God Behaving Badly?

Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An atheist follower said this to The Mentionables:

"There are examples in the Bible of things I would call immoral behavior from God."

Many atheists object that God did has done immoral things in the Old Testament. But before we examine any specific instances of God’s supposed bad behavior, we first need to define what we mean by immoral.


For an action to be called immoral, it must be contrary to some moral code. So what is this moral code that the atheist is accusing God of breaking? If it his own personal opinion on how people should act, then who cares what the atheist thinks? It’s tantamount to him saying “I don’t like what God did in the Old Testament.” Well, so what? That’s your opinion.

This is known as subjective morality, meaning that every person, or group of people, decides for him- or herself what is right or wrong. I have my moral code, you have your moral code, and there’s no way of judging between them. But is that really how morality works? No. There are certain actions that are really right or wrong for everyone. For example, it is truly good to love and care for a little child and it is truly evil to harm and abuse her. This applies to all people at all times. And this is what is known as objective morality.

But where does this moral code come from and why must we follow it? We know that human laws come from a human authority, like a ruler or government. And an objective moral law that binds every human being across all of time requires a grand moral authority who rules over everyone and everything: God.

God is the ultimate standard of right and wrong. Behaviors that align with God’s nature or commands are good and actions that contradict them are evil. This is how we determine right and wrong. So for an atheist to accuse someone of performing a truly immoral act, he is actually providing evidence for God’s existence.


However, a skeptic may simply be arguing that God has done things in the Old Testament that contradict his all-loving, morally perfect nature. Now is when we must examine the actual act or command and see if God had a morally-admissible reason. The one cited most often is the destruction of the Canaanites.


Destruction of the Canaanites

God commanded the Israelites to completely wipe out the Canaanites: “you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2), “do not leave alive anything that breathes” (20:6). But how could a good and loving God possibly command something like this?


King of the Universe

We first must understand who God is. God is not just another ruler of some earthly kingdom. God is Creator of all things and King of the Universe. He gives life and he can take life whenever he wants, however he wants.

Furthermore, there are times that we think it is justified for humans to take another’s life, like in the case of self-defense, to protect others, or in a just war. A general can order his troops to attack and kill enemy combatants. So was God morally justified in destroying of the Canaanites?


Divine Judgment

The Bible is clear that God did not arbitrarily order Israel to kill the Canaanites. They were evil. God told the Israelites “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” (Deut. 9:5). And while the Canaanites committed many wicked acts, I think only one example would suffice: child sacrifice. They would burn their children alive in a fiery furnace as a sacrifice to the god Molech. Just that one act alone would be justification for their complete annihilation.

The irony is that many skeptics question why God doesn’t prevent great evils in the world. But here we have an example of God eradicating a wicked culture, and yet skeptics complain about it!

Skeptics can point to other instances of God supposedly behaving badly in the Old Testament, such as the great flood or the plagues sent to Egypt. But God was not acting rashly or arbitrarily. He was judging the wicked. And He even imposed harsh judgment upon his own people, Israel, when they partook of the same wicked actions of the nations surrounding them.

God Is Patient and Merciful

God does not enjoy the death of the wicked but patiently waits for us to repent of our sins (Ezek. 18:23, 2 Peter 3:9). Yet, he will permit evil only for so long until he finally passes judgment. God gave the Canaanites 400 years to cease their wickedness. But when their evil reached its peak, then the Israelites were to destroy them (Gen. 15:16).



To complain that God has committed immoral acts is also to admit there is an objective moral law. God is the best explanation of objective morality. Therefore, calling certain actions truly immoral actually provides evidence for God’s existence.

But what about examples from the Old Testament where God seems to betray his own morally perfect, all-loving nature? Yes, God is love, but he is also Judge. The destruction of the Canaanites was an act of divine judgment. And God is always willing to show mercy and forgive our sins, no matter how bad.