Other Worldviews

The New Atheists and the Old Testament

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 01/23/2013

I came across a lecture by Peter J. Williams that I found to be an excellent complement to this month’s Solid Ground (if you haven’t yet read Greg’s “The Canaanites: Genocide or Judgment?” you should read it here). The lecture is worth taking the time to watch (see below) or download as an MP3.

Williams points out that the New Atheists often make a very elementary mistake in the way they critique the morality of stories like the judgment of the Canaanites in the Old Testament: They don’t evaluate the whole story as it is, they critique a naturalistic story of their own making—a story where God doesn’t really exist and men are evilly using the idea of God to achieve their own nefarious ends (for example, as an excuse to commit genocide). When they examine the Bible this way, surprise! They find evil.

I’ve encountered this many times before (read these comments to see one of these conversations in action), so it’s something you need to be aware of and know how to counteract. Here’s how Williams responds to this move by the New Atheists:

If we’re going to look at the fairness of something, it doesn’t matter whether it happened or not. We look at the fairness of the story. We could look at that in Tom and Jerry’s world, we could look at it in any story, whether something is fair or not. But if I’m going to judge the fairness of the story, I think it’s only fair to look at the story world that I’m looking at. I can’t judge the morality of Jerry’s actions against Tom, thinking of our physical laws. That’s not actually entering properly into understanding the story.

So I believe that in order for an atheist to critique the morality of the story in the Old Testament, they have to enter into that story…. If we’re going to consider the story, we have to consider all of the details in the story, including all of the characters in the story—and one of them, by the way, is called “God.” He’s a character in the story, and I can’t just say, “Well I don’t believe in God, so as I’m judging the story, I’ll sort of omit Him from the story.” That’s not fair….

When Dawkins tells the story [of the Old Testament], it goes like this: God doesn’t speak to anyone, no miracles are performed, there's no massive exodus. But then, I can judge all of the characters as if God hadn’t actually told them to do anything.

So in other words, he’s got his own naturalistic, watered-down version of Exodus, and that’s the thing that he attacks.

What’s the reality? When we look at the story in the Old Testament, firstly we have to go back to the beginning. And to understand God, we have to understand what He set up in the beginning. In the beginning God gave everyone life. That’s part of the story. I can’t just miss that out—it’s actually there. I could also say that God clearly doesn’t think violence is good, because in the beginning there was none. When I look at the end of His story in the Old Testament, as outlined in the prophets, I can see again His vision of peace—that the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and so on.

So that gives me some guidance as to how to understand the story. Trying to understand a bit of a story without reading the beginning and the end usually isn’t the best way before you write your literary criticism.

When you’re having a conversation about the morality of the Bible, be sure that you’re actually discussing the story in the Bible, not a blend of the Bible’s story about God and the atheist’s naturalistic story without God. You need to hold the atheist to the idea that in order to judge the morality of a story (not its truthfulness, but its morality) and the characters in that story, one must take the story as it is and look at what it portrays from within that story.

Williams goes on in the lecture to evaluate the story of the judgment of the Canaanites in its own context and then concludes by noting how their destruction clarifies the gospel:

Arguably, we could say that if the destruction of the Canaanites is the punishment for their sins, then that’s what sin deserved. And if Christ on the cross took our sins on Himself, then what happened to the Canaanites becomes [in] some way a picture for us of how awful sin is and how much Jesus Christ did on the cross for us, taking on Himself—that one person—the punishment for so many.

That’s truly a staggering thought, when you consider it.

(HT: Apologetics 315)

See also:

The Judgment that Led to Salvation
Not Genocide, but Capital Punishment
Israel’s Failure Led to Evil and Suffering