One of the most common objections against Christianity is violence in the Old Testament. Richard Dawkins, our generation’s most famous atheist, sums up the attitude of many when he says,

The God of the Old Testament is … a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

The question of violence in the Old Testament is a troubling one for many people, Christians as well as non-Christians. Read through the book of Joshua, for instance, and it appears that God commands genocide. So what are we to make of this large-scale, divinely-ordered violence in the OT? The answer revolves around three key words—authority, judgment, race.

First, AUTHORITY. The rightness or wrongness of a particular action is often based on whose authority stands behind them. For example, if you start writing checks on behalf of your company, is that right or wrong? Well, it depends on whether you have authority over finances in that company. If you don’t, then writing checks is wrong. But if you do have the authority, then it’s fine. (In fact, having check-writing authority and failing to use it can actually be wrong.) Authority transforms a morally bad action into a morally necessary one.

When it comes to human life, no one on earth has absolute authority. We are not the authors of life, and therefore do not have the authority over life. Only the One who made man can decide to end the life of man. The times in Scripture where God bestows this authority on others—as in the conquest of Canaan in Joshua—are historically unique, with explicit instructions, and with clear orders to never do it again (Deut. 4:2-9). And if you read these stories, you’ll notice that the worst destruction actually comes directly from God, who knocks down walls and sends giant hail stones on the enemy. God wanted Israel to know that he and he alone was the one with the authority over life and death.

The second word is JUDGMENT. God repeatedly tells Israel that the conquest of Canaan was a result of the Canaanites’ wickedness. Both our biblical and our extra-biblical sources confirm that the nations of Canaan were some of the most oppressive societies ever to walk this earth. As a picture of their cruelty, they regularly killed children by lighting them on fire as service to their god. These were no innocent and blameless people.

Many of us find the judgment against Canaan extreme because we simply don’t connect with the horrors of their society. But we might feel differently if we replaced “Canaan” with “ISIS,” or with the Nazi Party of the 1940s. We naturally feel outraged when we see injustice and oppression on a large scale, and something within us cries out for justice. God’s judgment may seem harsh, but it is never more extreme than the transgressions require.

The third word to remember is RACE. As in, it’s not about raceWe know this in a few ways. First, in the biggest military campaign in the Bible (Joshua), God spares Rahab, a Canaanite woman, and her entire household, simply because she repents and believes. Had others in Jericho done the same, God would have spared them as well. Second, God repeatedly tells Israel that they, too, would suffer judgment if they committed idolatry like the Canaanites. Sadly, they did, and God was true to his word. God never punishes because of our skin, but because of our sin.

You may say, Yes, but what about all the innocent people that died in these attacks? If nothing else, the kids can’t be as much at fault! This is hard for us to stomach, until we recognize that all sin has communal consequences. If I sin by cheating on my wife, my kids aren’t at fault, but they certainly suffer for it. The children of Canaan suffer for their parents’ choices just like the children of America do.

But in another, more important, sense, God says that he will never ultimately hold the innocent accountable for the sins of the guilty (Ezek. 18:20), not even the child for the sins of his father (Deut. 24:16). We have to remember that earthly life, while valuable, is not all there is. It’s possible that the innocent children were caught up in this to prevent them from becoming the guilty adults they would have eventually become. All people eventually die, so in a sense, God was collecting these innocents early. And if what we believe about eternity is true, then the worst suffering on earth can only seem minor and trivial in light of heaven.

I know that just scrapes the surface of an enormous topic. So if you’re interested in more on the issue of violence in the OT, here are a few resources that have helped me recently:

(1) Peter Williams, “Moral Objections to the Old Testament,” video lecture delivered at SEBTS, Sept 2013

(2) Heath Thomas, “The Old Testament, ‘Holy War,’ and Christian Morality

(3) Heath Thomas, Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem