I ended part 1 of this discussion with two questions, the first of which I will begin to address here: “when does the death of an individual constitute God’s killing that individual?”
Note that by addressing this question we are not yet discussing God’s murdering anybody since killing and murdering are not the same thing. To wit, all acts of murder are acts of killing, but not all acts of killing are acts of murder. For example, the doctor who inadvertently administers a lethal dose of morphine kills the patient, but it doesn’t follow that he murdered the patient. The soldier who shoots his mortally wounded friend on the battlefield to spare him from several hours of torture at the hands of rapidly advancing enemy troops kills his friend, but he does not (necessarily) murder the man. And so it follows that God’s acting to kill a man does not in itself warrant the conclusion that God murdered that person.
The killing of Ananias
In part 1 I referenced the story of Ananias and Sapphira as an instance of God’s directly killing a person. Let’s recount the killing of Ananias:
3 Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? 4 Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
5 When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.
When reading this narrative it is natural to conclude that God acted directly to kill Ananias.
But imagine, for the moment, that we pulled God into court on charges of second degree murder. Would the charge hold up in court? It is far from clear that it would. After all, God’s defense could accuse the prosecution of committing the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore, because of this). In other words, the prosecution simply assumes that because Ananias’ death follows lying to the Holy Spirit that the Holy Spirit (and thus God) is causally implicated in Ananias’ death. But this doesn’t follow.
A month ago I noted the phenomenon of walking under a streetlight followed by the streetlight’s shutting off. While I suggested (tongue in cheek) that I had a psychic power to turn off streetlights merely by walking underneath them, that sequence of events is itself insufficient to establish a causal connection. Similarly, the mere fact that Ananias fell over dead following his outing as a liar is insufficient to establish the fact that God directly intervened in history to kill him (still less to murder him).
Clearly, the anecdote does serve as a warning to the church. But nowhere does the text provide the causal mechanism that is in operation. And it is precisely that mechanism which one requires to establish a charge of killing. The lesson is that we have to be careful about reading into a case more than is present.
The killing of Uzzah
But the prosecution has other cases. And so they draw the jury’s attention to Exhibit B: the killing of Uzzah as described in 2 Samuel 6:
6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.
Here we have that direct link that is lacking in the Ananias case. The Hebrew verb invoked to describe God’s action (nakah) is translated as “struck” (NIV) or “smote” (KJV). Both translations fit into a lexical range that includes “smite, slay, strike, beat, kill”.
Could this be the smoking gun? A case where God directly kills (and murders?) a man?
In order to justify this conclusion we must take a look at how theologians interpret this passage. Yes, I know atheists often prefer to interact with the uncritical perspectives one is likely to find in the pew. But if they think that their critics should engage the intellectually robust examples of atheism then surely they should extend the same courtesy when they critique Christianity.
The first lesson we need to digest is that theologians tend to emphasize that language of God acting in the world is analogical in nature. In other words, when we describe God as performing various actions in the world, we are drawing analogies between God as agent and human beings as agents. And if we are to sustain a meaningful charge of direct killing, we must attend to the differences in the application.
With that in mind, let’s take another gander at the Uzzah text, beginning with the precipitating rationale for the divine act, i.e. God’s burning anger. In mainstream Christian theology God has been conceived to be impassible meaning that God is not subject to changes in emotional state. This position was nearly universally held among theologians prior to WW2. While that position has endured substantial critiques since WW2, many of the criticisms (I’m thinking of folks like Jurgen Moltmann, Clark Pinnock and Paul Fiddes) depend heavily on caricatures and misrepresentations of the doctrine. Divine impassibility remains a mainstream and intellectually robust theological position.
From the perspective of divine impassibility, it is incorrect to think that Uzzah’s action resulted in a change in the divine emotional state (i.e. the beginning to burn with anger). And thus the text does not warrant the conclusion that God’s emotional state has indeed changed as a result of Uzzah’s action.
If we’re going to sustain a charge of direct killing we need to consider how the attribution of “the Lord’s anger [burning] against Uzzah because of his irreverent act” is to be understood. It might help at this point to balance out the anthropopathic description of God as an enraged human agent with an impersonal one. Drop a china teapot on a rock and the teapot shatters simply due to the obtaining of particular natural laws and objective properties in the teapot and rock. Note that the rock is impassible qua the teapot, but the latter can still be shattered by the former if it comes into a particular kind of contact with it.
This description of the rock/teapot provides a very different picture about the God/Uzzah relationship from the anthropopathic description of God growing angry and then striking Uzzah. According to classic Christian theology and its confession of divine impassibility, each image captures some aspect of this event.
While it is comparatively easy to conceive of God as directly killing Uzzah if one limits oneself to the unreflective anthromporphized conceptions of deity that are prevalent in the pew, it becomes much more difficult to do so if one attends to the conceptions of deity and divine action that are held by theologians. And the onus is on the person desiring to make the charge of direct killing to consider sophisticated theological constructions of the divine nature and divine action, and then to defend the charge of killing relative to those models.
Killing and Murder
Of course, even if we can establish that God acted as an agent in the world and killed Uzzah directly, it certainly doesn’t follow that God murdered Uzzah. One man shoots and kills another man in the street. Was it murder? Well who are these men? Does the shooter have authority to fire a weapon? Is he a police officer? Was the other man wielding a weapon? Was he threatening people? Did the shooter fear for his life? Innumerable questions must be answered before a charge of killing can be justified as a charge of murder.
The same applies when it comes to God. If you’re serious about charging God with murder, you had better be prepared to establish that God acted as an agent in a way relevantly analogous to a human agent which brought about the death of a human being. And then you better be prepared to defend the charge that this discrete act of killing was in fact a murder based on a careful description of the case.