One of the perennial challenges atheists bring before Christians (here, for example) is, “If you thought God was telling you to kill your child, would you do it?” When we answer “no, God would not do that,” they ask, “What about God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22?”
It’s not a bad question, but it’s hardly unanswerable. Let’s tear it apart some and we’ll see why. What is it about a command to sacrifice a child that makes it wrong?Most obviously, child sacrifice itself is wrong, for reasons I’ll come back to in a follow-up post. Therefore even to intend to sacrifice a child is wrong; and if God had commanded Abraham to do it, with the intent that Abraham would go through with it, it would have been wrong. But we know that God did not intend for the sacrifice to go through. So God is innocent of the most damning charge that could be brought against him in this respect.
That’s important, but it’s only a start toward an answer. For one thing, we want to know how we can be confident God wouldn’t do the same thing today. I believe the answer may be almost too obvious to see: it’s because we know child sacrifice is wrong.
Abraham was a man of his times and of his culture: times in which child sacrifice was practiced commonly and was thought to be good. When God told him to sacrifice Isaac, it would have been an incredibly painful thing for Abraham to consider doing. It would have meant a horrible loss. But it would not have involved anything like the kind of moral dilemma that it would for us, because Abraham would not have regarded it morally wrong. Probably no one would have.So God was not doing anything wrong from God’s perspective, because he did not give the command with the intent to carry it through. Abraham was not about to do anything wrong from his own perspective, either, because he did not know it was wrong.
It seems to me this leads us to the basic answer that the atheist’s question requires: God would never intend that any of his people to do wrong, and God would not call on any of his people to do something that the person knew was wrong. Thus we know that God will not repeat today what he did with Abraham.
That’s one basic answer, at least, and I think it accomplishes at least the minimum required of a response to this challenge. Much more could be and has been said about it, for it is one of the most important, most compelling (see Kierkegaard’s treatment in Fear and Trembling), and yet most controversial passages in all of literature. I’ll simply address a couple of loose ends.
First, am I letting God off the hook too easily? Is it justifiable to tell someone to do something you know is wrong, when you know you won’t let them do it in the end?I think so. It was a test; and we see tests of the same sort carried out all the time. We call them simulations, or psychological experiments, or character opportunities, or investigations into one’s honesty. When there is sufficient reason to justify it, we approve of such tests.
God had an overriding, morally sufficient purpose for this test: to allow Abraham to demonstrate his trust and his obedience, while also showing him that his trust in God was justified.
This is a rare privilege, and rarely sought after, and probably one that only a theist can really appreciate: the opportunity to discover in oneself that one has real trust in God, and to see that God is worthy of that trust. It’s only possible in extreme circumstances; for only then is real risk-taking, character-defining trust called for.
Character is developed as it is being defined, and it is defined as it is being developed; and the most difficult moments of our lives are the most defining. This was an experience of extreme character-building and extreme trust-building. Human character and trust in God are two of the highest goods in God’s economy. Abraham learned a lot about God there on the mountain, and he learned a lot about himself as well. Both discoveries were supremely valuable.
Note, however, that it would not have been character-building had it been a case of God’s forcing Abraham to do what Abraham knew was wrong. To be required to do what one knows is wrong is destructive of character; but this is not what happened there then.
In fact I wonder–I do not know, but I wonder–whether this was the first recorded instance in history when child sacrifice was explicitly interdicted. If so, then it might have also been the moment when humans first began to understand that child sacrifice was wrong.
Now that we know it to be so, it would be impossible for God to test us the same way he did Abraham. He wouldn’t do it.
There is one more loose end to tie up: if child sacrifice is wrong, why doesn’t that apply to Christ’s death on the cross? Wasn’t that a case of the Father sacrificing his own Son? I’ll come back to that soon in another post.