Did God Really Command Genocide?

By pintswaquinas April 23, 2024

Among atheists, a popular objection to Christianity is the so-called “dark passages” of the Old Testament, wherein God seems to command the slaughtering of an entire people. Even many Christians are troubled by these passages, which include Deut. 20:16-18:

“But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Per′izzites, the Hivites and the Jeb′usites, as the Lord your God has commanded; that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices which they have done in the service of their gods, and so to sin against the Lord your God.”

If our Lord is a God of love, why would He command the killing of an entire people, which seems to include non-combatant children and women?

Here are a few explanations:

1. God has the right to take life. If God has the right to take life, He has the right to deputize others to do so. In other words, He can choose the methods by which He takes life. For example, He sent plagues that probably killed innocent people. He is free to choose the sword as well. While this view is technically correct, it’s probably not the best one to use in a debate with an atheist.

2. These passages don’t literally describe the killing of noncombatants. Instead, they were written several centuries later, using exaggerated warfare rhetoric. This was meant to highlight that the Israelites shouldn’t mix with the other nations. Evidence for the exaggerated rhetoric view comes from the Book of Judges, which states that not all members of the nations mentioned in Deuteronomy were destroyed. This continues in modern times. For example, a friend asks, “How’d the basketball game go?” You respond, “We slaughtered them!” Obviously, you didn’t kill off the team.

3. These passages are provisional. There are elements of the Old Testament that are imperfect and provisional and are meant as temporary rules or directives for God’s people until they reach the capacity to accept the fullness of His law of love in Christ. In other words, God was working with what He had: creatures with free will who weren’t ready to embrace certain truths, including the immorality of slaughtering innocent people in combat.

Of these three explanations, number two is the best one to share with most atheists. However, they all show that our God is not the capricious killer some atheists portray Him to be.


Become part of the Pints With Aquinas community by supporting the show on Locals. Depending on the amount of your monthly gift, you’ll get access to some pretty awesome perks, from the “Morning Coffee” podcast to monthly spiritual direction videos from Fr. Gregory Pine!



Find this mug, apparel, books and more on the official Pints with Aquinas online store.