Can We Trust the God of Genocide?
I recently taught a Bible class at our local Christian school. I was assigned the topic, "Can the Bible Be Trusted?" I prepared well—a skillful blending, I thought, of watertight arguments, personal anecdotes, and historical underpinnings. I gave a whirlwind history of the development of the canon. I toted out comparative stats on existing copies of ancient documents. I addressed the old vexing problem of the mystery cults and their relationship to Christianity. I told those students how the Bible was a wise and trusted guide in my own life. I gave examples. I delivered it all with what I thought was conviction and verve.
It was a flop. The students could barely stay awake.
I might have guessed the outcome from the get-go. I started with a question: "If anyone asked you why you trust the Bible, what would you tell them?"
It left them dumbfounded.
As I was leaving, a young man who had seemed especially bored in the class approached me in the hall.
"Thanks for coming," he said, surprising me. I asked him if I'd helped him answer the question, Why do you trust the Bible?
"Well," I said, "do you trust the Bible?"
"Hosea 13:16," he said.
"Remind me," I said.
With icy precision he quoted: "The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open."
Now it was my turn to be dumbfounded.
John Milton opens Paradise Lost claiming to "justify the ways of God to man." It's questionable whether he succeeds. It's questionable whether anyone does. Most Christians give it a good shot anyhow. Most come up short. Our justifications start sounding like, well, justifications: labored attempts to vindicate God's character against mounting evidence for his seeming apathy, impotency, and incompetency.
But actually, that's the easy part. What's not easy is explaining what appear to be deliberate acts of divine cruelty. God's virulent rage. His hair-trigger vindictiveness. His apoplectic jealousy. Why would God make women and children pay for the sins of despots or the apostasy of priests? God's behavior at times appears to the skeptic, and even to the devout, as mere rancor, raw spite. There are passages in Scripture that make God look like a cosmic bully throwing a colossal tantrum.
In light of this, it's hard to stick to the claim that God is love—unconditional love, love that seeks and serves and suffers and gives until it hurts. It's hard to reconcile the New Covenant God revealed in Jesus Christ, who welcomes little children, eats with sinners, speaks peace to troubled hearts, calls us to love our enemies, and lets adulterers walk away unscathed, with the Old Covenant God, who lays waste to entire cities, lets babies be dashed on rocks, opens the earth to swallow families whole, smites his own priests for just touching holy relics, and encourages parents to stone their own children for acting up.
This is a pressing theological work of reconciliation.
But it's also a personal one. At its root, it raises the question, Can the Bible be trusted? Or more pointedly: Can the God of the Bible be trusted? Or more pointedly yet: Jesus, is that really you?
Mine is one of three articles addressing this issue. The other authors, Christopher J. H. Wright and Phillip Cary, tackle it as theologians. I commend to you their essays, "Learning to Love Leviticus" and "Gentiles in the Hands of a Genocidal God."