Sometimes atheists love the Bible: at least portions of the Bible that fit their narrative. One particular portion that New Atheists1 love is the account of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac in obedience to Yahweh (God). For such atheists, Abraham’s “child abuse” provides them with a sort of bully club that they can use to bash all those who would cling to the Bible.
These atheists club Bible people in two ways. First, they use the Abraham/Isaac account as a means to demonstrate that Christians do not really think the Bible is a good standard for morality since it argues for child sacrifice. Richard Dawkins argues this way in his book The God Delusion when he says:
God ordered Abraham to make a burnt offering of his longed-for son. Abraham built an altar, put firewood upon it, and trussed Isaac up on top of the wood. His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan: God was only joking after all, ‘tempting’ Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defense: ‘I was only obeying orders.’ Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions. . . As a moral lesson? But what kind of morals could one derive from this appalling story? Remember, all I am trying to establish for the moment is that we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty. (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 242-43.)
Second, atheists use the account to put contemporary Christians in a bind by asking them the question, would you sacrifice your child if God told you to? If a person answers yes, the bully club comes out and the Christian is labeled as a potential child abuser and a person that society should be worried about. If the person answers no, the club appears as the New Atheist says, “Ha, you don’t really take the Bible as your standard of morality!” If a person says maybe, they can be clubbed twice for potentially being a child abuser and for waffling on the Bible being the standard for their personal morality.
These two charges by atheists — that the Bible is not Christianity’s standard of morality and that of the Bible’s moral dilemma — are serious. But they beg a question: are atheists using the club properly in the Abraham/Isaac account? Let me suggest two reasons why they are not.
Picking and Choosing (or Ignoring and Hiding)
First, atheists pick and choose the details in their presentation of the Abraham/Isaac account to make their point. If any person, Christian or otherwise, would use the Abraham/Isaac account to make a point, they must account for all relevant details of the biblical account. In Dawkins’ accounting, he either ignores or misrepresents some of the details. We can start with one gross misrepresentation: “A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma” (Dawkins, 242). Note Dawkins’ use of the term “child.” It is a massive intrusion into the biblical narrative. Isaac was not a child. In the English language a child typically refers to someone before the age of puberty. However, the biblical text points to Isaac being of age. He likely was at least a teenager. Sarah bore Isaac at age 90 (Gen 17:17) and weaned him at the earliest age of 3 (Gen 21:8). The account of Abraham and Isaac takes place in Genesis 22. In Genesis 23:1, Sarah dies at the age of 127 which tells the reader that Isaac was somewhere between three and thirty seven years old when this sacrificial event took place.
We know that Isaac was not three years old as per the biblical account. For one thing, in Genesis 22:5 Abraham refers to Isaac as “the lad.” The word “lad” is the same word used to describe the “young men” in verse 5 who were Abraham’s servants. These servants were not children and it is unlikely that Isaac was either. Isaac also is the one who carried the wood for the burnt offering in Genesis 22:6. No child would have been able to do this.
Isaac could have been anywhere from twelve years old to in his thirties based upon the information in the text of Genesis 22. This would make Abraham at least 112 (cf. Gen 17:7). Seen in this light, Isaac was not defenseless. Abraham would not have been a match for Isaac and as such Isaac was not a helpless child at the hand of an abusive father. The text gives every indication to not see Isaac as a child. For Dawkins to insert the term “child” into the discussion is either a deliberate attempt to confuse the reader or an act of ignorance.
Besides the detail of Isaac’s age we also find details of Abraham’s understanding of the event. Isaac was the only son born to Abraham through Sarah. He was the son of God’s promise according Genesis 17:19 and 21:1. In Isaac lay all the hopes of the promises God had made to Abraham. God had specifically told Abraham that Isaac would be the one who would fulfill the covenant promises God had made to Abraham. Sacrificing Isaac would require not only leaping over the emotional hurdle of slaying one’s own son, but also leaping over the hurdle of watching all the promises God had made to Abraham slip away. This sacrifice was not just “Would you kill your own son?” The commanded sacrifice asked Abraham, “Do you believe that I (God) can fulfill all my promises?”
Abraham answered God’s call with a clear “Yes, I do believe.” Believing God, for Abraham, was not just that Abraham would slay his own son, but also that God would raise that son. If Isaac was promised to be the one to fulfill God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac needed to be alive. The writer of Hebrews picks up on this point explicitly in Hebrews 11:17-19. There Hebrews states that Abraham “concluded that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead.” Abraham himself also indicates the same idea in Genesis 22:5 when he tells the servants that he would come back with Isaac after the sacrifice was complete indicating that Abraham did not believe Isaac would be dead. In addition, after Isaac asked Abraham where the lamb was, Abraham responded by telling Isaac that God would provide the lamb. Abraham was not going up to the mountain assuming that his son would be dead and that it would be the end of him. Abraham believed God would raise that son.
Someone might say, “Abraham is crazy and Christians are too if they believe like Abraham.” Again, the details of the account prove to be of great importance. In the surrounding Genesis narrative, Abraham had already witnessed the miraculous hand of God. According to the text neither Abraham nor Sarah initially believed that Sarah could conceive or bear a child because she was ninety and he one hundred years old (Gen 17:17; Gen 18:12). God came to Abraham and Sarah and promised that they would have a son together. He delivered on that promise, defying their unbelief. Christians call this a miracle and it was certainly that.
Dawkins and atheists like him do not believe in miracles. As a result, they sweep under the rug the supernatural details of the account, such as God speaking to Abraham, or Sarah bearing a child at age nintey, or that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead. Doing so makes their “child abuse” cry illegitimate — at least as they currently present it. If a person is going to use the Bible to badger Christians, use all of the relevant details and don’t hide them in dishonesty or ignorance.
If a person was to press and say the supernatural details don’t count, then you have no basis to say that the command to sacrifice counts either. Dawkins and those like him cannot pick and choose the details of the text to prove a point.
These details also make the question “would you sacrifice your own child” illegitimate as well. It is not a child we are talking about here in the biblical narrative. It is not my one, three, five, or seven year old we are talking about. Isaac may have been a young man who was of adult age. The right way of asking the question would be, “Would you sacrifice your son if your wife bore him at age ninety seeing that this son was promised by God on numerous occasions to be the means by which God would fulfill all His covenant promises to you, and knowing that if you did sacrifice him, God would raise him from the dead?” Of course, that question loses a lot of the rhetorical flavor! It’s not nearly as fun and it makes the bully club look a lot more like a pool noodle than a mace. When New Atheists ask Christians about sacrificing their own children, they are not asking the question in the same way Abraham was asked it by God. Their question is out of order.
The second reason why atheists do not use their club properly is that atheists use the Abraham/Isaac account in a way the Bible doesn’t. Dawkins and all his disciples use the Abraham/Isaac account as a measuring stick for morality, with the measuring stick being child sacrifice. However, the Bible strictly forbids child sacrifice (Lev 18:21; 20:1-5; Deut 18:10). When Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, he did so largely as a unit. The Israelite people immediately recognized this which is why they referred to these books collectively as the Torah or Law. No intelligent Israelite reader would look at the Abraham/Isaac account and think, “God may want me to sacrifice my own offspring in a burnt offering” since the rest of the law forbade it.
Only twice in the whole Bible does God Himself authorize a human sacrifice. In both cases it was a father who was to be the impetus behind the sacrifice. The first was Abraham sacrificing Isaac and the second was God sacrificing Jesus the Christ. In each case, the rare circumstances prove themselves as extraordinary. In each case the one being sacrificed was assured of his resurrection. In the case of Abraham, as noted above, there were unique revelations given to him and unique confirmations of those revelations such as the birth of Isaac by Sarah at such an old age and the appearance of angelic creatures to confirm the revelation given to Abraham. Similarly, Jesus performed miracles and repeatedly promised that he would be raised from the dead after his death. It is also worth noting that God only allowed one sacrifice to take place. He did not allow the sacrifice of Isaac to actually occur. And in the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus was, according to the Bible’s description of him, no mere man. His case is especially unique.
All of this is to say that the Bible does not promote child or human sacrifice. Neither does the Bible anywhere ask a person to follow Abraham’s actions verbatim. Nowhere are the readers of the Bible told to sacrifice their children. Abraham is not held up as a great example because he tried to sacrifice his own son, but because He believed what God said about his son — that he would be the one by whom God would fulfill His covenant with Abraham. The measuring stick according to the Christian worldview is not the act of sacrificing children. The measuring stick is belief in God’s promises and actions that accord with those promises.
In addition, this also makes the question posed to Christians of “would you kill your own child if God told you to” rather misplaced. Dawkinists seem to think that Christians simply base their morality on of what God says to do or not to do. Certainly this is part of the Christian worldview but it is only a tea cup of the pool of Christian thought. Christians first and foremost believe God’s promises of reward. The writer of the Hebrews states in Hebrews 11:6 just before he launches into a discussion of Abraham: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Note that the biblical definition of faith includes two parts – belief that God exists and a belief that God rewards those who diligently seek after Him. Biblical faith is convinced that God will give the rewards that He says He will give. Therefore, a person obeys God not simply because God said something but because of what God will give to those who obey what He says.
God did not give Abraham a random test of difficulty for no apparent purpose. His test was an ultimate test of Abraham’s belief in God’s promise that through Isaac God would accomplish His will. This was a test of how much Abraham believed God’s promise of reward. Without Isaac, the promise of God’s reward to Abraham would have disappeared. Today, Christians do not believe that our offspring are the means by which God will accomplish His covenant promise. Christians’ hopes do not rest in their children. Christians only hope in one Son, Jesus the Christ, who has already been sacrificed for them.
Admittedly, this leaves us with the question of why, in the case of Abraham, would God command an evil? For Christians, there is no doubt that sacrificing a human to a god is an evil. Why then would the biblical God command Abraham to do so?
Last summer, Senator John McCain spoke at Henry Kissinger’s ninetieth birthday party. Senator McCain had been brutally tortured by his North Vietnamese captors during the Vietnam War. Kissinger came to Vietnam to negotiate the end of the war and to Hanoi where McCain was held as a prisoner. During the process of the negotiations, the Vietnamese offered McCain’s early release to go home with Kissinger. The world knew who John McCain was because his father was soon to be promoted to admiral over the American Pacific fleet. Senator McCain told everyone that Kissinger refused to allow him to come home early. Kissinger said, “Commander McCain will return in the same order as the others.” In one sense Kissinger commanded an evil. Kissinger left McCain in horrific circumstances. Yet, in another sense Kissinger did much more good. Senator McCain remarked that Kissinger had saved “my reputation, my honor, [and] my life really.” Kissinger also did not allow the Vietnamese to gain a victory in propaganda and did not demoralize the other prisoners who, like McCain, had suffered so much.
Similarly, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, God brought about much good according to the Christian worldview. There are at least five goods that are brought about.
First, there is the good of the Christian faith. Even in Dawkins’ accounting of the Abraham/Isaac event, he recognizes that Abraham’s actions are foundational for the Christian faith. Obviously Dawkins does not see that faith as good. However, without Abraham’s actions, the Christian system of faith would be truncated. Abraham serves as the model of what it means to be a believer in God — one who believes God’s promises are so sure that he would act upon them. For nearly 4,000 years, believers in the biblical God have looked to Abraham in awe, wondering how he could actually believe God’s promises in spite of the difficulty of God’s demands. We are shocked that Abraham did not place his final hope in his son but in the promises of the One who gave him that son.
Second, there is the good of Abraham’s honor. Abraham receives this honor from God and from followers of God. Other than the name of Jesus, no other name among believers of God could be said to be greater than Abraham’s. Abraham is still exalted some 4,000 years after the event on Mount Moriah.
Third, there is the good of God’s exaltation. Clearly, Abraham believed that God Himself was his greatest reward. Abraham expressed willingness to sacrifice his greatest treasure for God which demonstrated the extreme value Abraham placed upon God. Really, at this point in Abraham’s life, no other treasure could have been greater than Isaac. No doubt Abraham loved his possessions. His journey into Canaan brought him many riches. However, Abraham was old; giving them away would have been a sacrifice but not his greatest sacrifice. No doubt Abraham loved his servants. At one point Abraham planned to give all his possessions to Eliezer his chief servant. But a sacrifice of one of his servants would not be his greatest treasure. No doubt Abraham loved Sarah. To sacrifice her would have been nearly unbearable. However, she too, like Abraham, was old and Abraham would still have his son. But to sacrifice Isaac would be the greatest treasure Abraham had. Almost all of Abraham’s life was dedicated to the promises of God. He left his home and family and sojourned for decades based upon the promises of God. He believed that God would use his son Isaac to fulfill his promises because God told him so. To sacrifice Isaac would in essence say, “I am willing to give up everything I have lived my life for.” Abraham, in offering Isaac, demonstrated the immense value of God in a way that no other sacrifice could possibly do.
Fourth, there is the good of the picture of Jesus Christ. Abraham’s actions form a picture (type) of what was to come in Jesus Christ when God would sacrifice his own son. For Christians today reading the Abrahamic account, they are reminded that there is a greater son of Abraham who did sacrifice his life to God for the sin of the world. Truly Jesus, by the Christian accounting of things, stands as the greatest possible treasure.
Fifth, there is the good of Isaac. Contrary to Dawkins’ concern that a “child” like Isaac could ever recover from such “psychological trauma,” Isaac, according to the biblical text, actually grew up to become a follower of God. Isaac concerned himself with ensuring that his children would be followers of God as well.
Of course Dawkinists probably would not see any of these things as “good.” They would not because they do not share the presupposition that God Himself is a good. If they would presuppose such a thing (i.e., believe that He is and that He rewards), then the Abraham/Isaac account forms a beautiful good. Since atheists do not presuppose such a thing, they will never see the Abraham/Isaac account as a beautiful good.
In any argument, appearances can be deceiving. The charges leveled against Christianity appear to be monumental but in fact are a sham. In short, the bully club fails to deliver serious blows when viewed through biblical and Christian lenses. By picking and choosing the details of the presentation of the Biblical data, the charge of immorality against biblical proponents sounds fatal. However, Dawkins, and others like him, have been picking and choosing the details. In the case of Dawkins, he writes either out of ignorance or out of dishonesty in doing so. In addition, by claiming a moral lesson from the Abraham/Isaac account that the Bible does not, the Christian looks weak. However, they look weak because the charge is ill-founded. Christians do not see the actions of Abraham as normative for today. In short, when New Atheists ask whether or or not I would sacrifice my own child if God told me to, my answer is simple: You are asking an irrational and unfounded question that has nothing to do with Christianity. Maybe you should be careful in trying to prove points without looking at all the evidence.
1 By New Atheists I refer to those modern atheists who do not believe that societies should simply tolerate religion but should actively counter religion through rational arguments. Representatives of this group would include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.