An update in the wake of Atlanta (plus a bit on rape and child killing)

Posted on 11/23/10 16 Comments

Well I’m back (as if anybody cares). Wait a minute. I care, so I’ll keep talking to myself if nobody else.

It was a good time at the annual ETS conference (with a day at SBL thrown in). Let me say the weather was fine. It has been seven or eight years since I was in Atlanta and I was taken aback by the fine fall colors complemented with temperatures which, where I come from, belong more with late summer rather than late November.

(Speaking of the weather, horror of horrors, when I flew out of Atlanta on Sunday it was about 20 C (or 68 F), and when I got back to Edmonton that night it was -15 C (or about 5 F). Yes, a drop of 35 degrees Celsius. Now as they say, how is it that we can put a man on the moon, but Alberta and Georgia still can’t figure out how to swap some weather so those Georgians get milder, less humid summers and we Albertans can have at least tolerable winters? Go figure.)

But enough bellyachin’. The high point for me was listening to myself talk (bit surprise) along with three other smart guys (not just smart-assed like myself; I’m talkin’ the real deal, people with serious brains between their ears), more specifically Paul Copan, Matt Flannagan and Richard Hess. The four of us were all part of a session at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting (for all the Sesame Street fans: one of these guys is not like the others…okay, yeah, it’s me) called “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster?” Okay, we all agreed that he isn’t, but beyond that there were some significant differences. Copan talked about the nature of biblical slavery, Flannagan about divine command theory and Hess about the occupation in Joshua. And I talked about devotional child killing, and my strong distaste for it.

The evening was very enjoyable and constructive. I met a lot of interesting people, took a few blows and delivered a few of my own. But one thing stuck out to me as instructive: the indefensible contrast that some of the people there held between devotional child killing and devotional child rape.

What do I mean? In the paper I defined devotional child killing as follows: “devotional child killing is the act of killing one or more children with the primary or sole intent of demonstrating profound dedication, commitment, or fidelity to a third party.” 

With that definition in mind, here was my first thesis in the paper (of three):

“The devotional killing of children for God can never be morally praiseworthy or even morally permissible.”

This isn’t rocket science. I think any moderately moral and properly functioning individual can see the truth of this proposition. And yet it conflicts with passages like 1 Samuel 15:3. So what to do?

Some people tried to soften the blow. Here is one approach that was tried as a response to my thesis (and I’m paraphrasing now): “What if a child was killed and then immediately resurrected by God? Would it still be wrong?”

“Yeah, what if?” I thought cynically. But that was my inside voice. With my outside (audible) voice I replied: “So what if a virgin child could be raped and then miraculously made a virgin once again? Would the rape of the child still be evil?” That didn’t go over well, I think. But I don’t see the difference.

Here was my point. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that God demanded the killing of a child and then immediately resurrected that child. Would that make it all better? Well there would still be that little matter that the child was killed by dad… “Dad, it’s good to be alive again and all, but you did decapitate me, and that kinda stinks, you know?” (Talk about an awkward moment at the Thanksgiving dinner table.) 

And likewise a child that was devotionally raped and then had their virginity miraculously restored (physiologically and psychologically) could still say, “Dad, it’s great to be a virgin again and all, but you did rape me, and that kinda stinks, you know?”

Sorry, I don’t see why conservative Christians are so indignant about the prospect of devotional child rape and yet have apparently no trouble with devotional child killing. It seems to me that that is like having no problem with someone burning down your house but protesting the very notion that they should think of trashing it.

  • Brap Gronk

    Welcome back Randal. It sure is quiet around here when you’re gone. :-(

    If devotional child killing is wrong, was Abraham doing something morally praiseworthy when he was about to kill Isaac? Is the Abraham/Isaac story what keeps most Christians from agreeing that devotional child killing is wrong?

    If Abraham was not doing something morally praiseworthy or permissible when he was allegedly obeying God’s command, how does one determine which of God’s commands to question?

    • randal


      It is good to be back. It drives me nuts that so many people (like the Hilton) charge sixteen bucks a day for internet. Ridiculous. In my experience most Christians have not even begun to reflect on the fact that the Bible condemns child sacrifice in the strongest terms in at least six places, and yet the offering of Isaac was a child sacrifice (as were the killings of the Amalekite infants, Canaanite infants, et cetera). So Christians need to think long and hard about whether they should abandon (a) their moral intuitions or (b) their reading of the texts and/or (c) the inerrancy of the texts (I lay this out in my paper which I’ll be uploading this week.)

  • S1lverBullet

    “What if a child was killed and then immediately resurrected by God? Would it still be wrong?”

    Of course it would, and it would rob a perfect god of moral perfection.

    Just because god can compensate a victim after the fact, does not for an instant indicate that the victimization was justified or morally permissible.

    Please also note: a perfect god would never exploit a child. The only way that a perfect god can permit or condone harm of any kind to a child is if that harm leads to some greater benefit FOR THE CHILD (if the benefit accrues to others, then the child is being exploited, and a perfect god would never exploit a child).

    There are some staggering moral implications of the above, which have been outlined by Dr. Stephen Maitzen:

    • randal

      Thanks SB.

      Obviously I am sympathetic with your view (which is only more than opinion in a universe of objective good — a fact which falsifies naturalism). But I think this is a bit too strong: “Just because god can compensate a victim after the fact, does not for an instant indicate that the victimization was justified or morally permissible.” Never mind God for the moment. Let’s just talk about lowly human beings. Let’s say that Billy needs a blood transfusion and only his twin brother Willy can provide it. So the twins’ parents bring Willy (a drooling three year old) to give blood to save his brother’s life even though poor Willy hates needles and is traumatized by the experience. Then his parents take him to Disneyland as a thank you. I don’t think his parents did anything wrong in that case. Still less if it was God rather than mere human mortals that was acting.

      That said, I think we are talking about something completely different in the case of devotional child killing (my specific focus) and that is an act which is intrinsically not-virtuous or as I say, soul-destroying.

      • S1lverBullet

        It seems to me that Billy’s parents face a moral dilemma: either permit their older child to suffer/die, or cause their younger child to suffer.

        Fine – they can sacrifice their moral perfection and make a choice. They are, after all, “lowly humans”.

        But I believe that yours is a false analogy, for it seems to me to be a conceptual truth that an omnipotent and morally perfect god simply cannot face moral dilemmas: doing so would not be compatible with his perfection.

        Do you believe that the Christian god faces moral dilemmas, Randal?

        • randal

          I agree. I don’t think God would ever face a moral dilemma by definition. But God would face the gap between logically possible worlds and feasible worlds.

  • Ray Ingles

    …poor Willy hates needles and is traumatized by the experience. Then his parents take him to Disneyland as a thank you.

    Perhaps harm can be usefully divided up into ‘reparable’ and ‘irreparable’ harms? Willy can regrow new blood, and can have therapy to help recover from the trauma.

    Now, what if Willy has to donate bone marrow? (Extremely painful, btw.) How about donating part of his liver (regrowable)? How about a kidney? An eye? Is there a level of harm where the parents are doing something wrong? (C.f. “My Sister’s Keeper”.)

    • randal


      There is some value in that distinction, I think. And as you point out, recovery from harm involves minimally both physical and psychological dimensions. Obviously there is a point where a human parent is going beyond the line, but that is difficult to determine. I’ll say a bit more in zee blog.

  • Murph
    • randal

      Yep, I have appreciated Matt’s work and find some overlap with my own views (but also some divergences). I commend his work to others as well.

  • MGT2


    You say “But God would face the gap between logically possible worlds and feasible worlds.”

    I am not clear as to what you mean by that.

    Could it be that our moral objections are the result of our insufficiency when it comes to understanding God’s acts from His perspective? I am not defending any of the morally objectionable events you mentioned. I am bothered by them and do not have any good answer, but I trust God. After all, the Bible tells us that the natural man cannot understand the ways of God.

    Could it be that we are trying to confine God’s acts to the boundaries of our finite intellect – the possibility, rationality and logic to which it appeals?

    So instead of choices a, b or c, a believer may have choice d. I do not think it is an appeal to mystery or anything like that because there are some things we will never understand this side of eternity.

    • randal


      A possible world is a maximal state of affairs, a comprehensive description of the way things could have been.

      A logically possible world is one that involves no contradiction (e.g. like a square circle). There are an infinite number of logically possible worlds, but not all of them can be actualized (i.e. actually created or brought into being). This is because there are more constrictions than logical possibility. For example, there is also metaphysical necessity, moral necessity and physical necessity. This restricts the number of logically possible worlds that could possibly be actualized.

      I contend that there are no morally possible worlds (and thus no feasible worlds) in which the devotional killing of children is praiseworthy.

  • Alexander

    This may be a bit unintuitive, but:

    “Killing a child is wrong.” For the sake of argument, why is it wrong? Is the opposite of killing (that is, resurrecting) a child also wrong?

    In other words, consider the outcomes of these two events. How is one “better” than the other?

    • randal

      Technically “Killing a child is wrong” is false since there are many scenarios one can imagine in which such a killing might be morally permissible (e.g. if the child is about to kill other people). I focus on the devotional killling of children which, it seems to me, is unequivocally evil. Why would resurrecting a child be wrong? (Unless we’re talking about the kind of resurrection that occurs in Stephen King’s Pet Cemetary.)

      • Alexander

        Think about it. Both are transitory processes between life and death; how does one take precedence over the other (e.g. going from death to life is preferable to going from life to death)?

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