Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

IS THE BIBLE AND ITS GOD ETHICAL?

Some things in the Bible are difficult to accept because they conflict with our sense of right v/s wrong or propriety. God anticipated this, and so He's told us some things that will help us as we try to deal with these difficult parts of the Bible:-
  1. We decide right and wrong based on our intuition, which is shaped by our own personality and others. Since intuition is not an adequate test for truth, and neither is majority opinion, we must be open to the possibility that our sense of ethics could be wrong.
  2. We are unable to have perfectly harmonious relationships with each other (even atheists quarrel with other atheists!). This shows that we are ethically imperfect; we must therefore think twice before we find fault with the Bible and pontificate about right and wrong. 
  3. Starting from Job 38:3 onwards, God reminds us that we don't (and cannot) run this universe. You can't enforce the law of gravity and keep the earth going around the sun; you can't implant navigation systems in migratory birds, but God does all these things. This shows that He is infinitely superior to us in intellect and power. Thus, He knows what He is doing even when it does not make sense to us.
  4. In the same passage, God reminds us that we weren't there when He created the universe. Our limited age (in contrast to His eternal nature) also limits our knowledge.
With this background, we look at different categories of objections to the Bible on ethical grounds. Skeptical objections are in red, and my responses are in green.

Violence

Gory details: The Bible has a lot of cruelty in it! The Bible is not a lovey-dovey fairy tale, but a book describing real people in real times and places. It honestly reports what took place, and so it is absurd to find fault with the Bible because of its gory details. For instance, the Bible is not to be blamed for merely reporting that the Philistines gouged out Samson's eyes (Judges 16:21). This incident happened 3000 years before Christian influence would result in the adoption of the Geneva Convention which demands the humane treatment of prisoners of war.

Violent acts by protagonists: On some occasions, the Bible reports violent actions by its protagonists without saying in the immediate context whether what they did was right or wrong. But the Bible says that all have sinned, and thus are imperfect. So when the Bible reports anyone doing anything, it is absurd to conclude that the God of the Bible approves of it. For instance, the Bible reports Israel's sons, Levi and Simeon killing the men of Shalem because one of them, Shechem, had sex with their unmarried sister (see Genesis 34:1 onwards). Decades later, Israel, speaking on behalf of God, expresses disapproval for what they did (Genesis 49:5-7).

Acts of war: God's people go to war! God's earthly people were (and still are) a nation: Israel. Like any nation, Israel took part in wars in which lives were lost. God did not allow Israel to war with other nations simply to acquire new territory or to plunder (see Deuteronomy 2:19). But Israel retaliated strongly to attacks from other nations (it still does!). It is absurd to blame God for the casualties. Note that God did not give the Israelis license to harass others without reason (Exodus 22:21); they were to treat everyone well (Leviticus 19:18). 

Discrimination

Slavery: The Bible allows slavery! First we must define slavery. In modern terminology, slaves are people who are kidnapped and then treated savagely by their masters. Biblical slaves were people who had become bankrupt due to their own incompetency or misfortune, and therefore had to depend on others for their survival. Such people would be servants without the rights of ordinary servants (such as to quit whenever one likes). Wealth generation was a lot more difficult than now due to the absence of technology. So people who borrowed money and did not pay back became slaves as part of financial accountability. Similarly, a person whose farm-lands are destroyed would have to attach himself to a master to survive. Thus, when the Bible does not prohibit slavery, it does not mean that the Bible sanctions the slave trade of the 18th century! The Bible demands that we treat others reasonably and humanely (Matthew 7:12, Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 25:43), The Bible also forbids the abduction of people, the driving force of the modern slave trade (Exodus 21:16). Thus, the Bible does not endorse any cruel treatment of "slaves" or anyone else. It is precisely because the slave trade of the 1700s was not the same as Biblical slavery, and went against Biblical principles, that Biblical Christians opposed it.
 
Priesthood: God disqualified people from the Levitical priesthood based on bodily defects and family background (Leviticus 21:17). Opportunity for priestly service to God is (by definition), a privilege, not a right. It is God's prerogative to decide who will serve Him, just as it is your prerogative to choose which restaurant you will dine in. To understand the reason for the rules governing a particular structure, we must first know the reason for the structure in the first place. So find out from the Bible and tell me why God designed the Levitical priesthood in the first place, and then I will justify its rules to you.

Sexuality

Forced marriages: The ancient people of Israel were allowed to marry (or take as servants) enemy widows who lost their husbands in war. This causes western and urban skeptics to raise objections: "Yeah right! And what about the woman's choice?!" Such skeptics ignore ground realities. Today, because of Christian influence over the centuries, many parts of the world have a law enforcement system and an advanced economy that makes it possible for women to stay alone safely and support themselves financially. Such systems were absent in ancient times. Thus, these women would not be able to survive on their own and therefore would not be impressed by the skeptics' concern for them.
 
Polygamy: The Bible allows polygamy! The Bible prescribes marriage as being between one man and one woman (see Genesis 2:24). But God did not forbid polygamy to the ancient Israelis. The reason is simple: The current safety that we all enjoy today is due to good law enforcement and technological advancement, which in turn is due to the spread of Christianity in the West in the last five hundred years. In ancient times, warfare, raids and clashes caused the population of young men to be significantly less than that of young women. In such a situation, polygamy provides a more stable and moral environment than forcing so many young women to remain single.
 
Women and homosexuality: The Pentateuch seems harsher on women than men. God forbids homosexual behavior and fantasy (Leviticus 18:22, Matthew 5:28). It is unfair to criticize an entity before letting it speak for itself. So you tell me from the Bible why God designed sexuality and marriage (why did He not instead design humans to be like other organisms that reproduce asexually with offspring who can survive on their own?) and what the significance of the legal system of the Pentateuch was, and then I will show you how the rules follow logically from that. 

Autonomy

Why can't God just mind His own business and let us mind ours?

You are not self-sufficient. You're surviving using resources that God has made and because of physical laws that He is upholding (just imagine what would happen to you if God failed to uphold the uncertainty and exclusion principles!). You cannot even prevent your own aging. When you do not have self-sufficiency, it is irrational for you to demand autonomy. Since your life is a favor that God is granting you, it is perfectly legitimate for Him to demand accountability from you.
 
Imagine a businessman who says, "I'm happy doing business the way I like. I guess the government is happy minding its own business." Another, more sensible businessman replies, "Dude! This country is not your personal property! Whether you like it or not, there's legal compliance that you have to keep! It is your onus to see that you do your business the way the law of the land demands!" Well? This universe is not your personal property. It is God's. So if you intend to live in His universe, there is compliance that He legitimately demands!
 
The Bible says that God made the universe for a singular purpose. Therefore, it is necessary that all members of the universe work together. The same applies to the human body. Sometimes, certain cells in the human body insist on working independently; there's a word for that: cancer. If you accept cancer as a bad thing, it should be easy to understand that at the cosmic level, autonomy relative to the Creator is a bad thing. 
 
My employees have no problems accepting their legitimate place as employees - they follow the rules that I make for them (or if they can survive outside my company, leave if they don't like the rules). My wife has no problems accepting her legitimate place as my wife - special affection is reserved for me! Can't you graciously accept your legitimate place as a creature, in submission to the Creator?

Hell

Skeptics find fault with the Bible's teaching on hell - those who do not avail God's offer of forgiveness of sins will suffer forever in hell. The problem lies with misrepresentation (that is, skeptics are confusing the real God of the Bible with the caricature of God that they have invented in their mind) and a failure to face facts about who man really is. Note the following:-
 
Man deserves hell: We are all sinners and sin against an infinitely holy God is infinitely serious, and therefore calls for infinite punishment. As finite beings, it takes us infinite time to bear an infinite punishment. We thus deserve to suffer forever in hell. Hell exists not because God is sadistic but because God is just. In hell, God will not torture you to satisfy his sadistic lust (he has none). He will only give you the punishment due to you for your actions (according to His standards).
 
God does not want anyone to go to hell: In Ezekiel 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9 and 1 Timothy 2:4, God makes it clear that He does not take delight in punishing people. He gave His Son to die a horrible death so that He could
The many warnings in the Bible about hell are to alert us to this truth. And when you refuse to heed his warnings (that is, insist on going to hell), God actually weeps (Jeremiah 13:17, Luke 19:41, Matthew 23:37). What more could God have done?! 
 
We all put things into "hell" so why blame God when He does so? The only way a software on my computer can escape "uninstall" is if it does exactly what I want it to do. The only way something in my house can escape the trash can is by being of use to me. In the same way, the only way you can escape hell is if God approves of you. Imagine a cancer cell complaining: "I have a right to have my own agenda. But my owner is so mean; he's going for chemotherapy and I'm going to be blown to bits!" You're being as stupid as the cancer cell when you complain that God puts you in hell because you refuse to cooperate with Him!
 
Rather than screaming in pain, the Bible mentions weeping and gnashing of teeth as characteristic of hell (Matthew 13:50). You will hate hell not so much because God is torturing you there - but because God's mercies (that you now enjoy but do not acknowledge) will not be there. And you will realize how easy it was for you to avoid hell

Harsh punishments

God is very harsh (example: 2 Kings 2:23-24). To dismiss God as unduly harsh presupposes a moral standard that is known to be superior to God's character by which to judge God. What such standard do you propose and on what basis do you justify (authenticate) it? There is no such standard. However, as shown in the conclusion below, God's moral character is demonstrably perfect. Hence, when we find Him too harsh for our taste, it only shows us that we are morally deficient. Referring to the example above, how do you know what is the appropriate punishment for mocking a man who is God's mouthpiece - a man through whom thousands of people may turn to God and escape hell? It was harsh punishments like the above that opened the eyes of thick headed, human sacrificing ancient Israelis to the reality of the true God. They will tell you that it is better that someone gets mauled by a bear and consequently, people escape hell, than no one getting mauled and everyone going to hell.
 
When God exercises judgment, the Bible records angelic observers (who know much more than humans) testifying that His standards are fair (Revelation 16:7). The Bible says that all of us have rebelled against God. Keep in mind that rebellion against an infinitely holy God is infinitely serious, and thus calls for infinite punishment. In the light of this, what action of God do you find too harsh?
 
God gave the ancient nation of Israel a penal code with harsh, physical punishments. In ancient times, people were a lot tougher and used to violence than us. We live a delicate, sedentary life, and have been sedated by the idea that people aren't really responsible for their actions. Thus, punishments that appear harsh to us were appropriate for the ancients. Biblical punishments are far more humane than other codes of the time (like Hammurabi's code).

Killing

When God led His people (the Israelis) out of Egypt into Israel, He asked them to annihilate the Canaanites (the local inhabitants) although there was no shortage of land for the Israelis and Canaanites to coexist (Deuteronomy 20:17).

It is worth noting that for all the sympathy that skeptics have for the Canaanites, they don't seem to have any sympathy for the little children who were burnt alive in Canaanite human sacrifices, or for the girls condemned to live a rotten life of venereal disease, being forced into temple prostitution. What about those condemned to a life of drudgery because they are products of incest, and thus with congenital defects? Canaanite society was sexually promiscuous (we know this from the warnings in Leviticus 18) - and there were no pills and condoms then, so for every Canaanite killed (including children), several cases of human sacrifice, temple prostitution, etc. would be prevented in subsequent generations. Today, Jewish influence has spread all over the world. Just imagine the condition if Canaanite influence spread all over the world! Thus, skeptics who criticize God for asking the Israelis to kill the Canaanites have got things upside down.

The rationale that the Israelis used when they attacked the Canaanites was:-
  1. God promised our ancestor Abraham that the land would be ours
  2. God has led us up till now in miraculously liberating us from Egypt - by plaguing Egypt, splitting the Red Sea and sustaining us in the desert (see Deuteronomy 11:2-4).
  3. Therefore, we can be confident He will help us against the Canaanites.
Thus, skeptics who insist that Israel decided to attack the Canaanites under God's directions in the Pentateuch must also admit that God delivered Israel out of Egypt (also mentioned in the Pentateuch). If God sided with the poor slaves and split the Red Sea to save them, He must surely be good and powerful. He therefore would obviously have valid reasons for calling for the destruction of the Canaanites. Further, the Canaanites were aware that Jehovah was the true God because they had also witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea and other miracles. Those Canaanites who asked for mercy were spared. Examples include Rahab (Joshua 2:8-12) and the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:3 onwards). Further discussion
 
Skeptics also complain that God killed so many people in Noah's Flood. God is the giver of life, and thus has the right to take life as well. We are not givers of life, and so we don't have the right to take life. It would not be right for you to delete a file on my hard disc (or for one of my files to delete another), but it is absolutely right for me to delete a file on my own hard disc. In the same way, it would not be right for me to kill someone, but it would be right for God to do so. God knows what He's doing. Even if half a billion children perished in Noah's Flood, God knows the moral status of each. In eternity, God's scales of justice (not yours) will be balanced, for children as well as adults. If God was so bad, why do you think He made provision for everyone to be saved, and sent Noah preaching to them (2 Peter 2:5) for 125 years?! If you refuse to listen to and ridicule 125 years of warnings and refuse to avail of the way out, you have only yourself to blame when calamity gets you. The pre-Flood world was a violent anarchy. If God did not wipe out the pre-Flood population, the anarchy would have continued for all of human history. The fresh start provided by the flood provided an opportunity for government and law enforcement to be set up (Genesis 9:6). Thus, by sending the flood, God actually saved many more lives from violent death than were lost in the flood (children included). When you try to be wiser than God, you only end up making a fool of yourself.
 
God asked the people of Israel to kill those among them who turn away from following Him (Deuteronomy 17:2-5). How mean! No freedom of religion! The same book of Deuteronomy reports that God had demonstrated His deity by the plagues in Egypt, splitting of the Red Sea, appearance at Mt Sinai, and the miraculous feeding of more than 3 million humans plus accompanying livestock for forty years in the howling deserts of (what is now) Saudi Arabia. If you insist that Deuteronomy prescribes death for apostasy, you must also accept that God proved Himself with these stupendous miracles. Now, what is unfair in punishing those who turn away from the God who had done so much for them?

Application to Christians today

The New Testament (which is directly addressed to Christians) has no commands asking Christians to do anything violent. But if God asked Israel to take violent action in the Old Testament, this means that the Bible sanctions violence by Christians against those who disagree with them!

This is a faulty argument because Israel and the church are two different entities. The biggest error in Biblical interpretation is to confuse Israel and the church.

Specific commands given to Israel do not apply to the church. These commands can be distinguished from general commandments that are applicable to us also using the principles of Biblical interpretation.

Keeping this in mind, let's examine the passages that skeptics object to:-

In 1500 BC, God asked Israel to wipe out the Canaanites. Skeptics use this to infer that Christianity is violent. Such a conclusion is absurd, because this instruction was given to Israel, not the church. Moreover, it pertained to a single, specific situation only. In fact, God warned the Israelis not to trouble the Arabs, who were then living in the "East Bank" (see Deuteronomy 2:9-19). 

God gave the ancient Israelis a penal code since they were a nation. This included harsh punishments. For instance, adulterers were stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:22). So, does this mean that Christians should try and stone adulterers to death? No! The church is not a nation, and thus has no penal code! God has asked Christians to obey the laws of their respective nations (Romans 13:1-7). Adultery is against the character of God, and thus is wrong even today, but God is not asking Christians to punish adulterers!

Israel was a theocracy, because God had taken Israel out of Egypt, and brought them to Israel, and they had all agreed to follow Him after seeing the miracles He did (Exodus 19:8). Thus, apostasy was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 17:2-5). So does this mean Christians should kill non-Christians?! No! The church is not a nation, let alone a theocratic nation. The Lord Jesus asked Christians to tell others about him (Matthew 28:19-20), and not retaliate even when harassed (Romans 12:17-21).

Since Israel was a nation, occasional war would be inevitable. There isn't a single nation even today that has taken a conscious decision not to defend itself from other countries. Needless to say, such a situation does not apply to the church. Christians serve in the armed forces of their respective nations and obey all reasonable orders. 

Thus the notion that the Bible instigates Christians (like the Koran instigates Muslims) to violence is baseless.

Conclusion

We end by considering one final question: God has the right to make the rules because this is His universe. But how do we know that these rules are good?

God is a Trinity - one God, yet three persons - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Among them, there is infinite harmony, joy and love (Psalm 16:11, John 17:22-26). This proves that each of these Persons has an infinitely good character. But God's rules stem from His character! Hence, God's rules are infinitely good!

If you tell me you've got a better system of ethics than the God of the Bible, what do you have to show for it? Do you have an infinitely harmonious and joyful relationship with anyone who is also following your system? If I follow your system of ethics, where will it lead me?

But I know, that when I submit to God, who has loved me with the same kind of love that exists within the Trinity (
John 15:9),  and who gives me His nature when I come to Him (2 Peter 1:4), I will reach that fellowship that God enjoys now - a fellowship of infinite harmony, joy and love.
 
Also see:
  1. The Problem of Evil
  2. If the Bible is so bad, why has the Bible been the greatest influence for good in the world?
  3. Atheism: greatest cause of evil in the world
  4. Atheism provides no basis for morality.
  5. Only Biblical ethics is viable and consistent.
  6. Hasn't the Bible been used to justify evil?

If you intend to debate me on this topic, I expect you to respond to points 2, 3, and 4 and present your ideal ethics code first.