One of the frequent objections that atheists or opponents of Christianity frequently raise is about all those times in the Old Testament when God kills people, or tells the Israelites to kill certain people.
These critics claim that a God of love would never act like this, that it is unjust and barbaric. They say it's wrong for Christians to worship such a God.
Sometimes, even Christians believe this, and then try to find ways to get around these problems. Usually, though, that involves ignoring these stories, making up excuses for why we shouldn't take them seriously, or explaining why we shouldn't even believe that they actually happened.
Unfortunately, there are also plenty of places in the New Testament where Jesus threatens to kill people (e.g. Luke 19:27, Matt 22:7, Mark 9:42) and actually does at the second coming (Rev. 19:21). So if these critics reject the Old Testament for its 'violence', then they have to start editing or selectively reading the New Testament also.
So what should Christians who don't want to edit their Bibles do? How can we make sense of these difficult events when God kills individuals or even large numbers of seemingly 'innocent' people, while maintaining that God is perfectly loving?
In this post I will discuss how I've made sense of understanding God's justice when He sentences people to death, while upholding His perfect goodness and holiness.
When God Kills People
Just to get an idea of the scale of the supposed 'problem' of God killing people, let's look at some examples in Scripture.
Here's some verses about God killing large numbers of people (or instructing others to kill people):
- God wipes out pretty much all humanity except for 8 people in the worldwide flood (Gen. 7:21-23)
- God kills all the first-born of Egypt (Ex. 12:29)
- God wipes out the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-27)
- God kills many Israelites who rebel against Moses (Num. 16:31-33)
- God tells the Levites to kill many unfaithful Israelites (Ex. 32:26-28)
- God tells Joshua to kill Achan and his family (Joshua 7:24-25)
- God tells the Israelites to wipe out the people living in the Promised Land (Deut. 7:1-2)
- God tells King Saul to wipe out the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15:3)
- God sends an angel to wipe out 185,000 enemy soldiers (2 Kings 19:35)
- God sends bears to eat youth who were threatening the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 2:23-24)
- in the future Tribulation, the sixth seal judgment wipes out 1/3 of the world's population (Rev. 9:15-18)
- after the final judgement, God will eternally destroy everyone who does not have their name in the book of life (Rev. 20:13-15)
And just to prove that not all deaths which occur as divine punishment can be traced back to natural causes or other this-worldly factors, let's take note of a few people who were killed directly by God's power:
- Aaron's sons who did not perform their priestly duties as required (Lev. 10:1-2)
- Onan, who would not fulfill his cultural duty to provide for his deceased brother's childless widow (Gen. 38:8-10)
- Uzzah, who touched the Ark to keep it from falling over (2 Sam. 6:6-7)
- Ananias and Sapphira who lied about the extent of their generosity to the early church (Acts 5:1-10)
Therefore, I agree with the critics that Christians need to explain all this killing, since we believe God is Love (1 John 4:8, 4:16), and it seems on the surface to be rather un-loving to kill so many people.
This Is Not A New Problem
While it might seem that this is a new problem, created only by the modern sensitive conscience, it is actually a very old problem.
One early Christian leader named Marcion also thought it was a problem. Among other issues which he had with the Old Testament, Marcion said that Yahweh was an arbitrary and vindictive God who was all about punishing people who didn't obey Him, and thus could not be the loving Father of Jesus Christ, and so he labelled Yahweh as some lesser and possibly even evil sub-deity. Marcion's solution was to reject the entire Old Testament, and many books of the New Testament also, as authoritative for Christians.1
Unfortunately, modern authors seem to want to repeat Marcion's mistake.
For example, Eric Seibert in his book Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God (Fortress Press, 2009) essentially rejects any portrayals of God in the Old Testament that don't match with his idea of Jesus. I say "his idea of Jesus" because he also rejects the 'disturbing' sayings of Jesus in the New Testament.
This makes his argument entirely circular: How do you know what accurately represents Jesus in the Bible if you're not basing your understanding of Jesus on what we know about Him as described in the Bible? Like Marcion, Seibert questions the inerrancy of Scripture and wants to selectively pick and choose what he believes is true. As I've already discussed in my previous post, rejection of inerrancy is a huge problem for consistent Scriptural interpretation.
I haven't actually read Gregory Boyd's two-volume Crucifixion of the Warrior God (Fortress Press, 2017), but I've heard from others that his approach fits in this category as well, by saying that God allowed the Israelites to mistakenly attribute commands to wipe out their enemies to God, when in fact, God did not command them to do so. This would also raise questions about the inerrancy of these portions of scripture, and so I would reject this as a viable approach to solving this problem.
Some Attempts To Solve the Problem
As seen, some Christians prefer to pretend the problem never actually happened. Others accept the descriptions in Scripture as accurate, but attempt to explain or minimize the problems in various ways.
For example, four authors take tries at solving the problem of God commanding Holy War in Show Them No Mercy: Four Views On God and Canaanite Genocide.2
The most convincing explanations I've heard so far regarding Holy War was in a course at Tyndale Seminary with Dr. William J. Webb and Dr. Gord Oeste. They are currently writing a book about this subject, which is scheduled to be released in Dec. 2019 (thus, there are no page citations for what follows).
They suggest that part of the problem of the Israelite invasion of Canaan can be solved, or at least reduced, by considering several factors.
First, God had already attempted to gradually drive out the Canaanites through non-lethal means (Ex. 23:27-30). This would have reduced the numbers of those who stubbornly remained in the promised land who might be killed through violent warfare.
Next, we should understand the rhetoric of ancient warfare, where kings regularly exaggerated their conquests and claimed to have wiped out everyone, when actually, they did not kill literally everyone and had just achieved a good victory (or may have killed only the opponent's king). Everyone back then knew what they meant, because it was a frequent idiom - sort of like when you say your favourite sports team totally 'slaughtered' their opponents.
There is a clear example of this sort of hyperbole in Scripture. Just after telling the Israelites to 'devote to destruction' all the other people in the Promised Land in Deut. 7:1-2, God also says not to intermarry with them (Deut. 7:3). Clearly, intermarriage would be impossible if they were all dead! So the number of actual deaths may be significantly fewer than we often assume.
Webb and Oeste also point out how God limited what the Israelites could do during war, which meant the Israelites treated their captives much more humanely, and were not as violent as surrounding nations were. Back then, you would much rather be invaded by Israel than by the Egyptians, Babylonians, or other groups.
Also, in those ancient cultures, wars were a regular way that nations would test their gods and see whose god was strongest. A victory on the field of battle was seen as proof that their god was stronger than the other nation's god. So when God helped the Israelites win battles, it was a sort of 'evangelism', of proving that God is greater than the false gods of the other nations, and should have led to conversions of the remaining defeated enemies.
For example, Rahab seems to have feared God because she heard news of Israelite victories (Joshua 2:9-11), which led her to side with the Israelite spies and thus saved her and her family from being killed in the battle of Jericho (Joshua 6:17).
Yet even then, there are clues that God was not pleased with this warfare, even though it was a necessity to defend his people and give them a homeland and protect God's reputation among the nations.
For example, God forbids King David to build His temple, because David has too much blood on his hands (1 Chron. 22:8, 28:3), even though God helped David win numerous victories in war. As Webb and Oeste note, this was unlike the practice of the surrounding nations, where the victors of war often built temples to honor their gods.
So Webb and Oeste suggest that while God did command warfare, it was an unfortunate practical reality (and last resort) to establish and defend Israel in the promised land, in the midst of a sinful world, because Israel was chosen to be the means for God to reveal Himself to the rest of the world.
However, while these explanations may partly deal with the difficult situations when God instructs Israel to go into battle or kill certain other people groups, it doesn't really explain all those situations listed above where God kills people directly. So what do we do with those?
The Wages of Sin is Death
To solve this problem, we need to go back to the very first sin, committed by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.
God specifically told them that "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:16-17).
And Scripture relates death to sin. Some of the clearest verses are:
- Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
- Romans 5:12-15, NRSV: "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned - sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. "
- James 1:15: "Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death."
Therefore, death is the punishment for sin, and it is the worst punishment God can inflict on someone. Jonathan Edwards sums this up nicely when he writes:
"Death is spoken of in Scripture as the chief of calamities, the most extreme and terrible of all those natural evils, which come on mankind in this world. Deadly destruction is spoken of as 'the most terrible destruction' (1 Samuel 5:11). Deadly sorrow, as 'the most extreme sorrow' (Isaiah 17:11, Matthew 26:38), and deadly enemies, as 'the most bitter and terrible enemies' (Psalms 17:9). The extremity of Christ's sufferings is represented by his suffering unto death (Philippians 2:8 and other places). Hence the greatest testimonies of God's anger for the sins of men in this world, have been by inflicting death."3
Death is especially awful for humans, because we know it's coming and can fear it:
"Death, with the pains and agonies with which it is usually brought on, is not merely a limiting of existence, but is a most terrible calamity; and to such a creature as man, capable of conceiving of immortality, and made with so earnest a desire after it, and capable of foresight and of reflection on approaching death, and that has such an extreme dread of it, is a calamity above all others terrible, to such as are able to reflect upon it."4
I agree with Edwards that death is the 'worst' calamity that creatures can experience, and thus, why I think eternal annihilation is the ultimate punishment for sin, which will be experienced by those who finally reject God's love. After all, if God is the source of life and goodness who creates humans to live in an eternal relationship with God, and you reject these things, you're basically opting for death as the only alternative.
Why Not 'Spiritual Death'?
And no, I don't believe we can restrict this punishment for sin to 'spiritual death', as some Christians claim.
They say that clearly, since Adam and Eve didn't immediately die physically after they sinned, instead they immediately died 'spiritually'. Usually, this 'spiritual death' is explained as Adam and Eve losing their close relationship with God, or the departure of the Holy Spirit from them.
Usually, those who take this 'spiritual death' position say that Adam and Eve would still have died physically eventually even if they had never sinned, simply because they are finite creatures, but death wouldn't have been nearly as traumatic as it is now.
But I don't get it.
Let's say Adam and Eve never sinned, but still physically died eventually. I ask, what would be the point? How does their death benefit anyone, whether God, themselves, or their descendants? What purpose would death have served if there was no sin in the world? Why would God have everyone die eventually, only to resurrect them at some undisclosed point later on, if instead God could just keep them alive until everyone He wanted to create was created, and have them all live forever, just as we will after being resurrected to live on the restored New Heavens and New Earth?
Thus, the 'spiritual death' position does not answer any questions, and is pure speculation which actually contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture.
It only seems to be a compromise to try to keep Christians looking 'respectable' to atheistic evolutionists, who think that a world without death is ridiculous and impossible. Since, for evolutionists, death is how nature selects the 'fittest' creatures to go on and evolve into new creatures, and thus death is a core part of their philosophy. But according to the Bible, a universe without death will be possible in the New Heaven and on the New Earth, so why was it so impossible in the garden of Eden?
There's no reason to try to compromise on this clear Biblical teaching in order to appease atheistic evolutionists. Why should we care so much what atheists think of us, when they've already rejected belief in the existence of God and the authority of Scripture? The only way to earn their respect is to give up Christianity completely. If we're not willing to do that, then let's agree with what the Bible says.
Trying to make evolution fit with a creator God is pointless, as the theory of evolution is intentionally designed to explain the origin of life and the existence of all living things specifically without any need for a God! By the way, evolution also not scientifically or statistically possible, and is losing favor even among atheistic scientists! Let's not jump onto a sinking ship by compromising with a failing theory.
If you've got some scientific questions about this idea of there being no death before the first sin, the next section of this blog post may interest you. If not, feel free to move down to the section on "Ageing".
Excursus: No Death Before the First Sin?
The fact that Scripture clearly says that death is a punishment for sin is why I do not believe there was any physical death of higher lifeforms before the sin of Adam and Eve. This, of course, will bring on the questions of "But where did all the fossils come from?" and "But what about the bunny rabbits in Eden?".
Young-earth Creationists explain fossils not as a record of millions of years of death and suffering in evolution, but as evidence of a worldwide flood exactly as per Genesis chapters 6-9.
The flood rapidly buried all sorts of creatures, beginning with those lowest down in the oceans, and only later covering those animals and people who were smart enough to avoid the flood waters for as long as possible, for example, by running uphill.
After all, organisms must be rapidly buried in order to be fossilized—if they just die in the ocean or on land, they decompose and are eaten by other organisms, leaving no traces behind to make fossils.
The flood makes the most sense of the huge numbers of fossils we see, which show the influence of a post-fall world such as disease), and which are posed in ways that show they died quickly and violently. Most fossils are marine fossils anyway, which is what we would expect from a worldwide flood.
As to the claim that certain creatures such as bunnies would overrun the planet if there was no death, I think it's easily solved. Even if Adam and Eve had not sinned, eventually, the world would have reached maximum capacity of people and animals, and at that point, God could have taken away creaturely fertility so that the world would not become overpopulated. God's goal to 'fill the earth' would have been achieved (Gen 1:28), and there would be no more need for reproduction.
While plant 'death' is necessary if every creature was originally vegetarian (Gen. 1:29-30), there is never any hint in the Bible that God considers plant consumption equivalent to the death of animals or humans. So that's not a problem.
I saw someone on a discussion forum say that "We're all living on death row."
This is quite true. Eventually, because of sin, all of us will die.5 But unlike criminals on death row, we don't know when it will be.
Even as we live, we see signs of death in our bodies now as we age. Our cells die off and don't regenerate as they did when we were younger, which means all our skin, hair, nails, and other organs start degrading.
Even for younger people, our hair follicles and skin cells die, and we have to sweep them up from our floors every week or so (and unclog our shower drains). Even these everyday things are reminders that we are mortal and dying, due to God sentencing us to death as sinners.
In some ways, then, I wonder if aging is actually part of God's grace to us?
By allowing people to get old and experience wrinkles, frailty, impairments, and so forth, it should be a way for people to recognize that they are approaching death, and thus, consider their eternal destiny.
If all people just instantly dropped dead with no warning signs, such as those provided by aging, people would be less likely to know when their time was approaching, and would have less motivation to consider the gospel. One of my friends pastors a church which is growing with increasing attendance from seniors who feel their time here is nearing its end!
Even though ideally we should be prepared to die at any time, because there is no guarantee that we will live to see tomorrow. But for some people it may take the signs of aging before they really start to consider their mortality.
Premature Death Not Any Worse Than Natural Death
So if natural death is God's just punishment on sin, what about premature or violent death?
I found something very helpful on the subject from Jonathan Edwards. Edwards calls God's judgments on specific individuals or cities which resulted in death as "very small" in comparison to God's original judgement on sin, for:
"These calamities, thus spoken of as plain testimonies of God's great anger, consisted only in hastening on that death, which otherwise, by God's disposal, would most certainly come in a short time.
Now the taking off of thirty or forty years from seventy or eighty (if we should suppose it to be so much, one with another, in the time of these extraordinary judgments) is but a small matter, in comparison of God's first making man mortal, cutting off his hoped-for immortality, subjecting him to inevitable death, which his nature so exceedingly dreads; and afterwards shortening his life further, by cutting off more than 800 years of it: so bringing it to be less than a twelfth part of what it was in the first ages of the world. Besides that, innumerable multitudes in the common course of things, without any extraordinary judgment, die in youth, in childhood and infancy.
Therefore how inconsiderable a thing is the additional or hastened destruction, that is sometimes brought on a particular city or country by war, compared with that universal havoc which death makes of the whole race of mankind, from generation to generation, without distinction of sex, age, quality or condition, with all the infinitely various dismal circumstances, torments and agonies which attend the death of old and young, adult persons and little infants?"6
So basically, Edwards' point here is that if God has already punished humanity with death because of sin, and with further reducing our natural lifespans after the Flood, and considering that not even all children live to grow up, then it's not really all that different for God to punish a particular individual or a city with premature death because of a particular sin.
And vice-versa, if someone does have a problem with God killing certain individuals, then they should also have an even bigger problem with God judging Adam and Eve for their sin and condemning them to mortality and eventual death. If we consider this action of God just, then we can say that all the rest of God's judgments are equally just.
After all, one might make the case that dying a slow painful death from cancer at age 90, for example, might actually be worse than a fairly quick death in a war or a natural disaster. Everyone dies from something, and most death is unpleasant or painful one way or another, unless one is lucky enough to die in their sleep or die so quickly in an accident that it could hardly be felt.
So the fact that God can decide when he wants to bring the judgement of death for sin on any person is up to God, and no matter how that death happens, it is just, because we all deserve death for our sins. (Which is why Jesus' death on our behalf is such great news! Now even if we still die physically, we can have eternal life by believing in Jesus as our savior.)
But What About the Children?
Of course, all this discussion about death as the penalty for sin might lead someone to proclaim "Well, at least Adam and Eve were adults!", as if children who die as a result of Adam and Eve's sin and God's other judgments are unfairly punished.
But as Edwards has already noted: infants and children are already afflicted with natural death and disease as a result of Adam and Eve's sin, and many of them die as infants and children (and this was even more common in the past than it is today).
Unfortunately, given that children are dependent on their parents, if God judges the parents worthy of death, realistically, the children are probably going to die anyway. The parents, by sinning, should realize they are bringing judgement not only on themselves, but also on their dependent children, and so if anyone should be held guilty of the premature death of these children when God judged their cities, it would be their parents, not God.
But an objector might say that, for example, in Israel's conquering of Jericho, instead of killing everyone (Josh. 6:17), God should have told them to spare the children. While this would seem to be compassionate, I think it would have been ultimately impractical.
It would have placed a disproportionate burden upon the Israelite adults to care for a much larger sudden influx of children into the community, at a time when Israel was not even well-established in the land.
Not only this, but it would be to expect the Israelites to care for children who are not part of the 'chosen people' or descended from Abraham. If extended to every city that the Israelites conquered as they moved into the promised land, Israel would very quickly have become un-Israelite, and could no longer be considered as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in any meaningful way.
And who knows whether these children would ever have fully integrated into society, or posed an ongoing existential threat to Israel when they grew up and remembered what happened to their biological parents.
So, God's decision for the children to perish with their parents in these judgments on the Canaanites as the Israelites invaded is not any different than, say, God's decisions regarding all the children who died in the Flood, or the children who died in the last plague of Egypt.
Physical Death Does Not Necessarily Mean Eternal Death
But I think there is a possible solution to at least some of the apparent 'injustice' of children or others dying as a result of God's judgement on their cities or societies as a whole.
Often it seems Christians assume that when God kills someone in this life, whether an adult or infant, that it means that person is automatically also going to hell and will face eternal destruction.
But what if that's not necessarily true?
There seem to be times when God will punish someone with physical death even though that person is eternally saved:
- Some Christians in the early church became ill and even died as a result of God's judgment because they were abusing the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:30).
- As Free Grace proponent Dr. Bob Wilkin argues here, King Saul was a genuine believer but was punished by God with defeat in a battle for disobeying God's will, which led him to commit suicide (1 Sam. 28:18-19).
- Ananias and Sapphira were early Christians who lied to appear more generous than they really were, and God killed them for it (Acts 5:5-6, 5:10-11).
Also, John talks about some sin that leads to death, and some that does not (1 John 5:16-17). This cannot be referring to eternal death, because all sin leads to eternal death if not forgiven by God on the basis of Christ's death.
Thus, these are examples of what Dr. Wilkin talks about here where he says "salvation in James refers to the deliverance of born again people from God’s wrath". James teaches about temporal judgement on disobedient/sinful believers, which can include physical death (e.g. James 1:21, 2:14, 4:12-17, 5:19-20).
So it seems that sometimes a sin is so serious that, even if committed by believers who are promised eternal life the moment we accept the gospel (Eph. 1:13-14), it can lead to God punishing believers with physical death. Perhaps the reason is to warn others to not commit the same sin, such as in the examples of Ananias and Sapphira.
We could extend this argument to possibly include others who were killed by God in the sort of mass corporate judgments of individuals listed at the start of this article. Perhaps not all of them are condemned to hell, but will be judged fairly by God. After all, it doesn't say that everyone at the Great White Throne judgment is headed for the lake of fire; only those who don't have their name in the book of life are! (Rev. 20:15).
My former professor Dr. William Webb once suggested that corporate judgement on large groups of people in the Bible—while it was a form of practical 'justice' and was a way for God to restrain evil in the world—was only an approximate sort of justice, for some people may have suffered more than they personally deserved.
So, at the final judgement, only then will perfect justice will be given to every individual, who will be judged for their own personal sins, and any injustice that was done to them as a result of temporary worldly 'justice', including God's temporal judgments, will be somehow repaid or negated.
But of course, it should be noted that God never enjoys killing or punishing anyone (Ezek. 18:23, 18:32, 33:11), He would much rather have people repent from their sins to avoid earthly punishment, and believe in Jesus to have eternal life. We have the freedom to resist God, but we will still face the consequences of our choices.
So in conclusion, I think Christians can say that death is what we all deserve, for we have all sinned (Rom. 5:12). It's up to God to determine when or how that death will be experienced by any individual.
Death may come early as part of God's judgement on individuals or groups of people, but it might also come from disease, aging, accidents, or from the sin of others (e.g murder or war). Either way, the end result is the same, and it is well-deserved.
Therefore, Christians don't have to dismiss those parts of Scripture that talk about God killing people as if it ruins God's goodness. Judging sin and destroying evil is a good thing for God to do, because otherwise, the world would become increasingly full of evil. If God didn't punish and destroy sin, He would be like a corrupt judge who lets criminals walk free and go on hurting others.
Therefore, it actually is good and just when God judges sin, and it is not a problem that Christians should try to ignore by rejecting or reinterpreting these parts of Scripture. There are ways of explaining these issues within a Christian worldview, while upholding both Scriptural inerrancy and God's character as perfect Love.
- 1. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1, Revised and Updated (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 74.
- 2. Stanley N. Gundry, ed., Show Them No Mercy: Four Views On God and Canaanite Genocide (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003).
- 3. Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin, Works of Jonathan Edwards Online, Volume 3, ed. Clyde Holbrook (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 207.
- 4.Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin, 206.
- 5. Of course, except for Christians who are lucky enough to be alive at the time when Christ comes to take all Christians home to heaven, in the Rapture, before the Tribulation (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
- 6. Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin, 208.