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Is God a Moral Monster? – J. Michael Thigpen

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Thigpen about how Christians can make sense of Old Testament texts that describe God’s judgment.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Why do we need a God who judges?
  • How do we understand God’s justice in light of the killing of infants?
  • How should these Old Testament stories of judgment cause us to reflect on our own lives?
  • How is the Old Testament understanding of propitiation important for understanding the gospel?

Dr. J. Michael Thigpen is provost and professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society as well as an associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at the Talbot School of Theology. He is the author of several books, including Divine Motive in the Hebrew Bible: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD from Hebrew Union College.

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:16):

Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist and philosophical naturalist, has said this about the God of the Old Testament: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction—jealous and proud of it. A petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak. A vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser—a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Well, many Christians would instinctively recoil from this comment, but in their heart of hearts, they struggle with particular scenes from the Old Testament. For instance, in 1 Samuel 15:3, God says, “Now go and strike Amalek, and devote to destruction all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, oxen, sheep, camel, and donkey.” How does this square with the way that people normally think of God, encapsulated in a verse like John 3:16, where we read, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.”?

Brian Arnold (01:25):

In other words, what do we say about the character of God in the Old Testament? Is Richard Dawkins right? Is God an unforgiving, bloodthirsty, misogynistic, genocidal bully? Or is there a better way to understand the character of God in these places, where he even calls for total destruction? Well, to help us with this question today, we have Dr. J. Michael Thigpen in the studio. Dr. Thigpen spent the last decade serving as the executive director of the Evangelical Theological Society, which is made up of nearly 4,000 evangelical scholars from all over the world. He has served as professor at Talbot Seminary of Biola University, and he has a PhD in Judaic, Hebraic, and Cognate studies from Hebrew Union College, in addition to more than a decade of pastoral ministry. He’s also the author of Divine Motive in the Hebrew Bible: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis. But on top of all this, I have the privilege of serving along Dr. Thigpen at Phoenix Seminary, where he serves as my provost and executive vice president. Dr. Thigpen, welcome to the podcast.

Michael Thigpen (02:26):

It’s great to be here, Brian.

Brian Arnold (02:27):

So our big question today is simply this—is God a moral monster? And so let’s begin by even asking why people make the statements like Richard Dawkins makes.

Michael Thigpen (02:38):

I think there are two reasons that they get there. One is that they have a view that’s solely focused on life here and now. And so everything is about whether or not your life here is fulfilled and fulfilling. So if someone dies a violent death, that is the most horrible thing that can happen—to see that life cut short. So there’s not really actually a moral approach to whether or not there’s punishment, whether or not there’s judgment, it’s simply, “is this life fulfilling?” And so for Dawkins, this life is all that there is. There’s no question of the afterlife, and no question of judgment or righteousness or heaven.

Brian Arnold (03:13):

Well, and so he reads these texts in the Old Testament, right? And he finds things that don’t square with his view of morality. So if God is really like this, is this a God worth following at all? So what would you say to somebody—I mean, I can imagine somebody listening today who even struggles with some of these scenes from the Old Testament, and wondering if this God is a God that should be worshiped?

Michael Thigpen (03:35):

Yeah. And so I would actually go at this differently, depending on if I’m having conversation with Dawkins, I want to go one way. If I’m talking to someone in my church who’s wrestling with issues, I’m going to go a slightly different way. And for the moment I want to go with them. I would usually ask them something like, “well, would you feel better if the Amalekites like just had an illness and died—maybe they got COVID and they died—would that make you feel better about what happened to them?” “Maybe a little, it’s less violent.” Well, okay, fine. “What if they died in their sleep—would you feel a little bit better about that?” “Yeah, that’s more peaceful.” I probably like that a lot. Then I would say, “who is in charge of when they die, whether they die a violent death, whether they die of illness, or whether they die in their sleep of a heart attack?” Hebrews tells us that it’s appointed once for man to die and then comes judgment. So really the issue that they’re wrestling with is—do they believe in, do they want to believe in, a God who judges? And that’s really the conversation that I want to have with someone who’s wrestling with this.

Brian Arnold (04:35):

Well, let’s go into that then, because that’s so important for understanding this issue, is the judgment of God, which even begins with human sin. And so understanding that context of God’s moral righteousness and human sinfulness. So how do you lead somebody to that? If you brought them to that point, and talking about divine judgment, where do you go with them from there?

Michael Thigpen (04:55):

Well, I want them to see that all of these acts are not arbitrary, that they’re always based in God’s judgment of sin. And what he’s really doing—whether it’s with the Canaanites, whether it’s with the Amalekites—he’s giving us a picture of final judgment rushed forward into our time, saying “this is what it looks like when I wipe out sin and I fully judge it.” So a couple of things. I always want to look at the texts that give us the reasons for this. My area of study is God’s motives—why does he act the way that he does? So whether it’s Genesis 15, saying he’s waiting until the sin of the Canaanites reaches its full point that he’s going to judge it—that’s what we see in Joshua in the judgment that takes place there. In 1 Samuel 15, he mentions the way that the Amalekites have opposed his people, and therefore they’re opposing him as well.

Michael Thigpen (05:40):

And more fundamentally, I’m going to go to a text like Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 5, where God describes his character. And I think if I’m describing God, I probably don’t do it this way. I only tell you about the great stuff about God that I really like, which is that he’s loving and he’s steadfast and he’s slow to anger. But God is a God of full disclosure. So he says, “Look, I also—while I keep my steadfast love, I don’t clear the guilty—and I will visit that inequity on them, and I will do this.” But he clarifies, even in Deuteronomy, as Moses comes back around to this statement, he says, really this judgment is going to be on those who hate him—meaning those who don’t choose him, those who walk away from him, those who walk away from his offer of repentance and forgiveness. So there’s always a basis in moral judgment. It’s not arbitrary. God is dealing with sin, whether he judges in time or whether he judges at the end of time.

Brian Arnold (06:34):

What I find with a lot of people is they don’t really have a strong enough conception of sin, and the reality of sin, and how that gulf between God’s righteousness and their sinfulness is wider than they imagine. And so I like to ask people, “Do you have a category—when we think of something like Noah’s Ark—for a God who drowns everyone on the planet except eight people and two by two animals?” So we always get this picture of Noah’s Ark in these kids’ ministries, with the giraffe head sticking out the window and things, but you don’t see the hands of people drowning in the water through God’s judgment of those. And so I like to press people, do you have a category for this? Because God is a God of judgment as well.

Michael Thigpen (07:13):

And I always want to take people to that next step, which really works along this line. If you have a God who doesn’t judge, then you also have a God who cannot save. And that’s normally where people…that’s where they balk, and that’s where they stop. Because wait a minute—if God doesn’t judge, then I don’t need salvation. Like no, no, no. If God doesn’t judge Christ on the cross, he has no salvation to offer you. You will be the sacrifice for your sin. The basic layout in the Old Testament and the New Testament is you have one of two options. Either you can be the sacrifice for your own sin, in which case you pay for it eternally, or you can allow God to judge your sin in Christ, and allow that to be your sacrifice and go there. But it begs the question then—why does God have to judge sin? And God lays it out—it’s because of who he is. He is an absolutely holy and righteous God. So he cannot allow sin in his presence, but he wants us in his presence. So the only option is for him to rightly judge sin, which either consumes us or rightly consumes a sacrifice in our place. And on that basis, then he can have us sinful people in his presence. And that’s ultimately what he’s after. Even in his judgment of sin.

Brian Arnold (08:24):

Which is beautiful, even in the opening pages of the Bible, as soon as Adam and Eve sin, and they are owed the punishment of death, God finds a substitute for them. And that’s the story of the Bible, right? Is God’s substitution for sinners. And we’ll talk about that, we’ll get to that, especially at the end as we pivot to Christ. But let’s press into some of these details of the text, especially thinking of infants being killed by the Israelites. There seem to be some gratuitous parts of what God’s asking people to do that I think people really recoil against. Look, I get that the dad Amalekite is against the Israelites, and why we might go to war against them, but why the children?

Michael Thigpen (09:07):

And he doesn’t address that directly. Folks have handled this in a couple of different ways. One is that we do have some stereotypical language that’s taking place in the Old Testament, where we might talk about even today a military victory, where we wiped out the enemy. Well does that mean that every last single individual was killed? No, it means that we totally overwhelmed, totally destroyed them. So we have that same kind of hyperbolic language in the Old Testament, where sometimes everything…you know, I…it would be like today, I’d say, well, that drive took me forever. It doesn’t actually mean it took me all eternity, it just means it took a really long time. Sometimes we have that kind of language. But even here we have the idea of there is a solidarity amongst the people. And then there’s a little bit of mystery that takes place.

Michael Thigpen (09:50):

There is this place where God demonstrates his justice, say to Abraham and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which would have included—there’s another case where they’re not specified—but the whole family, everyone who’s there. Then basically God says, “do you trust that the judge of all the earth is going to do right?” This is the same place that he takes Job in Job’s own personal suffering. He’s going to say “Job, let me ask you some basic questions—do you understand why the sea stops where it does? No? No, you don’t get that? Do you know how the stars are in place and where they go?” God’s saying basically—”these are the most simple parts of the universe, right? This is as basic as I can get for you. The sea has to stop. Land has to start. The stars need to stay in place and move in their courses. If you don’t understand how I did that, how can I possibly explain the complexity? So let me go one more step with you, Job. If I gave you all power and authority, could you judge the wicked in a way that they would no longer be wicked, and absolute righteousness would be upheld?” And Job basically says, “I’m going to stop talking.”

Brian Arnold (10:53):

Oh, right. Yeah, that’s right. I had a pastor one time who said, “If I had the power of God, I would change all kinds of things. If I had the wisdom of God, I wouldn’t change anything.” And I thought, you know, there’s a lot of wisdom even in there. And God has a secret veil of providence. We read even in Deuteronomy 29:29, “the secret things belong to the Lord, our God. But the things that are revealed, belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of his law.” So again, with Job, or with Abraham, we are prone to ask these kinds of questions. And God says, the gap between what I know and what you know is so vast, it’s bigger than between me and my devilish cat. Right? The knowledge gap is bigger.

Michael Thigpen (11:38):

Yeah. And I think it’s not just the knowledge gap. It’s his ability. So think about Joseph, who’s sold into slavery by his brothers—sheer pettiness that they send him off. They make their father think that he’s been killed. And at the end of that whole thing, when he’s finally reunited with his brothers, he’s like, look, you meant this for evil, but somehow God is so powerful, so omniscient, he is so in control, that he can take your evil act—it doesn’t make it not evil—but he can use that act, not just for my good, but for your good, and the good of the known world at the time. That’s a level of complexity we can’t even begin to approach. It doesn’t make the act not evil, but it does allow God to do something I can’t even comprehend. I can look back and go, wow, that’s great. But I could never think, plan, and strategize out how I would do that, if I had that kind of power,

Brian Arnold (12:28):

I think that’s really important to say—we’re not saying that these things aren’t evil, right? They are. If you’ve suffered under somebody else’s sin, that is an evil perpetrated. And yet the Bible peels back that curtain from time to time to show us what God’s doing behind the scenes. And there’s a lot of times in our life we don’t get that curtain peeled back this side of heaven. But it’s where we come to trust the Lord in these areas.

Michael Thigpen (12:51):

That’s where Job himself never gets an explanation for why God allowed what he did. We, as the reader, get to see it, and God’s trying to teach us, but it never reflects that Job received that. And so we want to distinguish—God can use man’s evil in order to accomplish even his good purposes. But when we talk about the judgment of God and even that being poured out on infants, that’s not an evil act. It is his righteous judgment. And we don’t know exactly how he knows and how he does that. He doesn’t pull back that curtain. And even if he did, we would be like Job, and I could not understand it all, even if he tried. But those acts are absolutely righteous because he does no evil himself. But they feel bad to us, because they feel like the judgment is unjust. But we don’t know all that God knows.

Brian Arnold (13:40):

And then we put God under our moral judgment, and we stand in judgment of God—of what he can or cannot do to still fit within our moral categories, which is a bad place to be.

Michael Thigpen (13:50):

Yeah. And we do this all the time. And we want to put either God there, or we want to put the other people there. So this is Jesus when the tower falls, right? And he’s going to say, “Look, were they more wicked?” No, no, no, no. This is an opportunity for everyone to say, “At some point, I’m going to die and face God, and am I ready for that? Will I be judged or will I be received?” So instead of judging God for the act of the tower falling, or instead of judging the people—that they deserved it—to call for me to look back and say, “what is my relationship with God? And what would I receive if I met him today in my death?”

Brian Arnold (14:25):

Absolutely. Let’s go back to that, those scenes though, of total destruction. Maybe the conquest of the land in the book of Joshua is a classic example of this. What are we learning about God’s preservation of his own people? Because it seems…you mentioned one way that scholars handle this before, of perhaps hyperbolic language. I don’t take it like that. I think God’s actually calling his people to destroy the ones in the land. So that his people will not be tempted to syncretism. Which is exactly what happens—they begin to not fully obey God, not remove all the dwellers of the land, and they begin to take over pagan practices, which is exactly what God is trying to protect his own people from.

Michael Thigpen (15:06):

Yeah. So I want to go a little bit deeper there in two different directions. One is—it is a protective move for Israel. That’s certainly true. He tells them that over and over in his charge in Deuteronomy and in Joshua, that this is why you need to do that. And then we read the train wreck that is the book of Judges. And when they don’t fulfill that command, then they become ensnared in exactly what God predicted. But secondarily, it is still a judgment of those Canaanites’ individual sin. So they deserve the judgment that they get. So it’s not just that you’ll be bad for my people, therefore I’m going to get rid of you. You deserve judgment. And for my people, I want you to be involved in this really harsh act because it’s going to both judge their sin and help prevent you from sinning. But it reaches inside their camp too.

Michael Thigpen (15:50):

So normally when people ask me about this, they will ask me about the judgment of the Canaanites, and isn’t this some sort of ethnic genocide or warfare, like what we might see today? My answer is absolutely not. And I can prove it to you in two words: Rahab and Achan. See, Rahab is one of the Canaanites. And if this is a letter of the law kind of thing, then they should have taken Rahab’s help. They should have said, that’s wonderful. And when Jericho fell, they [should have] said, “we’re really sorry now, but we have to kill you, because you’re a Canaanite.” So it was never about her being a Canaanite. It’s about Canaanite as a way of talking about people who worship other gods and reject Yaweh. But here we have…Rahab says, “I’ve heard about what God did in Egypt. And that he’s powerful. And he must be the God that I should worship.”

Michael Thigpen (16:34):

So she moves to becoming one who follows Yaweh, and who follows the God of the Israelites. So she is saved, even though she’s ethnically a Canaanite. On the flip side, Achan, if this is just about being Israelite or Canaanite. Achan is the guy who steals from the stuff that’s forbidden out of Jericho, he hides it in his tent. His family helps him with that. And then he’s called out, and he and his family are judged in the same way the Canaanites were for their sin. He and his family are destroyed. They’re killed by the Israelites in much the same way. This is one of our best examples that what God is dealing with here is the judgment of sin. It is protective of his people, but of…his people are those who actually follow him, not those who are just ethnically Israelite. And those he’s going after are not those who are ethnically not Israelites. He’s going after those who are in sin. So when Rahab repents, she’s saved, and when Achan steps away and is no longer following God, he’s judged. And so this is the best look we have in that moment to say, God’s really after the judgment of sin and his relationship with all people, not just making ethnic dividing lines.

Brian Arnold (17:42):

And this becomes the entire theme of Scripture, is that we are in sin—by nature, sinners—and we need some sort of a wrath-bearing sacrifice for those sins. And so when we think about God and his character—even in the Old Testament—he’s a God who longs to give mercy. He wants forgiveness to be had. But that doesn’t mean that his righteousness can be satisfied in any other way than through the blood of something. Right? And so in the Old Testament we can see the sacrificial system all pointing forward, as the book of Hebrews tells us, to the sacrifice of Christ. And what we read in the New Testament then is God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. So when we can get in a position where we think God is not acting righteously in the Old Testament or something—which is a horrible way to stand in judgment over God—but remembering this is the same God who sends his own Son as the sacrifice. And then to me, it demonstrates why our view of propitiation is critical for understanding the gospel. So do you mind taking a minute to kind of flesh that out?

Michael Thigpen (18:47):

Yeah. And I think it’s important here that both in the Old and the New Testaments we get really clear statements that while God judges—and he is absolutely righteous in doing that—he does not take any kind of pleasure in the death of the wicked. He says it in Ezekiel 18, I do not delight in that. And in Peter he’s going to tell us that, you know, the whole reason he’s delayed his return is so that people might turn and repent, because he longs for them to do that. So Lamentations 3 will put it this way—he does certain things with his heart, in other words, that he delights in them. And that’s salvation. Other things he does because it is right, and it is good, but it’s not what he would prefer. And so he lays out in this a way, then, for us to escape his judgment.

Michael Thigpen (19:31):

And it’s interesting—it’s always in the context of the larger people of the world, not just his. So Abraham, that he’s going to be a blessing to the nations. When we look at the songs about the suffering servant in Isaiah, he’s going to be a light, not just to Israel—that’s actually too small a thing for him. He’s going to be a light to the nations. He’s going to be a covenant for the nations. And he’s going to bear the sins of not only the nation of Israel, but of the whole world. He’s going to bear that weight, so that he can provide a pathway. That God can judge him—in essence, that God can judge himself in Christ—that he can do that for us and take it on himself. This is the ultimate act of sacrifice, not of a megalomaniac. As Richard Dawkins would say, he’s going to say that this is a God who wants all and gives nothing. But the word of both the Old and the New Testament is that this is a God who gives everything, because he wants to give that to all. And so he offers this through his Son. He offers himself as a sacrifice for sin. And that’s the primary message of both the Old and the New [Testament].

Brian Arnold (20:32):

And with the cross of Christ centering human history is this great act of God. We used the word propitiation earlier, and a lot of biblical scholars want to go away from that idea, but to define it—it is that Jesus is the wrath-bearing sacrifice for sins. That God does have wrath, but he wanted to pour out every last drop of that wrath on his own Son, so that we might not have to experience any of it ourselves.

Michael Thigpen (20:57):

Yeah. And this is the primary image, the clearest one in the Old Testament, of Isaiah 53 and the suffering of the servant. He takes our punishment. He takes the whip that we deserve. He takes the punishment that we deserve. Although he knew nothing of sin, he bears it on our behalf, so that we might be made righteous. And this is the great exchange that God makes, that no one else could do. And that if he punishes someone who rightly deserves it, then there’s nothing left over. It’s just exhausted. And it takes the punishment. But by punishing someone who did not deserve it—by punishing himself in the incarnate Christ—by doing that, then he’s able to leave something behind: a righteousness that he can give to us, that is not ours. It’s alien, as Paul talks about it. It’s given to us, through Christ. But he takes the wrath of God for us, so that we can have the life of Christ as well.

Brian Arnold (21:52):

Mike, I think this puts all this in great perspective for those who are struggling with some of these texts in the Old Testament that have been hangups for a lot of people. What are some resources you might point some people to, who might be interested in pursuing this question further?

Michael Thigpen (22:05):

There are two that I would recommend. The first one is Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan. It’s a great sort of a philosopher’s view. So it’s going to be a little bit more problem of evil and the question of how all of that works. The other one is Greg Beale’s The Morality of God in the Old Testament. And he’s going to take a more directly Scriptural approach. So those two—kind of one philosophical and one directly in the text—are really good aids for thinking about the stickier issues in the Old Testament.

Brian Arnold (22:34):

That’s great. Well, Mike, thanks for being with us today to answer those. And folks, what you’ve heard is the gospel—the reality that God has righteousness, and that righteousness is going to be meted out on sinful humanity. Either us paying for our own sins, or through the substitute of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners. And that is the beauty of what the New Testament teaches, and how the Old Testament and the New Testament relate. And we get to see the beauty of the character of God. So Mike, thanks so much for helping us think through this today.

Michael Thigpen (23:04):

It was great to be here.

Outro (23:06):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

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