Have you ever been told, "It was right for that time/for those people," or perhaps, "it was justified because the people God ordered to be killed were evil?"
If so, you may have encountered the conundrum I'm going to explore today: These consequentialist justifications for God's morality can only be true if, in fact, morality is not "objective" but rather "consequentialist."
If "killing is always wrong," inherently --- or "objectively" --- then no amount of consequentialist ethics can ever change that. It would be just as wrong for God to kill thousands of people in the Old Testament as it would be for you or I to kill one, today. But even the sixth commandment --- "Thou shalt not murder" --- implies a consequentialist ethical standard. "Murder" is defined here as "unjust killing," or sometimes as "killing with hatred." The exact definition does vary, but the point is clear: "Do not kill without good reason or proper justification." The very idea that a proper justification exists assumes a consequentialist view of ethics; with true objective morality, there is no "reason why" something is bad, it simply is, and any act which further encompasses that act is also "bad." So right off the bat, the presumption of a "justifying circumstance" assumes somewhat of a consequentialist view.
Either that, or there are millions upon millions --- well, we might as well say infinite --- "objective laws" and "technicalities" which render acts "good" or "bad" --- killing is "okay" if someone is holding your child hostage and there is no other way to save your child, etc. --- but if this is the case, then there is no way for us to discover such truths. They are simply "laws for the sake of laws," and we would have only the "moral information" which was literally granted to us directly by whatever force created them. Which sounds all fine and dandy until you realize, this means we have no way of judging guilt or innocence in complex moral cases --- the best we could do is say, "did they steal? Stealing is bad, so kill 'em." There would be no mitigating circumstances because such circumstances would imply a "leniency" or tendency of change within the so-called "objective law."
Others still try to tautologically define whatever god does as "good" by nature. As has been stated for centuries, this invokes Euthyphro's Dilemma:
Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?
Of course, the versed apologist will simply say, "Goodness is god's nature, god is both judge and executioner." Which simply makes no sense --- god has to be two entities to justify this (otherwise it is a tautology), and yet no apologist willing to use this argument will also accept that god is anything other than a united, supreme, single consciousness. If god is goodness and goodness is god, then that's great, but it still tells us nothing about god. When we tautologically define words into each other like this, we end up turning the very words capable of describing them into tautologies! We might say "god is good," but what does that mean if either word can be replaced with the other? We must still default to yet a third term --- call it "benevolent" --- to describe him. But in order to satisfy the apologist, the term must still be vague enough such that it can be tautologically defined into this nonsense loop of "god's goodness" --- otherwise, if the term is too specific or descriptive, we can judge god's character against it, which demonstrates that there is a standard higher than God, by which we judge God's moral character. And of course, no "god-fearing Christian" will ever be willing to admit that! Hence, any term which could theoretically be used to describe his character, must in some way be tautologically defined *into* his character, lest it take the form of a higher standard outside of God, against which he could be judged.
Tying this back to my original point, though....there are two main routes the apologist takes when defending Yahweh's murderous tendencies in the OT:
(1) "It was okay back then, but not now."
This just screams "subjective moral standard." It implies not only that morality is not essentially objective (because it is not rooted in some quality inherent to the action being judged), but that God's moral standard is arbitrary and subject to change based on his whims. A perfect being that changes? Why is there a need for God's standard to change if it is "perfect?"
(2) "It was okay because those people were evil, and God was passing judgment on them."
I have two responses to this one. First is, please note that in every instance of genocide and massacre in the Old Testament, God and his prophets command the Israelites to kill everyone --- man, woman and child --- and to leave no survivors. This is stressed multiple times, all throughout Deuteronomy and Joshua. And in Genesis, God tells Abraham (in the midst of a rather comical-in-hindsight exchange that drags on for a moment) that he will not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah "on the count of [even] 10," referring to the number of innocent souls within the city. God says, in other words, that he will not destroy the city if there is an innocent soul inside. He then proceeds, of course, to destroy the entire city, with all its men, women and children.
All apologetics aside, stop and think about that for a minute: what city exists, say, today, whose inhabitants are all worthy of death and destruction --- even children? Sure, the Christian says we are all worthy of damnation, but let's be realistic: is there any city that exists today, whose inhabitants you would deem "evil" enough to unanimously destroy? Even the children, who aren't even old enough to really understand what "right from wrong" means? In any sense but the most superfluous, post-hoc "everybody deserves death" blanket justification, this is simply not justifiable. Is there any city on this earth today --- and has there ever been a city --- whose inhabitants are completely, 100-percent "evil" such that even their unwitting children deserved to be stripped of their lives as "judgment?" Sure, if we trust the account of a representative of the guy who *committed* the execution, then of course there was no innocent soul in the city. But then, why do we not see such unanimous resurgence of "sin" today? Even the most "sinful" places such as "Gay California" are generally accepted to have some citizens who do not deserve the death penalty.
I'll talk more about the Sin Complex that Christians have later; for now I want to wrap this point up. Christians claim that "objective morality" exists as an inherent quality of certain actions, such as murder, adultery and idolatry. However, if this is true, then these actions must necessarily be qualities of the actions, not of God or some supreme standard. So God can do nothing to change them. This fits in line with the apologist's view of God as "his own standard;" nobody can defy the thing that defines them as what they are, right? Apparently not even God. It would be circular to do so.
And yet, when we take God's standard and apply it to himself, we see that the "wrongness" of these actions is suddenly taken away! Which means either:
(A) "wrongness" is a quality, not of the action, but of God, which removes any need for us to worry about the "wrongness" of our actions (for we're only doing it to please god....and why is it good to please god? This leads us back into consequentialist ethics!)
(B) that God can add or subtract the quality of "rightness" or "wrongness" from an action at will, which renders his so-called "unchanging objective standard" to be completely and utterly arbitrary; who's to say that he could not decide tomorrow to remove the "wrongness" from the act of murder? There would be nothing stopping him from doing so.
Now, the apologist may see (B) and think, "Well, God couldn't take the quality of wrongness away from murder, because that would violate his nature, which is goodness." But see, this contradicts the premise --- that rightness and wrongness are qualities inherent to deeds. If they are qualities inherent to God, not deed, then we are led back to option (A), which leads us back to consequentialist (not "objective supernatural") ethics. Also, it confuses the terms "right" and "wrong" --- the "rightness" of the action is only "right" because God put it there, right? But then, "rightness" is defined as what is inherent to god! So we're tautologically defining "rightness" as "god's will" without actually describing it! Case in point; refer to my earlier statement: any term which could theoretically be used to describe God's character must, in some way, be tautologically defined *into* his character, lest it take the form of a higher standard outside of him, against which he could be judged.
In light of this, it seems like one big, giant, awfully convenient coincidence that what *happens* to be "right" by God's judgment, just *happens* to coincide with our current, consequentialist view of ethics (at least, with regard to murder, theft, rape, violence and abuse in general, etc.). These are, after all, the "evidence" cited by apologists that God gave us morality --- that murder, theft, incest, etc. are all universally reviled by any society which has ever succeeded, and thus they must have been bestowed upon us by God!
Or maybe we've just built them up using a system that works?
In any case, my original point should be clear by now: if it would be "objectively wrong" for God to command the things he commanded in the OT today, then either (A) God is unjust, because he has done these things in the past, or (B) God's standard is changing, arbitrary, and thus irrelevant to us. If it would not be "objectively wrong" but "objectively justified," then God's standard is entirely hostile to us as humans and should not be adopted as any kind of ethical example by which to lead our lives, or around which to build our societies. If, in the third case, it is wrong by a subjective, consequentialist standard, then it is not objectively "right or wrong" at all, but rather just another product of consequentialist ethics. And if that is true, then we have no need for an "objective God of morals" in the first place.