Is God a Moral Monster? An Interview with Paul Copan

December 08, 2010
Posted by Joe Gorra

We recently interviewed Paul Copan, President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, about his new book, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Baker, 2010). The book has already been heralded by both Old Testament scholars, theologians and philosophers as a leading title in this important discussion. Paul has also written on this topic in Philosophia Christi, which can be read here and then here.

How did you become interested in thinking and writing about Old Testament ethics? In a nutshell, what are you trying to accomplish with this book?

A lot of atheists say that Christians don’t read the whole Bible, and at least in North America (where even professing Christians are increasingly biblically illiterate), this often seems to be the case.  In an era when pastors like to “go topical” in their sermons to try to make the Scriptures “practical,” what often gets lost is the equipping of Christians to think deeply about the whole of Scripture.  So, many of them are ill-equipped to respond when skeptics challenge them to interpret some of the strange-sounding levitical laws or seemingly bizarre ancient Near Eastern themes.  Again, pastors and Christian leaders contribute to the problem by avoiding such texts and preaching on the more straightforward or comfortable-sounding texts.

As I began (in high school) the habit of through the Bible starting in high school, I myself found a number of Old Testament passages that were difficult to understand.  They seemed to present a somewhat baffling and even troubling worldview with its purity laws and taboos, its harshness, its “patriarchy”—let alone servitude (“slavery”) and warfare.

Over the years I have sought to better understand this slice of the ancient Near Eastern world and context out of which the Messiah would come.  As I have spoken on university campuses, students have increasingly raised questions regarding troubling Old Testament passages, and I found that accessible resources for a lay audience on this theme were glaringly absent.  As one trained in both philosophy and biblical and theological studies, I thought I had something to contribute to the discussion I started to write about these themes in books like That’s Just Your Interpretation, How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? and When God Goes to Starbucks (all with Baker Books)—not to mention journal articles in Philosophia Christi.  This eventually led to a full-blown treatment of key Old Testament themes in the book Is God a Moral Monster?  Given the strong commendations from Old Testament scholars like Christopher Wright, Gordon Wenham, and Tremper Longman, I find my thinking confirmed that this book has a special niche to fill.

As I have indicated, I wanted to make the available scholarly research on difficult (or obscure or misunderstood) Old Testament ethical topics accessible to a lay audience.  And I don’t want to shy away from the troubling passages that critics—especially New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens—routinely accuse Christians of doing.

How do the various parts of your book achieve your thesis?

While I can’t cover all the territory I would like in this book, I try to address the range of topics that are most pressing and most frequently raised by the critics.  Part I deals with the phenomenon of the New Atheists and their arguments—and their case against the “Old Testament God.”  In fact, as you can see in the table of contents below, I use their quotations as my chapter headings!  In Part II, I deal with issues related to the nature of God: Is God narcissistic?  Why should God get jealous?  How could God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

Part III looks at life in the ancient Near East and how Israel’s laws look in comparison to those of other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  I maintain, first, that while many of Israel’s laws are not ideal (human hard-heartedness is part of the problem, as Matthew 19:8 indicates), they are generally a significant humanizing improvement over other ancient Near Eastern cultures.  God meets his people where they are—with their embedded, fallen moral and social patterns—but he challenges them to greater moral and spiritual heights.  Then I go on to address topics like Israel’s kosher and purity laws, its civil laws and punishments, the treatment of women in Israel, slavery (or better “servitude”) in Israel (and I extend the discussion to include the New Testament), then finally the question of Canaanite “genocide” (which it most certainly is not!) and of whether “religion” produces violence.

In Part IV, I argue that the biblical God serves as the basis for objective moral values and that atheists borrow the metaphysical grounding for human dignity and rights from a theistic worldview in which God makes human beings in his image.  Finally, I refer to the role of Jesus Christ as the fulfiller of the Old Testament, who illuminates the Old Testament and puts it into proper perspective.  Moreover, his followers, when living consistently with his teachings, have actually made a remarkable moral impact on the world which scholars in both the East and the West, both Christian and non-Christian, acknowledge.

What was the most surprising find that you discovered in your extensive research for this book?

Surprising—and yet not surprising—is the fact that the more deeply I dug into understanding the ancient Near East, the more the biblical text made sense and the more favorable it looked in comparison to other relevant texts in the ancient Near East.  For example, the strong bravado and exaggeration typical of ancient Near East war texts (“leaving alive nothing that breathed”) was used even when lots of the enemy were left standing and breathing!  What’s more, Israel’s warfare—directed at non-combatants in citadels or fortresses (“cities”)—is tame in comparison to other ancient Near Eastern accounts of, say, the Assyrians.
As far as servitude (“slavery”) goes, this was voluntary and contractual rather than forced (unless Israel was dealing with, say, hostile foreign POWs who might be pressed into service to cut wood and carry water).  Yet Israel’s laws prohibited (a) kidnapping, (b) returning runaway (foreign) slaves to their masters, and (c) injuring servants.  If these three Mosaic regulations were observed during by Western colonial powers, slavery would not have emerged and the nineteenth-century history of the United States would have looked much different.

How does your book’s thesis and contribution relate and differ from your other work? I see new and long-standing “Copan themes” being woven together in this book. Can you elaborate?

Yes, that’s right.  I pick up on themes sketched out in previous work I’ve done.  I expand on previously-discussed topics of the Law of Moses being a more humanizing law code than those of the surrounding nations, but still less-than-ideal. While I add much more material on the Canaanite question and address the topic of religion and violence, I much more fully develop my discussion of servitude in Israel, kosher/purity laws, and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.  In previous writings, I didn’t explore patriarchy and the treatment of women or polygamy and concubinage.  What’s more, I take pains to unpack specific “troubling texts” and discuss them in light of their linguistic and cultural contexts.  I think that, thanks to many biblical scholars, I have landed on some helpful responses to a number of perplexing texts.

To what extent does a theology/philosophy of human wickedness factor into this discussion? For example, if someone thinks that human beings (whether ancient or contemporary) are not prone toward acting wickedly how would that affect their understanding of divine justice and goodness?

In the West, we are particularly jaded when it comes to sexual sin; so Yahweh’s condemnation of temple prostitution (religiously-sanctioned adultery), incest, or bestiality are commonly shrugged off as insignificant and even petty.  Many critics fail to see the corrupt influence of Canaanite religion, which encouraged incest, bestiality, and adultery—after all, these deities engaged in such acts themselves!  Not surprisingly, the moral apple doesn’t fall far from the theological tree.  I argue that God was not concerned with destroying Canaanites—just Canaanite religion.  In my discussion of divine jealousy, I point out how Richard Dawkins dismisses God’s jealousy as petty.  Yet he ignores the profound marital language bound up with God’s covenant with Israel and the true pain God feels when his people run after other deities and/or put their trust in political alliances with other nations (idolatry).  Don’t look to the New Atheists to give an accurate portrayal of divine justice and goodness—or of human wickedness.

How and why is the question, “Is God a Moral Monster?” an apropos question for New Atheists? How is this question situated in their arguments against God’s existence? How does it contribute to their often-repeated claim that “religion causes evil?”

Well, one of the New Atheists, Richard Dawkins, did come up with the “moral monster” portion of my book title!  Richard Dawkins himself narrated a BBC documentary on religion as “the root of all evil.”  With insufficient biblical insight, he cites passages from the Old Testament to make God appear tyrannical.  The New Atheists routinely assume that by quoting such biblical texts, this is a slam-dunk proof for God’s non-existence.

Ironically, Dawkins’s own book River Out of Eden affirms that in a universe of selfish genes and electrons, there is no good or evil—just blind, pitiless indifference.  How can he make such a metaphysical jump to damn “religion”?  He can only criticize God by appropriating the moral resources available within theism rather than naturalism.

One of the points I make in the book is that the New Atheists will readily criticize “religion” (how vague is that term?!) as the wellspring of evil (e.g., Crusades, Inquisition).  Of course, who says this is consistent with the spirit of Jesus?  Yet these New Atheists typically turn a blind eye to the horrific atrocities committed in the name of atheism (think Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot—100 million murders represented right there).  Daniel Dennett has even tried to explain away Stalin as a “religious-like” figure!

Your book is detailed with issues of biblical theology, exegesis, ancient Near Eastern laws, ancient Israel’s laws, in addition to a broader philosophical-theological argument that you make in defense of “the Old Testament God.” Philosophy colleagues working on the problem of evil may wonder why all the attention with so many historical-cultural particulars? Can’t this question, Is God a Moral Monster? be sufficiently handled by some sort of neat, philosophical discussion?

As someone who has written extensively on the moral argument, I find that increasingly naturalistic moral realists like Louise Antony, David Brink, or Walter Sinnott-Armstrong will incorporate these Old Testament “problem passages” into their arguments against God as the source of objective moral values and human dignity and rights.  This can be a kind of monkey wrench thrown into the “engine” of the moral argument for God’s existence, and I don’t think that theists can ignore these emotionally-laden criticisms.

You spend three important chapters dealing with the OT account about the divine command to kill the Canaanites. Tell us about how that killing figures into the claim that God is a “moral monster.” What are some of the common mistakes/myths that readers of this account sometimes make when dealing with this incident? What is often under-appreciated or under-recognized in this discussion?

Critics use loaded language—“genocide” or “ethnic cleansing”—when referring to the Canaanites.  This is far from the truth.  Intermarrying with the Canaanites isn’t a problem (cp. Rahab, who married into Israel); it’s idolatry.  Moreover, I follow Richard Hess, who makes a strong case that non-combatants were not targeted and that one should not take the sweeping language of the ancient Near East (“man and woman, young and old”) to suggest this.  I can’t go into details here, but one could use this kind of language, even if women and children were absent.

Note too the heavy emphasis on “driving out” or “dispossessing” the Canaanites; this is different from destroying; this gets little attention by the critics.  I also mentioned earlier that the “cities” like Jericho or Ai were military installations to protect the civilian populations in the hill country; non-combatants typically didn’t live there.  You might have a tavern-keeper like Rahab, but that was atypical.  I’ve already addressed the hyperbolic bravado in the ancient Near East; leaving alive nothing that breathed doesn’t mean leaving alive nothing that breathed!

So those are a few of the topics I try to address.

I am trying to think of the last time that I’ve seen so many biblical scholars – let alone Old Testament biblical scholars – endorse a book by a Christian philosopher.  Your topic and thesis have been welcomed by high-profile members of that community of scholars. What might this suggest to you about the need and importance for doing (where possible) interdisciplinary work as a philosopher?  What might that look like? What are some areas that could benefit from such interdisciplinary support?

Yes, I’m very pleased to have so many strong endorsements from such a line-up of reputable Old Testament scholars.  (I have chuckled at some critics who have asserted that I am not qualified to write in these areas of biblical studies and related areas—yet I’ve gotten such resounding recommendations from experts in these fields!)  This book serves as a good reminder of the need for ongoing engagement between philosophy and biblical studies or theology.  I have appreciated Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Eleonore Stump, Peter van Inwagen, (the late) William Alston, Stephen Evans, and Stephen Davis who have brought their philosophical expertise to bear on biblical texts and theological themes—whether we’re dealing with miracles and divine action, evolution and design, the problem of evil, or the historical Jesus.

Alvin Plantinga has encouraged Christian philosophers to bring their resources to bear on the life of the church; we must share the wealth with our brothers and sisters in the pew so that they can benefit from our research and reflection.  Is God a Moral Monster? is one such resource that I pray God will use to build up the church and to offer a reasoned defense to the critic.

Among theist and non-theist philosophers of religion, the question, “Is God a Moral Monster?” has received increased academic attention in places like Philosophia Christi or the recent conference at Notre Dame. What do you make of this attention? Is it directed by, or an extension of, particular assumptions, conditions or patterns of thought? Where would you like the academic discussion to go given the contribution of your work?

I’m so pleased that the topic of Old Testament ethical issues is receiving such high-profile attention!   This is all the more important given the times in which we live.  The era of the presumed dominance of a biblical worldview is past, and this means we can’t simply count on a high view of Scripture generally held in today’s culture; we must increasingly and more rigorously defend biblical authority in the marketplace of ideas with skill and insight.

I myself am co-editing (with Jeremy Evans and Heath Thomas) a forthcoming book on Old Testament holy war from an interdisciplinary perspective—philosophers, biblical scholars, theologians, and ethicists.  I’m teaming up with Kiwi philosopher/theologian Matthew Flannagan on a couple of essays on Canaanite warfare; Matt has done excellent philosophical work on divine commands and the Old Testament text.  He and I were on a dynamic panel discussion recently at the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta entitled, “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?”

I do hope that my new book will inspire Christians to delve more deeply into the Old Testament text.  The more I have done so, the more enriched my faith has been and greater has been my appreciation for the message of the Old Testament.

Dr. Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida. You can learn more about Paul by visiting his website.