Could Jesus perform moral atrocities?

Posted on 03/15/13 18 Comments

In the essay “If it’s okay for God to do something, then is it okay for him to command it?” I provided a response to the following question from Vincent:

“Would you agree or disagree with the proposition that if it’s morally OK for God to do something, then it’s OK for Him to command someone else to do it?”

In the article I provided two basic points in response to Vincent. To begin with, I pointed out that his question fails to recognize the critical disanalogy that exists when we apply action verbs to human beings and to God. Vincent then offered the following response to that point:

“That’s a position that goes far beyond Aquinas, who rejected univocal predication but accepted analogical predication. If you reject even that, then you render all talk of God utterly meaningless. I hope you didn’t mean to say that.”

Unfortunately it looks like Vincent didn’t read what I wrote with much care. I wasn’t offering a general theory of theological language, as he seems to assume. Rather, I was illustrating the extent to which the ascription of action verbs to God is disanalogous to the application of those same verbs to human beings. Never did I claim that all linguistic predication of God is equivocal. Nor did I even claim that the linguistic predication of action verbs to God is equivocal. (Indeed, pace Aquinas I believe that some linguistic predications can univocally be made of God and non-divine things. But that is another matter.)

In my discussion of action verbs I was very clear in identifying the extent of disanalogy between saying, for example, “God drowned the infant” and “Jones drowned the infant.” If Vincent disagrees with that analysis he should explain where he disagrees. If he agrees, then he should reconsider his initial question which shows no awareness of this important disanalogy.

This brings me to the second point. I pointed out to Vincent that in light of the radical disanalogy between predicating action verbs of God and human beings, we ought to focus our hypotheticals on parallels with the God-man since “Jesus did x” and “Jones did x” tidily removes the radical disanalogies between God as divine actor and finite human actors.

With that in mind, I asked Vincent which of the following actions he thought Jesus could possibly do:

(1) drowning an infant

(2) torturing a child

(3) mutilating a young boy

(4) raping a mother

(5) slaughtering a village

This was Vincent’s three-part reply:

Let’s immediately dispose of 2, 3 and 4. None of these are commanded of the Israelites by God in the Old Testament, so they’re irrelevant to your dispute with William Lane Craig. Additionally, all of these acts necessarily involve an intention to hurt the victim, and hence can only be motivated by malice.  Nor is there anything in the nature of these acts per se which would render them beneficial to society. So they are bad for the victims and (in and of themselves) good for no-one.

Vincent insists that Jesus could not possibly torture a child, mutilate a young boy, or rape a mother. I’m glad to hear that since I emphatically agree! However, his defense of this claim was most curious. His first point is that God is not described as commanding the Israelites to do any of these actions. To make this manifestly clear, the conversation goes like this:

Randal: Could God possibly do (2), (3) and (4)?

Vincent: No, because the Old Testament does not describe God as commanding the Israelites to do (2), (3) and (4).

Assuming that this is what Vincent is saying, he seems to be assuming a principle like this:

God can possibly only do what he is described as commanding the Israelites to do in the Old Tesatment.

But of course as principles go, this is crazy. God is not limited in his own actions to the set of commands he gave to the ancient Israelites. So Vincent’s first reason for denying that Jesus could do (2), (3) and (4) is completely spurious.

(I suspect Vincent isn’t really assuming this bizarre principle. But then I have no idea what he is assuming because I don’t know how else to reconstruct his first point. Perhaps he can offer more clarification.)

Vincent’s second reason for denying that (2), (3) and (4) could possibly be carried out by Jesus is that “all of these acts necessarily involve an intention to hurt the victim, and hence can only be motivated by malice.” Vincent seems to be reasoning like this:

(i) God cannot perform an action which is motivated by malice.

(ii) Any action which involves an intention to hurt another person is motivated by malice.

(iii) Therefore, God cannot perform an action which involves an intention to hurt another person.

Of course if this proves anything it proves too much since God frequently undertakes actions which involve an intention to hurt another person. And it is not just God. If (ii) were true then it would follow that any parent who gives their toddler a time out is necessarily acting out of malice because the whole point of a time out is to hurt the toddler by acting punitively to deprive them of the good of free movement. Clearly (ii) is false. But once we reject it, Vincent’s second reason collapses as well.

Vincent’s final claim is that (2), (3) and (4) could not be “beneficial to society”. This is a completely groundless claim in light of the fact that he apparently believes that on some occasions at least participation in genocide can benefit society. If this is the case, then what reason has Vincent to think that (2), (3) or (4) never could?

To sum up, Vincent’s three reasons for arguing that Jesus could not possibly commit (2), (3) or (4) are all fallacious.

In closing I’ll add one more action to our list. Ask yourself whether it is possible that Jesus could:

(6) Punish a mother by causing her to cannibalize her infant

Presumably the right answer is no since (6) is every bit as heinous and horrifying as (1)-(5), if not more so. And yet, Lamentations 4 describes God as performing (6). See my discussion in “Cannibalizing infants as punishment?

I can make the list a lot longer of course. But let’s just stick with these actions. And so I repeat the question: is it possible that Jesus could do (1)-(6)? If not, then why not?

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  • Vincent

    Hi Randal,

    Thank you for your reply. I’m very glad to hear that you believe that some linguistic predications can univocally be made of God and non-divine things. So do I. I’m more of a Scotist than a Thomist, when it comes to the language we can apply to God. So that’s something we agree about.

    Regarding the two sentences, “God drowned the infant” and “Jones drowned the infant,” the point I wanted to make is that while there are indeed radical differences between the way in which God and Jones would perform the action of drowning, they are not morally relevant differences. When we judge the morality of an action, we usually focus on the intention of the agent. God (unlike Jones) acts timelessly and incorporeally, but His intention, if He were to drown an infant, would be the same as Jones’ intention: namely, to bring about the infant’s death by causing its lungs to be filled with water.

    In my response to your previous post, I argued that I could not envisage a situation where it would be right for God to drown a conscious infant. But if we were to suppose (purely for argument’s sake) that the action of drowning is (sometimes) morally right for God to perform, then there appears to be no reason in principle why it would not be right for Jones to perform it too, provided that He were acting at God’s behest.

    It has occurred to me, since writing my response, that you could argue back as follows. Jones, as a human animal, is the type of being who has a natural obligation to take care of (or at least refrain from harming) human infants. God has no such natural obligation. Hence when God drowns an infant, He is not doing something unnatural, whereas Jones is. Unnatural acts are always wrong (Aristotelian-Thomistic premise); hence not even a Divine command could make it acceptable for Jones to drown an infant. That’s an interesting argument, but it hinges on the assumption that God has no obligations – or at least, no natural ones – to His creatures. Actually I think He does. I think that as sons and daughters of God, humans are “ends in themselves” even from a “God’s eye” perspective, and that God treats us as such. God is our Father: He intentionally created each and every human being’s soul, and He also maintains us in being (as embodied rational animals) by His will. Thus God has a parental relationship with each and every human being, as a result of a free act of His will. No-one compelled God to make us; He Himself chose to do that. By choosing to become our Father, God also accepted the reponsibilities of a father: to protect His offspring and promote their welfare, while respecting their freedom as persons endowed with reason and free will.

    Now let’s return to your five examples. In my previous reply, I wrote: “Let’s immediately dispose of 2, 3 and 4. None of these are commanded of the Israelites by God in the Old Testament, so they’re irrelevant to your dispute with William Lane Craig.” I was certainly not arguing that God can only do what he is described as commanding the Israelites to do in the Old Tesatment. I was merely arguing that the examples seemed gratuitous. Neither you nor Craig would seriously argue that God could command such acts, and nor would I.

    “OK,” you say, “but why couldn’t God command them?” The reason I offered was that “all of these acts necessarily involve an intention to hurt the victim, and hence can only be motivated by malice.” You correctly pointed out that some actions which involve an intention to hurt the victim are not motivated by malice – namely, retributive punishments, such as a parent might inflict on a child. On this point, I think you are right, so I’ll sharpen my reason.

    The parent who punishes a mis-behaving child does not intend the child’s suffering as an end in itself. An intention to hurt the victim, as an end in itself, is inherently malicious. Torture, mutilation and rape all presuppose such an intention. Hence they are inherently malicious, and could never be performed by God, Who is all-good. Neither could they be commanded by Him, as God is incapable of malicious intent.

    As to whether genocide could ever be beneficial to society, I would answer: that depends on which society you are talking about. Let’s imagine two societies, society A and society B. The members of society A engage in a self-perpetuating cycle of depraved, vicious practices that has gone on for centuries. They also periodically raid neighboring societies, to build up their numbers and their territory. Society A is thus aggressive, predatory and pathological. Society B, on the other hand, is a fledgling society with sensible moral norms, but its ability to enforce those norms is continually undermined by repeated, aggressive attacks by society A. Would the eradication of society A be directly beneficial, in and of itself, to society B? Obviously. Of course, that does not make it right for society B to wipe out society A. But there is a complete disanalogy with rape, mutilation or torture here. These acts are never directly beneficial, in and of themselves, to society.

    As regards your case 6 (cannibalizing an infant): you claim that in Lamentations 4, God judges Israel for her unfaithfulness by orchestrating conditions that will include women eating their infant children. I disagree with this characterization. God punishes Israel by allowing them to undergo a famine, which He foresees will kill children. God also foresees that in this famine, some mothers will kill and cook their children. It does not follow that He intends this result, however. And to say (as you claim) that God is punishing a mother by causing her to cannibalize her infant is wrong on two counts: (a) it ignores free will (we don’t all do that sort of thing when we’re starving); (b) there is no evidence from the text that God desires or intends that the mother eat her infant, so He can hardly be said to intend it as a punishment.

    • RationalInquirer

      Vincent,

      I have a few questions:
      1. Are you saying God is morally permitted to kill
      infant in society?
      2. What do you mean when you say: “But there is a
      complete disanalogy with rape, mutilation or torture here. These acts are never directly beneficial, in and of themselves, to society.” Are there occasions when rape is a justified form of punishment?
      3. Lamentations 4: 10-11 says, “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people 11 The Lord gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations.” (NASB) Where has Randal gone wrong in his interpretation? Do you think God was passive in pouring out his wrath? Would he have prevented the famine if Israel obeyed? Does God have a moral obligation to prevent such an atrocity since he has the power to do so, regardless of how the mothers came to the point of boiling their kids?

      • RationalInquirer

        A correction on question 1:

        1. Are you saying God is morally permitted to kill the infants in society A?

        • Vincent Torley

          Hi RationalInquirer,

          Thanks for your comments. I hope my responses to Randal above will answer most of your questions. As to God’s being morally permitted to kill infants or any other human beings, I would say that it is certainly permissible of Him to kill people in order to save them from an even worse fate that would have befallen them, had they lived. I would add that growing up in a totally depraved society whose members all grow up to perform vicious and depraved practices could be considered as a fate worse than death. Hence it would not be wrong for God to kill infants in order to save them from such a fate.

          • RationalInquirer

            I guess I don’t think you’ve answered by questions in a satisfactory way. Allow me pose different questions:

            1. You say rape ” involves violating the dignity and integrity of another individual.” Here it seems you are talking about the act and not intent. How does rape and torture violate the dignity and integrity of the individuals in a way that indiscriminate infant killing does not? Further, it seems wrong to punish infants for the sins of their fathers. How does God’s intent in killing infants rise above that of the rapist of torturer, why is his intent morally praiseworthy in the case of infant killing?

            2. Where has Randal’s exegesis of Lamentations 4 gone wrong?

            • Rational Inquirer

              3.I don’t see how your interpretation answers the cluster of
              questions I posed in #3 of my first post.

              • RationalInquirer

                4. Sorry, one more. You wrote:

                I would say that it is certainly permissible of Him to kill people in order to save them from an even worse fate that would have befallen them, had they lived. I would add that growing up in a totally depraved society whose members all grow up to perform vicious and depraved practices could be considered as a fate worse than death. Hence it would not be wrong for God to kill infants in order to save them from such a fate.

                Why didn’t God command the Israelites to spare the infants and raise them? If God issued such a command, why think their fate would be any worse than any infant Israelite’s fate?

                • Vincent

                  Hi RationalInquirer,

                  You ask: “How does rape and torture violate the dignity and integrity of the individuals in a way that indiscriminate infant killing does not?” My answer is that both acts (as I define them) involve reducing someone to a subhuman status: a person who is raping someone views them as a piece of meat, and a person who is torturing someone views their body as a thing that he owns and can treat as he sees fit. You can’t rape someone and respect them at the same time. Ditto for torture. But you can respect someone you’re killing, even as you’re killing them: think of the Jews who killed each other at Masada. That’s why capital punishment is (in rare cases) justifiable, but rape and torture are not. I’m talking here about torture as I originally defined it, rather than Randal’s broader definition.

                  Why didn’t God tell the Israelites to spare the infants and raise them? In some cases He did tell them to spare the girls and the baby boys. In other cases, He ordered every human being and animal destroyed. I don’t know why.My guess is that the Israelites didn’t have enough food to look after them all, and that God would have had to work an extended series of miracles in order to overcome this problem. If they were killed (and I say if, because I don’t know what really happened), they would have gone straight to God, in any case.

                  Re Lamentations 4: see my exchange above. In answer to your question, Re God’s passivity: I can’t believe that God actively sent the famine, as it caused children to starve in agony. However, He could have allowed it to happen to the people of Jerusalem, on account of their sins. Finally, I don’t think God has the responsibility to prevent mothers from killing their children. He has given us free will, and one day He will bring the world to justice.

                  • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                    The leaders of the Spanish Inquisition respected the people they tortured as images of God for whom Christ died. It was precisely for this reason that they tortured them.

                    As for why kill the Canaanite infants, your explanation (not enough food) is completely different from Craig’s. He argues that had the infants lived they would have grown up to corrupt Israelite society. Does that mean you repudiate Craig’s reasoning here?

                    • Vincent

                      Hi Randal,

                      I don’t think that explanation would work for very young children. Re Inquisitors, see above, Got to go now.

                    • RationalInquirer

                      Your example with the men of Masada has to do with men who thought they had no other alternative; they choose the lesser of two evils. I provided an example of a much better solution regarding the Israelites. You considered this option but with limited reflection. If there was a food shortage God could give the Israelites fertile land elsewhere thus eliminating
                      the need for continuous miracles. Second, what’s wrong with performing constant miracles? The miracles could be a
                      constant reminder of God’s power and grace and may have deterred Israel from committing future sins. Third, God could have given Israel the victory over their enemies by killing the perpetrators of atrocities granting them control of the enemy’s land, thus providing enough food.

                      I don’t mean to continue this exchange in perpetuity, but I hope you see why someone might not find your line of reasoning convincing.

                      -Respectfully Submitted

    • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

      Vincent, thanks for these well articulated comments. I’ll respond to what I see to be the key points of dispute (while noting the substantial points of agreement).

      You write: “I was merely arguing that the examples seemed gratuitous. Neither you nor Craig would seriously argue that God could command such acts, and nor would I.”

      That doesn’t mean they’re gratuitious to my argument. Indeed, the very fact that we would all reject them would stand in my favor. On what basis do you reject them?

      This came up at some length last summer when I had a dispute with a colleague here in the blog over the Akedah. I argued that sacrificing one’s child (i.e. killing and mutilating one’s child in a ritualistic act of divine devotion) is not obviously worse than raping one’s child in a ritualistic act of divine devotion. So if one would want to argue that God can command child sacrifice but not rape (even while never intending either), one must argue the case that rape is somehow worse than child sacrifice such that it is something God could never do. To the extent that my interlocutor fails to establish such a case, that counts against his view. The same applies in the present case.

      “Torture, mutilation and rape all presuppose such an intention. Hence they are inherently malicious, and could never be performed by God, Who is all-good.”

      You might have to define torture at this point. Why can’t a torturous punishment be a rehabilitative one? And what about hell, particularly understood as eternal conscious torment?

      As for mutilation, what about circumcision? Why wouldn’t that constitute a modest form of mutilation? And what about the much more extreme example of Aron Ralston as told in the popular film “127 Hours”? I am frankly perplexed by the quick and unqualified way you dismiss actions like these categorically while retaining your commitment to extraordinary actions like genocide.

      (I could make a parallel case for rape as I already alluded to above.)

      “Would the eradication of society A be directly beneficial, in and of itself, to society B? Obviously.”

      Bzzt! You’re talking at this point about a “society” as a relatively abstract philosophical notion which includes a broad range of beliefs and practices and cultural products and aggressive individuals. But that doesn’t mean Society A would be benefited by slaughtering all the infants living in Society B. Indeed, all the psychological data on the impact of killing on human beings is unequivocal: this act would be absolutely brutalizing on the perpetrators of genocide.

      Again, I am mystified at how you categorically dismiss actions like torture and mutilation but have such confidence in the possible rightness of genocide. And you fail to acknowledge that any Ancient Near Eastern genocide would have included vast amounts of both torture and mutilation. Such extreme acts are part of the psychological coping mechanisms in which people engage when they violate the moral law. Consider the parallels with the My Lai massacre. When you’ve already been brutalized in war you are more likely to commit other atrocities.

      As for your final response on cannibalizing the infant, you provide two objections. Your (a) objection is irrelevant since we’re talking about the individuals God foreknew would eat their infants. As for (b), the text establishes that God punished an entire society — including the infants — for the actions of the culpable acting moral agents of Israel. You seem to be claiming that the singular event “the punishment of Jerusalem” constituted a punishment but the individual events that comprise that event including the event of a mother eating her child as a result of starvation do not constitute part of the punishment. This doesn’t make any sense to me at all. Perhaps you could explain what you mean?

      • Vincent

        Hi Randal,

        Thanks for your response. You write that “any Ancient Near Eastern genocide would have included vast amounts of both torture and mutilation.” Quite true, if we’re talking about other civilizations in the Ancient Near East. But the whole point of the Bible is that Israel is not just another Ancient Near Eastern civilization. It was the only civilization in history that had direct and repeated contact with God, our Creator. The Bible tells us that God repeatedly performed acts of supernatural intervention in order to save the Israelites. So your objection that the Israelite soldiers would have been traumatized and brutalized by what they did, or that they engaged in torture and mutilation as part of their coping mechanism, are beside the point. God, as I have explained earlier, could easily have arranged that any innocents who lost their lives in the Israelite conquests died without suffering fear or pain, so their deaths would not have traumatized the Israelites. Again, I’m not saying this is necessarily what happened; I’m saying that if you accept that God intervened supernaturally on behalf of His people, then it could well have happened.

        You ask why a torturous act can’t be a rehabilitative one. Most people would define torture either as the infliction of sadistic pain (which presupposes that the torturer delights in the victim’s suffering for its own sake), or coercive pain (which presupposes that the torturer wants to reduce the victim to a subhuman state by breaking their will). In either case, the intention of the torturer is an evil one. If you’re going to expand your definition to include flogging and corporal punishment, then you should have said so at the beginning, instead of relying on a loaded term like “torture.” Is caning by the principal a form of torture, then?

        As regards corporal punishment, as a parent I’m very skeptical of its rehabilitative value, although I acknowledge there are a few exceptional cases when a very quick smack on the behind might be necessary to stop a very naughty young child. As a rule, I don’t think corporal punishment is good for the child: it just hardens them. It also hardens the parent. That said, I refuse to condemn out of hand subsistence societies (such as ancient Israel) in which it was practiced more frequently, as a way of teaching children a few of life’s hard lessons, in order to spare them from the consequences of suffering later on in life. Could God have commanded the Israelites to correct their children in this fashion? I suppose so.

        Defining male circumcision as a form of mutilation is ridiculous. In ordinary parlance, mutilation means severing an organ or a limb. A foreskin is neither. Or is cutting my toenails mutilation, too? Nor is there any legitimate comparison with female genital mutilation, which is far more radical – more like chopping off a man’s penis – an involves removing an organ. A foreskin is not an organ; it’s a skin fold.

        The idea that rape could ever be rehabilitative is so preposterous that I will not even comment on the notion. No matter what the rapist’s purpose may be, rape necessarily involves violating the dignity and integrity of another individual. Hence it is wrong.

        Regarding my case about society A and society B: no, I did not define “society” in an abstract sense as a set of beliefs and practices. I defined it as a set of people living together, who are bound together by their culture, beliefs and practices. I then constructed the case of a hypothetical toxic and aggressive society A, which engages in vile and depraved practices, and which lives next to and continually preys on fledgling society B, which is morally upright. I then argued that the eradication of society A, in and of itself, would obviously be of benefit to B. Eradication here means total removal. To see this point, imagine that you’re living in society B and you wake up one morning to find that every member of society A has died overnight of some plague. What would your reaction be? Definitely one of relief: “Thank God they’re gone.”

        You object that slaughtering all the infants in society A could not possibly be good for society B. And I would agree. But the original question I considered was whether the eradication of an entire society could ever be good for another society. If we consider the evil society as a whole, then its removal would obviously be of benefit to the morally upright society, and hence the action of “destroying a society” could be a beneficial one. As to why God might have commanded the slaughter of each and every person in Amalek: I don’t know. What I do know is that He could have done so, without the innocent people in that society suffering fear, distress or pain.

        As regards Lamentations 4, the punishment God inflicted was to allow the people of Jerusalem to suffer a famine for their sins. On such a construal, the deaths of people from starvation in that famine could certainly be considered as part of the punishment, as it’s a direct consequence of the famine itself. The actions of some mothers who killed and cooked their children would not be part of the punishment, because it’s not a direct consequence of the famine (people do after all have free will), and because it would actually thwart God’s purpose in any case (the mothers were supposed to die of starvation, but instead they lived).

        I hope that helps.

        • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

          Vincent, in your opening paragraph you claim (if I understand you correctly) that the Israelites would not have mutilated the corpses. But you provide no evidence for this. In addition, you claim that they would not have suffered any psychological distress. If I understand you correctly, your claim here is that God could have protected them from the normal psychological effects that come with engaging in mass murder. But again, you provide no evidence that this is the case.It is ironic to know as well that the only people who can engage in mass killing without psychological impact are psychopathic personalities. That should tell you something.

          On the issue of torture, the act of inflicting excruciating pain as punishment constitutes one standard definition of torture. (Just look up the word in some dictionaries.) This would leave it open that more severe corporal punishments would be torturous. And this could be intended for a positive end. Think as well of boot camp in the Marines: torture but for an allegedly positive purpose. (And it would suggest that eternal conscious torment is the paradigm example of torture.)

          As for mutilation, here’s one definition: “to injure, disfigure, or make imperfect by removing or irreparably damaging parts.” Many people do consider circumcision a form of mutiliation, though obviously a much more modest one than castration. It certainly isn’t equivalent to “clipping toenails” as you suggest.

          You write: “The idea that rape could ever be rehabilitative is so preposterous that I will not even comment on the notion.”
          I agree. I just wish you had the same moral incredulity toward claims of morally justifiable infant wartime slaughter.

          Your reading of Lamentations 4 in which you propose that the macro-effects on the society are part of God’s punishment but the micro-effects are not, is wholly arbitrary (unless you believe God is providentially active only at the general level of world events). But as it stands you have no reason to deny that the mother’s starvation to the point of pedo-cannibalism constituted part of the punishment except for your own moral embarassment at this shocking consequence.

          • Vincent

            Hi Randal,

            Thank you for your response. In your post, you asked me if I could imagine Jesus torturing or mutilating someone. I said no. But now it turns out that your definition of torture includes corporal punishment, and your definition of mutilation includes circumcision. In that case, perhaps I should answer yes. See John 2:15: “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen.” As for circumcision, Jesus Himself was circumcised, and He never criticized the practice.

            You distinguish between macro-effects and micro-effects when discussing my interpretation of Lamentations 4. But my whole point is that the mothers’ cannibalism of their own infants wasn’t an effect of the famine at all, but a free choice made (albeit under trying circumstances) by the mothers. I’m not a determinist; I believe in libertarian free will (as I trust you do). God foresaw this choice that the mothers would make, but did not intend it.

            By the way, do you believe that God punished Jerusalem for its sins? If not, why not? And if so, do you believe He intended the acts of cannibalism that followed?

            You suggest that only a psychopath can kill innocent people without feeling psychological distress. Quite so; but this was no ordinary act of killing. If – and I say if because I really do not know – God actually commanded the slaughter of women and children, then the manner in which they were killed would have been altogether different from normal deaths in warfare. For one thing, as I have argued above, they would not have been conscious. You and I both agree that killing a conscious, screaming baby could never be right. What I am supposing here is that the women and children would have all been unconscious but still breathing. The Israelites merely administered the coup de grace. The tranquility of the women’s and children’s deaths would have astounded the Israelites, who would have seen it as a sign from God. It would also have protected them against the psychological scarring that normally accompanies the killing of innocent people.

            “Why isn’t all this in the Bible?” you ask. Well, I can think of one very good reason. Suppose word got out that this had happened. Neighboring people would think, “The God of the Israelites is a wimp! He won’t hurt women and children! That’s his weak spot! We’ll take advantage of that!” And they would use women and children as “human shields” in their battles against the Israelites, knowing that they could not strike back. Consequently, it was necessary to write the Bible in a manner that made God look bloodthirsty, so as to scare off neighboring peoples and deter them from invading Israel.

            The scenario I’ve sketched above suggests an alternative interpretation of the “Biblical atrocities,” and it’s one which I’m willing to entertain. Perhaps they never really happened, but were deliberately written into the text, not with the aim of morally edifying the Israelites (who would have known that they were pure propaganda), but with the aim of scaring off neighboring peoples with tall tales of God’s blazing anger against whole populations that crossed Him. Over time, as tales of God’s terrible anger were passed down to later generations of Israelites, people began to take them as literal narratives, and forgot their original purpose. Maybe that’s what happened. I don’t know. At any rate, the point of my argument was to show that God could kill innocent people in a way befitting an all-compassionate Being, and that He could command others to do the same without causing them suffering. Whether He actually did so or not is another matter.

            • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

              While I was pointing out that your definition of torture was unnecessarily narrow, my initial question was assuming morally problematic forms of torture. For example, some of the practices employed by the Spanish Inquisition (which were, by the way, undertaken to save souls, not just torture bodies).

              If you think that God cannot punish people by using libertarian free will then presumably God wasn’t punishing Israel in the first place since it was sacked by Babylonian troops with libertarian free will.

              As for your final question, I did a series on the Haiti earthquake and natural disasters last year which addresses that question. See the first article in the series here:

              http://randalrauser.com/2011/10/does-god-punish-people-through-natural-disasters/

              • Vincent

                Hi Randal,

                Thanks for the link. Upon reflection, I would say that the sufferings of the people of Jerusalem in Lamentations 4 were something God chose to allow to happen, rather than something God sent. So that removes the difficulty about the Babylonian troops having free will. As for today’s society, it’s entirely possible that God may “take His hand off the helm” if people choose to defy Him. Only prayer can avert that.

                While the Spanish Inquisitors may have had the spiritual welfare of their victims in mind, their intention was still wrong, as they hoped to bring about their victims’ repentance by breaking their spirits and destroying their wills.

                It has been an interesting exchange of views. Thanks for having me on your blog. I’ll have to bow out now, as I have family matters to attend to.

                • http://www.randalrauser.com/ Randal Rauser

                  Okey dokey. Well nice chatting. Come back for a visit!