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The Question I’m Asked Most, Part 1

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By: Paul Copan and Melissa Cain Travis – worldviewbulletin – March 22, 2022

For this month’s Roundtable discussion, we asked our four regular contributors to address the question they’re asked the most regarding the Christian worldview or apologetics. In this first part, Paul Copan and Melissa Cain Travis give their answers.

Paul Copan

Ever since my book Is God a Moral Monster? came out, it seems that the topic of Old Testament ethical challenges is the one I get asked about the most. When invited to speak, I’d say 75 percent of the time it’s on this topic. And these have been questions I myself have pondered and wrestled with from my youth.

The subcategories I get asked about most (in ascending order) concern women, servitude, and warfare in ancient Israel. Of course, the terms critics use when asking about these issues are more emotion-laden—“misogyny,” “slavery,” and “genocide.” Matthew Flannagan and I embarked on a book that addressed the charge of genocide head-on in Did God Really Command Genocide? And to carry the discussion further on women, servitude, and warfare in the Old Testament—along with topics like Elisha and the bears, the imprecatory psalms, God’s hardening Pharaoh’s heart, the slaying of Egypt’s firstborn, and divine hatred (“Esau I have hated”), I’ve written the third in this series: Is God a Vindictive Bully? Reconciling Portrayals of God in the Old and New Testaments (Baker Academic, October 2022).

Spoiler alert: the answer to all of these book title questions is “No!”

Insights I’ve Found Helpful

In navigating and processing such questions in general, the following guidelines and insights have been helpful for me.

The ancient Near Eastern world and many of its values, ideals, and practices are quite removed from our modern world—and engaging with this world requires humility and charity. We moderns will find this ancient world odd and perplexing: for example, animal and other sacrifices to their respective deities; taboos concerning blood and semen and corpses; and priorities of community, stability, and preserving order over against modern preferences for freedom, privacy, individualism, democracy, and so on. C. S. Lewis rightly warned against the dangers of “chronological snobbery” as we look back on other, older cultures quite unlike our own. Approaching ancient Near Eastern culture with humility and charity goes a long way in helping us better appreciate the Old Testament’s context and message.

In his revelation to Israel, God accommodates people living in a fallen, sinful condition, but God meets them where they are and attempts to move them in a redemptive direction. Jesus affirmed that certain Mosaic laws were permitted because of the hardness of human hearts (Matthew 19:8), not because they were utopian moral ideals. Various laws within Israel were adjusted for the situation on the ground but given to Israel to regulate human behavior within certain limits. In the process, God gets his hands dirty to a certain degree as he works with sinful humanity, which wasn’t the product of his own pure hands, as Old Testament scholar John Goldingay puts it.

Distinguish between the “laws” and the “vision” of the Old Testament. Since certain laws were given because of human hard-heartedness and thereby assume that human beings will sin, we should look to the larger vision of the Old Testament—especially Genesis 1-2. This vision affirms that all human beings share a God-given dignity and equality (which excludes slavery, classism, racism, and so on), male-female equality (no patriarchy or inherent superiority of one over the other), and monogamy. Such a vision is reinforced throughout the Old Testament (e.g., Job 31:13–15; Joel 2:29), even if humans fail to live up to them. However, particular laws may be a concession to human failure. These laws give us the moral floor rather than an ethical ceiling, often expressing what God tolerates, not what he delights in

Ancient Israel’s worldview, which undergirds the Mosaic law, stands in significant contrast to that of other ancient Near Eastern law collections. In Deuteronomy 4:6, the Lord’s people are admonished to keep the statutes contained in the Mosaic law: “So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’” By their wise and virtuous lives, the Israelites were to demonstrate the superiority of God’s revelation in the Mosaic law. As I point out in my Vindictive Bully book, Israel’s story included their sovereign God’s creation of a good world and all humans as his representatives on earth. The story also includes a covenant-making God who redeemed Israel from Egypt. These features were to inform Israel about how to treat aliens and strangers in their midst, the poor of the land, runaway slaves from other lands, and other persons who could be more easily marginalized and taken advantage of. The worldview differences between Israel and the other nations are quite remarkable.

Romans 11:22 reminds us of both the kindness and severity of God—a message which cuts across both testaments. The central attribute of God is love; wrath is an “emergent property” that emerges with sinful agents (whether demonic or human). It is not intrinsic to God. This means that God is grieved in bringing judgment and punishing (Lamentations 3:33). While God is gracious and compassionate, he will not leave the guilty unpunished (Exodus 34:6-7). And oftentimes—whether it be at the Flood or with Canaanites—God is often finishing the job that self-destructive, rebellious human beings have begun. Although “violence” (hamas) is not ascribed to God in the Old Testament, God will often engage in a kind of “counterviolence” to bring an end to human violence and dehumanization.

These are just a few of themes that I have found helpful in laying the groundwork for discussion on women, servitude, and warfare in the Old Testament.

Melissa Cain Travis

Since early childhood, I’ve been a fan of science fiction literature and film. My first exposure to the genre was at the age of five, when my mom took me to the movie theater to see E.T. the Extraterrestrial. I’d never thought of aliens or other worlds before, and even though the scene in which E.T. starts exhibiting icky physical signs of earth-sickness frightened me (I hid my face in the back of my seat), I was spellbound. I still remember the psychological vertigo I experienced at that iconic moment when E.T. points up to the starry sky to indicate “home” and again when his spaceship rises into the sky, bound for some unknown world. One implicit premise of the film, as with much other sci-fi cinema, is that the universe is unimaginably vast and likely populated with other intelligent creatures we simply haven’t yet encountered.

There’s just something about the innumerable galaxies out there and the possibility of extraterrestrial life that electrifies the imagination! At the same time, many Christians are uneasy about such ideas, in no small part because of the materialist spin that’s typically applied to them in stories and in popular science journalism. Essentially, the claim is that the immensity of the universe and the alleged inevitability of intelligent life in other solar systems renders mankind mediocre. In other words, we are not the crown of creation, we are merely one group of countless other cosmic dust bunnies. Consider the rant of a weirdly crazed Bill Nye that went viral after it aired on PBS in 2005:

So I’m this guy, standing on a planet. Our planet’s pretty big compared to me, but really, I’m just a speck standing on this big planet. But the planet, compared with the stars is just another speck, and the earth is orbiting the sun, and the sun is a huge star, and our star may be a big deal to us, but my friends our star is just another speck! So I’m a guy—I’m a speck—living on a speck out on the edge of the galaxy…But I’ll tell you what else: there’s billions and billions of stars, billions and billions of specks, and then billions of galaxies! I mean, I’m a speck, living on a speck, orbiting a speck, in the middle of speckless-ness…And you can’t help but wonder…are there other specks out there? That would change everything, because then you’d know that these little brains [of ours] are not alone.[1]

Notice how Nye applies a subtle materialist coloring to the reality of our cosmic smallness and the possibility that humans are not the only intelligent life in existence. Others have overtly argued that the discovery of alien life would be damaging to Christianity. For example, in a Scientific American article entitled “Did Jesus Save the Klingons?” Clara Moskowitz writes: “The discovery of life beyond Earth would be a triumph for science but might wreak havoc on certain religions. Some faiths, such as evangelical Christianity, have long held that we are God’s favorite children and would not easily accommodate the notion that we would have to share the attention.”[2] She goes on to argue that it’s “a serious theological problem” to imagine Jesus being born in many different alien worlds: “Most theologians are pretty seriously averse to the idea that the son of God will have to visit every planet and get crucified on every planet.”[3]

Because of the prevalence of this kind of rhetoric, I’m often asked about my theological views on the vastness of the universe and the possibility of extraterrestrials. Some Christians will make comments such as: “The Bible doesn’t say anything about aliens”; “It’s problematic to imagine Jesus having to die over and over again to redeem aliens in other galaxies”; and “It’s hard to make sense of all that wasted space if we’re special and our solar system is really all we need.” I’ll treat each of these with short replies that can be used in conversations on this topic.

  1. Scripture’s silence on the existence of other intelligent life forms

We should keep in mind that our scriptural library was not meant to be a comprehensive cosmic encyclopedia! It reveals everything we need to know about God, human nature, and how we can receive the gift of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. The discovery of divine creations that aren’t mentioned in Genesis would in no way undermine the veracity or validity of Scripture.

  1. The salvation of extraterrestrial intelligent creatures

There doesn’t seem to be any theological reason for rejecting the idea that Christ may have incarnated and atoned for sin in more than one place. Opposition seems to be based upon an unnecessarily limited conception of God’s attributes—particularly his omnipresence and omnibenevolence. His ways are above our comprehension. Having more image-bearing creatures to love and redeem does nothing to diminish the value of Earthlings in his sight. We may even speculate, as C. S. Lewis did in his Ransom trilogy, that alien worlds may not be fallen.

  1. A superfluously vast universe and human significance

There is no reason to measure human significance in terms of relative size, which says nothing about its intrinsic worth. As the great G. K. Chesterton quipped in Orthodoxy, “It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.”[4] If a human being is more than the sum of his or her physical parts and has a unique relationship to the Creator of all things—neither of which can be ruled out by the empirical sciences—then the astrophysical data is simply irrelevant in conversations about significance. It is also worth noting that astrobiologists have discovered that the size of the universe is a natural precondition for the emergence of advanced, carbon-based life.

In sum, we need not have theological anxiety about the unfathomable enormity of space or the possibility of extraterrestrials. Now, whether such beings would be hostile to human beings is an entirely different concern!

Notes

[1] Bill Nye – We’re Just A Speck On A Speck.

[2] Clara Moskowitz, “Did Jesus Save the Klingons?” Scientific American, October 16, 2014, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/religion-extraterrestrials-jesus-save-klingons/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Independently Published Edition, 2020), 42.

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Source: The Question I’m Asked Most, Part 1 – by Chris Reese

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