(The following is my term paper for Apologetics at Reformed Theological Seminary, submitted Spring 2020. Formatting not retained. In the original paper I used the actual name of the student, but for this public post I have changed that name.)
(The following conversation is based on an interaction that took place with an agnostic high school student who regularly attended our youth ministry several years ago. This has been recollected from memory as much as possible, with the exception of a new ending).
Austin: Jon, you come to our Wednesday night services every week, but you are uncertain that you believe God exists. I know you come partially because of your friend, but why do you keep coming if you doubt that God exists?
Jon: I like the atmosphere here and that this group isn’t chaotic and filled with drama. I also like talking with you and Andrew – you both are smart and enjoy having deep conversations with me, and I appreciate that.
Austin: I enjoy talking with you too! But I am curious – what is it that holds you back from believing in God? What would need to change for you to become a Christian?
Jon: Well, I can point to a lot of things that give me doubt about the existence of God, but I think the one thing that keeps me from believing in Christianity is the Old Testament. I like Jesus a lot – I wish more people were like Jesus and I can see that you and the other leaders here genuinely want to live like him. But, I know that if I accept Jesus, that I have to accept the Old Testament as well, and I just can’t do that.
Austin: Why not? What is it about the Old Testament that bothers you?
Jon: Well, I believe in evolution, so I have issues with Genesis, but I think the biggest thing that bothers me is how barbaric and terrible the Old Testament God is. Like I said, I don’t mind Jesus, but I can’t believe that Jesus is the same God that flooded the earth, commanded genocide, and implemented all these other barbaric practices. I hear Christians say that “God is Love”, and I just don’t see that in the Old Testament.
Austin: Well, you’re in good company: these are things that even Christians struggle with. In fact, one of the earliest heretics of the New Testament church, a guy named Marcion, rejected the entire Old Testament for the same reasons you just laid out. A lot of the early church didn’t quite know what to do with the Old Testament in light of Jesus, and many of them responded by allegorizing those events rather than treating them as history. But I’m curious: if you had to pick one of them, which one do you think bothers you the most?
Jon: Probably the Canaanite conquest, honestly. I think the Flood story is likely a myth, and I can get behind the idea that the Old Testament law is just a byproduct of it’s culture and time, but the Canaanite conquest is just too much. It makes the Old Testament God no different from any other tribal, bloodthirsty deity, and like I said earlier, I can’t believe Jesus had anything to do with that.
Austin: Fair enough. The Flood and Old Testament law are massive discussions by themselves, but let’s at least talk about the Canaanite conquest. But before we do that, I have to point out two things here: this entire discussion is pointless if there is no God and if the Bible is not trustworthy in what it says. If the Bible isn’t trustworthy, then it’s up for debate whether or not the Canaanite conquest even happened, and if there is no God, then even if the conquest happened, it was because of something else. Even though you say you don’t believe in God, the way you speak about this subject seems to suggest that you take it seriously, which doesn’t make sense if you believe there actually isn’t a God.
Jon: Okay, fine. I’ll concede, for the sake of this discussion, that there is a God and that the Old Testament is trustworthy. But that doesn’t change the fact that what God did was horrible and evil, and that he is far from the “God of Love” that Christians talk about. There’s nothing loving about commanding a group of people to commit genocide.
Austin: I think this is a good place to start, but before we go anywhere, I want to know your understanding of the Old Testament story at this point. What exactly is going on?
Jon: Isn’t God leading the Israelites to the promise land? Aren’t they in the wilderness or something for a time?
Austin: Yes, that’s part of the story, but is the immediate context the only context to consider? Why is God leading this group of people to this “promise land”?
Jon: I don’t know. What else is there?
Austin: Well, it’s important to understand that God deals with his people through covenants. God made a covenant with Adam and Eve, with Noah, and with Abraham, among others. Part of God’s covenant with Abraham is that he would have offspring “as numerous as the stars”, and that God will give them the land of Canaan and take it away from the nations currently living there. But before God promises this, he makes clear that Abraham’s offspring will be “sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” The bigger picture of the story is that God is fulfilling his covenant promise to Abraham and giving his descendants the land he is promising to give them after the 400 years they spent as slaves in Egypt. God didn’t just command the Israelites drive out the Canaanites on a whim – God made it clear, several centuries prior, that they were going to be driven out.
Jon: But why though? Why was this necessary? Couldn’t they have just lived in the land with the people? It’s not like they were doing anything to the Israelites.
Austin: Not necessarily – there are plenty of instances of the kings and armies of the land harassing and attacking the Israelites, but –
Jon: Well yeah, I would attack them if they were trying to take my land, wouldn’t you?
Austin: Hold on, let me finish. The Israelites were the people of God, and the very first commandment of their law was that “you shall have no Gods before me”. The Law is very clear that the people of God are to be morally and theologically distinct and separate from the surrounding nations. Are you familiar with any of the practices of the Canaanite religions?
Jon: No, not really.
Austin: They were insane. Horrible. You think God is being bloodthirsty by commanding the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites? That is nothing compared to the religious practices of the Canaanite peoples. Not only did they usually have a pantheon of gods (in direct contradiction to Israel’s worship of one God), these gods regularly demanded human sacrifice as a part of their worship. People often read about the Old Testament sacrificial system and often think it’s a cruel and bloody system for how many animals it requires for sacrifice, but the sacrificial systems of the Canaanite gods required just as many human sacrifices as it did anything else, including the sacrifice of women and children. We even have surviving descriptions of the practices of one of those gods, a god named Anath, and it’s incredibly gory and violent.Jon, would you want to share a home with people like that?
Jon: …no, I don’t think I would. Still, it was their land – the Israelites had no right to take it away from them. Isn’t that one of the Ten Commandments: you shall not steal?
Austin: Yes, that is one of the Ten Commandments, but the Israelites are not “stealing” anything here; remember, God had made it clear that he was going to take away the land from this people. Does God have the right to do that?
Jon: I mean, I guess, but I still don’t understand why he had to do that. He could’ve just left them alone, or given the Israelites some other land to take.
Austin: Sure, we could speculate about what God could’ve done, but that doesn’t change anything about what he actually did. Furthermore, the land the Israelites came to take was among some of the best land in the region; God wasn’t giving them just any general land, but some of the best land they could have. But do you think God was just taking away the land from the Canaanites arbitrarily, or just because he could?
Jon: I mean, it kinda seems that way. I can understand wanting to give your people the best land and defeat their enemies, but God basically commands ethnic cleansing against all these people. How is that different from any other ethnic cleansing?
Austin: So I was wanting to address this point later, but I think now is a good time to do it: why do you think the Canaanite conquest was a genocide, or an instance of ethnic cleansing?
Jon: Doesn’t God command that all the Canaanites be destroyed? Not just driven out, but actually killed?
Austin: Where does it say that?
Jon: Well, I don’t know off the top of my head.
Austin: That’s fine; one instance you might be thinking of is in Deuteronomy 20 verses 16 and 17, where God commands that “you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hives and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded.”
Jon: See? God is commanding specific people groups be killed – how is that any different than the Holocaust or Armenian genocide?
Austin: It’s different because I left off the next verse: “that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.” What is the emphasis here? Is God commanding the destruction of the people because of their race, or because of their theology?
Jon: It sounds like their theology, but the end result is still the same. Hitler had a bunch of supposedly scientific and cultural reasons to justify exterminating the Jews; why do theological justifications make this okay?
Austin: Well, when we say “theological” differences, we are not talking about, say, the differences between Baptists and Presbyterians or something like that. In fact, calling the differences between the Israelites and the Canaanite peoples “theological” differences is almost too soft. This wasn’t just a difference in theology; this was idolatry, and God was judging the peoples for their idolatry. In fact, God even makes clear to Abraham that the reason why he isn’t destroying these people right now is because they haven’t fully reached their limit in their sin; when God commands the Israelites to destroy them, it is because their time of judgment has come.
Jon: Okay, but that doesn’t make this any better for me. At the end of the day, entire cultures and civilizations were wiped out; call it whatever you like, but that looks like ethnic cleansing and genocide to me.
Austin: Were the people fully killed and destroyed, though?
Jon: I mean I would think so, because God tells them to do it.
Austin: Yes, God tells them to do it, but God tells the Israelites to do a bunch of things that the Israelites fail to do. Let’s go back to the story of the Old Testament for a bit: as the Israelites begin to move into the Promise Land, what happens?
Jon: Don’t they do what God tells them to, or at least try to do what God tells them to?
Austin: Definitely the latter. It’s always important to remember that just because God commands or commanded something that it doesn’t always mean that it got carried out – that’s a very basic definition of sin, and the Israelites are going to sin against God in significant ways in their journey to the Promise Land and long after they get there.
Jon: But they do end up killing people, right?
Austin: Yes, they certainly do. They have several major battles along the way. But at the end of the day, the end result is far from anything resembling a genocide or complete ethnic cleansing. Instead of a straightforward, unopposed march to victory, it looked more like a standard military campaign of victories, defeats, and ultimately compromises.By the time this chapter of the Old Testament ends, the Israelites have totally and completely failed to do what God commanded, and instead of fully driving out the people of the land, instead decided to live and dwell with them. This will be the source for countless generations of idolatry and rebellion as Israel worships the gods of the people that they were supposed to destroy.
Jon: Okay, well, even if the Israelites don’t totally wipe out the peoples, that doesn’t change the fact that God commanded their total annihilation. The Israelites haven’t really been my main problem, but the fact that God commanded this at all.
Austin: Well, on that point, it might interest you to know that even among Christians there is disagreement as to whether or not the commandments we read about are commandments that are meant to be kept in their fullest, most literal sense of the text, or whether or not we should factor in hyperbole, exaggeration, or other rhetorical considerations. It’s common for us to over-exaggerate things we’ve done or would like to do: anytime you guys go off for your debate tournaments, you usually say “we are going to crush them” or “we are going to destroy them”, but obviously you don’t literally mean that you will do that. The same is true in the Old Testament and even among the surrounding nations as well – we have plenty of archeological evidence from other ancient near-east cultures where they record their big, grand accomplishments that, if taken literally, would mean these people were unstoppable tyrants who ruled the whole world.Christians do not believe the people who wrote Scripture were robots just blindly dictating words they received from God; the Lord worked in and through human conventions and speech, including the “humanness” of the author’s writing style and quirks.
Jon: That is interesting. Which side do you lean on – do you think God commanded the literal annihilation of the peoples, or do you think it was Moses exaggerating?
Austin: To be honest, I don’t know. I go back and forth between the two. There are times that I do think that God meant it in the fullest, literal sense, which makes sense given that the Lord later chastises the people of Israel for not fully driving out the peoples. But, I also think we need to factor in for some kind of hyperbole and exaggeration, especially when (and I’ve forgot to mention this up to this point) there were provisions in the Law and elsewhere in God’s commandments for the Canaanites to become Israelites and be welcomed in to the people of God. Not only were sojourners among the Israelites allowed to have the same rights and privileges as native Israelites, God makes clear that those who abandon their gods to worship and serve the one true living God were to be welcomed into the people of God. Now that I think about it, this might be the biggest reason why calling the conquest a “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” is inaccurate: if the goal was race-based annihilation, why would God make provisions for these peoples to become Israelites? Hilter certainly didn’t offer that option. God also gives the Canaanites chances to repent before they’re attacked – why do you think they walked around the city of Jericho several times? Rahab the prostitute was a Canaanite, and she becomes an Israelite and, incredibly, becomes part of the genealogy of Jesus. We also have an entire book of the Bible named after a Canaanite (specifically Moabite) woman named Ruth. Reasons like this are why I think the commands aren’t meant to be read in their fullest, most literal sense – even taking into account the fact that the Israelites failed to do what God commanded, God also does things and allows for things that seem to indicate that out instinct to interpret his commandment woodenly literal isn’t correct.
Jon: I have to admit this is all really interesting. I didn’t know any of this. I don’t know if it fully satisfies my issues with this area of the Old Testament, but I will definitely admit that there is a lot more to this than I thought.
Austin: All of this stuff I’m sharing with you I learned from a book called Is God A Moral Monster? by Paul Copan. It’s been several years since I last read it, but he does a deep dive not only into this subject, but also several other parts of the Old Testament that you might have issues with, like the existence of slavery in the Law and the gruesomeness of the sacrificial system. I think you would really enjoy it.
Jon: Maybe I’ll check it out. But, this is still only one of my issues with the Old Testament and with the Old Testament God. Even if there is more nuance to this subject, that doesn’t completely change the fact that I think the Old Testament God is cruel, and nothing like Jesus.
Austin: Okay, let me ask you this then: what tells you that God is cruel?
Jon: I mean it seems obvious that he just is.
Austin: You are making moral judgments about God – what moral standard is God subject to?
Jon: I mean…It just seems like he tells us to love people and Jesus loves people, but in the Old Testament God is killing people left and right for reasons that just seem unnecessary, like for idolatry or other weird things. If any normal person did that, they would be considered cruel – why isn’t God?
Austin: Is God subject to human moral standards?
Jon: I don’t know. Why do you keep asking about this?
Austin: I keep asking because you are making moral judgments about the character and nature of God, and in order to do that there must be some moral standard that God (who, of course, must exist in the first place) is subject to. If there is no standard that God is subject to, how can you say that God is cruel?
Jon: I just don’t like it. I don’t like it that God is like this.
Austin: So your response to him is just to believe he doesn’t exist?
Austin: I think this is your problem, Jon: I think you love you sin, and because you love your sin, you hate God. You know he exists, but you’ll look for any reason you can think of to justify your belief that he does not exist. I’m willing to grant that there are plenty of Old Testament passages and sections that are difficult pills for us to swallow – like I said, even Christians struggle with the Old Testament. But just because these truths are hard and weird does not mean that God does not exist. I think you ultimately do not like the fact that God is God, and that he does not act or behave in ways that you would like for him to, which is part of the reason why you say you like Jesus. You’re willing to be okay with Jesus, so long as Jesus conforms to what you want him to be. But here’s the thing: the Jesus that you think you like doesn’t actually exist.
Jon: Huh? What do you mean?
Austin: I mean that the Jesus that you don’t have a problem with is not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus you don’t have a problem with is a Jesus you’ve created to reflect your desires and values. He does not actually exist.
Jon: I’m starting to get annoyed here. What do you mean I’ve “created” a Jesus to reflect my desires and values? I only know about Jesus from what I hear from you guys here at church!
Austin: Sure, I can agree to that, but there are other things about Jesus that we teach up here that you either do not know or you’ve heard but have decided to reject. We believe that Jesus is fully and equally God with God the Father and God the Spirit, and that all three were present before, during, and after the Canaanite conquest, and that all three gave the command for the conquest in total unison and agreement. Do you believe that about Jesus?
Jon: No, I don’t believe that. I don’t believe Jesus had anything to do with the Old Testament.
Austin: See what I mean? Your version of Jesus and my version of Jesus cannot both co-exist. It’s possible that both of us are wrong, but we both cannot be correct. The question is, which version of Jesus best reflects what Scripture teaches about Jesus?
Jon: I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to keep talking about this.
Austin: If you’re done for the night, that’s okay with me. Before you go though, there is one other thing I want to point out for you to consider.
Jon: What is it?
Austin: When we talk about the Gospel, we mention that Jesus lived the perfect, sinless life that we failed to live. We have broken God’s law and disobeyed God’s commandments; Jesus kept God’s law perfectly and fully obeyed everything the Father commanded him. How would this apply to the Israelites who failed to obey God’s command to drive out the Canaanites from the land?
Jon: I don’t know. What are you saying?
Austin: In the book of Revelation, what happens when Jesus Christ returns?
Jon: He destroys evil once and for all, or something like that.
Austin: What all do you think that entails?
Jon: …the destruction of all evil? I’m not sure what you point is.
Austin: My point is that Jesus will succeed where the Israelites failed. Unlike the Israelites, Jesus will literally and fully destroy all sin and evil, including every person who does not worship him. Unlike the Israelites, Jesus will not compromise his mission and allow for unbelievers to remain after he returns. This is why I know the Jesus you like doesn’t exist – the Jesus of the Bible will do everything that you have an issue with in the Old Testament, but to perfection. But like it was in the Old Testament, Jesus gives us plenty of time and chances to repent and become part of his people, the Church, before the day of destruction comes. The Canaanite conquest is nothing compared to the conquest Christ will accomplish, and the promise land that he will lead his people to is nothing compared to the promise land the Israelites ultimately settled in. I hope and pray you repent of your sin, including your unbelief in God, and become a Christian, so that you can be spared this terrible day and enjoy an eternity in a new heavens and a new earth.
Copan, Paul. Is God A Moral Monster? Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011
Frame, John M. Apologetics: A Justification for Christian Belief. Philipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2015
Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011
Koukl, Gregory. Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.
 Genesis 15:13 (ESV)
 Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 159
 Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 170
 Paul Copan, Is God A Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 172