When we confront books in the Bible like Joshua, its really easy to sympathize with those who doubt whether God is truly good. How can God wipe out entire nations simply to advance His mission? Is it really fair that he kills entire people groups but spares Israel simply because they are His favored people? These questions and many others aren’t easy to dismiss when we approach the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua.
In all honesty, though many valiantly attempt to justify God’s commands by highlighting the wickedness of the nations, I don’t feel like that approach is altogether helpful. The reality is that Israel often looked just as wicked as the other nations and didn’t get treated the same way. So, how can the kind of destruction commanded in Joshua be just?
There are so many important things to contribute to this discussion. Understanding morality in an Ancient Near Eastern context, situating the conquest narrative within the larger narrative of scripture, and understanding the covenant faithfulness of God to his people and the ultimate purposes he is achieving through their preservation are all very important points to consider – I just don’t have the bandwidth to address them here. For a more detailed treatment of the questions, read this.
However, the one piece of the question I want to address is the problem of the question itself. If we are going to travel down the various streams the question opens up, we have to start from the right place.
My intention is not to be insincere, but the reality is that we often are unaware of the kind of inverted assumptions we carry with this sort of moral question. What we do is impose our own standard of goodness and righteousness and then measure God’s actions against it. As Van Til’s apologetic method emphasizes, we always carry presuppositions in our inquiries toward God. If we want to understand the God of the Bible, we have to take him seriously for who He says He is. It does no good if I question the goodness of God but I am unwilling to recognize that He claims that He is the author of goodness. This isn’t circular reasoning, its reasoning that is fair to the rules of the game. If God’s goodness is wrapped up in His God-ness, then the questions before us isn’t “Is God good?” but “Is He consistent with who He says He is?” and, therefore, “Do I trust Him?”. Maybe the answer to the final question is “no”. If so, that’s a whole different discussion. As we consider the goodness of God, we have to remember that His goodness and His God-ness are inseparable. His goodness doesn’t need to make sense within the historically narrow, morally foggy-eyed, and culturally fluctuating definitions of goodness we often subscribe to.
The reality is, where we sit philosophically in history makes a lot of sense of the sort of questions we’re asking. Following the 16th and 17th centuries, we began to prioritize the function of Aristotelian reason and the ability of the human mind to dissect and break apart the objects we encounter and rebuild them like scrap-carpenters. Descarte’s mantra, cogito ergo sum, set in motion the deification of the human mind. Reason became the filter through which we observe, categorize, and measure our world. However, when we approach God (who is the maker of human reason) we have to admit that 1) our reason is affected by the Fall like every other part of us; its broken, polluted with selfishness and sin, and inadequate to ever exhaust a full knowledge of God and 2) rationalism and reason-centric inquiry has limitations. To conceive of knowledge as an exclusive activity of the mind is to compartmentalize the entirety of the human being. We are more than our minds. We know God through experience, community, knowledge, trust, physical interaction, etc. The ascendancy of reason in our society over-against the reality of God is historically arrogant and near-sighted. It looks sneeringly at generations who have come before us. If post-modernism has taught us anything, its the limitations of the age of rationalism.
Therefore, as we approach the question “is God really good?” we need to be aware that there are blind spots in our ability to reason. God’s goodness doesn’t stand or fall on whether it passes seamlessly through our rationalistic framework. We’ve got to understand that his goodness isn’t a matter of propositional consistency; it’s a matter of character consistency. The better question to ask is “Are God’s actions consistent with His character (who He says He is)?”. This question forces us to wrestle with more than human reason; it forces us to wrestle with whether or not we trust Him.
There are pages more to be said concerning this topic, but at the end of the conversation, for Christians, our goal is wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is fear, not reason. If we are going to believe in the goodness of God, we aren’t going to get there by measuring his goodness against the grid of our own conceptions. We will get there by trusting that He is who He says He is, and if the biblical narrative teaches us anything, its that God keeps his word and shows Himself to be good.