Is God a bully

Book Review: “Is God a Vindictive Bully?” by Paul Copan

3 February 2023

5.4 MINS

This new volume offers us plenty of help in dealing with various difficulties found in Scripture.

Paul CopanIf you are familiar with key contemporary Christian apologists, you would know of Paul Copan. I happen to have 22 of his books, and he has written more than that. If you are up on his work, you know that he has spent a lot of time dealing with critics of Christianity — be they from without (e.g., the new atheists) or within (e.g., leftist and/or liberal Christians).

Several of his earlier books would come to mind here, including How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? Responding To Objections That Leave Christians Speechless (2005), Is God a Moral Monster? (2011), and Did God Really Command Genocide? (2014). I have done reviews of those first two books.

Challenging Questions

In his newest volume, he continues the sorts of discussions found in those earlier titles. In 34 brief but well-argued and well-documented chapters, he looks further at the common sorts of objections and criticisms that are levelled at God. Most have to do with claims that God is some kind of ogre who is not worth our worship and love. Thus he looks at issues such as these:

  • Is the God of the Old Testament the same as the God of the New?
  • How does Mosaic law differ from Ancient Near Eastern laws?
  • What about ‘an eye for an eye’?
  • What about slavery?
  • What about capital crimes in the Bible?
  • Does God harden people’s hearts?
  • Is God sexist?
  • What about polygamy?
  • Is God a God of war?
  • What about the taking of Canaan?

These are just some of the issues carefully and thoughtfully explored in this volume. While each chapter may be only around ten pages long, detailed and important answers are backed up with plenty of references for further reading and study. Let me look at a few of the issues in more depth.

Covenantal Consequences

One thing that bothers even many Christians are the imprecatory psalms. These have to do with God’s people imploring God to restore justice, bring about vindication, and deal with God’s enemies. I have written often on these as well. See here for example.

There are a number of these psalms, such as Pss. 35, 69, 109, 139, and so on. Copan notes how these differed from curses found in the surrounding culture. The psalmists were simply reflecting the curses and blessings God had laid out for His covenant people.Is God a Bully?

Abraham was told that God would bless those who blessed him and his offspring, while bringing judgment on those who did the opposite. So the prayers of the psalmists were reflecting what God had long ago set up for His own people. And these were not cries for personal revenge, but pleas for God to vindicate His people and deal with those who were enemies of God, giving them their just deserts.

When we read of even ‘little ones’ being prayed against (as in Ps. 137), we are reminded that these were not infants, but the offspring of the royal household of Babylon. Although God had used the cruel Babylonians to judge Israel, they would not go unpunished themselves, and God would bring about justice to these rulers and their offspring.

Moreover, these woes that God’s people pray upon their (and God’s) enemies are not confined to the Old Testament. Jesus Himself uttered similar woes. Says Copan:

“Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus himself carries on that prophetic ‘woe’ tradition, most notably when He denounces Israel’s hostile religious leaders in Matthew 23 and chastises cities that rejected His teaching and accompanying signs (Matt. 11:23-24; 24:37-39; Luke 10:13-15).”


Consider also a text which is problematic to many folks. In Malachi 1:2-4, we read about how God loved Jacob but hated Esau. Even Christians wonder how God can “hate” certain people: is He not a God of love? Copan raises six points, which I share here in outline form:

First, the original context of Malachi refers to God’s prerogative to choose one nation over another…

Second, Romans 9 reminds us that a sovereign God can select not only a nation (Israel over Edom) but also individuals (Jacob over Esau) to accomplish a certain task or mission…

Third, these texts don’t indicate that Esau as a person was somehow divinely blocked from finding salvation. Esau’s problem was his own immorality and godlessness — not God’s damning him before he was born (Heb. 12:16)…

Fourth, “love” and “hate” in Scripture are often comparative terms. “Hate” can merely mean “love less.” …

Fifth, God’s choosing Jacob/Israel wasn’t a guarantee of salvation for most Israelites. Early on, most Israelites perished in unbelief in the wilderness (Heb. 3:7-19) — the generation with whom God made a covenant at Mount Sinai…

Sixth, even nations God had not originally chosen would be incorporated into the people of God. The Old Testament mentions nations hostile to Israel that would one day be included as part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) — a promise ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:26-29).

Slaves vs Servants

The thorny issue of slavery is also something Copan devotes several chapters to. Critics say God was pro-slavery, and even in the New Testament nothing was done about it. But Copan reminds us that while slavery was a universal reality in ancient times, Israel’s treatment of slaves — or rather indentured servants — was much more humane than that of surrounding cultures. He looks at some of the provisions of Mosaic law in this regard:

  • Harsh physical treatment of slaves was forbidden.
  • Kidnapping, which was a major part of slavery back then, was prohibited.
  • Foreign slaves were protected from harsh masters.
  • There was a fixed six-year term limit on servitude.
  • Such servitude was NOT based on some notion of racial inferiority.

When it comes to the New Testament, the Roman empire had slavery deeply embedded in its very fabric, and the earliest Christians lacked any power to abolish it within this situation. But the Gospel undermined the very notion of seeing some people as being the property of others. Says Copan:

The claim that Jesus never denounced slavery misses the point of his very mission: Jesus came to set free all who are oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). So obviously he would oppose any institution that dehumanizes and objectifies humans. Likewise, Paul affirmed that in Christ there is “neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28) – all social and class distinctions that once divided lose their power at the foot of the cross. Paul urged slaves to find freedom if possible (1 Cor. 7:21)…

In the Greco-Roman world, household codes were directed at persons having different roles within a household, but these attempted to reinforce the powerful and to keep the powerless in their place. Paul’s Christianized household code is subversive…

God’s Love

While much of this book addresses criticisms and objections that even believers can have about various issues found in Scripture, Copan of course also addresses the non-believer. In the concluding paragraphs of this book, he reminds us that in a sin-soaked, broken, and morally messed-up world, God did not leave us alone. He intervened plenty in the Old Testament, but His primary answer to the ills and suffering of the world was to send his Son. He says this:

We have approached untidy and unsettling (and perhaps some still unsettled) questions. Nevertheless, we see a generally coherent picture of a God who has made a path for reconciling a broken humanity to Himself. Could it be that this biblical story — as former skeptics have discovered — is true and offers a better explanation than the alternative worldviews? In the Scriptures and in Jesus Himself, we find a better expatiation than any other. That is why we look in that direction rather than elsewhere.

The Bible tells us about a God who cares for His creation, and who has done all that can be done to help us in our place of need. Because so many people reject that help, we continue to live in a fractured and evil universe where things are very messy indeed. Copan’s new book does not resolve all the problems and questions we might have, but it goes a long way in at least pointing us in the right direction.

(Available in Australia at Koorong Books.)


Originally published at CultureWatch.

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One Comment

  1. Kaylene Emery 4 February 2023 at 6:29 am - Reply

    I suppose what it comes down to Bill is we are constantly demanding to know why God is not more like us. We see ourselves as so evolved because of our clever achievements and lament that we, would never propose the abomination of slavery etc etc. We believe our own propaganda to our own detriment.
    I am so grateful that He is nothing like me. In my rage I would have ……well in truth we all would have.
    Thank you God for sending us your son Jesus Christ.

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