God commanded atrocities in the Old Testament

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For more information, see the Skeptic's Annotated Bible article:
For more information, see the Skeptic's Annotated Bible article:
For more information, see the Skeptic's Annotated Bible article:
Yahweh, as depicted by Michelangelo.

The Old Testament describes many instances in which God orders atrocities to be carried out. This makes it difficult to argue that God is moral, which is core dogma in Christianity. If God does exist and he commits atrocities, the scriptural God is unworthy of worship. Alternatively, these points may be made to undermine a literal interpretation of the Bible.

The atrocities in the Old Testament also illustrated that God's character changes in the Bible.

Many of these criticism are based on either Christians or non-Christians being able to make moral judgements independently of God. If humans have any capacity for moral decisions, it seems clear that the actions of God in the Old Testament were immoral. This makes most people more moral than God.

Atheists generally consider these stories to be fictional justifications for military conquests, or simply mythology, and have nothing to do with the existence of an actual god.


God gave Abraham a loyalty test: sacrifice your only son Genesis 22:2 Bible-icon.png. An angel stops it at the last second.
God kills all the first born of Egypt Exodus 12:29 Bible-icon.png
God kills almost all living things with a great flood Genesis 7:21-23 Bible-icon.png

God kills almost all living things with a great flood:

"I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth."

Genesis 7:21-23 Bible-icon.png

Exodus 12:29 Bible-icon.png God kills first born of Egypt, even though they were nothing to do with Pharaoh's policies.

"“Next we turned toward King Og’s land of Bashan. He immediately mobilized his army and attacked us at Edrei. But the Lord told me not to be afraid of him. ‘All his people and his land are yours,’ the Lord told me. ‘You will do to him as you did to King Sihon of the Amorites at Heshbon.’ So the Lord helped us fight against King Og and his people, and we killed them all."

Deuteronomy 3:1-3 Bible-icon.png

God kills over 50000 people for looking into the ark:

"And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter."

1 Samuel 6:19 Bible-icon.png

God completely destroys the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Genesis 19:24-25 Bible-icon.png

David orders a census, God kills 70000 people as punishment. 1 Chronicles 21:9-14 Bible-icon.png

Other instances: Numbers 16:41-49 Bible-icon.png, Numbers 31:7-18 Bible-icon.png, 2 Kings 2:23-24 Bible-icon.png, God apparently tricking Jephthah into human sacrifice, Numbers 16:32-35 Bible-icon.png

God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a loyalty test Genesis 22:2 Bible-icon.png.

God orders the decapitation and display of heads of believers who also worship the god Baalpeor.

"And Israel joined himself unto Baalpeor: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said unto Moses, Take all the heads of the people, and hang them up before the Lord against the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel."

Numbers 25:3-4 Bible-icon.png

God seems vindictive in ordering the killing of descendants of historic enemies. He is obviously a believer in collective guilt, such as national sins.

"Thus saith the Lord of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."

I Samuel 15:2-3 Bible-icon.png

Counter arguments[edit]

God's actions were necessary for his future plans/past promises[edit]

Apologists argue that God's actions were necessary for later events to occur or promises to be fulfilled.

"God used the conquest of Canaan to create a religious/historical context in which He could eventually introduce the Messiah to the world. [1]"

"This was the land that Abraham was called to originally and then Israel went down into Egypt during the time of famine and were there for around four hundred years or so before now God calls them back out to the Promised Land to give it to them again. But that means wiping out these peoples that are already living there."

William Lane Craig [2]

This argument is an appeal to consequences. A wrong action cannot be justified by a later event that is not even related. It treats God's victims as collateral damage.

A divine promise to give the holy land to the Israelites is not itself a justification for atrocities. Saying he had to order atrocities to fulfil is promise ignores that God did not need to promise that land to Abraham in the first place.

Since the other tribes probably believed their local god has also given them their land, the argument is a broken compass.

Also, the argument falsely assumes that God could not deal with the situation without committing atrocities. A supposedly omnipotent God could have relocated people or made them behave differently. God did not do this but instead ordered atrocities to be committed.

God is above morality[edit]

Another apologists argue that God can act as he feels necessary. This is supposedly "good" by definition. This concept is referred to as divine command theory.

"Second, God is sovereign over all of life and can take it whenever He sees fit. [1]"

"If God were to issue a command to the soldiers to kill the Canaanite people, in virtue of divine command morality that would become their moral duty. That would become the right thing for them to do."

William Lane Craig [2]
"[...] please explain to me exactly who God sinned against if He did indeed issue these commands to the Israelites? [3]"

This argument is related to the Euthyphro dilemma. The dilemma supposes morality exists separately to God (God is subject to morality and not free to modify it) or God is the author of morality (in which case, God cannot meaningfully be called good).

"Justice is God’s ontologically necessary attribute, so HE cannot unjustly kill even one person. God cannot be unjust. [4]"

This is just defining God to have particular attributes a priori. It is conceivable that God does not have this attribute.

Even if God has no absolute obligation towards humans, his actions show God is vindictive and cruel.

"Even if God doesn’t have any moral obligations – a view I’m somewhat attracted to – it doesn’t follow that God’s own nature as The Good itself wouldn’t compel God to treat his creatures in certain ways (which would also *exclude* God treating his creatures in certain ways). [5]"

God punished sinful tribes[edit]

Apologists may argue that God was justified in killing other tribes because they were corrupt or sinful.

"In fact, the Canaanite nation and culture was incredibly decadent. They practiced temple prostitution in their worship of Baal, they even practiced child sacrifice where they were killing innocent human beings supposedly in worship to God. God says these things are abominable, I want you to wipe out these people. So this isn’t just sort of making room for God’s people to come back into the land. Rather, these people were ripe for judgment and so God decided to destroy them."

William Lane Craig [2]
"A basic knowledge of Canaanite culture reveals its inherent moral wickedness. The Canaanites were a brutal, aggressive people who engaged in bestiality, incest, and even child sacrifice. Deviant sexual acts were the norm. [1]"

"It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the LORD your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob."

Deuteronomy 9:5 Bible-icon.png

Calling people not "truly innocent" is the No true Scotsman fallacy.

The concepts of national sins (e.g. Exodus 17:16 Bible-icon.png) are not generally accepted and theologically problematic, since people are elsewhere judged on personal actions or beliefs.

Commanding atrocities to prevent similar atrocities is rather hypocritical of God, not to mention ineffective:

"Laughably, Craig points out that one of the “abominable” sins of the Canaanites was that they were killing innocent children as human sacrifices. So, the punishment for killing innocent children is… killing more innocent children? Woah. [6]"

If everyone was guilty, a just God would be obligated to treat everyone in the same manner i.e. to kill them. Based on this argument, God isn't just or not everyone is guilty. It is strange (and contradictory) that God does not order further immediate genocide based on the alleged widespread sin in the contemporary world.

"The fact is that God would not have destroyed those cities if there were any righteous people in them. The few righteous who were in those cities He warned ahead of time to get out. So, God does not destroy the righteous along with the evil. [7]"

Apologists claim that God does not kill the innocent or gives those people enough warning to escape 1 Samuel 15:6 Bible-icon.png Genesis 18:32 Bible-icon.png. That seems unlikely. Large groups of people are unlikely to have sufficient guilt to warrant their total genocide.

"One reason was because God knew that if he did not do so, then these surrounding nations would influence his chosen people to do likewise[8]"

If God were omnipotent and wise, he should have come up with a better plan that didn't involve genocide.

There is no such thing as an innocent person[edit]


God ordered entire tribes to be killed. For the above apologetic to work, apologists have to claim that everyone is guilty:

"First, no human person (including infants) is truly innocent. [1]"
"There really is no such thing as an innocent person.[8]"

Even if this were the case, God's reaction to their guilt is excessive.

It is difficult to see how a new born baby is guilty of anything. Christians sometimes refer to the concept of original sin.

God justifies killing people on this own impossible standards of ethics. This is not a reasonable policy.

Non-combatant victims were better off dead[edit]

Apologists argue that non-combatants would have been left vulnerable and probably starved to death. Essentially, they are better of dead.

"an argument could be made that it would have been cruel for God to take the lives of all the Canaanites except the infants and children. Without the protection and support of their parents, the infants and small children were likely to face death anyway due to starvation. [1]"
"God may have provided for the salvation for those infants who would not have otherwise attained salvation if they had lived into adulthood. [1]"
"So, in having babies killed, God is actually doing them a favor, since, if they had grown up opposed to God, they would have gone to hell. [7]"

These are examples of the world renunciation and "better off dead" attitude of the Abrahamic religions.

It is ludicrous to suggest that this was the best option available for an omnipotent God. God could have relocated the entire family or materially supported the survivors. Either option would have prevented further suffering. The problem of evil is not a justification for further atrocities!

God moves in mysterious ways[edit]

Apologists may argue that God's goodness cannot be fully comprehended by humans. It is similar to the claim that God can't be defined.

It is unreasonable to claim the God's actions cannot be discussed without also accepting morality is generally unknowable (moral non-cognitivism). If God's moral example cannot be understood, he is also a poor role model (which is contrary to other Christian dogma).

Atrocities were atypical of God[edit]

Some of the atrocities committed or ordered by God were related to capturing the "promised land".

"it is important to realize that this is a singular event in the Old Testament. This is not the normal way in which the God of the Old Testament operates"

William Lane Craig [2]

This argument does not explain the many other atrocities that were not related to the promised land.

"To be sure, G-d does not always command to kill the entire population. [...] The Canaanite story where men, women and children were commanded by G-d to be killed is an exception to the rule[9]"

Even if these were the only atrocities of God, the fact they are atypical is a red herring. An atrocity is still an immoral action. It only takes one example to refute the omnibenevolence of God.

It also supposes that atrocities were the best course of action (which would have to be chosed by an omnibenevolent God). An omnipotent God could have relocated tribes instead of having them killed.

The Bible is not literally true[edit]

An obvious but uncommon defence is to claim the Bible is not historically accurate or should be understood allegorically. Most fundamentalists do not consider this to be an acceptable option.

"And so, when you have to choose between God as revealed in Joshua, and God as revealed in Jesus, being a Christian means you have to choose Jesus. You must be at least willing–if necessary–to twist, reinterpret, change your perspective on, and, yes, maybe sometimes even toss some ideas out when anything goes against who God is as seen in Christ. The writers of the New Testament did this constantly. [10]"
"The new application of this argument is not to therefore believe in a G-d in a different form but a support for atheism, arguing that G-d therefore does not exist, is a fallacy and should not be believed in or taught to children. [...] there is no problem for humanity to believe in a G-d that does not conform exactly to the G-d of the Hebrew Bible. It is not outright heresy if one does not believe in every minute aspect of the belief in G-d as presented in the Hebrew Bible, while still believing in monotheism.[9]"
"Firstly, it's quite implausible that those who authorized the final form of the text were affirming that all Canaanites were exterminated at God's command. Second, the accounts that appear to say otherwise are utilizing extensive hyperbole and are not intended to be taken literally.[11]"

Apologists point out that the are able to believe in a different God and not one that is described in the Old Testament. However, this may be problematic for literalists because it requires cherry picking the text.

Saying a particular section uses hyperbole ignores the general pattern of atrocities that God commits.

"[...]I don’t think the hyperbole interpretation accomplishes much because we are still left with two other examples of God killing every man, woman, and child in a particular area: the destruction of the Canaanite cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the drowning of everyone in Noah’s flood.[12]"

Atheists have no standing[edit]

"Atheists, who accuse God of Old Testament atrocities, can’t possibly win. If God doesn’t exist, there were no atrocities. If He committed the crimes, He exists--and so does the Day of Judgment."

Ray Comfort [13]

"What is ironic about this is that a lot of critical scholars think that in fact these aren’t historical stories. A lot of critical scholars think that these are just legendary stories that were invented about the national founding of Israel. Sort of like the legends of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus. Therefore, these events never really happened. So for those kind of liberal scholars, this isn’t even a problem."

William Lane Craig [2]

The criticism of Old Testament atrocities is an attempt to point out the contradictory nature of God as described in the Bible. Objects with contradictory attributes are not seen to exist. The specific beliefs of skeptics does not invalidate this argument and is in fact a red herring. Irrespective of what a person believes personally, absolute morality may be provisionally accepted in an argument to show it leads to absurd conclusions.

"Although an atheist ridicules God for killings, he cannot reasonably explain the evil in our world.[4]"

That is irrelevant. People can make moral judgements about the actions of God without explaining that issue.

It was a different time[edit]

"You would think what a horrible, brutalizing effect that would have upon these soldiers. And yet, that again is looking at it from a modern, Christianized perspective. In the ancient Near East, life was already brutal. I mean, this kind of thing went on all the time. Violence and war and slaughter was common place."

William Lane Craig [2]

Claiming that violence, war and brutality were common at the time is a red herring. God is not justified as moral by the immoral actions of humans. Accusing critics of presentism is not appropriate when God and morality are supposedly timeless and unchanging.

God was not racist[edit]

Apologists argue that God's actions were not motivated by racial hatred but rather by religious issues.

"Even so, the destruction was directed more at the Canaanite religion (Deuteronomy 7:3–5,12:2-3 Bible-icon.png) than at the Canaanite people per se. The judgment was not ethnically motivated. [1]"

"But thus shall ye deal with them; ye shall destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire."

Deuteronomy 7:5 Bible-icon.png

This is another red herring: this is not a justification for God's actions. Killing people that believe differently is considered in a similar way to racially motivated crimes. Also, this defence only applies to some of the atrocities committed by God.

Character of God is separate from his existence[edit]

"what God is like does not have any bearing on whether a Necessary Being (God) exists. It would be like saying the institution of marriage cannot exist because husband Joe is a ridiculous slob and could never get a wife. While it may be true that husband Joe could not be expected to get a wife, this has nothing to do with whether marriage exists. [14]"

While it is true that showing God is evil does not disprove his existence, it does refute the claim that "God is good", which is fundamental to Christianity. If God is a moral monster, Christianity (or at least its core theology) is false.

God would have suppressed the records if he was evil[edit]

"First, Bible records God’s killings. If God is evil and unjust, HE need not have allowed HIS people to record those deaths.[15]"

There are plenty of reasons why God would allow this or just didn't care what people thought about him. Perhaps he liked being terror inducing.

God knows best[edit]

"Finite humans, who are not perfectly intelligent, are simply not in a position to know if the omniscient, divine command from God is the best decision or not because we have no idea what counter factual would have happened, if God did not issue these commands.[3]"

If humans can't possibly judge God's actions to be evil, we also are not in a position to determine if they are good. This undermines the moral argument.

We can only judge moral actions based on available information. If we are to make any judgement of God, we must do so on the available evidence. The evidence in the Old Testament points toward a rather vindictive and cruel God.

Saying we would have "no idea" what would happen if God had acted differently is an exaggeration.

God and pre-crime[edit]

"Further, if God knew that these children, when they grew up, would commit similar sins, then He does no wrong by taking their lives early.[16]"

This is rather an "innovative" theology and not widely accepted by Christians.

Why does God do this in some cases and not in others? What is the point in Earthly life since God could just send everyone straight to Heaven or Hell based on what they would have done?

When God wiped out the first born of Egypt, it seems absurd to claim they were universally destined to be worthy of slaughter? God's atrocities are far too indiscriminate for this counter-argument to work.

If God knows what people will choose to do, we arguably have no free will, which makes this mutually-contradictory apologetics.

God kills everyone eventually[edit]

"The Bible says that life and death are in God's hands. When you think about it, all of us are going to die. [8]"

The circumstances of death matter a great deal, which the apologist ignores.

Human murderers can't use the defense that their victims were going to die eventually, and it makes little sense that God could argue that either.

God owns everyone[edit]

"Think of it this way, let's say you went out at built a beautiful home, but then a year later you decided to tear down that home and go and move into some apartment or a smaller home. Do you, as the owner and builder of that home, have the right to do to that home whatever you want to do. In the same way, because life and death are in God's hands, he has the right to do with it whatever he wants.[8]"

We generally recognize that owning humans is immoral. This presumably also applies if God considers people to be his property.

Property is not completely exempt from moral obligations. If your family depend on the home for survival, it is arguably be immoral to destroy it. In the same way, something being property does not give one an exemption from morality.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 [2]
  3. 3.0 3.1 [3]
  4. 4.0 4.1 [4]
  5. [5]
  6. [6]
  7. 7.0 7.1 [7]
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 [8]
  9. 9.0 9.1 [9]
  10. [10]
  11. Did God Really Command Genocide?: Coming to Terms with the Justice of God By Paul Copan, Matt Flannagan
  12. [11]
  13. Ray Comfort, Facebook post, 3 June 2013
  14. [12]
  15. [13]
  16. [14]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]