Many people point out the horrific judgments in the Old Testament as evidence against a gentle and loving God. The most common example of this is the “slaughter of the Canaanites”. What do we say to people who point out that a loving God wouldn’t destroy these people? Well, for one, many atheists phrase the objection so that it sounds like God killed a bunch of “innocent people”. Although no one is COMPLETELY innocent (see Romans 3:23, Psalm 14:2-3), the people God destroys in the Old Testament aren’t even good by human standards much less God’s standards. They were FAR, FAR, FAR from “innocent”.
I’d like to point out that when it comes to the Old Testament judgments, God actually, in His great love, waited a very long time before releasing judgment on these wicked people. The Noah’s Ark flood for example (which I believe to be a flood localized to the entire Mesopotamian area for both biblical and scientific reasons). With the great flood, God waited until humanity was SO EVIL, so VILE, so utterly wicked, that God could honestly say “Their thoughts were only evil all the time.” (Genesis 6:5) God had allowed evil to run amuck until it had reached such an overwhelming level of depravity, that people’s thoughts were about doing evil deeds the large majority of the time. That’s when God told Noah to build an Ark because He was going to destroy the world (the world meaning all of humanity, not the globe, because humanity had not spread out beyond the Mesopotamian area yet) with a flood. Yet, even then God was giving people a chance to turn around and be saved. The New Testament tells us that Noah preached on a daily basis to the people to turn from their ways so God wouldn’t destroy them with a flood (see 2 Peter 2:5), and Hugh Ross, in his book “The Genesis Question” postulates that Noah probably would have gotten done building the ark sooner than He did, had He not spent all that time preaching. If enough people had repented, I’m convinced God would have forgiven them and would not have destroyed them with a flood, just as He had mercy on the people of Ninevah when they repented after Jonah preached to them.
Another piece of biblical evidence that God waits until depravity hits the maximum level, is the issue with Sodom and Gomorra. When God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorra, he told Abraham in advance. Abraham was shocked that God was going to destroy the ENTIRE CITY. He asked God “Lord, would you destroy the righteous along with the wicked? Surely you wouldn’t. What if there were only 50 righteous people living in the city?” And God told Abraham “No, I will not destroy the city if there are 50 righteous people living there.” Abraham then asked “Will you destroy it if there are even 40 righteous people” and God replies “No, I will not destroy the city if there are 40 righteous people there.” Abraham then asks “Will you destroy the city if there are 30 people?” and God tells Him that He will not destroy Sodom and Gomorra if there are only 30 righteous people living there. Well, Abraham keeps lowering the number until he gets to 10. God tells Him that He will spare the city if there are even such a low number as 10 decent folks living there. Of course, there were only about 4 or 5 righteous people living there (Lot and his family). God sent his 2 angels then God destroyed the city.
Now, as you can see, God would not unleash judgment unless the depravity had hit it’s ultimate level (Sodom was so depraved that they were willing to gang rape 2 complete strangers in the streets). There are 2 reasons God holds back judgment. 1: for the sake of the righteous. 2: for the sake of the wicked.
God will not hurt the righteous along with the wicked (unless it’s His will that those righteous come to live with Him in Heaven, such as the case with the Canaanite children and the children of Egypt). God also doesn’t want to destroy the wicked. Even though He hates their sin, He still loves THEM as people. He wants them to repent. He wants them to have a relationship with Him.
Ezekiel 18 is a relevant Bible passage to this topic. In it, God tells the people of Israel that He will destroy them if they do not repent from their sins, but if they do, He will forgive them. Then He begs and pleads with them to repent. God tells Israel that it saddens Him to unleash judgment and that He gets more pleasure out of seeing people turn to Him in repentance so that He can forgive them.
“If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin, they will die for it; because of the sin they have committed they will die. But if a wicked person turns away from the wickedness they have committed and does what is just and right, they will save their life. Because they consider all the offenses they have committed and turn away from them, that person will surely live; they will not die.
Yet the Israelites say, ‘The way of The Lord is not just’ Are my ways unjust, people of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust?
Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live!” – Ezekiel 18:26-32 (Emphasis mine)
Also, in these nations, even if only 1 person repented, God would have spared that particular person. One biblical example of this is Rahab. Rahab trusted in the Lord for her salvation and she was spared. The rest of Jericho were destroyed, but God spared Rahab because she repented and assisted the Israelite spies. Moreover, in each case, before God unleashes His wrath, He sends a prophet to give ample warning. Remember, 2 Peter tells us that Noah preached to the people to repent of their sins when he wasn’t building the arc. God also sent prophets to the people of Israel to warn them to repent time after time (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.). The Caananites (one of the most common examples brought up by skeptics) were given ample warning to repent, and if there were a few people who repented, they more than likely fled the area because they knew that something was about to the fan.
Many people have a problem about God ordering even the execution of the children though. They may say “Ok, I’ll grant you in light of this biblical exegesis that the nations God destroyed were horribly depraved and well deserving of His wrath, but why kill the children? Children are innocent!”
God is the author of life and therefore He has the right to take it as He sees fit (See Job 1:21, 1 Samuel 2:6, Psalm 75:7, Deuteronomy 32:39). God has a right to decide when we enter the afterlife, we do not. Since He’s the author of life, He has the right to take it. Although it was the Israelites who took the lives, they were doing it via God’s command. So they weren’t committing murder, they were acting as the conduit in which God would take their lives. Plus, since those children were very likely under the age of accountability and thus were innocent, that means they went to Heaven. So all those children after the Canaanite conquest, were playing in Heaven with Jesus. Jesus loves the little children. 🙂
So the punishment was on the adults, they went to Hell, the innocent children went to Heaven and they will be resurrected with the rest of the righteous dead.