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Jesus Wants Me for a Child Killer

17/12/2014 01:00 GMT | Updated 15/02/2015 10:59 GMT

It's not only the Taliban who think that God commands them to kill children...

I was recently invited onto a Christian radio show to debate with an American lawyer who had written a new Christian apologetics book. I was there as the guest atheist; the lion being thrown to the Christians! The one-hour debate was good knockabout stuff; neither of us changed our minds but we had fun trying to point out the failings in each other's arguments. I just wish the microphone had been left on a little longer, because it was the conversation after the show that was the most revealing. The debate had been wrapped up just as we had begun to talk about the nature of God as revealed in the Scriptures - a coincidence I'm sure, and nothing to do with the fact that this can be discomforting for Christians who are faced with anyone who has actually read the Bible. As we continued our discussion beyond the ears of the audience I reminded my opponent of the account in the book of Numbers which describes the Israelite army's slaughter of their Midianite enemies. It's just another tale of everyday Old Testament genocide until things take a particularly nasty turn: God is not pleased with his people (not for the first time) and he orders them to kill all the Midianite boys and women, and to keep for themselves the girls who are still virgins.

"Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man." (Numbers 31:17-18, NIV).

This is not the only example of God-directed infanticide in the Bible, and I have referred to it in my posts before, but it is revealing because it brings into focus a sharp moral question for Bible-believing Christians: if you had been in the Israelite army that day, would you have obeyed God and killed the innocent, defenceless children (to say nothing of the women and the capturing of the young girls)? I asked the evangelical lawyer this very question and, I must confess, I was somewhat taken aback when he answered unhesitatingly, and with a broad smile on his face, "Absolutely!"

His book claims many times that our source of morality has to lie in God and that God himself is morally perfect. This is a commonplace Christian view, and one which is frequently used to try to expose an inadequacy in the humanist's moral code: no God means no absolutes which, in turn, means no morality. Christians effectively outsource their foundational moral principles to God, on the basis that his moral standards are far higher than ours and that he only ever provides perfect moral instructions. But the story in Numbers provides unequivocal evidence that this is not the case: God tells his followers, on some occasions at least, to carry out acts which are egregious in the extreme.

Consequently, Christians face an impossible dilemma: obey God and commit a terrible crime against humanity; or disobey God and incur his wrath for being a sinner.

If you were a Christian, which would you choose? My radio show opponent claims he would go with the crime against humanity, which just shows you how dangerous it is to let God have the responsibility of deciding what is right or wrong. The Taliban have just followed the same route.

I think that if I asked most of my Christian friends whether or not they would obey God and kill defenceless children they would probably be horrified that I should even ask such a question. They would certainly claim that God would never command them to carry out such a wicked deed. They would become uncomfortable once I showed them that God has certainly asked this of his followers, and would probably suggest that although such things may have happened in the Old Testament, they would not happen now; it's all about Jesus, you see, and he would never be so unjust. But this is a flawed argument and is not consistent with their theology: they claim Jesus is God and always has been, so he must have been there at the time, insisting upon the infanticide. He is as culpable as his Old Man.

To put it simply, The Christian's problem lies in the insistence that the Bible reveals that God is morally perfect, and that the Bible is God's truth. But both these claims cannot be right because a God who demands obedience to the point of slaughtering children is very far from being good. The only way in which a view of a good God can be maintained is by regarding the Bible as being nothing more than a collection of stories written by people who had no more idea of God's nature than anybody else. On the other hand, if the Bible does reveal God's true nature then he really is a monstrously evil Being whose moral standards are as low as the worst kind of human despot, deserving our fear but not our worship.

And, while civilised people everywhere hold up their hands in horror at the massacre of children in Peshawar, Pakistan, we would do well to remember that it is human, not Biblical values, that stand firm against such evil.

Paul Beaumont's debut novel A Brief Eternity was nominated for the Dundee International Book Prize and is available on Amazon and other retailers.