A reader writes:
I have a very important question about God and right now my faith is at stake. I doubt you will be able to provide a satisfying answer but please try your best.
In the Exodus and several other instances God ordered the Israelites to perform what I think we can all agree is genocide. Samuel told Solomon to go forth and kill and kill every man, woman, child and beast. Making no distinction between age, sex or whether or not they were innocent.
These were real people living real lives. They were not wicked evil doers in some cases, they were just in a land that was supposedly promised. The people God ordered executed had been living there for generations and the Israelites came and murdered them for their land.
I now know two men who will be dead soon from cancer. A girl that was in my kindergarten class was hit and killed by a bus in first grade. I have experienced death first hand and will soon do so again. Nobody deserves to die and what God did was a despicable, disgusting and unjustifiable crime.
God said every man, woman, and child. Put yourself in the shoes of the murdered. Maybe you have a son/daughter, perhaps a nephew or a co-worker has a child. Imagine any child that you regularly come in contact with and then imagine some terrorist coming in and killing him/her. "They say, oh our God ordered it. You see, even though you own this land it really belongs to us because our God told us it was ours so we have to kill you." You don’t believe in their God but that doesn’t matter to them. You are just in their way and you happened to worship a different God, therefore you deserve to die.
How could a God that supposedly loves us perform genocide on us at the same time?
I am sorry to hear that your faith is currently being challenged, and will certainly pray for you. I encourage my readers to do likewise.
It is understandable that, if anything were to challenge your faith, this kind of thing would. Not only are the passages in the Old Testament difficult to understand, but the reality of suffering and death in our lives is the hardest thing for many people to endure. I have had to endure it myself, and I sympathize entirely with your situation.
Let me do what I can to see about answering your questions. I hope you’ll bear with me as I lay some principles that will become relevant later in the discussion. I want to give you as thorough an answer as I can.
First, regarding the commands to exterminate particular populations, these are, indeed, horriffic from a modern-day point of view. Such commands are incompatible with the Christian age, and anyone today who would claim to have received such commands–such as the terrorists you mention–is wrong. God does not work that way today.
The question is whether he ever worked that way, and the answer to this question must be either yes or no. We will look at both possibilities.
Suppose that the answer to the question is yes: God did at one time
command the extermination of whole groups of people. How could we
possibly make sense of this?
It would seem that the point of departure for the discussion would be this: All life is a gift from God.
Because all life is a gift from God, it is up to God to determine
how much of that gift we receive. Whether he gives us a day or a
century, it is his gift to give, and because it is a gift, it is not
something we are owed. We therefore cannot claim that God is being
unfair if he gives us one amount of this gift rather than another.
In fact, he gives all of us an infinite amount of this gift because,
once we are created, we will endure forever. After the resurrection, we
will all–every one of us–have an infinite amount of physical life
ahead of us. What we are discussing, therefore, is whether some of us
receive an infinite amount of physical life plus a varying amount of
finite physical life as well.
In some cases, such as a person who dies one day after conception,
the person receives an infinite amount of physical life plus one day.
In other cases, as with a person who lives for a century, the
individual receives an infinite amount of physical life plus a hundred
From a mathematical point of view, these two gifts are
indistinguishable. Infinity + 1 and infinity + 36,524 (the number of
days in a century) are the same. In both cases, a person is given an
unlimited (infinite) amount of life.
Further, we are also given non-physical life even in the space
between death and resurrection, and that is a gift as well, even if we
are not in our bodies at the time.
The question, it seems, is thus not how much life we receive,
because (a) it is all a gift from God that we do not have a claim to
and (b) it is always an unlimited gift, even if there is a temporary
period in which we don’t have the use of our bodies.
Instead, it seems that the question is whether we suffer unjustly in this time.
Here is where the problem of evil comes in, because it is clear that
God does allow suffering to exist in the world, including for the
innocent. Why he does so is something that we have some theories about
(e.g., that he allows it in part in order to allow a certain kind of
free will to exist in the world), but much of it remains a mystery.
But the fact that God allows unjust suffering does not strike me as meaning that God himself is unjust. It would
mean that he is unjust if he was inflicting it for its own sake. That
would be cruel on his part and thus unjust. But it seems to me that God
can avoid the charge that he himself is unjust if two things occur.
The first is if he is allowing the unjust suffering for a good
cause. We have already mentioned one reason he is thought to allow
this–so that he can allow us to have a certain kind of free will–but
this explanation may not explain everything–partly because we can’t
always be sure of what the good reason is that God is allowing
suffering and partly because we ourselves may not be the beneficiary of
that good reason.
Suppose, for example, that God allowed this to happen: He allows me
to be conceived in my mother and then, one day after conception, he
allows me to die. I never have the ability to exercise free will in
this life, and so I am not the beneficiary of the reason (or at least
the best-known reason) for which God is thought to allow suffering.
That much actually happens in the real world. Some people do die a day after conception. But what happens next?
If it were the case that God allowed me to simply be damned at this
point and suffer in eternity as well as in this life then it would
indeed be possible to charge God with injustice. I was an innocent, I
never got to exercise free will and thus could not choose for or
against God, and to automatically be sentenced to eternal suffering
when I myself was innocent would be to condemn an innocent person to
hell. (I know Calvinists have ways of trying to argue around this, but
I don’t think that they are successful). God would be unjust. Nobody
should inherit an eternal and thus infinite amount of suffering if he
didn’t choose this.
The Church shares this intuition and concludes, therefore, that this is something God does not do. Nobody will suffer in eternity unless they themselves have chosen it.
What are the alternatives, then?
It would seem that there are two:
1) God miraculously allows such a dying infant to choose whether to
embrace God’s offer of salvation or to reject it. In this case the
child would be in the same state as anybody else. If they end up
suffering in eternity, it is because they chose it themselves and thus
are not innocent. If they end up in eternal beatitude, it is because
they chose it. In neither case would God be unjust toward them, for he
enabled them to freely choose what destiny to embrace.
2) God does not miraculously allow the dying infant to exercise free
will and instead automatically grants the child a positive destiny in
the afterlife. This could be either a positive natural destiny (one
which does not include the full glory of heaven but which is
nonetheless positive, as the speculative state of limbo is commonly
understood) or it could be a positive supernatural destiny (one that
does include the full glory of heaven, as in recent speculations about
the fate of children dying without baptism). Once again, either way you
go, God is not unjust toward the dying infant because his destiny is
It seems, then, that God is not ultimately unjust as long as he
makes sure that the innocent do not get a raw deal from the eternal
perspective. As long as the innocent person ends up with a positive
eternal destiny then God has not been unjust to that person. Further,
since all eternal destinies are infinite in duration, a positive
eternal destiny means an infinitely positive one. Over the course of
eternity, those with such destinies will receive an infinite amount of
natural and/or supernatural happiness.
This means, as St. Paul says, that "the sufferings of this present
time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to
us" (Romans 8:18).
All of our sufferings in the present are finite and so cannot compare to the infinite beatitude that awaits us.
With these principles in mind, we are able to return to the
situation of the populations that God commanded the Israelites to wipe
out. What could one make of their situation?
First, in any population of human beings, some of them will not be
innocents. Some will be people who genuinely do deserve death (mass
murderers, to take an obvious example). Therefore, in the original
population of Canaan (i.e., the holy land), some of the Canaanites were not innocents.
I am sure that the reader recognizes this, as his question focuses on the suffering of the innocent
Canaanites, and we will discuss these in a moment, but it is proper to
note that some Canaanites had committed sins that were worthy of death.
Probably more than we realize, given the brutal nature of their
Further, the Canaanites did have a relationship with God. It
isn’t the case that El (the Hebrew equivalent of "God") was a foreign
deity that they had never heard of. There are passages in Scripture
that indicate that the Canaanites were already familiar with El and
worshipped him. This is the case, for example, with Melchizedek, the
king of Jerusalem who was a priest of El, or Balaam at the time of the
Exodus, who was a prophet of El.
Archaeology confirms this. We have dug up religious texts written by
the Canaanites, and they confirm that the Canaanites did indeed worship
El. The problem is that they didn’t recognize him as the one true God.
They recognized him as the high god, the chief god of their pantheon,
but they also worshipped other gods and goddesses, such as Ba’al and
Yam and Ashera and Anat. Since El was the original, true God, this
suggests that they had departed from the true faith at some point and
This may shed light on what God told Abraham in Genesis 15:16, which
was that he would not give Abraham and his descendants the promised
land immediately, because "the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet
In other words, the Canaanite culture had not yet become so
thoroughly corrupt (through idolatry or other sins) that God felt a
clean start was necessary. He knew that this time would come–since
from his perspective outside of time he could see that the
Canaanites would become that corrupt–but he was unwilling to have
their culture be destroyed before it reached a certain level of
That level of corruption, incidentally, is one the Israelites
themselves brushed up against. Not only did God repeatedly discipline
them in order to wean them away from idolatry (an effort that was
eventually successful, following the Babylonian Exile), but even at the
time of the Exodus itself their corruption reached a point that
Scripture says God was willing to let them all die and start over with
How literally this language is to be understood is open to question, but the point that it makes is that the Israelites were not
better or morally superior to the Canaanites. What was different about
their situation was that God was determined to fulfill his promise to
bless the world through Abraham by creating a body of people who would
be vessels capable of conveying his truth to the world and so bringing
his light to all mankind.
God therefore allowed calamities to fall upon those who were
unwilling to cooperate with his grace and become vessels of light and
truth. This happened with the Canaanites. It happened with the Jewish
people in all their trials (including most notably the Babylonian
Exile). And it has happened to Christians as well. The reason that the
Christian community is fragmented and has suffered many setbacks is
that many of us have not been willing to cooperate with God’s grace and
have turned our back on God’s truth.
And yet, through the drama of the last almost forty centuries
(taking us back to the time of Abraham), God has progressively advanced
his program to the point that now fully half of mankind
(counting Jews, Christians, and Muslims) worships the Creator of the
World and the God of Abraham, even if they do not all understand him
perfectly. By the standards of the Old Testament, when the world was
swallowed in pagan darkness, we are living in an age in which the
ancient prophecy has been fulfilled and "the knowledge of the Lord
covers the earth like the waters covers the seas."
This has been with many setbacks and failures, and with the guilty
among Canaanites, Jews, Christians, and others suffering the
consequences of their actions, but through the sweep of history God has
still accomplished his promises of old.
And this sheds light, even if it does not address in particular the
question of the innocent who have suffered, on the overall purpose that
God is pursuing.
Now let us address the question of the innocent.
It is quite true that not all people in the Canaanite culture were
guilty, just as it is true that not all Jews at the time of the
Babylonian Exile were guilty and that not all Christians who have
suffered are guilty. So what of them?
Let’s look back at God’s plan of the ages for a moment. If we begin
with the premise that God wished to create for himself a distinct
people that could carry the knowledge of him to the world then it is
logical for him to give this people a homeland in which he could purify
them from the corrupting influences of the cultures around them. This
is what the Old Testament says he was doing with Israel, and it is what
history suggests has been accomplished, as illustrated by the vast
numbers of humans who now honor the Creator and the God of Abraham.
But if we put ourselves back in time and culture by thirty two or
more centuries, taking us to the time of the Exodus, what would have
been involved in giving the people of God a homeland in which he could
It would seem–since there were already humans everywhere
(habitable) on earth–that he would need to remove whoever was already
living in the homeland that he gave them. Since these people would not
want to move, war would result.
War at this time also had a different character than it does now. In
the ancient world, when people were organized in a tribal fashion,
people’s primary loyalty was to their tribe. It was the tribes and the
protection that they gave to their members that allowed society to
function. Consequently, when people from one tribe went after those of
another, it often meant total war between the two tribes. If a person
in one tribe killed a person of another tribe, the tribe of the killer
had to be taken on in a general way. It was usually not possible to
extract just the guilty party for judgment.
This tribal reality shaped the mentality of the people of the day
such that they thought in terms of total tribe-on-tribe conflict. They
did not have the experience that we do of relying on a strong, central
government to carefully investigate matters and punish only those who
were personally guilty. For them, since the whole tribe could be
counted on to come to the defense of the guilty, the whole tribe was
complicit in the offenses of the guilty and it was legitimate to make
war on them all.
This is one of the reasons that we today have so much trouble in
parts of the world where society is still organized along tribal lines.
And it is one of the reasons why God had so much trouble dealing with the whole of the world thirty or more centuries ago.
In other words: In working with the early Israelites, God was dealing with a blunt instrument.
He wasn’t working with a people who had already been broken of their
tribal mentality and who were used to distinguishing those who were
personally guilty from those who were fellow-members of the guilty
This may shed light on why God allowed a total tribe-on-tribe
warfare situation to result, because this was what the people of the
day understood. The development and purification of their ideas about
collective versus individual guilt and innocence had not yet taken
The fact that God needed to shield the Israelites from idolatry adds
a further consideration here. If God allowed remnants of the Canaanite
culture to survive then this would tempt the Israelites–even more than
they were already tempted–to embrace polytheism and ruin their ability
to convey the truth of God to the world.
All of this deals with what God could have done if he had a way of making sure that the innocent were ultimately taken care of. It sketches a possible
reason for why God commanded what he did in the Old Testament, but this
theory is no good if it still results in the innocent–or even one innocent person–receiving a raw deal. If even one person gets the short end of the stick with God then God is acting unjustly.
So what about it? Given his commands in the Exodus, could God make
sure that all of the innocent Canaanites who suffered would come out on
the plus side?
As we noted, all life is a gift from God, and it is his choice how
much of it we get. Further, he gives us all an infinite amount of life,
and no one will suffer in eternity without choosing this.
Suppose that there was a Canaanite child who was four years
old–young enough to still be an innocent, but old enough to experience
the horror of watching her civilization killed around her before being
From a purely human perspective, that is HORRENDOUS. My heart is SICKENED at the thought of what such a child would go through.
But is God–who is infinitely powerful–INCAPABLE of making it up to this child?
No, he is not incapable of making up to her the sufferings that she experienced on earth, however horrible they were. If he gives her an infinite amount of happiness (natural or supernatural) then that more than makes up for the finite
amount of unhappiness that he allowed her to suffer in this life. And
if he assigns her a positive destiny in the afterlife, an infinite
amount of happiness will be hers.
I know that if I myself were in her situation–if I
experienced a horrible, devastating, but still finite amount of
suffering in this life–and then God gave me an infinite amount
of happiness in the next that I would count myself fortunate. I would
say with St. Paul that–no matter how horrible they were–"the
sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory
that [has been] revealed to [me]."
As long as God makes sure that I receive more happiness than
unhappiness as an innocent then I cannot claim he was being unjust with
me, and as long as God compensates the innocent for the sufferings that
have come to them in this life then I do not see the grounds for him
being fundamentally unjust.
It thus seems to me that if we make the
assumption that God did give the commands to wipe out the Canaanites
that this would not prevent him from making it up to the innocent
Canaanites who suffered and thus he would not be unjust toward them.
But suppose that he didn’t do this. We mentioned earlier the question
of whether God ever gave this kind of command, and we said that the
answer to this question is either yes or no. To this point, we’ve been
considering what if the answer was yes. But what if it was no?
In this case the commands found in the Pentateuch concerning the
Canaanites would not be meant to be taken in a literal sense. We know
that the early history in Scripture contains symbolic elements as well
as literal ones, and these commands would then turn out to be symbolic.
Presumably, they would symbolize things like the need to be totally
separate from pagan culture, of how radically incompatible the pagan
lifestyle is with faith in God. On this theory the books of the
Pentateuch would have reached their final form some time after the
events they describe, and these stories about wiping out the Canaanites
(which the Israelites did not actually fulfill; there were still
Canaanites living later) were included to teach the later readers how
they must reject paganism, and that the original audience was meant to
understand the nature of these stories as cautionary tales from which
they were to draw a moral lesson (i.e., don’t be pagan; stick with God).
If this is the case then God never did command the extermination of the
Canaanites and we, because we are not familiar with the way literature
was written at this time, tend to take as literal something that was
never meant to be literal. (It’s certainly not the first time that’s
happened!) It is just that because we live in such a different age and
because our literature works so differently that we don’t easily
recognize which parts are literal and which are not.
It thus seems to me that, either way one goes (assuming that the
commands were literal or that they weren’t), a rational account can be
offered that shows God was not acting unjustly.
Now let me go a step further and address the question of the reader’s potential loss of faith concerning this matter:
Whether or not one buys the above account, this is not going to change
the fact that suffering–including innocent suffering–exists in this
life. It just does, and us wanting it to be otherwise will not change
this fact. The question is how we interpret the existence of suffering.
It seems that we can interpret it in one of two ways: Either the
sufferings of the innocent are meaningless and can never be redeemed or
they are part of larger plan in which they do make sense and they can
be redeemed. It is belief in God that allows the latter possibility to
I, personally, would not like to believe that the innocent who suffer
are just out of luck, that their suffering was meaningless and that
nothing will ever happen to make it up to them. I’d rather believe that
there is a meaning and purpose to what happens to us–even if I don’t
fully understand it in this life–and that we live in a world in which
those who have suffered innocently will ultimately be comforted and
have their sufferings all made up to them.
So that’s what I do believe–that we’re not living in a
meaningless world in which people suffer to no purpose and they will
never be compensated. Instead, even if we can’t understand it all from
our tiny perspective, we’re living in a world that is guided by a
loving God who will vindicate the innocent who have suffered, who will
wipe away their tears and give them happiness, who will make sense of all the pain and anguish
that they have had to bear, and who will ultimately bring good out of
their sufferings–just like he did the sufferings of his Son on the
When faced with the reality of innocent suffering, one can either suffer a loss of faith and suppose that the world is meaningless and cruel or one can make a leap of faith and believe in a world were suffering can have meaning and where the innocent will be compensated.
I choose to leap.