When we don’t study the historical and literary context of a passage, we often draw the wrong conclusions. Such is the case with some atheists who complain about the apparent immorality of God’s commands in the Old Testament. Dr. William Lane Craig answers several questions about this (and his debate with atheist Sam Harris) on his website (ReasonableFaith.org). His succinct response is worth repeating here:
I recently watched your debate with Sam Harris, and had a few questions for you.
First, If morals are determined by God’s edict, then it seems to suggest that they are non negotiable. I say this because a being who is defined as all good would not give us a faulty moral stance and expect us to follow it. So, how do we improve our morals if it is an obvious improvement to not follow the bible? I make claim to the old testament where frivolous crimes carry the punishment of death by stoning. Wouldn’t it be more moral to not stone homosexuals to death, and instead allow them to contribute to society?
Second, In the question and answer section, you make the claim that the bible is a good moral foundation because you can think of no alternative from an atheistic perspective. Is that not a fallacy of an appeal to ignorance?
Lastly, tying the two together, Would you not agree that it is morally reprehensible to refuse to adopt a more moral world view? It seems that the biblical Christian moral foundation can be improved by ignoring bible passages (such as stoning to death for homosexuality), and atheists are just as capable of obtaining such a moral foundation (which incidentally is an improvement on the bible).
Dr. Craig responds: I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings lying behind your questions, William, which vitiate their force. Nevertheless, I believe that questions of this sort perplex many. So let’s take them in order.
1. On a Divine Command theory of ethics such as I defended in the debate, God’s commands to us are non-negotiable in the sense that we have a moral obligation to obey God’s commands. To disobey His commands is to fail to discharge our moral duties.
It does not follow from this that moral improvement is impossible. For God’s commands can be contingent upon the realities of the human condition relative to the times and places of the recipients of those commands. Real people in the circumstances in which they exist may not be capable of receiving or carrying out God’s moral ideal for them and so are given commands which may be much less than ideal but nonetheless suited for the reality of their situation.
This is not just a hypothetical possibility. This is what the Bible teaches about God’s commands. One of the clearest examples of this is Jesus’ teaching concerning the Mosaic law on divorce. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been that way ” (Matt. 19.8) Here Jesus says that the law of Moses did not represent God’s ideal for marriage established at creation but was historically conditioned due to the moral callousness of the persons to whom it was given.
One of the positive features of Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster?, to which I referred in the debate, is his emphasis that Old Testament laws were historically conditioned to a particular people at a particular time and a particular place and were never intended to be timeless ethical principles that would govern all peoples at all times under all circumstances. God gave ancient Israel laws that were suited to their historical circumstances, even if they didn’t express His moral ideal.
Moreover, another important factor you overlook, William, is the distinction between moral law and civil law. Ancient Israel under Moses was a theocracy: God was the head of the government. We don’t live in a theocracy, so many acts which are deeply immoral (like adultery) are not illegal. No such distinction existed in ancient Israel. So adultery was a capital crime. (You’re mistaken, by the way, in thinking that homosexuality as such was a capital crime; what was criminal was sexual activity outside of marriage, whether heterosexual or homosexual.) In our sexually promiscuous society such an assessment of adultery’s immorality seems just inconceivable. But I take that to be a measure of how far short we fall of God’s moral ideal for marriage and how seriously He takes chastity and marital fidelity. Even though adultery is not illegal in a non-theocratic society, it remains a sin that that is deeply immoral in God’s sight. Since we live in a non-theocratic society, we should not try to make everything that is immoral also illegal.
2. I’m confident that I made no such claim as you ascribe to me. In the first place, the claim seems to blur the distinction I was underlining all night of the difference between moral epistemology and moral ontology. The question of the foundation of moral values and duties is a question of moral ontology. So the Bible is just irrelevant to that question. The Bible would become relevant only if we were asking the epistemological question as to the content of our moral duties. On that question I do think that the Bible is a useful guide, so long as one uses it correctly (for example, not taking commands issued under a theocratic state out of their historical context and interpreting them as timeless ethical principles). Second, I most certainly do not adopt the Bible as a guide to moral behavior just because I can think of no alternative from an atheistic perspective. I have given evidence for thinking that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Son and the personal revelation of God, so that one ought to believe what he taught, including his ethical teachings. Finally, third, I can think of lots of atheistic alternatives (like Sam Harris’s view); I just don’t think they’re tenable.
3. I’d agree that if a person is informed about the moral adequacy of competing views and chooses a less moral view over the view he knows to be superior, then that person has acted immorally. But the proper comparison here will not be between Christianity and atheism. For as I argued in the debate, the atheistic alternative is incapable of furnishing a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. That’s why, in response to Sam Harris’ remark, “if there is a less moral framework than the one Dr. Craig is proposing, I haven’t heard of it,” I exclaimed, “The less moral framework is atheism! Atheism has no grounds for objective moral values or duties.” Until you answer the Value Problem, the “is/ought” problem, and the “is implies can” problem, William, you have no grounds for thinking atheism to be capable of securing such a foundation. Now that puts you in a difficult moral situation. For in the absence of answers to those objections, you are by your own lights rejecting a more moral worldview and therefore acting in a morally reprehensible way.
So if there is a comparison to be drawn here, it will be between competing forms of theism. Is Christianity, for example, a moral improvement over Mosaic Judaism? Yes; I have already affirmed that the moral system in ancient Israel was inferior to the revelation of God’s more perfect moral will by Jesus.