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Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?

Paul Copan
Philosophy and Ethics
Palm Beach Atlantic University
Palm Beach, Florida

The New Atheists and the Old Testament: A Brief Overview

Today’s “new atheists” are not at all impressed with the moral credentials of
the Old Testament (OT) God. Oxonian Richard Dawkins thinks that Yahweh is truly
a moral monster: “What makes my jaw drop is that people today should base their
lives on such an appalling role model as Yahweh-and even worse, that they should
bossily try to force the same evil monster (whether fact or fiction) on the rest
of us.”[1]

Dawkins deems God’s commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac to be “disgraceful”
and tantamount to “child abuse and bullying.”[2] Moreover,
this God breaks into a “monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with
a rival god,” resembling “nothing so much as sexual jealousy of the worst kind.”[3]
Add to this the killing of the Canaanites-an “ethnic cleansing” in which
“bloodthirsty massacres” were carried out with “xenophobic relish.” Joshua’s
destruction of Jericho is “morally indistinguishable from Hitler’s invasion of
Poland, or Saddam Hussein’s massacres of the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs.”[4]

To make matters worse, there is the “ubiquitous weirdness of
the Bible.”[5] Dawkins calls attention to the moral
failures and hypocrisies of various biblical characters: a drunken Lot seduced
by and engaging in sexual relations with his daughters (Gen. 19:31-6); Abraham’s
twice lying about his wife Sarah (Gen. 12:18-19; 20:18-19); Jephthah’s foolish
vow that resulted in sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judg. 11);
and so on.

Another new atheist is Daniel Dennett. He declares that the “Old Testament
Jehovah” is simply a super-man who “could take sides in battles, and be both
jealous and wrathful.” He happens to be more forgiving and loving in the New
Testament, but Dennett wonders how such a timeless God could act in time or
answer prayer.[6] Dennett adds, “Part of what makes Jehovah
such a fascinating participant in stories of the Old Testament is His kinglike
jealousy and pride, and His great appetite for praise and sacrifices. But we
have moved beyond this God (haven’t we?).”[7] He thanks
heaven that those thinking blasphemy or adultery deserves capital punishment are
a “dwindling minority.”[8]

A third new atheist is Christopher Hitchens. He voices similar complaints. The
forgotten Canaanites were “pitilessly driven out of their homes to make room for
the ungrateful and mutinous children of Israel.”[9]
Moreover, the OT contains “a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic
cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price, and for indiscriminate massacre, but we
are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured
human animals.”[10]

Finally, there is Sam Harris. In his Letter to a Christian Nation, he sets out
to “demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most
committed forms.”[11] Harris boldly asserts that if the
Bible is true, then we should be stoning people to death for heresy, adultery,
homosexuality, worshiping graven images, and “other imaginary crimes.” To put to
death idolaters in our midst (Deut. 13:6, 8-15) reflects “God’s timeless
wisdom.”[12] In The End of Faith, Harris, referring to
Deuteronomy 13:7-11, notes that the consistent Bible-believer should stone his
son or daughter if she comes home from a yoga class a devotee of Krishna. Harris
wryly quips that one the OT’s “barbarisms”-stoning children for heresy-“has
fallen out of fashion in our country.”[13]

Harris acknowledges that once we recognize that slaves are human beings who are
equally capable of suffering and happiness, we’ll understand that it is
“patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment.”[14]

A few pages later, Harris claims we can be good without God. We do not need God
or a Bible to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. We can know objective moral
truths without “the existence of a lawgiving God,”[15] and
we can judge Hitler to be morally reprehensible “without reference to

These are the charges made by the new atheists. Are they fair representations? I
shall argue that they are not. Though certain OT texts present challenges and
difficulties, navigating these waters is achievable with patient, nuanced
attention given to the relevant OT texts, the ancient Near East (ANE) context,
and the broader biblical canon.

A Nuanced Response to the New Atheists

The new atheists are certainly rhetorically effective, but I would contend that
they have not handled the biblical texts with proper care, and they often draw
conclusions that most Christians (save the theonomistic sorts) would repudiate.
And this judgment is not the refined result of some post-Enlightenment moral
vision, but the biblical writers themselves point us toward a moral ideal,
despite the presence of human sin and hard-heartedness. These new atheists give
the impression of not having the patience for careful, measured replies, yet
this is exactly what is required. John Barton warns that there can be no “simple
route” to dealing with OT ethics.[17] Bruce Birch
considers OT ethics as something of a “patchwork quilt.”[18]
Thus, it calls for a more subtle and cautious approach than the new atheists

I hope to set in order some of this untidiness. I have attempted elsewhere to
address at a popular level various OT ethical questions-slavery, the Canaanite
question, “harsh” moral codes and “strange” Levitical laws, Abraham’s offering
Isaac, the imprecatory psalms, divine jealousy, divine egotism, and so forth.[19]
So I shall intentionally skip some of these specifics except for illustrative
purposes. My chief object is to outline a nuanced response to the new atheists’
charges in order to discern the powerful moral vision of the OT. While
acknowledging the drastically different mindset between ANE and modern
societies, we can overcome a good deal of the force of the new atheists’
objections and discern the moral heart of the OT, which is a marked contrast to
the new atheists’ portrayal. Indeed, a number of the moral perspectives within
the Law of Moses (for example, laws regarding restitution or gleaning to aid the
poor) can offer insights for us moderns. One more thing: At the risk of overlap
and potential repetition, I have tried to make subtle differentiations in my

A. The Law of Moses is embedded in a larger biblical metanarrative that helps
illuminate ethical ideals in ways that mere law-keeping cannot.

1. The Sinai legislation integrated into the broader Pentateuchal narrative.

In his Old Testament Story and Christian Ethics, Robin Parry points out the
mistake of treating the Mosaic Law as a legal code while completely ignoring nonlegal narrative texts that surround it.[20] The absence
of such narratives is glaringly apparent in cuneiform ANE Mesopotamian law codes
such as Hammurabi. The Mosaic covenant (Exod. 20-Num. 10) is incorporated into
the Pentateuch’s larger narrative of God’s dealings with the patriarchs and then
the people of Israel. Additionally, if Christ is the end of the Law, both its
fulfillment and its terminus (Rom. 10:4), then we have an even wider canonical
context available to assess OT ethical concerns.

We should not be deceived into thinking that the biblical narrative comes to a
sudden halt at Sinai. The Mosaic legislation is embedded in and surrounded by a
broader narrative framework that continues after the Israelites move on from
Sinai.[21] This fact should inform our perspective on
moral codes in the Pentateuch, as we shall see. In other words, God instructs
Israel not by laying down laws or principles but by telling stories of real
people as they relate to their Creator and Covenant Maker.

2. Motive clauses rooted in history.

Also unlike the Code of Hammurabi and other Mesopotamian law codes are the
various “motive clauses” in the Sinaitic legislation that ground divine commands
in Yahweh’s historical activity. For example, the first commandment with a
promise is: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long . .
.” (Exod. 20:12). Indeed, the prologue to the Decalogue affirms God’s saving
activity in history: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of
Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me”
(Exod. 20:2-3). Or, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy . . . for in six
days the Lord made heaven and earth . . . and rested on the Sabbath” (Exod.
20:8-11). Such motive clauses would be most plausibly situated in Israel’s
redemptive, storied setting.[22]

Israelites are commanded to imitate Yahweh, who acted in history and, in doing
so, set a pattern for them. By contrast, cuneiform laws such as Hammurabi are
never motivated by historical events: “unlike biblical laws, no cuneiform law is
ever motivated by reference to an historic event, a promise of well-being, or .
. . a divine will.”[23] In other ANE codes, the law is
given by human kings and monitored by gods. Unlike kingship in the ANE, Yahweh’s
rule did not require an earthly human representative. [24]
Thus, within the biblical narrative, laws are personally revealed by Israel’s

There is an obvious apologetical point here: God’s activity in
history-particularly in Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt-largely
generates the motivation for Israel’s own treatment of slaves, foreigners, and
the underprivileged within its borders. Without this historical context, it is
hard to account for such an emphasis.

3. Narrative moral insights and moral exemplars as more fundamental than legal

Richard Hays writes of the NT that “the narratives are more fundamental than any
secondary process of abstraction that seeks to distill their ethical import.”[25]
That is, we gain insight into, say, the more abstract commands or guidelines
found in the New Testament (for example, epistles or the Gospels’ teaching
sections) by observing what takes place in these historical narratives. They
serve as illustrative material for teaching sections. Recently, Richard Burridge
has forcefully argued this point: The four Gospels present Jesus’ life and
deeds, not merely his teachings, in the Greco-Roman genre of biographical
narratives or “lives”-bioi or vitae-to inspire mimesis (“imitation”) in the
reader.[26] The same pertains to the Acts of the Apostles.
Evangelicals have tended to overlook theological themes embedded in its
historical narrative, privileging the “clearer” theological instruction of the
epistles. However, as Craig Keener and Max Turner have noted, Luke is certainly
attempting to give theological instruction throughout his Acts narrative.[27]

Likewise, OT historical narratives often present role models in action who make
insightful moral judgments, show discernment, and exhibit integrity and passion
for God-aside from the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Wisdom books, which also
provide moral illumination. According to John Barton, the OT ethical model
incorporates the imitatio Dei, natural law, and obedience to God’s declared
will,[28] and we see narrative undergirding and permeating
each of these themes. Brevard Childs observes that the Torah’s legal material is
consistently intertwined with narrative, thus providing “a major commentary
within scripture as to how these commands are seen to function.”[29]

Unlike the new atheists, we should not approach the Law of Moses as a holiness
code detached from its broader narrative and canonical context-as though this
legislation offers an ultimate ethic with nothing further to consider.[30]
And while Christians can rightly criticize negative moral exemplars and actions
with the best of the new atheists, we should also recognize commendable
characters and their virtues well-Abraham’s selflessness and generosity toward
Lot (Gen. 13) or Joseph’s moral integrity and sexual purity as well as his
astonishing clemency towards treacherous, scheming brothers (Gen. 39, 45, 50).

Or consider race (remember Dawkins’s “xenophobic” charge). Yes, the Pentateuch’s
legal code in places does differentiate between Israelite and non-Israelite
slaves (for example, Exod. 12:43, where non-Israelites are not to partake in the
Passover); it grants remitting loans to Israelites but not to foreigners (Deut.
15:3); it allows for exacting interest from a foreigner but not from a fellow
Israelite (Deut. 23:20); Moabites and Ammonites are excluded from the sanctuary
(Deut. 23:3).[31] To stop here, as the new atheists do, is
to overlook the Pentateuch’s narrative indicating God’s concern for bringing
blessing to all humanity (Gen. 12:1-3). Even more fundamentally, human beings
have been created in God’s image as co-rulers with God over creation (Gen.
1:26-7; Ps. 8)-unlike the ANE mindset, in which the earthly king was the
image-bearer of the gods. The imago Dei establishes the fundamental equality of
human beings, despite the ethnocentrism and practice of slavery within Israel.

Indeed, another Pentateuchal narrative, Numbers 12, gives an insightful
theological perspective about race. Moses marries a black African woman-from
Cush/Ethiopia, which was south of Egypt and under Egyptian control at that time.
The term “Cushite” is mentioned twice for emphasis. Aaron and Miriam are very
upset about this marital arrangement-perhaps a power struggle because a new
person has entered into the circle of leadership. Despite the objections by
Moses’ siblings, Yahweh resoundingly approves of Moses’ marriage to a black
woman, highlighting his approval by turning Miriam’s skin white![32]

As we move beyond the Pentateuch, the same themes continue. Stories illustrate
ethical living with role models who live wisely, show graciousness, and make
remarkable sacrifices: three of David’s mighty men who exhibit loyalty and
self-sacrifice, risking their lives to bring him water from Bethlehem (2 Sam.
23); David’s refusal even to touch Saul despite the opportunity (1 Sam. 24);
Abigail’s wise handling of a troublesome situation (1 Sam. 25); and so forth.
These narratives also inform us that Israel’s kings, no matter how powerful, are
not above God’s law: Nathan confronts David about his murder and adultery (2
Sam. 12); Elijah challenges Ahab’s murder of Naboth (1 Kings 21); Uzziah is
struck with leprosy for assuming priestly prerogatives (2 Chron. 26). And even
more importantly, Israel’s story reveals a God who stoops and condescends,
working faithfully to fulfill his promises despite his people’s faithlessness.
Their defiance is especially clear at the golden calf incident (Exod. 32).
Israel, whom Yahweh embraces as his covenant bride, cheats on him while still on
the honeymoon! Dennett’s charge of “jealousy” is misguided. God responds out of
hurt and anger-a reaction we should rightly expect when such betrayal takes
place. Yet God repeatedly “remembers” his covenant and his promises. He helps
Israel be fruitful and multiply, bringing blessing to the nations, delivering
his people from slavery and death. Yet we also see Yahweh’s consistency in
carrying out his threats to do to Israel what he has done to other nations (Num.
33:56; Josh. 23:15).

As we read the OT narratives, we detect a clear Ethos (a moral environment or
atmosphere), as Eckart Otto affirms, rather than an Ethik (mere moral
prescriptions).[33] These stories and role models in the
OT canon remind us that lawcodes and rule-following are inadequate. Rather, we
see in them a spirit directing Israel to higher moral and spiritual ground.

4. The dangers of moving from “is” to “ought.”

It is a commonplace that OT authors are reticent to make moral judgments in
their stories.[34] When the new atheists draw assume
Scripture’s moral deficiency based on patriarchal trickery, Mosaic murder, or
Davidic adultery, they miss the point of the text. David, for instance, is not
being portrayed as an exemplum but as a mixed moral bag-similar to Greek
tragedies in which the hero has his deep flaws. In John Barton’s words,

David is not an exemplum but a person like ourselves, who illustrates the
difficulties of the moral life not by what he teaches but by what he does and
is. . . . The story of David handles human anger, lust, ambition, and disloyalty
without ever commenting explicitly on these things but by telling its tale in
such a way that the reader is obliged to look them in the face and to recognise
his or her affinity with the characters in whom they are exemplified.[35]

We could add how OT narrative writers subtly “deconstruct” major characters such
as Gideon or Solomon by exposing their questionable leadership qualities and
their spiritual compromise.[36]

While the new atheists are correct in pointing out moral flaws and horrendous
actions of OT characters, they often imply that “if it’s in the Bible, it must
be approved by the author.” Yet we see from 1 Corinthians 10 that many of
Israel’s stories involving stubbornness, treachery, and ingratitude are vivid
negative role models-ones to be avoided. The OT’s “is” does not amount to
“ought.” (Christopher Hitchens’s remarks about “the ungrateful and mutinous
children of Israel” is quite right!) OT descriptions are not necessarily
normative. Moreover, the hero status given by the OT to Abraham, Moses, David
(and echoed in the NT) is rooted not in their moral perfection but more so in
their uncompromising dedication to the cause of Yahweh and their rugged trust in
the promises of God rather than lapsing into the idolatry of many of their

B. We must allow the OT ethical discussion to
begin within an ANE setting, not a post-Enlightenment one.

1. Taking into account the harsh, cruel conditions of the ANE.

According to Bruce Birch, we moderns encounter a certain barrier as we approach
the subject of OT ethics. Simply put, the ANE world is “totally alien” and
“utterly unlike” our own social setting. This world includes slavery, polygamy,
war, patriarchal structures, kingship, ethnocentrism, and the like. His advice
is this:

Any treatment of the Hebrew Bible with regard to ethics, especially as an
ethical resource to contemporary communities, must acknowledge the impediment
created by the simple fact that these texts are rooted in a cultural context
utterly unlike our own, with moral presuppositions and categories that are alien
and in some cases repugnant to our modern sensibilities.[38]

The new atheists miss something significant here. They assume that the ANE
categories embedded within the Mosaic Law are the Bible’s moral pinnacle. They
are, instead, a springboard anticipating further development-or, perhaps more
accurately-pointing us back toward the loftier moral ideals of Genesis 1 and 2
and even 12. These ideals affirm the image of God in each person, lifelong
monogamous marriage, and God’s concern for the nations. The implications from
these foundational texts are monumental.

2. Incremental “humanizing” steps rather than a total overhaul of ANE cultural

As I shall develop further below, we should not view the OT as offering an ideal
ethic for all cultures across the ages. Rather than attempt to morally justify
all aspects of the Sinaitic legal code, we can affirm that God begins with an
ancient people who have imbibed dehumanizing customs and social structures from
their ANE context.[39] Yet this God desires to draw them
in and show them a better way:

if human beings are to be treated as real human beings who possess the power of
choice, then the “better way” must come gradually. Otherwise, they will exercise
their freedom of choice and turn away from what they do not understand.[40]

To completely overthrow these imbedded ANE attitudes, replacing them with some
post-Enlightenment ideal, utopian ethic would simply be overwhelming and in many
ways difficult to grasp. We can imagine a strong resistance to a complete
societal overhaul. Think of the difficulty of the West’s pressing for democracy
in nations whose tribal/social and religious structures do not readily
assimilate such ideals. Or even if a structure like slavery is eradicated, this
does not mean that the culture’s mindset will be changed along with it. Consider
how antebellum racial prejudice was not erased by abolition and the North’s
victory over the South. Prejudice would take new forms such as
separate-but-equal (Jim Crow) laws and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan.

As Alden Thompson argues, God is incrementally “humanizing” ANE structures
within Israel to diminish cruelty and elevate the status of, say, slaves and
women-even if such customs are not fully eliminated.[41]
So when Joshua kills five Canaanite kings and hangs their corpses on trees all
day (Josh. 10:22-7), we do not have to explain away or justify such a practice.
Rather, this reflects a less morally-refined condition. Yet such texts remind us
that, in the unfolding of his purposes, God can use heroes such as Joshua within
their context and work out his redemptive purposes despite themselves. Indeed,
we see a God who endures much rebellion and moral decline throughout the time of
the judges and during Israel’s monarchy, when idolatry was commonplace and
religious reforms were rare. Even later on when the Jews returned from Babylon,
Nehemiah was properly appalled by Jews opening themselves up to idolatry by
marrying foreign wives (for example, Neh. 13, esp. v. 25). Throughout the OT, we
see a God who is actually quite patient as he seeks to woo and influence a
stubborn, idol-prone people.[42] God’s legislation is
given to a less morally-mature culture that has imbibed the morally-inferior
attitudes and sinful practices of the ANE.

According to Birch, we should acknowledge rather than ignore or downplay
morally-objectionable practices and attitudes within Israel such as
patriarchalism, slavery, ethnocentrism, and the like. He adds a crucial point,
however: none of these practices and attitudes is “without contrary witness”
elsewhere in the OT.[43] The new atheists gloss over any
“contrary witness,” focusing only on the morally problematic. However, closer
examination reveals that Scripture itself (rather than twenty-first-century
critics) has the resources to guide us regarding what is ideal and normative and
what is temporary and sui generis in the Bible.[44]

John Goldingay urges us to appreciate the tension between the ideal and the
actual-between the high standards God desires from his covenant people and the
reality of dealing with a sinful, stubborn people in a covenant-unfriendly ANE

3. Contrasting the moral improvements of the Mosaic Law to ANE law codes.

Certain collections of cuneiform law exist. These include the laws of Ur-Nammu
(ca. 2100 BC, during the Third Dynasty of Ur); the laws of Lipit-Ishtar (ca.
1925 BC), who ruled the Sumerian city of Isin; the (Akkadian) laws of Eshnunna
(ca. 1800 BC), a city one hundred miles north of Babylon; the laws of Hammurabi
(1750 BC); and the Hittite laws (1650-1200 BC) of Asia Minor.[45]

There are certainly many parallels and overlapping themes within the Mosaic law
and various ANE law codes. These include legislation regarding perjury and false
witnesses (cp. Deut. 19:16-21), death penalty for murder (cp. Exod. 21:12), a
husband’s payment for false accusation of adultery (cp. Deut. 22:13-19), payment
for injury to an ox while renting it (cp. Exod. 22:14-15), and so forth. One of
the laws of Eshnunna (�53) is nearly identical to Exodus 21:35: “If an ox gores
an(other) ox causing its death, both ox owners shall divide the price of the
live ox and also the meat of the dead ox.”

Such similarities should not be surprising. For instance, we observe that the
book of Proverbs utilizes and adapts various sayings and maxims from the
Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope.[46] Another example of
strong ANE influence is the structure of Deuteronomy as a covenant treaty
between Yahweh and Israel; this is patterned after second-millennium BC Hittite
suzerainty treaties-with preamble, prologue, stipulations, blessings-curses, and
witnesses. Deuteronomy is markedly different in certain respects, though: Yahweh
is described as a loving, gracious initiative-taking God, not a mere suzerain;
also, Yahweh is not the chief beneficiary of this covenant (cp. Deut. 30:19-20).
In all of these examples, no one is denying ANE cultural influence in the Mosaic
Law, but we have no wholesale adoption either.[47]

How then does the Mosaic Law differ from ANE legal texts? We can observe general
disparities between cuneiform laws versus biblical laws: (1) secular laws versus
religious cultic-ceremonial ones; (2) laws made by kings (not gods) versus laws
from God mediated through Moses; (3) laws to glorify kings versus laws to
glorify God and to instruct (torah = “instruction”) people and shape a national
character; (4) laws reflecting king’s unlimited authority versus laws limiting
the king’s authority (for example, Deut. 17:14-20); (5) property crimes
punishable by death if a thief cannot pay (up to thirty-fold) versus property
crimes not being capital offenses but limited to five-fold restitution or
indentured servitude (not death) for those who cannot pay; (6) offenses against
slaves as on the same level as property crimes (for example, oxen) versus
offenses against slaves as persons of value; (7) religious sins not typically
capital offenses versus a number of religious sins as capital offenses-idolatry
(Deut. 13:6-9), false prophecy (Deut. 18:20), sorcery (Lev. 20:27), blasphemy
(Lev. 24:10-23), Sabbath violations (Num. 15:32-6). We could also add that
Israelite law is far more concerned about “the sanctity of life” than
Mesopotamian law.[48] Because of Yahweh’s covenant with
Israel, laws intending to preserve both the family unit and Yahweh’s unique
covenant/marriage relationship to Israel were paramount. Thus their violation
was a serious matter that would undermine Israel’s very identity.

What specific improvements could we highlight? Regarding slavery, Christopher
Wright declares: “The slave [in Israel] was given human and legal rights unheard
of in contemporary societies.”[49] Mosaic legislation
offered a radical advance for ANE cultures. According to the Anchor Bible
, “We have in the Bible the first appeals in world literature to treat
slaves as human beings for their own sake and not just in the interests of their
masters.”[50] Kidnapping a person to sell as a slave was
punishable by death: “He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found
in his possession, shall surely be put to death” (Exod. 21:16; see also 1 Tim.
1:10). This biblical prohibition presents a marked repudiation of the kidnapping
of Africans that ushered in the era of more recent Western slavery. Yet the new
atheists seem given to blur any such distinctions. While other ANE cultures may
too have prohibited kidnapping, the Mosaic Law stands out in sharp moral
contrast to their standard extradition treaties for, and harsh treatment of,
runaway slaves. Hammurabi called for the death penalty to those helping runaway
slaves [�16]).[51] Israel, however, was to offer safe
harbor to foreign runaway slaves (Deut. 23:15-16).

Indeed, Hebrew slaves were to be granted release in the seventh year (Lev.
29:35-43)-a notable improvement over other ANE law codes.[52]
Furthermore, masters had to release them from service with generous provisions,
all conducted with the right attitude for the slave’s well-being as he enters
into freedom: “Beware that there is no base thought in your heart . . . and your
eye is hostile toward your poor brother” (Deut. 15:9). The motivating reason for
all of this is the fact “that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the
Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today” (Deut. 15:12-18,
esp. v. 15). The overriding goal in Deuteronomy 15 is that there be no slavery
in the land at all
(vv. 4, 11). Gordon McConville calls this “revolutionary.”[53]

Another marked improvement is in the release of injured slaves themselves (Exod.
21:20-1). This is in contrast to their masters merely being compensated, which
is typical in the ANE codes. Elsewhere in the OT, Job recognizes that he and his
slaves have the same Maker and come from the same place-their mother’s womb
(Job. 31:15). Later in Amos (2:6; 8:6), slavery is again repudiated. Thus,
Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris notwithstanding, such improvements-or
pointers back to Genesis 1:26-27-can hardly be called “a warrant for trafficking
in humans” or treating them “like farm equipment.”

We can mention the inferior sexual morality of the ANE. We are familiar with the
Canaanite qedeshot-the female and male cult prostitutes (cp. Gen. 38:15, 22-3; Deut.
23:18-19; also Hos. 4:14). A number of ANE cuneiform laws permitted activities
that undermined the family’s integrity and stability by allowing men, for
instance, to engage in adulterous relations with slaves and prostitutes. The
laws of Lipit-Ishtar of Lower Mesopotamia (1930 BC) take for granted the
practice of prostitution (for example, ¶¶27, 30). In Hittite law (1650-1500 BC),
“If a father and son sleep with the same female slave or prostitute, it is not
an offence” (¶194). Hittite law even permitted bestiality: “If a man has sexual
relations with either a horse or a mule, it is not an offence” (¶200a).[54]

Not only do we find morally-inferior cuneiform legislation, but its attendant
harsh, ruthless punishments. Commenting on the brutal and harsh Code of
Hammurabi, historian Paul Johnson observes: “These dreadful laws are notable for
the ferocity of their physical punishments, in contrast to the restraint of the
Mosaic Code and the enactments of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.”[55]
For instance, Hammurabi’s code stresses the centrality of property whereas the
laws in the “Book of the Covenant” (Exod. 21-23) consider crimes against persons
to be far more weighty.[56]

For certain crimes, Hammurabi mandated that tongue, breast, hand, or ear be cut
off (��192, 194, 195, 205).[57] One punishment involved
the accused’s being dragged around a field by cattle. Babylon and Assyria (as
well as Sumer) practiced the River Ordeal: when criminal evidence was
inconclusive, the accused would be thrown into the river; if he drowned, he was
guilty (the river god’s judgment), but if he survived, he was innocent and the
accuser was guilty of false accusation.[58] Besides
punishments such as cutting off noses and ears, ancient Egyptian law permitted
the beating of criminals (for, say, perjury or libel) with between one hundred
and two hundred strokes.[59] In fact, a one-hundred-stroke
beating was the “mildest form of punishment.”[60] Contrast
this with Deuteronomy 25:1-3, which sets a limit of forty strokes for a
criminal: “He may beat him forty times but no more, so that he does not beat him
with many more stripes than these.” The reason? So that “your brother is not
degraded in your eyes.” Furthermore, in Babylonian or Hittite law, status or
social rank determined the kind of sanctions for a particular crime whereas
biblical law holds kings and priests and those of social rank to the same
standards as the common person.[61] The informed
inhabitant of the ANE would have thought, “Quick, get me to Israel!”

Our interlocutor might ask: What about Scripture’s emphasis on lex talionis-an
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Is this not a brutal retribution? First,
an investigation of the Pentateuch’s lex talionis texts (Exod. 21:23-5; Lev.
24:17-22; Deut. 19:16-21) reveals that, except for capital punishment (“life for
life”), these are not taken literally. None of the examples illustrating “an eye
for an eye” calls for bodily mutilation, but rather just (monetary)
compensation. Brevard Childs comments on the uniqueness of this approach: “Thus
the principle of lex talionis marked an important advance and was far from being
a vestige from a primitive age.”[62] Second, this
principle served as useful guide for exacting proportional punishment and
compensation; this was designed to prevent blood feuds and disproportionate acts
of retaliation.

4. The increased complexity and stringency of Mosaic regulations in response to
Israel’s disobedience.

The historian Tacitus (AD 55-120) wrote of Rome: “The more corrupt the Republic,
the more numerous the laws.”[63] Consider how a rebellious
child will often need external rules, severe deadlines, and close supervision to
hold him over until (hopefully) an internal moral change takes place. Rules,
though a stop-gap measure, are hardly the ideal.

Something similar happens in the Pentateuch. While the new atheists would
consider the Mosaic Law to be ruthless and strict, there is an aspect to it that
accommodates a morally-undeveloped ANE cultural mindset. Another dimension of
this harshness seems to be a response to the rebellious, covenant-breaking
propensity of the Israelites.

John Sailhamer has argued that God at Sinai desired to have not some priestly
elite as mediators, but all the people of Israel to approach him as priest-kings
(Exod. 19:6) God wished that the entire nation would come to meet him at the
mountain. but the people resisted this, pleading rather for Moses to go up in
their stead. Even so, God’s initial Sinai legislation was an uncomplicated code
for the people (Exod. 21-23)-and another simple code for a priestly order that
would now be formed (Exod. 25-31:18). Yet in light of Aaron’s failure as high
priest in the golden calf incident (Exod. 32) and of the people’s worship of the
goat idols (Lev. 17:1-9), God responded by clamping down and tightening the
restrictions on the priests (Exod. 35-Lev. 16) and the Israelite community (Lev.
17:10-26:46), respectively. He gave both groupings more severe and complex laws to
follow.[64] These strictures-a “yoke,” Peter called them,
“which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10)-were not
God’s ideal. Israel asked for it.

Narrative Exodus 19:1-25: Initiating a covenant with simple stipulations, God intends to
meet with Israel on the mountain as a “kingdom of priests” (v. 6). The people
agree to it (v. 8) but then refuse to draw near to God (vv. 16-17). They tell
Moses to represent them. (Thus, a tabernacle and priesthood will be needed.) The
people’s fear is observed from a divine perspective.
Ten Commands Exodus 20:1-17: The giving of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and Covenant Code
(Exod. 20:22-23:33) in response to the people’s fear.
Narrative Exodus 20:18-21: The people’s fear described as from their own perspective. So
the groundwork is being laid for a tabernacle (Exod. 25-31)-those who are “far
off” must be brought near to God.
Covenant Code Exodus 20:22-23:33: Idolatry prohibited and simple offerings of praise and
sacrifice as the basis of Israel’s relationship with God, as in the patriarchal
Narrative Exodus 24: The covenant reestablished at Sinai.
Priestly Code Exodus 25-31: The tabernacle (with priesthood) providing for the people to meet
with God.
Narrative Exodus 32-34: The failure of Aaron/the priesthood in the golden calf event
(chap. 32). God shows grace and compassion (chap. 33), and the covenant is
renewed (chap. 34).
Priestly Code
(Directed to the priests)
Exodus 35-Leviticus 16: More laws needed for the priests.
Narrative Leviticus 17:1-9: The failure of the people, who worship the goat idols.
Holiness Code
(Directed to the people)
Leviticus 17:10-26:46: More laws needed for the people. The covenant is renewed
again; God says he will remember his people despite future disobedience (Lev.

This scenario appears to be exactly what Jeremiah 7:2 suggests: “For in the day
I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or
command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave
them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you will be my people; and you
will walk in the way I will command you so that it would be well with you.”
Galatians 3:19 emphasizes much the same thing: “Why the Law then? It was added
[to the initial, simple covenant] because of [the people’s] transgression.” The
Law-a temporary rather than permanent fixture-would give way to a new covenant
under Christ (Gal. 3:22).

So, although Israel and all humankind still needed the redemption that would
eventually come through Christ, God still desired a simpler form of worship with
the entire nation of Israel as a kingdom of priests (Exod. 19:6). Israel,
however, would forfeit this for something much more severe and complex.

5. Differing ethical demands for differing historical contexts in OT Israel’s

We can go beyond the Pentateuch, though, to survey the entire OT, observing the
various ethical obligations that arise at each stage of Israel’s history. John
Goldingay’s Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament proves
to be a helpful guide here, furnishing an illuminating study of the historical
contexts or stages of Israel’s unfolding story and the different ethical
responses each calls for. These corresponding ethical responsibilities suggest
that we not turn these particular required responses into timeless moral
truths-even though the OT does furnish us with permanent moral insights as well.

Goldingay presents the very simple progression: Israel moved from being an
ancestral wandering clan (mishpachah [Gen. 10:31-2]) to a theocratic nation (am
[Exod. 1:9; 3:7] or goy [Gen. 12:2; Judg. 2:20]) to a monarchy, institutional
state, or kingdom (mamlakah [1 Sam. 24:20; 1 Chron. 28:5]), then an afflicted
remnant (sheerith [Jer. 42:4; Ezek. 5:10]), and finally a postexilic
community/assembly of promise (qahal [Ezra 2:64; Neh. 13:1]).[66]

Along with these historical changes came differing ethical challenges. For
example, during the wandering clan stage, Abraham and the other patriarchs had
only accidental or exceptional political involvements. And even when Abraham had
to rescue Lot after a raid (Gen. 14), he refused to profit from political
benefactors. Through a covenant-bond, Yahweh was the vulnerable patriarchs’
protector and supplier.

Then after Israel had to wait over four hundred years and undergo bondage in
Egypt while the sin of the Amorites was building to full measure (Gen. 15:16),
God delivered them out of slavery and provided a place for them to live as a
nation-“a political entity with a place in the history books.” Yahweh had now
created a theocracy-a religious, social, and political environment in which
Israel had to live. Yet she needed to inhabit a land, which would include
warfare. So Yahweh fought on behalf of Israel while bringing just judgment upon
a Canaanite culture that had sunk hopelessly below any hope of moral return
(with the rare exception of Rahab and her family)-a situation quite unlike the
time of the patriarchy.

Let me add a few more thoughts about warfare here. First, Israel would not have
been justified to attack the Canaanites without Yahweh’s explicit command.
Yahweh issued his command in light of a morally-sufficient reason-the
incorrigible wickedness of Canaanite culture. Second, the language of
Deuteronomy 7:2-5 assumes that, despite Yahweh’s command to bring punishment to
the Canaanites, they would not be obliterated-hence the warnings not to make
political alliances or intermarry with them. We see from this passage too that
wiping out Canaanite religion was far more significant than wiping out the
Canaanites themselves.[67] Third, the “obliteration
language” in Joshua (for example, “he left no survivor” and “utterly destroyed
all who breathed” [10:40]) is clearly hyperbolic. Consider how, despite such
language, the text of Joshua itself assumes Canaanites still inhabit the land:
“For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which
remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and
they with you, know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to
drive these nations out from before you” (23:12-13). Joshua 9-12 utilizes the
typical ANE’s literary conventions of warfare.[68]

Fourth, the crux of the issue this: if God exists, does he have any prerogatives
over human life? The new atheists seem to think that if God existed, he should
have a status no higher than any human being. Thus, he has no right to take life
as he determines. Yet we should press home the monumental difference between God
and ordinary human beings. If God is the author of life, he is not obligated to
give us seventy or eight years of life. As philosopher Charles Taliaferro

If there is a robust sense in which the cosmos belongs to God, then God’s moral
standing from the outset is radically unequal to ours. . . . Arguably our rights
[to, say, property or privacy or even life] are at least hedged if the ownership
of God is taken seriously. Being thus beholden to God would not seem to entitle
God to create beings solely to torment them, but if life is indeed a gift from
God which no creature deserves . . . , then certain complaints about the created
order may be checked.[69]

That being the case, he can take the lives of the Canaanites indirectly through
Israel’s armies (or directly, as he did when Sodom was destroyed in
Genesis 19) according to his good purposes and morally sufficient reasons. What
then of “innocent women and children”? Keep in mind that when God destroyed
Sodom, he was willing to spare the city if there were even ten innocent persons.
Not even ten could be found. Given the moral depravity of the Canaanites, the
women were far from innocent. (Compare seduction of Israelite males by Midianite
women in Numbers 25.)

What then of the children? Death would be a mercy, as they would be ushered into
the presence of God and spared the corrupting influences of a morally decadent
culture. But what of terrorized mothers trying to protect their innocent
children while Israelite armies invade? Here, perhaps a just war analogy might
help. A cause might be morally justified (for example, stopping the aggression
of Hitler and Japan), even if innocent civilians might be killed-an unfortunate
“collateral damage” that comes with such scenarios. Furthermore, the infants and
children who were killed by the Israelites would, in the afterlife, come to
God’s just purposes, despite the horrors and terrors of war. They
would side with God in the rightness of his purposes-even if it had meant
temporary terror. This is precisely what the apostle Paul said elsewhere: he
considered his own hardships and suffering-which included being beaten, stoned,
imprisoned, shipwrecked, and the like (2 Cor. 11:23-7)-to be “momentary, light
affliction” in comparison to the “eternal weight of glory” that “surpasses them”
(2 Cor. 4:17).

Let’s turn back to Goldingay. Enduring insights derived from the wandering clan
stage include the commitments of mutual love and concern and the importance of
reconciliation in overcoming conflict. We see a people in between promise and
fulfillment, dependent upon God who graciously initiated a covenant and then
calls for full trust as he leads and guides through unforeseeable circumstances.
At the theocratic stage of Israel’s history, enduring insights include
acknowledgment that any blessing and prosperity comes from the hand of God, not
as a right but as the result of grace. The people of God must place their
confidence in God rather than themselves or their holy calling. They must
remember that “it is the rebellious nation that cannot exist in the world as the
theocracy because of its sin.”[70]

These are an example of how Israel at different stages of development faces
various challenges that require distinct responses. However, the biblical
narrative presents permanent insights for the people of God that rise above the
historical particularities and the sui generis. Goldingay, urges us to
appreciate the tension between the ideal and the actual-between the high
standards God desires from his covenant people and the reality of dealing with a
sinful, stubborn people in a covenant-unfriendly ANE environment.[71]

C. The OT canon manifests a warm moral and spiritual tone as well as a
redemptive spirit, urging national Israel toward a more noble ideal than is
possible through legislature.

1. Distinguishing between the legal and the moral.

In most societies, laws are often pragmatic; they stand as a compromise between
the ideal and the enforceable. Critics often make the mistake of confusing
law-keeping with ethics. To use contemporary categories, there is a difference between “positive
law” and “natural law” (or, “divine intent”). The Mosaic Law is truly a moral
improvement upon the surrounding ANE cultures-justifiably called “spiritual” and
“good” (Rom. 7:14, 16) and reflective of Yahweh’s wisdom (Deut. 6:5-8).[72]
Yet it is self-confessedly less than ideal. Contrary to the new atheists’
assumptions, the Law is not the permanent and fixed theocratic standard for all
nations, world without end, amen. As Gordon Wenham indicates, the OT’s legal
codes do not express “the ideals of the law-givers, but only the limits of their
tolerance: if you do such and such, you will be punished.”[73]

Let us consider polygamy as an example: Why did God not ban polygamy outright in
favor of monogamy? Why allow a double standard for men who can take multiple
wives while a woman can only have one husband?[74] For one
thing, despite the practical problems of polygamy, Wenham suggests it was
permitted perhaps because monogamy would have been difficult to enforce.[75]
Furthermore, the biblical writers “hoped for better behavior,” as the Pentateuch
makes clear the ideal that existed at the very beginning (Gen. 2:24-note the
singular “wife” as well as “father and mother”). Indeed, Scripture regularly
portrays polygamy as an undesirable marital arrangement,[76]
and it warns the man most likely to be polygamous-the king: “He shall not
multiply wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (Deut. 17:17).[77]
King Solomon in particular is guilty in this flagrant act of disobedience (1
Kings 11:3).

And even if polygamy was tolerated (and, we could add, divorce fairly easy to
obtain), this does not negate the ideal of a husband and wife loving and
cleaving to each other in a lifelong faithful monogamous relationship set forth
at the beginning (Gen. 2:24).[78] The mutuality of an
exclusive marriage was the general expectation,[79] and
this is precisely what Yahweh models with Israel (cp. Hosea; Jer. 3:18; Mal.
2:16). Biblical writers hope that God’s people will recognize and live by this
ideal-and be aware that polygamy is a deviation from it.

2. The “hardness of heart” and “forbearance” principles as insights into the
status of much Mosaic legislation.

In Matthew 19, Jesus sheds light on matters Mosaic when he comments that the Law
tolerated morally inferior conditions because of the hardness of human hearts.
Jesus’ discussion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (which deals with a certificate of
divorce permitted under Moses) marks moral progress that moves beyond the Mosaic
ethic. Jesus acknowledges Deuteronomy 24’s limits to permitting divorce due to
human hard-heartedness: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you
to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matt.
19:8). Jesus’ approach reminds us that there is a multilevel ethic that cautions
against a monolithic, single-level approach that simply “parks” at Deuteronomy
24 and does not consider the redemptive component of this legislation. The
certificate of divorce was to protect the wife, who would, by necessity, have to
remarry to come under the shelter of a husband to escape poverty and shame. This
law took into consideration the well-being of the wife, but it was not an ideal
or absolute ethic.

The same can be said of God’s permitting a strong patriarchalism, slavery,
polygamy, primogeniture laws, and warfare that were common within the ANE
context: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted slavery and
patriarchy and warfare the like, but from the beginning it has not been this
way.” When challenged about matters Mosaic, Jesus would frequently point to the
spirit or divinely-intended ideal toward which humans should strive.[80]
God’s condescension to the human condition in the Mosaic Law is an attempt to
move Israel toward the ideal without being unrealistically optimistic. Rather
than banishing all evil social structures, Sinaitic legislation frequently deals
with the practical facts of fallen human culture while pointing them to God’s
greater designs for humanity.[81]

So on the obverse (human) side of the coin, we have the “hardness of heart”
principle. Yet on the reverse (divine) side, we have the “forbearance”
principle, which is in place up to the Christ-event. God in Christ “demonstrates
His righteousness” though “in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins
previously committed
” (Rom. 3:25). Likewise, Paul declares to the Athenians:
“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men
that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He
will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed,
having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-1).
Both the hardness-of-heart and divine-forbearance principles go hand in hand,
offering a corrective to the new atheist assumptions that OT legislation is the

3. The “restraining” rather than “ideal” Mosaic legislation as part of
Scripture’s redemptive movement and warm moral impulse.

The new atheists tend to view OT ethical considerations in a static manner-a
one-size-fits-all legislation for all nations. They fail to note the unfolding
“redemptive-movement” of God’s self-revelation to his people even within the OT.[82]
As we read the Scriptures, we are regularly reminded of an advancing, though
still-imperfect, ethic on the surface while various subterranean moral ideals
(for example, the divine image in all humans, lifelong monogamous marriage, and
Yahweh’s concern for the nations) continue to flow gently along. Yahweh
redirects his people morally, theologically, and spiritually to move beyond the
mindset of surrounding cultures. As we have seen, he does not, on the one hand,
completely abolish ANE problematic, socially-accepted practices as slavery,
polygamy, patriarchy, and the like. On the other hand, Israel’s laws reveal a
dramatic, humanizing improvement over the practices of the other ANE peoples.

Let us revisit the case of slavery, going into a bit more detail here. Slavery
is not prohibited outright. There are certainly negative aspects to it such as
the possibility of limited beating of slaves (which, if severe, was punishable),
the favoring of Israelite slaves over foreign slaves, and so forth. Yet Mosaic
legislation simultaneously expresses the hopeful goal of eradicating slavery-a
theme of Deuteronomy 15-while both diminishing the staying power of slavery in
light of the exodus and controlling the institution of slavery in light of the
practical fact that misfortune in a subsistence culture could reduce anyone to
poverty and indebtedness.[83] Indeed, God’s reminder to
Israel of her own history exposes the reality of this institution as
less-than-ideal. God had redeemed Israel from slavery to become his people
(Exod. 20:7), and his redemptive activity was to be a model for Israel’s conduct
within society-however miserably she happened to fail at this: “You shall not
wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt
(Exod. 22:21). Even more poignant is Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a
stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also
were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Indeed, the command to love a stranger as
oneself is rooted in the fact that “you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Lev.
19:34). The new atheists overlook or avoid these strong undertones, which help
sow the seeds of slavery’s own destruction.

What is more, the three main texts regarding slave legislation (Exod. 21; Lev.
25; Deut. 15) reveal a morally-improved legislation as the text progresses. Some
might argue that these texts are hopelessly contradictory. Christopher Wright
(in response to Gordon McConville) persuasively contends, however, that we
should give the final Pentateuchal editor(s) the benefit of the doubt, who would
certainly have been aware of these differences but kept all of these texts in
place; this suggests a possible reconciliation or rationale for doing so. Wright
sees Deuteronomy “modifying, extending, and to some extent reforming earlier
laws, with additional explicit theological rationale and motivation.” He goes so
far as to say that while Exodus 21 emphasizes the humanness of slaves, even the
ancient Israelite would recognize that Deuteronomy 15 was in tension with
earlier legislation. So, to obey Deuteronomy “necessarily meant no longer
complying with Exodus.” This point serves to illustrate the “living, historical
and contextual nature of the growth of Scripture.”[84]
Reflecting upon the wider canonical framework reminds us that we should not
focus on one single text alone. Indeed, Genesis 1-2 remind us of God’s
creational ideals that were clouded and distorted by human fallenness.

We have something of a parallel scenario in the patriarchal laws of
primogeniture, which are subtly undermined in the OT. Despite male-favoring
Mosaic legislation at various points, we see another side in Numbers 27:1-11.
The daughters of the deceased and sonless Zelophehad appeal to Moses against the
male-favoring inheritance laws in light of women’s particular circumstances.
Moses takes this matter before Yahweh, and the daughters’ appeal is granted. We
see Yahweh’s willingness to adapt ANE structures when humans seek to change in
light of a deeper moral insight and willingness to move toward the ideal. Even
earlier, various OT narratives subtly attack the laws of primogeniture as the
younger regularly supersedes the elder (Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael,
Jacob over Esau, Joseph/Judah over Reuben).[85] In this
biblical sampling, we have a subversive and more democratic ethic that, though
not ideal and in places overlapping, is a drastic improvement over cuneiform

When we get to the NT, Jesus-and we could add Paul-points us beyond a static
interpretation of various OT requirements to the moral, redemptive spirit
underlying the text. He considers Sabbath laws in terms of what benefits humans
(Luke 13:14-16; John 7:22-4). He appeals to OT narratives such as David’s taking
the priestly showbread when he and his men were hungry (Mark 2:24-7). He
observes that even priests “break” the Sabbath yet are exempt from censure
(Matt. 12:5; John 7:22). He emphasizes the inner condition of the heart over a
strict kosher diet (Mark 7:18-23)

To sum up here, the Law of Moses contains seeds for moral growth and glimmers of
light illuminating a clearer moral path. Yes, God prohibits the worship of other
gods and the fashioning of graven images, but the ultimate desire is that
Yahweh’s people love him wholeheartedly. Love cannot be reduced to the
restraining influence of laws, and enjoying God’s presence is not identical to
simply avoiding idols.[87]

4. The seriousness of sin and the sovereign prerogatives of Yahweh.

Like Narnia’s Aslan, Yahweh, though gracious and compassionate (Exod. 34:6), is
not to be trifled with. The new atheists seem to resist the notion of Yahweh’s
rightful prerogatives over humans precisely because they seem uncomfortable with
the idea of judgment in any form.[88] Yes, Yahweh begins
with the thus-and-so-ness of life in the ANE, graciously accommodating a sinful
people surrounded by sinful social structures in hopes of directing them towards
the ideal.[89] Deuteronomy regularly notes the radical
sinfulness and stubbornness of Israel, not their moral superiority over other
nations. In 9:4-13, Yahweh reminds Israel that their inheriting the land is not
by virtue of their own “righteousness” or “uprightness” but rather because of
the other nations’ “wickedness.” After all, Israel is “a stubborn
people”-indeed, “rebellious” ever since they left Egypt. God must reveal himself
with holy firmness-at times, fierceness-to get the attention of these rebels,
not to mention the surrounding nations.

The new atheists consider Yahweh to be impatient, jealous, and easily provoked.
In actual fact, God endures much rejection from his people. God is often
exasperated with and hurt by his people, asking, “What more was there to do for
My vineyard [Israel] that I have not done in it?” (Isa. 5:4). Again: “How I have
been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their
eyes which played the harlot after their idols” (Ezek. 6:9). And again: “I have
spread out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in the way
which is not good, following their own thoughts, a people who continually
provoke Me to My face” (Isa. 65:2-3).

Thus when Dawkins accuses God of breaking into a “monumental rage whenever his
chosen people flirted with a rival god”-as “nothing so much as sexual jealousy
of the worst kind”-he seems to show utter disregard for the significance of the
marriage covenant-and, in particular, this unique bond between God and his
people. Israel had not simply “flirted” with rival gods, but had cohabited with
them, going from one lover to another, “playing the harlot” (cp. Ezek. 16 and
23). Hosea’s notable portrayal of Israel as a prostitute-not a mere flirt-is far
more serious than Dawkins’s casual dismissal. The appropriate response to
adultery is anger and hurt. When there is none, we rightly wonder how deeply and
meaningfully committed to marriage one truly is.

5. The repeated call to imitate Yahweh’s character and redemptive activity as
capturing the OT’s ethical spirit and providing an abiding moral norm.

Brevard Childs remarks that OT ethics is not a mere cultural phenomenon of
mimicking ANE cultures. Rather, it offers judgments and wisdom based on the
context of a divine-human covenant relationship and the human response to God’s
character-an imitatio Dei.[90] God’s holy character
becomes a norm for Israel: “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev.
19:2). In addition, his redemptive activity serves as a model for the people of
Israel to follow: “He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows
His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for
the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18-19).

Likewise, in Deuteronomy 24:18, Yahweh tells his people: “But you shall remember
that you were a slave in Egypt, and that the Lord your God redeemed you from
there; therefore I am commanding you to do this thing.” This is the chief reason
Israel was to show compassion to the poor, the stranger, the oppressed; Israel
was in a similar position while enslaved in Egypt, and Yahweh repeatedly reminds
Israel of his partiality to the dispossessed.[91]

The model of Yahweh’s character and saving action is embedded within and
surrounding Israel’s legislation. This is what Christopher Wright calls a
“compassionate drift” in the Law. This drift cannot be reduced to a moral code,
but involves something far deeper:

protection for the weak, especially those who lacked the natural protection of
family and land (namely, widows, orphans, Levites, immigrants and resident
aliens); justice for the poor; impartiality in the courts; generosity at harvest
time and in general economic life; respect for persons and property, even of an
enemy; sensitivity to the dignity even of the debtor; special care for strangers
and immigrants; considerate treatment of the disabled; prompt payment of wages
earned by hired labour; sensitivity over articles taken in pledge; consideration
for people in early marriage, or in bereavement; even care for animals, domestic
and wild, and for fruit trees. . . . it would be well worth pausing with a Bible
to read through the passages in the footnote, to feel the warm heartbeat of all
this material.[92]

Along these lines, Mignon Jacobs notes an OT “theology of concern for the
underprivileged.”[93] Yahweh’s character and activity
provide God’s people-indeed, all humanity-with a clear moral vision.

In their zealous preoccupation with the negative in OT ethics, the new atheists
neglect this repeated undertone in the Law of Moses itself-Yahweh’s gracious,
compassionate character and his saving action.

6. The planned obsolescence of the Mosaic Law and its fulfillment in Christ.

A final consideration for our discussion is the self-confessed “planned
obsolescence” for national Israel and the Mosaic Law. Although Sinai makes
significant advances over surrounding ANE cultures, the Law is not viewed as the
final word. A new covenant will come, in which the Law is written on the heart-a
covenant bypassing the old one and incorporating the nations as the people of
God (for example, Jer. 31; Ezek. 36-7). In the words of N. T. Wright, “the Torah
is given for a specific period of time, and is then set aside-not because it was
a bad thing now happily abolished, but because it was a good thing whose purpose
had now been accomplished.”[94]

Robin Parry reminds us that if we allow that the Christ-event is part of the
plot line, then we are obligated to allow it “cast its significance back onto
our understanding of earlier texts.”[95] The broader
canonical context of the NT sheds light on OT legal texts and further draws out
the creational designs and the “compassionate drift” found in OT texts. Yet we
cannot forget that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves reveal a moral development
and a dynamic ethical response to emerging situations. (For instance, the
killing of the Canaanites, which is limited to Joshua’s generation, stands in
sharp contrast to Israel’s duty to “seek the welfare” of Babylon where it was
exiled [Jer. 29:7].)

Again, in their own right, OT texts provide us with enduring, normative
perspectives about human dignity and fallenness and with moral insights
regarding justice, faithfulness, mercy, generosity, and the like. Indeed, Christ
is often reaffirming this by normatively citing OT texts about loving God and
neighbor or calling Israel back to live by God’s creational designs rather than
hardened hearts.[96]

However, given an enlarged canonical perspective, the OT anticipates a further
work that God achieves in Christ. Hebrews reminds us that he brings a “better”
and more substantial fulfillment out of the OT’s “shadows.” He fully embodies
humanity’s and Israel’s story. So if we stop at OT texts without allowing
Christ-the second Adam and the new, true Israel-to illuminate them, our reading
and interpretation of the OT will be greatly impoverished.

Final Thoughts

I would like to draw a few strands together here by revisiting the comments of
our “new atheist” friends.

A. Naturalism’s foundations cannot account for ethical normativity; theism is
better positioned to do so.

Though Dawkins accuses Yahweh of being a moral monster, one wonders how Dawkins
can launch any moral accusation. This is utterly inconsistent with his total
denial of evil and goodness elsewhere:

If the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies . .
. are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good
fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention . . . . The
universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is,
at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind
pitiless indifference.[97]

In The Devil’s Chaplain, he asserts: “Science has no methods for deciding what
is ethical. That is a matter for individuals and for society.”[98]
If science alone gives us knowledge, as Dawkins claims (actually, this is
scientism), then how can he deem Yahweh’s actions to be immoral?

Furthermore, Sam Harris’s attempt to “demolish the intellectual and moral
pretensions of Christianity” is quite ironic for a several reasons. First,
contrary to assertions by the new atheists, who view biblical theism as the
enemy, it has historically served as a moral compass for Western civilization,
despite a number of notable deviations from Jesus’ teaching across the centuries
(for example, the Crusades, Inquisition). In fact, a number of recent works have
made a strong case that biblical theism has served as a foundation for the
West’s moral development.[99]

Second, despite the new atheists’ appeals to science, they ignore the profound
influence of the Jewish-Christian worldview on the West’s scientific enterprise.[100]
Despite naturalists’ hijacking the foundations of science as their own,
physicist Paul Davies sets forth the simple truth: “Science began as an
outgrowth of theology, and all scientists, whether atheists or theists . . .
accept an essentially theological worldview.”[101]

Third, the new atheists somehow gloss over the destructive atheistic ideologies
that have led to far greater loss of human life within one century than
“religion” (let alone “Christendom”) with its wars, Inquisitions, and witch
trials. Dinesh D’Souza notes this “indisputable fact”: “all the religions of the
world put together have in 2,000 years not managed to kill as many people as
have been killed in the name of atheism in the past few decades. . . . Atheism,
not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history.”[102]

Fourth, while we can certainly agree with Harris that we can know objective
moral truths “without reference to scripture,” we are left wondering how human
value and dignity could emerge given naturalism’s valueless, mindless,
materialist origins. If, on the other hand, humans are made in the divine image
and are morally constituted to reflect God in certain ways, then atheists as
well as theists can recognize objective right and wrong and human
dignity-without the assistance of special revelation (Rom. 2:14-15). But the
atheist is still left without a proper metaphysical context for affirming such
moral dignity and responsibility. And despite Harris’s claims, naturalism seems
to be morally pretentious in claiming the moral high ground, though without any
metaphysical basis for doing so. No, biblical theism, with its emphasis on God’s
creating humans in his image, is our best hope for grounding objective moral
values and human dignity and worth.[103]

B. The new atheists ignore the sui generis status of Israel’s theocracy.

Dawkins is concerned about those who “bossily try to force the same evil monster
(whether fact or fiction) on the rest of us.” Those who scare Dawkins scare me
as well. Despite theonomists and Manifest Destiny Americans who may press for a
“return to Christian America,” such positions are a misrepresentation of
Scripture, which opposes any theocratic utopianism for Christians in this fallen
world.[104] National Israel’s theocratic status, however,
was unique, short-lived, and unrepeatable, and her political role and identity
as God’s people in redemptive history came to a dramatic end in AD 70.[105]
An interethnic (Jewish-Gentile) community in Christ has emerged as the true
Israel (cp. Rom. 2:28-9; 1 Pet. 2:9). For Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris to
assume that a consistent Christianity is essentially theocratic is out of touch
with Scripture’s emphasis on Christians as resident aliens, whose ultimate
citizenship is not of this world (Phil. 3:20; 1 Pet. 2:11). The
nonnationalistic, multiethnic church-the new Israel-is now called to live as
salt and light in this world, revealing by lives of love, peacemaking, and unity
that they are Christ’s disciples (John 13:35).

C. The new atheists wrongly assume that the OT presents an ideal ethic, while
ignoring the OT’s redemptive spirit and creational ideals.

Despite Dawkins’s surprising hostility towards religious belief, he has
something of a point when he mentions the “ubiquitous weirdness” of the OT.
Similarly, Hitchens refers to OT authors as “crude, uncultured human animals.”
The Christian can agree that aspects of the OT reflect a problematic and
more-primitive ANE moral framework, which Israel had assimilated. Rather than
idealize it, though, we should look to certain fixed creational considerations
such as the image of God and committed monogamous marriage to inform us as we
navigate the OT’s challenging waters. Genesis 1-2 undercuts ANE structures
approving of racism, slavery, patriarchy, primogeniture, concubinage,
prostitution, infant sacrifice, and the like.

So Harris’s claim that the OT represents “God’s timeless wisdom” is a gross
misrepresentation. While the Mosaic Law represents marked moral improvements
over other ANE cultures, it still permits but regulates imbedded negative
patterns due to the hardness of human hearts.

The new atheists repeatedly attack the biblical witness for what it does not
endorse. Christians can readily acknowledge that the OT text itself is not
claiming an ideal or ultimate ethic. So we can, with Daniel Dennett, “thank
heaven” that those thinking blasphemy or adultery deserves capital punishment
are a “dwindling minority.”[106]

For references to this article, click here.

Call for Papers

EPS Far West Regional 2007 Call for Papers!

This year”s meeting will be held in conjunction with the ETS regional meeting,
which will be held as follows:

EPS Annual Meeting of the Far West Region
Friday, April 18, 2008
1:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Bethel Seminary San Diego

Paper proposals may be on any topic of interest to Christian philosophers. 
Please submit a short abstract (no more than 1 page, double-spaced) of your
paper to,
by Feb 16, 2008.  Be sure your proposal is in a format compatible with
Microsoft Word for Windows.  Sessions are limited to 45 minutes, so please
plan on taking no longer than 30 minutes to read your paper, so as to allow for
time for questions and answers.  I will contact you later with information
about the papers that are accepted, as well as a schedule.

NOTE: You will HAVE to register through ETS (Dr Mark Strauss, to attend the
program, even if you are presenting a paper.  I will send more information
on how to register later.


Evangelical Philosophical Society Special Event: "The Textual Reliability of the New Testament"

In conjunction with the 2008 Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum
April 3-4, 2008
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, LA

Call for Papers

Paper proposals are encouraged on issues related to the relationship between
philosophy and biblical studies but proposals are welcome on any topic related
to the philosophy of religion and/or ethics.  Paper sessions will be 50
minutes in length.  Presenters should plan to allow for approximately 10
minutes of question and answer following the presentation of their papers. 
All proposals must be received by March 1, 2008.

Paper submissions must include the following:

  1. Personal information:
    a. Your name
    b. The institution with which you are affiliated . . . If none, provide city
    and state
    c. Contact information: Email address, mailing address, and phone number

    ** Including your email address is important.  You will be notified
    whether you paper has been accepted or rejected via email

  2.  Time constraints / preferences:
    a. Days and times you CANNOT read the paper
    b. Days and times you would PREFER to read the paper
    ** While we will do our best to accommodate your preferences, inflexibility
    with regard to possible reading times may make the paper more difficult to

  3. The title of your proposed paper
  4. A 100-200 word abstract of the paper you would like to read

Send EPS paper proposals via email to: 

Jeremy Evans, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Ethics

Copy EPS paper proposals via email to:
Robert B. Stewart Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology (504) 282-4455 ext.

Presenters must register for the Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum. 
For more information see

Eastern University offering full time philosophy position

Eastern University, a Christian university of the arts and sciences, invites
applications for a full-time, tenure track position in Philosophy, beginning the
2008-09 academic year. Rank and salary are commensurate with experience.

Specialty is open but competence in Ethics is desirable.  Candidates
should possess a Ph.D. in philosophy by Sept. 2008.  They must have a
record or demonstrated potential for excellence in teaching and scholarly
productivity, ability to work in a collegial manner within a diverse faculty,
and a commitment to the academic and spiritual nurture of their students. Duties
include teaching seven courses per year, advising students during scheduled
office hours, and participation in faculty meetings and committees.  All
Eastern faculty sign a faith statement and teach their subject matter from
within a Christian worldview.

Eastern's Mission Statement and links to our Faith Statement and Community
Standards can be found at:

Review of applications begins in December and will continue until the
position is filled.  Minority candidates and women are particularly
encouraged to apply.  Initial interviews will be conducted at the APA
Eastern Divisional Meeting in Baltimore (Dec. 27-30).  Applicants who
expect to attend should indicate this in their application letter. 
Selected applicants who cannot attend the meeting may be interviewed at other
times or by telephone.

Additional information about Eastern University, this position, and benefits
and can be found at:

Please send letter of application, CV, transcripts, teaching evaluations and
three letters of reference to:

Eastern University
Office of Human Resources
Attn: Faculty Search #0768
1300 Eagle Rd.
St. Davids, PA 19087-3696

Eastern University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.


Call For Papers: National Faculty Leadership Conference

Philosophy Section

Theme: The Presumption of Naturalism

Keynote Speaker:
J. P. Moreland
Distinguished Professor of Philosophy,
Biola University
"Deflationary Naturalism: Responding to Nagel's Last Stand."

J. P. Moreland has authored or co-authored books including Philosophical
Foundations for a Christian Worldview
; Christianity and the Nature of
; Scaling the Secular City; Does God Exist? His
work appears in journals such as Christianity Today, Journal of the
Evangelical Theological Society
, Philosophy and Phenomenological
, and The American Philosophical Quarterly.

The central theme of the philosophy section at this year�s National Faculty
Leadership Conference will be to engage the presumption of naturalism as we find
it both metaphysically and methodologically. What exactly makes a position
naturalistic? To what degree can Christian philosophers embrace forms of
naturalism? How can the limits of a legitimate naturalism be articulated and

  • The Philosophy Section will take place between 1:30-5:30 p.m. on Saturday,
    June 28.
  • We are looking for outstanding papers that engage our theme.
  • Each paper should aim for a reading time of 30 minutes in order to allow a
    brief discussion.

Titles with abstracts of 300-400 words should be emailed as a MS Word
document attachment to
by February 15, 2008. Please
include a cover page in the Word document indicating: a) your name, b) position, c) institutional affiliation, d) mailing address, e) email address, f) daytime telephone number, g) the academic track for which you are making your submission.

Contributors will be notified of acceptance by April 1, 2008.

The theme of the 2008 NATIONAL FACULTY LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE is "The Heart of
the University." The conference includes outstanding plenary speakers such as,
J. P. Moreland, Ken Elzinga, Marla Frederick-McGlathery, and Bible exposition by
Richard Pratt. Special guest presenters include William Lane Craig and Patricia
Raybon. Our conference will be enriched with worship through music, fine arts
performances, and prayer for the academy.

Sponsored by Faculty Commons,
The Faculty ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ Int.

My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism: A Discussion with Antony Flew

My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism

A Discussion between Antony Flew and Gary Habermas

Antony Flew
Department of Philosophy
University of Reading
Reading, England

Gary Habermas
Department of Philosophy and Theology
Liberty University
Lynchburg, Virginia

Antony Flew and Gary Habermas met in February 1985 in Dallas, Texas. The
occasion was a series of debates between atheists and theists, featuring many
influential philosophers, scientists, and other scholars.1

A short time later, in May 1985, Flew and Habermas debated at Liberty
University before a large audience. The topic that night was the resurrection of
Jesus.2  Although Flew was arguably the world’s foremost philosophical
atheist, he had intriguingly also earned the distinction of being one of the
chief philosophical commentators on the topic of miracles.3  Habermas
specialized on the subject of Jesus’ resurrection.4  Thus, the ensuing
dialogue on the historical evidence for the central Christian claim was a
natural outgrowth of their research.

Over the next 20 years, Flew and Habermas developed a friendship, writing
dozens of letters, talking often, and dialoguing twice more on the resurrection.
In April, 2000 they participated in a live debate on the Inspiration Television
Network, moderated by John Ankerberg.5  In January, 2003 they again
dialogued on the resurrection at California Polytechnic State University – San
Luis Obispo.6

During a couple of telephone discussions shortly after their last
dialogue, Flew explained to Habermas that he was considering becoming a theist.
While Flew did not change his position at that time, he concluded that certain
philosophical and scientific considerations were causing him to do some serious
rethinking. He characterized his position as that of atheism standing in tension
with several huge question marks.

Then, a year later, in January 2004, Flew informed Habermas that he had
indeed become a theist. While still rejecting the concept of special revelation,
whether Christian, Jewish or Islamic, nonetheless he had concluded that theism
was true.  In Flew’s words, he simply “had to go where the evidence

The following interview took place in early 2004 and was subsequently
modified by both participants throughout the year. This nontechnical discussion
sought to engage Flew over the course of several topics that reflect his move
from atheism to theism.8  The chief purpose was not to pursue the details
of any particular issue, so we bypassed many avenues that would have presented a
plethora of other intriguing questions and responses. These were often
tantalizingly ignored, left to ripen for another discussion. Neither did we try
to persuade each another of alternate positions.

Our singular purpose was simply to explore and report Flew’s new
position, allowing him to explain various aspects of his pilgrimage. We thought
that this in itself was a worthy goal. Along the way, an additional benefit
emerged, as Flew reminisced about various moments from his childhood, graduate
studies, and career. 

Habermas: Tony, you recently told me that you have come to believe in the
existence of God. Would you comment on that?

Flew: Well, I don’t believe in the God of any revelatory system, although I
am open to that. But it seems to me that the case for an Aristotelian God who
has the characteristics of power and also intelligence, is now much stronger
than it ever was before. And it was from Aristotle that Aquinas drew the
materials for producing his Five Ways of, hopefully, proving the existence of
his God. Aquinas took them, reasonably enough, to prove, if they proved
anything, the existence of the God of the Christian Revelation. But Aristotle
himself never produced a definition of the word “God,” which is a curious fact.
But this concept still led to the basic outline of the Five Ways. It seems to
me, that from the existence of Aristotle’s God, you can’t infer anything about
human behaviour. So what Aristotle had to say about justice (justice, of course,
as conceived by the Founding Fathers of the American Republic as opposed to the
“social” justice of John Rawls9) was very much a human idea, and he thought that
this idea of justice was what ought to govern the behaviour of individual human
beings in their relations with others.

Habermas: Once you mentioned to me that your view might be called Deism. Do
you think that would be a fair designation?

Flew: Yes, absolutely right. What Deists, such as the Mr. Jefferson who
drafted the American Declaration of Independence, believed was that, while
Reason, mainly in the form of Arguments to Design, assures us that there is a
God, there is no room either for any supernatural revelation of that God or for
any transactions between that God and individual human beings.

Habermas: Then, would you comment on your “openness” to the notion of
theistic revelation?

Flew: Yes.  I am open to it, but not enthusiastic about potential
revelation from God. On the positive side, for example, I am very much impressed
with physicist Gerald Schroeder’s comments on Genesis 1.10  That this
biblical account might be scientifically accurate raises the possibility that it
is revelation.

Habermas: You very kindly noted that our debates and discussions had
influenced your move in the direction of theism.11  You mentioned that this
initial influence contributed in part to your comment that naturalistic efforts
have never succeeded in producing “a plausible conjecture as to how any of these
complex molecules might have evolved from simple entities.”12  Then in your
recently rewritten introduction to the forthcoming edition of your classic
volume God and Philosophy, you say that the original version of that book is now
obsolete.  You mention a number of trends in theistic argumentation that
you find convincing, like Big Bang Cosmology, Fine Tuning, and Intelligent
Design arguments. Which arguments for God’s existence did you find most

Flew: I think that the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are
those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries.  I’ve never been
much impressed by the Kalam cosmological argument, and I don’t think it has
gotten any stronger recently. However, I think the argument to Intelligent
Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it.

Habermas: So you like arguments such as those that proceed from Big Bang
Cosmology and Fine Tuning Arguments?

Flew: Yes.

Habermas: You also recently told me that you do not find the Moral Argument
to be very persuasive. Is that right?

Flew: That’s correct. It seems to me that for a strong Moral Argument, you’ve
got to have God as the justification of morality. To do this makes doing the
morally good a purely prudential matter rather than, as the moral philosophers
of my youth used to call it, a good in itself. (Compare the classic discussion
in Plato’s Euthyphro.)

Habermas: So, take C. S. Lewis’s argument for morality as presented in Mere
Christianity.13 You didn’t find that to be very impressive?

Flew: No, I didn’t.  Perhaps I should mention that, when I was in
college, I attended fairly regularly the weekly meetings of C. S. Lewis’s
Socratic Club. In all my time at Oxford these meetings were chaired by Lewis. I
think he was by far the most powerful of Christian apologists for the sixty or
more years following his founding of that club. As late as the 1970s, I used to
find that, in the USA, in at least half of the campus bookstores of the
universities and liberal art colleges which I visited, there was at least one
long shelf devoted to his very various published works.

Habermas: Although you disagreed with him, did you find him to be a very
reasonable sort of fellow?

Flew: Oh yes, very much so, an eminently reasonable man.

Habermas: And what do you think about the Ontological Argument for the
existence of God?

Flew: All my later thinking and writing about philosophy was greatly
influenced by my year of postgraduate study under the supervision of Gilbert
Ryle, the then Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy in the University of Oxford,
as well as the Editor of Mind. It was the very year in which his enormously
influential work on The Concept of Mind14 was first published. I was told that,
in the years between the wars, whenever another version of the Ontological
Argument raised its head, Gilbert forthwith set himself to refute it.

My own initial lack of enthusiasm for the Ontological Argument developed into
strong repulsion when I realized from reading the Theodicy15 of Leibniz that it
was the identification of the concept of Being with the concept of Goodness
(which ultimately derives from Plato’s identification in The Republic of the
Form or Idea of the Good with the Form or the Idea of the Real) which enabled
Leibniz in his Theodicy validly to conclude that a Universe in which most human
beings are predestined to an eternity of torture is the “best of all possible

Habermas: So of the major theistic arguments, such as the Cosmological,
Teleological, Moral, and Ontological, the only really impressive ones that you
take to be decisive are the scientific forms of teleology?

Flew: Absolutely. It seems to me that Richard Dawkins constantly overlooks
the fact that Darwin himself, in the fourteenth chapter of The Origin of
Species, pointed out that his whole argument began with a being which already
possessed reproductive powers. This is the creature the evolution of which a
truly comprehensive theory of evolution must give some account. Darwin himself
was well aware that he had not produced such an account. It now seems to me that
the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials
for a new and enormously powerful argument to Design.

Habermas: As I recall, you also refer to this in the new introduction to your
God and Philosophy.

Flew: Yes, I do; or, since the book has not yet been published, I will!

Habermas: Since you affirm Aristotle’s concept of God, do you think we can
also affirm Aristotle’s implications that the First Cause hence knows all

Flew: I suppose we should say this. I’m not at all sure what one should think
concerning some of these very fundamental issues. There does seem to be a reason
for a First Cause, but I’m not at all sure how much we have to explain here.
What idea of God is necessary to provide an explanation of the existence of the
Universe and all which is in it?

Habermas: If God is the First Cause, what about omniscience, or omnipotence?

Flew: Well, the First Cause, if there was a First Cause, has very clearly
produced everything that is going on. I suppose that does imply creation “in the

Habermas: In the same introduction, you also make a comparison between
Aristotle’s God and Spinoza’s God. Are you implying, with some interpreters of
Spinoza, that God is pantheistic?

Flew: I’m noting there that God and Philosophy has become out of date and
should now be seen as an historical document rather than as a direct
contribution to current discussions. I’m sympathetic to Spinoza because he makes
some statements which seem to me correctly to describe the human situation. But
for me the most important thing about Spinoza is not what he says but what he
does not say. He does not say that God has any preferences either about or any
intentions concerning human behaviour or about the eternal destinies of human

Habermas: What role might your love for the writings of David Hume play in a
discussion about the existence of God?  Do you have any new insights on
Hume, given your new belief in God?

Flew: No, not really.

Habermas: Do you think Hume ever answers the question of God?

Flew: I think of him as, shall we say, an unbeliever. But it’s interesting to
note that he himself was perfectly willing to accept one of the conditions of
his appointment, if he had been appointed to a chair of philosophy at the
University of Edinburgh. That condition was, roughly speaking, to provide some
sort of support and encouragement for people performing prayers and executing
other acts of worship. I believe that Hume thought that the institution of
religious belief could be, and in his day and place was, socially beneficial.16

I, too, having been brought up as a Methodist, have always been aware of this
possible and in many times and places actual benefit of objective religious
instruction. It is now several decades since I first tried to draw attention to
the danger of relying on a modest amount of compulsory religious instruction in
schools to meet the need for moral education, especially in a period of
relentlessly declining religious belief. But all such warnings by individuals
were, of course, ignored. So we now have in the UK a situation in which any
mandatory requirements to instruct pupils in state funded schools in the
teachings of the established or any other religion are widely ignored. The only
official attempt to construct a secular substitute was vitiated by the inability
of the moral philosopher on the relevant government committee to recognize the
fundamental difference between justice without prefix or suffix and the “social”
justice of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice.

I must some time send you a copy of the final chapter of my latest and
presumably last book, in which I offer a syllabus and a program for moral
education in secular schools.17  This is relevant and important for both
the US and the UK. To the US because the Supreme Court has utterly
misinterpreted the clause in the Constitution about not establishing a religion:
misunderstanding it as imposing a ban on all official reference to religion. In
the UK any effective program of moral education has to be secular because
unbelief is now very widespread.

Habermas: In God and Philosophy, and in many other places in our discussions,
too, it seems that your primary motivation for rejecting theistic arguments used
to be the problem of evil. In terms of your new belief in God, how do you now
conceptualise God’s relationship to the reality of evil in the world?

Flew: Well, absent Revelation, why should we perceive anything as objectively
evil? The problem of evil is a problem only for Christians. For Muslims
everything which human beings perceive as evil, just as much as everything we
perceive as good, has to be obediently accepted as produced by the will of
Allah. I suppose that the moment when, as a schoolboy of fifteen years, it first
appeared to me that the thesis that the Universe was created and is sustained by
a Being of infinite power and goodness is flatly incompatible with the
occurrence of massive undeniable and undenied evils in that Universe, was the
first step towards my future career as a philosopher!  It was, of course,
very much later that I learned of the philosophical identification of goodness
with existence!

Habermas: In your view, then, God hasn’t done anything about evil.

Flew: No, not at all, other than producing a lot of it.

Habermas: Given your theism, what about mind-body issues?

Flew: I think those who want to speak about an afterlife have got to meet the
difficulty of formulating a concept of an incorporeal person. Here I have again
to refer back to my year as a graduate student supervised by Gilbert Ryle, in
the year in which he published The Concept of Mind.

At that time there was considerable comment, usually hostile, in the serious
British press, on what was called “Oxford Linguistic Philosophy.” The objection
was usually that this involved a trivialization of a very profound and important

I was by this moved to give a talk to the Philosophy Postgraduates Club under
the title “Matter which Matters.” In it I argued that, so far from ignoring what
Immanuel Kant described as the three great problems of philosophers – God, Freedom
and Immortality – the linguistic approach promised substantial progress towards
their solution.

I myself always intended to make contributions in all those three areas. Indeed
my first philosophical publication was relevant to the third.18 Indeed it was
not very long after I got my first job as a professional philosopher that I
confessed to Ryle that if ever I was asked to deliver the Gifford Lectures I
would give them under the title The Logic of Mortality.19 They were an extensive
argument to the conclusion that it is simply impossible to create a concept of
an incorporeal spirit.

Habermas: Is such a concept necessarily required for the notion of an afterlife?

Flew: Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defines death as the soul leaving the body. If
the soul is to be, as Dr. Johnson and almost if perhaps not quite everyone else
in his day believed it to be, something which can sensibly be said to leave its
present residence and to take up or be forced to take up residence elsewhere,
then a soul must be, in the philosophical sense, a substance rather than merely
a characteristic of something else.

My Gifford Lectures were published after Richard Swinburne published his, on The
Evolution of the Soul.20 So when mine were reprinted under the title Merely
Mortal? Can You Survive Your Own Death?21 I might have been expected to respond
to any criticisms which Swinburne had made of my earlier publications in the
same area. But the embarrassing truth is that he had taken no notice of any
previous relevant writings either by me or by anyone published since World War
II. There would not have been much point in searching for books or articles
before that date since Swinburne and I had been the only Gifford lecturers to
treat the question of a future life for the sixty years past. Even more
remarkably, Swinburne in his Gifford Lectures ignored Bishop Butler’s decisive
observation: “Memory may reveal but cannot constitute personal identity.”

Habermas:   On several occasions, you and I have dialogued regarding
the subject of near death experiences, especially the specific sort where people
have reported verifiable data from a distance away from themselves. Sometimes
these reports even occur during the absence of heartbeat or brain waves.22 After
our second dialogue you wrote me a letter and said that, “I find the materials
about near death experiences so challenging. . . . this evidence equally
certainly weakens if it does not completely refute my argument against doctrines
of a future life . . . .”23 In light of these evidential near death cases, what
do you think about the possibility of an afterlife, especially given your

Flew: An incorporeal being may be hypothesized, and hypothesized to possess a
memory. But before we could rely on its memory even of its own experiences we
should need to be able to provide an account of how this hypothesized
incorporeal being could be identified in the first place and then – after what
lawyers call an affluxion of time – reidentified even by himself or herself as one
and the same individual spiritual being. Until we have evidence that we have
been and presumably – as Dr. Johnson and so many lesser men have believed – are to
be identified with such incorporeal spirits I do not see why near-death
experiences should be taken as evidence for the conclusion that human beings
will enjoy a future life – or more likely if either of the two great revealed
religions is true – suffer eternal torment.

Habermas: I agree that near death experiences do not evidence the doctrines of
either heaven or hell.  But do you think these evidential cases increase
the possibility of some sort of an afterlife, again, given your theism?

Flew: I still hope and believe there’s no possibility of an afterlife.

Habermas: Even though you hope there’s no afterlife, what do you think of the
evidence that there might be such, as perhaps indicated by these evidential near
death cases? And even if there is no clear notion of what sort of body might be
implied here, do you find this evidence helpful in any way? In other words,
apart from the form in which a potential afterlife might take, do you still find
these to be evidence for something?

Flew: It’s puzzling to offer an interpretation of these experiences. But I
presume it has got to be taken as extrasensory perceiving by the flesh and blood
person who is the subject of the experiences in question. What it cannot be is
the hypothesized incorporeal spirit which you would wish to identify with the
person who nearly died, but actually did not. For this concept of an incorporeal
spirit cannot properly be assumed to have been given sense until and unless some
means has been provided for identifying such spirits in the first place and
re-identifying them as one and the same individual incorporeal spirits after the
affluxion of time. Until and unless this has been done we have always to
remember Bishop Butler’s objection: “Memory may reveal but cannot constitute
personal identity.”24

Perhaps I should here point out that, long before I took my first university
course in philosophy, I was much interested in what in the UK, where it began,
is still called psychical research although the term “parapsychology” is now
used almost everywhere else. Perhaps I ought here to confess that my first book
was brashly entitled A New Approach to Psychical Research,25 and my interest in
this subject continued for many years thereafter.

Habermas: Actually you have also written to me that these near death experiences
“certainly constitute impressive evidence for the possibility of the occurrence
of human consciousness independent of any occurrences in the human brain.”26

Flew: When I came to consider what seemed to me the most impressive of these
near death cases I asked myself what is the traditional first question to ask
about “psychic” phenomena. It is, “When, where, and by whom were the phenomena
first reported?” Some people seem to confuse near death experiences with after
death experiences. Where any such near death experiences become relevant to the
question of a future life is when and only when they appear to show “the
occurrence of human consciousness independent of any occurrences in the human

Habermas: Elsewhere, you again very kindly noted my influence on your thinking
here, regarding these data being decent evidence for human consciousness
independent of “electrical activity in the brain.”27 If some near death
experiences are evidenced, independently confirmed experiences during a near
death state, even in persons whose heart or brain may not be functioning, isn’t
that quite impressive evidence? Are near death experiences, then, the best
evidence for an afterlife?

Flew: Oh, yes, certainly.  They are basically the only evidence.

Habermas: What critical evaluation would you make of the three major
monotheisms? Are there any particular philosophical strengths or weaknesses in
Christianity, Judaism, or Islam?

Flew: If all I knew or believed about God was what I might have learned from
Aristotle, then I should have assumed that everything in the Universe, including
human conduct, was exactly as God wanted it to be. And this is indeed the case,
in so far as both Christianity and Islam are predestinarian, a fundamental
teaching of both religious systems. What was true of Christianity in the Middle
Ages is certainly no longer equally true after the Reformation. But Islam has
neither suffered nor enjoyed either a Reformation or an Enlightenment. In the
Summa Theologiae we may read:

As men are ordained to eternal life throughout the providence of God, it
likewise is part of that providence to permit some to fall away from that end;
this is called reprobation . . . . Reprobation implies not only foreknowledge
but also is something more. . .28

What and how much that something more is the Summa contra Gentiles makes clear:

. . . just as God not only gave being to things when they first began, but is
also – as the conserving cause of being – the cause of their being as long as they
last . . . . Every operation, therefore, of anything is traced back to Him as
its cause.29

The Angelic Doctor, however, is always the devotedly complacent apparatchik. He
sees no problem about the justice of either the inflicting of infinite and
everlasting penalties for finite and temporal offences, or of their affliction
upon creatures for offences which their Creator makes them freely choose to
commit. Thus, the Angelic Doctor assures us:

In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and
that they may render more copious thanks to God . . . they are allowed to see
perfectly the sufferings of the damned . . . Divine justice and their own
deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed, while the pains
of the damned will cause it indirectly . . . the blessed in glory will have no
pity for the damned.30

The statements of predestinarianism in the Qur’an are much more aggressive and
unequivocal than even the strongest in the Bible. Compare the following from the
Qur’an with that from Romans 9.

As for the unbelievers, alike it is to them
Whether thou hast warned them or hast not warned them
They do not believe.31

God has set a seal on their hearts and on the hearing
And on the eyes is a covering
And there awaits them a mighty chastisement.32

In the UK the doctrine of Hell has for the last century or more been
progressively de-emphasised, until in 1995 it was explicitly and categorically
abandoned by the Church of England. It would appear that the Roman Catholic
Church has not abandoned either the doctrine of Hell nor predestination.

Thomas Hobbes spent a very large part of the forty years between the first
publication of the King James Bible and the first publication of his own
Leviathan engaged in biblical criticism, one very relevant finding of which I
now quote:

And it is said besides in many places [that the wicked] shall go into
everlasting fire; and that the worm of conscience never dieth; and all this is
comprehended in the word everlasting death, which is ordinarily interpreted
everlasting life in torments. And yet I can find nowhere that any man shall live
in torments everlastingly. Also, it seemeth hard to say that God who is the
father of mercies; that doth in heaven and earth all that he will, that hath the
hearts of all men in his disposing; that worketh in men both to do, and to will;
and without whose free gift a man hath neither inclination to good, nor
repentance of evil, should punish men’s transgressions without any end of time,
and with all the extremity of torture, that men can imagine and more.33

As for Islam, it is, I think, best described in a Marxian way as the uniting and
justifying ideology of Arab imperialism. Between the New Testament and the
Qur’an there is (as it is customary to say when making such comparisons) no
comparison. Whereas markets can be found for books on reading the Bible as
literature, to read the Qur’an is a penance rather than a pleasure. There is no
order or development in its subject matter. All the chapters (the suras) are
arranged in order of their length, with the longest at the beginning. However,
since the Qur’an consists in a collection of bits and pieces of putative
revelation delivered to the prophet Mohammad by the Archangel Gabriel in
classical Arab on many separate but unknown occasions, it is difficult to
suggest any superior principle of organization.

One point about the editing of the Qur’an is rarely made although it would
appear to be of very substantial theological significance. For every sura is
prefaced by the words “In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.” Yet
there are references to Hell on at least 255 of the 669 pages of Arberry’s
rendering of the Qur’an34 and quite often pages have two such references.

Whereas St. Paul, who was the chief contributor to the New Testament, knew all
the three relevant languages and obviously possessed a first class philosophical
mind, the Prophet, though gifted in the arts of persuasion and clearly a
considerable military leader, was both doubtfully literate and certainly
ill-informed about the contents of the Old Testament and about several matters
of which God, if not even the least informed of the Prophet’s contemporaries,
must have been cognizant.

This raises the possibility of what my philosophical contemporaries in the
heyday of Gilbert Ryle would have described as a knock-down falsification of
Islam: something which is most certainly not possible in the case of
Christianity.  If I do eventually produce such a paper it will obviously
have to be published anonymously.

Habermas: What do you think about the Bible?

Flew: The Bible is a work which someone who had not the slightest concern about
the question of the truth or falsity of the Christian religion could read as
people read the novels of the best novelists. It is an eminently readable book.

Habermas: You and I have had three dialogues on the resurrection of Jesus. Are
you any closer to thinking that the resurrection could have been a historical

Flew: No, I don’t think so. The evidence for the resurrection is better than for
claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality
and quantity, I think, from the evidence offered for the occurrence of most
other supposedly miraculous events. But you must remember that I approached it
after considerable reading of reports of psychical research and its criticisms.
This showed me how quickly evidence of remarkable and supposedly miraculous
events can be discredited.

What the psychical researcher looks for is evidence from witnesses, of the
supposedly paranormal events, recorded as soon as possible after their
occurrence. What we do not have is evidence from anyone who was in Jerusalem at
the time, who witnessed one of the allegedly miraculous events, and recorded his
or her testimony immediately after the occurrence of that allegedly miraculous
event. In the 1950s and 1960s I heard several suggestions from hard-bitten young
Australian and American philosophers of conceivable miracles the actual
occurrence of which, it was contended, no one could have overlooked or denied.
Why, they asked, if God wanted to be recognized and worshipped, did God not
produce a miracle of this unignorable and undeniable kind?

Habermas: So you think that, for a miracle, the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection
is better than other miracle claims?

Flew: Oh yes, I think so. It’s much better, for example, than that for most if
not all of the, so to speak, run-of-the-mill Roman Catholic miracles. On this
see, for instance, D. J. West.35

Habermas: You have made numerous comments over the years that Christians are
justified in their beliefs such as Jesus’ resurrection or other major tenants of
their faith. In our last two dialogues I think you even remarked that for
someone who is already a Christian there are many good reasons to believe Jesus’
resurrection. Would you comment on that?

Flew: Yes, certainly. This is an important matter about rationality which I have
fairly recently come to appreciate. What it is rational for any individual to
believe about some matter which is fresh to that individual’s consideration
depends on what he or she rationally believed before they were confronted with
this fresh situation. For suppose they rationally believed in the existence of a
God of any revelation, then it would be entirely reasonable for them to see the
Fine Tuning Argument as providing substantial confirmation of their belief in
the existence of that God.

Habermas: You’ve told me that you have a very high regard for John and Charles
Wesley and their traditions. What accounts for your appreciation?

Flew: The greatest thing is their tremendous achievement of creating the
Methodist movement mainly among the working class. Methodism made it impossible
to build a really substantial Communist Party in Britain and provided the
country with a generous supply of men and women of sterling moral character from
mainly working class families. Its decline is a substantial part of the
explosions both of unwanted motherhood and of crime in recent decades. There is
also the tremendous determination shown by John Wesley in spending year after
year riding for miles every day, preaching more than seven sermons a week and so
on. I have only recently been told of John Wesley’s great controversy against
predestination and in favor of the Arminian alternative. Certainly John Wesley
was one of my country’s many great sons and daughters. One at least of the
others was raised in a Methodist home with a father who was a local preacher.

Habermas: Don’t you attribute some of your appreciations for the Wesleys to your
father’s ministry? Haven’t you said that your father was the first non-Anglican
to get a doctorate in theology from Oxford University?

Flew: Yes to both questions. Of course it was because my family’s background was
that of Methodism. Yes, my father was also President of the Methodist Conference
for the usual single year term and he was the Methodist representative of one or
two other organizations. He was also concerned for the World Council of
Churches. Had my father lived to be active into the early 1970s he would have
wanted at least to consider the question of whether the Methodist Church ought
not to withdraw from the World Council of Churches. That had by that time
apparently been captured by agents of the USSR.36

Habermas: What do you think that Bertrand Russell, J. L. Mackie, and A. J. Ayer
would have thought about these theistic developments, had they still been alive

Flew: I think Russell certainly would have had to notice these things. I’m sure
Mackie would have been interested, too. I never knew Ayer very well, beyond
meeting him once or twice.

Habermas: Do you think any of them would have been impressed in the direction of
theism? I’m thinking here, for instance, about Russell’s famous comments that
God hasn’t produced sufficient evidence of his existence.37

Flew: Consistent with Russell’s comments that you mention, Russell would have
regarded these developments as evidence. I think we can be sure that Russell
would have been impressed too, precisely because of his comments to which you
refer. This would have produced an interesting second dialogue between him and
that distinguished Catholic philosopher, Frederick Copleston.

Habermas: In recent years you’ve been called the world’s most influential
philosophical atheist. Do you think Russell, Mackie, or Ayer would have been
bothered or even angered by your conversion to theism? Or do you think that they
would have at least understood your reasons for changing your mind?

Flew: I’m not sure how much any of them knew about Aristotle. But I am almost
certain that they never had in mind the idea of a God who was not the God of any
revealed religion. But we can be sure that they would have examined these new
scientific arguments.

Habermas: C. S. Lewis explained in his autobiography that he moved first from
atheism to theism and only later from theism to Christianity. Given your great
respect for Christianity, do you think that there is any chance that you might
in the end move from theism to Christianity?

Flew: I think it’s very unlikely, due to the problem of evil. But, if it did
happen, I think it would be in some eccentric fit and doubtfully orthodox form:
regular religious practice perhaps but without belief. If I wanted any sort of
future life I should become a Jehovah’s Witness. But some things I am completely
confident about. I would never regard Islam with anything but horror and fear
because it is fundamentally committed to conquering the world for Islam. It was
because the whole of Palestine was part of the Land of Islam that Muslim Arab
armies moved in to try to destroy Israel at birth, and why the struggle for the
return of the still surviving refugees and their numerous descendents continue
to this day.

Habermas: I ask this last question with a smile, Tony. But just think what would
happen if one day you were pleasantly disposed toward Christianity and all of a
sudden the resurrection of Jesus looked pretty good to you?

Flew: Well, one thing I’ll say in this comparison is that, for goodness sake,
Jesus is an enormously attractive charismatic figure, which the Prophet of Islam
most emphatically is not.

Antony Flew’s Deism Revisited

Antony Flew's Deism Revisited

There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind
Review Essay on There Is a God


Department of Philosophy and Theology
Liberty University
Lynchburg, Virginia

There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
By Antony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. 256 pages.

When preeminent philosophical atheist Antony Flew announced in 2004 that he had
come to believe in God's existence and was probably best considered a deist, the
reaction from both believers and skeptics was "off the chart." Few religious stories
had this sort of appeal and impact, across the spectrum, both popular as well as
theoretical.  No recent change of mind has received this much attention. Flew
responded by protesting that his story really did not deserve this much interest.
But as he explained repeatedly, he simply had to go where the evidence led.

Some Background

It was this last sentence, repeated often in interviews, that really interested
me. Having known Tony well over more than twenty years, I had heard him repeat many
things like it, as well as other comments that might be termed "open minded." He
had insisted that he was open to God's existence, to special revelation, to miracles,
to an afterlife, or to David Hume being in error on this or that particular point.
To be truthful, I tended to set aside his comments, thinking that while they were
made honestly, perhaps Tony still was not as open as he had thought.

Then very early in 2003 Tony indicated to me that he was considering theism,
backing off a few weeks later and saying that he remained an atheist with "big questions."
One year later, in January 2004, Tony told me that he had indeed become a theist,
just as quickly adding, however, that he was "not the revelatory kind" of believer.
That was when I heard him say for the first time that he was just following where
the evidence led. Then I remembered all the earlier occasions when he had insisted
that he was not objecting to God or the supernatural realm on a priori grounds.
I was amazed. Tony was indeed willing to consider the evidence!

There was an immediate outcry from many in the skeptical community. Perhaps Tony
Flew was simply too old, or had not kept up on the relevant literature. The presumption
seemed to be that, if he had been doing so, then he would not have experienced such
a change of mind. One joke quipped that, at his advanced age, maybe he was just
hedging his bets in favor of an afterlife!

One persistent rumor was that Tony Flew really did not believe in God after all.
Or perhaps he had already recanted his mistake. Paul Kurtz's foreword to the republication
of Flew's classic volume God and Philosophy identified me as "an evangelical
Christian philosopher at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University," noting my interview
with Flew and my "interpretation" that Tony now believed in God.[1]
Kurtz seemed to think that perhaps the question still remained as to whether Flew
believed in God. After explaining that Flew's "final introduction" to the reissued
volume had undergone the process of four drafts, Kurtz concluded that readers should
"decide whether or not he has abandoned his earlier views."[2]

In his introduction to this same text, Flew both raised at least a half-dozen
new issues since his book had first appeared in 1966, as well as mentioning questions
about each of these subjects. Included were discussions on contemporary cosmology,
fine-tuning arguments, some thoughts regarding Darwin's work, reflections on Aristotle's
view of God, as well as Richard Swinburne's many volumes on God and Christian theism.
Hints of theism were interspersed alongside some tough questions.[3]

Of course, book text must be completed well before the actual date of publication.
But several news articles had appeared earlier, telling the story of what Flew referred
to as his "conversion."[4]
Early in 2005, my lengthier interview with Flew was published in Philosophia
.[5] Another
excellent interview was conducted by Jim Beverly, in which Flew also evaluated the
influence of several major Christian philosophers.[6]

In many of these venues, Flew explained in his own words that he was chiefly
persuaded to abandon atheism because of Aristotle's writings about God and due
to a number of arguments that are often associated with Intelligent Design. But
his brand of theism – or better yet, deism[7]
– was
not a variety that admitted special revelation, including either miracles or an
afterlife. While he acknowledged most of the traditional attributes for God, he
stopped short of affirming any divine involvement with humans.

Along the way, Flew made several very positive comments about Christianity, and
about Jesus, in particular. Jesus was a first rate moral philosopher, as well as
a preeminent charismatic personality, while Paul had a brilliant philosophical mind.
While rejecting miracles, Flew held that the resurrection is the best-attested miracle-claim
in history.[8]

It is against this background that we turn to the latest chapter in the ongoing
account of Antony Flew's pilgrimage from ardent atheism to deism. Further clarifying
his religious views, especially for those who might have thought that the initial
report was too hasty, or suspected incorrect reporting, or later backtracking on
Flew's part, the former atheistic philosopher has now elucidated his position.
In a new book that is due to be released before the end of the year, Flew chronicles
the entire story of his professional career, from atheism to deism, including more
specific reasons for his change. Along the way, several new aspects have been added.

Antony Flew's Influence

Signifying his change of view, the cover of Flew's new book cleverly reads,
"There Is No God," but the word "No" is scribbled out and the word "A" is handwritten
above it. Flew terms this work his "last will and testament," noting that the subtitle
"was not my own invention" (1).[9]
The contents are nothing short of a treasure trove of details from Flew's life,
including his family, education, publications, and interactions with many now world-famous
philosophers, not to mention the long-awaited reasons for his becoming a deist.

The volume begins with a preface written by Roy Varghese,[10]
followed by an introduction by Flew. Part 1, "My Denial of the Divine," contains
three chapters on Flew's previous atheism.

The book opens with a reverberating bang. Varghese's eighteen-page preface sets
the tone for much of the remainder of the text. He begins with the breaking news
in late 2004 of Antony Flew's newly-announced belief in God. Varghese then notes

the response to the AP story from Flew's fellow atheists
verged on hysteria. . . . Inane insults and juvenile caricatures were common in
the freethinking blogosphere. The same people who complained about the Inquisition
and witches being burned at the stake were now enjoying a little heresy hunting
of their own. The advocates of tolerance were not themselves very tolerant. And,
apparently, religious zealots don't have a monopoly on dogmatism, incivility, fanaticism,
and paranoia. (vii – viii)

Varghese ends by stating that, "Flew's position in the history of atheism transcends
anything that today's atheists have on offer" (viii).

This last comment serves as an entree to two of the more interesting arguments
in the book. Considering Flew's impact in the history of modern atheism, Varghese
argues initially that, "within the last hundred years, no mainstream philosopher
has developed the kind of systematic, comprehensive, original, and influential exposition
of atheism that is to be found in Antony Flew's fifty years of antitheological
writings" (ix). He then considers the contributions to atheism produced by well-known
philosophers such as A. J. Ayer, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus,
and Martin Heidegger. Varghese finds that none of these scholars "took the step
of developing book-length arguments to support their personal beliefs" (x).

More recent writers are also mentioned, among them Richard Rorty, Jacques Derrida,
J. L. Mackie, Paul Kurtz, and Michael Martin. While they might be said to have contributed
more material on behalf of atheism, "their works did not change the agenda and framework
of discussion the way Flew's innovative publications did" (x).

But Flew's writings like "Theology and Falsification" ("the most widely reprinted
philosophical publication of the last century" [vi – vii]), God and Philosophy,
The Presumption of Atheism, and other publications set the philosophical
tone of atheism for a generation of scholars. Along with Flew's many other books
and essays, one could hardly get through a contemporary philosophy class, especially
in philosophy of religion, without being at least introduced to his theses.

Varghese also raises a second crucial topic in the history of twentieth-century
philosophy – Flew's relation to logical positivism. Many works treat Flew's ideas,
especially those in "Theology and Falsification," as a more subtle, analytic outgrowth
of positivism. Sometimes it is thought that Flew attempted to refurbish a less dogmatic
application of the discredited verification principle, popularized by Ayer's
Language, Truth, and Logic

However, Flew did not interpret his essay in this manner. In 1990, he explained
his thinking that logical positivism made an "arrogant announcement" that sought
to rule out theology and ethics in an a priori manner. The resulting discussion
had often become stagnated. Flew wanted to provide an opportunity for the free discussion
of religious issues: "Let the believers speak for themselves, individually and severally"
(xiii – xiv).

In an article in 2000, Flew explained that his purpose in first reading the paper
at a meeting of C. S. Lewis' Socratic Club, was that "I wanted to set these discussions
off onto new and hopefully more fruitful lines."[12]
In another interview that I did with Tony in Oxford in 2005, Flew attested that
he saw his essay as slamming the door on positivism at the Socratic Club. He attests
that the purpose of his essay "was intended to simply refute the positivistic stance
against religious utterances. It succeeded in that, but then its influence spread
outside of Oxford."[13]

These two topics – Flew's influence on the philosophical atheism of the second
half of the twentieth century and his purpose in first presenting his essay "Theology
and Falsification" – are key chapters in the life of this major British philosopher.
Varghese does well to remind us of Flew's influence. As he concludes, it is in
this context that "Flew's recent rejection of atheism was clearly a historic event"

Flew then begins the remainder of the book with an introduction. Referring to
his "conversion" from atheism to deism, he begins by affirming clearly that, "I
now believe there is a God!" (1). As for those detractors who blamed this on Flew's
"advanced age" and spoke of a sort of "deathbed conversion," Flew reiterates what
he has said all along: he still rejects the afterlife and is not placing any "Pascalian
bets" (2).

In a couple stunning comments, Flew then reminds his readers that he had changed
his mind on other major issues throughout his career. He states, "I was once a Marxist."
Then, more than twenty years ago, "I retracted my earlier view that all human choices
are determined entirely by physical causes" (3).

The Making of an Atheist

Part 1 ("My Denial of the Divine") consists of three chapters, intriguingly titled,
"The Creation of an Atheist," "Where the Evidence Leads," and "Atheism Calmly Considered."
This material is simply a delightful read, consisting of many autobiographical details
regarding Flew's career and research, along with many enjoyable as well as amusing

In chapter 1, Flew reviews his childhood and early life. This includes detailed
references to his father: an Oxford University graduate, with two years of study
at Marburg University in Germany, who had become a Methodist minister very much
interested in evangelism, as well as a professor of New Testament at a theological
college in Cambridge. It was from his father that Tony learned, at an early age,
the value of good research and of checking relevant sources before conclusions are

Flew even stated in some of his atheist publications that he was never satisfied
with the way that he had become an atheist – here described as a process that was
accomplished "much too quickly, much too easily, and for what later seemed to me
the wrong reasons." Incredibly, he now reflects on his early theism that changed
to atheism: "for nearly seventy years thereafter I never found grounds sufficient
to warrant any fundamental reversal" (12 – 13). Nonetheless, it was an aspect of
the problem of evil that affected Tony's conversion to atheism. During family travels
to Germany, he witnessed first hand some of the horrors of Nazi society and learned
to detest "the twin evils of anti-Semitism and totalitarianism" (13 – 14).

Chapter 1 also includes accounts of Flew's basically private education at a
boarding school along with his years at Oxford University, interspersed with military
service during World War II, as well as his "locking horns with C. S. Lewis" at
Socratic Club meetings. He was present at the famous debate between Lewis and Elizabeth
Anscombe in February, 1948 (22 – 4). Flew also met his wife Annis at Oxford. For
all those (including myself) who have wondered through the years about Tony's incredible
notions of ethical responsibility, he states that while he had left his father's
faith, he retained his early ethics, reflected in his treatment of Annis before
their marriage (25 – 6).

In Chapter 2 ("Where the Evidence Leads"), Flew reflects on his early tenure
as "a hotly-energetic left-wing socialist" (33), and narrates his early philosophical
interests: parapsychology, Darwinian social ethics and the notion of evolutionary
progress, problems with idealism, and analytic philosophy. More details on the Socratic
Club introduce some of the philosophical reactions to Flew's "Theology and Falsification,"
along with his writing of his epic God and Philosophy, his "systematic argument
for atheism" (49). Flew discusses reactions from Richard Swinburne, J. L. Mackie,
and Frederick Copleston. His conclusion today, as Tony has told me on several occasions,
is that God and Philosophy is "a historical relic," due to changes in his
thinking which arose from other's response to his writing. These changes are set
forth in this volume (52).

Flew also discusses in chapter 2 his well-known volumes The Presumption of
and Hume's Philosophy of Belief. Philosophical reactions are
recounted from Anthony Kenny, Kai Nielson, Ralph McInerny, and especially Alvin
Plantinga, whose thoughts Flew calls, "By far, the headiest challenge to the argument"
of the former volume (55). The chapter concludes with Flew's changes of mind regarding
some of Hume's ideas, plus his holding and then abandoning compatibilism (56 –

Ending his section on his atheism, Flew's third chapter is "Atheism Calmly Considered."
Here he notes a number of his debates and dialogues over the years, both public
and written, with Thomas Warren, William Lane Craig, Terry Miethe, Richard Swinburne,
Richard Dawkins, and myself. Two conferences are also mentioned. The first ("The
Shootout at the O.K. Corral") occurred in Dallas, Texas, in 1985 and featured four
prominent atheistic philosophers, playfully called "gunslingers" (Flew, Paul Kurtz,
Wallace Matson, and Kai Nielson) dueling with four equally prominent theistic philosophers
(Alvin Plantinga, Ralph McInerny, George Mavrodes, and William Alston). The second
conference at New York University in 2004 notably included Scottish philosopher
John Haldane and Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder. Here Flew stunned the participants
by announcing that he had come to believe in God (74).

There Is a God

The second half of the book consists of the long-awaited reasons for Flew's
conversion to deism, titled "My Discovery of the Divine." It includes seven chapters
on Flew's religious pilgrimage, along with the nature of the universe and life.
Two appendices complete the volume.

"A Pilgrimage of Reason" (chapter 4), is the initial contribution to this section.
In this essay, Flew chiefly makes the crucial point that his approach to God's
existence has been philosophical, not scientific. As he notes, "My critics responded
by triumphantly announcing that I had not read a particular paper in a scientific
journal or followed a brand-new development relating to abiogenesis." But in so
doing, "they missed the whole point." Flew's conversion was due to philosophical
arguments, not scientific ones: "To think at this level is to think as a philosopher.
And, at the risk of sounding immodest, I must say that this is properly the job
of philosophers, not of the scientists as scientists" (90).

Thus, if scientists want to get into the fray, they "will have to stand on their
own two philosophical feet" (90). Similarly, "a scientist who speaks as a philosopher
will have to furnish a philosophical case. As Albert Einstein himself said, "�The
man of science is a poor philosopher'" (91). Flew ends the chapter by pointing
out that it is Aristotle who most exemplifies his search: "I was persuaded above
all by the philosopher David Conway's argument for God's existence" drawn from
"the God of Aristotle" (92).

The fifth chapter, "Who Wrote the Laws of Nature?" discusses the views of many
major scientists, including Einstein and Hawking, along with philosophers like Swinburne
and Plantinga, to argue that there is a connection between the laws of nature and
the "Mind of God" (103). Flew thinks that this is still a philosophical discussion.
As Paul Davies asserted in his Templeton address, "science can proceed only if the
scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview," because, "even the most
atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a lawlike order
in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us" (107). The existence of
these laws must be explained. Flew concludes that many contemporary thinkers "propound
a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and
imposes itself on the rational mind. It is a vision that I personally find compelling
and irrefutable" (112).

Chapter 6 ("Did the Universe Know We Were Coming?") discusses fine-tuning arguments
and the multiverse option as another angle on the laws of nature. Among the opponents
of the multiverse option, Flew lists Davies, Swinburne, and himself, in part because
it simply extends the questions of life and nature's laws (119). Regardless, Flew
concludes, "So multiverse or not, we still have to come to terms with the origins
of the laws of nature. And the only viable explanation here is the divine Mind"

Chapter 7 ("How Did Life Go Live?") continues what Flew insists is a philosophical
rather than a scientific discussion of items that are relevant to God's existence.
He discusses at least three chief issues: how there can be fully materialistic explanations
for the emergence of life, the problem of reproduction at the very beginning, and
DNA. Although science has not concluded these matters either, they are answering
questions that are different from the philosophical issues that Flew is addressing
(129). Flew concludes by agreeing with George Wald that, "The only satisfactory
explanation for the origin of such �end-directed, self replicating' life as we
see on earth is an infinitely intelligent Mind" (132).

In the title of chapter 8, Flew asks, "Did Something Come from Nothing?" In spite
of our twenty years of friendship, I was still not prepared to see Tony developing
and defending a cosmological argument for God's existence! In an essay published
back in 1994, Flew had raised questions about David Hume's philosophy and its inability
to explain causation or the laws of nature (139). Then, works by philosophers David
Conway and Richard Swinburne convinced him that Hume could be answered on the cosmological
argument, as well. Buoyed by these refutations of Hume, Flew was now free to explore
the relation between a cosmological argument for God's existence and recent discussions
regarding the beginning of the universe. Flew concludes that, "Richard Swinburne's
cosmological argument provides a very promising explanation, probably the finally
right one" (145).

In chapter 9, "Finding Space for God," Flew begins with his long-time objection
to God, that a concept of "an incorporeal omnipresent Spirit" is incoherent
– something
analogous to talking about a "person without a body" (148). But through the 1980s
and 1990s, theistic philosophers in the analytic tradition enjoyed a renaissance.
Two of these, David Tracy and Brian Leftow (who succeeded Swinburne at Oxford),
answered Flew's questions. Flew now concedes that the concept of an omnipresent
Spirit outside space and time is not intrinsically incoherent (153 – 4).

In "Open to Omnipotence" (chapter 10), Flew summarizes that his case for God's
existence centers on three philosophical items – the origin of the laws of nature,
the organization of life, and the origin of life. What about the problem of evil?
Flew states that this a separate question, but he had two chief options – an Aristotelian
God who does not interfere in the world or the free-will defense. He prefers the
former, especially since he thinks the latter relies on special revelation (156).

Closing the main portion of the book with some further shocking comments, Flew
states, "I am entirely open to learning more about the divine Reality," including
"whether the Divine has revealed itself in human history" (156 – 7). The reason:
Everything but the logically impossible is "open to omnipotence" (157).

Further, "As I have said more than once, no other religion enjoys anything like
the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual
like St. Paul. If you're wanting omnipotence to set up a religion, it seems to
me that this is the one to beat!" (157; see also 185 – 6). He ends the chapter a
few sentences later: "Some claim to have made contact with this Mind. I have not
– yet.
But who knows what could happen next? Some day I might hear a Voice that says, �Can
you hear me now?'" (158).

Two appendices close the book. The first is an evaluation of the "New Atheism"
of writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. The author of the
first appendix, Roy Varghese, argues that "five phenomena are evident in our immediate
experience that can only be explained in terms of the existence of God" (161). These
five are rationality, life, consciousness, conceptual thought, and the human self,
each of which is discussed. Varghese concludes that by arguing from "everyday experience"
we are able to "become immediately aware that the world of living, conscious, thinking
beings has to originate in a living Source, a Mind" (183).

The second appendix is an essay on the self-revelation of God, written by New
Testament theologian N. T. Wright, with brief responses by Flew. Wright argues very
succinctly that Jesus existed, was God incarnate, and rose from the dead (187 –
213). Flew precedes this treatment by commenting that though he does not believe
the miracle of the resurrection, it "is more impressive than any by the religious
competition" (186 – 7). Flew's final reflection on Wright's material is that it
is an impressive argument – "absolutely wonderful, absolutely radical, and very powerful."
In the end, Flew remains open to divine revelation, since omnipotence could act
in such a manner (213).


As I have indicated, Flew's new book was a delightful read. This especially
applies to the many autobiographical details. The intersection of his life with
some of the best-known philosophers in the previous half century was nothing short
of exhilarating.

It will be no surprise to anyone who has followed my published debates or dialogues
with Tony that the clarification found in this volume was more than welcome. For
one thing, many of his comments here were also made in our published dialogue in

Philosophia Christi
. Most of all, this book should clear up the rumors as
to the nature of Tony's "conversion." He indeed believes in God, and while from
the beginning rejecting special revelation along with any religious affiliation,
his view of God's nature is otherwise quite robust. Indeed, his deism includes
most of the classical theological attributes. Further, Flew is also clear several
times that he is open to special revelation. As Tony told me just recently, he "won't
shut the door" to the possibility of such revelation or even to hearing a word from
the Deity.[14]

Of course, I predict that various skeptics will still have profound problems
with the book's content. They will not be satisfied with its proclamations. I can
only imagine the nature of the complaints. If I am right about this, it may even
confirm further Varghese's charge of the vociferous nature of this community's
response to the original announcement (viii). If Varghese is also correct that Flew
had produced the most vigorous defense of philosophical atheism in the last century,
a guess is that some skeptics are still stung by the loss of their most prominent
philosophical supporter.

I would like to have seen further clarification on a few issues in the book.
For instance, it would have been very helpful if Tony had explained the precise
sense in which he thought that "Theology and Falsification" was an attempt to curtail
the growth of positivism. That has remained unclear to me. I, too, was taught that
the article was a defense of an analytic position that only softened the force of
the positivistic challenge.

Another potential question surrounds Tony's excellent distinction between giving
philosophical as opposed to scientific reasons for his belief in God. However, a
discussion or chart that maps out the differences between the two methodological
stances would have been very helpful. Philosophers are used to these distinctions.
But I am sure that others will think that Tony is still providing two sorts of arguments
for God: Aristotle plus scientific arguments like Intelligent Design scenarios.

As Tony has said several times in recent years, he remains open to the possibility
of special revelation, miracles like Jesus's resurrection, and the afterlife. In
this volume he also continues to be very complimentary towards these options. I
cannot pursue further this topic here. While mentioning evil and suffering, I did
wonder about Tony's juxtaposition of choosing either Aristotle's deism or the
free-will defense, which he thinks "depends on the prior acceptance of a framework
of divine revelation" (156). It seems to me that the free-will defense neither asks
nor requires any such revelatory commitment. So I think that it could be pursued
by a deist, too. If so, that is one more potential defeater to the evil and suffering
issue. I will leave it here for now.

Reasonable Faith in an Uncertain World

November 15-17, 2007

College Avenue Baptist Church
4747 College Avenue
San Diego, CA 92115


Join Lee Strobel, JP Moreland, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas and over twenty other leading Christian thinkers in San Diego for this extraordinary conference that will strengthen your faith and change your life.

Sponsored by:

Bethel Seminary
College Avenue Baptist Church
Evangelical Philosophical Society
Master of Arts Program in Christian Apologetics,
Biola University