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Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 23: “Turning the Other Cheek, Pacifism, and Just War.”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by David Baggett 

It might be worth asking whether we can say something more general about warfare, moving beyond divinely commanded fighting. Contrary to the claim that the Bible endorses pacifism, certain instances of violent means seem justified to fight injustice. N. T. Wright thinks one of the insights of the imprecatory psalms is that evil is real and that it needs to be actively battled. Yale professor Miroslav Volf affirms the compatibility of loving one’s neighbor and using force to protect the neighbor. Romans 13 affirms that God does not always carry out divine wrath directly but has partly delegated this task to human governments.

Biblical Considerations

               The Teaching of Jesus

Jesus died for the sin of the world and took the curse of our exile and alienation from God on himself. He stormed into the temple to cleanse it. Although many assume Jesus prohibited any use of force, F&C have their doubts.

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). But this admonition is not the response to an attack of violence, but to a gross insult. Jesus is prohibiting returning insult for insult. He is exhorting his followers to break the vicious cycle of exchanging insults and to move toward reconciliation and peacemaking with our personal enemies—even with Roman soldiers who might commandeer Jewish citizens to carry their loads for them for a mile.

Jesus does not absolutize loving one’s enemies. He denounces his opponents in very harsh terms in Matthew 23. He exemplified a spirit of remarkable forgiveness on the cross, but for forgiveness to be complete, it presupposes the offender’s repentance. Even when Christ instructs his disciples to forgive extravagantly, he continues saying that those refusing to forgive will incur the wrath of their master and be handed over to the torturers.

When Christians call for the forgiveness of the likes of Osama bin Laden, we must ask: Is that our rightful place? Unlike the Son of God, how can we simply forgive the offenses of others? What about the victims of their assaults? Should we forgive terrorists while they are planning another attack?

What about not resisting the evil person? For one thing, Jesus himself is constantly resisting evil. Matt. 5:39 is better translated as not resisting “by evil means” rather than “the evil one/person.” This is how other NT writers interpret the words. And even if we take this passage in the traditional way, once again we do not have an absolute prohibition of resisting evil persons. Jesus is routinely driving out evil spirits. The God-ordained state is called to resist evildoers, etc.

While Jesus welcomes sinners and forgives them, he also threatens judgment on his opponents. Repeatedly, we see that Jesus himself doesn’t absolutize forgiving enemies.

Other Voices in the New Testament

Elsewhere in the NT we see the imprecatory psalms reenacted. Romans 12 and 13 illustrate the complementarity of the personal and the official. Romans 12 features Paul following Jesus’ commands to break the vicious cycle of personal animosity to work toward reconciled relationships. Rom. 13 features state officials whose role has been ordained of God to protect the innocent and preserve the peace and punish evildoers.

We also encounter general biblical principles that lend support to the idea of a just war. There is a time for war. Soldiers and centurions are treated quite favorably in the NT. Their status isn’t presented as inherently immoral. The scriptures exhibit a complementarity between being a disciple of Christ and involvement in the God-ordained state.

Historical Considerations: Constantinianism and Christian Soldiering

               Before Constantine

Bainton and Yoder have maintained that the church was uniformly nonmilitary from the second century until the rise of Constantine (AD 312). It’s the spirit of Constantinianism, so the argument goes, that has given rise to the church’s compromising entanglement with the state.

The evidence for this uniform pacifism is not all that tidy. NT is not nonmilitaristic. What about beyond the NT? After the NT and up to the mid-second century, we have silence on Christian soldiers. But after this time, we have clear evidence of Christian soldiers in the Roman army. Nonmilitaristic perspective of several church leaders does not necessarily represent a uniformly held, empire-wide Christian belief during this time. We see hints of just war in Tertullian and Origen, and beyond this, there are a number of complicating factors. Perhaps Christians saw some violence as inappropriate, or some causes unworthy of participating in, but that doesn’t mean all.

The Advent of Constantine

With the ascent of Constantine, the Christian outcast minority would become part of the “establishment.” Constantine is often depicted negatively, but surely his rule was a relief to a once persecuted minority. The church made some big mistakes with the temporal power, but Constantine brought about many positive moral reforms—banning gladiatorial games and the abandonment of children, segregated prison cells for men and women, charitable ministries, etc.

A Brief Discussion of Just War

After the rise of Constantine, thinkers like Ambrose and Augustine would advocate principles for a just war—a view that held sway until the twentieth century. Can there be a just war? Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of those who brought about change nonviolently. But perhaps it’s worth noting that their nonviolent resistance succeeded because the governments to which they appealed were fairly humanitarian and better informed by biblical values than the vast number of ruthless regimes that have existed over time.

Principles of Just War

The just war theorist attempts to deal realistically with unpreventable violent aggression against the vulnerable. Just war theory recognizes the justice of protecting innocent nations from thugs, bullies, and tyrants, recognizing that attempts at negotiation and peacemaking with ruthless tyrants will often be fruitless and that “trust” may be nothing more than gullibility.

Military historian Victor Davis Hanson reminds us that war or military strength has helped bring an end to chattel slavery in America, Nazism, Fascism, and Soviet Communism. Wars don’t always come about because of failure of communication or misunderstanding, or from poverty or inequality. They begin from malicious intent and the absence of deterrence. Often nations become accomplices to evil through inaction.

When it comes to articulating what just war involves, there are seven criteria, although the first three take priority:

  1. Just Cause
  2. Just Intent
  3. Lawful Declaration
  4. Last Resort
  5. Immunity of Noncombatants
  6. Limited Objectives

F&C elaborate by making several points. First, in the context of just war principles, which are universally applicable and rooted in God’s general revelation to all people, it may be helpful to distinguish between “force” and “violence.” Appropriate force is motivated by both justice and love of neighbor; it is aimed at restoring peace; it is carried out by a proper authority. Second, a nation or group of nations may engage in a truly just war, but the fact that missteps may be made does not undermine the overall justice of the war. Third, a war that is just should ultimately exhibit love for one’s neighbor, but we must not confuse what love requires. Love for the victim may require removing the source of harm, for example. Fourth, the pacifistic understanding of “turn the other cheek” raise questions about protecting the innocent from injustice when it’s in our power to do so. Finally, we should simultaneously support “just peacemaking” efforts to build bridges of understanding and partnership between nations and communities while not neglecting the appropriate use of force against thus and tyrants when necessary.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd (*1934): Non violence, 1995-1999, Bronze” by wwwuppertal. CC License. 

Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 22: “Did Old Testament War Texts Inspire the Crusades?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman

One of the most common objections raised by critics of Christianity concerns the Crusades.  I often have heard statements of how the church massacred thousands of innocent Muslims in the holy land in order to obtain riches and retrieve lands for the purpose of establishing holy shrines.  Unfortunately many of these criticisms are based on misinformation about the purpose, nature, and historical events that make up this period of church history.  F &C turn to this topic in the 22nd chapter of their book and expose and address the myths that are often assumed to be true concerning the Crusades.  They divide the chapter into five common myths.

The first myth concerns the purpose of the crusades.  Many think they were “unjustified military campaigns against peaceable, tolerant Muslims.”  F&C point out that this is historically inaccurate.  Beginning with the first crusade in 1095, they show how each crusade was a response to Muslim aggression.  Using the just war language of Augustine, F&C show that the original intent of the crusades was to protect and rescue those Christians in Asia minor (and later Edessa in 1144 and Jerusalem in 1187) from Muslim attacks in those areas. They quote crusade scholar Thomas Madden, who states, “The crusades were in every way a defensive war.  They were the West’s belated response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world.” This is not to say every action in the crusade was morally justified or that abuses did not occur, but the general purpose was to defend innocent Christians and not to pillage and rape innocent Muslims as is often claimed by critics such as Karen Armstrong.

The second myth also concerns the purpose of the crusades.  Some claim that the church’s real purpose was to accumulate great wealth by looting the Muslims.  F&C acknowledge there was a financial aspect to the crusades, but argue this was an incidental aspect behind their purpose. The crusades were very costly to the average crusader and they often had to raise four to five times their annual income in order to make the long journey to the Holy land and fight for the church.  Therefore some form of financial remuneration was expected as a part of being involved.  However, they point out that nobody got rich from the crusades and much more money flowed from the west to the east than the opposite.

The third myth concerns the often held belief that the church was trying to gain converts by force.  F&C point out that there is no evidence for this claim and that “the crusades simply did not have a view to force or pressure Muslims to change their faith” (293).  The purpose was protecting Christians and shrines from attacks by Muslim aggression.  This does not mean that some individuals did not reach out to Muslims, such as Saint Francis, but that was not part of the general purpose.

The fourth myth claims that “Muslims have held the crusades against Christians since the Middle Ages” (293).  F&C show that, while this has become a popular view (expressed in such films as Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven), this is actually a recent view that has become most popular in the last few years as Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism has arisen.  Cambridge scholar Jonathon Riley-Smith argues that “Muslims had pretty much forgotten about the crusades since they had won.”  The crusades were raised by some Muslims around the same time Israel’s nationhood came about.  It was not a long-standing grudge that Muslims have been holding for centuries.

The final myth goes to the heart of F&C’s project in this book, the relationship of the Old Testament conquests to the Crusades.  Some, such as Roland Bainton, have claimed that the “architects of the Christian crusade . . . drew their warrant from the books of the conquest and of the Maccabean revolt” (295).  F&C acknowledge that there are isolated incidents in which one finds those who used the conquest narratives to justify aggressive actions against others, such as some Puritans who came to America.  However, they marvel that more of this was not done, especially by the one group that one would think would use such texts to justify violence with others, namely, the Jews.  The largest problem with this claim by Bainton and others is that there is simply no evidence to support it.  It is merely an assertion.  We do not find any of the original supporters of the crusades appealing to the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua as scriptural support for the crusades.  In fact the most common scriptural passages appealed to come from the Gospels and the mouth of Jesus.  What is appealed to are passages where Jesus claims one needs to take up one’s cross and forsake all to help others.  So again, another myth is shown to be false concerning the motivation behind the crusades.

While the popular beliefs concerning the crusades continue to cling to the myths we have seen above, serious scholarship continues to reveal those myths to be false and without warrant.  F&C perform a vital service contributing to overcoming the overwhelming mythology promoted by misinformed critics.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image:”Peter the Hermit Preaching the First Crusade” by Anonymous – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 21: “Are Yahweh Wars in the Old Testament Just Like Islamic Jihad?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by David Baggett 

Karen Armstrong and Philip Jenkins, among others, have argued that there’s far more violence in the Bible than in the Koran. Jenkins refers to the Old Testament’s ethnic cleansing, institutionalization of segregation, and hate and fear of other races and religions. F&C review some of these themes they’ve already covered: In terms of ethnic cleansing, what we find in the OT instead is “moral cleansing,” and long-awaited judgment on a wicked people whose time had finally come. And God warns the Israelites will experience the same judgment if they commit the same sins. The OT represents a God whose salvation is intended to affect all the peoples of the world. In terms of segregation, Israel was to be distinct morally and spiritually, but they were repeatedly commanded to care for the alien and sojourner in their midst since they too had been aliens in the land of Egypt. In terms of other races and religions, the charge of hating and fearing other races is clearly false, though the Bible is opposed to idolatry, and God brings judgment on ancient Israel for engaging in idolatry and breaking covenant with him after promising to love, cling to, and obey him.

Biblical and Koranic Texts

We see many Koranic references to warfare, and this warfare is not simply defensive but offensive as well. F&C give copious examples; here’s just one: “And those who are slain in the way of God, He will not send their works astray…. And He will admit them to Paradise, that He has made known to them” (47:4, 6).

Clear differences obtain between the Bible and Koran. First, military events captured in a biblical canon are merely descriptive of a unique part of the unfolding of salvation history. Second, whereas the biblical texts offer descriptions of unique history, the Koranic texts by contrast appear to be issuing enduring commands. Islam has exhibited a militaristic aggressiveness from the beginning, and this aggressiveness has been fed by Koranic texts that many Muslims throughout history have taken as normative or binding, enduring throughout history, and worldwide in applicability. Third, the distinctions between divinely commanded wars in the OT and Islamic jihad are much more pronounced than their similarities.

In addition to being unique and unrepeatable events within scripture itself, these wars are restricted to a relatively small portion of land, and accompanied by widely witnessed miracles. By contrast, the “revelations” to Muhammad were private and not publicly available for scrutiny or reinforced by dramatic signs and wonders. What’s more, Israel was an instrument of divine judgment on wicked people, unlike Muhammad, who attacked and overtook even those who were “People of the Book” (Jews and Christians)—part of the global reach to which Muhammed and his followers aspired.

Muhammad’s Example

Consider now Muhammed himself, the supreme human example for Muslims to follow. His goal was “to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no God but Allah.’” He died in AD 632 with his own plans for attacking neighboring nations unfulfilled. In his career, he fought in an estimated eighty-six military campaigns. The first authoritative biography of him covers his battles in 75 percent of its 813 pages, and includes depictions of assassination, rape, and cruelty that met with Muhammed’s approval. In one instance he said, “Kill any Jew that falls into your power.” A number of instances recount his approval of violence. According to the Koran and the traditions about Muhammed (Hadith), he permitted his soldiers to have sex not only with their wives, but also with female captives and female slaves.

The Early History of Islam and Its Ongoing Encounters with the Non-Muslim World

Although the Koran affirms that there should be no compulsion in religion, this verse is contradicted by other passages within the Koran. It’s also contradicted by the example of Muhammed himself. In terms of the word “jihad,” the Koran has a place for an “internal” sense of spiritual struggling or exerting within oneself for Allah, which is called the “greater jihad,” but the Koran also clearly indicates military struggle and connects jihad to physical fighting (the “lesser jihad”). As David Cook indicates in his book Understanding Jihad, there is little support in the Koran and Hadith for the notion of jihad as internal struggle.

Not only did early Islamic history continue the militaristic spirit of its founder; Islam’s history reveals an oppressive stance toward non-Muslims under Islamic rule. F&C adduce several examples.


The claim that the Bible’s warfare texts are “just like” the Koran’s is incorrect. The Hebrew scriptures portray unique, unrepeatable events of Israelite warfare—unlike the ongoing and normative aspect of jihad in the Koran and under the leadership of Muhammed. Unlike the biblical text that stresses God’s judgment against specific people, the Koran and Muhammed placed no such limitations on jihad, as the opponents of Islam are non-Muslims remaining in the “abode of war” rather than the “abode of Islam.” And while the scriptures emphasize a limited geographical area of military engagement, the Koran and Muhammed placed no such limit.

Another point of contrast is the nature of God in the Koran and the Bible. The Koran portrayed a deity who loves only those who love him. Those who reject Islam are “the worst of creatures.” Here God’s love is conditional, depending on the response of human beings. The love of the biblical God is unconditional. He does not merely love those who love him. Rather, God loves all people and even his enemies (cf. Matt. 5:444-48; John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-10; 1 John 2:2). He seeks to make salvation available to all, including the very enemies of his people Israel (e.g., Gen. 12:1-13; Ps. 87:4-6; Isa. 19:23-25; Zech. 9:70).

The contrast between Yahweh war in the OT and Islamic jihad becomes clear when considered are issues of geography, historical length/limit, objects of warfare, objects of God’s love, the standard of morality (God’s loving nature versus Allah’s sheer will that commands indiscriminately), signs and wonders, and the normativity of war.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

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Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 20: “Does Religion Cause Violence?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman

With Chapter 20, F&C enter the fourth part of their book, which both expands the discussion of the OT God and explores a number of related questions concerning theism and violence.  In this chapter they take on the general question of the relationship of religion to violence.  A number of writers suggest that there is an inherent relationship between religion and violence such that religion will inevitably lead to violent acts.  Charles Kimball declares in his book When Religion Becomes Evil that “religion has caused more violence than any other ‘institutional force in human history’” (259).  Mark Jurgensmeyer states that “religion is violent by its very nature because it tends to ‘absolutize and to project images of cosmic war’” (259). In her book, The Curse of Cain, Regina Schwartz claims it is not just religion, but monotheistic religion in particular, that leaves violence in its wake. Belief in one God is an exclusivistic claim creating outsiders who “will be ostracized, abhorred, even obliterated because they fail to acknowledge ‘the one true God’. Monotheism inevitably leads to an us-versus-them mind-set” (259-260). Instead of religion, these authors endorse the employment of the “enlightenment values” of tolerance, diversity, and pluralism.  These authors suggest that abandoning one’s religious commitments and adopting enlightenment values will significantly reduce the amount of violence in the world.  F&C spend this chapter examining and refuting these charges against religion.

They begin their exploration by examining the meaning of the concepts of “religion” and “enlightenment values.”  One irony they recognize at the outset is that “the pro-enlightenment advocates and/or ‘religion’ attackers are not even clear on what ‘religion’ is” (260).  Because there is little widespread commonality between traditional religions, F&C suggest “we would be wise to think in terms of an all-encompassing ‘worldview’ or ‘philosophy of life’ instead of the misused and abused term ‘religion’” (261). Such a worldview would be marked by three characteristics: comprehensiveness, incapable of abandonment (as it shapes the identity of the self), and of central importance.  Religions certainly fall into this concept but so do many secular worldviews such as humanism, post-modernism, and Marxism.  A second irony noted by F&C is that “political visions – even allegedly secular ones – often take on strongly ‘religious’ overtones” (262). Political leaders such as Hitler, Stalin, and Kim Jung II have been practically deified by many of their followers. “The line between the religious and the secular is quite clearly irrelevant when it comes to the phenomena of exalting dictators” (262). A final irony is that “secular ideologies can readily compete with the most fanatical and dangerous elements found within traditional religion” (262). F&C raise the question, “Why single out religion?”  Numerous examples can be drawn from political and secular instances of violence and war and they list several examples of totalitarian societies, many of which had completely abandoned religion.

F&C apply these three ironies in their examination of the “religious wars” of 16th and 17th century Europe and ask the question, did the enlightenment make a difference?  To begin with, they point out that, with the onset of the enlightenment, the political power of the church was replaced by that of the state.  The 20th century shows that violence and tyranny can be just as, if not more, prevalent in the name of nationalism and atheism (witness the holocaust, and the atrocities of Stalin and Pol Pot, just to name a few).  Second, “the ‘religious wars’ were in fact not predictably divided along doctrinal lines, but rather political ones” (264). F&C list a number of examples of the so-called religious wars of the 16th century. Third, the supposed “enlightenment values” that are often touted by today’s critics of religion were not nearly as enlightened as they are often promoted to be.  For example, many “enlightened” thinkers supported slavery while it was mostly the Christian church that opposed it.  David Hume referred to those who believe in miracles as “ignorant and barbarous” peoples – an obvious reference to non-white religious people.  Third, rather than opposing violence in general, many of these modern enlightened thinkers (including the new atheists) advocate violence against traditional religionists. Sam Harris advocates a nuclear strike against Islamic fundamentalists while Christopher Hitchens advocate beating and killing the “enemies of civilization” (religious persons).

F&C go on to point out that not all religions are the same and that they should not be lumped together and treated as if they are.  There are religions that have done much good for society and some that have been harmful.  They argue that Christianity falls into the former group on the basis of three lines of evidence.  First, many scholars, including some atheists, have documented the benefits that Christianity has brought into the world.  They quote at length from Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, and the Time magazine correspondent David Aikman, among others, who praise many of the humanitarian accomplishments done in the name of the Christian faith.  Progress in the west has been attributed to the Protestant work ethic by a number of scholars.  Second, Christian faith has not only elevated the west, but has made a significant impact in non-western nations as well.  Robert Woodberry performed a study of the impact of western missionaries and shows how they were responsible for “the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, volunteer organizations, most major colonial reforms . . . and the codification of legal protections for nonwhites in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” (268-269). Third, F&C point out that any attempt to attribute these gains to other sources, such as Greek ideals or the enlightenment, is inadequate.

In the final sections of this chapter, F&C take on the particular criticism by Regina Schwartz that somehow monotheism or the biblical account of the curse of Cain are ultimately responsible for much of the violence in the world.  They ask first why one should think that God’s oneness has anything to do with violence?  Besides the fact that Yahweh is often described as compassionate and patient, there is nothing about oneness that automatically sets up an “us-or-them” mentality.  Second, there are plenty of examples of violent polytheistic religious tribes as well as non-religious groups responsible for much violence.  Finally, even if monotheism could be held partially responsible for certain wrongs, it should not be considered the sole factor.  As far as the curse of Cain, Schwartz does not take a number of factors into account in her criticism of the story from Genesis.  First, Cain wasn’t so much chosen by God to be cursed as he himself chose to disobey and dishonor God.  He was given opportunities to alter his course and chose not to do so.  Second, the same opportunities were given to Jacob and Esau.  God did not play favorites.  Third, God’s election of Israel as the chosen people, rightly understood, was nothing that they could brag about – it is made clear in scripture that they were not chosen because of some superiority on their part.  Fourth, Schwartz fails to distinguish between the non-elect and the anti-elect.  Most nations were of the former category and Israel was allowed to engage in cordial relations with them.  It was only three nations (Amalekites, Canaanites, and Midianites) that they were to have nothing to do with.

F&C close this chapter with a reference to William Cavanagh’s observation that “the notion that religion causes violence is one of the most prevalent myths in the West” (274).  Such a charge is simplistic at best and misguided and misleading at worst.

Find the other chapter summaries here.


Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 19: “The Role of Miracles and the Command to Kill Canaanites.”

By David Baggett 

Morriston raises this question: If God decrees something at variance with universal commands by special revelation through a human representative, then how can the commandee know that this mouthpiece accurately speaks for God and that this command is neither a delusion nor a demon? This chapter will give a further response to Morriston’s worry. Imagine you’re a skeptical soldier in Moses’s or Joshua’s army and that you ask yourself the question, “Why should I obey Moses’s call to war against the Canaanites?” How would one know that a good, just God is behind such a command? And could one find warrant for condemning violence done in the name of God in the present?

The concern is that in very unusual circumstances in the past, God commanded people to kill the innocent, exempting them from a moral principle that otherwise binds them. But if God did this in the past, why not now? But if awareness of such an exemption comes through one’s mere inner (subjective) sensing, there would be no way to verify this is God’s will. So there would be no way to know whether or not the individual was really commanded by God to kill innocent people.

Miracles and the Will of God

Matthew Rowley has written an essay on sacralized violence in the exodus under Moses and during the conquest under Joshua. His argument addresses this concern. His key argument is that the biblical narrative suggests that in those situations, God desired to safeguard against the misunderstanding of his will; so he chose to validate this new knowledge with clear displays of miracles. When a new revelation issues the extraordinary command of taking another’s life, it does not come through one’s mere inner subjective sensing. Rather, God chooses to unite this new knowledge with miracles, in such a way that the individual or onlooker can validate the message. (See Josh. 3:7.)

Miracles in the Old Testament Narrative

Rowley identifies several different categories of miracles. Category 1: Miracle of creation, showing God’s power, intelligence, and creativity. Category 2: 2L (lesser), 2M (moderate), and 2G (greater)—on an epistemic spectrum. 2L miracles are visions, dreams, or small-scale events like a burning bush. 2M are smaller miracles that go against the normal pattern of nature, meriting skepticism. These experiences should be held loosely. 2G miracles are harder to misinterpret and are impossible to fake, like God feeding Israelites for decades with bread from heaven.

Unlike private revelation claims made by Muhammad or Joseph Smith, Moses’s prophetic message is authenticated by Category 2G miracles. See Exod. 9:15-16; cf. Rom. 9:17.

Evidence, Miracles, and Moses’s and Joshua’s Believability

Imagine a skeptical soldier in Israel under Moses or Joshua who wonders whether a harsh command is truly from Yahweh. The Israelites, soldiers included, were to learn two chief lessons from the miracles surrounding the exodus out of Egypt: first, that Yahweh is supreme above all gods in power and authority and, second, that Moses was “like God”—God’s representative—before Egypt and Israel (Exod. 7:1; cf. 4:16). The narrative suggests that they should have been believed because of the confirming miracles God performed through them. No wonder that at the exodus itself, the people “believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses” (14:30-31).

Moses’s unique role further confirmed in the dreadful direct revelation at Sinai (Deut. 5:23-27), which the Israelites could see, hear, and feel. The Ten Commandments begin with the affirmation of the exodus miracle to confirm both Yahweh’s and Moses’s believability. A large number of the commands in the Mosaic law are grounded in the exodus event. The questioning Israelite solder doesn’t simply have to take Moses’s word for it; he is in a position to see firsthand God’s miraculous actions.

As for believing Joshua’s commands, scripture uses the same language as it does of Moses. And the Israelites themselves and their enemies knew that Yahweh was truly with Joshua. Remember these two points: God’s presence was highly visible—ever “in the sight” of Israel whether on the move or settled. And second, the tabernacle would continue to move until a more permanent house of God—the temple—was established where God would cause his name to dwell and where the glory of God would be visibly manifested. Not only did the Canaanites and Philistines hear reports of Yahweh’s miraculous activity, but they also could see the manifestation of Yahweh’s presence as Israel camped or moved about.

The Storehouse of Divine Validation

Unlike any person today who advocates violence in the name of God, the Israelites who engaged in life-taking obedience had a storehouse of indicators of miraculous divine validation. The large cluster of weighty miracles performed while Moses led Israel would reinforce the believability of the less-weighty miracles like the burning bush. The shock and awe 2G miracles gave more credibility to the 2L miracles. Looking back, the soldier can come to trust Moses’s testimony about the burning bush because he is gazing at the pillar of fire in front of him.

Moses, Miracles, and the Ancient Near East

The miracles recorded in Exodus through Joshua uniquely single out Moses and Joshua. It is the difference between saying, “I speak for God,” and “I speak for the God who just dried up the sea, who is leading you by a pillar of fire, and who is feeding you daily with bread from heaven.”

Prophetic Punctuated Equilibrium and Inheriting Ripples

The biblical narrative suggests a pattern—namely, large-scale miraculous activity and increased prophetic utterances are connected to a call to restore order from chaos through destruction. F&C see a connection between evidentially weighty miracles and sacralized violence—what Rowley calls prophetic punctuated equilibrium: spurts of miraculous “mutations” occurring within a short time—clustered around the old covenant and new covenant—followed by longer periods when relatively fewer miracles take place.

The conquest narratives serve as a reminder of God’s clear and inimitable workings in the course of salvation history and a call to remember his faithfulness in bringing his purposes to fruition.


In a post 9/11 environment, Morriston’s arguments strike a significant chord. But F&C have made several points here. First, Morriston’s argument wrongly assumes that prophetic utterances like those recorded in scripture continue after the closing of the biblical canon. Second, one can rationally attribute to God a command that under ordinary circumstances would be immoral to carry out only on two conditions: (1) that the command does not contradict a nonnegotiable moral principle, and (2) that, on the background evidence accepted by a biblical theist, the claim that God issued the command is more likely than the claim that the action is wrong. Third, even if the command meets these criteria, further tests must be passed—tests not met by contemporaries who claim God told them to kill: alleged prophets must have a track record of true predictions and have proved themselves authentic; their message must not contradict previous revelation or commands recorded in scripture; their character must show fruit of the Spirit in their life, and must have a lifestyle of sincere obedience to God’s commands; and if prophets announce an exemption from the normal rules against killing, this message will be authenticated by Category 2G miracles.


Image: “Andrea Previtali 005” by Andrea Previtali – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 18: “What if Someone Claimed God Commanded Killing the Innocent Today?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman 

In this chapter F & C wish to examine a concern that many have: “If we say that God commanded an exemption to the crucial moral principle in scripture and that he commanded an occasion in which the killing of the innocent was justified in the past, what is to stop some religious fanatic from claiming that God would do the same today?”  At first glance, this may seem like a legitimate concern.  However, in this chapter F & C suggest several safeguards and criteria to test such a claim as genuine.

Before addressing the main question, F & C tackle a related objection often raised by the skeptic: Unless one can know the reason for why God would issue such a command, one is not justified in saying they know that God issued such a command.  F & C point out a number of problems with this objection.  Using Alvin Plantinga’s well-known noseeum inference (pronounced no-see-um) which he effectively employs in discussing the problem of evil, they show that just because one does not know the reason for why God might command something does not entail that he has no reason.  This is to confuse an ontological problem with an epistemological one.  The fact that I do not know something exists (including a reason in the mind of God) does not necessarily mean that it does not exist.  F & C raise the idea of the skeptical theist, one who acknowledges that God may often act without explaining why he does so, as a realistic concept that completely counters this objection.  In fact, if this objection really had any power, then it would entail that we could not know that God had ever made any moral commands because, ultimately, we do not know why God commands that any good be promoted and any evil avoided.  As F & C put it, “The problem this poses is obvious: if we can’t justifiably attribute a command to God unless we know why he commands it, then we won’t be able to attribute any commands to God, even a general command to not kill.” (235)

F & C approach the main question by referring to Wes Morriston’s hypothetical situation in which a Texas governor believes God has spoken to him and commanded that all members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints should be killed.  Morriston suggests that such a situation is analogous to the Old Testament reports of divinely mandated genocide.  If we would reject such a command to the Texas governor as coming from God, we need to do the same with those in the Old Testament.  F & C, though, suggest a number of reasons why such a scenario is disanalogous and why God wouldn’t make such a command today.

While they do not deny that divine revelation is not limited to the biblical era, they affirm that individual divine guidance is different from the authoritative utterances proclaimed by God’s appointed prophets and apostles of biblical times.  All three branches of Christianity affirm that the biblical canon in closed and that there are no new divinely authoritative utterances equal to that of the prophets and apostles.  F & C state, “We have good reason to accept that the Scriptures are the sure and final authority for the believer and that with the death of the apostles, there is no longer any authoritative revelation on the level of Moses and Paul.” (238) [Note: It would have been helpful and made their case stronger had F &C gone into what exactly these reasons might be rather than just asserting that they exist.]

A second reason F & C believe that Morriston’s hypothetical scenario is disanalogous concerns recognizing moral defeaters.  Morriston wonders how we know when a command is from God as opposed to when it is not?  The answer: when it accords with our moral and religious practice.  F & C point out that one aspect of appealing to moral practice is to consider it from within the Christian moral community of which one is a member. Christians as a community affirm certain doctrines as being true and they operate from within these doctrines and may appeal to them when considering claims of commands coming from God.  In addition, F & C suggest two guidelines that help in determining when a purported rare incident might occur in which God’s command would be an exception to the crucial moral principle.  These two guidelines are:

  1. One should dismiss any purported divine command that violates a non-negotiable moral belief
  2. One should reject any purported divine command to do X that contradicts a negotiable moral belief when the claim “Action X is wrong” has greater plausibility or is more validly knowable than the claim that God commanded it. (239)

With these two qualifications in place, F & C show that the rare exception is not a problem for the Christian theist.  A true prophet will not affirm a command from God that violates guidance #1, so if our Texas governor’s scenario involves something of that kind, it will be rejected.  If it violates a negotiable moral belief, it will be judged by criteria of plausibility that will probably, indeed almost certainly, arrive at the conclusion that the Texas governor is not a prophet or apostle in the line of a Moses or Paul.

F & C finish off this chapter by listing a number of other scriptural criteria for testing if one is a prophet with divine authority to declare the commands of God.  They first consider the nature of the medium and ask if the word was received through some form of divination.  Second, one criterion of truth asks if the prophecy actually does come true.  Does the person proclaiming the command have a track record of true prophetic fulfillment in the past?  Third is the consistency with previous revelation.  Is it consistent with other doctrines we know to be revealed by God?  Fourth is the moral character of the person proclaiming the command. Does he or she live a virtuous life?  All of these could be applied to the Texas governor scenario to help in determining if his proclamation was really of divine origin and had divine authority behind it.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image:”Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich – The Sacrifice of Isaac – WGA6338″ by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 17: “Is It Rational to Believe God Commanded the Killing of Innocent?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by David Baggett

It’s been argued that it’s rational to believe the Crucial Moral Principle is not absolute and this claim is rationally believable when the grounds for thinking God issued such a command are stronger than the ground for thinking killing innocent is always wrong. But does the biblical theist have adequate grounds for thinking that God on these unique occasions issued such an exemption? Wesley Morriston has recently argued that the biblical theist can’t have adequate grounds for thinking this. His claim is twofold. First, the relevant biblical texts explicitly state what God’s reasons are for issuing the commands. Second, we have good grounds for thinking these reasons are inadequate ones for commanding the killing of innocent people. The four relevant texts to consider are Deut. 20:16; Deut. 7:2; Numbers 31:15; and 1 Samuel 15:3.

Deuteronomy 20:16: “Save Alive Nothing that Breathes”

Morriston cites Swinburne’s defense of the destruction of various peoples. Swinburne likens the spiritual condition of the relevant peoples as an infectious lethal disease in need of eradication. Morriston replies that such reasons for their destruction are inadequate. He says the obvious worry is that this line of argument may have wider application than Swinburne intends it to have. Should a law be passed to silence or kill evangelical atheists?

F&C argue there are three problems with Morriston’s argument. First, contrary to what Morriston asserts, Deut. 20:16-18 does not explicitly state that God’s reason for issuing the command was to prevent the Israelites from being taught to follow the abhorrent practices of the Canaanite nations. It gives the Israelites a reason to obey a command God has already laid down. The reasons for issuing a command and the reasons why people should obey the commands are not always the same. As Richard Brandt argues, what justifies someone in promoting the acceptance of a code or set of rules is not necessarily the same as the motivation or reason people have for following those rules.

A second problem with Morriston’s argument is this: all his argument shows, if successful, is that Swinburne has failed to defend these reasons. The failure of one person to defend a position is a far cry from the claim that the position itself is problematic.

Third, Morriston’s critique of Swinburne is unpersuasive because it misses some important disanalogies found in Swinburne’s defense. Swinburne doesn’t just mention “spiritual infection”; he refers to a specific type of infection that includes child sacrifice. It was a defensive measure necessary to preserve the identity of the people of Israel and was limited to the nations the Lord gave them as an inheritance. Such features call into question Morriston’s analogies. If Dawkins was trespassing on church property, refusing to leave; leading people not just to apostasy but to human sacrifice of infants; and threatening the entire community of God’ s people, in principle frustrating God’s mission to bring salvation to the world, then perhaps he should be silenced or isolated from the rest of the population!

Deuteronomy 7:2: “Destroy Them Totally”

In this passage God is reportedly commanding the Israelites to totally destroy the seven Canaanite nations. Morriston makes two claims. First, he asserts that this passage teaches that God’s reasons were to prevent the Israelites from marrying Canaanites and worshiping other gods. Second, he offers an argument that this reason is inadequate. F&C think both moves are questionable.

First, the text doesn’t portray God as commanding genocide. Nor does the command commit Israel to kill people with the intention of physically destroying the whole or a substantial part of an ethnic or religious group. The text states that the Israelites must totally destroy the Canaanites after God had driven out these Canaanite nations. Only those who stayed behind to fight would be subsequently defeated. And again, the text doesn’t cite the prospect of intermarriage as the reason God issued the command. Contrary to what Morriston says, in this passage God doesn’t state explicitly what his reasons are at all.

Morriston’s second assertion is also problematic. He argues that intermarriage and apostasy does not constitute a sufficient reason for God to command such violence. He provides two grounds for rejecting this purported reason for God’s command: (1) God had other (presumably less morally reprehensible) means of achieving this goal, and (2) this method failed to achieve the goal in question anyway.

Morriston’s first point proves too much by making this assumption: A loving and just God would not command people to suppress some evil he desires to be suppressed if God has a more efficient means of suppressing that evil himself. But this is clearly false. If it were true, then we would have to give up almost everything we take for granted about morality. Consider, for example, the existence of courts which suppress crimes such as theft and rape. Clearly God could suppress such crimes far more efficiently without relying on human beings. Does it follow that a loving and just God would never permit human beings to set up courts that punish crime? Of course not.

Similar problems afflict the second justification for Morriston’s argument—that God’s chosen method did not get the job done. The biblical record shows that the Israelites did not follow God’s command and that the Canaanite nations and religion were not destroyed. The problem is that this is again true of many actions which a loving and just God would plausibly prohibit. God would command people not to murder, steal, and cause harm, but people continue to do so. Does this mean God would not issue commands to refrain from such actions?

Number 31:15: “Have You Allowed All the Women to Live?”

The third example Morriston cites to make his point is the defeat of Midian as recorded in Numbers 31. The Israelites fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man (v. 7). After the battle, however, Moses commanded Israel to kill all the boys and every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. Morriston says Yahweh was angered by the fact that some young Israelite men had worshiped Baal alongside their new Midianite brides, writing, “Not only must the Israelites be punished, but the Midianites must be punished for causing the Israelites to be punished.” God’s stated reasons, according to Morriston’s thinking, are inadequate.

But Morriston appears to have misread the text. First, consider his claim that the text explicitly states that God’s reason for commanding the killing of the Midianite women and boys was “spiritual infection” because “some young Israelite men had worshiped Baal alongside their new Midianite brides.” There are several problems with this.

First is the fact that, in the text Morriston cites (Num. 31:17-18), God himself does not explicitly command Israel to kill all the Midianite women and boys. God’s command to Moses regarding the Midianites is actually recorded in Numbers 25:17-18 and 31:1-2. God explicitly commands Israel to respond to the Midianites’ spiritual subterfuge by fighting against the Midianites and defeating them. The reasons why Israel is to obey isn’t the spiritual infection of women as Morriston says, but rather the fact that Midian has been hostile toward and deceived Israel.

The Numbers 31 text does not explicitly attribute the command to kill the women and boys to God, but to Moses. Morriston acknowledges this, but suggests three reasons why this observation doesn’t come to much. (1) Moses is regularly characterized as being very close to Yahweh, faithfully obeying his instructions most of the time; (2) Yahweh expresses no disapproval of anything Moses does in this story; and (3) Yahweh himself is the principal instigator of the attack on Midian.

These responses, however, are inadequate. Consider the last point first. The fact that someone is the “principal instigator” of an attack doesn’t entail that he approves of every single action that takes place within the battle in question. Similarly with 2: the lack of explicit disapproval in the text does not entail approval. Morriston’s argument is an appeal to ignorance; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is not uncommon in biblical narratives for authors to describe sinful behavior without expressing explicit disapproval. In most cases, no doubt, the author expects the reader to know certain actions are right and wrong.

Finally, regarding 1, the fact that someone is portrayed in the text as close to God or faithful to him does not mean that every action he is recorded as doing is commanded or endorsed by God. Consider David, or Abraham.

A second instance of Morriston misreading the text is that not only does he attribute Moses’s reasons to God; he also misstates the reasons Moses does give in the context. The real issue is that the Midianite women had been following the devious advice of the pagan seer, Balaam, who had been explicitly commanded by God not to curse Israel. Balaam had led the Israelites into acting treacherously at Baal-Peor. This is the clearly stated issue (31:16). What occurs, when the background is taken into account, is not that some Israelites marry Midianite women, but rather these women use sex to seduce Israel into violating the terms of their covenant with God—an event that threatened Israel’s very national identity, calling, and destiny. This act was in fact deliberate.

So Morriston’s comments are far off the mark when he insists that the Midianites could not have been trying to harm the Israelites by inviting them to participate in the worship of a god in whom they obviously believed. The whole point of the exercise was to get God to curse Israel so that a military attack could be launched by Moab and Midian. The picture isn’t one of innocent Midianite brides, but acts tantamount to treason and treacherous double agents carrying on wicked subterfuge.

Note that the problem wasn’t God’s opposition to Israelites marrying Midianites per se. Indeed, Moses married Zipporah, a Midianite, and he received wise counsel from his father-in-law, Jethro, a Midianite priest.

1 Samuel 15:3: “Do Not Spare Them”

Morriston’s final example is the account of Saul’s destruction of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15, which he juxtaposes with Deut. 25:17-19. He rejects interpretations of the passage proposed by Stump, who suggests that God made a reckoning of what the Amalekites had done hundreds of years previously. Morriston dismisses this as unsupported speculation, which fails to do justice to the text. He writes that the implied reason for waiting a while to deal with the Amalekites has nothing to do with future Amalekite transgressions, but with the urgent need to get the Israelites safely settled in Canaan.

But Morriston’s own claim that the reason for waiting a while to deal with the Amalekites has nothing to do with future Amalekite transgressions is refuted by the text. 1 Sam. 15:18 puts the emphasis on the present wickedness of the current Amalekites. Likewise with Agag’s personal involvement in aggressive wars. In chapter 14 we see evidence of Amalek’s present aggression against Israel, and a reason for Saul’s military response.

So F&C suggest the best way to understand this passage is not just to read it alongside Deut. 25:17-19, but also alongside a passage like Jeremiah 18:7-10, which makes clear that announcements of future judgment against a nation are conditional, and can change if the nation repents. The book of Jonah makes a similar point. If prophetic pronouncements of doom are conditional, then this nicely explains what we see in 1 Samuel 15. Morriston similarly misreads 2 Kings 23:25-27.

Final Thoughts on Divine Judgment

How do we square God’s judgment with God’s love? God’s judgments are done with a heavy heart. God states emphatically that he does not take pleasure in punishing the wicked. Divine judgment can’t be characterized as indifference. Judgment is not opposed to God’s love and compassion, but rather springs from the character of a loving, caring God. F&C quote Yale Theologian Miroslav Volf, who experienced the horrors of war in the former Yugoslavia, who comments on the relationship between the two, concluding this: “Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 16: “Can One Rationally Believe God Commands a Violation of Innocent Human Beings?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman

In our last chapter we read that it is possible for God to command the killing of innocent human beings on those rare occasions where some greater good might prevail. The prohibition against taking innocent life is understood as one that normally holds, but is not one that is an absolute against all circumstances. In this chapter, F&C examine some objections that might arise to this reasoning.

They first begin to examine an objection that comes from the mind of one of the greatest German philosophers of modern times, Immanuel Kant. Kant’s objection arises from his consideration of the biblical account of God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. F&C cite Kant, “That I ought not kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God – of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from (visible) heaven” (195). Kant is pulling a Hume-like “weighing of the epistemic evidence” move in his argument. His point is not so much that God could not issue such a command, but that one could not have apodictic certainty that such a command came from God. It would always be possible that one’s understanding or interpretation of the command could be in error. However, one can have such certainty when it comes to the moral law concerning the killing of the innocent. This we know for certain is wrong. Hence it is a weighing of epistemic certainty or knowability that is at issue. According to Kant (ala Hume) one should always go with that which has more epistemic certainty, which in this case, will be with the moral law rather than the divine command.

F&C point to Phillip Quinn’s two pronged response to Kant’s objection. Quinn’s first prong is to question Kant’s “optimistic view” of our ability to achieve apodictic certainty concerning our moral judgments. Quinn acknowledges that this might be the case with certain moral claims, such as torturing little children for fun, but it seems overly optimistic when it comes to moral claims across the board or in general. Philosophers have become more comfortable with thinking of moral duties as having prima facie standing as opposed to thinking of them as absolutes. The very fact that we serious debates about moral issues such as capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion, participation in war, torture, and many other issues of which many good and intelligent scholars hold differing views should give one pause about taking such an optimistic attitude. Quinn’s other prong is to question Kant’s doubt that one can never be rationally certain of knowing a command came from God. He sees no reason one could not, in principle, be as certain or more certain that God is speaking than they are that the moral claim holds in a particular situation. This is especially the case if one takes the first prong seriously. There is no reason to assume that moral claims always have a higher epistemic status than theological claims. In answering the objection, “But this is killing the innocent, certainly we are certain about this moral duty,” F&C state, “We agree that in normal circumstances it is wrong to kill innocent people . . . However the claim that it is never permissible under any circumstance is extremely controversial.” (197)

F&C go on to examine the objection by Randall Rauser that a literal reading of the command by Yahweh to kill babies is “really stronger” than the moral duty not to kill the innocent. They explore an answer to four specific objections Rauser raises. Rauser’s first objection is the assertion that “every rational properly functioning person cannot help but know that it is always wrong to bludgeon babies” (197). In support of this claim Rauser offers several examples of moral atrocities of which, he claims, any “intellectually honest human being will condemn these events without question” (197). Rauser’s argument is that since we do not need any qualifications or further information to condemn such actions, such actions are always wrong without exception. However, this simply does not follow. While a particular example of wrongdoing can be condemned “without qualification,” that does not imply that another example of the same actions might have a qualification for which the action can be morally acceptable. The point of the arguments being presented by F&C is that an action that might normally or regularly be condemned can be morally justifiable in a rare case. They provide an example in which terrorists are going to crash a hijacked plane into a building in which thousand may be killed and the option of shooting the plane down to stop the terrorists from accomplishing their goal. Certainly innocent people will die, but many “intellectually honest” persons will hold such a shooting as morally justifiable in such a case.

Rauser’s second argument stems from the idea that commanding others to perform moral atrocities such as killing the innocent often has detrimental effects on those commanded to perform such actions. He cites examples of those in the military who experience PTSD from traumatic experiences as support that commanding someone to do such actions is a moral atrocity itself. F&C point out that this reasoning backfires on Rauser himself, who advocates active involvement in just war where certainly the possibility of PTSD is highly possible. In fact any activity in which one could be seriously psychologically affected would have to be placed under Rauser’s condemnation and could not be commanded including many necessary activities of firefighters and police officers.

Rauser’s third argument is the idea that acceptance of a literal interpretation of these conquest passages leads to “the ubiquitous human tendency to rationalize illegitimate violations of the principle of universality” (201). The “principle of universality” is the basic idea that we should apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others. Rauser offers two criteria for distinguishing a legitimate exception to this principle from an illegitimate one, and then claims that the conquest narratives fail to meet the criteria. F&C reply first by showing that the view they are promoting does not violate the principle as they are not claiming the exception they offer (that God commands it) does not just apply to us but to anyone whom God commands. They then suggest problems with Rauser’s criteria. The first, “criterion of extraordinary exceptions,” simply states that the more radical the exception the stronger the rationale is needed. However, F&C point out that is the very point of the idea of prima facie prohibitions: one needs a rationale for violating the prohibition. However, the context determines the level of rationale. One cannot apply an abstract principle and then form a judgment. Rauser’s second “criterion of common origin” is also problematic. The criterion states that one should be suspicious of a rationalization if it “conforms to a well-established pattern of rationalization.” However, F&C point out that one cannot decide a rationalization is illegitimate purely because it follows a particular pattern because examples can be provided of acceptable rationalizations that follow such patterns and they proceed to provide one.

Rauser’s final argument is a more pragmatic one based on practical consequences. Rauser contends that a literal interpretation of the conquest narratives has “contributed to a long history of moral atrocities” (204). Rauser appeals to both John Howard Yoder’s claim that from the time of Augustine Christians have appealed to the conquest narratives to justify genocide and increase the empire as well as Jeremy Cort’s claim that there is a link between the violence of Canaan and the Crusades. F&C will deal more fully with this discussion in later chapters, but at this juncture they simply show that, first, these charges are dubious at best. Augustine is the father of the just war doctrine and advocated against the ancients like Aristotle and Cicero in conquering weaker and inferior peoples. Mainstream Christianity followed Augustine in this doctrine, and F&C cite Aquinas and Francisco Vitoria as example of mainstream thinking concerning the treatment of the innocent: “Let my first proposition be: The deliberate slaughter of the innocent is never lawful in itself” (205). They also briefly address the common assumption concerning the crusades and point out that in a study of medieval texts, scholar Douglas Earl shows that very little appeal is made to the conquest narratives to justify the crusades, but instead appeals to the teaching of Jesus were much more prominent in justifying the crusades. Finally F&C explore the underlying assumption behind Rauser’s argument: “If a belief as contributed to a long line of historical atrocities, then we should reject that belief” (206). However, they point out that many atrocities have occurred in the name of good things, such as the splitting of the atom or the reign of terror, but that does not mean we should reject the good because people have used it for bad.

F&C conclude by showing that the objections raised against the idea that God could on rare occasions abrogate a moral duty that normally one should keep fail and that the principle holds.

Image: “Abraham’s-sacrifice-from-Raduil” by Edal Anton Lefterov – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 15: “Can One Coherently Claim that God Commanded the Killing of Innocents?”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by David Baggett

Accepting DCT doesn’t mean accepting that God commanded the killing of Canaanite noncombatants. The further claim is needed that in very unusual circumstances in the past, God commanded people to kill the innocent for the sake of some greater good. This chapter responds to the charge that affirming such a proposition is incoherent. (The next couple chapters after this one will respond to the claim that even if it is coherent, one can’t rationally claim God has ever issued such a command.)

Can One Coherently Claim that God Commanded the Killing of Innocents?

Several writers have suggested the claim that a loving and just God could command the killing of the innocent is simply incoherent. Cowles, Seibert, and Bradley have all given variants of this claim. They all seem to consider such a command so utterly beyond the moral pale that we can’t coherently claim a perfectly good God could issue it, on pain of our language being implicated in rabid equivocation.

Calling Right Wrong and Wrong Right? Robert Adams’s Version of the Coherence Objection

More careful and plausible versions of this argument have been developed by Robert Adams. The DCT’ist, he writes, must appeal to the fact that God is essentially good. This means there are limits to the commands one can coherently attribute to God. Adams argues it follows that God can’t coherently be called good if what he commands is contrary to “our existing moral beliefs.” But, as one like Bradley argues, the Crucial Moral Principle—that it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings—is one of those beliefs. So we can’t coherently attribute this command to a loving and just God.

A Reply to the Coherence Objection

Adams’s argument is too quick. God can’t issue a set of commands too much at variance with the ethical outlook we bring to our theological thinking, but the phrase “too much” suggests that one can accept a set of commands somewhat at odds with the outlook we bring to our ethical thinking. Adams in fact elsewhere makes the same point, saying we can’t identify moral obligations with God’s commands if what God commands is contrary to “an important central group” of what we consider to be right and wrong. He grants that it would be “unreasonable” to expect God’s commands to “agree perfectly with pre-theoretical opinion.” An ethical theory may give guidance in revising one’s particular ethical judgments, but there is a limit to how far those opinions may be revised without changing the subject.

Adams makes two points that suggest this qualification is necessary. First, while we do have some grasp of what is good and some idea of what is right and wrong, it is clear that our moral judgments can be fallible. Second, our moral concepts are subject to revision. Indeed, Adams accepts the possibility of a conversion in which one’s whole ethical outlook is revolutionized, and reorganized around a new center, though not to a wholesale replace of good with evil.

Such points limit Adams’s conclusion. It’s not that our existing moral beliefs are sacrosanct, but rather that certain types of our existing beliefs serve as a constraint on our beliefs about what God commands. What he has in mind are those ethical beliefs that are so central to our concept of goodness that rejecting them would create a moral revolution of sorts in which good and evil switch places.

James Rissler gives two examples of cases where a purported divine command violates a nonnegotiable belief. The first is where God issues a command to reverse one’s conception of right and wrong or issues a set of commands that negates a large number of moral imperatives that one currently accepts. Second, he suggests that a command might contradict a moral belief sufficiently integral to one’s conception of morality that abandoning that belief would force such a radical revision as to destroy one’s concept of goodness altogether.

The key question, then, is not whether the Crucial Moral Principle is one of our existing moral beliefs, but whether it’s nonnegotiable. Can it be overridden in rare circumstances of supreme emergency? Such as the alternative is, say, tolerating significantly greater evils? To think so is not obviously incoherent. So, taken as a universal, the Crucial Moral Principle about the wrongness of killing innocent people is not a nonnegotiable principle.

Once this is realized, it’s evident that the arguments of Cowles, Seibert, and Bradley fail. The claim that God on rare or highly unusual occasions allows exceptions to a general rule against killing for the sake of some greater good does not violate a nonnegotiable moral belief. Hence one can coherently attribute it to God.

Rauser offers an argument in favor of an absolute prohibition against killing the innocent, which could be used to contest what F&C have argued. Rauser assumes that the command to kill the Canaanites is a command to physically slaughter an entire society, but F&C already argued against this assumption.

But this brings us to Coady’s argument against alleged exceptions to an absolute prohibition on killing noncombatants. Coady notes that the criteria for extreme emergency is “conceptually opaque” and requires calculations that are difficult to accurately weigh in situations where people are prone to rationalize their behavior. For this reason, adopting an absolute rule against killing the innocent will have better results morally than allowing an exception. General acceptance and conformity with an absolute rule will bring about more good than the acceptance of a rule allowing supreme emergency situations.

Nathanson and Donagan make similar criticisms. A categorical prohibition will produce better overall results. What’s more, humans have the pervasive tendency to rationalize and be tempted to apply exceptions when it isn’t legitimate. Escape clauses to traditional morality will cloud moral judgment in the heat or tension of the moment.

F&C have considerable sympathy with this argument. But they make two replies. First, they write, the permissibility of killing noncombatants in some rare cases is not incoherent at any rate. Second, whereas humans are limited in knowledge and moral judgment, in the matter under discussion it isn’t a human being making calculations that allows for the exceptions, but God, who isn’t prone to bias or temptation and is omniscient, making the exception. So it seems perfectly coherent to attribute an occasional command to a good and just God who has some greater good or purpose in mind and is not erroneous in his judgment.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “The canonised Joshua and Samuel. Lithograph by J.G. Schreine Wellcome V0034403” by Licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 14: “Other Euthyphro-Related Objections”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary  by Mark Foreman

In the previous chapter F&C examined objections to divine command theory that flow out of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma. In that chapter they claimed that most objections can be divided into two basic categories: arbitrariness objections and emptiness objections. The last chapter was concerned with the most common arbitrariness objections. In this chapter they examine a few more arbitrariness objections before moving on to the emptiness objections.


Some arbitrariness objections concern God’s omnipotence. Wes Morriston argues that God’s goodness and his omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If he is omnipotent he can do anything including commanding one to do unnecessary and capricious evil such as rape. However, because he is all good, he cannot make such a command and therefore these two foundational characteristic for theists are mutually incompatible and one must be forsaken for the sake of the other (or both must go). F&C offer three responses to this objection, all of which either clarify or qualify the meaning of omnipotence. Most theists (and even some atheists) respond that this objection misunderstands the traditional understanding of omnipotence. Omnipotence does not mean God can do absolutely anything, but only that God can do that which is logically possible. Hence one does not need to deny omnipotence, for one can respond either that there is no possible situation in which God chooses to issue an evil command or that it is not logically possible for an all good being to make such a command. Another alternative is simply to qualify what is meant by omnipotence by making it something weaker, such as the claim that “God has as much power as is compatible with essential goodness.”(173) The point is that one can escape Morriston’s objection by reconceptualizing his idea of omnipotence.


A second group of objections uses counterfactuals as a way of showing the divine command theory is problematic. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong acknowledges the theists’ point that “If God is good, he would not command us to rape,” but then goes on to claim, “Moreover, even if God in fact never would or could command us to rape, the divine command theory still implies the counterfactual that, if God did command us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape. That is absurd.” (174, emphasis theirs) He offers no reason for why it is absurd and, in fact, F&C argue that its absurdity is not that obvious, “According to the standard view of modal logic, a conditional statement with a logically impossible antecedent . . . is true. So Sinnott-Armstrong’s suggestion that the consequent is obviously false is far from obvious.” However, Sinnott-Armstrong replies to this objection by simply claiming that the proposition ‘If God commanded us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape’ “seems plausible to most people regardless of technical details about counterfactuals.” (174) The main problem F&C raise if one takes that tactic is that logical consistency demands one applies the same counterfactual to any ethical theory, rendering them all arbitrary and ineffective. So, for example, regarding utilitarianism, “Even if rape never would or could maximize utility or usefulness for society, utilitarianism still implies the counterfactual if rape were to maximize utility, then it would be obligatory.” (174-175)


Another critic, Eric Wielenberg, suggests that “God does have the power to make any logically consistent claim but that it is only His character that prevents him from exercising this power.” (175) He asks us to imagine a situation in which God does not have that character, but is instead cruel and capricious. According to Wielenberg, if this counterfactual were the case, DCT would entail that gratuitous assault would be morally obligatory. However, the main problem is the terms as we have defined them. As the maximally greatest being, one worthy of worship, God would not be cruel and capricious. In order for Wielenberg’s argument to be successful, he must propose a world that is not possible, where a maximally great being is one full of hatred and cruelty.


Sam Harris attempts to critique DCT by saying that “we are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude.” (177) He makes three claims: First, DCT entails the following conditional: If God commands you to blow up a bus full of children, then you are required to do so. Second, the truth of this conditional requires a psychopathic perspective. Third, accepting the conditional easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. F&C answer Harris by noting that, while the first claim is true, it is (1) a conditional claim that says nothing about what God actually commands, and (2) it is only morally obligated if God commands it. However, as has been stated several times, the conception of God being argued for is a morally perfect being who would not and cannot command such a thing. The hypothetical conditions are logically impossible. As far as the second claim, it only requires a psychopathic perspective if one is talking about blowing up buses per se, but it does not if the hypothetical conditions hold, i.e. that it is not unloving, unjust, and irrational. Hence F&C hold that Harris’s second claim is incoherent. As far as the third claim, F&C state, “A divine command theory insists that an action is obligatory only if God actually commands that action. It does not contend that an action is obligatory if someone claims or believes that God commands it.” (179) F&C point out that we can reject that God has made some such command for the same reasons that Harris does, because a good and just God would not do so.


Having successfully explained the arbitrariness objections, F&C spend the remainder of this chapter briefly examining two emptiness objections. The first of these is suggested by Peter Van Inwagen. Van Inwagen claims that God does not have any moral obligations, so nothing he does can be considered right or wrong. This of course would be true if one was to conceive of God’s moral perfection in terms of obligations and duties. However, F&C point out that many theologians and philosophers do not think of God’s goodness so much in terms of duties as character traits such as truthful, benevolent, loving, and gracious. It is certainly possible to exhibit such traits without reference to any particular duties.


The other emptiness objection comes again from Sam Harris, who claims that, if God is not bound by moral duties then he does not have to be good. (183) F&C respond by clarifying what is meant by “God does not have to be good.” If it means, “he is not under an obligation to be good” then of course the implication holds. However, if Harris is implying that “God does not have to be good” implies he can be evil, then the implication does not hold, for the term ‘God’ means a maximally great being, which includes moral perfection. Hence, by this conception, it is impossible for God not to be good.


Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “Bust of Socrates” by Bradley Weber. CC License.