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Does the fact that a text contains passages in which the Supreme Being commands genocide give us any indication about the status (as sacred literature, e.g.) of the text in question?
I have been participating in a discussion on Randal Rauser’s blog about the significance of passages in the Bible that depict God as commanding genocide and approving of or bringing about other moral atrocities. The discussion, which has been going on for the better part of two weeks, began with an episode of Rauser’s podcast in which he interviews New Zealand philosopher and apologist Matthew Flannagan about Flannagan’s views on such Bible passages as Genesis 22:1-2 (in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac) and 1 Samuel 15:3 (in which Samuel tells Saul that God has commanded that he, Saul, kill all of the Amalekites, women and children included).
Flannagan, who has contributed comments to this blog and is a very good and well-respected Christian apologist, is a divine command theorist and thus faces a serious problem with respect to such passages. To his credit he does not shy away from these problems but faces them quite directly. His analysis is subtle and interesting. I, as I have indicated many times on this site and others, strongly reject the divine command theory, but I think that Flannagan’s attempt to defend it is admirable. (Check out his recent paper in Philo, “Is Ethical Naturalism more Plausible than Supernaturalism? A Response to Walter Sinnot-Armstrong” for an example of how far a good defense of the divine command theory can take us, if you are interested.)
In any event the podcast has ignited quite a vigorous debate concerning the Biblical passages in question (prompted by a rather impertinent comment by a commenter who writes under the name The Atheist Missionary, which Rauser strongly reacted against and which I, to some extent and with important caveats, defended).
Now, there are many distinct approaches one can take to the atrocities we find in the Bible. These range from arguing that once we fully understand the context surrounding the relevant episodes we will see that they are actually not atrocities (this, as I understand it, is the view of Paul Copan and William Lane Craig; they argue that God was justified in calling for the Amalekites to be wiped out, for example) to outright rejecting the Bible as a morally corrupt text. Rauser’s position is that the depiction of the Amalekite genocide, just to cite one example, really is a depiction of a moral atrocity, and that its presence in a sacred text must be understood as the product of errant voices. His view, to the extent that I understand it, is that we must understand the Bible in cultural context and through the lens of Christianity. The depiction of the Amalekite genocide, while it has a particular purpose in the context of the culture that produced it, is inconsonant with the Christian understanding of God. Unlike Paul Copan, for example, Rauser believes that it is impossible to harmonize the depiction of God commanding the Amalekite genocide with the Christian understanding of God.
In the discussion at Rauser’s blog, I have defended a strong position: The passages in which God is depicted as commanding/bringing about/approving of moral atrocities are evidence that the Bible is not sacred. Importantly, I am not claiming that God should make it clear to us what his own view is concerning the moral atrocities depicted in the Bible. Rather, I am saying that God would be horrified by the fact that he is depicted as commanding moral atrocities (such as the Amalekite genocide).
If I was going to criticize my own position, I would point out two things: First, the Bible is not a single text, it is a collection of texts with multiple voices. Some commenters have pointed out this important fact, as has Randal. Of course, I acknowledge this. But I have suggested that the point is really not all that significant with respect to my claim. I could, after all, limit my claim to a conclusion about those texts that depict God as commanding moral atrocities. Furthermore, it is not I who decided to treat the Bible as one text (by, e.g., calling it THE Bible) nor who decided that the entire thing is sacred. Thus, I think my criticism withstands this objection. Anyone who treats the entirety of the Bible as a sacred text must come to terms with the passages that depict God as a moral monster. I maintain that God would be horrified by those passages and want to disassociate himself from the text(s).
Second, I would want to know what ‘sacred’ means. Presumably we don’t necessarily have to think that Bible is the Word of God in order to think that it is sacred. Interestingly, Randal has not taken this second tack. Instead, he has suggested that I am reacting against a particular interpretation of the text rather than the text itself. He has gone so far as to accuse my of engaging in the hermeneutic of a barbarian. He also suggests an analogy between God’s relationship to the Bible and an author’s (or editor’s) relationship to his or her text. Randal says that there is no reason to believe that an author should make his/her own views clear with respect to any moral atrocities depicted in their texts. Similarly, says Rauser, there is no reason to think that God must make his own view clear concerning the moral atrocities depicted in the Bible. In response I have pointed out that there is an important difference between texts that depict moral atrocities and texts that depict the author/editor/creator of that very text as commanding, approving of, or bringing about moral atrocities. It is the latter type that presents the clearest analogy to the Bible’s depiction of God bringing about/commanding moral atrocities (such as the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn, the aforementioned Amalekite genocide, and the worldwide flood).
This is just a sketch of the broad features of the debate. If you are interested you can start here, then proceed through Randal’s first, second, third, and fourth responses to me and others who take similar positions to mine. If you want the short version, the third and fourth response should give you a good sense of the direction of the debate. To get the full effect, you need to read through the comments sections on each of Randal’s posts (which is where you will find my responses to his arguments).
I should say that I have enjoyed the discussion. I want to thank Randal Rauser for providing a forum where issues such as this can be discussed. Randal is highly intelligent, knowledgeable, and very well-informed about current and historical issues in theology and philosophy. He does not shrink from strong and pointed criticisms of his views, and for that he has my admiration.
[EDIT: This post has been edited so as to include an important ‘not’ in the final sentence. Sorry, Randal.]