Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 11: “Divine Command Theory: Preliminary Considerations.”

Did God Really Command Genocide?  

Chapter 11 marks the transition into Part 3 of the book, entitled “Is It Always Wrong to Kill Innocent People?” Part 2 gave reasons to call into question the claim that a biblical theist is committed to 4’’’—which says that the divine author of the Bible uses the text to perform the speech act of commanding us to perform acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle. Part 2 did not attempt a moral evaluation of what these texts say.

Making Moral Assessments: What if Some Innocent Persons Were Killed?

At this point, however, moral evaluation clearly comes into play. In granting the general wickedness of the Canaanites and the presence of extensive hyperbole, it seems implausible that in such battles no innocent people were killed—or that every single innocent person escaped destruction. So even if God does not command us with these texts to kill innocent people, and even if the texts don’t envisage genocide, they still seem to suggest that a loving and just God did command killing the innocent on a particular occasion. This would mean that God on at least one occasion endorsed violations of the principle of noncombatant immunity.

How many women and children is it acceptable to slaughter before it becomes morally problematic? This brings us to the next question: Can the biblical theist reject 3? Proposition 3, recall, states: “It is morally impermissible for anyone to commit acts that violate the Crucial Moral Principle”—namely, that “it is morally wrong to deliberately and mercilessly slaughter men, women, and children who are innocent of any serious wrongdoing.” Plenty argue the biblical theist can’t reject 3 without endorsing the atrocities of Genghis Khan or Hitler.

William Lane Craig’s Argument

Craig has provided a straightforward way that a biblical theist can deny the Crucial Moral Principle without embracing nihilism (the view that denies the meaningfulness of objective morality). Craig argues that, technically, the Crucial Moral Principle is not an exceptionless principle. Reflecting on God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, Craig argues that in this highly unusual case, God, for the sake of some greater good, exempted Abraham from a moral principle that otherwise would be binding on him by commanding him to kill his son. Craig suggests that the “same considerations are relevant for the case of the destruction of the Canaanites at God’s command.”

Examining Three Claims

Craig’s support for this conclusion consists of three premises:

  1. “Our moral duties are constituted by the commands of a loving and just God.” (Craig here proposes a divine command theory of ethics whose thesis is analogous to the way water is constituted by H2O; just as one can know what water is without knowing it is H2O, so one can know one’s moral duties without knowing they are divine commands.)
  2. A loving and just God, in normal circumstances, prohibits killing the innocent.
  3. In very unusual circumstances in the past, God commanded people to kill the innocent for the sake of some greater good.

These three claims entail that 3—it is morally impermissible to violate the Crucial Moral Principle—is false. Now a and b entail that killing the innocent is normally wrong. But a and c entail that killing the innocent in those highly unusual situations is morally permissible, where a loving and just God had morally sufficient reasons and valuable ends in mind when commanding killing in these instances. Hence, strictly speaking, the Crucial Moral Principle does not hold for all persons, places, and times.

Craig’s claim is not radical or novel. The idea that God, on rare occasions, might grant exemptions to the moral rule against killing the innocent has been entertained by Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Duns Scotus, John Calvin, and a great many other thinkers through the generations. The history of this idea is rich and interesting.

Craig’s argument suggests a way that biblical theists can reject 3—that violating the Crucial Moral Principle is never morally permissible—without committing themselves to the problematic implications that various critics point to. It retains the conviction that killing innocents is generally wrong, and it doesn’t entail the endorsement of atrocities by the likes of Stalin or Hitler. A biblical Christian may have theological reasons for thinking that such commands would not occur outside the extremely unusual events of salvation history recorded in scripture.

The success of Craig’s position depends on whether a biblical theist can rationally accept a, b, and c. The next three chapters will defend a and b, starting with divine command theory. (Then the next three chapters will defend c.)

Image: By Robert W. Weir (photograph courtesy Architect of the Capitol) - Architect of the Capitol, Public Domain,