Clint Heacock is a former senior pastor with a PhD in theology who has since left Christianity and bills himself as an exvangelical. In this conversation, Dr. Heacock and I discuss his objections to theodicy and the problem of biblical violence in particular. To learn more about Dr. Heacock, you can visit him online at his blog as well as the aptly-titled Mindshift Podcast.
RR: Clint, thanks for joining me in this discussion about theodicy. As I understand your position, you believe this is a failed enterprise and I’d like to hear more. But let’s start with definitions to make sure that we’re on the same page. How do you define theodicy?
CH: Classically, of course, it has to do with “a defense of God” in terms of providing some sort of justification or answer to what appears to be some fairly indefensible actions of God in the Old Testament, such as: commanding Israel to commit genocide on other nations; killing of Egyptian firstborn male babies; and God some laying out some fairly horrific (and extremely harsh) laws in the Pentateuch also.
On the face of it, these do not seem to be the actions of a loving, merciful deity. God has been accused of being actually sadistic and monstrous, which logically seems to be the case if we take the text at face value. The scriptures are clear that he himself commanded it.
I also would say that theodicy touches on the larger problem of evil, and the question of God somehow being potentially responsible for evil’s existence. It also speaks to his character, if he is indeed some sort of monster who both condones and commands genocide.
But I’d also say that your description of my journey is somewhat incomplete. I haven’t “left all the religion stuff behind” in the sense that I am still very much interested in dialoguing about it. In particular, this topic of theodicy is of interest because many ex-evangelicals report that a major reason they left the church is over its doctrine of God, their portrayal of him in churches, and this issue of theodicy. I may more properly be described as agnostic, because I’m still wrestling with a lot of issues. So I haven’t left religion entirely behind.
Theology that appears to provide “an escape clause” for God’s actions is often seen by exvangelicals as little more than creating a justification for letting him off the hook. If God is indeed responsible for evils he commanded, then he is in no way worthy of worship and adoration. He cannot be the loving God as portrayed and worshiped in evangelicalism.
Thus, I do my podcast to talk with people all over the world who have largely left evangelicalism. In these discussions, I have learned much, and have experienced a great range of responses as to their reasons why they left the church (and possibly Christianity) behind.
I therefore act, (perhaps ironically), still in very much of a pastoral role for many of my listeners who have experienced deep religious trauma at the hands of the church–and possibly God too.
RR: Okay, thanks. Etymologically, theodicy comes from the Greek words for God and justice, hence the notion of justifying God’s ways to human beings. Your summary focused primarily on biblical violence, though you also reference “the larger problem of evil”, which, I assume, you would understand to encompass such states of suffering and evil as wicked human moral actions generally(i.e moral evil) as well as the suffering which is often described as natural evil because it obtains apart from the morally culpable actions of moral agents. I’m thinking, for example, of carnivory, predation, parasitism or mass extinction in nature as well as the suffering from natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanic explosions and meteor strikes. And so we face the question of how we reconcile the existence of God with this degree of evil and suffering.
However, I’m puzzled by your description of theodicy as “an escape clause” to get God “off the hook.” What the theist who develops a theodicy is doing is recognizing the existence of an objection to their belief and then presenting a rebuttal to that objection. And it seems to me that this is precisely what reasonable people do when presented with objections to their beliefs. So what’s the problem?
CH: The precise nature of the problem is this: if God is indeed responsible for the commanding of genocide, for example, then the implications of that are huge. This is an even greater problem for biblical literalists, as an example, who (taking the text essentially at face value) don’t seem to want to face up to the fact that the text simply states, “Yahweh commanded his people…” to commit genocide. Were those same actions to take place today, we would classify them, rightly so, as a war crime, and the guilty parties would be judged in a court of law–and found guilty of mass murder of civilians.
So what I mean by the “escape clause” argument is that it somehow seems that even in “reasonable” defenses of God’s actions in the OT, he always appears to escape culpability for instigating hideous evil–and thus is handily provided a way out of being held responsible. Much like the soldiers and officers responsible for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, their actions were later whitewashed by the US Army, and they never were held to account for their horrific murders of innocent Vietnamese civilians.
RR: I see. So it would seem then that your objection is not actually directed at theodicy per se but rather at a particular range of theodicies which you find implausible. Fair enough, I find those theodicies and the hermeneutics that underlie them problematic too. See, for example, my 2009 Philosophia Christi article “Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive,” and my extensive review of Paul Copan and Matthew Flanagan’s book Did God Really Command Genocide? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
Nor am I an outlier in this regard. Many Christians offer similar critiques of violent biblical readings and they propose alternative readings of the texts in question. See, for example, the work of Greg Boyd, Peter Enns, Brian Zahnd, Eric Seibert, Douglas Earl, John Collins, Walter Brueggemann, Philip Jenkins, Derek Flood, Mark Roncace, Thom Stark, and Kenton Sparks. Nor is this a new trend: one finds alternative reading traditions throughout church history: consider, for example, Origen (3rd cent.) and Gregory of Nyssa (4th cent.).
For an introduction to a new way of thinking, I’d commend my book The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetic Rabbit Trails, chapter 21, “Would a Most Perfect Being Command Genocide?”
Okay, so I’ve argued that you shouldn’t dis on the project of theodicy in general because it is simply the task of seeking to address objections to one’s worldview. And while you may reject particular hermeneutical treatments of biblical violence texts, many Christians do as well. Do you have any other major concerns or objections?
CH: My point remains, which is this: I’ve never heard of a theodicy that simply admits to the very distinct possibility that God commanded his people to commit genocide (but to be fair, I haven’t read all of those sources to which you referred above). There may be someone who does, but I haven’t studied that source to date. If you know of any who do, please refer them to me. I want to hear of a Christian who admits that’s simply what the text says; that’s what happened; and then try to come to grips with worshiping that God.
But I can honestly say I’m beyond the point of being “argued back into the Kingdom” on this issue; in addition to theodicy, I have a multiplicity of issues with the God of the Bible, as well as the God of evangelicalism.
I suppose as an exvangelical, one of the major elements of my deconstruction of the Bible and theology was finally just admitting to myself that if I took the text simply at face value, it leaves me with little option other than to admit what I just articulated above. So in all my own attempts at theodicy, as an evangelical, I now see clearly, were merely ways to excuse, or provide an escape clause, for “the elephant in the room”–God told his people to do it.
That reality is incredibly problematic, and I decided that I did not want to live with the cognitive dissonance any longer of trying to find excuses for God’s actions in the conquest of Canaan. Equally disturbing are many horrific and downright cruel laws that God commanded his people to follow, too. Then in nearly the same breath, he commands them to worship him exclusively–on pain of cursing, death and exile. What kind of a healthy, or functional, relationship is that?
Recently I listened to a quite disturbing podcast describing in detail the events surrounding the My Lai massacre, which I referenced above. When one begins to understand even a tiny bit of how horrific and traumatic it was for the unfortunate Vietnamese who were caught up in the massacre, from there it’s not a far leap to put oneself in the position of the Canaanites who were wiped out at God’s command–men, women, children and animals.
Put in the parlance of a modern military, “God the general” ordered his soldiers to murder men, women, children and even livestock. That is extremely psychologically disturbing, and I cannot condone the worship of a God who would command such atrocities on people. Any court in the world would justly condemn such actions as a war crime, and crimes against humanity.
As far as I’m concerned, much of theodicy is on the same level as justifying the perpetrators of the My Lai massacre–and just as angering and disturbing psychologically. Many were rightly outraged when the soldiers at My Lai (as well as the higher-ups) got off basically scot-free. Why shouldn’t we feel the same way in the case of a God who commands genocide?
RR: Clint, I’m not sure that we’re connecting here. You asked whether any of the twelve scholars I referenced believe that God did in fact command genocide. No, they don’t: that’s why I cited them. I was pointing out that many Christians reject the violent reading of the Bible which you cite as a reason to reject Christianity.
You did ask, however, for examples of Christian scholars who do accept that God commanded the eradication of Canaanites from the land. That’s easy enough to do: see the essays by Eugene Merrill and Tremper Longman in Show Them No Mercy. However, as I said, I don’t find those views at all compelling. The point, once again, is that an objection to a particular violent reading of the Bible does not constitute an objection to mere Christianity since mere Christianity does not commit one to a particular violent reading of the Bible. The twelve scholars I cited are evidence of that fact.
I would like to address one other point that you made, however. You referred in your comments to the Christian who accepts a violent reading of the Bible as being one “who admits that’s simply what the text says”. This is a common refrain from Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. They assume there is one “plain” reading of scripture: “simply what the text says.” Not surprisingly, they also assume that this plain reading matches up perfectly with their reading. So if Genesis 1 says God created in six days then we should believe God literally did create in six days: that’s the plain reading. And if God says in Deuteronomy 20 that the Israelites should destroy every living thing in the land of Canaan, then that’s what the Christian should believe literally happened. That’s simply what the text says.
But this just isn’t true. There isn’t one plain and simple reading of these texts. And the best way to see that is by considering how people who don’t accept your reading of the text came to hold their views. The twelve scholars I cited provide rigorously worked-out theological readings of these texts based on careful exegetical spadework in a complex reflective equilibrium with specific theological traditions, informed by particular reasoning and moral reflection and practical experience. If you examine their proposals carefully and consider how they came to hold them, I think you’ll be able to see that a Christian is not obliged to believe that God commanded putative moral atrocities like genocide.
CH: I don’t want this to descend into an argument about hermeneutics, however; that’s not what I’m pointing out here. The reality is that for most Christian laypeople won’t take the time to read those 12 scholars’ work to which you refer, for example. And they probably couldn’t track the dense theological and biblical language used in those academic works; I have to say that you yourself are guilty of doing some of the same things (“a complex reflective equilibrium with specific theological traditions” as an example). I’m not even sure what exactly that means, and I’ve got a PhD in theology!
I believe you’ve actually made my point to which I was heading in my last paragraph: the average Christian isn’t going to be able to go through all the “exegetical spadework” to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion that lets God off the hook. Armed with a “straight reading” of the biblical text, and if they’re an inerrantist to boot, then they are in for some real trouble at some point reconciling all of this in their own minds. For all the back-and-forth, I’m still not entirely convinced that you have indeed come up with a theodicy that does excuse him, from what I can tell. Maybe I missed something in all the theological jargon.
I do hope that our conversation is indeed helpful for anyone who is deeply reflecting on this issue. As a former evangelical, I’m still wrestling with the person of God that I was presented with in evangelicalism (and even preached and taught for years). And so it may be that it is precisely that version of God that I’m having trouble with now.
If anyone is interested in my journey out of evangelicalism, here’s the link to my inaugural podcast episode back in January of 2018: