There is a growing refrain among non-theists: reading the Bible made me an atheist. Commonly, they point to difficult to understand Old Testament passages, including ones where God allows the death and destruction of humanity as He did with the flood in Genesis and bloody wars against the Canaanites detailed in Deuteronomy.
"Contemporary Christians have had a difficult time trying to come to grips with what they find in the Old Testament, especially those narratives that recount the destruction of whole groups of people by the acts of God," said Thomas Howe, a professor of Bible and Biblical Languages at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Matthews, North Carolina. "Non-Christians capitalize on this and attempt to undermine our faith by calling into question either the goodness of God or even His existence."
A challenge that some non-theists use to undermine the Christian faith is if God is so loving, why does He kill people or why does He encourage His people to commit genocide.
Bible scholars say Christians can better understand and answer questions about these challenging narratives once they consider God's nature.
God Is Both Loving and Severe
"The image of God as a loving Creator is only one part of the picture." God, Howe explains, also "acts in judgment against all those who oppose Him."
Jonathan Morrow, author of Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible's Authority, says readers are often perplexed by Old Testament scripture because "sometimes we just picture a God where anger and love can't co-exist." Yet he explains, "We all have seen people who have been taken advantage of and that makes us angry [because] we love them. So those emotions can co-exist."
Referring to the Apostle Paul in Romans 11:22, Howe states that God is both loving and severe in His actions. This dual nature is evident in Genesis 6.
"In the flood account mankind had fallen to such a state that the text points out, 'Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the day,'" notes Howe.
And yet God preserved Noah and his family.
Howe sums, "The flood story presents the severity of God, but it also presents the loving kindness of God in saving mankind from complete destruction by not destroying Noah and his family along with the rest of humanity."
Along that same line, Morrow clarifies that God's instructions to the Israelite army in Deuteronomy 20 to destroy the people occupying the land of Canaan is "about judgment, not genocide."
"The Bible teaches clearly that all people are sinful and in rebellion, kind of living in open rebellion against God, and God is just to judge anyone," says Morrow. "But in this particular case with the Canaanites, there's several things going on there, but one of those things was the wickedness of the people which was well documented – child sacrifices to Moloch and others, and bestiality and a lot wickedness."
He says this judgment was necessary because "Israel's national survival was crucial so that the Messiah – we would know Jesus as the Messiah – and God's saving purposes of redemption to the world could one day be born because if the Messiah was supposed to come through the lineage of Israel and Israel co-mingled with this wicked people and was ultimately destroyed, that promise of hope and blessing to the whole world could not have been realized."
God Desires Repentance Over Judgment
Howe points out that while God almost certainly judges those who oppose Him, He also gives them time and opportunity to turn away from their sin.
In the account of the flood, Southern Evangelical Seminary Biblical Theology Professor Floyd Elmore notes, "God … has been very, very tolerant but only tolerant to a certain point of man's evil. That's why at the beginning of Genesis 6 He even says 'My spirit will not always abide in man forever for he is flesh. His days shall be 120 years.' I mean it's like God gave man a time frame."
Howe explains, "God acts in judgment against all those who oppose Him. But, as Peter states, 'The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance' (2 Pet. 3:9). God does not wish for any to perish. Those who repent will experience the kindness of God. But those who do not repent will experience the severity of God."
Rise to the Challenge
As Christians gain a better perspective of the God of the Old Testament, Elmore encourages them to respond to questions about His character. "When the faith is challenged we're supposed to give a reason for the hope that lies within us with meekness and fear (1 Peter 3:15) so we're supposed to give an answer."
Morrow recognizes that Old Testament questions are particularly challenging. "We live in a sound bite culture and so this is one of those questions where it kind of gets thrown out for people, why does God command genocide, and that's really easy to say and then it takes some time to respond to because there's some context."
Morrow says his sound bite answer is: "These passages are about judgment; they're not about genocide."
However, he encourages believers to find out the asker's real interest in this question. "I would ask them, you know, it sounds like this is a pretty emotional question for you, why is that. Let them talk about it some so you can better understand because that's the goal. We're not just trying to win an argument; we're trying to understand and help people."
It the asker is after truth, Morrow advises Christians to "ask them … are you interested in kind of walking through and getting kind of messy about looking at the evidence for this because I'd love to share that with you, and sometimes they'll go, 'yeah, that'll be great.'"
Other times, Morrow says, the asker is simply looking for "space and distance from God and this question allows them to put space between them and God."
Elmore recommends Jesus followers to "point to the cross of Christ" with their responses.
"The cross … is a good way to unpack history; we see that because we humans chose to disobey God, the [human] race was plunged in a sinful path and evil," he says. "Yet a loving God found a way to take care of our rebellion by the death of His own son, showing us His love so that we can have this relationship established with Him."