The Claim: The God of the Old Testament is not good.
In Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to offer up his son Issac as a sacrifice. Dawkins comments on this passage:
If you were Abraham, could you ever forgive God? If anything like this happened in modern times, Abraham would be locked up for terrible cruelty to his child. Can you imagine what the judge would say if a man pleaded, ‘But I was only following orders.’ ‘Orders from whom?’ ‘Well, Your Honor, I heard this voice in my head.’ Or ‘I had this dream.’ What would you think, if you were on the jury? Would you think it was a good enough excuse? Or would you send Abraham to prison?
Richard Dawkins, Outgrowing God, Chapter 4
To begin with a frank admission, let me just say that if a man were to come up to me today and tell me that God wanted him to sacrifice his only son, I wouldn’t hesitate to report him to the authorities. While such a happening wouldn’t cause me to doubt God’s existence, it might indeed cause me to question the man’s sanity.
However, for me as a Christian, the truth of God’s existence is not dependent upon one such story. The revelation of God’s word in finished and fulfilled form offers itself to scrutiny on multiple levels, contains truth on multiple levels, and speaks to the individual heart on multiple levels.
To respond to the claim that God is cruel, it’s important to note that Professor Dawkins is not dealing with the Bible in a very serious or honest way. If Dawkins is bringing the charge of immorality and cruelty against God and His people, he should be pushed to consider the scriptural and historical context of Biblical events and texts.
Pointing Out The Strawman Fallacy
A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent. (Wikipedia)
This essentially is what Professor Dawkins is doing. He brings his own 21st-century interpretive biases to what is first and foremost a very ancient narrative, given to a very ancient people. Then, he attacks that particular, uniquely situated narrative and structures his arguments based on such a bias. In short: He attacks a strawman.
We must understand, and it must be always be understood, that God was dealing with a very specific people, at a very specific time, with a very specific objective in mind, and as such had a very specific way of initiating and ordering events that would gradually and ultimately lead to His just and redemptive ends, which is precisely what we see at the closing of the narrative of Abraham and Issac, which you can read here.
The Biblical story as a whole has God’s redemption and reconciliation gradually intensifying and becoming clearer at every step of the way. An honest and unbiased reading, one that is constantly being considerate of the totality of scripture, will bear this truth out. However, Dawkins doesn’t deal with the Bible as a whole. He isolates the parts that seem to lend justification to his own reading, while ignoring the story’s context, the place within the broader narrative, the time and place in which it was written, the people that the revelation was given to, and the duties and responsibilities that such a people as a chosen race would be subject to.
Listen to the language God uses when speaking of His plans for His covenant chosen:
“I am the Lord, I have called You in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the dungeon And those who dwell in darkness from the prison. Isaiah 42:6-7
We’re not dealing with temporal matters here, but matters that come with the sacred weight of God’s eternal purposes.
However, Dawkins takes the shallow route and doesn’t deal with any of those crucial points in context, which any good argument, to properly persuade, would have to do.
Rebuttal through analogy
To give a real-life illustration of what I’m talking about, let’s imagine the differences in the duties, demands, responsibilities, and expectations that United States Marines have in comparison to players of a little league team. Would you use the words cruel to describe what Marines have to go through during their training? It’s possible that you might, and you certainly could if you wish, but most of us, and especially those who’ve experienced war first hand, would more often than not call such training extremely hard, but absolutely necessary .
Now, imagine if we changed the setting, the objectives, and the circumstances found in a war to those found in little league football games, and we will instantly see that what was necessary to demand of the Marine becomes entirely cruel and unnecessary to demand of the football players. Likewise, what is reasonable to demand of the little league football players becomes far too small of a thing to demand of the Marines. For instance, a Marine is brought perhaps as close as he’s ever been to death to prepare him for what’s to come when the real war begins. When that war comes, the soldier can trust that his training has prepared him as best it could for what he will soon experience. However, if we were to see such demands placed upon children preparing to win youth football tournaments, we might rightly say that this treatment was cruel and seek legal means to close the entire operation down!
We see then that the overall perspective of the main objective helps us determine the appropriateness of the actions taken. From the perspective of temporal concerns and worldly pursuits, God’s actions may seem unnecessary and cruel. However, seen from the perspective of God’s eternal plan of redemption for the whole world, we can say, as in the case of the Marines, that what God did, though extremely hard, was necessary.
The questions that Dawkins should be asking then, are :
What was God preparing Abraham and Isaac for, and what was the ultimate objective God had in mind that necessitated the actions that God took?
What if the ultimate objective requires the ultimate sacrifice?
What if the ultimate objective requires the ultimate in terms of demands, expectations, duties, and responsibilities?
Finally, what could conceivably be a more ultimate objective than redemption for the whole world?
Dawkins comes to the Bible with his agenda and leaves out crucial points that would otherwise make his case a lot harder to defend. He attacks the Bible based on his own modern biases and builds his case around the position that he favors beforehand. As a result, he ends up attacking a straw man.
Dawkins’s arguments that the God of the Old Testament can not be called good, turn out, upon further inspection, to be more like attacks which have yet to be turned into proper arguments. As such, they appeal more to the emotions. They pose no real threat to the veracity of God’s word, nor the goodness of God’s character. Once we understand the eternal objective of God’s unique plan for Israel and the whole world, the true weight of what is needed to be achieved, and the actions that God took as his plan was progressively unfolding, it can reasonably be said that God is good not in spite of his actions in the Old Testament, but because of them.