Saturday, 23 June 2012

"Is God a Moral Monster?" by Paul Copan

I published this article first on the Reason Blog:


I have felt for quite some time that there has been a gaping hole in popular apologetics, namely, accessible and contemporary material on ethical issues arising from the Old Testament. The New Atheists have held up the God of the Old Testament as tantamount to an evil tyrant. Is God a Moral Monster? addresses some of these accusations head on. Paul Copan begins by quoting Richard Dawkins, who says:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, p.31)

Issues often thought objectionable are as follows:

  1. Destruction of the Canaanites
  2. Old Testament treatment of women
  3. Slavery
  4. Harsh legal system
  5. Death penalty

''The New Atheists have held up the God of the Old Testament as tantamount to an evil tyrant. Is God a Moral Monster? addresses some of these accusations head on.''

Copan has provided at least a chapter devoted to each of these issues, therefore creating easy-access to each topic. As such, this book could serve well as a reference text, used from time to time as different issues arise in your Bible study and daily life. Also, the book is about 250 pages long and is not overly dense; therefore it can also be read from cover to cover if you wish to have an overview of contemporary thinking regarding Old Testament ethics.

If you are someone who engages in discussion with non-Christian friends, and these friends have some understanding of the Old Testament, I am sure that they might have raised some of these issues with you. Or it may be the case that in your own Bible study you have had these questions yourself. If either of these things is true, you will find this book a great resource.

Copan uses a Redemptive-Movement hermeneutic as a framework for his answers. The Redemptive-Movement hermeneutic is a way of looking at the Bible. It sees the Bible as a progression of God’s unfolding plans and purposes. Therefore, the laws in the Old Testament were good and progressive within the context in which they were given, but might not be so today. Jesus makes a statement in Mathew 19 about divorce only being allowed by the Law of Moses because of their ‘hardness of heart’. Jesus concludes by saying, ‘It was not this way from the beginning’. Copan applies a similar principle to other difficult Old Testament issues:

“As we delve more deeply, we’ll continue to affirm two things: 1) certain Old Testament laws and punishments were inferior to creational ideals (Gen. 1-2); 2) the Mosaic Law is not permanent, universal, and the standard for all nations” (p. 89)

There is contemporary debate within evangelical circles as to whether this is an appropriate way to interpret scripture. Therefore, there may be some that take issue with Copan’s approach. However, whether you agree or disagree with Copan’s hermeneutic, his book is very well researched and will be of benefit to you. I believe Copan makes a good argument for his position, and it certainly helped me understand some of the difficult passages of the Old Testament. I highly recommend it.


  1. -Reasonable Doubts Podcast-
    'Paul Copan white-washes Genocide?"

    1. HI Justin. I'll check out the link. But I thought I would also provide a link to another review of the book which I actually think is better than my own - and it is slightly more detailed:

      And Liam says the following:

      'I felt that there were a few times when Copan was a little too quick to dial down some of the numbers and details in order to present a historical reconstruction that was a little easier to stomach. Whilst some of his comments on ANE bravado and hyperbole and the usage of ‘all women and children’ language were helpful, I’m not sure I fully bought all of his historical reconstructions. You have to have quite an imagination to read texts like Deuteronomy 25 and 1 Samuel 15 and come to the conclusion that ‘all’ really just means a few military men in a soldiers’ camp and absolutely no innocent civilians. Also whilst some theologians do claim that Onesimus was not a slave, but rather Philemon’s estranged biological brother, I’m not sure that’s the best way of dealing with the subject of slavery in the New Testament; dialling it down by removing one example!'

      and overall, I tend to agree with him. My review here on Apologetics UK was meant to be very brief! My slight reservations about the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic can effect Copan’s interpretive method, and therefore also some of his answers. And I dont think I buy all of them!

      But still a great book, and I agreed with a lot of other things he said . . .

  2. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention! It's definitely on my list of books to read.

    After spending the last few months reading the 5 books of Moses and the historical books exclusively, I have a hard time understanding why people don't see that the basis of the different types of laws and judgments in them is justice and fairness. In fact, Israel was judged that same way for the same sins (as those of the inhabitants of Canaan) throughout the Old Testament. Israel became just as evil.

    I appreciate Justin's link, too. Of course I would add that anyone who is going to label the Old Testament military campaigns as "genocide", as the host of Reasonable Doubts does, should read a little closer (reference Rahab and her entire family). I would also ask if any of these people who object to the military campaigns would have a better plan of handling a society steeped in child sacrifice and rampant sexual deviancy. What would be the "right" thing to do to stop it? I would also wonder whether or not they would affirm the historicity of the events they are complaining about. If they never really happened, then the fuss would seem odd; we don't see people getting red in the face over the slaughter of the Jedi in Star Wars. If they would affirm that these things actually happened, then we've got the historical context of the Bible in which they must be read; we can't just read the middle of the story and walk away with a conclusion.



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