My first two posts on Ehrman’s discussion of the “classical view” of suffering—that God punishes people for their sins—were mostly about clearing up ambiguities and misapplications. In this blog we come to some unambiguous examples of God punishing people for their sins which Ehrman protests.
For example, Ehrman is dismayed about the destruction of the Canaanites (70):
But one might want to think about all the innocents who were murdered. Is this really what God is like, one who orders the slaughter of those who are outside of his people? It is not as if the people of Jericho were given the chance to think things over and turn to him. They were all slaughtered, even the infants, in a divinely appointed bloodbath.
I have already written two articles on God’s ordering the destruction of the Canaanites (see Resources) so I will only make some brief comments here. First, the Canaanites were completely depraved by indulging in all kinds of incest, adultery, offering their children to Molech, homosexuality, and bestiality (Lev. 18). God said that those who did those things deserved to die and there is no reason to believe that there were any adults and few children who wouldn’t have been thoroughly acculturated to their sins (today, of course, there is no theocratic kingdom so ultimate justice will occur at the Judgment). God demonstrated that He knew who would or wouldn’t repent regarding the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: in Genesis 18 God offered to spare both cities if ten righteous people could be found in them. But except for Lot and his family, no one would repent. In fact, such is the seductive power of sin that the angels had to take Lot’s family by the hands and all but drag them out of the city (Gen. 19:6).
Then after Israel failed to obey God in destroying the Canaanites and was seduced by their sins, God similarly ordered its destruction. About this Ehrman asks, “Do we really want to say that innocent people starved to death (starvation does not hit just the guilty, after all) as a divine punishment for the sins of the nation? That the brutal oppression of the Assyrians and then the Babylonians was really God’s doing?” (54). But there were no “innocent” people. For example, before the destruction of Jerusalem God told Jeremiah in Jer. 5:1-2: “Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.” Jeremiah searched but found not even one person who followed God’s ways. No one.
Of course it is tragic that infants had to die, but as Paul Copan has rightly pointed out in Is God a Moral Monster?, it isn’t always wrong to kill the innocent.1 Copan uses the example of the U. S. scrambling fighters on 9-11-2001 to destroy planes that might have been high-jacked to be used as bombs. Although that didn’t happen (flight 93 crashed before the fighter arrived), most people think it would have been horrible but acceptable to take some innocent lives rather than allow the plane to crash into, say, the U. S. Capitol building. Also, the idea that Canaanite infants wouldn’t grow up to wreak havoc on their new family, who had killed their old family, fundamentally fails to understand human nature. Further, if God knew that these children would grow up to seek out and participate in the practices of their birth parents (and if God has foreknowledge, then He would know that), then He does no wrong in taking their lives early.
Similarly Ehrman decries Noah’s flood: “But an entire world drowned? Why? Because God was angry. Disobedience needs to be punished and so God killed off nearly the entire human race….”(66). But, God’s judgment about man in the pre-Noah world was that “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” Every inclination. Only evil. All the time. If they were like the Canaanites (or worse!), then they didn’t deserve to live (see my article on this).
Ehrman and others may refuse to worship God: “Others, of course, refuse to believe in a God who is determined to exterminate the people he created because he disapproves of how they behave” (66). But we aren’t trying to defend a god that Ehrman would worship. That god doesn’t exist. We are defending the God of the Bible and Ehrman’s problem is that he minimizes the horror of sin. It isn’t that God gets mad when people “misbehave.” It is that when they give themselves fully to sin, they end up raping and torturing each other to death (see my article on human evil and suffering).
Yes, the Bible teaches that God often brings suffering as punishment for sin or to lead people to repent, and that is part of the Bible’s answer to “why we suffer.” That skeptics don’t like it doesn’t matter because “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely” (Proverbs 28:5).
- Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011), 49. [↩]