Yet, God commanded this Israelites to kill men, women, and children (1 Sam. 15:3). God personally killed thousands, if not millions, of people (Gen. 6:7, Gen. 19:4-5, Ex. 12:29, etc.). God gave the Israelites laws requiring capital punishment for offenses like witchcraft, homosexuality,* cursing one's parents, adultery, and idolatry (Ex. 22:18, Lev. 20:13, Lev. 20:9, Lev. 20:10, Ex. 22:19).
So what are we to do with the seeming contradiction between a God who claims to be the embodiment of love and yet has commanded and perpetrated acts that, by modern standards, appear to be evil?
First a caveat, this is a blog post. I won't be able to fully explore such a complex topic. If you want more to read on this I highly recommend C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain and John Mark Hick's Yet Will I Trust Him.
Throw out the BiblePerhaps the most common response to the seeming contradiction between a good, loving God and the evil in the world is to reject the source of the contradiction. If the bible says that God is good and that he killed people for making fun of a bald person (2 Kings 2:23-24), then the bible must not be a reliable witness, goes the line of reasoning, either a good God would not do such things or God is not good. Countless atheistic apologetic websites detail the horrors of God's actions -- especially in the Old Testament -- as "proof" that the God of the bible is self-contradictory.
Throw out the Old Testament
Another tack taken in dealing with the problem of a loving God killing people is to place the loving God as the one from the New Testament and the vengeful God as the one of the Old Testament. This solution is so prevalent that it cropped up in the middle of the second century -- just over a hundred years after Christ's death. Marcion of Sinope believed in Jesus, but not the Old Testament. His followers were called Marcionites and they created the first cannon of scripture -- removing the Hebrew Scriptures and anything from the New Testament that portrayed the Old Testament in a positive light.
Marcion and his followers were quickly condemned as heretics and the church defended the inclusion of the Old Testament and the New together (though the cannon wouldn't be made official for nearly 200 years after that). However some of Marcion's teachings still persist today, namely the rejection of the God of the Old Testament and the idea of dualism.**
It doesn't take much time in church to hear something like, "The Old Testament was nailed to the cross." Or, "Jesus did away with the Law." Which is, in part, an attempt to reconcile the notion of a loving God and the mass killings of the Old Testament.
Live in Fear
If one is not willing to throw out the Old Testament, then the temptation is to redefine the love of the New. Proponents of this view often cite the discipline of a loving father (Heb. 12:5-13) as evidence that love can be expressed through unpleasant means and yet remain loving. The argument is that God's actions and commands in the Old Testament were ultimately loving, even though they produced suffering in the moment.
While that reasoning is not necessarily flawed, it often leads to the conclusion that God is ready and willing to smite anyone at any time. Sinners must beware the wrath of the vengeful God who killed the disobedient.
In my church tradition we often heard the story of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu. They were serving in the Tabernacle and "presented strange fire before the Lord." For that reason God struck them down (Lev. 10:1-2). The story was used as one of warning to any person who suggested adding something to the worship service that was not expressly commanded by God.
Learn to Love
While I take some issue with the conclusion that we ought to live in constant fear of God smiting us, I do think that it's important to define love well before we use it to say that God can't cause pain or death and still be loving. Love can be expressed through discipline because love isn't simply wanting the other person to be happy, but for them to be healthy.
The Goal of Love
If you are a connoisseur of romantic comedies or Sheryl Crow songs you might think that the goal of love is happiness. That's what we see, more often than not. A romantic relationship is evaluated based on how much happiness is generated. While happiness is a part of love -- both romantic and platonic -- it cannot be the goal.
Happiness is fickle. Happiness can be self-destructive. Happiness can hurt others. Love is none of those things.
Instead, the goal of love is what's best for the other person. What's best may or may not make someone happy, but it invariably makes them more healthy. A drug abuser won't be happy about an intervention. Someone suffering from depression may not be happy about therapy. Yet the loving thing, the healthy thing, can sometimes require less happiness (in the short term) instead of more.
The equation of love is fairly straightforward when there are only two people involved, but things get much more complex as the numbers increase. If the actions of one person are harmful to another, then what's the most loving thing to do? Do you work with the one harming or protect the one being harmed? What if the one harming is unwilling to stop? What if the one being harmed is unable to get away?
Our world has faced that terrible choice too many times. One of the most clear-cut was played out in World War II (not that it was simple, but as an example it is one of the simplest). Hitler was killing innocent people. He was not going to stop. So the Allies fought the Axis, in part, out of love for the ones being slaughtered. The most loving choice, at that point, was to kill some to save others.
Cleaning up the Mess
It's clear, from the bible and from history, that things have changed drastically for humanity over the last 3,500 years (roughly the time since traditional dating of the writing of Genesis). I believe that shortly after the fall (Adam and Eve eating the fruit), humanity was the worst it has ever been and has been steadily improving ever since.
In ancient times the world was a violent, awful place. Murder, rape, torture, and human sacrifice were rampant. The cults of the ancient peoples worshiped death and pain. They sacrificed infants by heating a bronze idol with fire and then placing the babies on the red-hot, outstretched hands of the gods until they died in agony. Women were seen as little better than cattle and even called deformed males.
Today there are more people living in safety than at any other time in human history. Today women and children are safer and have more access to education than ever before. Today the infant mortality rate is lower than it has ever been. Today there is food, shelter, and medical care for more people -- and a greater percentage of the world's population -- than ever before.***
For humanity to go from a global version of Lord of the Flies to the international community we have today (which, for all its flaws, is far better than what we've had in the past), is a massive shift. Were it to have happened over the course of a few decades or centuries, humanity would not have been able to keep up.
For evidence of this, simply look at the non-Western areas that struggle with democracy. In the West, democracy has been brewing for over a thousand years. The Greeks and Romans pioneered the concept, the people demanded equal treatment under the law (via the Magna Carta 800 years ago), the Europeans took up the classical ideas during the Renaissance, and finally, through numerous wars and revolts, democracy came to the West. But when those same ideas are imported to other regions that haven't gone through the cultural shifts over a millennium, democracy often falters, not because the idea itself is flawed, but because the culture isn't ready for it.
Loving the Whole WorldSo if humanity was utterly awful, people were not just killing each other, but torturing each other, selling each other, and taking delight in it, and God chose to act out of love, what would he do?
One option might be to kill the ones who are causing the most harm. If there were people who were so vile that they were hurting so many others, it might be the most loving thing for the most people to kill them (Gen. 6).
But as God is trying to redeem humanity, he might need to step back more and more over time to allow people to learn and grow on their own. That wouldn't immediately remove all of the vile people hurting others and enjoying it. So, for humanity to continue to progress, and for God to love everyone, he might command those faithful to him to kill the wicked ones (1 Sam. 15:3). Then, as humanity progresses further, God might step back again and stop commanding his people to kill others, but instead command them to love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-48).
ReconciliationI know my thought process may not be satisfying for everyone (or anyone). It doesn't seem loving for God to kill or command others to kill (especially when he also commands them to not murder, Ex. 20:13). But neither is it loving for God to allow wicked people to harm others. I don't envy God's position in figuring all of that out.
I believe that God created every person to bear his divine image. I believe that sin entered into the world and corrupted that divine image. I believe that ever since that time, God has been working to reconcile humanity to himself and to restore his image to us. And, I believe that the bible tells the story of that process, not a one-time, instant fix, but a gradual process over the course of millennia that has yet to be fully realized.
What do you believe?
Do you think God's love and his killing of people are contradictory?
If so, how do you respond? Did I miss any options in dealing with the apparent contradiction?
How do you give and receive love?
*Note: the word 'homosexual' wasn't coined until the 19th century, so the biblical prohibition against male same-sex acts prohibited in Leviticus 20:13 may or may not have any bearing on the modern understanding of homosexuality as an orientation. Further blog posts will take up that matter in detail.
** Dualism is, in short, the belief that there are two natures to the universe: matter and spirit. Spirit is good while matter is evil. This belief is not original to Marcion, but it was one of the hallmarks of his belief system. Other groups such as the Gnostics and Neoplatonics are dualistic as well.
*** In no way do these advances obviate the continued suffering in the world. There are still awful things that happen to people. Children still die, women and men are still raped, people still go hungry. The fact that there are fewer of them does not excuse the fact that there are any who suffer.