Category Archives: apologetics

Is God a moral Monster? The Conquest of Canaan

Is God a moral monster?  How, for example, should we assess the moral status of the Old Testament account when the Israelites came into the land of Canaan and were commanded by God to completely wipe out the inhabitants?  Deuteronomy 20:16-17 puts it this way: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the LORD your God has commanded” (emphasis added).

This command to annihilate everything that breathes presumably included women, children, and infants; from the very old to the very young, and everyone in between.  To contemporary ears, this sounds deeply distressing and offensive.  What kind of God would give such a comprehensively genocidal command?

There are several ways to respond to such a charge.  Many contemporary scholars suggest that some of the language describing the total annihilation of the inhabitants of Canaan could well be conventional and intentionally exaggerated (that is, “hyperbole”), a common literary device used by other nations at that time to advocate for their military and moral superiority.  Perhaps there is some merit to these claims.  For those who are interested, consider, for example, the thoughts of Joshua Ryan Butler in the portion of his book, The Skeletons in God’s Closet addressing the issue of Israel’s “holy wars.”

Regardless, we know for certain from the text itself that contrary to this overt command of God, not all the Canaanites were killed—not even close.  This was something that later became part of the problem and a profound source of temptation for the Israelites to turn away from Yahweh and serve the gods of the Canaanites instead.  They were to wipe out the inhabitants so that “they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:18).

But let’s just assume for the moment that God really did command the Israelites to obliterate these Canaanite people—men, women, and children—from the face of the earth.  What then?  There are at least two important things to highlight here.

First, we need to appreciate the godlessness of the Canaanite peoples of that time.  They were not kind and peaceful city dwellers just “minding their own business.”  The gods of the Canaanites were ruthless and immoral, and the people of the land reflected that.  For example, they advocated child sacrifice, and the enslavement and brutal treatment (including rape and torture) of those that they conquered.  They also openly practiced sorcery and forced ritual sex in religious ceremonies to encourage fertility.

So, we are not talking about nice and kindly moral neighbors here.  They were polytheists who were deeply rebellious toward God and deserving of judgment.  Israel was God’s chosen instrument of judgment at this time in history, just as Assyria and Babylon would later become God’s instruments to judge the Israelites for their appalling unfaithfulness to Him.

The second aspect that should be mentioned regarding the conquest is that it is a very unique historical event with a very specific set of circumstances and purposes.  Yes, the Israelites were God’s instrument of judgment for the sins of the Canaanites, but God’s purposes for Israel’s conquest and possession of the land went far beyond the punitive.

Israel was to take the land first and foremost because God had promised it to them as part of a unilateral covenant made hundreds of years before.  Why?  So that they could be a nation of witnesses to the fact that Yahweh was the one and only true God over and against all other so-called national “gods.”  Conquest was one of the primary ways that one nation’s god proved its superiority over other gods.  If Yahweh was going to demonstrate His supremacy over all other gods, conquest of the land was a major means of demonstrating that in a way that the surrounding nations would understand very well.

The elimination of the Canaanites was a safety measure intended to help Israel maintain their undivided devotion to Yahweh so that they might reveal His greatness and goodness to all the nations of the earth.  As we know from the rest of the story, their failure to drive out and destroy the inhabitants became their downfall in the end.  Rather than exhibiting the character of God to those around them, they wound up forsaking Yahweh and going after and being led astray by the gods of the Canaanites.

Thus, God’s somewhat shocking command here was hardly arbitrary or unrelated to the context and timing of the conquest itself.  Failing to appreciate this can result in a failure to understand the character of God, as well as the importance, necessity, and means of divine judgment.

But there is another concern here that bears mentioning and additional reflection, namely the notion of “holy wars.”  Some have suggested that on the basis of passages like these, “holy wars” might be justified in our time, just as they have been in later history.  It is no secret, for example, that the Christian Crusades against Islam for access to the Holy Land were similarly seen as “holy” and commanded by God.

However, the theocracy that Israel was living under when the Canaanite conquest took place and the kinds of secularist and pluralist (non-religious) governments that we now have in most places are vastly different.  While I understand there is a movement in some Christian circles to restore a kind of theocratic rule of Christians over the nations today—sometimes called theonomy or “dominion” theology—I believe this is ill-conceived and poorly supported biblically.

The point is this: governments and their militias today do not have the same covenantal relationship to God that Israel had in that time and are therefore not in a position to legitimately claim divine prerogative to go to war in the same way that Israel was sometimes commanded by God to do in the Old Testament.

There is a long history of just war theories, starting from at least the time of Augustine in the late 4th and early 5th century that can be referred to regarding when a nation can and cannot go to war, how that war should be waged, and whether or not Christians should ever fight in war, and if so, in what capacities.  But they all recognize the crucial differences between theocratic Israel at the time of the conquest and the God-ordained governments—both secular and religiously influenced—since that time.

Is God a moral monster?  No.  But we sometimes arrogantly think we know better than Him in terms of how He should have handled and how He should now be handling national, international, and especially our personal affairs.  This merely reveals that just like Adam and Eve, we do not adequately understand or affirm the wisdom and goodness of His ways, the holiness of His character, and the loving nature of His purposes and plans for us and our sin-infested world.  Perhaps we (not He) are the moral monsters of our time.

When the Mighty Fall: Reflections on the Ravi Zacharias Scandal

With the recent Ravi Zacharias scandal, many are sharing their thoughts and laments about his improprieties and sexual sins, so I wanted to add some brief reflections.

Our trust is in Jesus and the truth of His gospel.

For many, Ravi was something of a spiritual mentor and hero, instrumental in leading them to Christ and/or helping them strengthen their faith in the face of opposition and doubt.  But because Ravi claimed to represent Jesus and be living out his Christian walk with moral integrity, his double life and godless infidelity has served to strain the gospel’s credibility and deeply shaken the faith of some.

Whether we like it or not, the credibility of the message (not necessarily its truth value) is often directly related to the credibility of the messenger.  That credibility increases or decreases depending on whether or not the life of the messenger matches at the claims of the message.  This is why Paul repeatedly calls believers to live lives worthy of the God and the gospel (Phil 1:27; Eph 4:1).  At the same time, Paul makes it clear that even if the gospel is preached pretentiously by people with selfish and impure motives, as long as the message remains the gospel, he is glad it’s being shared (Phil 1:15-18).

Thus, despite the deep disconnect between Ravi’s personal life and his gospel message, we can still depend upon the truth of the gospel.  Why?  Because its persuasive power and transformative nature ultimately and finally rest upon the trustworthiness and perfection of God in Jesus Christ—and nothing and no one else.  He alone is the guarantor of the gospel’s reliability.  As Romans 3:4 reminds us, God and His gospel are dependable even if everyone else is a liar.

All sins are not equal: Some sins really are more egregious than others.

In the aftermath of Ravi’s indecencies, some have claimed that “sin is sin,” and that Ravi was, like all of us, just another “sinner saved by grace.”  While this may be true, putting it this way so soon after the revelations downplays the truly despicable nature of his sin.  Yes, everyone sins, but certain sins produce far greater social and moral impact and damage than others.  While all sins are wrong before a holy God, alienating us from Him, it’s not hard to see that the sin of murder (for example) has a far greater impact on one’s conscience and society as a whole than stealing a pack of gum.

Suggesting that Ravi was “just another sinner saved by grace” profoundly minimizes the tremendous authority and power he possessed.  It also dismisses the ways in which his deceitful abuse and misuse of these in order to gratify ungodly sexual desires makes the ramifications of his sin that much greater.  This is precisely why James 3:1 warns, “Do not become teachers in large numbers, my brothers, since you know that we who are teachers will incur a stricter judgment.”  It is also why in the Old Testament some sins incurred greater consequences than others—sometimes even death, because they had a much greater societal and moral impact on the horizontal level.

Saying Ravi was “just another sinner” also suggests that what happened to these sexually abused women should just be “forgiven and forgotten” so we can just move on and get it over with.  That’s easy for the unaffected to say but shows little concern or care for those (including Ravi’s immediate family) who have been profoundly hurt and damaged by his deceit, misuse of funds, sexual duplicity, and predatory behavior.  While we recognize the power of and need for God’s forgiveness and grace, when serious and egregious wrong has been done, we must also make real restitution and provide genuine care for those who have been wronged.  We should not use flippant calls for “grace” and “forgiveness” to undermine or minimize the horrific nature of what has been done and try to avoid any responsibility to make proper amends.

Was Ravi actually a Christian?

I’ve heard the question raised, “Was Ravi a true believer or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?”  For some, even asking this question is shocking and inappropriate.  Given his repeated claims to be a genuine believer in Jesus alongside the powerful ways God used His ministry, the answer might seem obvious: “Of course Ravi was a true Christian!”

But before we rush to make such definitive conclusions, I think it’s fair to admit there is some conflicting evidence here.  By all outward appearances, Ravi’s faith was sincere.  However, the ongoing level of deception, the despicable nature and extent of the sin, as well as Ravi’s complete lack of public or private remorse and repentance—even when facing his impending death, means that ultimately only God, the perfect and righteous Judge, knows if Ravi was sincere or was merely “peddling the word of God” (2 Cor 2:17) for his own selfish ends.

At the very least, passages like Matthew 7:21-23 and 23:25-27 should be sobering reminders to us all that even successful and seemingly righteous religious leaders can actually be wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15).  We should not be too shocked or devastated when respected religious leaders who have thriving ministries and who may even look morally impeccable on the outside (just like the Pharisees did in Jesus’ time) turn out to be filthy and ungodly on the inside.  Ravi’s life is one more reminder that we should not be too enamored by someone’s giftedness and ministerial success.  Just because someone is brilliant, exceptionally talented, and powerfully used of God does not prove they are right with Him or living a holy life.

Ravi was not given adequate accountability, and we are also susceptible to such sin.

The many ongoing failures of the RZIM ministries to provide appropriate accountability structures for Ravi give a sobering and gravely negative example that every Christian and ministry organization can and should learn from.  But because we might be legitimately outraged and angered by what Ravi did, we also need to be very careful here.  The great temptation is to look at Ravi or the ministry and be disgusted and judgmental without realizing that we need to take a hard and honest look at our own hearts.  As humbling as it is to admit, none of us are immune from the possibility of becoming just like Ravi—or even worse, if we fail to put moral safeguards into place.

I suspect that Ravi’s life and ministry started out well enough.  Over time, however, small and secret sins crept into his life, sins which remained unrevealed and unconfessed.  These eventually and progressively became larger and more horrific.  As he simultaneously became increasingly powerful and popular, more was at stake and there was greater temptation and pressure to hide his mounting moral struggles and failures.  Over time, his conscience was seared, and his heart became callused and hard.

Instead, we need to be utterly honest about and constantly seeking to eradicate even the so-called “little sins” in our lives, sins that could easily lead us down a similar path of destruction and moral degradation.  Are you hiding something out of fear and shame?  Don’t let it remain hidden!  Bring it into the freeing light of confession with a trusted friend and let the power of that secret sin finally be broken (James 5:16)!

At the end of the day, the lesson is clear: We need God’s daily grace, a deep desire for humility and holiness, as well as close friends and genuine accountability structures to help us avoid suffering the same fate as Ravi.

What will your legacy be?

My final challenge is to carefully consider the legacy you are leaving for the generations that follow. Everyone is an example.  What kind of example are you setting for others, a good one, a bad one, or perhaps somewhere in between?  And when you are gone and people sift through the hidden aspects of your life, what will they ultimately find?  What do you want them to find, and how will you make your public and private life coincide with each other?

It’s too late for Ravi, but so long as you are living, there’s still time to turn your heart toward the gospel of our Savior Jesus Christ and through confession and repentance experience His cleansing power to forgive and redeem any and all sin, public or private, known or unknown.

Pandemics and the Problem of Natural Evil

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The recent Covid-19 pandemic raises the age-old problem of evil and the goodness of God.  How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil things to occur?  Considered by many to be the “Achilles heel” of Christianity, how can an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God co-exist with profound and incessant evil?

In an earlier post, I explained how genuine human moral freedom brings with it the possibility that some evil choices will result.  But what about those events deemed “natural evils,” where despite their devastating impact, no obvious human moral decisions are involved?

It should first be acknowledged that the Bible makes it clear that our world is not currently as it should be.  Disease and sickness are some of the tragic marks of a world deeply marred and damaged by sin.  After Adam sins, God tells him, “cursed is the ground because of you,” and Romans 8:22 reminds us that creations groans and longs to be freed from this curse.  Viruses like Covid-19 are just one more example of a world gone wrong because a long time ago in a garden far, far away, our ancestors refused to submit to and trust in the goodness and wisdom of God.  Everyone has been paying a heavy price ever since.

In Christian history, many great thinkers developed responses to this problem of natural evil that have come to be called “theodicies,” or ways of justifying a perfect God in an imperfect world.  Most argue that an orderly creation is a necessary condition for certain divine objectives to be possible.

The idea is this: It would be very difficult for a moral agent to act with intentionality and responsibility in an unpredictable environment.  As Michael Peterson points out in Evil and the Christian God, “If the objects in the world acted in sporadic and unpredictable ways, deliberation and action would be severely impaired if not eliminated.”  For example, if an individual could not predict what would happen when they pointed a loaded gun at someone’s head and pulled the trigger, then how could a responsible moral action be ascribed to that individual?  But the laws of physics as well as past experience (i.e., predictability) clearly inform the event and give the agent at least some knowledge of its moral value.

In addition, the so-called “laws of nature” are a two-edged sword.  As Peterson puts it, “The same water which sustains and refreshes can also drown.”  At this point, it becomes clearer that when people are upset about the way the natural world normally works, they are ultimately asking for is some sort of suspension or alteration of natural law whenever a natural disaster occurs.  But this would only succeed in producing a chaotic and unpredictable universe where the supernatural (miraculous) could not be distinguished from the natural, and where the “normal course of events” would have no real meaning.

Two observations are worth noting at this point.  First, perhaps God really could miraculously intervene every time some natural catastrophe was about to take place.  But again, if God was constantly intervening this way in nature, then predictability and the resulting stability and responsibility of human moral choices (not to mention the possibility of scientific knowledge) would be severe jeopardized, if not rendered meaningless.

The natural universe is constructed such that when an individual’s brain is disrupted by a speeding bullet (for example), the likelihood of survival is greatly diminished.  But if God were to intervene each time a speeding bullet disrupted the brain functions of a human being, then the person who shot the bullet could hardly be held responsible for doing something good or evil.  This would negate all freedom to make a moral choice, for the moral agent could foresee no negative recourse for his or her actions and would therefore never know or have to be concerned about the difference between good and evil.  Consequently, “natural evil” is part of the fabric of the universe for it makes moral decisions possible and everyday life meaningful and predictable.

A second observation is closely related to the previous one.  If God is omnipotent and all-wise, why didn’t He create natural laws that precluded the possibility of natural disasters?  The problem here is that it is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where natural laws that make life possible could have been made such that they exclude the possibility of natural evil.  For example, if water quenches thirst in the human body, it must also have the property of being able to drown the individual who cannot swim.  Exercise is good, but resistance from gravity is a necessary prerequisite to its benefit.  As such, gravity is also the cause of the unfortunate results when someone falls from a tenth-story balcony.  It is extremely difficult to imagine a universe where gravity would operate as it does without also having the potential to be an accomplice to some occurrences of what are termed “natural evils.”

Because the natural order is a highly complex system, even tiny changes in that system will have far-reaching and profound effects upon the rest of the system.  The universe is predictable and functional because of the way it is put together in the current system.  Skeptics and critics consistently fail to provide a workable model for a different system that would have all the benefits of the current system with none of the liabilities.

At this point, Peterson’s conclusion proves insightful: “The whole matter becomes so complex that no finite mind can conceive of precisely what modifications the envisioned natural world would have to be incorporated in order both to preserve the good natural effects and to avoid the . . . evil ones.  And if the desired modifications cannot be detailed, then the further task of conceiving how the proposed natural world is better than this present one seems patently impossible.”

The real objection, it seems, is an objection of both scope and degree.  Given the fact that God is not expected to intervene at every point in which some natural evil might occur, why can’t He at least intervene more often than He already does and so reduce the amount of natural evil we experience?  This has been called the “inductive problem of evil.”  Applied to natural evil, it suggests that God could at least do a marginally (if not significantly) better job of managing natural disasters so that fewer lives would be lost and greater human flourishing would result.

Here again, though, this objection assumes we know better than God about these things.  It is, however, impossible for us to know how much natural evil is already restrained by God in order to make life on planet earth possible.  For all we know, God is constantly holding back the tide of natural hostilities to keep our planet habitable and hospitable.

The sad reality is, we often find it hard to fully trust in God’s wisdom and power because deep down, despite our obvious incompetence and incapacity, we are still convinced we know how to run the universe better than God.  But we clearly do not know what combination of disasters and relief creates the right mix for human beings to be properly chastised for our sin and reminded of our gross inability to control the realities of our own lives, let alone those of the entire universe.

This is where our attitudes and responses to events like the Covid-19 pandemic come most forcefully into play.  Whether we want to admit it or not, part of natural evil’s goal is to humble and remind us that we are severely limited in our power and understanding.  We are decidedly not in control of our own lives and destinies.

In view of this, we can either refuse to submit to and continue shaking our fists at the God who lovingly made and sustains us, or we can beautifully demonstrate to those around us the authenticity and significance of our faith in Jesus Christ by giving thanks, affirming, and resting in His sovereign wisdom, goodness, and grace.