Immorality of the Biblical God

Can God be both Moral and Immoral?

Taking of Jericho by Tissot
Taking of Jericho by Tissot. SuperStock/Getty

An important objection against the existence of the god of the Bible focuses on this god's character. The god of the Bible isn't simply an ideal abstraction; in Western religious traditions we find many stories about what God has done or commanded believers to do. Often such actions are contrary to basic moral principles; at the same time, God is described as the source of morality. How can this be?

What are we to make of a god which is supposed to be morally perfect and represent a moral ideal when, at the same time, religious tradition makes this god out to be a moral monster? How can a god that commands mass slaughter and rape also be the source for morality in the universe?

These are important questions because religious theists in the West believe both the truth of the claim that God is the source of morality and of the claim that God has committed or commanded atrocious acts which people today would recoil in horror from. If these two claims are contradictory, the people are worshipping a god that cannot exist.


Arguing that God is Immoral

An argument against such a god can be formally stated thus:

  1. God is morally perfect (premise)
  2. Any act that God condones, commands, or causes is morally permissible or mandated (from 1)
  3. Any act that God forbids is morally impermissible (from 1)
  4. The Bible accurately reveals many acts condoned, commanded, or caused by God
  1. In the Bible there are acts which God forbids but which God also condones, commands, or causes
  2. It is incoherent for a morally perfect being to condone, command, or cause immoral acts
  3. The God of the Bible is incoherent and, therefore, cannot exist.

This can be described as a contradiction between three ideas common to many Western religious systems: What God commands is moral, the Bible is accurate in its description of God's actions and commands, and there are certain acts (like rape, murder, and slavery) committed or commanded by God that are immoral.

Any of the above premises or inferences might be challenged, but not in a manner which would preserve the likely existence of the God of the Bible. Thus, even strong and effective challenges to this argument would in the end lead us to the same conclusion as the argument itself: the God of the Bible cannot or at least probably does not exist.


God is Morally Perfect?

It's possible to deny #1, but that would undermine the claim that morality is founded on religion or theism and that God's commands must be obeyed. There are religions where gods aren't regarded as morally perfect and where obeying the gods is a matter of self-interest rather than belief in a connection between those commands and morality. This, however, is not compatible with religious traditions like Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

Denial of the moral perfection of God also entails the possibility that God commits immoral acts. That is a necessary implication of imperfection. A god that acts immorally, though, wouldn't merit worship. The whole basis for God being worthy of worship stems from the premise that God is perfect and holy. If God is not only imperfect but also immoral and unholy, then why worship it?


The Bible is Accurate?

The strongest criticisms can be made against #4 because not all believers accept the accuracy of everything in the Bible.

The rejection of this premise, however, comes at a serious cost — which explains why the religious groups that insist upon the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible defend their position so vehemently.

First, once the accuracy of large segments of the Bible are rejected, it becomes harder to defend the rest. If the accuracy of any of the Bible is questionable, then the security of religious beliefs founded upon the rest of text is undermined.

Second, the accuracy of the Bible is a principle foundation of moral and religious epistemology for Judaism and Christianity. The belief that God is accurately revealed in the Bible separates them not only from other religions but also from belief in a deistic God revealed only through nature. Indeed, Judaism and Christianity are practically unthinkable if one totally dismisses the Bible as the primary means by which God is revealed to humanity.


God Commands Immoral Acts?

Some criticisms can be made against #5 by arguing that we do not correctly understand the text — for example, the Bible doesn't really mean that God ordered the slaughter of large numbers of innocent people. This is a weak criticism, though, which even if effective would undermine the reliability of the Bible as an epistemological guide. After all, if such a plain meaning of the text is so deceptive, how can we trust any reading we make of it?

Some might criticize #6 by arguing that God is not bound by the moral standard required of us. Thus, while it is true that we are commanded not to rape or murder, God is not required to refrain from or order us to commit such acts. God, being the author of the moral standards, is perfectly free to disregard them whenever it seems fit. This criticism is not very strong.

First, such an argument only works if one abandons the assumption of God providing humans with unchanging, unalterable moral standards. If God can ignore or tell us to ignore those standards for any reason, then they aren't absolute and unchanging, are they? Many believers insist on the existence of such absolute standards and argue that the existence of their god ensures the reliability of such standards, as opposed to the "relativistic" morals of humans.

Second, this criticism makes it more difficult to think of God as being morally perfect. If God is not bound by moral rules against mass slaughter and is free to commit such abominable acts, in what way can we reasonably say that God is "good"? To say that God is morally perfect despite committing immoral acts renders the concept of "morally perfect" incoherent.

Finally, such a criticism would leave believers in a very difficult position because if it’s acceptable for their god to ignore moral rules against mass slaughter, then it would be trivial to ignore less moral rules, like those against breaking promises. In that case, believers wouldn’t be able to assume that their god’s promise that their faith in Jesus will get them to heaven - nor would they be able to legitimately complain about that!

In the end, none of these criticisms give us a good reason to think that the argument does not work. Even if we accepted the strongest of them, we would end up with a god which doesn't look very much like the traditional god of the Bible — and disproving the existence of that god is point of the argument anyway.

Either way, the theist's position should be abandoned.