The Bible tells us to be like God, and then on page after page it describes God as a mass murderer.
Robert A. Wilson 1
But you, 0 Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
As I walked through the metal detectors and past the uniformed guards, I could sense an undercurrent of expectation at the White House. Despite efforts to project a business-as-usual facade, it was clear that something big was going on behind the scenes. The Monica Lewinsky scandal had been escalating, and pressure was building for President Clinton to come clean before Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr released his long-awaited report.
Clinton arrived half an hour late for breakfast, sitting down directly across from me. His face was drawn, his eyes tired and puffy. Concerned for his health, I asked him how he was feeling.
"I was up until 3:00 A.M.," he replied in a husky whisper.
The press corps noisily jockeyed for position at the rear of the room, cameras whirring, pencils and notebooks poised. Clinton stood and took a few steps to a lectern. A hush fell over the room. His usual glibness was gone.
"I may not be quite as easy with my words today as I have been in years past," he told the small gathering of religious leaders. "I was up rather late last night thinking and praying about what I ought to say today."
He pulled out his glasses so he could read what he had written on a piece of paper. What followed was his most emotional and dramatic statement since news of his affair had broken in the media.
"I don't think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned," he said, his eyes moist and his face pained. "It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine-first and most important, my family, also my friends, my staff, my Cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness. I have repented I must have God's help to be the person that I want to be."
There he was, the most powerful individual in the world, saying he had "a broken spirit" over his grossly immoral conduct with the former intern. All of his economic initiatives, all of his foreign policy efforts and social programs had faded into the background. Taking center stage was the stark and convicting issue of character.
Politicians are expected to fashion a positive public image, burnishing it to a lustrous shine through self-serving press releases and adroit spin-doctoring, but their real character often gets revealed through their private choices far from the spotlight. Certainly a person's behind-the-scenes moral decisions-their marital fidelity and fundamental honesty in their relationships-are relevant to how they will conduct the business of the people. After all, they unmask the true individual.
When I was an atheist I thought Christians could teach politicians a few tricks about creating a positive public image. Christians would focus relentlessly on certain appealing aspects of God's character-his love, his grace, his forgiveness, his compassion, his mercy-but underplay or ignore the biblical passages that seem to reveal more troubling aspects of his character.
When attention is focused on the little-mentioned Old Testament stories of massacres and other broad-scale bloodshed, suddenly God is seen in a different light. Like Clinton, whose carefully crafted public persona fell apart once credible stories of extramarital dalliances were documented, God's image as a loving and benevolent deity gets called into question by stories of seemingly cruel and vengeful behavior. Do these brutal accounts disclose the true character of God? And if they do, does he deserve to be worshiped?
Charles Templeton has his own opinion. "The God of the Old Testament is utterly unlike the God believed in by most practicing Christians," he said. "His justice is, by modern standards, outrageous He is biased, querulous, vindictive, and jealous of his prerogatives." 3
Atheist George H. Smith agrees. "The Old Testament God garnered an impressive list of atrocities," he said. "Jehovah himself was fond of directly exterminating large numbers of people, usually through pestilence or famine, and often for rather unusual offenses."4 Smith likes to quote former president Thomas Jefferson as saying that the Old Testament accounts reveal God to be "cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust."5
This issue is disturbing enough, but in addition there's an ancillary matter that demands to be explored. In evaluating the character of God, both critics and Christians cite the Bible as their source of information. But is it really a trustworthy book? Isn't the Bible chock full of contradictions and inconsistencies that undermine its reliability? Haven't its references to history been called into question by modern archaeology? Isn't it more likely a collection of imaginative legends than an accurate description of the Creator of the universe?
These two issues-the character of God and the reliability of the book that purports to tell us about him were major hurdles when I was a spiritual seeker. At the time, I immersed myself in books and articles to try to come to some well-reasoned conclusions. I wish I could have done then what I was about to do now: sit down to interview a scholar who is one of the most well-known and effective defenders of Christianity in the world.
THE FOURTH INTERVIEW: NORMAN L. GEISLER, PH.D.
Norman Geisler can be a tenacious and intimidating debater when he's marshalling biblical references, archaeological findings, scientific discoveries, and historical events to refute someone bent on discrediting Christianity. His encyclopedic memory and rapid-fire delivery have overwhelmed many critics through the years.
But it was a soft-spoken and grandfatherly Geisler who invited-me into his modest yet comfortable office at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he is president of the school. Casually dressed in a multicolored sweater over a blue button-down shirt, he had an easy smile and a down-to-earth sense of humor. Even so, I soon found him focused with laser-beam intensity on the challenges I had come half way across the country to raise with him.
Geisler, a prodigious and award-winning author, has written, co-authored, or edited more than fifty books, including such standards as General Introduction to the Bible, Inerrancy, Introduction to Philosophy, Philosophy of Religion, When Skeptics Ask, When Critics Ask, and When Cultists Ask. One of his most recent volumes is the ambitious, 841-page Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, which systematically discusses issues ranging from "absolute truth" to "Zen Buddhism."
Having studied at Wheaton College, the University of Detroit, Wayne State University, William Tyndale College, and Northwestern University, Geisler received his doctorate in philosophy from Loyola University in Chicago. He is the former chairman of philosophy of religion at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and professor of systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary. His memberships include the American Philosophical Society, the American Scientific Association, and the American Academy of Religion.
Geisler has traveled widely-through all fifty states and twenty-five countries on six continents-giving lectures on the evidence for Christianity and debating such well-known skeptics as humanist Paul Kurtz. Consequently, I knew there was little chance that I would take him completely off guard by a question. However, I came armed with some of the most difficult issues of all.
As we sat across from each other in maroon leather chairs, I pulled out a piece of paper on which I had jotted the biting words of an esteemed American patriot whose criticism of Christianity is legendary.
"In 1794," 1 began, "Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason: 'Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the work of a demon, than the word of God.'6
I looked up at Geisler to see if he was wincing at the sting of Paine's words. "That's a tough challenge," I said. "How would you respond to him if he were sitting heretoday?"
Geisler adjusted his gold-rimmed glasses, then remarked with a chuckle, "First of all, I'd say too bad he didn't have a Bible. When he wrote the first part of The Age of Reason, he didn't have one. But apart from that, I think he's confusing two things: what the Bible records and what the Bible approves."
"Give me some examples of the difference," I said.
"For instance, the Bible records Satan's lies and David's adultery, but it doesn't approve of them," he explained. "It's true that there are a lot of gross stories in the Bible. The book of Judges reports the raping of a woman, then cutting her in twelve pieces and sending one piece to each of the tribes of Israel.7 But the Bible certainly doesn't approve of that. Secondly, I think that Paine is just factually wrong. The Bible doesn't have any cruel and torturous executions that God commanded."
I raised my hand to protest. "David was called a man after God's own heart, and yet the Bible says he tortured his enemies," I pointed out. "It says he 'put them under saws, and under axes or iron, and made them pass through the brick-kiln."8 That sounds cruel and torturous to me!"
"Not so fast," Geisler cautioned. "You're quoting from the King James Version, and it's open to misinterpretation there. The New International Version clarifies the original Hebrew language and says David 'brought out the people who were there, consigning them to labor with saws and with iron picks and axes, and he made them work at brick-making.' That's labor-not torture-and it's quite humane compared to the cruelties his enemies had unleashed. Besides, this is another case where the Bible records something but doesn't necessarily condone it."
Touche, I thought to myself. Quickly regrouping, I pressed on. "That passage aside, there's still a lot of carnage in the Old Testament," I said. "Isn't there a big difference between the often-cruel God of the Old Testament and the loving God of the New Testament?"
Geisler smiled. "It's interesting you ask that," he replied, "because I just did a study of every time the Bible uses the word that the King James Version translates as 'mercy.' I found it occurs 261 times in the Bible-and seventy-two percent of them are in the Old Testament. That's a three-to-one ratio. Then I studied the word 'love' and found it occurs 322 times in the Bible, about half in each testament. So you have the same emphasis on love in both.
"Ironically," he added, "you could make a case that God is more judgmental in the New Testament than the Old. For example, the Old Testament talks very little about eternal punishment, but the New Testament does."
"There's no evolution in God's character, then?"
"That's right. In fact, the Bible says, 'I the Lord do not change."' In both testaments you've got the identical, unchangeable God-the one who is so holy he cannot look upon sin, and yet the one whose loving, merciful, gracious, and compassionate heart wants to pour forgiveness on all people who repent."
Compassionate? I thought to myself. Merciful? The time had come to get to the crux of the character issue.
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