A Little Defense, Part I

“I just don’t get it!” Tommy leans forward with his elbows on the table and shakes his head emphatically. “Why would you root for Gandalf? He’s a terrible wizard. I mean, he gives Frodo the ring, fully aware that nine murderous wraiths are looking for it, and then leaves him with his slow, fat gardener in arguably the most defenceless country on Middle Earth! Now, Saruman, he’s a real hero. He clearly cares for the well-being of the hobbits, even loves his enemies! Like when Gandalf pays him a visit, and Saruman lets him have an entire tower to himself. If that’s not hospitality, I don’t know what is. And speaking of great wizards, that Sauron fellow is quite the tragic hero. If you’re going to root for somebody, root for him.”

While Tommy makes some kind of reasonable argument for the short-sightedness of the Grey Wizard, it becomes apparent in his next few statements that my fictional friend has misunderstood Tolkien’s epic fantasy. Indeed, one might suggest Tommy ought to read the books again. It is a surprisingly common blunder, especially in today’s age of omniscient Wikipedia and godlike Google, to reach assumptions based on a quick skim of the text in question, one or two expert Internet searches, and a whole bunch of human heuristics. [1] But as with Tommy’s unfortunate interpretation of heroism in The Lord of the Rings, our assumptions often render us rather ignorant (or morally questionable). Here is another such statement, cosseted zealously among skeptics of faith, and which stranger and friend alike enjoy putting to me upon the discovery that I am a Christian: “Jesus and the God of the Old Testament,” they say, “are nothing alike. Sure, Jesus is a likeable guy, like Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Teresa. But how can you Christians claim to follow a god who is unforgiving and unkind, vicious and violent?” The short answer is, He isn’t.

At this point, I am sure some of you are saying, “Now wait a minute. What about those stories in the OT? Surely you aren’t saying that a god who orders the extermination of entire cities is a good god.” My instinctive reply would be to invite you to tea, pull out my Bible, and read through whatever story it is you are talking about. We human beings are dangerously fond of shortcuts and succinct summaries that gloss over detail and context. You’ve experienced this before. Just remember that ten-page paper you had to write in your undergrad, [2] and the irresistible temptation to scan Wikipedia for evidence that the fall of Rome was primarily caused by bickering, licentious old men with sensitive egos. If we sat down and worked through the tricky stories in the OT, I am sure we would both come to a better understanding of the Christian God. I cannot guarantee that you will jump up from your seat, raise your arms to the heavens, and exclaim, “Lord Almighty, I believe!” But here is the point: wouldn’t you much rather be an informed doubter than an ignorant skeptic?

Unfortunately, at this present moment, we cannot embark on our intensive tea-and-testament-trailblazing together. [3] So, instead, I will attempt to make the case for the first of what will become a three-point argument: that the OT God is not unforgiving or unkind or vicious. The OT God is good

So, is the God of the OT really all fire and brimstone? Here’s what Richard Dawkins, British poster boy of the New Atheism, has to say about it:

The oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, and the clear ancestor of the other two, is Judaism: originally a tribal cult of a single fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, and with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his chosen desert tribe. (The God Delusion, 37)

Dawkins is particularly fascinated with the idea of God as a sort of possessive lover haplessly attached to a flirtatious spouse. For him, the story of the golden calf is the calamitous dark child of bedroom farce.

In that story, Moses, appointed prophet of the Israelite people, has just returned from a forty-day sojourn on Mount Sinai. As he approaches the Israelite campsite, the sound of noisy singing reaches his ear, so loud that at first, Moses’ friend Joshua mistakes it for the clamor of war. In fact, it is not fighting, but dancing. Moses discovers that the Israelites have melted their golden earrings into a statue of a calf and are now dancing joyously around it. Angered by their infidelity, he rallies a remnant of faithful Israelites and orders them, by God’s command, to “each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor” (Exodus 32:27, ESV). Dawkins writes, “This amounted to about three thousand, which, one might have hoped, would have been enough to assuage God’s jealous sulk. But no, God wasn’t finished yet. In the last verse of this terrible chapter his parting shot was to send a plague upon what was left of the people ‘because they made a calf’” (245). Alright, so here’s over three thousand Israelites murdered, the rest horribly ill, and one jealous, sulky God. How are we to understand it all?

Before I go on, I should perhaps point out that our discussions on the nature of God have little, if any, influence on His existence. You can (and, if I haven’t yet lost your kindly opinion of me, you probably would) dissuade me from committing my life to such a “fiercely unpleasant God,” but that will not stop me from believing He is real. Indeed, the artful little demons fluttering about us would probably like to think that God is cruel and unjust, yet they waste no time in whisking away at the very mention of His name. A mean god is not necessarily a false one. We humans resist the idea of serving an immoral deity, and would likely be better off ignoring one, too. But, as I will try to show in the following section, the OT God is not unjust or immoral at all. Unfortunately for Dawkins, I’m afraid He can be quite fiercely unpleasant, in a similar way to a wife being fiercely unpleasant as she criticizes her husband’s latest philandering antics.

Which brings me back to Dawkins’ sulky, jealous god. It is curious, isn’t it, that we humans feel keenly the unfaithfulness of a loved one? We feel as though he or she has broken trust, has flouted an important and sacred promise. Infidelity hurts. Now, humour me for a moment, and try to imagine that you are a god. (If you’re anything like me, it can’t be that hard.) Once you’ve gotten the hang of being the Most Important and Powerful Person in the Entire Universe, you can create your first intelligent being. “Now, look here,” you say, “I have made you and the world you live in. I am your Creator.” The creature nods and smiles. It seems fairly agreeable. The next day, it produces a hammer and, before your very eyes, beats out the image of a cow. “Here is my god!” it cries importantly, and proceeds to salsa around it.

I think you have every right, at that point, to sulk. But Dawkins is being uncharacteristically delicate when he calls God’s reaction to the golden calf a “jealous sulk.” In the Biblical passage, God describes His own reaction like this: “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them” (Exodus 32:10, ESV). That sounds nothing like a sulk. In fact, that is an extremely wrathful God. What have the Israelites done to provoke such anger?

If I were married, I should like my husband to acknowledge my existence and position in his heart as Wonderful, Wise, and Only Beloved. I should think the Most Important and Powerful Person in the Universe has a much greater claim upon the recognition and devotion of His creation.

To some extent, the skeptic’s limited understanding of God’s nature derives from a limited understanding of what being God actually means. One cannot expect to understand how God can choose to take away life when and as He pleases, cannot possibly conceive the gravity of our “little sins” against Him, if we are to treat God as we would a human being. After all, when a human takes away life, we are outraged. Contrariwise, when my little brother cooks up an improbable explanation for the disappearance of the last double-chocolate cookie in the pantry, I am expected to forgive him. But God isn’t a human. He creates, defines, and decides. Even Camille, an hubristic university student with practically unbendable knees, has had to wrestle with the idea of an absolutely independent, sovereign God. But by definition, any other kind of “god” wouldn’t be one. To this argument one atheist website sarcastically notes, “Because God is God, he gets a free pass.” [4] Well, yes, He does, except it isn’t really a free pass if He’s the one driving the bus.

[1] If my career in psychology has taught me anything, it is how incredibly biased and faulty our toolbox of reasoning actually is.

[2] As useful as Wikipedia may be, I quickly discovered that one appealing little link (“ancient winemaking techniques”) can hurtle you down the most terrifying of rabbit holes. 

[3] You are, however, very welcome to a cup of tea and a good book on this whole Christianity thing. I would recommend Mere Christianity for starters. It is always healthy to read up on people who “fought for the other side” before deciding to convert. Also, C.S. Lewis loved food. You can always trust a man with a healthy appetite. Speaking of, Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God and Andy Bannister’s The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist are also very good food for thought.

[4] Gerenscer, Bruce (2013, Dec 1). “John Piper’s Defense of the Genocidal Christian God” [Web log post]. Retrieved from Calulu, Suzanne. (2013, Dec 1). Retrieved May 14, 2018, from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nolongerquivering/2013/12/john-pipers-defense-of-the-genocidal-christian-god/.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *