A Review of Is God a Vindictive Bully? By Paul Copan.

Baker, 2022.

This new volume offers us plenty of help in dealing with various difficulties found in Scripture:

If you are familiar with key contemporary Christian apologists, you would know of Paul Copan. I happen to have 22 of his books, and he has written more than that. If you are up on his work, you know that he has spent a lot of time dealing with critics of Christianity – be they from without (eg., the new atheists) or within (eg., leftist and/or liberal Christians).

Several of his earlier books would come to mind here, including How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? Responding To Objections That Leave Christians Speechless (2005), Is God a Moral Monster? (2011), and Did God Really Command Genocide? (2014). Those last two books I have done reviews of:



In his newest volume he continues the sorts of discussions found in those earlier titles. In 34 brief but well-argued and well-documented chapters, he looks further at the common sorts of objections and criticisms that are levelled at God. Most have to do with claims that God is some kind of ogre who is not worth our worship and love. Thus he looks at issues such as these:

-Is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New?
-How does Mosaic law differ from Ancient Near Eastern laws?
-What about ‘an eye for an eye’?
-What about slavery?
-What about capital crimes in the Bible?
-Does God harden people’s hearts?
-Is God sexist?
-What about polygamy?
-Is God a God of war?
-What about the taking of Canaan?

These are just some of the issues carefully and thoughtfully explored in this volume. While each chapter may be only around ten pages long, detailed and important answers are backed up with plenty of references for further reading and study. Let me look at a few of the issues in more depth.

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One thing that bothers even many Christians are the imprecatory psalms. These have to do with God’s people imploring God to restore justice, bring about vindication, and deal with God’s enemies. I have written often on these as well. See here for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-imprecatory-psalms-part-one/

There are a number of these psalms, such as Pss. 35, 69, 109, 139, and so on. Copan notes how these differed from curses found in the surrounding culture. The psalmists were simply reflecting the curses and blessings God had laid out for his covenant people.

Abraham was told that God would bless those who blessed him and his offspring, while bringing judgment on those who did the opposite. So the prayers of the psalmists were reflecting what God had long ago set up for his own people. And these were not cries for personal revenge, but pleas for God to vindicate his people and deal with those who were enemies of God, giving them their just desserts.

And when we read of even ‘little ones’ being prayed against (as in Ps. 137), we are reminded that these were not infants but the offspring of the royal household of Babylon. Although God had used the cruel Babylonians to judge Israel, they would not go unpunished themselves, and God would bring about justice to these rulers and their offspring.

Moreover, these woes that God’s people pray upon their (and God’s) enemies are not confined to the Old Testament. Jesus himself uttered similar woes. Says Copan: “Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus himself carries on that prophetic ‘woe’ tradition, most notably when he denounces Israel’s hostile religious leaders in Matthew 23 and chastises cities that rejected his teaching and accompanying signs (Matt. 11:23-24; 24:37-39; Luke 10:13-15).”

Consider also a text which is problematic to many folks. In Malachi 1:2-4 we read about how God loved Jacob but hated Esau. Even Christians wonder how God can “hate” certain people: is not he a God of love? Copan raises six points, which I share here in outline form:

First, the original context of Malachi refers to God’s prerogative to choose one nation over another….


Second, Romans 9 reminds us that a sovereign God can select not only a nation (Israel over Edom) but also individuals (Jacob over Esau) to accomplish a certain task or mission….


Third, these texts don’t indicate that Esau as a person was somehow divinely blocked from finding salvation. Esau’s problem was his own immorality and godlessness – not God’s damning him before he was born (Heb. 12:16)….


Fourth, “love” and “hate” in Scripture are often comparative terms. “Hate” can merely mean “love less.”…


Fifth, God’s choosing Jacob/Israel wasn’t a guarantee of salvation for most Israelites. Early on, most Israelites perished in unbelief in the wilderness (Heb. 3:7-19) – the generation with whom God made a covenant at Mount Sinai….


Sixth, even nations God had not originally chosen would be incorporated into the people of God. The Old Testament mentions nations hostile to Israel that would one day be included as part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) – a promise ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26-29).

The thorny issue of slavery is also something Copan devotes several chapters to. Critics say God was pro-slavery, and even in the New Testament nothing was done about it. But Copan reminds us that while slavery was a universal reality in ancient times, Israel’s treatment of slaves – or rather indentured servants – was much more humane than that of surrounding cultures. He looks at some of the provisions of Mosaic law in this regard:

-Harsh physical treatment of slaves was forbidden.
-Kidnapping, which was a major part of slavery back then, was prohibited.
-Foreign slaves were protected from harsh masters.
-There was a fixed six-year term limit on servitude.
-Such servitude was NOT based on some notion of racial inferiority.

When it comes to the New Testament, the Roman empire had slavery deeply embedded in its very fabric, and the earliest Christians lacked any power to abolish it within this situation. But the gospel undermined the very notion of seeing some people as being the property of others. Says Copan:

The claim that Jesus never denounced slavery misses the point of his very mission: Jesus came to set free all who are oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). So obviously he would oppose any institution that dehumanizes and objectifies humans. Likewise, Paul affirmed that in Christ there is “neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28) – all social and class distinctions that once divided lose their power at the foot of the cross. Paul urged slaves to find freedom if possible (1 Cor. 7:21)….


In the Greco-Roman world, household codes were directed at persons having different roles within a household, but these attempted to reinforce the powerful and to keep the powerless in their place. Paul’s Christianized household code is subversive….

While much of this book addresses criticisms and objections that even believers can have about various issues found in Scripture, Copan of course also addresses the non-believer. In the concluding paragraphs of this book he reminds us that in a sin-soaked, broken, and morally messed-up world, God did not leave us alone. He intervened plenty in the Old Testament, but his primary answer to the ills and suffering of the world was to send his Son. He says this:

We have approached untidy and unsettling (and perhaps some still unsettled) questions. Nevertheless, we see a generally coherent picture of a God who has made a path for reconciling a broken humanity to himself. Could it be that this biblical story – as former skeptics have discovered – is true and offers a better explanation than the alternative worldviews? In the Scriptures and in Jesus himself, we find a better expatiation than any other. That is why we look in that direction rather than elsewhere.

The Bible tells us about a God who cares for his creation, and who has done all that can be done to help us in our place of need. Because so many people reject that help, we continue to live in a fractured and evil universe where things are very messy indeed. Copan’s new book does not resolve all the problems and questions we might have, but it goes a long way in at least pointing us in the right direction.

(Available in Australia at Koorong Books: https://www.koorong.com/product/is-god-a-vindictive-bully-reconciling-portrayals-of-god-in-the_9781540964557 )

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6 Replies to “A Review of Is God a Vindictive Bully? By Paul Copan.”

  1. Dear Bill,
    Thank you for the article. If YOU recommend Copan’s book it is certain to be very useful in answering the difficult questions in life which are bound to plague many Christians even. Every day we hear of truly terrible things happening to people. Last week there was the 16 year old girl taken by a shark in Fremantle and the 3 year old boy who died alone in a hot car. It is hard NOT to wonder why a loving Father God allowed these things to happen and to hope that somehow these poor young souls whose lives were so brutally and unexpectedly cut short were given the grace to bear what would appear to most to be a terrible way to die. Did the little boy cry himself to sleep and slip into oblivion? What was in the young girl’s mind seconds before she was attacked by the shark? I know how uplifting the sight of dolphins frolicking in the ocean can be. I remember when we emigrated in 1968 seeing a school following the Castel Felice the ship we came on. The deck was lined with excited passengers watching the display. For the young girl to be so close to them must have caused her to make a spur of the moment decision to jump in the water to be closer to them. After all young people are very impressionable and they hear so much more about the environment these days than previous generations did and they haven’t the wisdom or life experience older people can acquire through living longer. It is hard enough for committed Christians to keep their faith in a loving merciful Father God when bad things happen to good people but it must be even harder for those whose faith is weak or non existent so they really need our prayers.

  2. It’s great that you “lift” Paul Copan in your own forum – Culture Watch.
    Copan texts, life and living really deserve attention and “study”.
    I have (…also) Copan books and followed him – not daily – but long enough, to be able to judge that it is a genuine Christ brother in the academic world….

    Thanks Bill!

  3. Hello, Bill. Thanks for giving attention to my Vindictive Bully book. I appreciate your taking the time to review it and promote it. Blessings to you!

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