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Is God really merciful?

Published:Friday | September 11, 2015 | 12:00 AMIan Boyne, Contributor
Michael Abrahams wrote a thought-provoking column titled 'The God of the Bible is not merciful'.

Michael Abrahams has set off another firestorm of controversy and outrage over his online Monday Gleaner column, 'The God of the Bible is not merciful', in which he listed a number of charges against God.

In that column, he lambastes God for employing "some cruel and sadistic methods to torment and kill people".

Abrahams finds in his survey of the Old Testament that God has killed at least two and a half million people "and tortured many others". Concludes Abrahams: "Perusal of scriptural texts ... will reveal an entity that is clearly anything but merciful." Abrahams lists a variety of "atrocities" that have been regularly recycled on the Internet. Since 9/11 when a particularly hostile and cantankerous atheism arose, it has been common to see on atheistic sites a host of abominable things of which God has been guilty.

It turns out that the regular Christian admonition for people to "read your Bible" can really be dangerous! In fact, I have read many atheists, especially former Christians, who say that reading the Bible was what led them to their atheism. The truth is that many people only hear the Bible quoted, but they have never really read it for themselves

The fact is, no matter how you want to cut it, there are some pretty disturbing things - in the Old Testament particularly. Anyone who reads the Old Testament and has never been bothered or concerned about any portrayal of God is either not thinking or was a genius with all the answers from birth. Reading your English Bibles without a background in biblical history, culture, languages, hermeneutics, etc, can be a disconcerting experience.

Reading Abrahams' piece gives you a pretty good idea of some of the reasons New Atheist Richard Dawkins says in his book, The God Delusion: "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character of 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."




The responses to Abrahams have been exceedingly poor. (And there have been nearly 100 online). My two friends, Cashley Brown and Clinton Chisholm, have weighed in, but they have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Cashley's position was that God's putting away only two and a half million human beings out of billions actually demonstrates His mercy!

"Despite the growing wickedness of the seven billion of us living on the Earth today, plus the scores of billions who have died already, Dr Abrahams is only able to single out just two million who have been killed by the hand of God." Now, I thought Michael Abrahams was the comedian, but I laughed so uproariously when I read this. Seriously, Cashley?

But Samuel Phillips was not to be outdone. Prophet Phillips, in his letter in The Gleaner last Thursday, 'God the creator and manufacturer', had a neat illustration: "The reality is that God is creator as well as manufacturer ... . He acts no less rationally than human inventors, creators and manufacturers ... . To prove a point to potential customers, the Benz manufacturer takes a new 'criss' Benz and crashes it to prove the line's optima and durability (similar to what God allowed on Job and his family), and when the vehicles do not function optimally as intended by the manufacturer, they are recalled, repaired, scrapped or dumped, no less ... than God does!"

Now is this a comedy show or what? Are these fellows trying to outdo Dr Abrahams in his night job? Clinton Chisholm, highly regarded and well-trained apologist, is not going for Abrahams' comedian job, but his own reply is less than optimal. (Hope he won't be scrapped as apologist by his manufacturer).

Chisholm asks early in his article, "Why should God be more merciful than just?" But remember, Clinton, Abrahams is saying it is the Christians who are always talking about God's mercy. And though this text missed him, scripture does say "mercy rejoices over justice". Isn't mercy over law (justice) at the heart of Protestantism, Clinton?

Clinton's lecture about human judicial systems is quite irrelevant to the issues Abrahams has posed. Most of Clinton's reply is totally extraneous to the points Abrahams has raised. In a way, Clinton is responding to Abrahams' own confusion between mercy and justice. For Abrahams starts off by saying God is not merciful, but his citations show he really has a problem with God's punishment or His justice. Clinton should challenge him more directly on that.

In fact, one of the few pertinent sentences in Clinton's article is this: "Anyone ... who registers internally or expresses publicly a problem with the sanctions on human misbehaviour recorded in the Old Testament ... needs to justify that position." Precisely. Clinton should have expanded his points about God's mercy cited in his last paragraphs. For picking out a few horrendous-sounding examples, as Abrahams does, cannot give a full picture of God's relationship with mankind. There are far more numerous examples of His overlooking sin - showing mercy - in the Old Testament itself.

The fact is that Abrahams and other non-theists (Abrahams is a deist) need greater exposure to other perspectives on these troubling texts. I find that the non-theists lack exposure to the best scholars who would offer a defence of the charges against God. I don't say they have to be convinced by those arguments and responses, but they should at least be acquainted with them. Has Abrahams, for example, ever heard about Paul Copan, Matthew Flannagan or Stephen Wykstra? I recommend that Abrahams get a copy of Copan and Flannagan's 2014 book Did God Really Command Genocide: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God, which comprehensively answers the major New Atheists' arguments levelled against the Old Testament God.

It is one thing to come and regurgitate what is all over the Internet as moral objections to the Old Testament God, but it is another thing to immerse yourself in scholarly writings by people who have some expertise in theology and philosophy. As I said recently, columnists and commentators are not expected to be theologians and philosophers, but if they venture into those areas, they have an obligation to have some rudimentary knowledge of the fields. You can't just be sensational.

What if God really does have morally sufficient reasons for the seemingly atrocious things attributed to Him in the Old Testament? Would you say definitively and dogmatically that because something offends your or mankind's moral sensibilities, that necessarily means it must be objectively immoral? I am not positing Divine Command Theory. I am just asking whether you concede even the possibility that something that seems morally offensive - such as those instances cited by Abrahams - could possibly have a justification? If you are not that dogmatic and arrogant, why not investigate some other perspectives?

Why jump to the immediate conclusion that because you don't have an answer, there is no answer? Now, I am not pleading for 'faith' or making a case for fideism. Let me illustrate: If I stand in my bedroom, I am absolutely justified to pronounce that no elephant is in that room once I am sighted. But could I say definitively and dogmatically there is absolutely no flea in that room? No, I could not. Why? Because my perceptual powers can confirm or disconfirm an elephant but not a flea in a big room. This forms the basis of an argument used by people like Stephen Wykstra called Skeptical Theism.

There are some things that are outside of our epistemic access. Some things we can't know by virtue of our human imitations. We can't determine all the possible reasons an omniscient God could have for doing something. It is outside our epistemic ken. I quote the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Whereof one cannot speak, therefore one should be salient."

Abrahams overreaches when he writes: "I am unable to understand how literate and intelligent people of sound mind can read the Bible and proclaim that the deity in its pages is merciful." Perhaps if he reads some other things apart from the Bible he might come to see why.

- Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist working with the Jamaica Information Service. Email feedback to and