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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 –

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.


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 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.

Podcast: A Christian Perspective on Bioethics with Mark Foreman

On this week’s podcast, Dr. Mark Foreman gives a Christian perspective on some key bio-ethical issues. Dr. Foreman helps us understand how we should think about trans-humanism, fertility treatments, abortion, assisted suicide, and euthanasia. Working from a Christian and Aristotelian and natural law perspective, Dr. Foreman explains how right action results from careful consideration of human nature.

Image: “Icarus.” by Rogério Timóteo – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 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. 

Podcast: Mark Foreman Explains Why Abortion is Wrong in Ten Minutes

On this week’s podcast, we hear from philosopher and bioethicist Mark Foreman. Dr. Foreman explains in about ten minutes why humans still in the womb are persons and deserve all the rights due to human persons.

An Argument against Abortion in Ten Minutes with Mark Foreman

Image: “Embryo week 9-10″ by lunar caustic. CC License. 

Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 12: “The Divine Command Theory of Obligation: What It Is – and Is Not”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman 

In the last chapter F&C introduce the idea of the divine command theory (hereafter, DCT). There are a number of versions of the DCT that have come down to us throughout the history of western thought. The specific version F&C wish to explore and defend is expressed by William Lane Craig. This is a version of the theory that has come to be known as a “modified divine command theory” most closely associated with Robert Adams. Craig states it as “the thesis that our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a loving and just God.” (F&C, 146)

Throughout much of the last century the DCT was generally disregarded as an ethical theory. Even currently many textbooks on ethics will relegate the DCT to the status of an archaic theory that is inadequate to function as a satisfactory theory due to a number of fatal problems often associated with voluntarism and the Euthyphro dilemma (these will be discussed in further chapters). However F&C point out that in recent years the DCT has been undergoing a revival and a number of robust defenses of modified and nuanced versions have been authored by several significant philosophers. Today one cannot easily dismiss the theory as once one was thought able to.

To understand Craig’s formulation of the DCT, one must begin with an understanding of his use of the term “God.” For Craig, God is the title we give to a being who is maximally great or, in Anselmian terms, “the greatest conceivable being.” Only such a being is worthy of worship, and this is part of the very meaning of the term God. Just as we identify water with H2O, we identify God with a being who is morally perfect as that is part of what it means to be a maximally great being. This is why we cannot have a God who is evil, because then the being would not be God in much the same way that a married male cannot be a bachelor. As the meaning of the term “bachelor” includes an unmarried male, so the meaning of God includes “morally perfect.” It is impossible for God not to be essentially good. As F&C affirm, “This point is an important one. We will argue that some important celebrated objections to Craig’s divine command theory fail precisely because they do not note this point.” (150, emphasis theirs).

Craig also clarifies two very important aspects of his version of the DCT. The first has to do with the distinction between “right” and “good.” This traditional distinction has been introduced by others but it is very important for Craig’s argument. The term “right” specifically concerns our moral obligations or duties. The term “good” is a broader term that speaks of values that we hold not just in morality but in aesthetics, rationality, etc. For example, while it would be good for one to use one’s skills and become a surgeon, one does not necessarily have a moral obligation to do so. There are many actions that are good, but which one does not have an obligation to perform. This is an important distinction as many critics confuse the right and the good (as we will see later, this is the heart of the problem presented in the Euthyphro dilemma).

The second aspect that Craig wants to clarify is a distinction between the claim that moral obligations are identical with God’s commands and two other claims: “(1) the claim that the word ‘wrong’ means ‘prohibited by God’ and (2) the claim that one cannot know or recognize one’s moral obligations.” (151) Craig’s point is that we can know the meaning of a term and know our moral obligations without necessarily consciously associating the moral obligation entailed with God. So, some critics of DCT might assert, “Well I know that rape is wrong without referencing God, or believing rape is prohibited by God. I just know that it is wrong.” Craig’s point is that by holding a DCT which claims that “our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a loving and just God” he is not affirming that one must necessarily be aware of or agree to such a theory for it still to be true. Using the example of “light” he shows that, while “light” can properly mean “a certain visible range of electronic spectrum” one does not have to be aware of or even agree with this meaning to correctly use the term. I can recognize what “light” means and use it without knowing its basis, origin, or nature. This goes to the heart of many objections raised by non-theists who claim “I don’t need God to be moral.” Nobody denies that, but that has nothing to do with accounting for the origin, basis, or nature of morality. One can employ a concept without knowing anything about it just like one can drive my car without knowing where it came from or the nature of how it works. Craig’s point, then, is that one can affirm DCT as the foundation for our moral obligations even though those who employ such moral obligations may not affirm that foundation.

F&C raise two kinds of mistakes critics often make, one semantical and the other epistemic. The semantic mistake simply confuses the terms “right” and “good.” Some critics think the DCT is about “goodness.” Some versions may, but not the modified version Craig is supporting. It refers instead to “rightness,” specifically moral obligation. The epistemic criticism simply claims that, since one can know what our moral obligations are apart from any divine revelation of God’s commands, a DCT which affirms “our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a loving and just God” is false. This objection fails to make a distinction between epistemology (how we come to know our moral duties) and ontology (the foundation or grounding for those duties). One may come to believe one has certain moral obligations from all sorts of possible sources. However, the question is not what do you know, but what is true. If you really have such obligations, what are those obligations grounded in? The claim of DCT is that they are grounded in the commands of a loving and just God. Again, one does not have to be aware of or agree with that for it to be true.

Finally, some have revised the criticisms away from epistemology to a discussion of the nature of commands themselves. Some, like Wes Morriston, raise the issue of a command as a “speech act” that must be heard from someone in authority. However, the “reasonable non-believer” who does not believe in God cannot “hear” God issue such a command as there is no such being to do so. “God cannot command people to do something unless they recognize that they have heard the command and that it is God doing the commanding.” F&C find such a scenario implausible. One often heres commands without knowing who authored them. We are often under legal obligations to follow certain commands without knowing who authored such commands, the federal or state government. They summarize their response, “To be ‘subject’ to the command in the sense mentioned, one does not need to recognize that the command has a divine origin. One simply has to recognize an action as prohibitive and the prohibition as being authoritative and having a claim on one’s own behavior.”

In the next chapter we will examine the most often raised objection to DCT, the Euthyphro dilemma.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 10: “Legal and Theological Objections Concerning Genocide”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman

Having made a compelling case for a hyperbolic interpretation of the claims of genocide in the conquest narratives of Joshua, F&C turn in this chapter to a consideration of objections raised from the legal and theological standpoints. Some critics hold that, even if the commands to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites are taken to be hyperbole, there is still a concern that some form of genocide is still being commanded and carried out.

F&C raise the point that some critics may not be satisfied with the hyperbolic explanation because, while the conquest narratives may not be describing the entire annihilation of a people group, they are describing the physical destruction of a substantial number of Caananites, enough to still qualify under the legal concept of genocide. The ICPPCG definition of genocide does not require entire destruction, but just the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group” (quoted on 126, emphasis mine).

F&C begin to address this criticism by quoting a more complete statement of the meaning of genocide according to the ICPPCG which includes the following condition: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Critics might point out that driving out the Canaanites would be considered part of fulfilling this condition and hence the legal concept of genocide would be met by the actions of the Israelites.

However, as F&C argue, while such actions could lead to fulfilling this condition, the evidence shows that this is not the case in the conquest narratives. They point out that one of the key aspects of this concept of genocide is the intention to cause the complete physical destruction of the people group in question. However, as our previous studies have shown, this was not the intent in driving the Canaanites out of the land. The intention of the commands given to Joshua and the fulfilling of those commands were just to drive the people from the land. It was not for the intention of the complete physical destruction of the Canaanites.

F&C use current rulings concerning the recent charges in the conflict between the Bosnians/Herzegovina and Serbians to show two points concerning the issue of genocide: (1) that the destruction intended must be the physical-biological annihilation of a people group and (2) that the destruction entail a substantial number of the group. They quote from the case of Prosecutor v. Radislov Krstic (2004) where the ICTY stated, “The aim of the Genocide Convention is to prevent the intentional destruction of entire human groups and the part targeted must be significant enough to have an impact on the group as a whole” (quoted on 127-128, emphasis theirs). Again Israel was not intending the annihilation of the Canaanites. They were merely attempting to end their criminal activity and to drive them from a land that was by all rights their own.

None of this is to say that there might not be other ethical problems and issues that need to be addressed in the conquest narratives (many of which will be discussed further in the book), but one cannot claim that Israel was guilty of genocide simply because it drove the Canaanites from the land. As the ICTY stated in the case of Prosecution v Milomar Stakic (2003), “A clear distinction must be drawn between physical destruction and mere dissolution of a group. The expulsion of a group or part of a group does not in itself suffice for genocide” (quoted on 129, emphasis theirs). While the term “genocide” might have strong rhetorical impact, it is not the correct legal term to use concerning the conquest narratives.

F&C spend the rest of this chapter dealing with a number of theological objections that some might raise concerning the hyperbolic interpretation they offer. They first address an objection that some might raise concerning interpreting historical passages non-literally. Some might think, “Well if we can just claim that these descriptions are not literal, then what’s to stop one from claiming that all other historical passages should not be taken literally, such as miracle passages like the resurrection?” F&C address this by pointing out the failure of some to recognize different forms of genre present in scripture. Scripture uses a number of genres to communicate truth, and a sophisticated approach to biblical interpretation takes cares to consider genre when making one’s interpretive choices about passages to be taken as accurate historical descriptions and others that are non-literal, such as using hyperbole or metaphor. For example, one certainly does not believe that when Isaiah claims that “the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is. 55:12) that this will literally occur.

One might ask, “How do we know when a passage is literal and when it is figurative?” Well let’s take a contemporary example. Suppose your friend comments, “Did you see that game last night? The Dodgers murdered the Cubs.” You can certainly know that he is not saying the same thing as a news report that states, “The jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the trial of Ted Bundy today.” Now how do you know one is a hyperbole and the other not? You look at the evidence. Were any Cubs really filled on the field? Is this first statement a common hyperbole used by sports fans in our culture? The context of the second statement is a news report about a trial—that tells you something, doesn’t it? In the same way we examine the evidence in scripture to help us determine how to interpret a passage. In the case of the conquest narratives, F&C have pointed to lines of evidence that are similar to our example. One is the usage in other conquest literature of the ancient Near East which tends to use hyperbole concerning military conquests. The other is the evidence of passages which claim that the Caananites were not “utterly destroyed” as many are still living after the event described.

A second objection raises concerns about God’s control over miscommunication and misinterpretation. If he did not mean the passages to be taken literally, why didn’t he simply allow it to be stated as thus when the scriptures were written down? F&C point out that there will always be the possibility of miscommunicating the message of scripture and certainly God cannot be responsible for each time someone misinterprets his word. Besides, he uses the styles of the authors in communicating his message. Again, hyperbole was a common style back then.

The final objection raised is when critics use an inappropriate analogy in objecting to the conquest narratives. An example would be, “What if the President decided to wipe out Iran because he thought God told him to do so?” However, such examples are bad analogies because they are relevantly similar to the relationship of Israel and God. Israel was a theodicy, and the US is not. The US has not been promised a land that Iran is now encroaching upon. There are other dissimilarities as well. The point is that one needs to be careful about making false analogous claims as objections to the historically conditioned situation in which the conquest narratives were written.

Having fully addressed the question of genocide and the conquest narratives, F&C move into a third part of the book and address the broader question, is it always wrong to kill innocent people?

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “Justice Gavel” by Tori Rector. CC License. 

Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 8: “Genocide and an Argument for ‘Hagiographic Hyperbole’”


Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary by Mark Foreman

In the previous chapter F&C introduced a two-pronged argument by Nicholas Wolterstorff: “First, it is quite implausible that those who authorized the final form of the text [of Joshua] were affirming that all Canaanites were exterminated at God’s command. Second, the accounts that appear to say otherwise are utilizing extensive hyperbole and are not intended to be taken literally” (84-85). In that chapter F&C explored and defended the first prong of the argument. In this chapter they examine and defend the second prong.

Wolterstorff uses the term “hagiography” to refer to the specific type of hyperbole employed in Joshua. While the term can often have negative and derogatory connotations (as in an uncritical adoration and idealization of a subject beyond what the evidence suggests), Wolterstorff wishes to use it to refer to exaggerated accounts of Joshua’s military endeavors: “The book is not to be read as claiming that Joshua conquered the entire promised land, nor is it to be read as claiming that Joshua exterminated with the edge of the sword the entire population of all the cities on the command of Yahweh to do so” (quoted by F&C, 94-95). Wolterstorff points to several formulaic literary conventions that are repeated throughout the book of Joshua that indicate hyperbole was frequently employed in describing the events and results of the conquest narratives. He compares these to the more down-to-earth historical descriptions found in the book of Judges which tends to give a more accurate historical account of the state of affairs at the end of the conquest period. “Wolterstorff argues that Judges should be taken literally whereas Joshua is hagiographic history, a highly stylized, exaggerated account of the events designed to teach theological and moral points rather than to describe in detail what literally happened” (95, emphasis original).

As evidence to support this claim, F&C offer studies of other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts where the use of hyperbole and formaulaic styles, often referred to as “transmission codes,” similar to those found in Joshua are employed in a variety of ways such as appeals to divine intervention and in similar structural relationships. Most striking are where victories over enemies are described in exaggerated hyperbolic terms of “total conquest, complete annihilation and destruction of the enemy killing everyone, leaving no survivors, etc.” (97). F&C cite renowned Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen as affirming this point:

The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made clear. . . . In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni was over thrown within the hour, annihilated totally like those (now) non-existent” whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always”—a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so on ad libitum. It is in the frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood. (quoted by F&C, 97)

Lawson Younger is also cited as offering many examples such as Merneptah’s Stele describing a skirmish in which Egypt totally annihilated Israel and Sennacherib’s claim that he cut down the soldiers of Hiramme and “not one escaped” (98). Several other examples are cited by F&C to drive home the point that it was common for the extensive use of hyperbole to be employed as description of battle and victory over one’s enemies in ancient Near Eastern literature.

It is evident that such hyperbolic rhetoric was never meant to be taken literally. This can be seen especially in biblical texts where such a literal interpretation would not even make sense given the entire context of the passage. Oftentimes a text will make a claim that all of the inhabitants of a city were eradicated only to speak of survivors later in the passage, sometimes in the very next verse. Hence, for example, when one reads of the battle of Ai in Joshua 8, one stumbles upon a number of contradictory statements that make no sense if the passage is meant to be taken literally. In vs. 22 we are told the inhabitants were struck down “leaving no survivors or fugitives.” Yet in vs. 24 we are told they killed all the men in the wilderness where they chased them. If they were all previously struck down, then who was chased in the wilderness? Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of such absurdities is found in Joshua 10:20 which reads, “It came about when Joshua and the sons of Israel had finished slaying them with a very great slaughter, until they were totally destroyed, and the survivors who remained of them had entered the fortified cities.” Here in the same verse we have men who were destroyed and survivors. The point is that ancient writers knew what a contradiction was. Therefore, the best explanation of these and like passages is that the writers were employing a standard hyperbolic language that was common to ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts.

F&C nicely summarize the conclusions to their study of hyperbolic language in ancient Near Eastern texts in comparison with the Joshua narratives:

  1. Such accounts are highly hyperbolic, hagiographic, and figurative and follow a common transmission code;
  2. Comparisons between these accounts and the early chapters of Joshua suggest Joshua is written according to the same literary conventions and transmission codes;
  3. Part of this transmission code is to hyperbolically portray a victory in absolute terms of destroying the enemy or in terms of miraculous divine intervention: “such statements are rhetoric indicative of military victory” not literal descriptions of what occurred;
  4. The same language and phraseology has a well-attested use in Joshua and elsewhere throughout Scripture. (103)

However, a question might remain in the mind of the skeptic. What if Joshua simply failed to perform to the extent to which God commanded him? While hyperbole might explain how the conquests were described after they occurred, the use of hyperbole in the book of Joshua does not explain the commands of God found in Deuteronomy before the conquest was performed. This is an important question, and F&C address it at the end of this chapter with three implications that can be drawn from their conclusions. First, when one compares the phraseology of thee commands in Deuteronomy with those in Joshua, the suggestion of hyperbole is strong. Second, F&C quote three passages as examples where it is noted that the conquest (using the hyperbole “utterly destroyed”) was performed “just as Moses the servant of the Lord has commended” (Josh 11: 12, 14-15, 20). Hence the author of Joshua understood that what happened was the fulfilment of the command of Moses. And finally, when we compare Deuteronomy with Joshua and Judges, a hyperbolic interpretation seems to be the best way of explaining all of the texts. Therefore, we are justified in claiming that not only was hyperbole employed in the descriptions of many of the conquest narratives, but such an interpretation was intended in the commands themselves.

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “The Capture of Jericho (Bible Card)” by the Providence Lithograph Company – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –