Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 18: “What if Someone Claimed God Commanded Killing the Innocent Today?”

Did God Really Command Genocide?  

In this chapter F & C wish to examine a concern that many have: “If we say that God commanded an exemption to the crucial moral principle in scripture and that he commanded an occasion in which the killing of the innocent was justified in the past, what is to stop some religious fanatic from claiming that God would do the same today?”  At first glance, this may seem like a legitimate concern.  However, in this chapter F & C suggest several safeguards and criteria to test such a claim as genuine.

Before addressing the main question, F & C tackle a related objection often raised by the skeptic: Unless one can know the reason for why God would issue such a command, one is not justified in saying they know that God issued such a command.  F & C point out a number of problems with this objection.  Using Alvin Plantinga’s well-known noseeum inference (pronounced no-see-um) which he effectively employs in discussing the problem of evil, they show that just because one does not know the reason for why God might command something does not entail that he has no reason.  This is to confuse an ontological problem with an epistemological one.  The fact that I do not know something exists (including a reason in the mind of God) does not necessarily mean that it does not exist.  F & C raise the idea of the skeptical theist, one who acknowledges that God may often act without explaining why he does so, as a realistic concept that completely counters this objection.  In fact, if this objection really had any power, then it would entail that we could not know that God had ever made any moral commands because, ultimately, we do not know why God commands that any good be promoted and any evil avoided.  As F & C put it, “The problem this poses is obvious: if we can’t justifiably attribute a command to God unless we know why he commands it, then we won’t be able to attribute any commands to God, even a general command to not kill.” (235)

F & C approach the main question by referring to Wes Morriston’s hypothetical situation in which a Texas governor believes God has spoken to him and commanded that all members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints should be killed.  Morriston suggests that such a situation is analogous to the Old Testament reports of divinely mandated genocide.  If we would reject such a command to the Texas governor as coming from God, we need to do the same with those in the Old Testament.  F & C, though, suggest a number of reasons why such a scenario is disanalogous and why God wouldn’t make such a command today.

While they do not deny that divine revelation is not limited to the biblical era, they affirm that individual divine guidance is different from the authoritative utterances proclaimed by God’s appointed prophets and apostles of biblical times.  All three branches of Christianity affirm that the biblical canon in closed and that there are no new divinely authoritative utterances equal to that of the prophets and apostles.  F & C state, “We have good reason to accept that the Scriptures are the sure and final authority for the believer and that with the death of the apostles, there is no longer any authoritative revelation on the level of Moses and Paul.” (238) [Note: It would have been helpful and made their case stronger had F &C gone into what exactly these reasons might be rather than just asserting that they exist.]

A second reason F & C believe that Morriston’s hypothetical scenario is disanalogous concerns recognizing moral defeaters.  Morriston wonders how we know when a command is from God as opposed to when it is not?  The answer: when it accords with our moral and religious practice.  F & C point out that one aspect of appealing to moral practice is to consider it from within the Christian moral community of which one is a member. Christians as a community affirm certain doctrines as being true and they operate from within these doctrines and may appeal to them when considering claims of commands coming from God.  In addition, F & C suggest two guidelines that help in determining when a purported rare incident might occur in which God’s command would be an exception to the crucial moral principle.  These two guidelines are:

  1. One should dismiss any purported divine command that violates a non-negotiable moral belief
  2. One should reject any purported divine command to do X that contradicts a negotiable moral belief when the claim “Action X is wrong” has greater plausibility or is more validly knowable than the claim that God commanded it. (239)

With these two qualifications in place, F & C show that the rare exception is not a problem for the Christian theist.  A true prophet will not affirm a command from God that violates guidance #1, so if our Texas governor’s scenario involves something of that kind, it will be rejected.  If it violates a negotiable moral belief, it will be judged by criteria of plausibility that will probably, indeed almost certainly, arrive at the conclusion that the Texas governor is not a prophet or apostle in the line of a Moses or Paul.

F & C finish off this chapter by listing a number of other scriptural criteria for testing if one is a prophet with divine authority to declare the commands of God.  They first consider the nature of the medium and ask if the word was received through some form of divination.  Second, one criterion of truth asks if the prophecy actually does come true.  Does the person proclaiming the command have a track record of true prophetic fulfillment in the past?  Third is the consistency with previous revelation.  Is it consistent with other doctrines we know to be revealed by God?  Fourth is the moral character of the person proclaiming the command. Does he or she live a virtuous life?  All of these could be applied to the Texas governor scenario to help in determining if his proclamation was really of divine origin and had divine authority behind it.

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Mark Foreman

Mark W. Foreman is professor of philosophy and religion at Liberty University where he has taught philosophy, apologetics, and bioethics for 26 years.  He has an MABS from Dallas Theological Seminary and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Virginia.   He is the author of Christianity and Bioethics (College Press, 1999, [reprint Wipf and Stock, 2011] ), Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians (InterVarsity Press, 2014), How Do We Know: An Introduction to Epistemology  (with James K. Dew,Jr., InterVarsity Press, 2014) and articles in the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012),  Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Harvest House, 2008) as well as chapters in Come Let us Reason: New Essay in Christian Apologetics (B&H, 2012) Steven Spielberg and Philosophy (with David Baggett, University of Kentucky Press, 2008) and Tennis and Philosophy (University of Kentucky Press, 2010).  Mark has been a member of Evangelical Philosophical Society for over 20 years and is currently serving as vice-president of the society.  His specializations are Christian apologetics, biomedical ethics and ethics.