With our country, in fact, the entire world pulling further and further away from God each and every day, it might be a good time for presenting some of the more common questions may run into when approached by skeptics.
The first thing to remember that being skeptical really isn’t wrong. In fact, people who aren’t could pay dearly by being overly trusting. Those who don’t ask questions are apt to end up kicking themselves for being careless.
Even the Bible itself encourages questions from those who are skeptical for example God said: “Come now and let us reason together.” (Isa. 1:18). This is an invitation for us to involve our hearts and minds to determine whether or not the Bible is indeed His inspired Word.
It’s alright to admit that we might be bothered by the violence, deception, and anger we find associated with God in the Old Testament because we sure can see differences between the Old and New Testaments. For example, Jesus told His followers to love their enemies and do good to those who harmed them, it would seem that the God of the Old Testament did just the opposite.
The differences really do appear to be real, but are they really?
Can “Thoughtful” People Believe in This God?
Readers of the Bible today might have some issues with the religious wars of the Old Testament, especially if they know the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 where it states, “Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of the armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed outside of combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely.”
But the God of the Old Testament does seem to live below these common standards of human decency. By ordering the armies of Israel to destroy not only opposing forces but women, children, and animals, this God appears to be out of step with some of the most basic rules of war. This is probably why skeptics ask the questions that they do.
Question #1 – “If the God of the Old Testament is good, how could He require the destruction of women, children, and animals?”
While admitting that such facts are troubling, let’s take a look at how the Bible itself might answer a question that questions the ethics of this God.
Toxic Culture – Through archaeological discoveries in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon, they have confirmed the Bible’s descriptions of ancient Mideast society. The countless gods of the land reflected the dark side of human nature. Fertility cults institutionalized male and female prostitution. Child sacrifice was used as a way of pleasing the gods, the chief of which was the sun god, usually known as Baal or “lord.”
These idolatrous conditions had persisted for centuries, even though the God of Israel had made His existence known through the miracles surrounding the Exodus from Egypt. Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, acknowledged that her people had known the reputation of the God of Israel when she said: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us…For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites…And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; for the Lord your God. He is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath.” (Josh. 2: 9-11)
The Canaanites had rejected an opportunity for mercy. Although they knew that the God of Israel had revealed Himself. and had worked miracles on behalf of His people, they had not embraced Him as the God of creation.
Conditions of Conquest – Old Testament records show that God did not, from the beginning, command Israel to kill all the inhabitants of Palestine. Instead, He promised that if His people trusted Him, He Himself would give the Canaanites reason to gradually leave the land. (Read Ex. 23: 27-30).
As we’ve already seen in the quote of Rahab, from the very beginning of Israel’s campaign to conquer the land, God gave the Canaanites reason and opportunity to flee. He made sure they heard about the coming of the Israelites and filled them with terror. From God’s point of view, they had polluted the land and forfeited their right to live in that region, the Lord of the Old Testament gave them the opportunity to retreat. When they decided to resist the God of the armies of Israel, only then did He demand the destruction of entire communities.
A New Society – Now, if the Canaanite society had remained undisturbed, its idolatrous culture would have continued to influence and even shape the region.
God of the Old Testament chose the Canaanite homeland, the crossroads of the ancient world, to promote the values of a new social order. These descendants of Abraham, to whom God had promised the land 400 years earlier, would by their example be “light” to the surrounding nations.
Shock Value – The mission of destroying communities who resisted should have instilled in Israel a shuddering realization of the consequences of idolatry, especially when that idolatry resisted the truth about God. Fulfilling the role of executioner should have formed in them a healthy fear of God and a hatred of false religion. They themselves would not be exempt from such judgment. They were not “chosen” because God had a favorite family, but to show the whole world the wonderful benefits of knowing the God of gods and the terrible consequences of ignoring Him.
The Perspective of Time and Eternity – Because we’re 3,000 years removed, we are troubled and even offended at the thought of Jewish soldiers executing the wives and children of frightened and helpless landowners. But the inevitable conditions of time and eternity have their very own perspective. If the lifeless idols of Canaanite culture were at war with the living God, if they were robbing whole communities of the knowledge of life and goodness, then the death of resisters would have sent a message. Without that message, Canaanite culture would have been like unchecked cancer infecting all who came into contact with this important landbridge to the three continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe.
If the Bible’s perspective on eternity is true, we can look upon the death of the children of Canaan as better than a long life shaped by the idols of Canaanite culture. Early death kept them from adding one day at a time to the load of guilt for which they would one day be judged (Rom. 2:5).
Even after seeing why God might have required the death of the Canaanites who chose to resist, we may not like what He did. That too is understandable. God isn’t looking for our fullhearted approval. He knows we can’t see the whole of life as He does.
Reasons to Trust – Although God does not demand our approval, He does call for our trust. He keeps His promises. He makes Himself real to those who seek Him. He has given us reason to believe that in the end He will right the wrongs of the ages and be fair to all, even with His enemies. His incomprehensible grace and perfect justice will prevail.
Accepting God’s Right to Be God – God also calls on us to accept His authority. As the Creator and Sustainer of all that exists, He has a right to declare, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Ex. 33:19).
Sure God could have delivered the Israelites without being so severe. But the path He chose gave merciful and fair warning to all. In His love, He created an example that was designed to alert every generation of their ultimate accountability to Him. (They knew who He was but still chose to resist Him.) We may not fully understand just why He did what He did, but we have many reasons to acknowledge His right to be God.
A Good Question – But is this also the God of the New Testament? Doesn’t Jesus reveal a God who is gentler and kinder? No, the truth is that Jesus simply gave us a clearer picture of the love and gentleness that have always been evident in God’s dealings with man.
Jesus said, “come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” ( Matthew 11: 28-30). His statement echoed the same sentiment as the invitation of the God of the Old Testament who issued the plea, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die?” (Ezek. 33:11)
It’s important to note that God always was and always will be a God of both incomprehensible love and fearsome wrath, and as God of all Creation, He has that right and authority.
Question #2: “How could an all-knowing God express regret or sorrow over something He had done, as the God of the Old Testament did?”
This is a really important question for anyone to ask. If God is always in complete control and if He knows everything in advance, why did He do some things He later felt sorry for or regreted?
The Meaning of Words – Part of the explanation is in the way the Bible uses words. The Hebrew word that is translated “sorry” or “regretted” in these texts doesn’t always mean “being sorry for a wrong done.” The original word occurs 108 times in the Hebrew text. The King James Version translates it “repent” 41 times, “comfort” 57 times, “comfort” 9 times, and “ease” once.
This scope of meaning raises a question. How could the same word be translated “comfort” in one text, and “repent” in another? The answer is that the Hebrew language sometimes operates like English. Depending on context, the same word can have different meanings.
In the case of “repent” or “comfort,” the common factor is “a change of heart.” Just as grieving emotions can be soothed or comforted by the silent embrace of a friend, so an opposite change of heart occurs when God sees the people He created for loving fellowhip rebelling against Him, making it necessary for the outpouring of His wrath in judgment.
What is in view here is not that the Lord is admitting to a sin. He is not even saying that He made an honest mistake. He is saying that He is finding it necessary to do something that is causing Him to feel emotional pain.
The Real Emotions of God – While the Bible does present God as eternal and all-knowing, it also describes Him as emotionally involved with us. He’s nothing like the emotionally detached gods of Greek philosophy. He loves us so deeply that He shares our sorrow and joy, our pain and pleasure, our failures and successes. He is a personal God with an infinite ability to relate to His creatures.
He gives us freedom to make moral and spiritual choices. When we choose obedience, He rejoices. When we choose the path of disobedience and rebellion, He grieves. (Imagine how much He must be grieving for His Creation today.)
Isaiah wrote, “In all their affliction He was afflicted…But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit” (Isa. 63: 9-10) And when he spoke through Hosea, He revealed His emotional turmoil as He thought of allowing rebellious Israel to be conquered by the Assyrians: “How can I give you up, Ephraim?…My heart churns within Me; My sympathy is stirred” (Hos. 11:8).
When He told Ezekiel to warn the people of Judah about the judgment that awaited them, He said, “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways!For why should you die, O house of Israel!?'” (Ezke. 33:11)
God shows that though He can see what is going to happen, He still feels our pain and disappointment.
Before He created the world, God foresaw the rebellion that would be mounted by angels and men. He knew what a runaway human race would try to do and how far He would let us go in our rebellion. Yet when fallen human nature had become more demonic than godly, God is described as responding emotionally to what He was seeing: “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them” (Gen. 6: 5-7).
Even though He had to judge Noah’s generation, He was emotionally moved as He thought of what He had to do. It was to express this reluctance in the heart of God that Moses, the writer of Genesis, resorted to the vivid imagery of a grieving God changing His mind and heart by destroying the race He had created.
God couldn’t just send the destructive flood against Noah’s generation without sorrow and reluctance. And we can be assured that He has the very same feelings today when His integrity makes it necessary for Him to bring judgment on the disobedient or rebellious today.
Question #3 – “If the God of the Old Testament is good, how could He have allowed sin to enter the world in the first place.
So if God is good, there must be a good reason to believe that it was His love that gave man an opportunity to pick evil. We must be able to believe that it was better for the Lord of Scriptures to let us choose between good and evil than to have been given no choice at all.
The Alternative – Difficult questions of why there is evil and why terrible things seem to happen to good people are hard to answer. The best way to answer them might be for us to consider the alternative, a world in which no one could ever havve to make a moral or ethical decision. Could we be happy? Maybe. But something would be missing in our love. Something would be missing in our work. Something would be missing even in our worship. We might not even understand what was missing. But words like honor, courage, faithfulness, hope, love, and character would not mean what they mean to us today.
The profound value of choice is not easily grasped. But, the capacity to choose between good and evil is the source of immeasurable character and enthusiasm for life in general.
The Freedom to Choose – Let’s look at the bigger picture. In the view of the Old Testament, Satan spoke a profound half-truth when he told Eve that by eating the forbidden fruit she and Adam would be “like Gd, knowing good and evil”. What does that mean? How does God, being good, “know” evil?
We must conclude that God “knew evil” in that He foresaw the prehistoric sin of certain angels and also the sin of the human race. This foreknowledge gave Him an experiential knowledge of the difference between good and evil. Even though He never sinned Himself. S before the beginning of time, God knew what it was to be angry, disappointed, and grieved because creatures He loved would choose the path of rebellion and sin.
See, what Satan failed to tell Eve was that man’s knowledge of good and evil would play out differently than God’s knowledge. The adversary didn’t warn our first parents that the weight of knowledge that God could carry by wisdom would become a terrible overburden to the children who would have to bear this burden of “knowledge” in foolishness.
Was it right for Him to let our first parents be so ignorant about something they never would have done if they had known better? What we know for sure is that He did it to give us the freedom to choose. And in the process, He used our foolishness to show us something wonderful about Himself.
The Provision of Grace – God used our loss to show us something about Himself that is priceless, His mercy and grace. Sure He could have shown His kindness and love without sin, but not to the degree that He can in our fallen world. God took the occasion of our moral rebellion to show us something that can be seen only from the depths of our guilt and need. Who could appreciate the extent of God’s goodness and compassion more than those of us who know that we have been condemned by our own sin? Who could value the self-sacrifice of God more than those who realize that if it were not for God’s offer of the cross of Christ we would have no hope?
If the God of the Old Testament were truly out of step with the God of the New Testament, then certainly the writers of the New Testament would have taken some sort of issue with a God who would allow such evil into our world. But the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament raise no doubts about the goodness of the God of Moses. in fact, the New Testament describes how God is able to take even what is terrible and turn it around for good.
In Romans 5: 1-5, Paul described a God who is able to weave the pains of a fallen world into the fabric of our lives. He uses pain and sorrow to build moral and spiritual qualities into our lives that will enrich us for all eternity.
Question #4 – “If God judged the lies of the likes of Achan and Ananias, how could He encourage Samuel, the prophet and priest of Israel, not to tell the truth?”
You can find the background for this question in 1 Samuel 16:2. There God encouraged Samuel to give a misleading answer so that Saul would not find out that he had gone to Bethlehem to anoint David as the next king of Israel. How does God’s encouragement to mislead square with the passages that tell us God hates lies and that He Himself is sinless? Isn’t telling someone else to lie as bad as doing it yourself?
Yes, telling someone else to lie is as bad as doing it yourself. But before we accuse God, let’s see whether He actually told Samuel to lie.
A Lie Defined – The ninth commandment is: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” This law specifically forbids fabricating false report or telling an untruth that will bring undeserved harm on another person. Other passages of the Old Testament speak of lies in the sense of dealing in falsehood or denying the truth. Because God wants His people to be known by their honesty, we could conclude that God asks His people never to hide what is factual.
God, however, does not say that it is wrong to be shrewd. King David said to the Lord, “With the pure You will show Yourself pure; and with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd” (2 Sam. 22:27)
When God told Samuel to hide from Saul the primary reason for his visit to Bethlehem, He was teaching him to be shrewd with a crooked king. God did not tell Samuel to lie. He told him to tell half of the truth. In the process, God shows us that though it is wrong to deny the truth, it is not wrong to deceive those who are evil. In truth, Samuel did not lie, he said he was coming to offer a sacrifice. Did he conceal the full truth from Saul? Yes, but he wasn’t under any obligation to tell anyone that he also came to anoint David as israel’s next king.
There are situations in our lives where we truly have the right to deceive according to God Himself. However, for it to be a true lie instead of a justifiable deception, the statement we make must directly say something that is untrue, violate a promise we made, or help us escape an obligation we have.
Therefore, God did not instruct Samuel to lie.
Question #5 – “Since the God of the Old Testament admitted to hating some people, how could He be one and the same as the God of the New Testament who taught us to love our enemies?”
The answer to this question revolves around the cultural Hebrew meaning of the word “hated” in our English translations.When we talk of hating someone today, we think of intense dislike and ill will. But that was not the only meaning of the word “hate” in the times of the Bible.
The Old Testament Meaning – To be hated in the Old Testament times might mean only that someone else was loved more than you or was chosen over you for a special role. For example, the Hebrew word that is translated “hated” in the King James version of Genesis 29: 31, 33 describes the fact that Leah, Jacob’s first wife, was loved less than her sister Rachel “Then Jacob also went in to Rachel, and he also loved Rachel more than Leah.” (Gen. 29:30). He loved them both but he loved Rachel more. His attitude to Leah wasn’t that of dislike. In fact, when Jacob knew he was about to die, he asked to be buried in the family grave, saying, “And there I buried Leah.” It’s obvious, that he held Leah in high esteem even though he had a special love for Rachel. To be chosen for a special honor was to be loved. To be given a place of less importance or honor, no matter how desirable, was to be hated.
The New Testament Confirmation – The New Testament confirms that this was the meaning of the term “hated” throughout Jewish history. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:26). Clearly, Jesus was not telling us to dislike our relatives or harbor ill will toward them. On the contrary, He told us to love one another with self-sacrificing love: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn. 13:34). It’s obvious, that Jesus’ statement that we are to hate our family and friends is a command to give Him first place in our love and loyalty, so much so that by comparison it is as if we feel “contempt” for all other competitors.
Question #6 – “Why did the God of the Old Testament show preference to men over women?”
Yes, it’s true that the Old Testament did not give women equal social status with men. A man could divorce his wife, but a woman couldn’t divorce her husband. Women were given a separate place in the tabernacle and tent worship. Even in the ceremonial law, the women had to go through purification ceremonies every month and after childbirth. Moreover, a woman was ceremonially unclean twice as long after the birht of a girl than after the birth of a boy.
All of this is true, even though Genesis tenderly describes God as creating woman from the rib of Adam and as a helper to him, an honorable word sometimes used of God Himself. Women did not hold an equal place in the Jewish society, even though there were some noted exceptions and heroes such as Deborah and Esther.
Some of woman’s burden, such as polygamy, must be considered as a social concession, tolerated by God in light of the times. But a woman in Israel was far better off than a woman in other cultures. One scholar notes: “Under the Hebrew system, the position of women was in marked contrast with her status in surrounding heathen nations. Her liberties were greater, her emplyments more varied and important, her social standing more respectful and commanding.”We also need to remember that we are looking at women through the eyes of our own times when issues of physical strength are often offset now by technology. Women living in the Old Testament culture did not have such conveniences or advantages. For the most part they lived in nomadic or agricultural societies, where the physical advantage of a man gave him an edge in leadership. Spiritual factors also had a bearing on a Jewish woman’s status. Even in the New Testament we are reminded that the woman had a role with Adam in the entrance of sin into the world. Paul said that men and women are mutually dependent on one another and that husbands and wives have shared responsibility to respect one another and submit to one another’s needs (Eph. 5: 21-25). But Paul also described an issue of spiritual headship and order that he linked cross-culturally to creation, the fall, and even to relationships within the Godhead.
When it comes to the real issues of eternal acceptance with God, Paul wrote to those who had accepted Jesus as Messiah: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” ( Gal. 3:28).
The God of the Old Testament wants to engage our minds and emotions, no different than the God of the New Testament. He wants us to feel our fear and sense of alarm. He wants us to feel the heat of our will pressed against His. He wants us to sense that something is wrong, terribly wrong, terminally wrong. And He wants us to keep asking questions until we find out where that wrong has taken root.
A lot of what this God does is to shock us to our senses. The candor of His actions is designed to lead us to an awareness that makes us contrite and humble before Him. That’s where mercy is found. Not by being nice, but by being honest with God.