, actually argue that the cross (the sacrifice of Jesus and necessity of the cross) is morally henious. Yet they fail to see that all their accusations are without substance for in the cross is God's righteousness revealed. (Romans 5:8)
Bob S., United States, 17 March 2014
Every skeptical attack against Scripture is based on made-up stuff. Take away the assumptions, lies, stories, and logical fallacies and the attacks of the skeptics fall apart. Here is another example to be added to the pile. One could also add that, without God, morality is arbitrary, which is the whole point of skepticism. "Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil." John 3:19
James L., United Kingdom, 17 March 2014
I think it is completely hypocritical for Atheists to pass moral judgments on what the Bible claims the way God has acted in both old and new testaments (but especially the old testament) when because they don't even believe in his existence have absolutely no moral right to say anything that the Bible records of him doing or what anyone else does or says is wrong.
Doug L., United States, 17 March 2014
I've recently had online "discussions" with a couple of atheists who try to sell the idea that God is immoral because he condones, in their words, mass murder, rape, and slavery. You covered the charge of murder very well. I might only add that murder is the taking of a life which does not belong to you. The Creator, being the giver of all life, owns those lives. Taking those lives back is not murder. And whether or not Jephthah actually killed his daughter is irrelevant because he took that on himself to do. "Every man did that which was right in his own eyes." Nowhere did God condone Jephthah's rash vow.
Slavery is another issue they try to use to disparage the Bible. It does implicitly condone some types of slavery, namely when people knowingly forfeit their freedom. But the kidnapping of people and selling into slavery, as was done by slave traders of 200 years ago was punishable by death:
Exodus 21:16, "He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death."
I think a lot of Christians forget the salient point about slavery. We are all slaves already: either we choose to be slaves to sin or we choose to become slaves to Christ. Our contemporary abhorrence of "slavery" is ridiculously hypocritical because of that since we all choose a much higher form of slavery anyway!
You didn't cover the charge of "rape" being condoned in the OT. I know there are other good articles about that here. Skeptics/atheists use the instance where the Israelites were allowed to take women as captives, Numbers 31, as well as the debacle concerning Benjamin in Judges. But the women in Numbers 31 were given as wives, not rape victims, and the insanity in Judges was not God's command.
Just wanted to add my 2 cents worth! :0
Robert B., Australia, 17 March 2014
Those who criticise God of being immoral have not read the entirety of His word.
But they do not need to read the entirety.
If they study just the 300 or so verses where "heart"
and the 600 or so verses where "love" is mentioned (numbers based on my 1985 NIV Bible) they will acknowledge that God is absolutely moral and that he loves Man.
Lita Cosner responds
Thanks for this comment; however, I disagree. The entirety of Scripture is absolutely necessary to tell us how God is loving. For instance, sometimes He loves His people by punishing those that seek their harm, and the punishment, seen in isolation, may not look particularly loving. And of course, the ultimate way God has shown His love for us is by sending Jesus to atone for our sins.
Cody G., Canada, 18 March 2014
I heard a skeptic suggest that Numbers 31 essentially implies the rape of virgin women as a spoil of war for the Israelite men, but it seems to me that this was not a command given by God. And even so, could the passage not be interpreted as the men taking those women into marriage?
Lita Cosner responds
Numbers 31 does not feature rape at all. In fact, since girls were married very early in most ancient cultures, most of the 32,000 girls were probably prepubescent, and many too young to even contribute significantly to household work. These girls were mercifully absorbed into Israel rather than killed.
Leonie E., Australia, 18 March 2014
Peter, if you truly believe it is better to have free choice than to be a robot, then you must know that we are God's ultimate creation.
We have that free choice.
We made the mess, and you expect God to clean it up?
We keep making the mess, and you expect God to clean it up?
I have a daughter. Once she was old enough to clean up after herself, she had to do so. I would not do it for her.
I love my daughter. If the mess is truly too big or perhaps as a surprise present, I will help or do it all myself, and God does the same thing, in our lives, on occasions.
But we keep making messes.
There will come a point where God intervenes. Just not yet.
Who are you, you who are definitely NOT God, to say what He should or should not do and when? Would you clean up your child's mess when he/she demands it?
Lita Cosner responds
Thanks for this comment. However, the point is that we can't 'clean up our mess'. Adam couldn't fix the result of one sin, and humans haven't stopped sinning since! So while we certainly can't blame God when He doesn't intervene as soon as we'd like, and any effort to try to reverse the effects of the curse on a local level (like medicine, for instance) is laudable, we can't expect any lasting victory apart from Christ's work.
Steven M., Australia, 18 March 2014
The passage about Jephthah’s daughter has always puzzled me. I would like to think you are right. Can you expand on the verse that states it is a burnt offering.
Lita Cosner responds
Steven, the tragic part of Jephthah's vow seems to be that his daughter remained a virgin (and since she was his only child, that meant the 'death' of his line). If he truly had sacrificed a human being, the biblical account would have surely expressed more horror at the scene, similar to Judges 19. If Jephthah had committed such a terrible offense against the Lord, it is doubtful that he would have been included in the list in Hebrews 11.
T. L., United States, 19 March 2014
The bible is full of terrible acts supposedly comited by God - the killing of children, the horrible destruction of mankind and the world in the last days. How can anyone think from the teachings of the Bible that God is a loving one? Maybe there is a god but not the one described in the bible.
Lita Cosner responds
Terry, did you read the article? That's precisely the question we aim to answer.
Conrado Jr D., Philippines, 19 March 2014
I am a creationist, and I do believe that God is no monster, that we are clay, and He is the Potter.
However, i would like to inquire regarding the events in Judges 11, when Jephthah makes a vow to sacrifice as a burnt offering whosoever cometh first to meet him, and to his dismay - his only daughter.
how are we then to treat this? There is no mention of God nor His response to this vow in the entire passage, yet we read that it has been carried out the way Jephthah vowed to God.
Lita Cosner responds
The tragic part of Jephthah's vow seems to be that his daughter remained a virgin (and since she was his only child, that meant the 'death' of his line). If he truly had sacrificed a human being, the biblical account would have surely expressed more horror at the scene, similar to Judges 19. If Jephthah had committed such a terrible offense against the Lord, it is doubtful that he would have been included in the list in Hebrews 11.
Kent H., Australia, 20 March 2014
It surprises me that the book by this title, which discusses the same categories as this article, doesn't appear to be acknowledged. Sorry of I missed it. It's a good and would help the reader.
Lita Cosner responds
Thanks for this. The book was not a source (and I didn't even know that it existed when I wrote the article).
John W., Australia, 20 March 2014
Recently listened to part of a talk by Ravi Zacharias entitled "Is Faith Delusional?". Ravi points out that the same skeptics who attack the Biblical God and claim He is a vicious and fictitious character also believe that humanity is basically a morally "good" species. If all the atrocities of the Biblical God are attributable to a fictitious "projection" of human cultural "memes", then anti-theists, like Richard Dawkins are left with a difficult problem - the human species they idolise becomes the "prime suspect" for the very crimes listed in Dawkins' indictment of the God of the Old Testament!
Friedrich Nietzsche's "God is dead" ethical nihilism is a vastly more frank analysis of the ethical implications of Darwinism than is Herbert Spencer's forced marriage of the evolutionary hypothesis to 18th- and 19th-Century notions of Utilitarian ethics and inevitable cultural and moral "progress" of the human species.
Landi K., Australia, 21 March 2014
For all who would like to see God fix the world's problems (which, incidentally, WE have created) ...... how many are confident that they would survive His righteous judgement?
Gerald S., Austria, 21 March 2014
@Terry: " ... Why do atheists claim God is deeply immoral, for forbidding humans to do the very things which their evolution god sanctions?"
Right on! The believers's task is NOT to primarily criticize all the evil in the world, because then he would have to leave it (compare with 1. Cor. 5:10). The believers's task is to expose the world of it's contradictions.
Thanks for your input,
ian B., United Kingdom, 21 March 2014
Hello Lita , although you say God is not into human sacrifice , one of your commentators did mention Jesus and what about Samson? Who only asked God for His strength back so he could end his life and many of his enemies at the same time. Wasn't this a sacrifice? (It was certainly God assisted suicide) What about those who Paul in 1 Cor 13 writes about " If I give up my body to be burned but have not love...which refers to the Roman way of dealing with many Christians..Isn't this attesting to the possibility of our sacrifice and conditioning us to turn it into an acceptable thing by doing it out of love....what about the seas of martyrs demanding justice..were they not "sacrificed". Tricky one, God may well need the sacrifice of our lives to fill up the sins of the world...
Lita Cosner responds
Ian, when I talk about God condemning human sacrifice, it is the murder of an unwilling, usually infant, innocent person to try to placate God or to compel Him to do something on behalf of the person offering the sacrifice. There is a world of difference between that, and for instance, Samson's death, which could be considered a 'sacrifice' in one sense, but certainly not in the sense of a Temple sacrifice.
And the sacrifice of Jesus is a sacrifice, but a unique one. First, Jesus was qualified to be a perfect sacrifice because He was both sinless and holy (the two are related but different--sinless means that He lacked anything offensive to God, and holy means He positively fulfilled God's commands perfectly). Second, Jesus was a willing sacrifice--He was not forced. Third, Jesus was an adequate sacrifice--His sacrifice makes all other sacrifices unnecessary.
The case of Christian martyrdom is a sort of 'sacrifice' but again not in the sense of a temple sacrifice. And the people who kill the martyrs are committing a terrible sin.
Christine E., United States, 21 March 2014
to Terry P., if it weren't for God we wouldn't have the morality you draw on to condemn Him in the first place.
Roger P., United Kingdom, 21 March 2014
Lita is quite right. I have thought long and heard about Jepthah. It was the time of the Judges when, "every man did that which was right in his own eyes." This occurs three times in the book so God emphasizes it. Many people at that time had forgotten God and His Laws. They had become loathsome in following the abominations of the nations. On the other hand there were those, who one might describe as 'of an authoritarian state of mind'. Jepthah, according to his behaviour and his overweening self confidence, was one such person. He was almost over religious in making outrageous vows which would have been impossible to keep. Of course God had already provided a way out. The Levitical sacrifices provided for all this. See Levitcus chapter 27 where there is a fee for things vowed. Exodus chapter 30:11-16 also shows how the firstborn belonged to the Lord but had to be ransomed. In Numbers six we see that the Nazirite was dedicated to God. There was however a 'get out clause' in case anything went wrong and he 'defiled his Naiziriteship. So as with Isaac mentioned above in other responses, there was a get out by sacrifice.
Jeptha simply did not know the Low of God concerning these things. He had had a hard life being rejected by his kinsfolk so we may find an excuse for his obdurate and pig-headed manner. He was one of those decisive persons unable to admit they could be wrong and unable to ask advice. there were, after all some Godly persons at that time who did conduct themselves according to the Laws. Ruth, Naomi, Boaz and the elders of the town for instance in the book of Ruth. Jepthah could have asked a faithful Levite or Priest and offered the appropriate sacrifce according to their advice.
God does not stop men from their follies. We are all free and responsible.