Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Could God Command a Christian to Kill?

or " Onward Christian Serial Killers? "

Steve Hays begins one of his posts this way:

What if God told you to kill someone? Atheists, as well as some theological liberals, like to ask this question to make Christians squirm. It’s intended to create a dilemma. If the Christian says “No,” then the atheist will gleefully exclaim, “So why do you believe those Old Testament commands about killing”? But if the Christian says “Yes,” then the atheist will gleefully exclaim, “That just goes to show how dangerous religion is. It will make you do anything. Suspend your normal moral inhibitions.”

So how should a Christian answer this question?

Steve and the other Triabloggers have answered this question multiple times thoroughly. Because this question repeatedly turns up in discussions with atheists, and because I don't have the patience at the moment to search Triablogue's archives, I'm going to give my own answer which has been greatly influenced by the Triabloggers and other Christian apologists.

The first thing to be clear about is whether such a question is being asked of a religious person in general or a Christian in particular. Since I'm a Christian, I really can only answer as a Christian (and for other Christians to the degree I accurately represent and explain the teaching of the Bible). Secondly, we need to make clear whether the question is being asked as an internal critique of Christianity or an external critique.

If it's an external critique, then the atheist (or non-Christian in general) will need to use his own morality by which to judge Christian morality. But if his morality is itself incoherent, arbitrary and groundless, then such an external critique can't even begin. If they cannot make sense of their own morality, then they have no way of externally judging the morality found in the Bible.

However, atheists often pose the question as an internal critique in order to demonstrate that no matter how a Christian answers (whether "yes" or "no"), the morality set fourth in the Bible is inconsistent. Then they will often switch from an internal to an external critique and accuse Biblical morality with evil by going contrary to (supposed) basic human morality. As if such a thing existed. I deny such a thing and think any similarity between the moralities of various non-Christian persons and groups are a result of a God given conscience. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

To answer the question, Christians need to point out that God's revelation is progressive and that to some degree the various revelations and covenants God has given overlap and build upon each other. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the various revelations and covenants God has given. The main point is that down through history God has slowly revealed to humanity more and more of the kind of God He is and what He requires. He has done this in various ways through the giving of covenants and with the ways He has dealt with people from the time of Adam and Eve, to the Patriarchs, through Moses and the Prophets, then eventually and finally in Jesus the Messiah.

I will need to give a brief background of God's moral dealings with humanity to set up my answer to the dilemma posed by atheists.

Subsequent to the Fall of Adam and Eve, yet prior to the giving of the Mosaic Covenant and its Law, people didn't have a divinely revealed Law by which to conduct themselves. Nevertheless, as the apostle Paul points out in Romans chapter 2, those people who don't have access to divinely revealed commandments nevertheless still have the "work of the law" written on their hearts by which they did things either in keeping with or contrary to their God given conscience (Rom. 2:14-15).

The word "conscience" is made up of the prefix "con", meaning "with", and "science" meaning "knowledge". From a Christian perspective, there is innate moral knowledge within each human being which God has implanted and by which God expects us to be guided by. There are triggering conditions by which this God given innate, but tacit, moral knowledge becomes part of our  conscious thinking through our moral experiences. This innate knowledge includes God's general requirements of His human creatures concerning how they ought to behave toward each other, toward themselves and toward God. However, because of the Fall of Adam and Eve, human nature has been corrupted and this corruption has affected both mind and body. It has lead to human beings having a natural bent toward evil. Because of this sinful bent, human beings resist and sinfully interpret and act on their God given consciences. Even without this sinful bent, human beings would still have interpreted their consciences fallibly. But now with such a sinful and evil bent coupled with inherent fallibility, people now commit even greater sins deserving of God's judgement.

The God given conscience was never meant to operate independently of God's revelation and specific commands. When God first created Adam and Eve, they were given one specific command not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They were supposed to use their God given conscience to obey God's explicit command not to eat from the Tree. But because they disobeyed (with the resultant corruption of human nature), it eventually lead to their descendants living sinful lives whereby they cut themselves off from God's further revelation and commands. It was only at the time of the Mosaic Covenant that God once again gave explicit commands which human beings were to obey in conjunction with the use of their consciences. Finally, with the coming of Jesus the Messiah, God's final and complete revelation, commands, and requirements have been given.

With that background, I'm ready to answer the question.

If God actually commanded a Christian to kill another person or persons, then that Christian is morally obligated to obey such a command. That's because God, as our Creator, has the right, authority, and power to grant life and also to take away life (cf. 1 Sam. 2:6; Deut. 32:39). However, because of the progressive nature of Revelation, under the New Covenant, God would never command an individual Christian (or the Church) to kill another person or group of people.

In the Old Testament, God sometimes commanded persons or groups to kill other persons and groups. Usually when He did so, it was because the people or group were sinful and deserving of judgment. God could have judged those groups directly Himself. However, on occasion God used one set of people to bring judgment on another set of people (either by direct command or by His providential overruling of the behavior of nations). When He did, He usually didn't judge the wicked nation or people group immediately. He usually gave them time to repent.

This does does not mean that the people group God used to execute His judgment was necessarily morally superior to those people they killed. In fact, God later judged Israel for its sins by using the Assyrians, Babylonians and eventually the Romans.

Here's what Deut. 9:4-6 says regarding God's command for the Israelites to drive out and (if necessary) execute the various Canaanite tribes,
4"Do not think in your heart, after the LORD your God has cast them out before you, saying, 'Because of my righteousness the LORD has brought me in to possess this land'; but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out from before you.5 It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you go in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD your God drives them out from before you, and that He may fulfill the word which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.6 Therefore understand that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stiff-necked people.

Also, when God displaced those tribes, they were free to leave and avoid confrontation with Israel because over and above God's intention to judge those people, God's primary purpose was to give the land over to the Israelites. So then, most cases in the Old Testament where God commanded killing was either in defense of His people, or to judge people for their sins.

See William Lane Craig's video concerning the allegation of genocide in the Old Testament HERE

It must also be noted and emphasized that the Mosaic Law forbade murder even though it condoned killing under certain circumstances like self-defense, capital punishment, national defense etc. All murder is killing, but not all killing is murder. Murder is the illicit termination of a human life (usually for reasons like hatred, anger, jealousy, to successfully commit theft etc.).

An exception to this usual reason for God commanding killing would be (e.g.) God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In this case, God didn't intend for Abraham to actually fulfill the command. God commanded it to test Abraham's faith in His ability to fulfill His promise. This was before the giving of the Mosaic Covenant which included a prohibition against human/child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10). Under the New Covenant, Jesus' sacrifice is the perfect bloody sacrifice to which all other Old Testament sacrifices pointed to such that no other bloody sacrifices are now necessary or accepted. This is what the entire book of Hebrews is all about (cf. Col. 2:17).

A common counter example cited by atheists is the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter. However, it's not clear whether Jephthah actually performed a blood sacrifice using his daughter as the offering, or whether it refers to Jephthah setting his daughter aside to be a perpetual virgin devoted to the LORD. I personally, suspect it was a real blood sacrifice. However, nowhere in the text does it say that God commanded Jephthah to do it. Nor does it indicate that God accepted the sacrifice as pleasing to Him. In fact, this passage is in chapter 11 of the book of Judges which is a book which was written to document how evil the people of Israel had become by not following the covenant God made between them and Himself (i.e. the Mosaic Covenant).

Another important fact that needs to be highlighted is that unlike the Old Covenant, the New Covenant isn't made with a literal nation or country where God is the theocratic King who can issue decrees to wage war with other nations or peoples. Nor can the New Testament Church execute criminals or heretics as was the case under the Mosaic Covenant where the theocracy merged religion and the state because God directly ruled the nation and regularly communicated with the people and performed signs and wonders. That connection has been broken and will not return until Jesus Christ returns to directly rule the world and nations.

Atheists might ask, "On what basis do Christians claim that under the New Covenant God would not command killing?"

1. The New Covenant/Testament reiterates the prohibition of murder.

2. The Biblically based belief that God has stopped giving revelation on par with the authority of the Bible. Christians believe that the canon of the Bible is closed and that no further books can be added to the Bible till Christ returns. When Christ returns, God may decide to add to the Bible, but we won't know that till then. While all charismatics are continuationists, not all continuationists are charismatic. Yet, even most charismatics who believe that God still gives private revelation also believe that those private revelations are NOT universally binding to all people and that they must be tested by the Bible. They must be rejected as coming from God if they contradict the Bible or are not in keeping with it.

Therefore the belief in either the cessationist understanding of Sola Scriptura or the continuationists understanding of Summa Scriptura would prevent anyone from accepting any alleged revelation from God to commit murder because it would contradict the Bible's command against murder.

Atheists then would ask:

1. Where then is the Biblical evidence that in the Old and New Testaments murder is prohibited?

2. Where is the Biblical evidence that special revelation on par with Biblical authority has ceased?

If the atheist has to ask the first question, then that shows how Biblically illiterate the atheist is since both the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant (of the Messiah) repeatedly prohibits murder and enjoins us to love our neighbor.

Here are some places in the Bible that prohibit murder:
Ex. 20:13; 21:12; 23:7; Lev. 24:17; Deut. 5:17; Matt. 5:21; 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Rom. 13:9; James 2:11.

Here are some places that command loving one's neighbor:
Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19; 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8

Under the New Covenant, "neighbor" specifically includes people who are not believers in the true God. See Luke 10:27-37 where Jesus relates his parable of the Good Samaritan and compare it with Gal. 6:10.

Gal. 6:10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.

The second question was about what Biblical grounds there is to believe that the canon of Scripture is closed and that supernatural revelation on par with Scripture has ended. I would point to the various articles in defense of cessationism. While I'm a continuationist myself and therefore would disagree with some of the arguments and conclusions cessationists make, they nevertheless clearly show why the Bible teaches the closure of the Canon and for why God no longer gives revelation on par with the Bible. A good place to start is the Monergism website. Do a search looking for articles on cessationism and the closing of the canon of Scripture.

While there are many more atheist objections related to the one asked at the beginning of this blog, my answer deals with the majority of them. The final one I want to address is the objection that the Bible teaches that at the end of the world Christians will join Jesus at His return to judge the wicked by physically killing them. In which case, they (the atheists) would argue that nothing prevents Christians from concluding that Christ has returned and so to begin "judging" people by physically killing them with the sword or by the use of other weapons.

I would say that it's not clear in the Bible that Christians will be doing that at the Second Advent of Christ. But if the Bible does teach that, then there's no inconsistency because it would fall under what I said previously about how God has the right to judge the wicked using other moral agents. Whether it be the Israelites to judge the Canaanites, or the Assyrians/Babylonians/Romans to judge Israel.

However, Christians have no right to do that until Christ actually returns physically since the return of Christ is clearly to be a literal physical return. The Bible makes it clear that the return of Christ will be unmistakeable and that all of creation will be affected by it and will react to His return. His return will be literal, physical, visible, global, universal, momentously historical and triumphant. Moreover, Christ's return involves both dead and living Christians to receive their glorified resurrection bodies before they could ever judge the wicked by killing them (assuming such a thing is actually prophesied in the Bible). Until Christians receive such an incorruptible and immortal body, Christians are not warranted to believe that Jesus has truly returned.

Until Christ returns, the following New Covenant command stands.

Romans 12:18-21
18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."20 To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head."21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

See my other blogposts:

Answering Moral Objections to the Bible 

God in Relation to Law: Ex Lex, Sub Lego or Sibi Ipsi Lex