The Old Testament’s stories and laws have become a hay-day for all those cynical of God and His followers. In a society that strives for equality and peace, why would one consider the input of those who uphold a book that primarily tells stories of a God who seems to perpetrate, support, or at least allow barbarism, weird legalism, racism and genocide? Many would say such a God is a hypocrite, or he mellowed out between the Bible’s Testaments. From 20/20’s comparison of the Old Testament with Islamic terrorism, to the closing monologue of God on Trial, all the way to the arsenal of the New Atheist movement (including frequent quotes from the late Christopher Hitchens, who Copan mentioned we should pray for, due to Hitchens’s then-diagnosis of esophageal cancer), the pre-Christmas God is getting quite the bad rap.
And many Christians don’t know how to respond. Some Christians tend to ignore the Old Testament. Some act as if God did go through some type of change in personality or even the mode of salvation after Jesus’s birth. Some proudly confirm all the cynics’ allegations against God, painting Him as sadistic and power-happy and contradicting verses about His character in both Testaments. None of these approaches are biblical.
But if you’re someone that takes on a lot of doubt about the character of the God of the Old Testament, whether it’s persecution or self-imposed, this book is for you. Paul Copan, in his book Is God a Moral Monster?, is very thorough, historic, and biblical in his effort to rightly portray God as the Sustainer and impartial Valuer of human life, as well as the Bearer of wisdom for righteousness and cultural flourishing.
Copan, curiously, opened the book discussing the New Atheist movement, namely establishing the problem I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. He explains his paradoxical friend/foe relationship to various of the four prominent New Atheists (he’s had and enjoyed Daniel Dennett’s company) and gives the reader a taste of their rhetoric. Copan rightly asserts that the issues of the Old Testament should not be “shoved under holy rugs” by uninformed Christians (20).
Copan does well to slowly walk us deeper and deeper into the issues at hand like stepping a hot tub. He starts with the accusation of divine arrogance, and then he eventually addresses the alleged ethnic cleansing in the end of Part 3, which takes the biggest portion of the book.
The answers to most of the hostile inquiries of the Old Testament God’s character involve exegesis and require a better understanding of Ancient Near East history and literary style. As it turns out, some of the prominent New Atheists‘ arguments have a bit of what C.S. Lewis would call “chronological snobbery” and they lack the aforementioned understanding. I can’t go into detail here, but once rightful context is established, the purpose of the “weird” laws of the Torah look similar to the New Testament’s principles of discipleship and selfless cultural flourishing. And amid the barbarism and chaos that was the other Ancient Near East, understanding its history and literature, the armies of Israel look the most just, humane and, in some cases, virtually pacifist.
When I read through Francis Chan’s Erasing Hell earlier this year, I positively reviewed it as a layman’s reference on the doctrine of damnation. Is God a Moral Monster? is also best used as a reference guide, but arguably removing “layman” from the description. This book took me a while. Copan is very meticulous and thorough (he probably referenced every Old Testament verse anybody ever had a problem with!) in the body of this book. He categorized them well, and some topics take up multiple chapters.
If there’s one thing that’s lacking in Is God a Moral Monster?, it’s Copan’s modern contextualization of divine national judgment (160-161). I wish he had further unpacked that a bit more, given the explicit expansion of the Gospel to the Gentiles, the diverse modern connotations of “nationality” and the increasing transience and individualism in Western society. Some more could have been shared, especially with Westboro Baptist on the prowl, proclaiming divine national judgment upon -well- almost every nation in the world.
Otherwise, I am planning on keeping Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? on my shelf. It was a long but very encouraging read to understand the New Atheists’ misunderstandings of the biblical text and, more importantly, my God who was (and is) consistent and good.
Next: Lupton’s Toxic Charity or Piper’s Bloodlines