Atheists Rejecting the Bible Due to OT Morality: Bound To Be a Bad Tradeoff


Atheists rejecting the Bible due to OT morality are making a bad tradeoff. Yet they do it anyway. The other day an atheist online told me he could never follow a Bible with Old Testament laws like Exodus 21:7-11:

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

Obviously we have a moral problem with a man selling his daughter as a slave. What kind of a problem is it, though? I suggest it’s one of these, in decreasing order of “problem”:

  1. It’s not resolvable in principle. There is no answer that could possibly make this a moral thing to do.
  2. It’s not resolvable given all that we know and all that we could imagine knowing.
  3. It’s not resolvable given what we know.
  4. It’s resolvable given what we know.
  5. It’s been resolved.

When a skeptic says he can’t accept a Bible that contains that instruction, he’s saying there’s an irresolvable moral problem there. Meanwhile some apologists, notably Paul Copan, have dug into the historical context on problems like these, and said they are either resolved or at least resolvable given what we know.

What’s a Non-Specialist To Do?

Now, which of these approaches is more intellectually responsible? Especially considering that we’re all laymen here when it comes to Ancient Near East studies: which answer should non-specialists trust? I think clearly the answer is:

A. Sometimes possibly the apologist’s answer, but

B. Never the skeptic’s answer.

Am I playing favorites with apologists? By no means! I’m taking the reasonable approach instead.

Suppose a specialist in the field says a problem like this has some reasonable solution, he might be right. We laymen won’t be able to assess how good that answer is without doing a whole lot of study on their own. But unless there’s some obvious clinker in what the apologist has said, for all we know there’s at least a chance he’s got it right.

Maybe, for example, the word “slave” had a completely different meaning then. Maybe it had something to do with perfectly ordinary marriage customs. It doesn’t read that way to us in the 21st century Western world, but why would be surprised at the thought that something written so long ago, in such a foreign culture, might mean something different to us now than it did then?

Putting Too Much Stock In Their Imaginations

Indeed, when skeptics point out their so-called obvious clinkers in apologists’ arguments, usually it’s easy to see where they’re importing today’s language and culture into the text, where it has no right to be.

So it’s very difficult in principle to say there’s no chance there could ever be any moral resolution to the question. We could never say that unless we knew enough cultural/historical context to make that conclusion certainty.

But when skeptics reject the whole Bible due to passages like these, typically they’re saying that the moral problems they present belong either to group 1 or group 2. They’re not resolvable in principle, or maybe not resolvable given all that we know or could imagine knowing.

The Most a Skeptic Should Try To Say

But I’d say that’s putting way too much faith in the range of their imaginations. The Ancient Near East was more different from our world than you think. Or at least that could be the case, and you have no way of knowing that it isn’t.

So the most a skeptic should ever try to say is #3, that it’s not resolvable given what we know. Which leaves the door open to the possibility that new knowledge could lead to a satisfying moral answer. Until then, at best, we really only think we know; we don’t know for sure. Nothing more definite than that can be rationally or reasonably justified.

So with that in mind, let’s take another look at the atheist’s statement I opened with here: he could never follow a religion that includes instructions like we see here in Exodus 21.

What Do We Actually Know?

My answer would be that it’s better to look at what we can know than what we cannot.

We can know that the Bible presents the highest example of moral character in all history: Jesus Christ.

We can know that the world would be a crazy better place to live if people would just follow the Ten Commandments. It would even be better if we all treated one another according to just numbers 5 through 10 (1 through 4 are tied more to worship than to interpersonal ethics).

We can know that while there remain some gaps, and not everything in it is corroborated, the Bible’s historical record is completely consistent with all the definite external information available through documents and archaeology.

We can know that God revealed himself thoroughly and uniquely as a God of love.

We can know that he expressed that love through the highest possible means, self-sacrifice on the Cross.

The Tradeoff: Good or Bad?

What’s apparently bad in the Bible is (admittedly) apparently outrageously bad. What’s good in the Bible is certainly, knowably, outrageously, stupendously good.

We can make our decisions based on what we know or what we don’t know. Choosing such a great, known good that is perfectly reasonable. It tells us a great deal about the character of God. If there’s any reason to think God is consistent in character — and there is, though I don’t have space to go into it here — and if there’s also reason to think the same God who was responsible for the Old Testament laws, it’s also reasonable to think he had good reasons for those laws. Even if we don’t get it.

An atheist who rejects all the outrageous good that we do know, based on some questionable, unknown passage about which we can’t know nearly enough, is making a bad tradeoff, rationally, morally, and experientially.

Image Credit(s): Ramdlon.