Monday, April 18, 2011

Is God a Moral Monster? Abraham Sacrificing Isaac

Recently, I have been working my way through Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?” It looks to be a promising book, and so far he has tackled some thorny issues very well. What I like about a book like this, is it is not afraid to take a close and honest look at some of the more contentious and difficult issues of the Christian Scriptures. Let’s face it – in the climate of the New Atheists the OT has become a popular target and it is incumbent on Christians to at least deal with the challenges. Not every charge leveled against the OT by the New Atheists is worth time and effort, but some are and Copan has taken up the task.

The first topic that really piqued my interest was the matter of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac. In all honesty, that is a difficult passage to deal with. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son of promise, and Abraham essentially says, “OK.”

One of Copan’s first moves is to examine the text of Genesis 22 itself. Though this seems like an obvious thing to do, it is actually rarely done by stone-throwers. Through the text he arrives at four reasons why the event is not the child-abusing horror it is often made out to be. The one reason he lists that I found particularly convincing is that the whole event is described as a “test.” As such, the point of the story is not to actually take the life of Isaac, but to test Abraham’s trust in God. It appears God’s plan includes not actually taking Isaac’s life, and as such, the story does not include that particular indictment of God.

But Abraham seemed ready and willing to go through with it. Doesn’t that in and of itself make the story unpalatable? At this point, Copan cites the ethicist John Hare and a thought experiment. Abridging the thought experiment, imagine a world with different rules for life and death – like a world in which you were assured of being raised stronger and healthier if you were killed at the age of 18. The wise choice would be to have killing parties at 18, and the less wise choice would be to continue to live less strong and less healthy.

As odd as that may sound, it speaks to the plausibility structure of Abraham at the time of God’s command and what that structure actually made of his rational choice. The story itself tells us that Abraham believed God was able to raise the dead, that Isaac was a specific child given to him by God (the “child of promise”), and that Abraham fully expected the both of them to return home. Because Abraham believed in a God who would keep his promise made to him through Isaac and that he was able to raise the dead, his choice to sacrifice his son was not irrational, but an act of trust in God.

And as it turns out, Abraham trusted God, God had no intention of letting Isaac die at his father’s hand, and God did fulfill his promise through Isaac.

Seen through the lens of naturalism, the story of Abraham and Isaac seems worse than incomprehensible. Seen through the lens of the text itself and the existence of God, we can come to terms with what happened and why.