We’ll conclude our analysis of a Christian defense of God’s barbaric Old Testament rules regulating slavery. Though it’s hard to imagine, it’s time to consider the good side of slavery.
Here’s an angle I didn’t expect: an interest in the upside of slavery.
I’m responding to a recent post, “Did God Condone Slavery?” by Amy Hall of the Stand to Reason ministry. In part 1, I responded to her argument that Jesus updated the Old Testament requirements for divorce because society has matured. She wants to draw a parallel so that slavery is also an artifact of that earlier, primitive society.
(This is the final in a series of three articles.)
The value of suffering
It also needs to be stated that since the Fall, suffering has served an important purpose in this world. God’s highest goal for us is not our comfort, but our more intimate knowledge of, appreciation for, and love for Him.
Our comfort may not be God’s highest goal for us, but the Bible makes some bold promises about God’s promises, from both the Old and New Testaments:
No harm overtakes the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of trouble (Proverbs 12:21).
If you make the Most High your dwelling—even the LORD, who is my refuge—then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent (Psalm 91:5–10).
The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18a).
These Bible verses make clear that God eliminates suffering for the Christian.
As for suffering as a way to love God more, God sounds like a domestic abuser. And that reminds me of the celebration of suffering from Mother Teresa, who heartlessly declared, “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.” Only religion could twist normal human instincts like this.
And what role could suffering have to play anyway? God is omnipotent, and he doesn’t need suffering to accomplish his goals.
Amy Hall vs. Jesus
Hall says that one benefit of human suffering, including slavery, is that it “reminds us of the ugliness of sin.” What I’m reminded of is that the poor living conditions for hundreds of millions of people around the world today make the God hypothesis unbelievable. Either God is nonexistent or he has a lot to answer for.
Notice where this puts Hall compared to Jesus. Unlike Hall, Jesus has an excuse of sorts. He was an Apocalyptic prophet who thought that the end of the age would arrive within the lifetimes of his hearers. He said, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” With the End coming in months or a handful of years, Jesus was concerned with getting people right with God. True, conditions in society weren’t great—remember his concern for the poor and sick—but he was focused on bigger issues. He had an excuse for ignoring slavery.
But Hall is all in, defending slavery as part of God’s plan. I’m certain that she would not want slavery reintroduced into the U.S. today, but how can that be if slavery played so important a role in Israelite society?
Christians eliminating slavery from the world
The existence of slavery taught God’s people both the condition of their own hearts and a crucial truth about their great, good God. This is why it was Christians in the 18th and 19th century who not only worked to see that others were freed from their spiritual slavery, but who also led the way in following God’s desire to free others from physical slavery.
Hall must have in mind William Wilberforce of England, whose Christianity was a driving force behind his work that ended the importation of slaves into Britain in 1807 and then abolished slavery in 1833.
But France abolished slavery in 1794 during the French Revolution, which was emphatically not a Christian regime. What was God’s point with that? And who could possibly imagine the abolition of slavery in Britain in the nineteenth century as the inevitable culmination of an anti-slavery movement that started in Palestine 3000 years earlier? That’s a pathetic addition to the resume of the Creator of the universe when the number of enslaved persons is greater (in absolute numbers) than it has ever been.
Compare God’s imaginary slow-motion elimination of slavery against the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which rejected genocide, slavery, and torture; applied modern rules to marriage; allowed anyone to reject their religion; applied these rights universally; and more. It makes the Ten Commandments look embarrassingly inadequate by comparison.
Hall wants to give God a pass for deeply harmful customs like slavery, lasting not just for decades but for millennia. In contrast to the omnipotent Creator, society can sometimes make quick progress. For example, same-sex marriage was barely an idea for most Americans after the Stonewall Riots, let alone a demand. Today, fifty years later, it’s the law of the land, and 70 percent of Americans approve.
I’m sure Hall as a conservative Christian would reject same-sex marriage as social progress and instead point to the recent leaked Supreme Court draft decision that looks like it will overturn Roe v. Wade, but that’s social change, too. We don’t need to imagine society with training wheels, and this defense of God, that society matures very slowly, fails.
The good side of slavery
Just as Joseph said of his own suffering as a slave, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” slavery did not pass through this world without accomplishing a purpose even greater than the suffering.
Does it actually seem like Mankind’s benefit from slavery was greater than the harm? Tell that to the more than 12 million slaves shipped to the New World from western Africa. This is nothing more than a statement of faith, and it must be one of the most weakly evidenced statements of faith in all of Christianity.
Hall has been dealt a poor hand, and she’s trying to make the best of it given the presumption of Christianity. If instead she followed the evidence without precondition, I wonder where she’d go.
If there is a God, his plan is very similar
to someone not having a plan.
— Eddie Izzard