Is God a Moral Monster? by Dr. Paul Copan – A Book Review

About a year ago while I was at Harvard, talking with one of the students I regularly mentored, it happened that two of his friends walked by and stopped to say hello. We began to talk about their perspective on life and it quickly became clear that they were staunch atheists with a strong aversion to Christianity. Out of curiosity I asked them, “So, what’s your biggest objection to Christianity?” One of them immediately responded, “Your god commanded the genocide of the Canaanites. How can you worship a god like that?”

The sharpness of his accusation caught me off guard, but I managed to responded, “That simply isn’t true. A careful look at the historical evidence shows that isn’t a tenable hypothesis at all. I would never worship a god who commands genocide.”

Unfortunately, they weren’t interested in a discussion, and simply asserted, “That’s ridiculous. Of course he commanded genocide.” And that was the end of our conversation!

Well, as long as you are more open-minded than these two individuals, I think you will find Dr. Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? to be an excellent choice.

Heated, emotional, indignant accusations are often thrown at the Old Testament. In my context it is not at all uncommon to encounter people who believe the Bible is culturally regressive, outdated, and opposed to basic human rights. In their view, the Bible is no more than a fictional account, made up by a powerful religious elite, for the sake of controlling the population. And the ‘Bible thumpers’ of today are no better than the coercive and calculating Bible inventers who preceded them.

For those who are seeking truth and careful reasoning, Dr. Copan has done us a great service in this book. First, he unflinchingly and fairly presents the hardest hitting attacks on the character of God.  He provides substantial quotes from those who disagree with him before providing his responses. The result is that you feel like the deck is stacked against Dr. Copan on each page, which works to create a gripping tension: how will he get out of this one?

If, like Dr. Copan, you think of the Old Testament as a true and good revelation from God, then you’ll be able to identify with the initial emotional uneasiness that comes from hearing these pointed attacks. If you are more of a skeptic, you can appreciate the intellectual honesty he brings to the discussion. These aren’t straw men objections but real problems that Christians need to address.

The solutions that Copan provides are, on the whole, intellectually satisfying. He comes to his conclusions from many angles. As you read the book you will be exposed to a broad overview of different Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures, the intricacies of the Hebrew language, the great themes of the Biblical narrative, the limits of a hyper-literal application of many Old Testament verses to contemporary culture, an explanation of New Testament passages on issues like slavery, fundamental philosophical concepts, and detailed but accessible interpretations of the most puzzling Old Testament passages. Copan also provides a relevant and surprisingly helpful comparison of Christianity with Islam.

To cap it all off, he reworks the problem of objective moral values and duties, which may be new to some readers, and shows this argument’s applicability to the debate over the so-called ‘regressive’ values of the Old Testament. Though the book is interdisciplinary and often complicated, Copan has put in the requisite work to keep the discussion clear and understandable for a wide audience.

Yes, there were a few sections where I felt let down, and needed to go do some more research to find a robust enough answer for certain problems. There were other occasions when I found part of his explanation to be unsatisfactory, but the rest of his points to be very insightful. By no means am I endorsing his entire perspective in this book.

Here’s one example. In Chapter 6, Dr. Copan offers a broad overview of the Mosaic law, saying:

First, the Mosaic law was temporary and, as a whole, isn’t universal and binding upon all humans or all cultures. Second, Mosaic times were indeed “crude” and “uncultured” in many ways. So Sinai legislation makes a number of moral improvements without completely overhauling ancient Near Eastern social structures and assumptions (p. 61).

He justifies his point here in a variety of ways, most notably with reference to the Bible’s own explanation of the Mosaic law as inferior to God’s ultimate plans for creation. However, to my mind, this explanation sets a tone that is too defensive. This isn’t to say that Copan disrespects the Old Testament: after all, the entire book is a careful project to rehabilitate our ability to appreciate these texts! Furthermore, as Copan himself explains on more than one occasion, “as we look at many of these Mosaic laws, we must appreciate them in their historical context, as God’s gracious, temporary provision” (65).

Still, by starting with and staying closely tethered to the New Atheist assault on the Old Testament, at times I felt that the discussion was framed in a way that became too quick to concede the crudeness of the Old Testament. Perhaps a second edition could include an introductory chapter called “What the Old Testament Gets Right,” where Copan could pull together and summarize the many positive points he makes about the Old Testament throughout his book. This would provide a more positive foundation for his subsequent discussion of each objection.

I hope you also will find places of disagreement with Copan’s argument: this will indicate you are reading the book with an active, probing mind, and not just settling for whatever is most convenient to believe.

On the whole, it is my pleasure to provide a very strong and positive recommendation for Is God a Moral Monster? Whether you are currently wrestling with these questions, know people who are, or just want to be prepared for when they come up, Dr. Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? is a thoughtful, gracious, and inviting introduction to these perplexing and important questions.

Therefore, if these issues are intriguing to you, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book at Amazon.com.