A Review of Is God a Moral Monster? By Paul Copan.

Baker, 2011. (Available in Australia at Koorong Books)

There is nothing really new about the new atheists. They simply regurgitate the same old objections which have been levelled against Christianity for centuries now. Indeed, the idea that the Old Testament God is some sort of evil ogre who must be rejected goes back at least as far as the heretic Marcion in the second century.

So the various charges about ethics and the Old Testament have been dealt with time and time again. But the new atheists think they are somehow presenting us with new and challenging objections. Sorry, but we have been there and done that.

Yet because these new atheists are so militant and fundamentalist in their attacks, the job of defending Judeo-Christian morality and its conception of God continues to be needed. Philosopher Paul Copan has written a number of earlier pieces on such topics, but here offers a nice book-length rebuttal to the various charges being made.

In twenty meaty and well-argued chapters, Copan takes on many of the usual objections made against God and the Bible. Of course most atheists, who seem to have their minds made up, and often refuse to consider contrary evidence, will not likely be persuaded by all this.

But those who have heard the charges and are not quite sure what the appropriate responses might be will find this volume to be most helpful indeed. It very handily combines important themes in Old Testament ethics with Christian apologetics.

There are of course plenty of issues that deserve important consideration. To modern ears much that is found in the OT does seem at times to be bizarre, primitive and cruel. And activist atheists are quite happy to exploit all this, but they usually do so by ripping things out of context, ignoring the totality of biblical revelation, and engaging in selective moralising.

Consider the common complaint that in the OT we find rampant chauvinism and misogyny. Copan makes it clear that while ancient Israel was certainly part of the surrounding patriarchal culture, in many respects it was radically different from it.

For example, he reminds us that Israel’s legislation “works within a patriarchal society to point Israel to a better path”. It also “provides many protections and controls against abuses directed at females in admittedly substandard conditions”.

This is seen in many areas. Theologically, plenty of passages can be mentioned which presume female equality. Historically, there are numerous narrative passages describing powerful matriarchs who are greatly influential and highly valued. Legally, there are numerous laws which affirm the equality of women and demonstrate their equal moral responsibility with men.

Consider also the issue of slavery in the OT. True, Israel permitted it, but it was carefully limited, and bears little resemblance to modern slavery. Indeed, it was basically indentured servitude, not dissimilar to how many people in colonial America paid off their debts.

As many as two-thirds of white immigrants in British colonies were indentured servants, who voluntarily entered into that condition to work off their debts. In the same vein, ancient Israelites could temporarily work off debts in this fashion. There were even formal contractual arrangements involved.

Lifelong servanthood was prohibited, unless a person chose to stay in the household – which many did. As was so often the case, Israel’s practices differed radically from that of surrounding cultures. In the ancient world – unlike in Israel – slaves were mere property, stripped of all rights and identity.

“When we compare Israel’s servant system with the ancient Near East in general, what we have is a fairly tame and, in many ways, very attractive arrangement for impoverished Israelites.” Indeed, Israel’s laws concerning servants were designed to protect and benefit the poor.

Consider too the case of Israel’s possession of Canaan. Atheists regard it as nothing other than xenophobic genocide. But it was nothing of the kind. From the beginning God intended for the nations of the earth to be blessed through his own people. And humane provisions were always made for the stranger and alien in Israel.

As to the possession of the land, it was not at all about Israel’s own goodness or righteousness, but about the wickedness of the Canaanites. Indeed, the idolatry and immorality of the Canaanites was far from harmless. Given the complexity involved, Copan spends three chapters on this one topic alone, examining all the details and ethical considerations.

In sum he notes that this is nothing like the ongoing jihad or holy war of Islam. What we have here is a “limited, unique, salvation-historical situation” which is not a pattern for any Christian today. And it was not even a pattern for ancient Israel, given that they were not to have a regular standing army, and kings and rulers were not allowed to call for a war.

Moreover, the judgment of Canaan was in fact part of Yahweh’s love for the world, just as God’s judgment of Jesus at Calvary was an essential part of his salvation of the world. Love and judgment are not polar opposites, but in fact go together, making up the character of a just, holy and gracious God.

Plenty of other hot potato issues are covered in this important volume, such as all those seemingly strange dietary laws in the OT; considerations of divine jealousy and the worship of God; the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham; polygamy; apparently harsh punishments; and other difficult topics. While these subjects have been covered at various times in various places by others before, it is nice to see the whole discussion packaged together in one volume.

Copan does a very good job of dealing with the myriad of objections, laying out the case for the wisdom and morality of what we find occurring in the Old Testament. Nicely written and well documented, this volume should be in the library of anyone concerned about the attacks of the new atheists, or wanting some insight into and clarification about the various puzzling OT issues and actions.

[990 words]

33 Replies to “A Review of Is God a Moral Monster? By Paul Copan.”

  1. Bill,

    It looks like this is another book I will have to add to the list after your reviews. I already have the “The Christian Atheist”. By Craig Groeschel and Matthew Spalding’s “We Still Hold These Truths” to buy in the near future. But I already have plenty to read already.
    Carl Strehlow

  2. Thanks for the review. I’ve read Paul Copan before. He’s ok. I have read the so-called new atheists. Their work is not much different to what I was reading in atheist or Humanist journals decades ago. But they have different resources, such as Pascal Boyer’s ambitious “Religion Explained”. Not sure what to make of it yet but some of the bibliography is a bit suspect.
    John Snowden

  3. Hi Bill – Thanks for the review. I’m doing more teaching on the new atheists- just taught a week in Lausanne 2 weeks ago and dealt with them for part of it- so I’ll have to look for Copan’s book when I’m in Perth. I just watched the God Delusion debate. I couldn’t believe that Dawkins thought he scored a major point when he asked “Who made God?” Aristotle already demonstrated centuries before Christ that you can’t have an infinite chain of causation.
    Ed Sherman

  4. Thanks for the enthusiastic review, Bill. I appreciate it and hope that many more will benefit from my book on these challenging Old Testament passages.

    All good wishes to you!

    Paul Copan, US

  5. Thanks Ed Sherman, I have had very argumentative primary school students satisfied with the ‘FIRST CAUSE’ explanation.
    Stan Fishley

  6. I have just ordered Mr Copan’s book because I need some fresh air. Why? Because I have just been arguing with an atheist who has denounced the Bible as a “rape manual” and who wants computerised kiddy porn legalised. The same fellow has confessed to viewing the material for 14 years, and, on his unverifiable testimonial, without ill effect. Most instructively, other posters at the atheist website have failed to note the illegality and psychiatric interest of such dysfunctional behaviour.
    John Snowden

  7. Maybe I should be described as a provisional Christian because I don’t pay any attention to the Old Testament – i.e. as a spiritual resource. I regard it as an anthology of curious prophecies, memorable allegories, and an obscure account of the troubles of an ancient people.

    I believe that to study the New Testament and, as far as one can, to live by the teachings of Jesus Christ are sufficient grounds for the hope of salvation for the “average soul”. I have been taught that the life of Jesus was, in some respects, a fulfillment of the Old Law, but that interpretation doesn’t mean anything to me.

    I haven’t read Paul Copan’s book (which might change my mind).

    Alex Anderson

  8. Thanks Alex

    But the Christian Bible consists of 66 books, not just 27. Without the OT the NT makes no sense whatsoever. The redemptive work of Christ can only be understood in the light of what the OT informs us of, eg., the creation of the world, the entrance of sin into the world, the call of Israel, Yahweh’s provision for sin in the OT, and so on.

    When Paul said in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” he was of course referring only to the OT, as there was no NT at that time.

    As Augustine put it, “the new is in the old contained, the old is in the new explained”. Both are part of the Christian Bible and we cannot be true or complete followers of Christ if we ignore or downplay the OT.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. What Bill said, Alex.

    Also, much of the teaching of Jesus Christ involves the Old Testament and he used it to show people that it spoke of him (John 5:39-40; Luke 24:25-27, 44-47).

    Ken Abbott

  10. I’m always lost at the motivation to argue with atheists. Every mistake or inconsistency will always be held up as unproof of something.

    Nothing is as compelling as living a devoted, loving life, and nothing else matters or will be heard. Take up your tent….render unto Caesar….and let the chips fall where they may.

    Don Clardy

  11. Thanks Don

    Yes it is important to let our life speak, but it is also important to do what passages such as 1 Peter 3:15 ask of us.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Abraham/Isaac incident recently, and have come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of theological depth there. It’s one of the defining points in making the promises God gives to Abraham a reality.

    Let’s leave aside the themes of Fatherhood and the father offering the son in sacrifice, and look at Abraham, Isaac and God. There were cultures in Abraham’s time who practiced child sacrifice, but it’s still pretty horrific in and of itself. However, I don’t think the emphasis is supposed to be on child sacrifice, but on who controls the promises.

    Previously, Abraham has been soundly rebuked for not trusting God’s promises, and siring Ishmael. The message is “Abraham, trust me, and let me do it my way”. This event provides the opportunity for Abraham to fundamentally commit himself to doing just that. When he says to Isaac “YHWH will provide”, he’s not expressing a vain hope (though there’s probably a bit of nervousness in there), but rather a confidence that God will deliver on his promises to continue Abraham’s line through Isaac. And this might even mean that God raises Isaac from the dead – Abraham doesn’t know, but he’s now ready to trust God’s explicit promise, rather than put a workaround in place.

    Far from being an example of God’s malevolence, this story is (among other things) a rebuke to human hubris, of thinking God needs our help to set his agenda, rather than our trusting faithfulness in carrying it out.

    Andrew White

  13. On the topic of the new atheists, how would you respond to their assertion that Christians are brainwashed? I think this is a gross generalisation and condescending. What do you think?
    Ross McPhee

  14. Thanks Ross

    It is a meaningless accusation. One might as well argue that atheists are brainwashed. The truth is, millions of people have chosen the Christian faith after examining the evidence and weighing up the alternatives. This includes many of the greatest minds of history – philosophers, scientists, scholars, and so on.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. Sorry to hear you make that comment Alex, the bible is one book not two, just as God is the same yesterday today and forever.
    The terms old and new testament are really not accurate and do the word of God great injustice. The God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is the God of the new testament just as the members of the body of Christ are grafted in members of the one holy nation of Israel and share in all the blessings of the covenant first entered into between God and Israel. Really the new testament is just a greater revelation of what already existed. Saints in the OT were saved by grace through faith just as we are today, never by keeping a certain set of laws. There is only one God as there is only one body (not two) made up of both Jew and Gentile. There is a thing called replacement theology that has caused untold confusion as it makes what we call the church a thing in itself and separates it from the very root that was meant to sustain it.
    Rob Withall

  16. I have heard the God hates people, God hates women argument many times in the abortion debate. I will get hold of this book as I need a deeper understanding myself as well as a ready reference.

    Does it mention the taking prisoners of war as wives law?

    Kylie Anderson

  17. Thanks Kylie

    I would have to go back and see if he deals with this specific issue (eg. Deut 21:10-14). He does deal a lot with women, slavery, and warfare, but whether he directly touches on this text I don’t specifically recall.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  18. Hi Bill,

    While I imagine this would be an article of it’s own, I have always grown up with the Bible being 66 books. Why is it in a Catholic pamphlet that the Bible consist of 73 books. I know this was know there were a number of books like Maccabees were left out the Bible as we know today. But I read that these were removed as there was no where that early Christians quoted from them. So I am curious why the Catholic Church decided to retain them.

    Carl Strehlow

  19. Thanks Carl

    For various reasons, Protestant Bibles do not contain the Apocrypha, which comprises around 14 books. But this is not the best place to discuss all this, so as you suggest, I may have to write an article on this to provide all the details.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  20. Bill,

    I’d be interested in an article on a Christian approach to present-day Israel, populated as it is by people who have rejected the Messiah.

    Mary O’Connor

  21. Blessings Mary, Bill and whomever try digging into the below and you will find Gold. Part a lifetimes work and hewn out in the fires of interaction with others including many prophetic conferences.
    http://the.mysteryofisrael.org/

    Or try reading the online book, “The Mystery Of Israel And The Church, unfolding Romans 9-11.
    http://articles.ochristian.com/book13955.shtml
    I don’t know of anything that explains it so well but then it may defy some of our categories. Also from a lifetimes work and a specialized interest in this area. The big question of course is does this reflect God’s view and line up with scripture?
    It certainly is a call to a radical view of the faith and in my view something to bring the church to it’s senses and to deliver us from the conceit that Romans warns us about.
    Rob Withall

  22. Alex, and everyone,
    I recommend “by this NAME” by John R Cross as a good overview of how old and new testaments fit together. Suits Christian and non-Christian.

    Other books by John:
    “What are Christmas & Easter all about” ($1.50 in bulk)
    “The Lamb” kids book with CD – has a clear and essential gospel.
    “Stranger on the Road to Emmaus”: this also has a teaching DVD series.

    John sets out
    “to explain the Bible clearly, allowing it to speak for itself, by letting you draw your own conclusions. What you believe is up to you.”

    A major theme of his books is “on the road to Emmaus” or how the Old Testaments points to Jesus – the Lamb of God, any why we need the Lamb.

    Peter Newland

  23. Thanks Rob

    To be honest I almost did not print your comment when I looked at your second link. While I know of the late Art Katz, the messianic Jew, and sat under his teaching long ago, when I saw the ad for Herbert W Armstrong on the page, I almost gave the whole thing a flick. Armstrong was of course leader of a heretical cult. Fortunately the cult itself (but not Armstrong) actually repudiated its false teachings and become heterodox. See my write-up here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/03/04/cults-and-amazing-grace/

    But I will give the benefit of the doubt here, and assume the ad is not related to what you and Katz are promoting. If it is, then your comment may yet disappear!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  24. Ross (McPhee),

    Somewhat tongue in cheek, just tell them that being brainwashed is better than having a dirty, filthy brain.

    Graeme Cumming

  25. Ed (Sherman) / Bill / or anyone who can answer this Q.

    “Aristotle already demonstrated centuries before Christ that you can’t have an infinite chain of causation.”

    Can you expound on this? Is there a website that deals with this Q.?

    Graeme Cumming

  26. Thanks Graeme

    A big philosophical discussion, but here is a short reply. This is known as “the problem of infinite regress”. Simply going back one step further really explains nothing. Everything which comes into being must have a cause. Aristotle spoke of a first cause or an unmoved mover, or a Prime Mover. Something had to get the ball rolling. So the idea of causation leads us to the First Cause. God is the uncaused cause of everything else.

    Not just Aristotle but Plato, Avicenna, Aquinas and many other philosophers and theologians have used it, and it is often used as part of the case for the existence of God. It is called the cosmological argument, and different formulations of it exist.

    Christian philosopher William Lane Craig is one of many who have written extensively on this. See his website for starters: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/PageServer

    Here is one video clip on this: http://www.metacafe.com/watch/3994011/william_lane_craig_the_absurdity_of_an_infinite_regress_of_things/

    And a shorter video clip on infinite regress is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4AHFBft2L8

    Or see this for the cosmological argument: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnFhMmwKLNE

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  27. Re Israel & Messianic Jews: here’s food for thought in a quote from http://www.cfaithministries.org/uploads/files/Rediscovering_Revelation.pdf:

    “The best thing you can do for someone who calls them self a Jew is to tell them the gospel. I met one and said to him, “You are not a Jew and I am.” I added, “You are not circumcised and I am.” At first he was not happy, but when we looked at the scripture together he changed and said, “No one has ever told me this before, thank you so much.” For the scripture says, “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly by the circumcision of the flesh, but who is one inwardly by the circumcision of the heart.” (Rom 2:28-29)”

    “In God there is no such thing as a distinctive Messianic church. We do not have Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. We just have one church in Christ. I met a lady who said she was a Messianic Jew. I replied, “No you are not. There is only one church.” She became very angry. Reaching the Jews for Jesus is good, but there is nothing in any of our cultures to commend us to God. The Bible says the way the Jews turned their back on the Lord put an end to any boasting. But all men are the same. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23) And that He might reconcile both (Jew & Gentile) to God into one body by the cross, having slain the enmity (the law) thereby. Eph 2:16”

    Peter Newland

  28. Blessings Bill.
    Noticed your comment, It was a Google, site, the first to come up with the link I was seeking and the links to the pages were well set out. I did almost add a disclaimer to the adv at the side (I did so when I sent it to a couple of friends) as it stuck out a bit but I can be a bit wordy so I left it out.
    Those on your blog are a pretty mature lot anyhow so I would think they are a wake up to Armstrong. I followed the story years back and it seems there was some genuine move amongst this cult in the end.
    Anyhow if you did vet it for the adv that would have been fair enough. Who one identifies with speaks volumes!
    Years ago a promotion for a certain group of prophets appeared in the back of one of Art Katz’s books which another compiled. In the end because of the association people made Art tried to buy back all the unsold copies from the publisher but without any success because of the money the publisher was making out of the book.
    The same thing happened with Campbell Morgan, after being challenged of all people by his own wife and seeing she was right he went and purchase the printing plates of a book he had written regarding dispensationalism.
    Rob Withall

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