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Dear catholic.com visitors: This website from Catholic Answers, with all its many resources, is the world's largest source of explanations for Catholic beliefs and practices. A fully independent, lay-run, 501(c)(3) ministry that receives no funding from the institutional Church, we rely entirely on the generosity of everyday people like you to keep this website going with trustworthy , fresh, and relevant content. If everyone visiting this month gave just $1, catholic.com would be fully funded for an entire year. Do you find catholic.com helpful? Please make a gift today. Thank you. Wishing you a blessed Lenten season.

God, Abraham, and Human Sacrifice

Tim Staples

On Twitter, Steve Skojec shares a seemingly troubling dilemma posed by the story of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18):

Yes, God was “serious” when he commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. And there was no sin on God’s part, or Abraham’s, for two essential reasons:

First, God is the author of all life. As Job said so well in Job 1:21:  “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Because God is the giver of the gift of life, he can take that life anytime and for any reason he chooses. He does not have to ask anyone’s permission. Thus, God is not guilty of moral evil even if he were to take the life of Isaac.

Second, God is free to choose to take away any life he so wills either directly or by commissioning men as his instruments. And if or when he wills to use a man as an instrument, the instrument (the man) is not only guiltless when he obeys God, but he acts meritoriously if he carries out the commandment of the Lord for the glory of the Lord and if he is in a state of grace. In the case of government acting as the instrument of God, for example, St. Paul declared,

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God… For [a ruler]… is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-4).

Thus, Abraham would not have been guilty of moral evil even if he took Isaac’s life in obedience to the command of God.

But what about the evil of child (or human) sacrifice—the taking of innocent human life?

The condemnation of the killing of the innocent was quite clear in the Old Testament: Exodus 23:7 says, “… do not slay the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.” But because the Old Covenant represents a period of roughly 1,500 years where God was gradually revealing both himself and his will for mankind, that message was, at times, obscured. As Hebrews 1:1 says, “In many and various (Greek – polumeros, or, “partial”) ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Gr. – en huio, or “in the Son”). God has finally spoken the definitive word of God in and through the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ; so as clear as the law was in the Old Testament, the law is even clearer in the New Covenant. Thus, the killing of an innocent is excluded absolutely in the New Covenant Church. Because the Church is no longer in a period of on-going revelation where the word of God was merely “partial” and still being revealed, and because we are no longer in a covenant where God was still communicating his will in life and death situations like we saw with Abraham/Isaac, our path is much clearer today, morally speaking.

In other words, if a Christian today were to think he hears “God” telling him to offer his child in sacrifice, the response of that Christian should be, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” That is not God. Though God certainly can take the life of anyone he chooses, as I said above, he no longer communicates that authority to his servants when it comes to the innocent.

This is not a case of God changing. Think of the analogy of a father with his children. A good father does not treat his sixteen-year-old the same way he treats his five-year-old. Spanking a sixteen-year-old is unthinkable. But a five-year-old (moderately) is certainly allowable. Analogously, God dealt with an ancient, tribal, and very violent people much differently than he did does today after 1,500 years of teaching them—and then, of course, giving them the fullness of grace and truth through the eternal Son of God.

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