Killing for GodSeptember 6, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
According to an Associated Press report, a 28-year-old man who killed 6 and wounded 4 on a shooting rampage testified that “I kill for God. I listen to God.” Now, obviously it would not be fair to blame Christianity for this man’s mental illness, nor can we fairly hold God responsible for his actions (any more than it would be Darwin’s fault if the man had said “I kill for Darwin”). This case does, however, point out an interesting question, which is how do we know he’s not telling the truth?
A popular Christian claim is that God is the source of all morality. In other words, things like shooting rampages are not wrong in and of themselves, they’re only wrong because God forbids them. Or, as Vox Day puts it, “God’s game, God’s rules.” There’s no power greater than God that can force some external moral standard on the Almighty, therefore God is free to define morality however He sees fit. Who is to say, then, that God cannot make a special set of rules, for this one deranged shooter, that commands him to go on a shooting spree and kill people? Sure, he’s insane, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not telling the truth about God. So how do we know?
Someone might say, “Of course he’s lying; God would never order anyone to commit wholesale murder.” But how do we know that? If murder is not wrong in and of itself, what’s to prevent God from defining mass murder as morally good in this specific case? It wouldn’t be the first time, right?
“But,” someone will object, “we know that murder is wrong because it says so in the Ten Commandments.” That’s true as far as it goes, but there’s all kinds of loopholes. Obviously so, otherwise all divinely-ordained killings would be morally wrong, and there’s plenty of them in the Bible. Besides, if it’s “God’s game, God’s rules,” then He’s obviously free to define whatever exceptions and special cases He likes. So long as murder is not wrong in and of itself, so long as God is the sole source for moral authority, then we have no guarantee that He could not and did not order the Washington shooting spree just like He allegedly ordered killings in the Old Testament.
“But,” someone might say, “you’re making a false assumption. Murder is wrong, in and of itself, because it kills innocent people.” I think we can agree that it’s a false assumption, but it’s not our assumption. Christians, and particularly Christian supremacists like James Dobson and Roy Moore, are the ones pushing the idea that all morality comes from God. If there’s a secular basis for morality, if we can examine murder itself and determine that it is wrong because of the consequences it produces, then those Christians are wrong, and we can discover a valid, objective, universal moral code without needing some divine Lawgiver to define it for us.
There’s a compromise position: I once heard an apologist on Christian talk radio who argued that, yes, God is the source of moral authority, but it’s not arbitrary because it springs from God’s nature. That way God does not have the freedom to arbitrarily define murder as “good,” but at the same time He’s still the source for universal morality. Whatever is consistent with God’s nature is “good” and whatever is contrary to God’s nature is “bad.”
There are a number of problems with this approach, however. When God allegedly ordered the slaughter of the Amalekites, was He being consistent with His own nature, or was He sinning? The OT killings make it difficult to maintain that God’s unchanging nature is the source for eternal moral standards, especially regarding killing, slavery, and a multitude of lesser sins that somehow don’t seem to apply today. And if “good” is defined relative to God’s inherent nature, over which He has no control, it becomes essentially meaningless to call God “good,” since all you’re really saying is that God behaves in a certain way because that’s how God behaves. It’s not good or bad per se, it’s just how God is.
And why should our morality be judged by whether or not our behavior is consistent with God’s nature? God’s “good” behavior is automatic, not a matter of willful choice, so why should we be guilty of immorality if our behavior springs just as spontaneously from our own nature?
There are more problems with this position, but the above is a fair sample. It’s a clever answer, but even this approach can’t quite pull off the kind of self-consistency we ought to be finding in a real-world truth. And even if it could, it clearly has to be consistent with God’s will (and thus God’s nature) for people to die, sometimes violently and senselessly. If, by hastening their deaths, God ushers them into a new and endless life of bliss and blessing, free from the toils and suffering of mortal existence, is that really so contrary to His benevolent and loving nature?
We come back, thus, to the original question: how do we know the insane shooter is not telling the truth when he claims to kill for God? God does not show up in real life to give us an objective standard against which to compare the shooter’s testimony, nor does the Bible support the contention that God never orders His servants to kill. And if believers claim to have some sort of immaterial, inner witness, some kind of direct, spiritual connection with God, such that they alone can hear what God is telling them, then how can we know the shooter didn’t have the same connection, and that God didn’t use that channel to send out a command to kill?
There’s only one answer: we know God would not murder because we would not murder, and God’s morality is just a projection of our own. We declare that our own moral standards come from God just because we want to lend God’s authority to our own moral opinions, not only for obvious cases like murder, but for more controversial cases as well, like equal rights for gays. But in practice, using God as the source of moral authority doesn’t work, because He does not show up in real life to exercise that authority, and because His own track record, as recorded in the OT, is somewhat murky. We start with what morality is (at least in our own eyes), and then ascribe that morality to God. And not the other way around.