Is the Old Testament Full of Bad Ethics?

Bible

In my interactions with atheists, I typically do not mention Bible verses in my argumentation.  I do not appeal to the circular reasoning (“the Bible is true because it says it is”) that is often used to caricaturize Christian apologetics.  In fact, I’m not sure that I know any Christians who actually appeal to that line of thinking.  But even though I don’t typically mention Bible verses, the Bible is almost always brought into the conversation, by the atheist.

For many, the teachings of the Bible are seen as socially and ethically regressive, not only untenable but unconscionable for the contemporary Westerner.  God’s Word, especially the Old Testament, is branded as promoting polygamy, slavery, rape, homophobia, and male chauvinism.  As Christians, we may not even know how to respond to these claims.

What is so tragic about this view of the Bible is that it is indeed so easily supported by scripture when a holistic approach to interpretation is not taken.  Verses can be picked and chosen without being qualified by the context of the Bible as a whole.  If you are the cynic that I described above, I want you to know that I understand why you would come to the conclusions that you have.  I also want to ask you to consider what I have to say in response with an open mind.

A) Christians are not under the Old Covenant.

The first half of the Bible contains a history of God’s chosen people and includes the law which He gave to them to establish their earthly government.  This portion of the Bible is commonly called the Old Testament, and contains what is usually called the Old Law or the Old Covenant.

Christians are NOT required to live according to the Old Law.  Jesus “ended the system of law with its commandments and regulations.” (Ephesians 2:15.)  The Old Law was nailed to His cross and is no longer binding on us (Colossians 2:14.)  In fact, to make this point especially clear, God commanded Peter to rise, and kill and eat as food animals which were not permitted under the Old Law (Acts 10:12-15.)

It is important to understand that anything written as a commandment in the Old Law cannot be applied to Christians today unless it is repeated in the New Testament.  But here’s a hint, there is no written law code in the New Testament.  There are indeed a few commandments, but the heart of the New Testament is a message of love which overarches all of our actions.

B) The Bible actually teaches against polygamy, cruel forms of slavery, rape, homophobia, and male chauvinism.

I’d like to briefly address each of these issues.

1) A full treatment of the polygamy issue is given here.  The basis of the argument is that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman even from its initial institution (Genesis 2:24,) and that the Bible’s portrayal of polygamy is of a practice overflowing with problems such as jealousy, trickery, and disputes.  If God supported polygamy, why would he paint such a nasty picture of it?

2) The Bible warned those who owned slaves in the 1st century Roman empire to treat their slaves with respect and sincerity of heart, also commanding them “do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him” (Ephesians 6:9.)  In other words, masters, God is your master and He is taking note of how you treat your servants.

3) Jesus not only condemned rape, but even the look of lust that could eventually lead to it (Matthew 5:28.)  The Old Law as well commanded the Hebrew not covet that which was not his, and this explicitly extended to human beings (Exodus 20:17.)

4) There is no denying that the Bible teaches that engaging in the sexual practice of homosexuality is wrong.  But before we claim that the Bible teaches homophobia, we need to realize that the concept of “being homosexual” is an extremely new concept.  What the Bible condemns is not the experience of same sex attraction, but the actual physical practice of homosexuality.  Do a word study on any of the verses condemning it.

Also, the Bible NEVER teaches that we should not love someone because of who they are or what they do.  Actions may be condemned, but the person should be loved regardless (Romans 5:8.)

5) As for male chauvinism, examine Paul’s instructions to husbands in Ephesians 5.  “Love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”  The love that Christ demonstrated was one that was willing to suffer and die for the good of another, even when wronged.  That is the love that the Bible commands men to have for women, and God warns those who fail to treat their wives with understanding or show them honor that He will not even hear their prayers (1 Peter 3:7.)

To say that the Bible teaches us to mistreat women, hate homosexuals, or practice injustice in general is to ignore a great deal of Biblical teaching to the contrary in order to falsely represent a few select passages.

I know what you are thinking.  Sure, the Bible speaks out against these practices, mostly in the New Testament, but God clearly supports the same practices in His law!  The Bible contradicts itself and therefore can be used to teach whatever anyone wants.  This is what brings us to the crux of the matter.

C) It is a false assumption that when God makes provisions for a behavior in His law, He supports those behaviors.  Here are three examples that clearly demonstrate that this is not the case:

1) God made provisions in the law for divorce for almost any reason (Deuteronomy 24:1-4,) but Jesus taught that God made these provisions because of the hardness of their hearts, “but from the beginning it has not been this way.” (Matthew 19:8.)

2) Deuteronomy 17 is full of commandments concerning the future time when Israel would have a king, yet when they did ask for a king, God said that they were rejecting Him in the process (1 Samuel 8:7.)

3) Even as the Old Law permitted polygamy, God specified that in His New Testament church, He wanted the leaders to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2.)

The principle is clear: just because God makes provisions for a practice in His law does NOT mean that He wants it to happen.  The law was simply a “guardian” or “tutor” to watch over God’s chosen people until the Messiah came (Galatians 3:24.)  It was not capable of eradicating sin, nor was it intended to do so (Romans 8:3.)  I suspect in fact that if God had indeed outlawed everything that was a sin, we would call Him a dictator.

In closing, I also want to point out that the entire Old Law rested on the two greatest commandments, found in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, to love God with all of your hearts and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Upon these two commandments hung the implementation of everything else (Matthew 22:36-40.)

Key to this discussion is that not only can the Old Testament not be honestly used by Christians to support immoral practices under the New Covenant, but even when a practice was provided for under the Old Law, informed theology makes it clear that this did not indicate God’s support of that practice.

How Do We Decide What is Right and What is Wrong?

good and evil

Regardless of varying religious beliefs or the lack thereof, we live in a world of moral values.  There is a sense of moral obligation that we all possess which compels us to label some behaviors as good and others as evil.  I’m not arguing in this post that this morality is universal or objective or God given.  I’m simply establishing that we virtually all feel it.

Our sense of morality affects us individually to guide our behaviors, for instance, compelling us to tell the cashier when they give us too much change.  It affects us as a society to create laws against everything from arson to false advertising to murder.  It even prompts militant atheists to cry out against the existence of a God that would allow the things that they see around them which are morally objectionable.

My question today is not why we have this moral sense.  Some say it came to us through millions of years of evolution because it fostered the safety of the individual in the context of the group.  Some say it was given to us by God or is determined by His nature.  Some say it is actually all an illusion, completely constructed in human minds.  There is plenty to say on these matters, but my question is more universal and more practical.

How do we determine what is right and wrong?  This is an extremely practical question because we will all be required to make countless personal decisions, to formulate numerous opinions, and as members of society to collectively create laws and enforce them, all in light of moral principles.

At this point we could all immediately begin disagreeing about how to determine morality.  One could claim that we should get it from the words of the Bible.  Another that we must all decide for ourselves and can make no universal pronouncements.  Another that a set of principles such as love or tolerance should be systematically applied to human behavior.

But I’d like to zero in on the nature of our disagreement for a moment and see if I can’t give a general answer that we can all agree on: morality is determined by purpose.  One of my favorite speakers, Dr. Ravi Zacharias identifies this core principal of morality in many of his talks.  That which violates the ultimate purpose of a thing is morally wrong.

So if men are meant to live in harmony, if they are intended to live in freedom, if the goal of their existence is to live in joy and peace, then violating these purposes is morally wrong.

The reason why I think we can at least all agree on this principle is because it allows either God or man to do the purposing or intending or goal setting.  It simply reveals the inextricable link between purpose and morality.  The desired end of our existence determines how we ought to live.

This is where we must part ways.  If we differ in our opinions of our purpose, we will differ in our opinions on morality.

For those who do not believe in the supernatural, any ultimate purpose is an illusion.  Our lives have personal purpose and meaning, but objectively speaking these purposes are meaningless.  It follows that for atheists, morality simply must be boiled down to a matter of opinion, chance, or personal preservation.  There is no universal morality if we do not all have the same purpose.

It should not be surprising, then, when great minds attempt to systematically derive a universal morality from materialism and fail.

Now let me take you a step further down this road.  If morals are literally a matter of opinion with no higher authority to call upon because there is no ultimate purpose in the universe, then majority opinion goes.  Or, in a less democratic system, the strongest and bravest prevail in establishing their own wills.

The believer, on the other hand, believes in a supernaturally determined universal purpose, and thus he can honestly appeal to this universal purpose in order to determine universal moral principles.

Two closing observations.  1) For the atheist, there are no moral authorities more final than personal opinion and personal power.  2) The moral argument against God is self-defeating.  When an atheist claims that there is no God because of the evil in the world, he is by necessity sharing an opinion, not a proof.