“Is it objectively wrong to force someone to eat their own child?”
That is the question that I asked one of my co-workers. She and I have a really good friendship, which might surprise some since we agree on almost nothing. Sure, we would both admit to the label “Christian,” but what we each mean by that word differs significantly. On this particular day, it differed on the issue of objective morals.
Simply put, the question is: are there things that are morally wrong always, in every circumstance? Is there anything that is wrong in and of itself? Not because of bad motives, bad methods, or poor outcomes? Is there anything that is wrong regardless of who does it, why they did it, how they did it, or what came about because they did it?
My answer: yes.
I’ve read a lot of philosophy on both sides of the debate. I know that very smart, even very moral people, would claim that objective morals don’t exist, that at some point everything that we call “wrong” is only wrong because our community, society, or species has collectively decided to call it wrong. Given the right circumstances, every “wrong” might actually occasionally be “right.”
I used to think this was a debate between Christians (or theists) and atheists. But I’ve learned that there are Christians and atheists on both sides of the issue. Traditionally, many atheists or secularists have indeed been moral relativists. However, there are atheists who do claim a belief in moral absolutes.1
As odd as it may be for some of us to hear of moral absolutist atheists, what strikes me as particularly odd is that there are moral relativist Christians! What?! Surely not! I know, right?
Now, to be fair, most of these folks would not actually call themselves moral relativists. They actually tend to be the sort of people that fervently decry moral relativism. However, if one holds to the notion that every account of God in the Bible is a 100% accurate reflection or representation of Him, then it seems to me that one is forced to adopt a kind of moral relativism.
Here’s what I mean…
Throughout the Old Testament, we find God doing, commanding, and condoning all sorts of heinous things. He is often petty, calling for the execution of those who fail to observe certain religious rules (Num 15: 32-36). He is genocidal, commanding the slaughter of whole people groups (Deut 7:2; 1 Sam 15:1-9), even the slaughter of children and babies (Deut 13:6-10; Ps 137:9), and even at one point the entire human race (Gen 7:21-23) or very nearly.2
As the famed atheist Richard Dawkins puts it:
“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.”3
One of the most disturbing images of God that we find in the pages of the Old Testament is that of God causing parents to cannibalize their children (e.g. Lev 26:28-29; Jer 19:9; Ezek 5:10). In fact, I think this is a good case study for the issue as a whole. Getting back to the question at the beginning of this post: Is it wrong to force someone to eat their own child?
I think all of us would say, “yes, of course that is wrong.” We know it to be wrong. It isn’t simply that it makes us feel icky inside, but that, even if someone (or everyone) felt good about it, it would still be immoral. On some gut-level, our moral intuition cries out that forcing
someone anyone to eat their own children is inherently wrong, regardless of who is forcing them to do this, regardless of why they are forcing them to do it, and regardless of any other factors. In fact, every single person I have asked has agreed – making someone eat their own children is objectively morally wrong… always!
And then there’s this passage where God says:
“I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh in the siege and in the distress with which their enemies and those who seek their life will distress them.” (Jer 19:9, emphasis mine… obviously)4
This is part of the judgment that God is pronouncing on Judah for their religious idolatry. My aforementioned friend tried to argue that it isn’t God making these people eat their children, but rather “their enemies and those who seek their life.” But, let’s be honest about what the text actually says. Yes, Judah’s enemies are the means by which God enacts His judgment on them. But the cause of their punishment is clearly stated as God. Moreover, it isn’t as though God says, “I will allow them to eat the flesh of their children.” He says, “I will make them…”
No matter how you spin it, unless we are trying to say that the passage doesn’t actually say what it actually says, we are left to deal with a biblical text where God is claiming that He will force parents to eat their children.
Because He says so?
At this point, I think it is difficult for anyone who takes the Bible in a literal, straightforward manner to not resort to moral relativism. You see, although these same folks might claim that there are moral absolutes, they can’t really point to any. Is genocide morally wrong? Apparently not if God commands it. Is forcing parents to cannibalize their children morally wrong? It’s in the Bible, so I guess not. Is raping a little girl morally wrong? Thankfully there are no passages where God either commands or condones this;5 however, I have a sneaking suspicion that if there were such a passage, then many of my self-proclaimed moral absolutist friends would say, I guess in some circumstances that’s actually a good thing.
If you want to see a biblical literalist do mental gymnastics, I think this is one of the best ways to motivate them. People can be surprisingly imaginative… and selective.
But what does it mean for something to be morally right or wrong? Is something right or wrong by virtue of who is doing it? We don’t usually see that as very good morality. Isn’t something like rape or genocide wrong regardless of whether it is committed by you, me, Jeffrey Dahmer, Barack Obama, Adolf Hitler, or Taylor Swift? In fact, the characteristically “Christian” notion that morality is different when applied to God is arguably the quintessential example of moral relativism!
Now, many will retort, we can’t know the mind of God. His ways are not our ways. And, yes, God’s morality is loftier than ours. But it isn’t entirely other than ours. In fact, unless our moral intuitions have some sort of validity, we don’t really have a basis for saying anything is good or evil.
Saint Jack himself points this out in no uncertain terms:
“[I]f God’s moral judgement differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good,’ while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) ‘good’ we shall obey, if at all, only through fear – and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity – when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.”6
If Christian morality is to mean anything, it cannot be the case that God’s morality is entirely obscure and unknowable. And if we are to avoid a kind of divine moral relativism, or worse “devil-worship,” then we cannot maintain that something that is heinously wicked suddenly becomes good and virtuous just because God says so. This is called the Divine Command Theory, the notion that God makes something good by fiat. If God can do whatever he wants, including genocide, and it is good just because He is God, then things that are “good” or “evil” are only so because the biggest bully on the playground says so, but they aren’t actually so.7
And all of this makes the notion of morality inconsistent at best, or else wildly capricious and meaningless.
I think, however, there’s a better way.
The God Who Gets Blamed
What if the best way to understand passages like Leviticus 19:9 is to say, “You know, I don’t think that’s true”?
Now, hold on a minute. I can already hear some of you typing away your defense of biblical authority. But hear me out.
What if those passages were never meant to be an accurate representation of God (at least, not by God Himself)? As any first year Bible college student can tell you, the Bible is made up of all sorts of different genres – history, parable, poetry, wisdom, letters, apocalypse, mythology, etc. And what exactly a piece of literature is is itself difficult to describe, even if we know the genre. After all, the poems of Dr. Seuss, Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, and King David are all incredibly different from one another. So when we talk about whether or not something is “true,” it is not entirely clear what makes something true.
In our literate, post-Gutenberg mindset, it is often tempting to equate truth with literalness, or even historical or scientific accuracy. But is that it? Does that cover truth in all its vast expressions, nuances, and complexity? Is that how the biblical authors would have understood truth, or how they would have communicated it? What about God? Does God think that truth is best represented by straightforward propositional statements?
Now, the child of the Enlightenment in each of us might quickly respond, yes. But think about that? Think about your most deeply held convictions, the ideas and impressions that make up the central parts of your identity? Did you come by those because of propositional statements? Did hearing someone tell you “dogs make good pets” do more to convince you of this than the joy you had owning and playing with a dog? Is it not the experience of your marriage, not the words you spoke on your wedding day, that has most effectively convinced you of your spouse’s love for you? I think when we examine our most deeply-held beliefs, the stuff that fills us with purpose and gets us out of bed in the morning, it is really very seldom the result of straightforward facticity.
And when it comes to the Bible, in a very ancient, non-scientific, unrefined sort of way, I think one of the foundational things that indicates whether or not a text is “inspired” is not what it says, but what it does!8
In this sense, I think the most incredible thing the Bible does is invite us into a relationship with God, the sort of God who loves us in the midst of our brokenness. My friend, Greg, in what looks to be a much more robust treatment than I could offer here, is writing a book where he makes the following argument:9
Jesus is the standard picture of God’s character.
Jesus most reveals God’s character to us when he is self-sacrificially dying on the cross, looking like a criminal, taking on the sins of people, and being punished for crimes he never committed.
And if that is what God is like when He is most clearly revealed, then that is what God has always been like, being self-sacrificial, looking like a criminal, taking on the sins of His people, and being blamed for crimes He never committed.
Always. Even in Leviticus 19:9. Even in every other passage where God does the sort of things that we know at the core of our moral intuition are wrong.
Thanks for reading!
1: For an example of an ardent atheist arguing for a non-theistic foundation for moral absolutes, see Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (Free Press; New York, NY, 2011).
3: Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Mariner Books; Boston, 2008), 51.
4: Do I even have to say "emphasis mine" when quoting the Bible? After all, I'm only quoting an English translation of the Bible. Even if there were italics in the version I'm referencing, at best I would have to say "emphasis theirs" in reference to the translators, since none of the biblical manuscripts themselves have anything in italics. Anyhow, it seems like a trite and largely meaningless thing to have to say.
5: Although there are admittedly some passages that raise the question (e.g., Deut 22:28-29).
6: C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (HarperOne; New York, NY), 29. Regardless of whether or not you think Lewis has an accurate understanding of the doctrine of Total Depravity, I think his point regarding morality still stands.
9: Greg Boyd, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Reinterpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (InterVarsity, forthcoming).