Atheists contend God is a moral monster based on his actions in the Old Testament. Greg Koukl, President of the organization Stand to Reason, wrote an excellent article called “Can God Kill the Innocent?” Since my next two posts will deal with this issue I thought I’d reproduce highlights from that article.
The broader question is asked much more frequently, “How is it that God could allow the annihilation of thousands and thousands of people, whether that annihilation was through war or natural disaster? In fact, how is it that God could even command such a thing in the Old Testament if it is immoral to take the life of an innocent human being? How does it suddenly become moral because God Himself commands such a thing?”
My answer is simply this: How is it that God can allow the taking of life of innocent people? The answer is that God, being the Author of life, has the absolute right to take life away whenever He wants to. Simply put, He gives life, He takes it away. Life is His to do with what He wants. He can give it, as the Author, and as the Author, He can take it away again.
Now it may sound like I'm simply reducing God's morality to His power. He can do what He wants because He is God. That's not what I am saying because I don't think taking innocent life is patently, on the face of it, immoral. It is immoral when it is done by certain people, and not immoral when it is done by others–or Another.
I am merely stating that there are certain things which are clearly God's prerogative. Can God create something and then destroy what He's created? Yes, He can do as He wishes, though His wishes are constrained by His character so He can't wish something that is immoral or inconsistent with His character. And there is nothing patently immoral about the Creator of life taking away life. It's immoral for us because when we take life, usually we are exercising a prerogative reserved for God alone.
There are a few circumstances where He delegates that power to us, specifically in my view, capital punishment. We know this intuitively, folks, because when men seek to make life and death decisions for others, what do we tell them? We say, “It's not right for you to ‘play God.'” Well, of course it's not right for man to play God, but it implies that it is right for God to play God , and that's my point.
My point is simply this: we intuitively know that man and God have different prerogatives. It is inappropriate for men to take innocent life simply because we are robbing other human beings of a God-given gift and we are not to play God in that regard. But clearly God can play God. It is His role and He is not robbing when He takes away what He has given in the first place. It is something that is under His appropriate control. He can take a life anytime He wants. Taking innocent human life is wrong for us, because taking life is God's prerogative, not ours, which means it is appropriate for Him to do it, not us, and He can dispense and retract life whenever He pleases.
Part of the problem here is that we want to hold God to the same standard of morality He holds us to, as if the standard is above us both and man and God are on equal terms when it comes to behavior. Whatever we can't do, God shouldn't be allowed to do either. But every parent knows that such an arrangement is just plain false. If we are not parents and we reflect for a moment, we realize that there are some moral rules that apply equally to all human beings and the moral rule does not discriminate between different human beings. That's the kind of moral rule it is. We ought not murder, and that doesn't change whether we are adults or children. Children ought not murder other human beings, nor should adults murder other human beings.
However, it is also true that there are things that are immoral for children that are not immoral for adults. Children ought to obey adults. Adults ought not obey children. It just doesn't work that way. So it seems clear from this illustration that there are some prerogatives that individuals have in life that changes the moral requirements of that individual.
By the same token, there are some things that are true for us as being moral because they are true for God. It is wrong to lie, because God is a truthful God and He doesn't lie because there is no deceit in His nature. And that moral quality then becomes incumbent upon us. So in a sense, the moral rule applies to both God and man although I want to be careful, you understand, when I say it applies to man that man has to answer to the rule. When I say it applies to God, I'm not saying that God has to answer to the rule. It only applies to Him in that He is a moral being who lives without deceit and so He exemplifies the rule, He is not beholden to the rule. The rule is for us. But in one sense, both God and man have the rule in their sphere.
However, what about the rule thou shalt not kill? That's a different kind of rule. That is a rule that applies to human beings because the taking and giving of life is not our prerogative so it is immoral for us to do that. But the taking and giving of life is God's prerogative, so it is not immoral for Him to exercise the same thing. He can give and take life at His whim, if that's what it amounts to, because He is God. Human beings can't do it because we are not exercising our prerogatives. That is solely God's prerogative. In the same way that parents have certain prerogatives that children do not have, God has prerogatives that humans don't have.
I think that is the key to unlocking this very tricky issue, at least it may seem so initially. How do we justify the taking of what seems to be innocent life in the Old Testament by God directly or indirectly through floods and earthquakes and things like that, or through the mediation of a go-between in the time of the Old Testament like the nation of Israel going into a country and killing all men, women and children? I think this speaks well to that issue.
God is the author of life, therefore He has the prerogative to take life whenever He wants. That is His prerogative. It is only immoral when human beings exercise prerogatives that are not theirs, that are God's alone.
Thanks Greg for an insightful article. My next few posts will use these insights to help me make the case God is not a moral monster.