Popular Christian apologists have a problem. On the one hand, they are strident defenders of objective moral knowledge, often to the end of defending a moral argument for God’s existence. On the other hand, they defend readings of the violence portrayed in the Bible that appear inconsistent with that aforementioned commitment to objective moral knowledge.
Wallace on Moral Absolutes and the Relativist Who Needs Therapy
Take the case of J. Warner Wallace. Just today Mr. Wallace posted a short article titled “The Self-Evident Nature of Objective Moral Truths.” He begins,
“there appear to be a number of moral absolutes that transcend culture and history. These objective truths beckon us to seek justification when we attempt to circumvent their prescriptions.”
Wallace provides the following examples:
It’s never OK to steal “for the fun of it”
It’s never OK to lie “for the fun of it”
It’s never OK to kill “for the fun of it”
Wallace then notes that when he encounters relativists who are resistant to acknowledging moral absolutes, he will often reply like this:
“it’s sometimes important to ‘super-size’ an issue to illustrate the point. That’s why I occasionally ask the question, ‘Is it ever OK to torture babies for fun?’ If it isn’t, we’ve just identified a transcendent moral principle we can agree on.”
Wallace then recounts with bemusement the recalcitrant relativist who is keen to affirm the prohibition on baby-torture-for-fun but who is hamstrung by a relativist framework. He begins with a pointed question for the relativist:
“‘So, are you saying there’s a scenario in which it might be appropriate to torture a baby for fun?’ She still hesitated. “So, you’re saying that there could be a scenario in which it is morally acceptable to torture babies merely for the fun of it? Do you see how that sounds?”
Answer: it sounds really bad! Our moral intuitions support the conclusion that torturing babies for fun is always wrong.
So what if the relativist still refuses to recognize that torturing babies for fun is absolutely wrong? Wallace concludes with another suggestion, therapy:
“When people still refuse to affirm something as self-evident as, ‘It’s never OK to torture babies for fun,’ it’s time to offer them an additional piece of advice: ‘Get some help!’ When your intuitive ability to recognize self-evident truth is inoperative, it’s time to get some counseling.”
There you have it: if people insist on maintaining views that are at variance with “self-evident” moral truths, there may be nothing left to do but advise them to get some counseling.
Wallace on Biblical Violence
Right, now let’s turn to Wallace’s 2013 article “Why Would a Good God Behave So Badly?” In this article Wallace takes on the problem of biblical violence. The difficulty here is that the Bible (and the Old Testament in particular) appears to depict God commanding and commending actions that contradict self-evident moral truths.
Like what? Well, let’s stick with the baby examples. Just as it seems self-evident that torturing babies for fun is wrong, so it seems self-evident that undertaking the punitive slaughter of infants for the actions of adult ancestors of those infants is wrong. And yet, in 1 Samuel 15 we read this:
“2 This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. 3 Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”
Now this appears to present a direct affront to the very self-evident moral knowledge that Wallace defends. So how can we make sense of this? Wallace offers three points.
First, he says that “God is the greatest artist”:
“the artist has the authority and right to destroy his or her own work. The art belongs to the artist. If there is a God, all of creation is His handiwork. He has the right to create and destroy what is His, even when this destruction may seem unfair to the artwork itself.”
So since God created infants, God can decide what to do with them. And if he wants them butchered for the sins of their ancestors, then that’s just the way it is.
Wallace’s second point is that “God is the greatest physician.” He explains:
“If there is a God, all of us are His patients. He has the wisdom and authority to treat us as He sees fit, even when we might not be able to understand the overarching danger we face if drastic action isn’t taken.”
This point reiterates the first point by appealing to divine authority, but it adds an additional point regarding divine wisdom. This would seem to be an allusion to the notion of skeptical theism: viz. even if we cannot envision what reason God would have he must have good reason.
The fact is, however, that mystery doesn’t really apply here: the text provides the underlying moral principle: at least in some cases it is permissible to hold infants morally accountable for the actions of their ancestors.
Finally, Wallace concludes with the third point, “God is the greatest savior”:
“If there is a God, He is more concerned about saving us for eternity than He is about making our mortal lives safe.”
Generally speaking, each of the points Wallace raises is legitimate: as creator God does have particular authority over creation, and he has particular knowledge of purposes and ends that we do not, and this life is not the end of existence: rather it is the forecourt for eternity.
But do any of those points add up to a defense for the ethics of punitively slaughtering infants for the actions of their ancestors? Or, conversely, is the application of these general points nonetheless constrained by our most basic, self-evident moral knowledge?
Special Pleading or Therapy?
Now we come to the dilemma.
Imagine that a tribe in Irian Jaya slaughters the neighboring tribe — men, women, children, infants, and animals — because of actions committed by the ancestors of that neighboring tribe several hundred years before. How should we think about those actions?
If Wallace’s three points apply to the Amalekite Genocide of 1 Samuel 15 then they apply in principle to the actions of that Irian Jayan tribe. In other words, their actions are at least possibly defensible because in some cases it is morally justifiable to slaughter infants for the actions of their ancestors.
This presents Wallace with a dilemma. If he denies that the actions of the Irian Jayan tribe are at least possibly morally justified then he engages in special pleading. If, on the contrary, he concedes that they are at least possibly morally justified then the rest of us might be inclined to tell him to get some counseling.
And one more thing: even if Wallace embraces the horn of special pleading, one might still think he needs some therapy. After all, if our moral knowledge supports the conclusion that just as it is always wrong to torture infants for fun so it is always wrong to slaughter them punitively for the actions of their ancestors, then any exception to the absolute places one in need of therapy.
In conclusion, apologists like Mr. Wallace must choose: will they defend their moral knowledge and seek alternative readings of the biblical passages in question? Or will they deny that moral knowledge in order to retain their particular reading of the Bible?