The Character Assassination of God


One strategy atheists and skeptics sometimes use is to bring up points that they think make God look very bad, and then proceed to argue that such a God cannot possibly exist. For example, some argue that the God of the Old Testament is cruel and vindictive, and either participated in or condoned many atrocities. He is therefore unworthy of belief. Others point out what they perceive to be a contradiction between a loving God and the reality of hell, and then proceed to argue against both God and hell. Let’s briefly consider these ideas.

Thomas Jefferson described God as “cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.”[1] Atheist George Smith cites a number of Old Testament passages which he thinks prove that the God of the Old Testament is evil. Isaiah 45:7, for example, portrays God as saying: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Smith alleges that God sanctioned human sacrifices, such as that of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30-39). God is said to have sanctioned slavery (Exodus 21:2-6; Leviticus 25:44-46), commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son (Genesis 22:2), hardened the Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21), and caused prophets to lie (2 Chronicles 18:20-21). God works everything toward his own ends, “even the wicked for a day of disaster” (Proverbs 16:4). The Old Testament also credits the Israelites, acting under orders from God Himself, with killing men, women, and children through conquest (Joshua 6:21).[2]

How can Christians respond to such charges? Foundationally, it is important to correct the misconception that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New Testament. The Old and New Testaments point to the same God—a God of both love and judgment. On the one hand, God did judge people in Old Testament times when the circumstances called for it. This was the case when He sent ten horrible plagues against the Egyptians (Exodus 7–11). However, He is also seen displaying love and grace throughout the Old Testament. Following Adam and Eve’s sin, for example, God’s promise of a coming redeemer was an act of love and grace (Genesis 3:15). God’s provision of an ark for Noah and his family was an act of love and grace (Genesis 6:9-22). God’s provision of the covenants was an act of love and grace (Genesis 12:1-3; 2 Samuel 7:12-16). God’s sending of the prophets to give special revelation to Israel was an act of love and grace. Interestingly, Norman Geisler did a word study on the word “mercy” and found that 72 percent of the occurrences of the word are found in the Old Testament.[3]

In the New Testament, the love of God was continually manifested to people through the person of Jesus Christ. In fact, we might even say that Jesus is “love incarnate.” It is also true, however, that some of the most scathing denouncements from God—especially in regard to the Jewish leaders—came from the mouth of Jesus (see Matthew 23:27-28,33). Further, the New Testament speaks a great deal about eternal punishment. We conclude, then, that the God of the Old and New Testaments is a God of love and judgment. God Himself affirmed, “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6). 

Does God create disaster (Isaiah 45:7)? In this verse, God said: “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster. I, the LORD, do all these things.” In this verse, the Hebrew word for disaster does not mean “moral evil.” In fact, Hebrew linguists tell us that the word need not have any moral connotations at all.[4] This word would be perfectly fitting for the plagues that God inflicted on the Egyptians through Moses. These plagues involved not moral evil, but rather calamitous events engineered to bring the Egyptians to repentance. God as the Judge of the earth can rightly inflict such plagues on sinful human beings without having His character impugned with accusations of evil. Certainly, such plagues may seem evil to those experiencing them, but the reality is that these people were experiencing due justice. “The Bible is clear that God is morally perfect (cf. Deuteronomy 32:4; Matt. 5:48), and it is impossible for Him to sin (Hebrews 6:18). At the same time, His absolute justice demands that He punish sin.”[5] In the case of the Egyptians, God was merely bringing just judgment on unrepentant sinners. God’s good end—the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage—was the result of this judgment.

Did God command Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter (Judges 11:30-39)? Christian scholars have dealt with this difficult passage in several different ways. One view is that Jephthah actually did offer his own daughter as a burnt sacrifice to the Lord. If this is the case, this does not in any way mean that God endorsed what Jephthah did. He was certainly not under orders from God to do what he did. God had earlier revealed that human sacrifice was absolutely forbidden (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10). 

We must keep in mind that simply because something is recorded in the Bible does not mean that God agrees with it. God certainly does not agree with the words or actions of Satan, but the Bible nevertheless accurately reports on his words and actions. In the present case, the author of Judges may have just provided an objective account of the event without passing judgment. 

One must also remember that the book of Judges deals with a period in human history when everyone was doing what was right in his or her own eyes. Judges 21:25 says, “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” It is very possible that Jephthah was simply doing what was right in his own eyes, thereby victimizing his own daughter. If Jephthah actually committed this act, we can only conclude that he was acting in great folly and was going against the will of God, despite his good motives and apparent desire to please the Lord. 

Another way to interpret this passage is that Jephthah offered up his daughter in the sense of consecrating her for service at the tabernacle for the rest of her life and devoting her to celibacy. This would involve offering up his daughter in a spiritual way instead of physically offering her as a burnt offering. As the apostle Paul said in Romans 12:1, people can be offered to God as “a living sacrifice.” 

If his daughter was indeed offered as a living sacrifice, this necessarily would involve a life of perpetual virginity, which was a tremendous sacrifice in the Jewish context of the day. She would not be able to bring up children to continue her father’s lineage. 

This may explain why his daughter responded by saying, “‘Grant me this one request,’ she said. ‘Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry’” (Judges 11:37). Note that she did not weep because of an impending death. She wept because she would never marry and hence would remain a virgin. This latter view is viable. 

Did God sanction slavery (Exodus 21:2-6)? God has never condoned slavery. From the very beginning, God declared that all humans are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). The apostle Paul also declared that “we are the offspring of God” (Acts 17:29), and God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth” (verse 26). Moreover, despite the fact that slavery was countenanced in the Semitic cultures of the day, the law in the Bible demanded that slaves eventually be set free (Exodus 21:2; Leviticus 25:40). Likewise, servants had to be treated with respect (Exodus 21:20,26). Israel, itself in slavery in Egypt for a prolonged time, was constantly reminded by God of this (Deuteronomy 5:15), and their emancipation became the model for the liberation of all slaves (Leviticus 25:40). 

Further, in the New Testament, Paul declared that in Christianity “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). All social classes are broken down in Christ; we are all equal before God. Though the apostle Paul urges, “Servants, be obedient to those who are your masters” (Ephesians 6:5; see also Colossians 3:22), he is not thereby approving of the institution of slavery, but simply alluding to the de facto situation in his day. He is simply instructing servants to be good workers, just as believers should be today, but he was not thereby commending slavery. 

Did God intend for Abraham to kill his own son (Genesis 22:2)? The context of Genesis 22 makes it clear that God never intended for this command to be executed. God restrained Abraham’s hand just in the nick of time: “‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son’” (Genesis 22:12). Scholars agree that God was only testing Abraham’s faith. The test served to show that Abraham loved God more than he loved his own son. 

Did God harden Pharaoh’s heart (Exodus 4:21)? In this verse we are informed that God hardened the Egyptian Pharaoh’s heart. More broadly, ten times in the text of Scripture it is said that the Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Exodus 7:13,14,22; 8:15,19,32; 9:7,34,35; 13:15), and ten times that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1,20,27; 11:10; 14:4,8,17). The Pharaoh hardened his own heart seven times before God first hardened it, though the prediction that God would do it preceded all. 

It would seem, from the whole of Scripture, that God hardens on the same grounds as showing mercy. If men will accept mercy, He will give it to them. If they will not, thus hardening themselves, He is only just and righteous in judging them. Mercy is the effect of a right attitude; hardening is the effect of stubbornness or a wrong attitude toward God. It is like the clay and the wax in the sun. The same sunshine hardens one and softens the other. The responsibility is with the materials, not with the sun. Scholars have suggested that the danger of resisting God is that He will eventually give us over to our own choices (see Romans 1:24-28).

Did God cause prophets to lie (2 Chronicles 18:20-21)? As a backdrop, Scripture forbids lying (Exodus 20:16). Lying is viewed as a sin (Psalm 59:12) and is considered an abomination to God (Proverbs 12:22). Further, Numbers 23:19 explicitly tells us that “God is not a man, that he should lie.” 

It is true that in 2 Chronicles 18:20-21 God permits the activity of a “lying spirit.” There is a distinction, however, between what God causes and what He allows. For example, God allowed Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, but He did not cause it. God allowed Lucifer’s rebellion against Him, but He did not cause it. God allowed Ananias and Sapphira to lie to Peter, but He did not cause them to do so. Likewise, God permitted the activity of a lying spirit, but He did not cause it. Therefore, God’s character cannot be impugned.

Did God create the wicked so He could bring disaster upon them (Proverbs 16:4)? In Proverbs 16:4, we read: “The LORD works out everything for his own ends—even the wicked for a day of disaster.” This verse does not mean that God specifically created certain wicked people for the sole purpose of destroying them or sending them to hell. Scripture assures us that God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9), and that God loves the whole world of humanity (John 3:16). God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The price of redemption that Christ paid at the cross is made available to all people (1 John 2:2). These verses provide an important backdrop to the proper interpretation of Proverbs 16:4, for if we learn anything from such verses, it is that God cares for and loves all people.

I believe The Expositor’s Bible Commentary is correct in noting that the primary thrust of the passage is that, in the end, there will be commensurate justice corresponding to human actions:

God in his sovereignty ensures that everything in life receives its appropriate retribution…. The point is that God ensures that everyone’s actions and their consequences correspond—certainly the wicked for the day of calamity. In God’s order there is just retribution for every act, for every act includes its answer or consequence.[6]

Why did God order the extermination of whole peoples (Joshua 6:21)? It is true that God commanded His people, the Israelites, to exterminate “whole peoples”—the Canaanites being a primary example. God’s command was issued not because God is cruel and vindictive, but because the Canaanites were so horrible, so evil, so oppressive, and so cancerous to society that—like a human cancer—the only option was complete removal. Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser comments on why the Canaanites were dealt with so severely: “They were cut off to prevent Israel and the rest of the world from being corrupted (Deut. 20:16-18). When a people starts to burn their children in honor of their gods (Lev. 18:21), practice sodomy, bestiality [having sex with animals], and all sorts of loathsome vices (Lev. 18:23,24; 20:3), the land itself begins to ‘vomit’ them out as the body heaves under the load of internal poisons (Lev. 18:25, 27-30).”[7] In other words, human society itself would have been poisoned without the utter removal of the cancerous Canaanites. God would have been showing utter disregard for the righteous if He had not acted to stop this gangrenous nation from taking over all society. 

One must keep in mind that the Canaanites had had plenty of time to repent. The biblical pattern is that when nations repent, God withholds judgment. In Jeremiah 18:7-8, we read God’s own words regarding the matter: “If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.” This principle is clearly illustrated for us in the case of Nineveh. God had prophesied judgment, but Nineveh repented and God withheld that judgment (see Jonah 3). It is noteworthy that God is often seen showing mercy where repentance is evident (Exodus 32:14; 2 Samuel 24:6; Amos 7:3,7). 

Kaiser notes that “Canaan had, as it were, a final forty-year countdown as they heard of the events in Egypt, at the crossing of the Red Sea, and what happened to the kings who opposed Israel along the way.” Hence, “God waited for the ‘cup of iniquity’ to fill up—and fill up it did without any signs of change in spite of the marvelous signs given so that the nations, along with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, ‘might know that He was the Lord.’”[8] The Canaanites were not acting blindly. They had heard of the God of the Israelites, and knew what was expected of them, but they defied Him and continued in their sinful ways. Hence, they were ripe for judgment. 

Further, let us not forget that God is absolutely sovereign over affairs of life and death. God is the One who creates life, and He maintains the right to take life when circumstances call for it. God is the Creator, and as the Creator, He sovereignly rules over the creation. When people rebel against Him, God as the divine Judge retains the right to end the lives of those engaged in rebellion. 

The underlying backdrop to all this is the absolute holiness of God. Because He is absolutely holy, He can do none other than to punish sin and rebellion against Him. Too often today, people like to talk only about the love of God. While God is a God of love (Psalm 33:5; 86:5; Jeremiah 31:3; 1 John 4:8), He is also a holy God (Leviticus 11:4; Psalm 99:9; Isaiah 6:3) who shows wrath against sin (Revelation 20:11-15). We must maintain a balanced, biblical view about God’s nature. 

How can a loving God be reconciled with the doctrine of hell? One atheist charged that “Jesus repeatedly threatened disbelievers with eternal torment, and we must wonder how the doctrine of hell can be reconciled with the notion of an all-merciful God.”[9] The doctrine of hell “undoubtedly ranks as the most vicious and reprehensible doctrine of classical Christianity.”[10]

Some atheists compare God to Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), only Hitler is considered the better of the two because he only burned Jews for five or ten minutes, whereas God burns evil people for all eternity.[11] Atheists also say it is absurd to allow serial killer David Berkowitz into heaven just because he prayed a prayer to become a Christian, when Gandhi, who prayed no such prayer, is barred from heaven and is sent to hell. How is that fair?[12]

How can Christians respond to such charges? Foundationally, God does not want to send anyone to hell. God is by nature love (John 4:24), and He loves every human being (John 3:16). He is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). All throughout Scripture, God is portrayed as pleading with people to turn from their sins and turn to Him for salvation. 

The fact that God wants people to be saved is precisely why He sent Jesus—to pay the penalty for our sins by dying on the cross (John 3:16-17). Sadly, however, not all people are willing to admit that they sin and ask for forgiveness. They do not accept the payment of Jesus’ death on their behalf. God therefore allows them to experience the results of their choice (see Luke 16:19-31).

C.S. Lewis once said that in the end there are two groups of people. One group of people says to God, “Thy will be done.” These are those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ and will live forever with God in heaven. The second group of people are those to whom God says, sadly, “Thy will be done!” These are those who have rejected Jesus Christ and will spend eternity apart from Him. God does not force anyone to be saved against his or her will. 

In arguing against hell, atheists often appeal to unfair comparisons that generate more heat than light. The atheist comparison of Hitler and God is an example. In reality, the two situations are disanalogous because those who endured Hitler’s death camps were innocent, but those who suffer in hell are not innocent. “They are there because they have deliberately chosen to reject God and because they have failed to live up to the demands of his moral law. Therefore, their condemnation is just.”[13] In other words, those in the death camps did not deserve to be there. Those in hell do deserve to be there. Therefore, the Hitler-God comparison involves a false analogy. 

The atheist point regarding David Berkowitz going to heaven and Gandhi going to hell is also misguided. We may think of Berkowitz as especially evil and Gandhi as especially good, but we are using the wrong measuring stick—comparing human beings against other human beings. The proper measuring stick is the absolutely holy God of the universe. By that comparison, all human beings are fallen in sin and deserving of eternal punishment in hell. Romans 3:23 flatly asserts: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Hence, all are deserving of death—no exceptions. 

For those, like David Berkowitz, who commit horrendous crimes before becoming Christians, they may be saved, but now they face the difficult task of living with their conscience for the rest of their lives. A person can truly suffer “hell on earth” because of past actions. 

One thing that has always helped me is the recognition that our God of perfect justice, based on peoples’ actions, assigns levels of reward for those who end up in heaven as well as levels of punishment for those who end up in hell. In support of the idea that there will be degrees of punishment in hell, Luke 12:47-48 tells us: “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (emphasis added). (Other verses on levels of punishment in hell include Matthew 10:15; 16:27; Revelation 20:12-13; 22:12.) Likewise, the idea that there will be levels of reward in heaven is clear from Psalm 62:12, Jeremiah 17:10, Matthew 16:27, 1 Corinthians 4:5, Ephesians 6:7-8, and other verses. There will be perfect justice in the end. 

In summary, the atheist’s attempt to engage in a character assassination of God fails. Their case is built on misinterpretations, distortions, ad hominem attacks, and appallingly poor reasoning. 

I therefore urge atheists to reconsider their position while there is yet time. When I spoke up in Alaska a little over a decade ago, I addressed a congregation about atheism. As a case study, I focused heavily on humanist Paul Kurtz. I informed the congregation that Kurtz was 87 years old, and that if he was going to repent of his views, he better do it soon, for time was running. Later that afternoon, Internet newsfeeds reported that Kurtz had died that morning.

Go Deeper

  1. Thomas Jefferson, cited in George Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1989), pp. 76-78.
  2. Smith, pp. 76-78.
  3. Norman Geisler, cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 117-18.
  4. See Norman Geisler, “God, Evil, and Dispensations,” Walvoord: A Tribute, ed. Donald K. Campbell (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), p. 98.
  5. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1992), p. 271.
  6. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, in Accordance Bible Software, Oaksoft, 2003.
  7. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), pp. 267-68, insert added.
  8. Kaiser, p. 268.
  9. Smith, p. 78.
  10. Smith, p. 299.
  11. “The Craig-Bradley Debate: Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?” Internet.
  12. Strobel, p. 158.
  13. “The Craig-Bradley Debate: Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?” Internet.

Dr. Ron Rhodes received his Th.M. and Th.D. degrees in systematic theology from Dallas Theological Seminary, graduating with honors. He is currently the president of Reasoning from the Scriptures Ministries, an apologetics organization located in Texas.

The author of more than 60 books, with millions of books in print, Dr. Rhodes is a keynote speaker at conferences across the United States and Canada. As time permits, he also teaches at a number of seminaries, including Dallas Theological Seminary and Veritas Evangelical Seminary. He has been a guest on many national and regional radio and television programs, including the John Ankerberg Show. He and his wife, Kerri, reside in Texas.

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