Ray Comfort, Abraham and “Faith”
I saw this meme yesterday. I responded to the concerning messages the meme and others in the atheist community propagate, namely setting up straw men for the purposes of ridicule and mockery. I thought it would be worthwhile responding to some of the theological allegations in the meme. The meme raises a couple of important questions surrounding Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and the broader issue of following the divine command ethics of God with blind ‘faith’.
How do we understand Abraham’s ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac?
The story of the ‘sacrifice’ of Isaac is found in Genesis 22. To properly appreciate the story, a little context is required. In Genesis 12 Abraham is given incredible promises from God that he will have many many descendants, his name will be great and the whole world will be blessed through him. Yet this seems impossible because Abraham was very old and his wife was barren. Yet despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, Abraham trusted God i.e. had faith in him and ‘it was credited to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15:6). Then, the incredible happens, Sarah and Abraham despite their incredible age, are blessed with a child, Isaac. It seems that God’s promises to Abraham will be fulfilled. Then, a tension in the narrative is created in Genesis 22 when God ‘tests’ Abraham’s trust in him. Tension is created because it appears that it is only through Isaac that we can reasonably see the promises made in Genesis 12 to come to pass. Also, further tension is created in appreciating the character of God – is God really good? Would he really want the sacrifice of Abraham’s child?
Abraham’s faith is unwavering. He trusts God and says in Gen 22 v8, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering’. Abraham is prepared to offer his son but is stopped before he kills him – the Lord does indeed provide a sacrifice. The purpose of the test is revealed in Genesis 22: 16-18 where the promises of blessing and descendants from Genesis 12 are restated.
There are a couple of comments and responses:
1. Abraham never actually sacrifices Isaac. This is very important to note. God was not prepared to let Isaac be sacrificed. Isaac never actually dies.
2. The story does reveal the goodness of God’s character. As noted in point 1, God wasn’t prepared to let Isaac be sacrificed. The narrative tension over the nature of God’s character highlighted above is relieved in Gen 22 verse 12 where God says, ‘Do not lay a hand on that boy. Do not do anything to him’. God is indeed good and will not let Isaac be sacrificed – God’s promises will come to pass. Incidentally, the Bible has many things to say about child sacrifices and the child sacrifices of the surrounding nations are condemned (see for example Leviticus 18:21).
3. This test is unique in the unfolding biblical narrative, not to be applied directly to our lives. In the Scriptures Abraham is the paragon of faith – particularly Genesis 15:6, which is quoted by Paul in Romans (and makes for a significant part of his argument in Romans 4). Yet God’s testing of Abraham was unique in the unfolding drama of the Bible. As mentioned, the testing raised tensions about the way in which God’s promises in Genesis 12 would be fulfilled. Moreover and critically, just because something is described in the Bible doesn’t mean it is prescribed. God NEVER says he’ll ever test our faith in this way.
4. Jesus’ death ends all sacrifice. Most critically Jesus’ death on the cross was the end of all sacrifice – it ended the Old Testament sacrificial system and it ends all bloody sacrifices. Hence if anyone ever asks, ‘will you offer your son or kill a child to test your faith?’ (as this meme does). The response is that this is not a test that God will ever make because he has already offered his own son to pay for our sins. He will never ask for another sacrifice (to test our faith or for any other reason) because the ultimate sacrifice has already been made. Indeed the ‘type’ that has been set up in Abraham and Isaac, a Father offering his Son as a sacrifice finds it’s fulfilment in Christ. As the Father sacrifices his own son, John 3:16, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’. Now Jesus was willing in this plan and he was also divine so it isn’t a case of divine child abuse (a post for another time), nevertheless, the point is clear – Jesus’ sacrifice ends all sacrifice meaning God will never demand a sacrifice to test our faith or for anything.
5. The Euthyphro dilemma is a false dilemma. The meme, through comments like, ‘it isn’t murder if it’s in God’s name’, basically restates the Euthyphro dilemma i.e. is something wrong because it’s already wrong or because God commands it to be wrong? I’ve written elsewhere against the claim that something is right or wrong simply because God commands it. Essentially it is a false dilemma because God’s commands and ethical pronouncements are consistent with his character and consistent with the world. I wrote in the other article:
God creates a moral framework within his creation which is consistent with his character, ‘the world has some imprints of God’s goodness. God has somehow structured aspects of his own good character into the way things work’ (Andrew Cameron, Joined up Life, p153). Hence God doesn’t ‘declare’ something good, something is good because it has been created consistently with his good character.
So there is no way that God would command someone to kill and rape their children because this violates his character and his moral order. Hence the meme hasn’t just distorted Ray Comfort and created a straw man, it has deeply misunderstood the nature of how God relates to the world and his moral order.