By Mark Coppenger
The current choir of atheists has taken up an old refrain, singing of their own moral superiority to those who follow the Bible. Not content to fault particular Christians for their shortcomings and hypocrisies, they presume to criticize the Bible itself, and even Jesus, for unsavory teachings and behavior. In this article, I will sketch some of the ethical charges made against Scripture and explain where they go wrong.
The Attack on the Bible’s Ethics
Bertrand Russell took this tack in his famous essay, “Why I am not a Christian.” Far from counting Christ worthy of worship, Russell found him a second-rank character. After scorning Jesus’ teachings on hell and his treatment of both the Gadarene swine and a fruitless fig tree, he concluded, “I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above him in those respects.”1
Richard Dawkins, in The God Delusion, trains his sights on the “ethnic cleansing” of the Promised Land, wherein Joshua and the Israelites took Jericho and a series of other Canaanite cities, putting all inhabitants to the sword. He says this military campaign is “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.”2 Then focusing on the execution of a Sabbath breaker, directed in Leviticus 20 and reported in Numbers 15, he marvels “that people today should base their lives on such an appalling role modal as Yahweh…”3 As for the implications of the Second Commandment (against graven images): “Rather than condemn the unspeakable vandalism of the Taliban, who dynamited the 150-foot-high Bamiyan Buddhas in the mountains of Afghanistan, we would praise them for their righteous piety.”4
In the best-selling God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens adds his voice of moral indignation. After rehearsing the slaughter of Egyptian children during the original Passover, the annihilation of rebellious Israelites at the foot of Sinai, the erasure of Amelikites, and the harsh and often curious intricacies of Mosaic Law, he concludes, “The Bible may, indeed, does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals.” 5
In The End of Faith, Sam Harris lumps Christianity in with other forms of religion, blaming them for gross insensitivity:
Faith drives a wedge between ethics and suffering. Where certain actions cause no suffering at all, religious dogmatists still maintain they are evil and worthy of punishment (sodomy, marijuana use, homosexuality, the killing of blastocysts, etc.). And yet, where suffering and death are found in abundance their causes are often deemed to be good (withholding funds for family planning in the third world, prosecuting nonviolent drug offenders, preventing stem cell research, etc.). This inversion of priorities not only victimizes innocent people and squanders scarce resources; it completely falsifies our ethics. It is time we found a more reasonable approach to answering questions of right and wrong.”6
I should hasten to say that atheists are not the only people to find the Bible immoral. Theological liberals trip over one another running away from the plain teaching of Scripture. Take, for instance, a passage from Charles Curran’s book, The Catholic Moral Tradition Today. Referring to the “household codes” in Colossian 3:18-4:1 and Ephesians 5:22-6:9, he writes,
These passages among other things teach the inferiority and subordination of women to men. Man is, they claim, the head of the household, and a woman is to obey her husband. For centuries the Christian Church has repeated these teachings. But now we recognize that such teaching is wrong and must be corrected. That biblical teaching on specific moral points can be wrong and in need of correction is also illustrated in the New Testament’s failure to condemn slavery. 7
Hence, he joins a long list of so-called Christians who distance themselves from the Bible because of its “patriarchalism,” “homophobia,” “speciesism,” “exclusivism,” etc.
THE FALLACIES OF THE SKEPTICS
So what might one say in response to such attacks on the Bible? Well, certainly there are valuable, passage by-passage rebuttals. For instance, regarding slavery, the Bible doesn’t endorse it; indeed, Scripture contains principles leading to its abolition. But the New Testament was not meant to directly address every issue; otherwise, you could argue that God approves of torture, imperialism, and vivisection because he doesn’t denounce them in the Bible. But this is to commit the old fallacy of argumentum a silentio (from silence). Indeed, the atheist’s took kit is full of classic, and fallacious, argument froms such as ad hominem (attacking the person, not the argument), ad populum (playing to the foolish prejudices of the audience), and ad misericordiam (over-playing the heart stings of the audience, with narrow, exaggerated focus on suffering).
In this vein, let me suggest some other fallacies I see at play in the skeptics’ treatment of biblical morality:
1. The Gentleman Fallacy
Bertrand Russell was much taken with Socrates’ cool manner. “You find him quite bland and urbane towards the people who would not listen to him.”8 But when Jesus responded “to people who did not like his preaching,” he said things like this: “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell.” Russell concluded, “It is not really to my mind quite the best tone.”9
It sounds as though Russell is vetting the Son of God for membership in the Rotary Club, where gentlemanly behavior is expected of all around the table. But he fails to see that the standards of gentlemanliness 10 are often grounded in finitude. So when the referees of courtly behavior insist on self-effacing modesty, cautious judgment, and deference to the seeming sincerity of others’, they cannot be talking reasonably about the Lord. In fact, it would be artificial of Jesus to feign puzzlement or embarrassment or to appear to wrestle with a lower nature.
The Delphic Oracle proclaimed Socrates the “wisest of men,” and the great philosopher was puzzled by this declaration until he realized that all men were igno rant. His superior wisdom lay, then, in his awareness that he was ignorant, while others pressed ahead in vanity rather than healthy doubt and curiosity. How odd it is then, to insist that the Son of God, whose wis dom is perfect, should assume a Socratic posture.
2. The Prodigy Fallacy
When atheists obsess over the hard edges of the Mosaic Law, they act as though advanced studies need no prerequisites, as though one could excel at calculus without first taking arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry. They fail to recognize that to teach the exalted way of Christ, one must start with the fundamentals of the law. Without firm grounding in the uncompromising holiness of God, the utter seriousness of sin, the waywardness of man, and the comprehensive reign of the Lord, the Cross- which is the path to life-makes no sense.
Consider military boot camp, with its exhaustions, indignities, absurdities, and cruelties. A soldier who, in a moment of reflection, forgets to run in the company street is forced to drop and perform dozens of pushups, as the sergeant waxes scatological in his ears. Needing eight hours sleep a night, the recruits must often perform with four or less. If inspectors find that a coin will not bounce on a made-up cot, the bedding is ripped off and dropped on the dirt floor of the squad tent. If a single hapless soldier misplaces his rifle in the woods, the entire unit is trucked back in the dead of night to find it, even though all the others were careful with their equipment. And the slightest speck of dirt on a rifle or trivial departure from the canons of close-order drill can mean a day of KP.
Little if any of this is replicated in the heat of combat. There are no pushups in a firefight; no one performs the manual of arms before charging a bunker; foxholes don’t have cots. So what is the point to all that harassment in basic training? Well, certainly it is meant to build unit cohesion, attention to detail, physical fitness, response to orders, care of equipment, and indifference to discomfort. And thus conditioned, the soldiers are set to perform in battle.
So too were the children of Israel prepared as vessels for God’s full disclosure of himself in an insane, hostile world. Hence, the doctrine of “progressive revelation.” And to dwell on the curious, harsh nature of the first days of God’s spiritual “boot camp” is to miss the point of their preparatory nature.
One other illustration may help. Many parents have insisted that their child not cross the street without holding mommy’s or daddy’s hand. So, for a season, the little one stops at the curb, waiting for that reassuring and guiding clasp from above. Suppose, though, that the parent never explicitly repeals that rule. It could make for a curious incident on college parents day in her freshman year. As mom and dad exit their car in the visitor’s parking lot, they spy their daughter across the way and call out to her to join them there.
She does indeed head in their direction, but then stops at the curb and waits. When repeated calls to come on fail, dad crosses the road to ask what’s the matter, only to hear her say she was simply following their instructions. Imagine his dismay to discover her fixation on the early standard, designed strictly for her childhood. Similarly, Christians are baffled and annoyed by the critics’ focus on the “awkward” and “irrational” specifications of the Levitical law, wherewith they attempt to trump the glories of the Sermon on the Mount and the grace-filled teaching of the epistles.
3. The Amateur Fallacy
Religiously-skeptical intellectuals allow for the counter intuitive counsel of experts. Indeed, they pride them selves on their own learning whereby they transcend the superficial understandings of the common man to follow a Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Keynes, or Hawking.
Of course, deference to expertise extends beyond the academy. Soldiers are taught that the safest way to handle an ambush is to charge right at its heart instead of hunkering down. Atkins Diet enthusiasts promise that if you feast on sausage, eggs, cheese, steaks, chops, and bacon-while avoiding carbohydrates-your weight will drop precipitously. Other experts teach us to fight the urge to run away from the train instead of toward it when escaping from a car stalled at a crossing; this way we avoid the debris from the impact. Similarly, they counsel us to relax instead of struggling in quicksand and to steer in the direction of a skid on a rain-slick highway. On and on it goes.
Why then do skeptics insist on judging God’s directives out of hand, preferring the “common sense” of the fac ulty lounge or potluck-dinner consensus down at the Unitarian church? Surely they see that if God exists, he is the expert of experts, and he is in perfect position to tell us whether or not PETA, GLAAD, NOW, and NAMBLA know what they are talking about.
4. The Temporizing Fallacy
Faced with the hypothetical prospects of nuclear terrorism, talk show guests wrestle with the case of a back pack bomb in Manhattan. Imagine the 11:00 a.m. capture of an Al-Qaedist fleeing across the Tri-Borough Bridge, and his carrying specifications for a device timed to detonate at noon that very day. Would it be legitimate to torture him to find the bomb’s where abouts? His confession could save countless lives, not to mention much of the economic and cultural vitality of the nation. Whatever one’s answer may be to this puzzle (whether “Absolutely!” “Never!” or “It just wouldn’t work”), most admit that it is, at least, a valid question.
The circumstances are obviously dire, and many would urge that we not quibble over niceties when millions are about to die. But for others, there is always a chance that a more savory means of escape is available. Maybe the bomb won’t go off. Maybe we can negotiate civilly. Maybe the avoidance of torture here will bear fruit in the long run, despite the temporary slaughter of New Yorkers. Maybe the explosion will “backfire,” causing worldwide rejection of terrorism, even among the Taliban.
Such thinking often drives the “peace process” in the Middle East and heartens pacifists and other romantics-people of boundless hope. But how can this mindset characterize a sovereign God who knows everything, including the future. For him, everything is dire in a sense. He knows exactly the results that any given chain of events will produce. He knows how the flap of a butterfly’s wing in Indonesia could distract the eye of a driver, whose carelessness would cause a fatality with international repercussions. He under stands that a teenage girl’s date could turn her mind toward unequal yoking with a non-believer, thus com promising her sense of calling to medical research, which would mean a cure for pancreatic cancer. Every moment, God attends to these impending disasters, and we should not be surprised when his activity seems drastic, sweeping, and yes, cruel. David was astonished and indignant when God killed Uzzah for steadying the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Chronicles 13, but David didn’t know what was at stake.
God doesn’t have the “luxury” of hope. He knows every ramification of every eventuality, and he must intervene continually to save the day. If he temporizes until everyone feels good about things, then disaster comes.
Yes, there are standing operating procedures (SOPs) for normal life, but even humans understand the need for dire measures, including blackouts, curfews, and rationing. God, who understands all things, is perfectly able to suspend SOPs when the situation dictates. While it is not good standing policy, and not our prerogative, to kill church members who fudge on their offering reports, God is perfectly entitled to drop Ananias and Sapphira when the situation demands it.
5. The Humanitarian Fallacy
In his essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,”11 C.S. Lewis dismisses one of the illusions of the day, namely that a rehabilitative approach to punishment is the most humane. Of course, rehabilitation is a good thing as far as it goes, but when it becomes the overriding interest, things go very wrong. Far better, Lewis argues, to ground punishment in retribution, with its ancient formulation, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (the lex talionis). Of course, this does not mean that the court should appoint rapists to torment convicted rapists. Rather, the point is proportional or equivalent harm , not identical harm.
Certainly, retribution can seem cold and even hateful, but at least it has limits-only an eye for an eye; only a tooth for a tooth. Rehabilitation, on the other hand, has no limits. If a jaywalker is unrepentant, you might keep him behind bars for decades until he “gets his mind right.” But surely this is overdoing it; after all, he just jaywalked. (Ah, but then you’ve fallen back into that “cruel” talk of retribution, where he “gets what he deserves.”)
As Lewis then demonstrates, other approaches to punishment, such as deterrence and segregation, fall prey to the same problem as rehabilitation. When they rule, horrors ensue. When not overridden by the principle of retribution, they could mean execution or life imprisonment for running a stop sign. Hang a few folks for a “rolling stop,” and brake shops will have more business.
The same point could be made about moral theories that rival the Bible. For many, utilitarianism (the maximization of human happiness) seems the most amiable approach, but despite its grand-sounding aim, it is both paralyzing and horrifying. How in the world can man calculate human emotional outcomes on a global scale? And how could one enjoy life if every deed were obliged to serve the grand calculus of worldwide happiness? Who could ever sail a Frisbee when the purchase price of that plastic disk could have gone to world hunger? Furthermore, once “humane,” finite, fallen, utilitarian technicians get to work, there is no telling what sort of disastrous policies they might undertake. Blind expediency could run rampant.
Similarly, worship of “rational nature” could run ram pant in Kant and worship of one’s intuitions could run rampant in G.E. Moore. Indeed, all humanly-fabricated ethical systems generate creepy scenarios. So it doesn’t take long for one to appreciate the virtues of following the directives of a holy, loving God, who knows everything.
The numbered list could go on-to include the “Worldly Fallacy” and the “Elitist Fallacy.” The former allows no reference point in the hereafter, so earthly existence takes on ultimate value. On this model, talk of death as a passage to glory or as a preemption against future sin is nonsense. The Elitist Fallacy finds the critic soaring presumptuously not only above the Bible, but above nature and the historical weight of human conviction regarding such matters as homosexuality, gender roles, and capital punishment. Here the skeptic gets too rarefied for his own-or anyone else’s-good.
Of course, naming the atheists’ fallacies does not prove God’s goodness beyond a shadow of a doubt. Indeed, no demonstration, pro or con, is airtight in this sort of discourse. Analogies suggest rather than insure truth. But I hope we have seen ways in which the seemingly immoral deeds and directives of God can be understood and justified. Perhaps they help place the burden of proof back on the atheist or “progressive” who thinks he is smarter and better than the Bible, more praiseworthy than its Author and his people.
Mark Coppenger is the pastor of Evanston Baptist Church in Evanston, Illinois, as well as a Professor of Christian Apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the managing editor of the online Kairos Journal (www.kairosjournal.org).
1 Bertrand Russell, “Why I am not a Christian,” Russell on Religion: Selections from the Writings of Bertrand Russell. Edited by Louis Greenspan and Stephan Andersson (London: Routledge, 2006), 86-88.
2 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006), 247.
3 Dawkins, 249.
4 Dawkins, 249.
5 Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), 106-107.
6 Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 168-169.
7 Charles E. Curran, The Catholic Moral Tradition Today: A Synthesis (Washington, Georgetown University Press, 1999), 50.
8 Russell, 86.
9 Russell, 87.
10 Caleb Gardner, “Ten Qualities of a 21s t Century Gentleman,” Burnside Writers Collective. Accessed September 29, 2007, at http:/ /www.burnsidewriterscoll ective.com/ general/2007 /09 I as_i_observe_the_state.php? page=2. See also “Qualities of a Gentleman” (from the original listing for Virginia Military Institute). Accessed September 29, 2007, at http:/ /www.wright.edu/student orgs/btp I documents/ pledge/ pledge.qualitites.pdf.
11 C. S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 287-294.