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A Moral Argument for Atheism

Preamble for Philosophers

The argument I am about to advance is intended mainly for a non-philosophical audience. So professionally trained philosophers may wonder at the fact that I say little about the God of philosophical tradition and much about the God of pulpit and pew.

For them I offer two brief explanations.

First: there is ample precedent for what I am doing. Socrates, for example, examined the religious beliefs of his contemporaries–especially the belief that we ought to do what the gods command–and showed them to be both ill-founded and conceptually confused. I wish to follow in his footsteps though not to share in his fate. A glass of wine, not of poison, would be my preferred reward.

Thus, like Socrates, I take issue with the God of popular belief, not the God of natural theology. And since God, in the minds of most westerners, is predominantly the God of the Jewish and Christian scriptures[1], I have little option other than to quote from the Bible freely so as to confront squarely the theistic beliefs that are my target and pre-empt charges of having misunderstood or misquoted my sources.

Second: the fact is that most of the big-name philosophers of religion who publish in academic journals such as Faith and Philosophy are themselves believers in the God of the Bible, not just the God of the philosophers. To do a little name-dropping, I have in mind the likes of William Alston, Peter van Inwagen, and Alvin Plantinga. All of these are, as Plantinga puts it, “people of the Word [who] take Scripture to be a special revelation from God himself”[2]. None is averse to quoting chapter and verse of the Holy Scriptures–the morally palatable ones, anyway–in their publications as well as the pulpit.

William Alston, for example, claims: “a large proportion of the scriptures consists of records of divine-human communications,” and holds that God continues to reveal himself to “sincere Christians” of today in ways ranging from answered prayer to thoughts that just pop into one’s mind.[3] Peter van Inwagen confesses: “I fully accept the teachings of my denomination that ‘the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the revealed Word of God.'”[4] And Alvin Plantinga maintains: “Scripture is inerrant: the Lord makes no mistakes; what he proposes for our belief is what we ought to believe.”[5] These views typify the kind of theism, viz., biblical theism, that I have undertaken to refute.

Now to my argument for atheism.


“If there is no God, all things are permitted.” So one of Dostoyevsky’s characters in The Brother Karamazov reputedly said. He was claiming that if God does not exist, then moral values would be a purely subjective matter to be determined by the whims of individuals or by counting heads in the social groups to which they belong; or perhaps even that moral values would be totally illusory and moral nihilism would prevail. In short–the argument goes–if there are objective moral truths, then God must exist.

By way of contrast, I argue that if there are objective moral truths, then God does not exist. I present a moral argument for atheism.

A: Points of agreement with theists.

On four points, two terminological and two substantive, I agree with my theist opponents.

First: I agree with them as to what we mean by the term “God” when they assert, and I deny, that God exists. We are not talking about just any old god. We are not talking, for instance, about Baal (god of the Canaanites), or Aton (god of the Egyptians), or Zeus (god of the Greeks), or Brahman (god of the Hindus), or Huitzilopochtli (god of the Aztecs). All of these, along with another 200 or so, named in works on comparative religion, were supreme deities. Each was worshipped and obeyed by millions. Yet, as H. L. Mencken put it in his 1922 essay “Memorial Service,” “all are dead.”

Although the term “theism” is sometimes used so broadly as to encompass belief in any sort of supernatural god or gods who reveal themselves to humans, I shall use it–as most philosophers and theologians now do–in a somewhat narrower sense. The theism I will be talking about isn’t just the belief in some god or other. It is belief in the god of the orthodox Judaic, Christian, and Islamic traditions. It is belief in a god who is distinguished from these others in two main respects. First, he is holy (that is, morally perfect). Second, he reveals himself to us in Holy Scriptures. It is by virtue of his holiness that he is deemed worthy of worship and obedience. And it is by virtue of his having revealed himself to us in Scriptures that we know about his nature and what he would have us do or forbear from doing.

The God of theism, so understood, is a robust supernatural being. He ought not to be identified, therefore, with the metaphysically eviscerated God of liberal theologians like Paul Tillich and Bishop Robinson, for whom God is something like “our deepest concern” and the Bible is only a man-made fable, or at best a quasi-historical novel. Nor should the God of theists be identified with the unknowable being of deists like Voltaire and Thomas Paine for whom God was a hypothetical entity invoked merely to explain the origins and nature of the universe and the Bible a moral and intellectual fraud foisted upon the credulous by prophets, popes, priests, and preachers. In the strict sense of the word, each of the four thinkers just named is an atheist. And, in the same sense, so am I. But I see no need for a god of any kind. I see only semantic obfuscation in the liberals’ clothing of humanist sentiments (which I applaud) with pietistic God-talk (which I deplore). And I find only fallacious inference in the supposition that we can explain why anything at all exists by hypothesizing that something else exists in addition; for that supposition starts one on the path of infinite regress.

Second: I think that theists would agree with me as to what we mean when we talk of objective morality. We mean a set of moral truths that would remain true no matter what any individual or social group thought or desired. The notion of objective morality is antithetical to all forms of moral subjectivism. It holds, first, that we have moral beliefs that are either true or false; that they are not mere expressions of emotion, akin to sighs of pleasure or pain. It holds, secondly, that the truth or falsity of our moral judgments is a function of whether or not the objects of moral appraisal, agents and their actions, have the moral properties that we ascribe to them; that their truth or falsity is not merely a function of the thoughts, feelings, or attitudes of individuals or the conventions of society. And it holds, thirdly, that there may well be moral truths still awaiting our discovery, through revelation (on the theist’s account) or through reason and experience–together, perhaps, with our changing biology–(on my account).

Third: I am going to agree with my theistic opponents in holding that at least some moral principles are objectively true. We would allow that disagreements about moral matters–about the permissibility of abortion or capital punishment, for example–often generate strong emotions. But this doesn’t mean that such disagreements are nothing more than emotional outbursts. For we take it to be a fact of moral psychology that we have beliefs as well as emotions about such issues. And since nothing counts as a belief unless it is either true or false, we conclude that our moral beliefs–like beliefs about the shape of the earth and the age of the universe–are either true or false. Nor, from the phenomenon of moral disagreement, does it follow that the truth or falsity of moral judgments is to be determined by each individual or by counting heads. For we take it that the relativist view of truth about moral matters is no more defensible than is the relativist view of truth about factual matters.

Fourth: I would expect theists to agree with me when I give some concrete examples of moral principles that I take to be objectively true.

The requirement of objectivity is a strict one: it entails that they should be universal in the sense of being exceptionless–of holding, that is, for all persons, places, and times. Thus, on my view, the principle that it is morally forbidden to kill other persons is not objectively true since–as almost everyone would agree–it admits of exceptions such as killing a would-be murderer in defense of oneself or one’s family. As it stands it is false. We may have a prima facie obligation not to kill another person. But sophisticated moral thinkers would allow that there are situations in which this principle should be set aside by virtue of countervailing moral considerations. If we are to provide moral principles that stand in need of no qualification, we need to formulate them in such a way as to make due allowance for these other considerations.

B: Examples of objective moral truths.

Here, now, are a few examples of moral principles that I take to be paradigms of objective moral truths:

P1: It is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.

A particularly gross violation of this principle is to be found in the genocidal policies of the Nazi SS who, following the orders of Hitler, slaughtered 6 million Jews, together with countless Gypsies, homosexuals, and other so-called “undesirables.” It is no excuse, as I see it, that they believed themselves to be cutting out a cancer from society, or that they were, as Hitler explained in 1933, merely doing to the Jews what Christians had been preaching for 2000 years.[6] Another, more recent, violation of this principle is to be found in the genocidal practices of Milosevic and his henchman for whom it is no excuse to say that they are merely redressing past injustices or, by ethnic cleansing, laying the foundations for a more stable society.

P2. It is morally wrong to provide one’s troops with young women captives with the prospect of their being used as sex-slaves.

This principle, or something like it, lies behind our moral revulsion at the policies of the German and Japanese High Commands who selected sexually attractive young women, especially virgins, to give so-called “comfort” to their soldiers. It is irrelevant, I want to say, that most societies, historically, have regarded such comforts as among the accepted spoils of war.

P3. It is morally wrong to make people cannibalize their friends and family.

Perhaps we can imagine situations–such as the plane crash in the Andes–in which cannibalistic acts might be exonerated. But making people eat their own family members–as many Polynesian tribes are reputed to have done–in order to punish them, or to horrify and strike fear into the hearts of their enemies, is unconscionable.

P4. It is morally wrong to practise human sacrifice, by burning or otherwise.

To be sure, human sacrifice was widely accepted by the tribes against whom the children of Israel fought, and–on the other side of the Atlantic–by the Aztecs and Incas. But this–I hope you’ll agree–doesn’t make the practice acceptable, even if it was done to appease the gods in whom they believed.

P5. It is morally wrong to torture people endlessly for their beliefs.

Perhaps we can think of situations in which it would be permissible to torture someone who is himself a torturer so as to obtain information as to the whereabouts of prisoners who will otherwise die from the injuries he has inflicted on them. But cases like that of Pope Pius V who watched the Roman Inquisition burn a nonconforming religious scholar in about 1570, fall beyond the moral pale; he can’t be exonerated on the grounds that he thought he was thereby saving the dissident’s soul from the eternal fires of Hell.

On all of these examples, I would like to think, theists and other morally enlightened persons will agree with me. And I would like to think, further, that theists would agree with me in holding that anyone who committed, caused, commanded, or condoned, acts in violation of any of these principles–the five that I will refer to hereafter as “our” principles–is not only evil but should be regarded with abhorrence.

C: God’s violations of our moral principles.

But now comes the linch-pin of my moral argument against theism. For, as I shall now show, the theist God–as he supposedly reveals himself in the Jewish and Christian Bibles–either himself commits, commands others to commit, or condones, acts which violate every one of our five principles.

In violation of P1, for instance, God himself drowned the whole human race except Noah and his family [Gen. 7:23]; he punished King David for carrying out a census that he himself had ordered and then complied with David’s request that others be punished instead of him by sending a plague to kill 70,000 people [II Sam. 24:1-15]; and he commanded Joshua to kill old and young, little children, maidens, and women (the inhabitants of some 31 kingdoms) while pursuing his genocidal practices of ethnic cleansing in the lands that orthodox Jews still regard as part of Greater Israel [see Josh., chapter 10 in particular]. These are just three out of hundreds of examples of God’s violations of P1.

In violation of P2, after commanding soldiers to slaughter all the Midianite men, women, and young boys without mercy, God permitted the soldiers to use the 32,000 surviving virgins for themselves. [Num. 31:17-18].

In violation of P3, God repeatedly says he has made, or will make, people cannibalize their own children, husbands, wives, parents, and friends because they haven’t obeyed him. [Lev. 26:29, Deut. 28:53-58, Jer. 19:9, Ezek. 5:10]

In violation of P4, God condoned Jephthah’s act in sacrificing his only child as a burnt offering to God [Judg. 11:30-39].

Finally, in violation of P5, God’s own sacrificial “Lamb,” Jesus, will watch as he tortures most members of the human race for ever and ever, mainly because they haven’t believed in him. The book of Revelation tells us that “everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” [Rev. 13:8] will go to Hell where they “will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb; and the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever: and they have no rest day or night” [Rev. 14:10-11].

D: A logical quandary for theists: an inconsistent tetrad.

These–and countless other–passages from the Bible mean that theists are confronted with a logical quandary which strikes at the very heart of their belief that the God of Scripture is holy. They cannot, without contradiction, believe all four of the statements:

(1) Any act that God commits, causes, commands, or condones is morally permissible.

(2) The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that God commits, causes, commands, and condones.

(3) It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate our moral principles.

(4) The Bible tells us that God does in fact commit, cause, command, or condone, acts that violate our moral principles.

The trouble is that these statements form an inconsistent tetrad such that from any three one can validly infer the falsity of the remaining one. Thus, one can coherently assert (1), (2), and (3) only at the cost of giving up (4); assert (2), (3), and (4) only at the cost of giving up (1); and so on.

The problem for a theist is to decide which of these four statements to give up in order to preserve the minimal requirement of truth and rationality, viz., logical consistency. After all, if someone has contradictory beliefs then their beliefs can’t all be true. And rational discussion with persons who contradict themselves is impossible; if contradictions are allowed then anything goes.

But which of the four statements will our theist deny?

To deny (1) would be to admit that God sometimes commits, causes, commands, or condones, acts that are morally impermissible. But that would mean that God himself is immoral, or even, depending on the enormity of his misdeeds, that he is evil. It would entail denying that he is holy and worthy of worship; and denying, further, that his holiness is the ground of morality.

To deny (2), for the theist, would be to be to abandon the chief foundation of religious and moral epistemology (ways of obtaining religious and moral knowledge). For if (2) were false, then the question arises as to how we are supposed to know of God’s existence let alone look to him for moral guidance. After all, it is a distinguishing feature of theism, as opposed to deism, to hold that God reveals himself to us and, from time to time, intervenes in human history. And the Bible, according to theists, is the principal record of his revelatory interventions. If the Bible, with its stories of Moses and Jesus, is not his revealed and presumptively true word, then how are we to know of him? If God doesn’t reveal himself through the Old Testament Moses and the New Testament Jesus, then through whom does he reveal himself? To be sure, a theist could well claim that God also reveals himself through other channels in addition to the Bible: reason, tradition, and religious experience all being cases in point. But to deny that the Bible is his main mode of communication would be to deny that the principal figures in Judaism and Christianity can really be known at all. Apart from the scriptural records, we would know little, if anything, of Moses or Jesus, it being doubtful that secular history has anything reliable to say about either. Apart from the scriptural records we would know nothing of the so-called Ten Commandments that God supposedly delivered to Moses, or of the ethical principles that Jesus supposedly delivered in his sermons and parables.

To deny (3) would be to assert that it is morally permissible to violate our five moral principles. It would be to ally oneself with moral monsters like Ghenghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot. It would be to abandon all pretense to a belief in objective moral values. Indeed, if it is permissible to violate the above principles, then it isn’t easy to see what sorts of acts would not be permissible. The denial of (3), then, would be tantamount to an embrace of moral nihilism. And no theist who believes in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount could assent to that.

That leaves only (4). But to deny (4) would be to fly in the face of facts ascertainable by anyone who takes the care to read: objective facts about what the Bible actually says.

In what follows I will argue that both (3) and (4) are true, thereby confronting theists with the necessity of abandoning either (1) or (2)–the two principal foundations of theistic belief. My arguments will show that if God were to exist then either he isn’t holy or the Scriptures aren’t his revealed word.

I shall, however, have to deal with the counter-arguments of those who defend God and the Scriptures against criticisms like mine. Theistic apologists have two main strategies. One is to try to show, contrary to (4), that the Bible either doesn’t really say what I claim it says or that it doesn’t mean what it says. This tactic involves putting some sort of “spin” on the passages at issue so as to render them morally innocuous. The other is to try to show, contrary to (3), that our moral principles are either inapplicable to the situations described in (4) or that they admit of exceptions which would absolve God of violating them.

I will deal with these two apologetic strategies as they arise in connection with my defense of the truth of (4) and (3), in that order.

E: A defense of (4): What the Bible in fact says about God’s violations of our moral principles.

P1 and the slaughter of innocents.

First: consider the story, in Genesis chapters 6 and 7, of the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark. It is sufficiently well-known not to need retelling in detail. Suffice it to say that because of the wickedness that God saw on earth, he resolved–in his own words–to “blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky” (Gen. 6:7). The sole human exceptions were Noah and his family.

Second: consider the strange story of God commanding King David to take a census of his people. It is strange for three reasons. As the story is narrated in Second Samuel, chapter 24, we are told that God issued David with the command “Go, number Israel and Judah”; that after carrying out this command, David comes to the strange conclusion that he had thereby “sinned greatly”; that God then offered David a choice of three punishments: seven years of famine, three days plague, or three months of being pursued by his enemies; that our noble king chose famine or plague for others rather than peril for himself; and that God complied: “the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel . . .; and seventy thousand men of the people from Dan to Beersheba died.” It is puzzling that a just God would want to punish David for obeying his commands. It is more puzzling that a holy God would vent his wrath on others by killing seventy thousand men (and unspecified numbers of women and children, who seem not to count in most biblical narratives). It is even more puzzling that when the story is retold in First Chronicles, chapter 21, we find that it was Satan, not the Lord, who “incited” David to take the census. The inconsistency is bad enough since at least one of these stories must be false. It is worse that, on both accounts, it is the Lord–not Satan–who kills those who had nothing to do with David’s apparent sin.

Third, consider the case in which God commands Joshua to slaughter virtually every inhabitant of the land of Canaan. The story commences in chapter 6 of the book of Joshua, telling how the hero and his army conquer the ancient city of Jericho where they “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old.” Then, in chapters 7 through 12, it treats us to a chilling chronicle of the 31 kingdoms, and all the cities therein, that fell victim to Joshua’s, and God’s, genocidal policies. Time and again we read the phrases “he utterly destroyed every person who was in it,” “he left no survivor,” and “there was no one left who breathed.” And by way of explanation of why only one of the indigenous peoples made peace with the invaders, we are told “For it was of the Lord to harden their hearts, to meet Israel in battle that he might utterly destroy them, that they might receive no mercy, . . . .” [Josh. 11:20]. The occasion for killing was contrived by God himself.

What is morally troubling about each of these three cases is that God apparently has no compunction about commanding the slaughter of persons who, in any ordinary sense of the words, are “innocent of serious wrong-doing.” After all, it is a matter of straightforward empirical fact that newly born children, let alone those as yet unborn, don’t have the capacity to do the kinds of things that warrant punishments such as drowning, being put to the sword, ripped from their mothers’ wombs[7], or of dying from a God-sent plague. Yet the Bible unabashedly reports that they, too, were among the countless victims of God’s acts or commands.

P2 and giving captive virgins to the troops.

The book of Numbers, chapter 31, commences with the Lord telling Moses, “take full vengeance for the sons of Israel on the Midianites,” then tells how – in obedience to God’s order–twelve thousand warriors first “killed every male” [verse 7], and “captured all the women of Midian and their little ones.” [verse 9]. But, we read, “Moses was angry with the officers of the army . . . and said unto them, Have you spared all the women? . . . Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.” [verses 15-18].

Now it must be admitted that nowhere in this story of mayhem and slave-taking are we told explicitly that the troops in the Lord’s armies used the captured virgins for their own sexual pleasure. So it is not surprising that some apologists seize upon this omission in order to argue that P2 wasn’t violated after all. One such apologist confidently claims that the soldiers took them only as “wives or servants.” After all, he reassures us, “the law of God was that anyone who had sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage was put to death” and that “any man who committed fornication . . . was forced to marry the woman and never divorce her.”[8]

But this won’t wash. The Bible recounts numerous instances of so-called “men of God” who bedded the unwedded–and sometimes the already wedded–with impunity from man and God alike. Examples include Abraham’s sexual encounters with his Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar; King David’s adulterous liaison with Bathsheba; and King Solomon, product of that liaison, and his 300 concubines.

One would have to be extraordinarily naive to suppose that, of the twelve thousand soldiers, there weren’t any who took sexual advantage of the thirty two thousand virgins–more than two each–God gave them to use for themselves.

P3 and causing people to cannibalize their relatives.

There are at least five passages in which God tells his people that if they don’t obey him they will be punished by being reduced to such straights that they will cannibalize each other: sons, daughters, husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, and brothers, to say nothing of mere friends.[9] The book of Jeremiah is especially telling. There, in chapter 19, verse 9, the Lord himself claims direct responsibility for these horrors when he says: “And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters . . .”

For these passages apologists have two main rationalizations to offer. One is that God is merely threatening his chosen people with the fate that will befall them if they don’t obey his commandments. A second is that he is merely predicting the fates that will befall them in forthcoming sieges by their enemies. The problem with the threat-hypothesis is that, in each instance, the Children of Israel did not in fact obey his commandments despite the threats. So, if God did not do what he threatened to do, his threats were empty and he repeatedly failed to keep his word. And the problem with the prediction-hypothesis, is that if things hadn’t turned out as he predicted, then what he said would have been false. But in any case neither explanation would help with the Jeremiah passage, in which God isn’t merely predicting what the Israelite’s enemies will cause them to do, but is saying what he himself will cause them to do. There is no gainsaying the fact that if God’s word is true, then he causes others to violate P3.

P4 and condoning child sacrifice.

In the book of Judges, chapter 11, we are treated to a cautionary tale about a rash vow and its consequences. Jephthah, we are told, was a mighty man who was used by God to carry on in Joshua’s tradition by cleansing the land of another ethnically different people, the sons of Ammon. We read that Jephthah “made a vow to the Lord, and said, If thou wilt indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (verses 31-32).

The Lord, it seems, found this perfectly acceptable. He kept his part of the bargain by delivering the Ammonites and their twenty cities “with a very great slaughter” into Jephthah’s hands. Then came Jephthah’s turn to keep his part of the bargain. But sadly it was his daughter who came out of the house to greet him. Jephthah realized that he nevertheless had to keep faith with God. Thus we read: “And it came to pass at the end of two months that she returned unto her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made . . .” In other words, Jephthah kept his vow by offering up his beloved daughter as a burnt sacrifice to his unrelenting Lord. Thus did Jephthah earn himself an honorable mention in the Epistle to the Hebrews[10] where he is listed along with fifteen or so other men of “great faith” such as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samson, David, and Samuel.

The best spin that can be put on this horrifying story is that it is a sort of Aesop’s fable, a man-made tale told with a view to teaching us a lesson about the need for forethought before undertaking commitments to others, especially to a deity. Such a gloss, however, can hardly be acceptable to a Bible-believing theist. But in any case, we shouldn’t really be surprised at the Lord’s acceptance of Jephthah’s sacrifice. After all, God himself–Christian theists believe–offered his own son Jesus as a blood-sacrifice for the mistakes of mankind.

P5 and the eternal torture God has in store for those who don’t believe that Jesus is Lord and Savior.

The fate of Jephthah’s daughter pales into insignificance when compared with that which the Christian God has in store for sincere atheists like me; and not only for atheists, but for all those who fail to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Jesus, who has the dubious distinction of having invented the doctrine of hell-fire and damnation, describes their fate vividly. In the Gospel of Matthew alone he characterizes it in terms which evangelists adore: “unquenchable fire,” “fiery hell” (twice), “torment,” “burned with fire,” “furnace of fire” (twice), “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (five times), “eternal fire,” and “eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Assuming that Jesus knew how to say what he meant, the fate of unbelievers is clear. It isn’t a clean dispatch into oblivion. It isn’t merely the anguish of a soul who is separated from God. It is the torment and agony of a resurrected body, torture differing from that experienced by victims of the Inquisition only in the fact that it lasts not just for minutes but for all eternity. Unlike Auschwitz, Hell offers no finality to those of us who are to fill its ovens. No one will escape its horrors, and its tortures–to be performed before divine spectators–will continue without end.[11]

Were this fiery fate to be reserved for unrepentant mass murderers and the other perpetrators of evil who have blighted human history, such a violation of P5 would be bad enough. But Revelation 13:8 predicts this fate will befall “everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb . . ..” And Revelation 20:15 confirms the prediction when it tells us that “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

Who are they who have thus been preordained to eternal damnation? They are all those who–as evangelicals like to put it–aren’t “born again” Christians. According to Luke, the reputed author of The Acts, “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). And St. Paul makes it clearer still when he tells us that “the Lord Jesus Christ shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God [my emphasis] and to those who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction” (II Thess. 1:7-9).

At this point, it may occur to some of us that since it is a necessary condition of believing in the name of Jesus that you’ve both heard the name and understood its significance, no-one can be saved from hell if they haven’t heard the gospel. Therein, of course, lies the motivation of missionaries. But what of those who have lived in times or places in which the name of Jesus is unknown? Are all those who lived prior to the time of Christ already condemned? How about those who have lived, or still live, in ignorance of the Christian story? Are they–the majority of the human race–condemned for a lack of belief which, for historical or geographical reasons, they are debarred from having?

This harsh conclusion is what the Bible implies. Certainly, Jesus himself seems to have accepted it with equanimity: “The gate [to salvation],” he said, “is narrow and the way is hard . . . and those who find it are few.” (Matt. 7:13-14). The exclusion of most human beings–no matter how saintly their lives–for the sole reason that they don’t believe in Jesus as Savior, is a consequence of the fact that most of the people who have populated the earth down to the present haven’t even heard of him. If we are to take Jesus himself seriously, little comfort can be found in a suggestion by St. Paul that some might find salvation as a result of so-called general revelation. As one of the ablest Christian apologists, William L. Craig, acknowledges, such exceptions to the rule of “salvation through no other name” can at best be rare. This is why Craig makes no pretense of the fact that on his, and Jesus’s, view even the sincerest believers of other world religions are “lost and dying without Christ.”[12]

However, all this talk of the numbers of persons who will be tortured in hell is beside the point. So is the question whether hell’s torments are finite or infinite in duration. If there is even one person who suffers the tortures of the damned, then the moral principle we have enshrined as P5 is thereby violated by God himself.

And by virtue of God’s violating it–along with our other moral principles–his supposed holiness is clearly compromised. Just as it would be incoherent to say that Hitler was morally perfect despite the fact that he sent people to the gas chambers for the “sin” of lacking the right parentage, so it would be incoherent to suppose that God is morally perfect despite the fact that he will send people to roast in hell for the “sin” of lacking the right beliefs. On the contrary, anyone who is guilty of such atrocities is, not to mince words, simply evil. Little wonder, then, that God says of himself not only “I make peace” but also “I create evil” (Is. 45:7).[13]

It is worth noting that, compared with God, Satan is depicted throughout the Bible as a relative paragon of virtue. Satan is guilty of just three main misdemeanors.

First, according to a passage which sets the moral tone of the Bible, Satan–in the guise of a serpent–tempts Eve with the forbidden fruit of moral enlightenment, fruit from what is described as “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”[14]. One might have thought it a good thing for Satan thus to start her on the path to moral education. But God didn’t want her eyes to be “opened,” as Genesis 3:5 puts it; he wanted blind obedience. And so God responds in typical fashion. Not only does he punish Eve, for an act that she didn’t know was wrong until after she’d performed it. He also punishes Adam, and all their descendants, including you and me. He imposes on us all the burden of what theologians call Original Sin: he sees to it that none of us can start life with a clean slate.

Satan appears next in First Chronicles where he plays the very same role that was assigned to God in Second Samuel. So wherein lies his wrong this time? If it is good enough for God to order David’s census-taking, can it be evil for Satan to do so?

Satan’s third appearance is in the book of Job where he makes life difficult for God’s protégé. But that, it should be noted, is only because God had issued him a challenge to do so.

Thereafter, Satan does almost nothing of a dubious nature except for tempting God himself, in the person of Jesus, during his forty days in the desert–an exercise doomed to futility.

What is remarkable, in light of the bad press Satan has subsequently suffered, is that Satan, unlike God, doesn’t violate a single one of the important moral principles P1 through P5.

F: A defense of (3): The impermissibility of God’s violations of our principles.

The second apologetic strategy is to argue that our principles admit of exceptions which, when they are taken into account, absolve God of guilt.

Chief among the apologetic ploys in this category is what I shall call the Sovereignty Exception. In the words of one apologist, it holds that “God is sovereign over life” and he can therefore do with us as he likes “according to his will.”[15] But this argument contains a fatal equivocation on the word “can.” It is trivially true that if God is–as theists believe–sovereignly omnipotent, then he “can” do whatever he wants in the sense of having the power or might to do so. But might, we reflect, doesn’t confer right. It certainly doesn’t follow that God “can” violate moral principles in the sense of its being morally permissible or right for him to do so. If it did, the moral monsters of human history who reigned sovereignly over their empires would equally be innocent of wrongdoing.

A second tactic is to argue that God is exempt from the prohibitions of our principles. It might be said that although these are binding on humans, they are not binding on God. But that would be to introduce a double standard and so compromise the universality of moral principles. It would relativize morality to individuals or times and deprive them of the absolute and objective validity that theists are committed to. Worse still, for the theist’s case, it would call into question God’s holiness. For holy is as holy does. That is to say, if anyone at all is properly to be described as morally perfect, then their acts of commission, of command, and of permission, must also be morally perfect. To say that God is holy despite the evil nature of what he does would be to play with words: it would be to deprive the word “holy” of its ordinary meaning and make it a synonym for “evil.”

A third ploy is to argue that in all the cases we have considered God is acting in accordance with what some hold to be the overriding moral principle that sin must be punished. For from this, together with the theological doctrine of Original Sin–the doctrine that every human being, even the newly conceived fetus in its mother’s womb, inherits sin or at least the disposition to sin from Eve–it follows that God has the right, not just the might, to punish us as he sees fit. As one apologist put it: “Since the wages of sin is death, God has the right to give and take life.”[16] Leave aside the questionable presuppositions of this doctrine: that sin is inherited through our genes or via our supposed souls; and that we can justly be held responsible for inherited or unactualized dispositions to sin. There is a more important objection to this whole apologetic claim. For suppose we grant the implausible claim that it is by virtue of a universal lack of human innocence that God is to be excused for his genocidal practices. Then we shall have to say that there are no circumstances whatever, not even innocence of the victims, in which it is morally wrong to slaughter men, women, and children. We would have to abandon P1 as an objective moral truth since it would be totally vacuous, lacking any application whatever. And that would give us, like God, a license to mercilessly slaughter anyone we liked. All we need to do is to invoke the Punishment for Original Sin Exception. After all, unless we are to adopt the relativism of a double standard, if it is good enough for God it must be good enough for us.

If even one of the above exceptions to our principles were sound, those principles would not be moral truths but moral falsehoods. At best, they would merely state prima facie moral prohibitions, prohibitions which would–in order to make them objectively binding–have to be qualified in ways that would give a license to some of the most morally abhorrent behavior of which any person could be guilty. In short, if reformulated to accommodate God, they would accommodate the Devil and other personifications of evil as well.

G: Consequences for theism: the falsity of at least one of theism’s cornerstones, (1) or (2).

At this point let us return to the inconsistent tetrad which I said posed such problems for theistic belief. I have demonstrated, first, that (4) is true, i.e., that the Bible does indeed tell us that God violates our moral principles; and second, that (3) is true, i.e., that it is morally impermissible for anyone–including God–to violate these principles. But if I am right, then theists have no way out of their logical quandary that doesn’t destroy the very core of theistic belief.

They have a choice. They must, on pain of contradiction, abandon at least one, if not both, of (1), the belief that all of God’s acts are morally permissible, or (2), the belief that the Bible reveals to us what many of these acts are. Yet, as we have seen, if they abandon (1), they therewith abandon the belief in God’s holiness; while if they abandon (2), they therewith abandon the belief in the Bible as his revelation.

Here I rest my case against theism: my moral argument for atheism.

H: A corollary of my argument: the falsity of the theistic theory of ethics.

Before finishing, however, I want to draw attention to a corollary of my argument. Consider, once more, the inconsistent tetrad by which the whole edifice of theism is brought to ruin. But this time replace statements (1), (2), (3), and (4) of the original inconsistent tetrad with their respective corollaries:

(1)* Any act that God commands us to perform is morally permissible.

(2)* The Bible reveals to us many of the acts that God commands us to perform.

(3)* It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit acts that violate principle P1.

(4)* The Bible tells us that God commands us to perform acts that violate moral principle P1.

Then a parallel logical quandary arises for the theist’s belief that God, as revealed in the Bible, is the source of objective morality or, at the very least, is a reliable guide to what we should and should not do.

Rather than run the argument through again, I will present this additional indictment of theistic belief by first quoting the Bible and then addressing a series of questions to those who, like philosopher Alvin Plantinga, claim that “what [the Lord] proposes for our belief is what we ought to believe.” For it should be evident that, if Plantinga and other biblical theists are right, then since the beliefs that the Lord proposes include ones about what we ought to do, if the Lord proposes that we should do so and so, then so and so is what we ought to do.

Consider First Samuel 15:3 in which the Lord commands his people:

Now go and strike Amalek and utterly destroy all that he has, and do not spare him: but put to death both man and woman, child and infant . ..

Now ask yourself three questions:

(i) Was “put to death both man and woman, child and infant” the very word of the Lord whom you worship?

(ii) Is it conceivable that your Lord could again issue the same command in our time?

(iii) If you did believe you were so commanded by your Lord, could you and would you obey?

If you answer “No” to question (i), you deny the authority of God’s so-called word, the Bible. If you answer “No” to question (ii)–perhaps because you think your Lord might have mended his ways–you deny that God’s commands have the kind of universal applicability which is a necessary condition of their being in accord with, let alone the source of, moral truths. If you answer “No” to question (iii), you must think that it is sometimes right, or even obligatory, to disobey God. You thereby admit that moral truths are independent of, and may even conflict with, God’s dictates. You admit that ethics is, as most philosophers have long insisted, autonomous; and that we must, therefore, do our moral thinking for ourselves.

But if you answer “Yes” to each question, then I submit that your belief in the God of biblical theism is not just mistaken but morally abhorrent. For, in the words of my friend, John Patrick, who resigned from the Presbyterian ministry in New Zealand after he discovered how many of his parishioners also answered “Yes” to all three questions: “a doctrine of the Scriptures as containing the Word of God, the supreme ruler of faith and duty, has the power to turn otherwise gentle, thoughtful, and basically loving people into a group prepared to sanction genocide in the name of the Lord they worship.”[17]


* Presented at the University of Western Washington, May 27, 1999, and–in a revised form–at the University of Auckland, September 29, 1999. Raymond D. Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University, and is now living in New Zealand.

[1] For present purposes I say nothing about the God of the Koran. It suffices to say that my argument, if sound, also counts against Islamic theism.

[2] Alvin Plantinga, “When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible,” Christian Scholar’s Review, Vol. XXI, No. 1, (September, 1991), p. 8.

[3] William Alston, “Divine-Human Dialogue and the Nature of God,” Faith and Philosophy, (January 1985, p.6).

[4] Peter van Inwagen, “Genesis and Evolution,” in Reasoned Faith, ed. Eleonore Stump, Cornell University Press, 1993, p.97.

[5] Alvin Plantinga, p.12.

[6] Rod Evans and Irwin Berent, Fundamentalism: Hazards and Heartbreaks, Open Court, La Salle, Illinois, 1988, pp. 120-1. Also James A. Haught, Holy Horrors: an Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1990, p.163.

[7] See Hosea 13:16: “Samaria will be held guilty, for she has rebelled against her God. They will fall by the sword, Their little ones will be dashed in pieces, And their pregnant women will be ripped open.”

[8] Brad Warner, “God, Evil, and Professor Bradley” (manuscript circulated privately in response to my debate with Campus Crusade for Christ representative, Dr. Chamberlain, on the topic “Can there be an objective morality without God?”). The debate took place at Simon Fraser University on January 25, 1996.

[9] In Leviticus, chapter 26, verse 29, we read: “You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters you shall eat.” In Deuteronomy, chapter 28, after the Lord lists the dozens of evils that will befall his people if they don’t observe all his commandments and statutes, he says (in verses 53-58): “Then you shall eat the offspring of own body, the flesh of your sons and your daughters . . . The man who is refined and very delicate among you shall be hostile toward his brother and toward the wife he cherishes, and toward the rest of his children who remain, so that he will not give even one of them any of the flesh of his children which he shall eat.” And refined and delicate women, we are further told, will do the same. In Jeremiah, chapter 19, verse 9, the horror-show continues when the Lord says: “And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters . . .” Finally, in Ezekiel, chapter 5, verse 10, the divine diet is extended to fathers when God says: “Therefore, fathers will eat their sons among you, and sons will eat their fathers.”

[10] Of unknown authorship though erroneously attributed to St. Paul.

[11] [Revelation 14:10-11] To be sure, the verse continues by identifying those who suffer this fate with “those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” But they have already been identified, in the preceding chapter 13, verses 8-18, as those who weren’t preordained for salvation.

[12] William L. Craig, “No Other Name: A Middle Knowledge Perspective on the Exclusivity of Salvation through Christ,” Faith and Philosophy, April 1989, p. 187. In his view, God is justified in sending both witting and unwitting nonbelievers to Hell because he knew–before he created them–that they wouldn’t have believed in Jesus as Savior even if they had heard about him.

[13] The Hebrew word that is here translated as “evil” is “rah.” The New American Standard translators, however, prefer to render it as “calamity” in the passage from Isaiah and as “ill” in the passage from Lamentations. But such sanitization of the original doesn’t really help. It affords the believer little comfort to be told that God is the source of calamity. And “ill”–we learn from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary–is just a synonym for “evil.”

[14] Genesis 2:9.

[15] Brad Warner, p.15.

[16] Brad Warner, p.14.

[17] John Patrick, “By What Authority?,” published September, 1984 in a newsletter to fellow clergymen in the New Zealand Presbyterian Church explaining why he was resigning. My three questions are derived from ones he had put to his parishioners.

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