My last post responded to a claim made by “new atheist” Sam Harris that the God of Abraham “got wrong” the question of slavery. I pointed out that the whole notion of slavery being wrong first depends on the existence of God, to ground the rules of right and wrong. If we are no different than animals – if we are simply the unintended result of natural selection operating over time – then survival of the fittest is the rule, and what one man, or one tribe, does to another is not a cause for outrage; it is simply a consequence of who is stronger or faster or smarter.
A commenter to the post disagreed, saying:
The point Harris was trying to make is that in the OT the god seems to be trying to communicate some rules to the Israelites. That would have been an excellent opportunity for him to mention the indisputable objective moral truth that it is wrong for any human to own another human. He didn’t. Jesus could have as well, he could have said, by the way, those rules in scripture about how long you can hold each other in servitude, that doesn’t mean it is ok to own, by and sell each other. Just point it out so that you don’t get centuries more slavery and a terrible civil war in the US with both sides claiming god is on their sides. And while you’re at it don’t hit your kids either. No. The character called The Lord in the Bible obviously felt it necessary to communicate rules. A prohibition on slavery would have been radical at the time, but incredibly obvious to a deity with an insight into what Christians consider objective morality. It’s absence calls into question whether this deity was the source of the text, or existed in the first place.
This challenge is succinct and well-written. It appears to present a dilemma for the believer – either there is no God, on the one hand, or if there is one, he isn’t the source of the text. But is there a third alternative, concealed by the unspoken assumption of the argument? I submit there is, and that is that the Bible was not meant for the purpose the challenger assumes.
Let’s take a closer look at the unspoken premise – “slavery” is bad, the Bible’s purpose is to condemn bad things, so the Bible should have condemned slavery.
But is the premise true? Was God’s purpose in inspiring the Bible to provide mankind with a list of “bad things” that we shouldn’t do? Was it intended as a blueprint for the model society, a constitution for the governance of a free and moral people? Even a cursory review of the Bible would quickly put the assumption to rest. The Bible is not a rule book telling us how to organize a civilization. It is not a penal code to structure our justice system. It is not a play book to guide our social interactions. Yes, it touches on such topics in a variety of places. But that is not its purpose.
The writer is correct, however, that God intended to communicate “rules” to the Israelites. The question is, why did he do so? What was the purpose of the rules?
The writer assumes that the reason was to set forth “indisputable objective moral truth,” including that no one should “own” another human. Christianity teaches that the purpose of the “rules” of the Old Testament was something quite different: yes, there are moral overtones to many of the rules, but their purpose was to separate the Israelites from all other then-existing cultures so that from them the Savior might emerge; the rules were designed to make the Jews a distinct people. A review of history would suggest that God succeeded in that purpose. Millennia after the Canaanites, Moabites or Amalekites perished from the Earth, the Jews remain a vibrant and distinct people.
But why didn’t God also use the Bible as a blueprint for creating the perfect society on Earth? Quite simply because Earth is not our final destination. Whatever paradise may have existed in the Garden, man’s chance for the “perfect life” here is over. In this fallen world, we will never achieve paradise regardless of how many rules God gives us. The point now is what will happen in the life to come, or put slightly differently, is there a way for man to restore his relationship with God? The Bible, in the pages of the New Testament, provides us the answer. Coming in the form of man, Jesus – the Christ – lived the perfect life and substituted his righteousness with God in place of our sin. He “atoned” for our misdeeds and earned for us what we could not accomplish on our own – reunification with God. But to attain this gift we must place our trust and faith in Jesus. We must get our hearts right, so that Jesus can do for us what we can never do for ourselves.
This is not to say that the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, is devoid of moral instruction. Reading and reflecting on the life and teachings of Jesus would convince any reasonable mind that he was a wise and moral man. Much of his teaching provided moral wisdom, as do the writings of the other authors. No one making the effort to understand and implement a Biblically based method of human interaction could honestly conclude that one man should “own” another. “Slavery” is indeed condemned. The fact that so-called Christians of the past tried to justify slavery is a comment on their honesty and integrity, because Christianity’s message of universal brotherhood is not reasonably susceptible to such a conclusion.
The skeptic may respond that, even so, there was no good reason that God did not make clear what he expects from us. What’s so hard about God saying somewhere in all those pages, “Oh, by the way, stop practicing slavery?”
Consider the question from the perspective of a parent. I want my kids to behave correctly and I have a pretty clear picture in my mind of what that means. But even more importantly, I want them to be the kind of people who want to behave correctly. If my kids want to go around hurting others but refrain from doing so because they fear being arrested, I will not consider their “good” behavior much cause for celebration. The rules I want them to obey flow naturally from the message that Christianity embodies – love God with all your might and love your neighbor as yourself. If they can internalize this message, they won’t need to be told not to practice evil; they won’t need a laundry list from me of all the behaviors I want them to avoid. They will be able to figure it out for themselves. So too with God – he is interested in the subtle stirrings of our hearts, not simply with outward behavior of our bodies. That’s why, for example, Jesus explained that lust was itself worthy of condemnation, even if never acted upon.
There is a final problem with the challenge. For the atheist, there is no God who is there to set the standard. Where, then, does the notion derive that such a thing as “truth” exists, or that there are “indisputable objective moral” truths that can be identified? The whole concept is nonsensical without God to ground such assertions. If nature is all there is, we are no different than any of the animals of the world. They do what their nature propels them to do; they don’t hold to lofty principles about how they should act. Why would man be any different, if he has no Creator to whom he one day must answer?
Yes, it’s possible that Christians are getting it wrong. Perhaps, as the challenger asserts, there is no God or perhaps God did not inspire the Bible. But noting that the Lord failed to provide a rule book for civilization – failed to set forth exacting guidelines for “right” living – won’t get you there. That’s not what he was doing when he inspired the Bible.
Posted by Al Serrato