Is God A Moral Monster?

May 8, 2013 — 4 Comments

9780801072758Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He has written numerous books and shows no signs of stopping. Is God A Moral Monster? Making Sense of The God of the Old Testament came out a few years ago, but after reading God or Godless? I wanted to explore issues in Old Testament apologetics further. Thankfully, Baker Books granted my request, and now here we are.


This book, like God or Godless? is a popular level book. Copan splits his discussion up into 4 parts, each comprised of several relatively short chapters. Part 1 outlines the general contours of “Neo-Atheism.” Generally speaking, this refers to people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. Each in their own way has brought up issues about Christianity and theism in general, and the Old Testament in particular. In the two chapters in Part 1, Copan lays the foundation noting the general objections relating to Old Testament theology.

In Part 2, Copan focuses on the nature of God in the Old Testament. Over the course of 3 chapters, he tries to defend the claim that God is a Gracious Master more than a Moral Monster. Chapter 3 deals with the issue of God’s supposed arrogance as seen in his great appetite for praise and sacrifice. Chapter 4 turns God’s supposed jealousy over his people, a trait that many people both find distasteful and radically misunderstand when applied to God. Chapter 5 concludes with the question of child abuse and bullying, specifically looking at God’s command to Abraham to bind and sacrifice Isaac. Through it all, Copan works to correct misconceptions and set these stories in their proper Old Testament context.

The longest part of the book is Part 3, and it is here (chapter 6) where Copan begins employing a moral trajectory hermeneutic. The idea is that we see “incremental steps” towards a moral ideal. Having fallen from a “creational ideal,” we cannot move quickly back, but instead are guided by God on a journey toward recovering that ideal. Copan notes that the law of Moses was inferior and provisional, but in general, it was a vast improvement compared to surrounding ANE law codes. He is drawing William Webb’s work to champion this “redemptive movement” perspective on Scripture.

Having set this foundation, Copan then moves through all the standard objections. He begins with two chapters on the “weird” laws about food and other matters (7 & 8). Then, he discusses the punishments outlined in the law (chapter 9), the question of misogyny (chapter 10), and issues related to marriage (chapter 11). After this, Copan takes two sets of 3 chapters to deal with probably the major Old Testament issues: slavery (12-14) and the Canaanite massacres (15-17). He wraps up this part of the book with a chapter discussing whether or not religion causes violence (18).

The final part of the book is a kind of conclusion that raises bigger picture issues. First, Copan explains the connection between morality itself and God as lawgiver (19). Then, he concludes with a chapter on how Jesus was the fulfillment of the law (20). If this book were to be used for a book club, there is a nice collection of study questions before you find your way to the endnotes.


As far as strengths go, Copan excels at combing through the scholarly work on these Old Testament texts and explaining it well to a popular audience. I would say if you are interested these Old Testament issues, this book is a great place to start. The chapters are fairly short and easily digestible and Copan includes suggestions for further reading at the end of each. In terms of comprehensiveness, I think Copan has all the bases covered when it comes to the typical objections atheists (or just general non-believers) will bring up regarding the Old Testament (especially when you compare the above overview to John Loftus’ arguments in God or Godless?)

As far as weaknesses go, there is a bit of irony in my assessment. Copan is a philosopher by trade, not an Old Testament biblical scholar. However, the tools of philosophy and research have served him well and he does a good job when it comes to Old Testament exegesis of individual passages (based to a larger extent on the fact he relies on superb Old Testament commentators). What I thought was not done well, was the way Copan handles the philosophy of law, particularly as it worked in the ANE. Specifically, I’m talking about the use of the redemptive movement hermeneutic. On this understanding, what we get in the Old Testament is still considered somewhat “morally inferior” but it is a step in the right direction and definitely better than Israel’s neighbors. While I’ll grant the latter, I’m hesitant to affirm the former since that somewhat concedes the case the atheists are bringing.

A slightly different approach, and one that stems from a better understanding the nature of the Old Testament laws, is to differentiate between abstract and concrete commands. So for instance, the law is summed up as “Love God, Love People.” However, both of those are abstractions that do not specify a concrete action in a given situation. To make the summary more concrete, God gave the 10 commandments, which while more specific, are still abstractions themselves. “Honor you father and your mother” is more specific that “love people,” but it is still vague and leaves it up to the listener to figure out how to apply it in a concrete situation.

That is why after both givings of the law in the Old Testament (Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5) there are several chapters of “case laws.” These are some of the specific ways given to apply the 10 commandments in that particular cultural moment. They are not a definitive list and also are not in themselves binding the way that the 10 commandments are. In that case, they would by definition not apply to later times because the cultural moment is different. It is also then not a matter of inferiority or superiority, rather the issue is one of wise application in a given culture. So, while there has been a redemptive movement (Christ has now fulfilled the law), the 10 commandments were all reiterated in the New Testament (except for the Sabbath) and new case laws were given via the epistles. The basic underlying structure of the law of God has not changed or advanced but its application within culture has. The case laws of the Mosaic covenant were provisional, but their underlying abstractions were not, as evidenced by their reiteration in the New Testament.


All that being said, I still think this is probably the best go to book for a popular level defense of the Old Testament. I would set the context differently for dealing with the “weird” Old Testament laws and want to avoid using categories of “morally inferior” or “morally superior.” But that philosophical issue aside, I think Copan does a good job of showing that the way the atheists are reading these difficult Old Testament texts is not the only way to take them. If one agrees with his support of the redemptive movement hermeneutic, then one will find this book an excellent resource. I don’t, but I still find it valuable. I’ve already recommend it to a friend asking questions about these issues, but with the caveat I included above. At least if nothing else, this is a great starting place for someone asking questions about the Old Testament. Whether or not one ultimately agrees with Copan’s approach, he definitely succeeds in challenging the atheistic approach and showing the way for alternative (and more exegetically sound) readings of the Old Testament.

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

4 responses to Is God A Moral Monster?

  1. Nice crisp review. I read this for an OT elective I took last semester – Knowing God Through the OT. Another aspect of his hermeneutic that I found troubling was the way he treated God’s commands as metaphorical. For instance, he stated that God did not really mean utter destruction. What about 1 Samuel 15? I felt this also capitulated too much to the new atheists concerns.

    • That was with Chisholm wasn’t it? I wish I could have taken more OT electives. Most of my critique here is based on how Johnston taught OT 4. Definitely agree with you on the capitulation angle, and so did John Loftus in God or Godless.

  2. Yep, OT710 with Chisholm. I had Johnston for OT104 this semester and working on the last paper. I’m also taking him for Covenant, which starts next week.

    • Really wish I could have taken that, say hi to Dr. J for me. He might remember me, I sure did pester him with enough emails! Also, you could tell him that Peter Gentry emailed me about my critique of Kingdom Through Covenant and wanted to talk to Johnston about some of his ETS papers.

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