After my recent post, God Is Obligated To Love You, a friend challenged me with this question: "Bill Maher is always pointing to the genocide God initiated [in the Old Testament]. You seem to go around this sort of objection to talk of God's love. If you could give a direct answer to Maher, what would you say?"
Here's my answer. I'd dramatically roll my eyes at Maher and say, "Puuulleeease, just go to commercial."
Just kidding. Actually, every objection deserves an answer. But for something like this, I think there are multiple answers to the challenge some people throw out when protesting the idea that the God of the Old Testament is a God of love. So, I'd like to provide five answers to the challenge above.
First, it's important to distinguish that this protest is centered around the idea that God not only judges people who are guilty of sin, but that he wipes out children and other innocents who may have had nothing to do with that sin—especially the children. How can God's justify this?
The Answer From God's Justice
Does God have the right to kill or punish, and on what basis does he claim the right to do those things? To say it very simply, God has the right to kill or punish because he is God. The Bible describes God as the Creator of the Universe. God, therefore, owns everything he has created. That includes people. Everything that exists belongs to God. Since he is the Creator he determines what is right and wrong for his creation. This includes not only how the material universe operates, but how his conscious beings operate as well. Thus, when a people continually violate the standards of behavior that God has deemed good for his creation he has the right and the responsibility to either course correct those people or punish them for violating his rules. The overwhelming Old Testament examples of prophets pronouncing judgment were given in the hopes of course correcting his people's sin—not to simply pronounce their destruction. In all cases when people repented, judgment was stayed.
But why did God sweep away children and babies along with the guilty? This question assumes that children are in some way without guilt before the Lord. The hard answer to this error is that children are not guiltless. "All have sinned," the scripture says. We are conceived in sin, David said (Psalm 51:5). Now, this doesn't mean that babies have committed specific sins. We don't see babies committing fornication. But this does not mean even the youngest of us is morally prepared to encounter the Living God.
Have you ever considered that we protest God's act of judgment but we often fail to protest the sin that facilitated that judgment in the first place?
The Answer From God's Foreknowledge
This is sometimes framed as a pat, simple answer to a complex challenge, but we should address it anyway. Yes, God's foreknowledge allows him to know what may take place in the future and thus he can act to prevent worse evil from taking place by eliminating the problem or people which facilitate that evil.
There's only one problem with this answer. I can find in the Bible something of the opposite, as when Jesus said that if Sodom had seen his miracles the city would have remained standing until Jesus' day (Matthew 11:23). Yet, God opted not to make such a revelation to Sodom and chose to judge the city with destruction instead—children included.
We might use Sodom as an example in this way: if God knew Sodom was going to become as evil as it did, why did he allow the society to even rise in the first place? Why not just have denied them existence? But, before you demand an answer to that question you should probably ask: why did he allow you to exist knowing the evil you would do? Suddenly, God's foreknowledge becomes an expression of his patience and mercy rather than his judgment. Man is guilty. God is patient. Man is guilty. God is merciful. It's one thing to say that God has foreknowledge of what everyone will do and therefore he is right in his judgments to prevent that sin from occurring by killing the sinner. But it's a deeper thing to realize that that same foreknowledge means God is merciful to you. In fact, he is far more merciful than he is angry or judgmental. Over 100 billion people have existed on the earth since creation. All of them, every single one of them, has been a recipient of God's mercy and patience to an indescribably greater degree than their punishment. God's foreknowledge demonstrates more of his grace, mercy, patience, and love than it does his righteous judgments.
The Answer From God's Sovereignty
The Apostle Paul made this argument in Romans 9:20. But it's not a feel-good answer. Here's what Paul said when answering the question about whether or not God is just: "Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?" Let me translate that in modern terms: Who do you think you are?
A person may say, "I am the captain of my soul," as the saying goes, but this is incorrect. God is sovereign over our lives and he has the right to do with our lives—whether we believe in him or not and no matter what age we are—whatever he wishes. Paul said, "Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory" (Romans 9:21-23). This isn't the "make me feel better" answer. This is the answer of humility. God does not answer to us. We answer to him. Even Job learned this from God's own mouth when God said to him, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding" (Job 38:4). Again my translation: Who do you think you are?
It's not the feel good answer, but it may be the answer that we need to hear the most. Who does Bill Maher think he is? Who do I think I am? Don't like that answer? Tough. It's the most direct answer in scripture God has given us and if you don't like it that's your problem. Sometimes we need that splash of cold water on the face to wake us up.
The Answer From God's Love
At first you may wonder how killing an entire people group can be an expression of God's love. This is because we read something like this: "Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey," (I Samuel 15:3). We are appalled. We are so focused on the act of judgment by God that we neglect to realize the level of sin committed that warrants that judgment in the first place. But consider this: while one group is being judged, another group is being saved.
Look at this example from Deuteronomy 7:1-2, "When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction." This is not just a matter of God judging those nations. Rather, God is demonstrating protection of the people he loves (Israel in this passage) from the influence of those he is judging. "The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you" (Deuteronomy 7:6-8). Why did God do this? Because he loved his people and wanted to protect them from sin's influence. He did not want the downfall of those nations to be the downfall of the people upon whom he had set his love. God's judgment, in this case, is like a gardener who prunes away branches so that the whole plant can thrive and produce greater fruit.
The Answer From Self-Justification
We can't simply answer our challenge from God's perspective. We have to deal with man's perspective as well. And very often, people protest God's actions because they want to get away with something. This objection can be put this way. If God can't be held accountable by man, then neither can man be held accountable by God—so I can do whatever I want.
Sometimes when people ask if such and such a thing is a sin our first response should be, "What do you want to get away with?" Man's first reaction to God is to justify himself rather than to agree with God and repent. Adam did it. That woman you put here. Eve did it. The serpent deceived me. And every person down the line has done the same thing. It is because we want to justify ourselves that we end up playing the role of judge to God.
There is probably no greater example of man judging God hypocritically for killing innocents than abortion. Most people who would judge God as unjust for killing whole people groups in Deuteronomy 7 have no problem with the slaughter of 40-50 million babies worldwide, in our own day and age, every year. These are babies not under God's judgment, but man's judgment, and a judgment mainly for convenience. How can we call God to account for the slaughter of a few thousand in an ancient people group when we kill 40-50 million every year without a second thought or feelings of remorse?
Our self-justification doesn't make God guilty; with it we only condemn ourselves.
As I stated in my previous post, God is obligated to love you. But let's get real. He is also obligated to judge you. Would you rather be judged through his love, or through his justice?