‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’
For those of you who have read Alice in Wonderland, this exchange between Alice and Humpty Dumpty may ring a bell. I know it rings a bell with me, because it has been “used” against me in many discussions/debates I have had about God, especially ones where the appropriateness of God’s actions are called into question.
In these cases, the exchange between myself and the non-believer typically centers around one of many instances in the Old Testament where God pronounces judgment on some “innocents” (typically small children) and commands that they be utterly destroyed. This, according to the non-believer, is not “fair”. After all, a “just” God would certainly never do such a thing, and therefore it is likely that the Bible is not portraying God at all. Rather, it is more likely the case that the authors of these books were trying to scare people into submission by painting God out to be something he wasn’t.
My response to such railing against the Bible is to remind the non-believer that if the Bible is true, that the standard of “just” they are holding God to is entirely inappropriate. It is not up to them to decide what actions are just or unjust for the creator of all that is created. It is not appropriate for them, as creature, to put their creator on trial. Rather, they should let the Bible speak for itself regarding which actions are “just” and which are not.
At this point, the typical response is that I am changing the meaning of the word “just”, just as all Christians do when they get cornered in a debate. The non-believer then launches www.dictionary.com and does a quick copy and paste of the definition of “just” for me, and shares with me that God’s actions are inconsistent with one who is supposedly “guided by truth, reason, justice and fairness” or whatever the definition is that happens to fit their argument the best. If I attempt to argue that their idea of “just” isn’t consistent with the Bible’s definition, they then launch into a diatribe about the fact that words have meaning, and (more often than not) copy and paste the lines above from Alice in Wonderland.
This has happened more times than I can count.
In this example, the non-believer is attempting to demonstrate that the Bible is not true. If we look at their argument as a syllogism, it would look something like this:
(1) The Bible claims God ordered the killing of innocent humans
(2) Killing innocent humans is not fair/just
(3) If God exists, he is fair/just
(4) Therefore, if God exists, he would not order the killing of innocent humans (from 2 and 3)
(5) Therefore, the Bible’s claims are incorrect (from 1 and 4)
Putting aside the question of whether humans are innocent in the first place, is the claim that it is not fair/just to kill innocent humans objectively true? More importantly, is it an objectively true standard that applies to all beings, including God? The question here is one of standards, as it often is. God’s actions are being weighed, which means a standard is necessarily involved. But which standard should be used? Is it appropriate, for instance, for me to come up with my own standard and evaluate the non-believer’s actions against it? Why or why not? Likewise, which standard should God be held to?
The question here is not one of changing the meaning of words at all – it is a question of what standard is to be used. When I claim that it is not unjust for God to do what he pleases with his creation, I am using the same meaning of the word “just” as the non-believer is. I am talking about what is “fair” and “right” just like they are. The distinction comes down to the standard itself that is inherently being appealed to. What types of actions are “right” or “just” for a creator, after all?
In order for the non-believer to support premise (2) above and make their case that the Bible’s claims are incorrect, they ultimately have two options available to them:
1) Demonstrate that there is an objective standard of justice that God (if he exists) can be held accountable to, and demonstrate that it is inconsistent with God’s actions as described in the Bible
2) Demonstrate that the Bible itself presents a standard of justice that God can be held accountable to, and demonstrate that it is inconsistent with God’s actions as described in the Bible
The non-believer must demonstrate either a contradiction internal to the Bible, or external to objective reality. Short of that, the argument comes crashing down.