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. (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion)
The sentiment embodied in this statement is the absolute bedrock of atheist belief. The reason that atheists are so confident in their rejection of the obvious evidence for design from the natural world is this fundamental argument. They know that a good God cannot exist because of the evil in the world and they know that the Bible is false because they find the Old Testament reprehensible.
Read any atheist polemic. Do biologists publish a mathematical model that demonstrates the plausibility of a process of evolution creating the full library of information we find in the biosphere? No. They make up some plausible sounding “just so” stories to explain how a complex artifact might have arisen by random mutation and natural selection and go on to ridicule the idea that the Earth is 5000 years old and the “bad designs” in nature. Do neuroscientists give the idea of free will a fair shake before proclaiming that there is no such thing? No. They dismiss it with a single finger movement experiment in the face of mountains of contrary evidence. Can physicists explain the extreme fine-tuning of the constants of physics in the universe? No. They postulate an infinite “multiverse” for which we cannot have any evidence and proclaim God unnecessary. Atheists cannot show the plausibility of their beliefs and their bread and butter is attacking Genesis, the Old Testament and the problem of evil. As the evidence for design in the biological world and the physical universe continues to accumulate, their voices will become ever more shrill.
As a Christian who believes in an Old Earth interpretation of Genesis, the creation account in the Bible is a strength and not a liability. As a Christian who believes that the ancient nation of Israel was a nation of barbaric sinners whom God chose to demonstrate the transforming power of His love, the arguments against the Old Testament seem to me to have been answered. As a Christian who believes in the inherent evil of created beings, the plan of God for dealing with inevitable evil makes an enormous amount of sense. Because the argument that Dr. Dawkins makes above has a tremendous emotional appeal, however, let us consider it from a different perspective:
To the faithful you show yourself faithful; to those with integrity you show integrity. To the pure you show yourself pure, but to the wicked you show yourself hostile. (Psalm 18:25-26)
To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd. (2 Samuel 22:27)
From these parallel verses, one can discern a principle. If you come to God with purity or faith or love, then God will show himself pure, faithful and loving. Contrariwise, if you come to God with hostility and suspicion, God is going to show himself hostile. In a sense, God’s attitudes toward you are a mirror of your attitudes towards Him. In the parable that Jesus tells about the dishonest steward, God easily forgives the steward for stealing from Him until the steward shows himself unforgiving to one of his subordinates. In this sense, the God you find when you read through the Old Testament is the God you were looking for. Are you glancing through the Old Testament determined to find reasons that you don’t have to worry about your misdeeds? Surprise, surprise, you will find a villainous monster who is unworthy of worship. Are you diligently searching the law and the prophets to find our glorious Saviour? If so, then the Old Testament will be filled with rich insights into God’s love, grace, mercy and forgiveness. It all depends on your attitude. As software engineers say, “garbage in, garbage out”.
When I read the stories of the Old Testament, for example, I see God send prophet after prophet telling people that they need to repent for many years before He actually brings judgment. When He finally does bring judgment, what are the kind of crimes He is judging?
They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal–something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. (Jeremiah 19:5)
Is punishing a person who is so cruel and callous that they burn their own children in the fire really so unreasonable? May I suggest to you that any person who could seriously contemplate acts like this without getting angry enough to agree that God must ultimately judge sin is a person whose own evil is out of control?
Likewise, when I read about the invasion of Canaan, I see God pronouncing overdue judgment on sinful nations (Genesis 15:16) in the hopes that His own people will intercede for those nations just as Abraham interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18. If you read the accounts, you see that God does not allow them to take plunder from these people and carefully steers them away from nations which did not deserve destruction. This does not seem like a “psychopath” or “bully” to me, but like a loving and Holy God who has finally come to the end of His great patience with people who were committing horrific atrocities.
Similarly, when I look at the law given by Moses, I don’t see an arbitrary and tyrannical standard where it is okay to beat your slaves, I see God giving a brutal, tribal and patriarchal society the most advanced moral teachings that they could handle in order to point them toward the law of love. In all of these things, what you find is determined by what you were looking for.
George Bernard Shaw once said something that could be paraphrased, “If you are going to wrestle with a pig in a pigpen, then you are going to get dirty.” In this vein, I honestly believe that the most horrible thing about sin is what it does to love incarnate Himself. Created beings are incapable of perfect love without divine help and will eventually fall to any level of brutality and savagery that could be imagined without the intervention of God. God created us in this world and allows us to see the depths to which humanity can fall in order that we might accept the help of our crucified Saviour Jesus Christ to love one another perfectly in heaven. Does God look brutal and savage in the Old Testament? If He does, it is because He chose to love us and that meant that He was going to be covered with some of our brutality and savagery.
The tremendously sad thing is that Christians insist on making the Bible impossible to believe by denying truths that are obvious in the Scripture. Arguing that Adam was as righteous as Jesus Christ in the Garden of Eden means that the evil of this world is unnecessary and done for some inscrutable purpose. Arguing that Moses was righteous by works makes the plan of God impossible to understand and gives ammunition to those who attack the character of Jesus Christ. When will the church repent of doctrines that besmirch the character of Jesus Christ? When will the church stand up against the attacks of atheists like Richard Dawkins?
In a discussion with a coworker, I was challenged that the arguments from evil, the Old Testament and Genesis are not the bedrock of atheist beliefs. His contention was that the lack of evidence for the positive claim of God’s existence was the bedrock. Because this confusion exists with a number of people, I thought I would address it here. The lack of positive evidence for God can be a reason why you are an agnostic, it cannot be a reason why you are an atheist. When you say I am an atheist, you are saying more than, “I don’t have any evidence for God.”, you are really saying, “I have good reason to believe there isn’t a God.” When atheists defend this claim, they inevitably use theological arguments to make their case.