This is my eleventh installment of my ongoing critique of William Lane Craig’s podcast “Richard Dawkins and Driving Out the Canaanites.” (Yes, there is an end in sight. One final installment and I’m done.) For the tenth installment click here.
This time around we join the podcast at 16:56 as Craig explains the unique nature of Israel’s identity as a theocracy:
“We’re talking here about a theocracy in which God was the head of the government and therefore instituted laws that were reflective of his absolute holiness and purity that in fact made the law such a burden to Israel that they found it difficult to bear.”
Craig then reiterates that God achieved greater goods through the slaughter of the Canaanite population which justified his issuing the commands to the Israelite soldiers that they carry out this genocide. This raises a troubling question in the mind of the thoughtful listener: could God command such heinous actions again?
I addressed this issue a couple years ago in my article “The day God (didn’t) command a father to kill his child” when I wrote:
This isn’t just macabre talk. These things do happen, even if they are mercifully extremely rare events. Here’s an example:
On July 23, 1995, Eric Starr Smith beheaded his fourteen year old son Eric Jr. on the side of the interstate in New Mexico because, so he later reported, God told him to. As Smith grabbed his son the boy screamed at his thirteen year old brother to run for safety. Larry ran a safe distance away and watched his father decapitate his brother. Eric Sr. then sped away from the scene in his car and tossed the head out the window several miles down the road.
For mere human beings the harms of this action are irreparable, but not for God. So does that mean that God could possibly have some greater good that he could achieve by commanding the decapitation of Eric Jr? That is, is it possible that God did command the father to decapitate the son so as to achieve those goods while ensuring that the father and his two sons receive adequate compensating goods (including, perhaps minds wiped clean of any memory of the event) in eternity?
That seems to me certainly a logical possibility (i.e. there is no overt contradiction in the prospect) but it also seems to me a moral impossiblity. [sic] That is, I believe there is no feasible world (i.e. one which God could in fact actualize) in which God commands such heinous acts to achieve some greater good. And I believe a father hewing off the head of his son is a benchmark for heinous acts.
I submit that any theology which presents us with the live moral possibility that Eric Sr. was commanded by God to behead his son should be rejected. So does Craig’s defense of the genocide of the Canaanites present us with this live possibility?
Imagine that you accept William Lane Craig’s argument thus far and that you read of this account of Eric Sr. beheading his son. It would seem that you cannot conclude that a moral atrocity occurred because you would have no way to know how likely it might be that God commanded Eric Sr. to do the act to achieve some greater good. Until you do get some clear evidence beyond the brief account provided above you should remain agnostic.
At this point I submit that any position which obliges one to remain agnostic as to whether God really commanded Eric Sr. to behead his son based on the account provided above should be rejected. That conclusion is morally impossible and repugnant and should be rejected as surely as the theological reasoning that supports it.
I think Craig and his co-host Kevin Harris are keen to avoid this conclusion. And so Harris then asks Craig to “say something about no longer being under that theocracy”. I assume that the logic of the request goes like this:
(1) Israel was justified in slaughtering infants and children because they were in a theocracy.
(2) Theocracies no longer exist.
(3) Therefore, there is no longer a justification for slaughtering infants and children.
And so Craig expands on (2):
“No government is under a theocracy anymore. Israel gave up being under God’s rule to have a king and so forth and similarly with our governments today. And so no one should imagine that because in the Old Testament law you have certain Levitical laws about penalties and capital crimes and so forth that these laws are to be instituted today. These reflect, I think, God’s severe judgment and holiness on these sins but that doesn’t mean that we are to institute these as laws of the land today….”
Unfortunately, Craig’s observations here do not succeed in defeating the agnostic position about whether Eric Sr. was indeed commanded to behead his son. We can summarize the problem in two points.
Note first that God commands the Amalekite genocide of 1 Samuel 15 after Israel had ceased to be a theocracy (that is, after Israel acquired a human king as head of state). So in fact, the command to slaughter infants and children (and entire societies) for a greater good was not essentially tied to the existence of a theocracy.
What is more, even if it were the case that Israel’s justification for killing infants and children depended on the existence of a theocracy, it wouldn’t follow that this political arrangement provides the only context in which God could command this kind of killing for a greater good. We would simply have no idea if other extraordinary conditions could obtain in which God might determine that a greater good could be achieved by commanding a particular adult to kill a particular child. (Indeed, we’d have no real way to know just how extraordinary these conditions and divine requests are in the first place. If skeptical theism has taught us anything, it has taught us to recognize our limitations in declaring that God could not allow all sorts of horrendous evils for a greater good. If Craig is right then God could likewise command (rather than just allow) the most horrifying actions for a greater good.)
Consequently, on Craig’s view we would have to remain agnostic as to whether Eric Sr. was indeed commanded by God to behead his son.
Again, I would submit that any theology or ethic which undermines our ability to say categorically that God did not command Eric Sr. to behead his son for a greater good should be rejected. Any moral grammar that allows the possibility that a father might be commanded to behead his son for a greater good is itself evil. After all, beheading one’s child to achieve some greater good is evil if anything is. And as the Apostle Paul recognized, it is always wrong to do evil that good may result (Romans 3:8).