Book review: Is God a Moral Monster?

by Paul Copan


Paul Copan responds to the New Atheist stance that the God of the Old Testament is a “moral monster.” I agreed with only about half of Copan’s conclusions, but his book was well-written, informative, and fun to read.

Copan begins by attempting to make sense of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. I loved the short discussion comparing the two times that God called Abraham: The first time to come to the promised land, the second time to sacrifice his son. Because of similar language, Copan argues that Abraham “couldn’t have missed the connection being made … God is clearly reminding him of his promise of blessing in Genesis 12 even while he’s being commanded to do what seems to be utterly opposed to that promise.” Outside of this, though, the Abraham/Isaac story is one of those sections of Copan’s book that just didn’t work for me. It doesn’t seem to matter how it’s explained to me, as soon as someone tries to pull this story down from the level of mythology and make me imagine it to be a true story that really happened, I start to feel queasy. I’d have a few choice words for God if he told me to kill my son. If Copan doesn’t mind, I’ll continue to classify this Bible passage as “storied theology,” where it’s much more palatable.

Copan spends several chapters talking about Israel’s slavery laws, and this section is superb. Was this law ideal? Certainly not. But there are three points I’d like to bring out here:

[1] We are discussing the Law of God, not what actually transpired among imperfect people. Yep, they kept slaves against the rules. The law was not faithfully followed.

[2] Copan points out again and again that Israel’s laws were a great improvement over the surrounding nations. God held Israel to a higher standard.

[3] Although this point gets little press time in the book, as the law evolved, it became more and more humane. Compare, for example, the Book of the Covenant, quoted by the Elohist in Exodus 21, with the Priesthood writings in Leviticus 19, and finally with the Deuteronomist’s instructions in Deut 22.

Yes, the Old Testament law seems archaic and brutal by today’s standards. Yet it’s clear Israel was  learning and was trying to become Godly. Perhaps slowly approaching the standard God had in mind. Buy the book and, if you read nothing else, study chapters 11-14.

Next, Copan tackles what I feel are the most troublesome issues: genocide and ethnic cleansing. Particularly, the conquest of Canaan. Copan points out (rightly) that the Bible’s claims of utter annihilation are highly exaggerated, and that archaeological evidence hints that no such mass conquest took place. For the most part, Israel peacefully settled into Canaan without warfare and without driving out its inhabitants. But whether or not the conquest really happened, the fact remains that the Word of God graphically describes these holy wars in quite unholy terms, and claims that God commanded this inhumanity. Read, for example, Numbers 31:17-18, where God gives instruction regarding Midianite captives: “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” Copan tries to soften the command, explaining that the non-virgin women were seducing Israel’s men and the boys would grow up to become warriors, but nothing can soften that one.

Copan presents a word game at this point. Moses commanded the armies to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites and not to “leave alive anything that breathes.” Joshua didn’t do this; we have lots of evidence of Canaanite people remaining afterward. Yet if you read Joshua 11:12, it says Joshua did as he was told; he utterly destroyed them as Moses commanded. Ergo, since Joshua didn’t kill ‘em all, but the Word of God says he did what he was told, then we can apparently consider Moses’ original command as hyperbole…the rhetoric of war. God didn’t really sanction genocide.

Well, whatever. Copan’s next attempt to justify this evil by reminding us that God is the author of life and has a rightful claim on it falls flat for me. If any kids were killed, they would go straight to heaven anyway, he says. The danger of that kind of thinking hardly needs discussion!

Though well-researched and thought-provoking, I finished the book with the feeling that Copan tried his best to tackle an impossible topic. I think it’s a four-star attempt and a fun book; I can’t judge the loser of a debate merely because he was given an indefensible position, right?


  1. Good review. I love the “Well whatever”.

  2. Thanks, James! I love your blog, btw (“James’ Thoughts & Musings” under Connections).

  3. It’s always a little bit heartbreaking when apologists try to take the super-positive message of modern of Christianity (God is love; you’re his treasured creature; the Christian God is above all human pettiness and can be trusted to give us peace and justice; Christianity is all good news, etc.) and transpose it back onto the Bible.

    The backpeddling and philosophical gymnastics they need to employ to twist the Bible’s assorted nastiness into something that approximates holiness are so athletic and creative that you kind of want to root for them. And when they finally exclaim triumphantly “see? The Bible is wonderful!” from atop the arguments they’ve lovingly constructed, you almost don’t have the heart to point out that they’re standing on a tangled web of sticky-tape, plastic and holes that’s about to collapse into a sorry mess.

    Once, while perousing the religion section of my local bookstore, I came across a book called something like “The Problem verses”. The mission of the book was to try and catalog, and briefly explain, all those tricky passages of the Bible that seemed offensive, unfair, or cruel. I guess it was meant as a reference for newcomers to the Bible who were a bit alarmed by what they saw in it, and was intended to help them see those verses in a more palatable light.

    It was one of the thickest books I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and was a good 50% thicker than the Bible itself. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  4. lol! You have a way of making me laugh, Vol.

    I love the Bible! I triumphantly exclaim, “the Bible is wonderful!” After I have made it palatable in my own way, of course.

    I recently joined an Apologist forum, and I fit in like a square peg, constantly frustrated by their attempts to destroy the mystery of Christianity and ruin the Bible by dehumanizing it.

  5. You certainly make this sound like an interesting book. I’d love to read it.

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