Without doubt the biggest roadblock to faith in God for many people is the problem of suffering. And at the top of the list of apparently irreconcilable suffering stands the God-ordained killing of people in the Old Testament. This involved not only prescribed death sentences for individuals who broke specific commandments, but also the occasional wiping out of whole towns and villages at God’s command. There are six main instances of these mass killings recorded in the Bible:
- The Flood (Genesis 6-8)
- The cities of the plain, including Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19)
- The Egyptian firstborn sons during the Passover (Exodus 11-12)
- The Canaanites under Moses and Joshua (Numbers 21:2-3; Joshua 6:17-21)
- The Amalekites annihilated by Saul (1 Samuel 15)
- The 450 prophets of Baal under Elijah (1 Kings 18)
In the first three incidents listed above, God acted directly, while the last three involved Israel acting on his orders. In four of the six cases, men, women and children were killed unilaterally; whole towns and cities were annihilated. Sceptics point to these incidents as evidence against the existence of a loving God. Even many Christians struggle to understand how God could act in such a violent way.
What are we to make of these genocidal incidents? Is God a moral monster? Is he an unhinged psychopath like Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot? Let me suggest a logical framework for understanding God’s actions on these occasions. There are seven key points for us to understand.
- Dislike of God’s Actions Doesn’t Disprove His Existence
This is an important starting point. Sceptics who point to these mass killings as proof of God’s non-existence are reaching an absurd conclusion. If a world leader enacts policy that we find distasteful or abhorrent, we don’t claim that he or she doesn’t exist. We might decide that we don’t like the person, but there is no logical reason to doubt the person’s existence. In the case of God, his seemingly genocidal actions might lead some people to decide that they don’t like him, or that he isn’t the loving God that Christians make him out to be, but dismissing his existence outright is not a logical step.
- God is the Only Rightful Giver and Taker of Life
The Bible declares that God is the creator and sustainer of all life and that he alone has the right to end life as and when he chooses. Before we examine possible conscionable reasons for doing so, it must be conceded that God’s right to act in this way follows logically from the inherent relationship between Creator and creation. If this whole universe and everything in it – from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy – is the handiwork of an all-powerful Creator who formed it from nothing by the power of his will, surely the universe is his to do with as he wishes. If every living thing is only alive because God made them to be so – if their very lives were created for him and by him (Colossians 1:16-17) – then, surely, he is justified in choosing when to end life. The creature cannot say to the Creator, “Now that you’ve made me, keep your hands off! My life is sacred and you can’t touch it!”
Once again, we might not like God’s life-terminating decisions, but from a purely logical perspective, he has the right to make them. The right of termination accrues to the Creator, and only to the Creator. We see this principle at work in our everyday world. For instance, we recognise that the creator of a sandcastle has the right to destroy it whenever they like, but they would be rightly incensed if someone else were to destroy it without their permission. Termination by the creator is acceptable, but termination by anyone else is an act of vandalism.
Of course, termination of life is a much more serious issue than the mere knocking down of a sandcastle, but the same principle certainly applies. The Creator has the ultimate right of termination. We might not like it or understand his reasons for doing so, but he certainly has the right to end the life he has created.
But are God’s life-terminating decisions cruel and arbitrary? Does he have justifiable reasons for doing so, or are his actions merely those of a capricious megalomaniac who creates life primarily for the sadistic pleasure of occasionally destroying it? Is he like the child who builds a sandcastle simply for the destructive pleasure of obliterating it again? Part of the answer lies in our understanding of the nature of life and death.
- Death is Merely the Transition from this Life to the Next
One of our problems in considering issues of life and death is our temporal perspective. This life is all we see and when death occurs we regard it as the end of life. But death is not the end, not by a long shot. The Bible depicts this life as being merely the briefest of preludes to an eternal existence which is, in fact, the purpose of our creation and our ultimate destiny. Compared to what is yet to come, this mortal, temporal life is like the tiniest grain of sand amid the countless grains of sand that comprise our whole planet. To change analogies, it is the briefest indrawn breath in preparation for the singing of the grandest, most majestic of operas. In comparison to eternity, this life is infinitesimally miniscule, both in terms of its brevity and its existential richness.
The first century Roman philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, stated, “The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.”
This perspective changes everything. Death is not the dead end that many people envision it to be. It is merely a curtain through which we must all pass in order to enter the eternal existence we were created for. God’s occasional early termination of some temporal lives is simply his decision to take those people through that curtain a little earlier than they might otherwise have traversed it. It is an escalated transmutation. This is ultimately true of all seemingly untimely deaths, whether those of faithful Christians or those of people who vehemently oppose or deny God. We must see death in this light. It is not the ultimate tragedy that we often suppose it to be. Even a particularly early death is not a tragedy. The difference between someone dying very young and someone reaching a ripe old age before they die might seem vast to us, but in the retrospective light of eternity it will be revealed as being completely inconsequential. Indeed, from the other side of death’s thin curtain, an early death might be looked back upon as a great blessing.
But what possible reason might God have for orchestrating a person’s early exit from this temporal life?
- The Impossibility of Understanding God’s Mind
Before we consider possible reasons for God’s occasional life-ending interventions we must start by acknowledging the impossibility of us ever fully comprehending the mind of God. If this universe is, indeed, the handiwork of a Creator, its mind-boggling vastness and complexity tells us that any being capable of creating it must be so far beyond us in both power and knowledge that we cannot hope to understand him. We are tiny, flawed creatures trying to understand the reasoning of an eternal, all-powerful, omniscient, transcendent being. We have less chance of fully understanding God’s mind than an ant has of understanding the calculations of a nuclear physicist.
- The Charge of Morally Unjustifiable Action Assumes Complete Knowledge of all Possible Explanations.
Just because we don’t fully understand the reason for some of God’s actions, doesn’t mean there isn’t a good reason for them. Those who charge God with morally unjustifiable action are guilty of hubris in the extreme. They are effectively saying that they, in their vast wisdom, have examined all possible reasons for a particular action – that they have searched out and uncovered all conceivable explanations within both the physical and spiritual realms and have reached the definitive conclusion that there is no morally justifiable reason for God’s actions.
But how can anyone claim this? If we are considering the actions of an eternal, transcendent Creator, it is almost certain that he will have underlying purposes that are beyond our limited ability to perceive.
Having said this, however, we are not left entirely in the dark. In the cases of God’s early termination of life that we have previously mentioned, the Bible provides us with very clear justifications for God’s actions. These justifications centre around two key concepts: God’s early judgment of evil and his loving protection of the innocent.
- God’s Judgment of Evil
Consider the God-ordained killing of Canaanites under Joshua and Moses (Deuteronomy 9:4-6; Numbers 21:2-3; Joshua 6:17-21). God instructed the Israelites to kill every man, woman and child in certain cities. In these instances, three contextual issues need to be taken into account.
A. The Canaanites’ sin was great. For centuries the Canaanites had been practicing the vilest forms of sexual sin, witchcraft, idol worship and human sacrifice. Unthinkable sexual practices such as incest, paedophilia, orgies and bestiality were rampant. They also regularly sacrificed their own children to their false gods. For instance, the Canaanites had a giant metal image of their god, Molech, which sat over a huge furnace. The priests would light the furnace and heat the idol until it was glowing white-hot and then throw little children into the bowl formed by the idol’s arms and watch while the children sizzled and burned to death in agony. In fact, the Greek philosopher, Plutarch, records that the Canaanites commissioned drummers to drum loudly while these sacrifices were taking place so that parents would not hear the screams of their children as they died.
In response to these horrendous and ongoing practices, the Israelites were told, “it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is going to drive them out before you” (Deuteronomy 9:4-6. See also Deuteronomy 18:12 and Leviticus 18:24-25). Notice also that God’s goal was to drive them out of the promised land. Only those Canaanites who refused to leave and who remained in the cities were put to death for their sins.
B. God’s patience was great. God had been commanding these people to repent for over 400 years and had been sending them prophets to warn of his impending judgment. There are both explicit and inferred references to God sending prophets among these people and continually warning them in Genesis 15, Genesis 18-19 and Genesis 14. God’s wiping out of these people was, therefore, not a capricious knee-jerk reaction nor a sudden loss of temper. It was his final act of judgement after waiting more than four centuries and giving the Canaanites ample time to repent.
But even as God executed this judgment upon them, those who turned to God and asked for mercy, even at the last moment, were saved. Rahab the prostitute is a case in point. She lived in a city which had been condemned by God and where every resident was about to be put to death (Joshua 2). Yet when she aided the Israelite spies and asked for mercy, it was granted to her; she and her extended family were saved.
C. The final outcome was unchanged. By killing these people, God was merely taking them to an early judgment. He was terminating their presence in this world, removing their evil influence and bringing forward the eternal consequences of their actions. The judgment and consequences that they faced in eternity for the evil lives they had lived was unchanged – judgment was heading their way as surely as night follows day! God, in his omniscience, simply decided that the Canaanites were not going to repent, so he brought forward their date with destiny.
I can already hear your objections: “But what about those Canaanites who were innocent? What about those who did not participate in the wickedness of the rest of society? There must have been some! And what about the innocent children who did not deserve to die and who were robbed of the chance to grow up and live full lives?”
The answer lies in the second moral justification for God’s actions, also revealed in the Bible.
- God’s Protection of Others
The deaths of innocents in these communities, particularly young children, must be viewed as an act of protection and kindness by God. They were taken out of this hideous environment and brought into his eternal, loving presence. Once again, we must remember that death is not the end, nor is it the worst thing that can happen to a person. The worst thing that could have happened to these innocent children was that they be allowed to grow up in an evil environment and be corrupted themselves, thereby leading to their own eventual judgment and eternal punishment. God, in his mercy, chose to remove them from that corrupt environment and bring them directly into his loving presence. In this sense, the killing of these children was a severe mercy that saved them for eternity.
Beyond this, God had an even wider protective purpose in mind. Not only was he protecting the innocent children from among the Canaanites and ensuring their salvation, he was also preserving the eternal salvation of the entire nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy 20, God explained to the Israelites that he was enacting his terminal judgment on the Canaanites because “otherwise they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). In other words, if God had let the Canaanites live, the result would have been that the entire nation of Israel, which by then constituted millions of people, would have been led astray by their wickedness and would have faced God’s eternal judgment themselves. By removing the Canaanites from the land and taking them straight to judgment, God was preserving the salvation of millions of people at the expense of several thousand whose eternal fate was simply brought forward by a few years. Once again, this explanation rests upon the fundamental premise that physical death is not the worst thing that can befall a person and that the eternal existence that awaits us all on the other side of death is the most important consideration in God’s reckoning. God was effectively removing a cancer from the population to stop it from spreading any further.
The biblical justification for God’s terminal actions in ending people’s lives prematurely is predicated upon one foundational truth: that this life is not all there is. This one concept, if it is true, surely changes everything. If the ultimate reality is that we will all live forever beyond death and that this temporal life is merely the briefest of preludes to our eternal destiny, then any criticism we might make of God concerning his rare but severe interventions in this life are rendered vacuous. In the light of eternal consequences, God is more than justified in acting as he sometimes does, in order to bring about a severe mercy or a greater good.
To the sceptic community, I would also add this: People often rail at God, demanding that if he exists, he should do something to stop the evil that infests in our world. Yet when God does intervene to stop evil and bring the perpetrators to justice as he did in these biblical incidents, many of those same sceptics complain that God has gone too far and that he is not very nice. You cannot have it both ways!
The God of the Bible is the God of both love and justice. Both these qualities are evident in God’s terminal judgment of groups of people in the Old Testament. And ultimately, these same two qualities – his love and his justice – are most beautifully and perfectly illustrated in the death of Jesus on the cross for our sins. God’s justice is seen in the severe death sentence that was carried out as punishment for our sins. His love is seen in the fact that he chose to spare us from that punishment and punish his own Son in our place, so that we could be forgiven. God went to the most extreme lengths, to save us from a fate worse than death itself. This is the God of love and justice, whose severe mercy calls us all to faith and repentance.
“For God loved the world so much, that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
 Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
 Plutarch, De superstition, 13