A concerned reader wonders how to respond to the claim that God is vindictive. Tim Chaffey, AiG–U.S., responds.
I regularly talk to people about Christ, both in person and over the internet. The main issue I seem to run into with this is people who say that if the God of the Bible does exist, then he is a selfish, demanding, vindictive god not worthy of devotion. I have searched your site endlessly and cannot seem to find an effective answer to this statement. Although the sentiment is clearly based on a misinterpretation of Biblical events, I am at a loss as to how to counter it logically and lovingly. Any suggestions?
Thank you for contacting Answers in Genesis and for your willingness to talk to people about Christ.
This sort of attack has become very common in recent years, due in large part to claims like the following by Richard Dawkins.
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.1
I would start my response by pointing out the hypocritical nature of the attack. Since Dawkins is so adamant in his atheism, perhaps he could explain why any of these things are wrong from an evolutionary point of view. After all, if his philosophical naturalistic beliefs are correct, then there is no such thing as right or wrong. Hence, there would be nothing bad about any of these attributes he assigns to the God of the Bible. Only the Bible provides the basis for morality, so it is hypocritical and illogical for Dawkins or other atheists to appeal to morality while attacking Scripture.
When we approach these issues from a biblical perspective, we see these claims are actually based on a misunderstanding or ignorance of the overall context in which the biblical accounts occur. Keep the following points in mind as we look at some background information and then one particularly famous (or infamous) account. First, since God is the Creator of all things, He gets to set the rules.2 Second, God is perfectly just and must judge sin. Third, all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and deserve death (Romans 6:23). The fact that God allows us to live at all demonstrates His mercy.
With that in mind, is it fair to call God selfish, demanding, and vindictive? Absolutely not! God created a perfect world and gave man dominion over it. Rather than enjoying all that God had offered them, our first parents decided to violate the one prohibition God gave them, even though they knew the consequence was death (Genesis 2:17). Their sin brought not only death, but suffering, bloodshed, and disease too.
Death might seem like a harsh consequence for sin, but it is actually merciful.
Death might seem like a harsh consequence for sin, but it is actually merciful. Can you imagine what it would be like to live forever in a fallen world? This means that all of the wicked people throughout history (e.g., Hitler, Stalin, and Nero) would still be alive. If there were no eternal consequences for sin, then people would know they could act however they wanted, and the world would become even worse.
Instead of allowing mankind to continue forever in rebellion, God gave us an opportunity to spend eternity with Him in a place where there is no suffering, death, and disease (Revelation 21:3–4). In an incredible act of love and grace, God paid the penalty for man’s sin by sending His Son to become a man and take upon Himself the sins of the world (1 John 2:2).
God’s laws are not overbearing, but were given to protect us from others and from ourselves. He knows what is best for us, and He has given us instructions on how to honor Him with our lives. Think of a father who teaches his child that he must look both ways before crossing the road. The child may not like the rule, but adults understand that this rule isn’t given to destroy the child’s fun. It was made to protect him so that he may live and enjoy life.
Richard Dawkins, and others who make similar claims out of context, behave like the child who resents any restrictions placed upon him. They don’t understand that the rules are given to protect them. Instead, they chafe under the rules and despise the God who made them.
Let’s look at one particular example from Scripture that is often cited by those who wish to attack God’s goodness. In the book of Joshua, God commands the Israelites to conquer several cities throughout the Promised Land and to kill every person in some of these towns. How can anyone possibly think of God as loving in light of these commands?
First, we need to understand the context of what took place in the book of Joshua. Several centuries before these battles, God had given the land to Abraham and his descendants (through Isaac and Jacob). However, God also told Abraham that his descendants would serve the Egyptians for 400 years before taking possession of the land. The reason for this delay is that “the iniquity (sin) of the Amorites [was] not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16). God graciously gave the people dwelling in the Promised Land 400 years to turn from their sinful ways. When they did not, He used the Israelites as an instrument of judgment.
What were these sins, and how were they so bad? Read Leviticus 18, which outlines these sins: sacrificing their children (Leviticus 18:21), sexual relations with their mothers (Leviticus 18:6–8), sex with animals (Leviticus 18:23), etc. Do such things warrant judgment? According to God, they certainly do, but He is also willing to forgive those who trust Him—consider Rahab and her family who were saved out of such evil (Joshua 6:17; see also 1 Corinthians 6:9–11).
Second, in many of these battles, the people were commanded to first make an offer of peace (Deuteronomy 20:10–12). It is only in the cases where the people of the land were exceedingly wicked that the Israelites were commanded to utterly destroy them (Deuteronomy 20:16–18).3 God treated His people the same way. When the Israelites rebelled against Him, He used other nations, such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans to judge them. However, in every single case, God provided the means of salvation for those who would trust Him.
These issues and many more are treated in greater detail in the latest book of our Answers series, The New Answers Book 3.
May God bless you as you continue to witness to others about Him.
Some people fail to differentiate between the laws and make the mistake of thinking a command for a certain person or group should be applied universally (e.g., trying to sacrifice a lamb today as a sin offering).