God and Genocide: Clarifying the Question
Posted On June 13, 2009
Early this week we started to take a look at whether God is guilty of genocide, in various places in the Old Testament where he commanded Israel to destroy certain nations. The question was whether these acts of God were evil, as genocide certainly is in any normal human instance. In that first post I bullet-listed several factors that make genocide the evil that we see it to be. If God is free of the guilt of genocide, then he must be free of guilt on each of those specifics.
And here we must take time to examine just what kind of case the Christian must make in order to show that God is not guilty of genocide. Lacking clarity on that, we would run the risk of a battle over irrelevancies. So allow me to explain the case that I intend to make.
(A) God is free of guilt with respect to the specifics listed in the first post.
God could be free of guilt with respect to those items in either of two ways. Either:
(A1) he has not committed the acts named there, or
(A2) if he has done one or more of them, he has done it in a way that is not morally blameworthy.
(B) God’s goodness in these acts is consistent with his character as revealed throughout the Scriptures.
Statement (B) actually flows from (A), but it has an importance to this discussion that is best shown by contrast. The Christian is not responsible (in this case):
(~B1) to demonstrate that God’s goodness is consistent with any individual’s conception of goodness, or
(~B2) to prove that God is actually good.
Let me explain each of these, beginning with (~B1). The Christian obviously has no commitment to any conception or definition of goodness other than that given by the Bible. God is not subject to human standards. For example, if the skeptic says, “God’s acts are clearly genocide, and by my standards genocide is obviously always wrong,” that is an external standard that the Christian need not accept; he may use God’s entire revelation to examine and possibly to reject it. Or if the skeptic says “Anything as horrifying and terrifying as this must be wrong,” that is likewise an external standard. The issue is not whether God lives up to any individual’s standard of goodness, it is whether God lives up to God’s standard of goodness. It is a question of consistency or coherence, or conversely, about whether God contradicts his own character.
This leads to (~B2). Obviously I affirm God’s goodness, as do all Christians. To demonstrate his goodness, however, or to prove that he is good, is not a part of this discussion. The skeptic’s question is not (or at least should not be), “Can you prove that God is good, even though he ordered Israel to wipe out other nations?” The problem with formulating the question that way is that there are two quite distinct sub-questions hidden in it:
(SQ1) Can you prove that God is good? and
(SQ2) Don’t the acts of genocide in the Old Testament contradict his goodness as revealed in Scripture?
Both of them are worthwhile questions. Every experienced blogger and commenter knows, though, what happens when you get two different questions running through a discussion without carefully distinguishing them: it’s confusing and fruitless. (SQ1) is a good question, but it’s not the question at hand. (SQ2), which is the question form of statement (B), is where we must focus for now.
The question on the table is one of internal consistency. An internal consistency discussion may take the form:
1. Assume characteristics x of person Y.
2. Y has done deed z.
3. Is z consistent with x?
It is perfectly legitimate in this case, it is not arguing in a circle, to start with a set of assumptions, because in the end those assumptions will be tested. Therefore to (A) and (B) we may add one more aspect describing the case Christians must defend:
(C) Assuming that God is good, and assuming that goodness itself is adequately and accurately defined by the Bible, it is no contradiction to God’s goodness that he ordered certain nations to be killed.
Combining statements (A), (B), and (C), we arrive at the three-part statement I intend to defend.
(D) Assuming that God is good, and assuming that goodness itself is adequately and accurately defined by the Bible, God’s ordering certain nations to be killed is no contradiction to that goodness; it is consistent with his character as generally revealed in the Scriptures. More specifically God is good (free of guilt) with respect to the issues listed in the first post in this series.