This topic is adapted from the PursueGOD Video YouTube channel.
Is the God of the Old Testament (OT) evil? Some critics of the Bible say yes. How can God be good if he kills people or commands people to be killed? Isn’t killing the very definition of “evil?” Stories like Leviticus 10:1-3 can be challenging for Christians to interpret:
Leviticus 10:1-3 Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu put coals of fire in their incense burners and sprinkled incense over them. In this way, they disobeyed the Lord by burning before him the wrong kind of fire, different than he had commanded. So fire blazed forth from the Lord’s presence and burned them up, and they died there before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when he said, ‘I will display my holiness through those who come near me. I will display my glory before all the people.’” And Aaron was silent.
Is It Always Wrong to Kill People?
While some people hold that it is always wrong to kill no matter what – an idea that has been debated across the ages – others hold that there are acceptable reasons to kill. Many today would say it is appropriate to kill a dangerous attacker or home invader who threatens your or your family’s lives, for courts to sentence death to convicted murderers, or for military forces to kill on the battlefield. Even the New Testament (NT) acknowledges this to some extent in Romans 13:4, stating that governing authorities “bear the sword” for the purpose of punishment and justice.
The simple answer is that from a biblical perspective, no, it is not always wrong to kill people. At the extreme least, governing authorities are within their rights to kill criminals deserving of capital punishment. In the OT, God killed people, like Nadab and Abihu, and also commanded that Israelites be killed for violating certain portions of the Law of Moses (“torah” in Hebrew) and that a large portion of the Canaanites be killed as well to cleanse the land of Israel.
God is never wrong to kill anyone or to command that anyone be killed. Rightness and wrongness are determined by God’s holiness and God’s will. Sin and evil are violations of God’s purposes and will – whatever those purposes and will may be.
The real question to ask is who is being killed in the Bible and why. Further, we must understand what the biblical narratives are seeking to teach readers.
God Is Holy and Unholiness Must be Judged
The story of Nadab and Abihu highlights God’s holiness. Holiness means many things – God is pure, God is perfect, God is unique – but for our purposes it means that God is “separate” from human beings. God is essentially different from people. We were created good and holy, but when sin entered humanity (Genesis 3) we became unholy and subject to death (Romans 6:23). Humans became different from God and were no longer able to have intimate fellowship with him like they did in the Garden of Eden.
God’s holiness is in fact dangerous for people even since the fall of Adam and Eve, which is why God had instructed Nadab and Abihu to follow his instructions exactly, why Moses was told to remove his sandals when he approached God at the burning bush, why the prophets fell down as though dead when they were in God’s presence, and why Uzzah (2 Samuel 6) died when he touched the Ark of the Covenant. Holiness, which once allowed humans and God to dwell together, has become the force that divides us.
Nadab and Abihu held a special role within the community of Israel as priests of God. This meant that they represented God to people and had a closer proximity to God than the common people. While this came with special privileges, it also came with unique responsibilities. When the priests brazenly disobeyed God by making an impure offering to him, his response was actually a response in kind. By disobeying, Nadab and Abihu both violated God’s holiness and set a dangerous precedent for God’s people. In the same way that putting your hands over a flame will cause you to be burned, so disobeying God’s holiness would lead to death. If God’s holiness is a flame, Nadab and Abihu were much closer to that flame than the rest of Israel and were much more likely to be injured by that flame if they failed to respect it.
Sin Means Death for Us All
Death has come into the world because of sin, and God must judge sin because of his goodness holiness. Sin cannot and will not ultimately exist in God’s creation, which is why the Book of Revelation ends with judgment of sin and destruction of hell and death themselves (Revelation 20:14-15).
Much like how the people of Israel were not able to approach God in the Tabernacle and Temple, so, too, are all people unable to be in God’s presence if they are unholy. Theologians disagree at what point “unholiness” takes place. Some hold that all humans are born under the curse of sin, meaning they are born unholy. Others hold that all humans are born with a proclivity toward sin, meaning that they are not born unholy, but as we age, our corrupted “sin nature” will cause us to be responsible for our sin and become unholy after an “age of accountability” when we violate God’s will and standards. Some have described this as being “sinners by nature and by choice.”
Regardless of who is correct, the primary issue at hand is that God is endlessly merciful with all humanity. Rather than destroying all of us for being unholy and by nature at odds with him, he chose to cleanse us of unholiness by dying sacrificially as the man Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ’s perfect sacrifice, anyone who places their full trust and faith in him can become cleansed of their unholiness and be made right in God’s eyes (Galatians 3:13). God is just, so sin and unholiness had to be judged, but God is also love, so he came himself to take that judgment upon himself.
Written content for this topic by Daniel Martin.
- Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
- What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
- What is something challenging to your about this topic? Explain.
- What is something encouraging to you about this topic? Explain.
- “God is good, people are evil.” Explain why you agree or disagree.
- How do you define “good” and “evil?” Explain.
- Should evil go unpunished? Why or why not?
- Is God wrong to kill people? Was he wrong to kill Nadab and Abihu? Explain.
- On what basis did you decide your answer to the previous question?
- Write a personal action step based on this conversation.