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Piper: When God Goes a-Slaughterin’

February 10, 2012


It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases.

- John Piper

I’ve checked and I’m sorry to report that Piper’s online merchandise catalogue does not yet have the above slogan available on T-shirts.

This probably shouldn’t surprise me, coming from the man who called the Japan earthquake a “great gift” from God. But somehow I’m still stunned. The above quotation comes from a Christian Post article that appeared this week in which Piper was asked, “Why was it right for God to slaughter women and children in the Old Testament? How can that ever be right?”

The word “slaughter” generally refers to indiscriminate killing. You might think that although God has the right to take a life, he would at least do so on a principled basis. Not according to Piper.

Piper maintains that a slaughtering God is a-okay because God gives us life and it’s basically his prerogative when and how to take it.

God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.

God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.

There is plenty that could be said about the idea that God wills every death. It’s one thing for God to will that great grandma should die peacefully in her sleep at the ripe old age of 90. It’s another thing for God to will the torture and murder of children at the hands of Syrian authorities. But in Piper’s world, God is behind it all, silently nodding his approval. [For more on that point, see Zack Hunt's critique over at The American Jesus.]

At the heart of Piper’s justification of divine genocide is the notion of a God who is entitled to end a life any way he wants simply because he can.

If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.

God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn’t owe us anything.

One has to wonder what sort of relationship Piper envisions between God and his creations such that his treatment of them is explained by the maxim, “God doesn’t owe you anything.” God sounds an awful lot like a pre-teen boy who has just received his mail order Sea Monkey kit. He may enjoy his little creatures for a while. But when he gets tired of the little shrimp, he’ll flush them down the toilet. He might even pull a few legs off first. He brought them into this world and he can take them out. He doesn’t owe them anything.

As I’ve argued elsewhere (see Justin Taylor & Scarlett Johansson’s Liver), I do not agree that a God who creates sentient beings capable of feeling emotion and pain owes them nothing. But even if God did owe his creatures nothing, Piper has missed the point of the question. The question is not about God’s rights; it’s about his goodness.

Behind Piper’s logic is the assumption that an omnipotent creator is unconstrained in what he can do to his creations. But even an omnipotent creator will be constrained by his own character. And that is precisely why the genocidal passages of the OT are problematic. They are incongruent with the dominant biblical portrayal of the character of God. God is not a pubescent boy frying ants with a magnifying glass in the driveway. The Bible (especially the OT) repeatedly describes God as a loving father or devoted husband.

Imagine a man who works for a kind and generous employer. The man has three children at home and a very pregnant wife. Without this job, the man’s family would be destitute. His employer knows all of this. One day the man gets the call that his wife has gone into labor. He rushes into his boss’ office and informs the boss of the good news. Before he can leave to make his way to the hospital, the boss informs him that he is fired. “Why?” he asks. Now, is it any answer at all for the boss to reply, “Because I’m your boss. I hired you; I can fire you.” The employee knows that. He has always known that he worked at the pleasure of his employer. He isn’t questioning his boss’ right to fire him. He is asking why his employer, whom he knows to be a kind and loving man, would choose to exercise his authority in so brutal a fashion.

That is why it is perfectly legitimate to ask why a loving father-like God would order the slaughter of women and children. To defend the extermination of an entire people by pointing to God’s supreme authority over life is to demonstrate that you haven’t understood the weight of the question.

Even more problematic is the implicit justification that Piper offers for the OT genocide. He doesn’t simply stick to his guns and say, “Yes, God indiscriminately massacred every man, woman and child in the Promised Land, but that’s cool because he’s God and that’s his prerogative.” Perhaps demonstrating that even he recognizes the appeal to God’s sovereignty to be unsatisfying, Piper reminds us that God had a reason for this purge:

With Joshua there was a political, ethnic dimension, God was immediate king, and he uses this people as his instrument to accomplish his judgment in the world at that time. And God, it says, let the sins of the Amorites accumulate for 400 years so that they would be full (Genesis 15:16), and then sends his own people in as instruments of judgment.

So I would vindicate Joshua by saying that in that setting, with that relationship between God and his people, it was right for Joshua to do what God told him to do, which was to annihilate the people.

Image by Jim Lepage at jimlepage.com

Any time an apologist goes to bat for the justifiability of the Canaanite genocide, they invariably tell us how wickedly evil the Canaanite people were. There are a variety of problems with this move (eg. the lack of moral culpability of babies, the evidence that Israel itself engaged in child sacrifice, the hypocrisy of killing babies to punish a people for killing babies), but Piper has a special problem of his own.

Piper cannot even blame the Canaanites for their wickedness because, in his theological paradigm, their wickedness is God’s doing as well. Consider Piper’s discussion of how temptation works in an article from his website entitled, “The Sovereignty of God and the Sin of the Believer”:

Given the natural condition of man apart from the Holy Spirit, he will yield to sin invariably; he is the slave of sin (Rom. 6:17,20; 8:3-8). Therefore every instance of turning from sin to righteousness is due to the irresistible work of God, who transforms the mind and heart so that the believer prefers righteousness over sin. I conclude, therefore, that no Christian determines ultimately whether he will overcome a temptation to sin. God determines that.

It follows that when a believer gives in to temptation, desiring sin more than God, it is because God has allowed sin or the flesh to gain the ascendancy for the moment. He does not cause the sin in the same way that he causes the obedience. The obedience he brings about by a positive influence of renewal because he delights in holiness for its own sake. Sin comes about in the believer’s life only by God’s permitting man’s natural tendencies to reassert themselves temporarily. And he does this not out of any delight in sin but out of a delight in the greater end which will be achieved.

Let me summarize. Man in his natural state is a slave to sin and cannot do otherwise. He escapes temptation only by the irresistible work of God. Sometimes God chooses to influence man irresistibly towards obedience. At other times he does not. The key point is this: it is entirely up to God whether man sins or obeys.

What, then, was going on in the 400 years that the sins of the Amorites were accumulating? In Piper’s view, God was deliberately withholding the grace that was necessary for them to avoid sinning. Like watching a toddler drown in a pool, God sat back, watched the Amorites flail their arms helplessly, and eventually stepped in to hold their heads under water as punishment for not being able to swim.

There is a superficial appeal in the teaching of neo-Reformed preachers like Piper and Driscoll. We are encouraged to delight in the tremendous unmerited grace extended to us when God chose to reach in and pluck us out of the pool. Sounds so good. Lucky us. Until you start asking those awkward questions about the plight of the other kids who were intentionally left to drown.

35 comments

  1. In regards to the Canaanite genocide, there’s no evidence that such events ever happened. There should be evidence of such a takeover, but there’s not a shred of it. This means the compilers of the Torah created the brutal God-who-orders-us-to-perform-genocide story for a purpose. The real question, in regards to the obscene genocides in the Bible, is “What were the compilers of the Torah trying to make with this text?” Karen Armstrong compiled some good ideas about this in The Great Transformation.

    As for God, the wholesale slaughter might be OK, since God has no biological attributes. Our emotions, character, and thoughts are organic brain products—synapses, endorphin, protein, etc.—and it’s a fallacy to think God would have a similar emotional system to our own when he is not organic. If there’s a God, I doubt he has analogous emotions to us because he doesn’t have a brain. Why would he? The problem with a god without emotions, though, is that he wouldn’t be able to care whether we worshiped or acknowledged him. He wouldn’t have the synapses to demand love, devotion, or worship.

    As for Piper, he’s a callous dick.


    • Jeff, yes I’m up to speed on the state of the archaeological evidence. It is a relief that the genocide likely did not occur, but the problem of the text still remains, as you point out.
      Yes, our emotions and thoughts may have their root in the matter of our brains, but if God exists (presumably in some non-corporeal form) I don’t see any reason why he could not have analogous qualities. Or rather, perhaps we are the (rough) analogy to him.


      • Touche.

        The point I forgot to make at the second paragraph there, though, is that “goodness” might not apply to God, even though the Bible tries to make Him good. If God is non-corporeal, he could very well have no qualms about killing people or genocide; he might not see life/death the way we see it at all.He might not be capable of reading it our way.


      • Well sure (subject to any merit the ontological argument might have). But for the purposes of this post, I am assuming the existence of a God roughly consonant with the Judeo-Christian God. And I think it’s fair to say that this God has the characteristic of being good and loving in a way that is comprehensible to us.


  2. Chris, if you have not read the book Disturbing Divine Behavior by Eric Seibert, you must asap. Seiberts book helped me tremendously and he is one of the few that honestly acknowleges the weight of the above problem and avoids pat and superficial responses. I almost lost my faith over this issue.


    • Thanks Drew. I will look for it. Can you give me a thumbnail sketch of Seibert’s approach in the meantime?


    • That is a very, very good book, but ultimately I find Seibert’s conclusions wanting. In effect, because Seibert doesn’t like the idea of a God who can kill, he argues that the Bible simply gets it wrong. If its God being good, then the author’s got it right. By all means, read the book. Seibert asks the right questions and provides many helpful thoughts, but we still need to think more about the issue.


    • Almost lost your faith in what?


  3. This just goes to show that Calvinists like John Piper have absolutely no moral standards — they will claim to “love, worship, and praise” God no matter WHAT He does. It doesn’t say much for their characters does it… nor the character of the “god” in whom they claim to place their admiration.


  4. [...] este unul important pentru mine și care mi-a dat mult de gândit în trecut. Azi am citit un articol scris de Chris Massey în care autorul critică viziunea lui John Piper despre Dumnezeu și moralitate și am postat un [...]


  5. In a country where violence is often supported and encouraged, this philosophy by Piper and others like him should really come as no surprise. How often do Evangelical Christians beat the war drums when news of a potential conflict arises between the US military and some opposing army? Heck, the biggest supporter of our Armed Forces are likely right-wing, conservative, evangelical, Christians. So, when we try to rationalize violence in this world, who else to point to but God. When an American F-15 flies by some town in northern Iraq and an entire village is razed, does Piper also believe God is likely behind that? After all, God is on our side is He not? Sadly, the pied Piper has quite a following, likely in the millions who read his blog posts, read his books, and watch his videos on YouTube, not to mention the thousands that attend his church. And, it is my belief that these same people are being fed a bunch of lies about the violence of God which Piper merely clumps into the category of “God’s sovereignty”. If Piper says it, then it must be true.


    • Greg said: When an American F-15 flies by some town in northern Iraq and an entire village is razed, does Piper also believe God is likely behind that? After all, God is on our side is He not?
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Yep…just like the author of Joshua was convinced that the Lord was on their side. In the NIV, after it describes the hail storm and the sun standing still and the resulting victory, the text declares, “surely the Lord is fighting for Israel.”

      Sad that after all these centuries, and after seeing Jesus portrayed in the gospels (four very similar accounts telling of the acts and words of Jesus…perhaps so we get the point? ) that many Christians still cling to their “tribal god”…..

      Cindi…..


      • “After all, God is on our side is He not?”

        You know I was being facetious (and sarcastic), right?


      • I did, yes…sorry I wasn’t clear. And I agree with what you said in your comment. I guess my point was sort of that there is “nothing new under the sun.” Joshua thought he was hearing God’s voice and doing God’s will and that surely the Lord was fighting for Israel…just like George Bush was convinced God told him to invade Iraq…etc. etc. etc.

        Again…sorry I wasn’t clear.

        Cindi….


  6. [...] characteristics.Cognitive Discopants looks at another, equally appalling Piper-rant: “When God Goes a-Slaughterin’.”Kathy Escobar offers a hopeful, and pragmatic, response to the pervasive sexism embedded [...]


  7. “The Bible (especially the OT) repeatedly describes God as a loving father or devoted husband.”

    But the Old Testament was written by a culture where (amongst other things) selling one’s daughter into concubinage was normal. Their understanding of a “loving father” or “devoted husband” seems to be drastically different from ours, and would seem to encompass a much greater degree of brutality.


  8. The Bible (especially the OT) repeatedly describes God as a loving father or devoted husband.

    It does, but AFAIK the greater part of the OT descriptions have him functioning as devoted husband or father to a particular group of people–the Israelites, say. Plus, those writers were in cultures where it was expected that a husband would physically discipline his wife and kids for misbehavior.

    So I don’t think it’s inconsistent with the OT descriptions if God wills the deaths of enemies of his “family”, as well as the deaths of his own people when they’re being wicked. Heck, in Jeremiah God uses the marriage metaphor to justify allowing the Israelites to be murdered and enslaved by their enemies; Israel has been a faithless wife, so he’s punishing it justly. As described, he’s a good father and husband by the authors’ standards, not so much by ours.


    • Anton, you and Patrick (in the comment above) make similar, valid points. The problem is that the OT doesn’t present a single consistent picture of God. At times he is portrayed as a tribal deity loyal to a particular group of people, seemingly, to the exclusion of others. But other OT portraits, such as that in Jonah, suggest a God whose love crosses tribal boundaries. I don’t mean to put too much stress on OT metaphors. I mean, rather, to appeal to the overarching theme of a God who loves his creation, as best expressed in the character of Jesus of Nazareth. That, I say, is inconsistent with the genocidal God that Piper affirms.


      • How can “the character of Jesus of Nazareth” be separated from the God of the Old Testament?

        As I wrote in my blog post entitled, “Christ’s Numerous Moral Failings”:

        ———————————————-

        God in Jesus Christ (“on his own” during his human incarnation, at least apparently, or by means of his interdependent harmony with of the Father or Holy Spirit), throughout the Old and New Testaments to varying degrees, commanded or supported these terrible things directly or indirectly (mostly directly): eternal hell based on a short earthly life, genocide, misogyny, slavery, polygamy, seasonal and colonial warfare, theocracy, capital punishments for moderate sins (such as a female lying about her virginity — which modern science has shown to be impossible to prove medically, or cursing one’s parents, or working on the sabbath, or not keeping a known dangerous bull locked up if the bull later kills a person — but if a slave is killed the owner only has to pay a fine, or being the victim of rape if one is an engaged and the rape occurs in a city), animal sacrifice, excessive judgment on the vast majority humans who did not have biblical revelation until the last few hundred years, and many other things.


      • Andy, I’ve been perusing your blog. In response to your post “Christ’s Numerous Moral Failings”, I would say this. The charges you level are fair for the most part. But most of them turn on an acceptance of everything the OT says at face value. For the Biblical inerrantist/literalist this is indeed a problem. But if one is prepared to approach the OT as a record of a people’s stumbling attempts to relate to & understand God (rather than the very words of God himself), then one need not assume that the OT is always getting God right. That’s the direction in which I am presently inclined.


  9. Piper’s a Calvinist, so his theodicy is basically: “yes, god is evil, but we call him good anyway.” It’s quite Lovecraftian, except that:

    1) HP Lovecraft’s deities merely killed you/drove you insane/whatever, whereas Calvinism’s God tortures you forever;

    2) You can escape from the Old Ones by killing yourself, whereas in Calvinism that merely speeds you to the fires; and

    3) HP Lovecraft didn’t actively worship Cthulhu.


    • It’s not so much that God’s evil in Reformed thought but that God transcends our own human categories of good and evil. His total Otherness means that when you look and ask why God causes pain and suffering, the answer of “because he can” isn’t an answer of sadism because ascribing a human emotion like sadism to God is about as wrong-headed as ascribing it to Azathoth.


  10. It seems to me that being ultimately responsible for absolutely everything that happens, good and bad, is inherent in the definitions of “omniscience” and “omnipotence” when taken together. If a being exists in the universe with both of those qualities, then the Calvinists are right that free will is an illusion. Of course, Andrew is right that a deity who would use its omniscience and omnipotence to create a world as filled with pointless suffering as this one is no better than a Lovecraftian Great Old One, and far *worse* if the doctrine of eternal conscious torture in hell is true.


  11. “Any time an apologist goes to bat for the justifiability of the Canaanite genocide, they invariably tell us how wickedly evil the Canaanite people were.”

    That was a defense I once heard on a previously quite intelligent radio talk show here in KC called “Religion on the Line.” Accent on ‘previously.’

    If there’s any historical basis to the biblical stories about the Hebrew conquest of Canaan, it’s likely that the inhabitants had committed the same “sin” as the Native Americans — they had land another, very aggressive group wanted.


  12. [...] sometimes made out to be. Maybe they really did sacrifice their children to Molech. But it seems strange to argue, as some have, that God punished the Canaanites for slaughtering some of their children… by slaughtering the rest of their [...]


  13. [...] just read the post “Piper: When God Goes a-Slaughterin’” over at Cognitive Discopants, and it got me thinking about  the perennial problem thinking people [...]


  14. Hi all. Thanks for your blog, Mr Discopants – I’m lovin it ! :)

    About your Piper a-Slaughterin article and all these comments…

    Seems to me that a lot of objections to Mr Piper, and his ilk and their conclusions, are centred on the pre-supposition of a polar opposition between our free will vs God’s compelling control of his creation. And I understand how rationally attractive that polar opposition is, and in fact how rationally unavoidable it seems. However, after many long years I’ve reached the conclusion that the bible writers by and large saw these things as compatible. The evidence is not hard to find – you’ll see it if you look. Could they be right ? I commend to you the pursuit of an answer to that question.

    It’s also revealing to me that there’s quite a bit of emotional venom here on this topic, with Piper described as a “callous dick” and compared unfavourably with Lovecraft. While I certainly have my problems with Piper and some of his theology (to be expected, surely) listening to quite a number of his sermons has convinced me that he is a genuinely gentle, caring and other-person-centred man. In short, he’s one of your more godly dudes. So my suggestion to those who feel lots of anger with Mr P on this issue is: examine yourself ! Why are you so uptight that you’d slag off an obviously godly man ? Again I appeal (oh so unaccademically!) to my own experience – the sort of venom I’m seeing here usually indicates an issue within the commentator that needs to be resolved before the theological question at hand can be objectively assessed.

    I too have always struggled with the slaughter in the OT. And while I don’t necessarily agree with Piper’s conclusions, he does seem to be making an earnest attempt to reconcile the bible material into a unified picture of God. Which seems appropriate to me, given that I believe the bible to ultimately be the work of a unified God revealing himself to his imago dei creatures.

    Anyway, enough of my moralising. Bring on the man with the shiny pants…

    Tim


    • Thanks Tim! You make some good points. I am sometimes struck by the contrast between Piper’s rather congenial demeanor and the cold, brutal theological statements he makes. I do accept that he’s genuine. I just find that his views leave a very bad taste in my mouth.


  15. Powerful argument, Chris. I’d love to hear what you think of my similar blog, “Disagreements I Have With Christianity”.


  16. I greatly enjoyed this post, though I found it somewhat problematic. I’ve written an brief explanation of why that is, which can be found here: http://rationaltheism.blogspot.com/2012/11/when-massey-goes-simplifyin-response-to.html


    • Daniel, I have read your post. It’s a long piece and I’m not exactly sure where to dive in. Let me start by saying this. You continue to use the language of “rights” and “obligations”. For instance, you say, “But [killing people] is only unjust if a right of their’s is violated in some sense by it, or if the person doing the killing has an obligation not to do it.” You also assert, like Piper, that God owes us nothing.

      It seems to me that by (1) defining morality in terms of obligations and rights while (2) asserting that God has no obligations and humanity no rights vis-a-vis one another, you wind up at the conclusion that God is an amoral being.

      In other words, you say that an action is only wrong if the actor has an obligation not to do it. You also say God has no obligations. By this standard, God can do no wrong even in theory. Jesus himself could have committed terrible acts of violence and rape and there would be absolutely nothing wrong with it.

      If you wish to maintain that God is morally good in any meaningful sense then you are going to have to revisit at least 1 of your 2 positions.


      • Chris, thanks for your feedback. It was very helpful for me. What I should have anticipated in my post is that I would need to discuss the distinction between moral values and moral duties. God is a-moral in the sense that He does not have any moral duties; but He is not a-moral in the sense that He is a being who cannot be described in moral terms. He has moral properties such as goodness, lovingkindness, patience, etc… I think you would agree with at least that. But whether God is obligated to perform certain actions or to abstain from performing them…you rightly point out in your post that God’s own nature serves as a limitation upon what actions He can perform. But this leaves no room, really, for God to make a genuine choice to, for instance, be loving rather than spiteful and hateful.

        But speaking of moral duties is different because it’s understood that one can choose not to do one’s duty. I have a duty to love my wife and kids; and the reason this is meaningful to me is because I know that it will take effort and commitment because I could fail to do it. God cannot fail to act in accordance with His nature; just as it isn’t correct to say that a circle is duty-bound to be round, or that it would be “wrong” for a circle to have sides and angles, it is not correct to say that God has a moral obligation to love us. I want to re-emphasize that I’m not saying that God is therefore free to hate us, or something like that, because He certainly is not. It’s just that God’s love for us does not derive from obligation, but rather from His unchanging nature. I’m saying there”s a false dichotomy being presented: “either God is morally obligated toward His creatures, or God is a-moral and can perform terrible acts of rape and violence and there is nothing wrong with it.”

        I’m describing actions which have moral elements in terms of moral obligations and duties, but it’s not the case that I’m describing “morality” in those terms because I distinguish between moral values and moral duties.

        Yes, I think that God can do no wrong, even in theory. This is not to say that God can do just any old thing that a human could and it would somehow have the property of moral goodness. It’s to say that, as you said, God is constrained by His own nature and cannot act in violation of that nature. Therefore it is very correct to say that God cannot do anything that is morally wrong. If He could, He would be morally imperfect and would not be a maximally great being, which is to say, it would not be God that we’re talking about after all. Jesus Himself could NOT have committed “terrible” acts of violence and rape because Jesus, as divine, has the same constraints upon His nature that God the Father has, and consequently cannot, by definition, do something that is morally terrible.

        So it seems to me that the two positions you mentioned me needing to revisit are perhaps consistent after all. On the other hand, you seemed to be making the case in your post that IF God did command the Canaanites to be slaughtered, there would be a moral problem with that. I’m questioning the justification for that claim, since I deny that God has any moral obligations, and I suggest that there are conceivable circumstances in under which, if God issued this command, it would not be unloving and therefore not in conflict with His loving nature. I thought you needed to make the case that such commands would be necessarily unloving, and therefore would be commands that it would be impossible for a loving God to issue.

        Please don’t think that of Piper’s ilk, by the way, but I just had some disagreements with your case. Happy Thanksgiving!


      • Daniel,
        I agree with most of what you’ve just written. You say, “It’s just that God’s love for us does not derive from obligation, but rather from His unchanging nature.” That was pretty much my point. To say that God can command genocide because he has no obligation toward us is to say nothing meaningful. It’s not about obligation; it’s about his nature. (I do, by the way, think that one could argue that God may have obligations towards his creatures, but let’s assume he doesn’t for the sake of argument.)

        This gets us back to the real issue: Would a morally perfect God command genocide?

        And this brings me to another point of disagreement with your original post. You suggest that the burden of proof is on me to establish that a morally good being wouldn’t order genocide.

        I wonder if the horror of genocide is somehow diminished for us when we think of Canaanite peoples who lived 3000 years ago. So distant. So far removed. Perhaps it would help to consider the Rwandan genocide. What we’re talking about is the hacking to death of women and little children. We’re talking about combatants running babies through with the sword. Scores of women raped and others burned alive inside their homes or shelters of refuge. We are talking about an atrocity so breathtaking that no sane person would fail to condemn it in the strongest terms.

        Yet you want to claim that what would be utterly evil for morally flawed me, might be okay for morally perfect God. Surely the burden of proof lies with you to demonstrate why black is actually white when God does it.

        You ask, “Is there really no circumstances that could obtain such that a morally perfect being could issue the commands in question?” You’re asking me to prove a negative. I could offer up 1000 theoretical justifications, demonstrate the inadequacy of all of them, and I still would not have met your burden of proof. You, on the other hand, need conceive of only 1 justification and my argument is toast. I think the ball is in your court.


  17. I like the photo of John Piper Leonidas!



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