Is God a ‘moral monster’?
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).