That’s nonsense to the extreme. God’s character is made clear all throughout the Bible in God’s own revelation to us. We don’t need to wonder if God is arbitrary or capricious. He isn’t.
Yikes. I have some thoughts here. Might be a tangent from a scientific or historical discussion of the flood to a moral one, so moderators please spin this off if appropriate.
The moral framework many Christians seem to hold and their understanding of Yahweh’s actions in the Hebrew Bible were an obstacle to my faith that I couldn’t overcome, and I think the Biblical flood narrative provides a pretty good opportunity for a thought experiment that might help us discuss this.
Suppose you are a free moral agent with the conscience you have now, an angel perhaps. You are in heaven with Yahweh and he has just announced that every human on Earth, except Noah and his family, are sinners worthy of a morally justified death. Yahweh turns to you and asks your opinion on his next move. He gives you two options.
- Being an all-powerful omni-god, Yahweh could simply “poof” all of the guilty sinners out of existence.
- He could send a powerful flood to cover the Earth and drown humanity.
Which option would you suggest? Which action results in less human suffering? Which action does the Bible claim Yahweh chose?
It seems to me that the Divine Command Theory of morality that many Christians seem to hold contributes to a kind of moral confusion that elevates obedience to and defense of authorities (even unjustified authorities) over and above observable harm to humans and the instinct of our consciences. I see this theme all through scripture, from Adam & Eve to the Binding of Isaac to Paul’s hall of faith in Hebrews 11. Humans are expected to trust and obey God, no matter what. In practice, this kind of belief structure seems to minimize or even vilify independent moral judgments made by humans. Obedience to the authority is what matters.
When I look around, this view seems to be at the root of a lot of the harm that certain types of Christians are causing in the world right now. When we believe morality reduces to obedience to authority it becomes possible to harm others and believe ourselves to be justified. I hope the thought exercise above might help folks understand how this belief system can pit the instinct of our conscience (which seems to be closely connected to human well-being) against the actions or commands of this claimed all-good entity.
I think it’s important to deal honestly with Yahweh’s actions in the Old Testament. I have been astounded as I’ve studied the Bible without the blinders and programming of my childhood. Yahweh looks to me like a sort of divine feudal lord, who entered into a transactional covenant with Israel to prosper them when they obey and worship him, and punish them when they do not. Often, these punishments seem extremely unjust and immoral according to my own moral metric of human well-being and equity.
Do you recall the story of David’s rape/adultery of Bathsheba and then murder of Uriah? I’m sure you do. Do you remember who Yahweh ultimately killed as punishment for David’s sin? Not David, he was a man after God’s own heart, after all. No, Yahweh, in his all-good wisdom, evidently thought letting David’s infant son suffer and die would be a good idea. Maybe we can get the pro-lifers to make some signs about that.
Or, since we’re discussing David, perhaps you remember the time when David decided to take a census of his fighting men. Yahweh didn’t appreciate it, and most theologians seem to suggest that the reason was a failure of trust and obedience on David’s part. His fighting force wasn’t responsible for his military victories, Yahweh was, and dang it if Yahweh wasn’t going to remind David of his place. Again, David gets off the hook here (man after God’s own heart indeed!) and to teach him a lesson Yahweh instead lets him choose his punishment from a big wheel 'O mass death. David picks plague and… poof, Yahweh kills 70,000 Israelites in a day!
Do you think that it is just to kill an infant with a painful death as punishment for his father’s sins? Do you think it is just to arbitrarily kill 70,000 people because their king disobeyed and took a census? I sure wouldn’t normally think so, but when it came to these stories, I thought those actions were moral and good! I believed God was perfectly and unquestionably good, so I rationalized those harmful acts. I thought the Amalekites were a “cancer” that needed to be purged from the land. I thought they would have tempted Israel away from God, what other option was there but ethnic cleansing? Though it bothered me, I convinced myself that the women and children Yahweh killed in my bedtime stories must have been killed for some kind of perfectly good purpose.
A number of years ago, I visited the Rwanda Genocide Memorial in Kigali. One of my most powerful memories was learning the way that radio DJs systematically dehumanized Tutsis by calling them “cockroaches” in need of extermination. Suddenly, I recognized that same dehumanizing tactic in my own mind, and I had used it exclusively to defend the goodness of the “morally perfect” God I worshipped. That… bothered me.
Of course, literally any atrocity can be rationalized with appeals to an unknowable good in some vague future. In Hebrews 11, Paul even tells us that Abraham believed that Yahweh could raise Isaac back to life after he killed him. Under such a view, it seems like at bottom humans have no ability whatsoever to make independent moral judgments based on our conscience or senses. Killing my child might be right or wrong depending on what God tells me, and no matter what the consequences are, God can still make it right in the end.
It seems to me that many Christians become used to the taste of this kind of “morality” (obedience to authority) because it’s all we were taught. We’ve never had the real thing! We never learned to make independent moral judgments, or even that such a thing was wise. At least, that was the case for me. Once I realized that I could simply adjust my moral framework to be centered on harm rather than obedience to authority, everything began to fall into place. Suddenly, I no longer had to feel trapped between apparently harmful commands I didn’t really understand and the instincts of my own conscience. I could look at religiously motivated lies and call them lies, I could look at stories about child sacrifice and call them horrific, I could look at actions recommended by Christians and clearly call them wrong, I could look at genocide and call it genocide!
Eventually the emotional and psychological strain was just too much for me to sustain. And then, once I honestly opened up my eyes I began to see how these same moral mistakes are at the root of so much Christian harm in the world right now… I wish more people considered these issues. I think they play an important role in shaping how many Christian Americans approach justice and morality.