Over the years I have often heard the charge made: if God exists, then he is a murderer. As a piece of rhetoric, I suppose such charges satisfy those making them. But as a serious accusation they commonly leave much to be desired. In this series of posts I’m going to discuss the complexities inherent in the charge that God is a murderer, the hope being that those who are wont to make such charges will come to recognize the complexities with making them.
The catalyst for the discussion is a comment that David Evans made last week in the discussion thread for the article “If Richard Dawkins were king.” He wrote:
“Note that God, if he exists, allows the spontaneous abortion of millions of such early fetuses every year. If they are persons, he is a mass murderer.”
The robust nature of the charge immediately caught my attention. In the case David cites, God (presumably) foreknows that fetuses will spontaneously abort due to natural laws that God himself has established and which he sustains. And David charges that God’s failure to prevent the fetuses from aborting spontaneously in accord with these natural laws is morally equivalent to God’s murdering those fetuses.
This is a serious charge. If there is merit to it, we need to consider it carefully. But if there isn’t merit to it, it needs to be identified as spurious, for few things can pollute a discourse as thoroughly as ill-founded charges of murder.
So let’s consider a closer evaluation of this charge specifically, as well as the general charge that God is a murderer. And it seems that a reasonable place to start is with a definition of murder. I’ve drawn this definition from law.com:
murder. n. the killing of a human being by a sane person, with intent, malice aforethought (prior intention to kill the particular victim or anyone who gets in the way) and with no legal excuse or authority. (source)
God is most certainly sane. But we face two very important questions regarding killing and legal excuse or authority. First, when does the death of an individual constitute God’s killing that individual? Certainly there are putative cases that seem to involve direct acts of God’s killing a person such as the death of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. (However, even this is not as obvious as one might suppose, a point to which we shall return in a subsequent article.) Second, how should we think about God’s authority generally as well as his “legal excuse” in particular circumstances?
In the next two articles in this series I will consider the charge of murder with respect to these two issues.