Monthly Archives: January 2018

Trump’s Decision on Jerusalem

January 2018 Pulse

On 6 December 2017, US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced plans to relocate the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. This move not only overturned more than seventy years of US Foreign Policy. It also has the potential to inflame tensions and de-rail the peace process, threatening the prospects of an amicable solution to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Some Christians in America and elsewhere – including Singapore – see this move as a confirmation of their own reading and understanding of Scripture, especially in relation to Israel and Jerusalem. In America, some conservative Christians also see this move as the President making good the promise he made during his 2016 campaign when he said that this would be one of his first acts as president if he won the election. However, despite the media portrayal that evangelicals have only one position concerning Israel (and Jerusalem), the fact is that there is a broad range of viewpoints.

This paper seeks to briefly present a perspective on the significance of the city of Jerusalem according to Scripture. The paper also seeks to present what I consider to be the most reasonable approach to the status of Jerusalem, given the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

A Brief History of Modern Jerusalem

Before discussing the significance of Jerusalem from the standpoint of the Bible, it would be helpful to appreciate the contours of the history of modern Jerusalem. Understanding this history would also enable us to see why many have viewed President Trump’s decision as controversial and provocative.

In 1948, when the state of Israel attained independence, Jerusalem was a divided city. The western half became part of the new state of Israel, while Jordan occupied the eastern half of Jerusalem, including the Old City. The early Israeli leadership accepted the idea of international control of Jerusalem, and explored possible alternatives for Israel’s capital. Most foreign governments set up embassies in Tel Aviv and avoided Jerusalem.

The 1967 Six Days War radically changed the situation as Israel occupied the eastern part of Jerusalem and the suburban neighbourhoods, sparking an international outcry. This is because by occupying eastern Jerusalem, Israel has violated international law cemented by a series of United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions that defines the eastern part as the inalienable part of Occupied Palestinian Territory. In 1980, Israel unilaterally declared a united Jerusalem as its capital. Most experts in international law are of the view that Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of Jerusalem, which modifies its status, is illegal.

In December 2009, the Foreign Affairs Council states that the EU ‘will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties’. It urged Israel to cease all settlement and dismantle all illegal outposts. In concert with the international community, the EU states that ‘if there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states’.

It is therefore not difficult to see why President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his intention to move the US Embassy there is not only controversial but provocative. As some have rightly argued, relocating the US Embassy to Jerusalem is tantamount to recognising the city as the undivided capital of Israel. This is certainly how the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu sees it.

In addition, this move could be seen as signalling the United States’ approval of Israel seizing the city by force. Put differently, it could be seen as a challenge to the international opposition to Israel’s claim of Jerusalem by military victory. Such an act could threaten the peace process whose progress requires the avoidance of provocation by all parties. It has the potential to destabilise the region.

Christian Perspectives on Jerusalem

Some Christians have applauded President Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocate the US Embassy there. This is not surprising, given the prominent place that Israel and Jerusalem occupy in the Bible. In this section, I will briefly discuss a popular view espoused by some conservative Christians on the significance of Israel. I will call this view ‘Christian Zionism’. I will then offer an alternative reading of the Bible and present a different perspective on Israel in general, and Jerusalem in particular.

Christian Zionism

Christian Zionism may be described as a theological vision in which much spiritual significance is accorded to the modern state of Israel and Jerusalem. Christians who embrace this vision are mostly theologically conservative, although they are of different stripes – from dispensationalists to charismatics. These Christians have a very high regard for Scripture as the written word of God, and it is from within its pages that they get the sense of the unique place that Israel – and ipso facto Jerusalem – has in the plan of God. From this premise they developed the view that Israel enjoys an exceptionalism that sets it apart from the rest of the world.

The Christians who embrace this vision believe that the promises that are found in the Old Testament, especially those made to Abraham, are still relevant today and apply to the modern state of Israel. For them, passages like Genesis 17:8 (‘And I will give to you and your offspring … all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God’) provide the political mandate for Israel’s privileges that she enjoys even today.

These Christians also maintain that God will destroy all who inflict harm on Israel, taking as their basis God’s promise to Abraham recorded in Genesis 12:3 (‘I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’). This is also understood as the mandate to bless modern Israel. And one way in which this can be done is to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Some Christians also believe that the promotion of the significance of Jerusalem would set the stage for the Second Coming of Christ.

Earthly and Heavenly Jerusalem

 While I recognise the commitment of Christians who take this approach and embrace this vision, I am of the view that their interpretation of Scripture is fundamentally flawed. This has influenced their view of the significance of Israel and Jerusalem. In what follows, I will offer an alternative hermeneutics and a different evaluation of the significance of Jerusalem.

The first question that invites attention is whether it is hermeneutically and theologically legitimate to argue that the promises contained in the Bible about ancient Israel apply to modern secular Israel. Christians who embrace Zionism in one form or another defend the legitimacy of this hermeneutical assumption, but many Christian theologians and exegetes from the time of early Fathers of the Church have maintained that this approach is fundamentally unsound. In addition, in modern times this hermeneutics has been used to fuel political agendas that are questionable from the standpoint of justice and human rights.

At its root, this hermeneutics fails to appreciate the proper relationship between the Old and the New Covenants. Christians must read the Old Testament in light of the New, and not the other way around. Referring to the practices and festivals associated with the Old Covenant, the apostle Paul wrote: ‘These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ’ (Colossians 2: 17). In failing to embrace this important hermeneutical assumption, some Christians arrive at the wrong conclusions about the prophecies of the Old Testament and their application to the modern state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem.

The failure to understand the relationship between the Old and New Covenants has also led some Christians to hold the view that the promised land is an end in itself, when in reality it is merely a foreshadow of the future redemption of creation. In fact, the place to begin our consideration of the image of the land in the Bible is not the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:1 as some Christians maintain. Rather it is the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2). That paradisiacal land was lost because of the Fall – that rebellion of human beings that led to their alienation from their Creator. Seen in this light, the land promised to Abraham is simply a foretaste of heaven – a prefigurement of the transfiguration of this fallen reality into the new heavens and the new earth that God will bring about at the consummation of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus Christ.

In the same way, the earthly Jerusalem – the city in the Middle East that sits on the plateau in the Judean Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea – is not an end in itself, but points to the heavenly Jerusalem that will descend from above (Revelation 21:9-27). The author of Hebrews presents this insight with great eloquence and power when he writes:

10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Hebrews 11:10-16, Emphasis mine).

God has prepared for those who belong to him a city, a real, heavenly city that will endure throughout eternity – the true homeland that Christians press towards. This is the place that Jesus said he would prepare for his disciples, and to which he will bring them when he returns (John 14:1-3). This is the place where Christians have their true citizenship (Philippians 3:20), the New Jerusalem that descends ‘out of heaven from God’ (Revelation 21:2). It is the goal to which they strenuously strain towards, ‘forgetting what lies behind’ (Philippians 3:13), Thus, although the earthly Jerusalem is important for Christians, it is the heavenly Jerusalem that they long for.

A Jerusalem for All

Even though it is the heavenly Jerusalem that Christians long for, the earthly Jerusalem is and will continue to be their religious and emotional capital. But Christians must not forget that Jerusalem is also the religious and emotional capital of Jewish and Palestinian life. It is the third-holiest city in Islam (after Mecca and Medina). Thus Jerusalem is shared and revered by three religions and two peoples.

Just hours after President Trump announced his recognition of the city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Christian leaders in Jerusalem issued an open letter warning that the move could have dire consequences. It reads:

We have been following, with concern, the reports about the possibility of changing how the United States understands and deals with the status of Jerusalem. We are certain that such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us rather farther from the goal of unity and deeper towards destructive division.

‘We are confident’, it adds, ‘that, with strong support from our friends, Israelis and Palestinians can work toward negotiating in a sustainable and just peace, benefiting all who long for the Holy City of Jerusalem to fulfil its destiny’.

I resonate with the sentiments expressed by these Christian leaders in Jerusalem, and agree with their view that just peace in the region can only be achieved by the political process and by patient negotiation. I also concur with these Christians leaders that Jerusalem is for Jews, Christians and Muslims and that ‘it can be shared and fully enjoyed once the political process helps liberate the hearts of all people, that live within it, from the conditions of conflict and destructiveness that they are experiencing’.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Ritual Matters

January 2018 Credo

Humans are ritual animals. Their deepest ideas and feelings are not just communicated in words, but more deeply in actions, signs and symbols. In fact, in many Asian societies, it’s mostly actions. Traditional Chinese and Japanese don’t say “I love you” to their wives and children, but they show their love through a variety of ritual actions.

The evangelical emphasis on “word” may actually deprive us of our capacity to express our faith more fully in word and ritual. We have tended to reduce the Christian faith to a set of principles like the “Four Spiritual Laws”.

It is not coincidental that the magisterial Reformers understand Word and Sacrament as constituting the church. John Calvin’s definition is perhaps representative: “Whenever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there…a church of God exists.”

The theology underlying this affirmation is the Incarnation. The Logos takes on human flesh. The glory of God is revealed in a way that we could see and touch. Christ in the flesh is the Sacrament of God; through him we can see and touch the God who is otherwise invisible. The Incarnation shows that material and spiritual are not inherently opposed as in Greek dualism, but that the physical can ‘contain’ the spiritual. It is in the context of sacramental theology that we can appreciate the importance of rites.

Sacred rites are not “add-ons”, something extraneous, used for illustrative purposes. This is the way a lot of exclusively word-centered Christians tend to understand rituals. For them, rites are merely visible words or object lessons.

The necessity of rites can be seen in the fact that there is always a gap between concepts and actual practice, not because our practice falls short of our grand theories and concepts, but quite the opposite: our concepts always fall short of actual practice. This is being increasingly recognized even in the practical fields of economics, management and social planning. No matter how well we plan and provide guidelines and procedures to cover as many scenarios as possible, they always fall short of what is actually practiced by people on the ground. Practices are more complex than what planners could anticipate.

Most of us living in housing estates in Singapore are familiar with the meticulous ways the estates are planned. But one thing that these planners seem to have failed time and again is in the layout of footpaths. Residents often don’t use them; instead, they find more efficient ways of getting around by creating their own well-trampled footpaths across lawns and fields. We could say that these residents, in their daily walking ‘rituals’, have instinctively found a better way of getting around that the planners could not foresee. Ordinary people have a kind of practical knowledge that no amount of planning could cover.

In the second half of the 20th century, a number of postmodern philosophers have highlighted the importance of practice. They have shown that there is an irreducible knowledge that comes from embodied practices which cannot come through verbal-rational expressions. Among them, I will highlight the theory of practice by Pierre Bourdieu.

Most of us tend to think that we start with thinking and follow it up with practice. Thus in traditional pedagogy, we often are told that we must first learn the theory and then apply it in practice. But Bourdieu says that practice itself is an irreducible, precognitive form of knowing, not just a consequence of prior thought. We see this, for instance, in the way children are socialized into a community. They begin by practicing speaking before they learn the grammar of speech.

Practice or bodily action and interaction is a way of knowing. Practice forms habits by which we make sense of our world. These acquired habits are formed unconsciously in cooperation with others in community. This is very much like the way the liturgy works. Orthodox Christians understand this truth well by not segregating worshippers according to age groups. Segregation (which is what many Protestant churches are doing as a matter of course) will inevitably result in the failure to socialize their children and youth into the church as a liturgical community.

In short, Bourdieu’s theory of practice implies that we are all liturgical animals. Rites form habits which shape our thought patterns and worldview.

Bourdieu’s theory of practice is especially important in our present world shaped by the IT revolution and the Internet. In the internet world, there are many practices shaping our thought-patterns and worldviews without our even being aware of it.

But the internet world is a jungle. There are the good, useful, even beautiful, but also the ugly, the flippant and the downright evil. All of these are accessible to anyone at their fingertips—literally.

Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith warns us that the seemingly innocent smartphone may be training us ritualistically to “a heretofore-unimagined level of intimacy with machines”. It unconsciously inducts users into the secular story that says “I am in charge,” and in the end they become “more like Milton’s Satan”. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the poet had Satan holding a conference in hell and proclaiming: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!”

This is the kind of world that millions are inducted into via the Internet: “We are in control; we have the freedom to choose whatever we want to do, see and hear. What I feel is who I am.”

But the ‘freedom’ of the Internet comes at great cost: First, the new grammar of the Internet has so cut off its devotees from the literary traditions that they are no longer able to read the “great books” that represent the best of our human heritage, including the Bible. Second, with a largely under-developed capacity for face-to-face conversation, they have also lost the ability to engage deeply with others.

Rites do matter. But what kind of rites is the modern church inducting its members into in its segregated “contemporary” worship with its frivolous songs and flaky sermons? If the current generation of church leaders is sowing to the wind, the next generation will reap the whirlwind.

Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, Pentecostal, and Third World theologies at Trinity Theological College for 27 years. His most recent publication is Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (IVP Academic, 2014).

Christianity and the University

January 2018 Feature

When the early modern universities were established in Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries, they were centres of research, expertise and progressive thinking. During those times there was a characteristic thirst for knowledge of all kinds (e.g., law, medicine, science, mathematics, rhetoric and theology) and academic freedom in speech and writing was supremely sacrosanct.

Many pioneering university academics were also devout Christians and their works were inspired by, and often inseparable from, Scripture. Indeed, we can envisage a time when the university was the place where discipleship and learning combined uniquely into a single entity: scholarship in the name of human and spiritual advancement.

In many cases, today’s global universities are equally prestigious and studious but their connection with religious and spiritual matters has either declined, disappeared or never existed. For some, these are matters of grave concern.

In his impactful book titled, Ministering in the Secular University: A Guide for Christian Professors and Staff,1 author Joseph McRae Mellichamp, identifies two reasons for what he calls the ‘demise of Christian thought in universities.’ These are: (i) the inability of academics to agree on the appropriate role of Christianity in their contexts, and (ii) the lack of engagement by Christians in the fight to keep Christian ideas in the university’s marketplace of ideas.

Mellichamp continues with a stinging reprimand: “Christian professors and, to a lesser extent, staff have stood by and allowed Christianity to be pushed aside often without “lifting a finger” or, more literally, “raising a voice” to oppose what was happening.’

In my opinion, even though Scripture teaches us to submit ourselves to our leaders’ authority for Christ’s sake (Hebrews 13:7; 1 Peter 2:13), one of the biggest challenges facing Christian communities on university campuses today is the silent acquiescence of the ways of the secular, pragmatic world in the belief that ‘making waves’ is a barrier to full professorship.

When we acquiesce, we passively accept something without necessarily consenting to it or we accept something without protest. At its worst, is acquiescence any different from surrender?

At times, it seems like a self-inflicted paralysis borne, I think, from a lack of alternatives. We just ‘do’ (or not) because we have no other viable means of doing otherwise. This surely isn’t the Christian way given the urgency and necessity of the gospel.

Christian Engagement with the University

As Christians we are commanded to go in Jesus’ name to spread the good news and God’s peace (Matthew 28:18-20, John 20:21). The great commission applies equally to professors, researchers and staff at universities. As influential and respected members of society, Christian professors especially have many precious opportunities to witness for Christ in their offices, classes, meetings and writing.

Vinoth Ramachandra2 of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students ( suggests a two-pronged plan for Christian engagement within universities:

  • Forming learning and witnessing Christian communities, comprising students, researchers, faculty and administrators, who engage courageously and dialogically with the diverse academic disciplines and conversations that constitute university life (this entails the crossing of status hierarchies and replicating in universities what can be done in local churches); and
  • Seeking to influence universities so that they become more human-friendly, just and ecologically-sensitive spaces in which to study and work. This implies that we care about the moral, intellectual and spiritual flourishing of individuals, and also of groups and systems.

Undoubtedly, this is an ambitious and far-reaching proposal with great transformative potential. But I would add two conditions relating to its implementation.

First, we need to understand that unlike informal conversations that can quickly pass, true dialogue is exploratory and helps build lasting relationships. Second, I believe we need even more action to unite Christianity and the University over the long-term.

While I fully recognise and support the ministries and evangelism of Cru (, IFES, ALPHA ( and other on-campus small groups, they crucially need the intellectual, spiritual and moral support of others both within and beyond universities to be meaningful and successful.

As an illustration, there are necessary roles to play and functions to perform by the Church through regular intercessory prayer for teachers, professors and students, individual supplications and small-group meetings that model and inspire local missions and community (koinonia); by Christian parents and friends through encouragement, shepherding resources and modelling dialogue on widespread issues; and through schools and society (more broadly) by fostering an active concern for justice, equity, epistemology (the theory of knowledge, especially concerning its methods, validity and scope, and the distinction between justified belief and opinion) and ethics (the moral principles governing a person’s behaviour and actions).

Universities are, and will continue to be, sites of tremendous personal, communal and professional growth. They can also present us with opportunities to teach and learn in unexpected and totally surprising ways but we have to be open to, and prepared for, God’s calling and the Holy Spirit’s empowering for this to happen.

I’m suggesting that this preparation in terms of content (theological and discipline-based), and qualities of mind and character, might best begin at an early age and must be continually supported by others outside of the university.

Of course, some might disagree. For sure, God can and does work in miraculous ways on campuses and I have read several uplifting testimonies from students who came to Christ while at university through evangelistic outreach and then went on to serve the Lord after graduation in various work-place appointments.

However, in my experience, testimonies from university professors and members of staff about coming to Christ through their work and living out the Christian life on campus are far less popular or common. That’s a pity.

In closing, I believe the quality, extent and influence of Christianity at the university should be a priority for the Church because what happens there often carries over into a myriad of other professions in the public square where there is high contact with other people (e.g., teaching, medicine, law, social work etc.).

For whatever reasons, Christian professors and other members of staff at universities face a crucial fork in their professional and spiritual journeys.

One path unites vocation, work and ministry in biblical terms.3 Along the other lies fragmentation and sterility that comes from forcing our work and faith lives apart.

The choice is ours: in one direction lies our duty and our joy, the other is potentially burdensome and often too harsh to bear.



  1. Mellichamp, J. McR. (1997). Ministering in the secular university: A guide for Christian professors and staff.Carrollton, TX: Lewis And Stanley.
  2. Ramachandra, V. (2016). Christ and the university. In Engaging the campus: Faith and service in the academy (pp. 37-65). Singapore: Fellowship of Evangelical Students.
  3. Stevens, R. P. (1999). The other six days: Vocation, work and ministry in biblical perspective.Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Dr. Phillip A. Towndrow (Ed.D., Durham) is a church lay leader with extensive experience in small group work, discipling and Christian education. He is currently a teacher, teacher-educator, and educational researcher at a tertiary-level institution in Singapore where he specialises in New Media Literacies, Teacher Professional Learning, and Pedagogy and Classroom Practices. Phillip is also the author of the ETHOS Engagement Series booklet, ‘Education and Society: A Christian View of Education in Singapore‘. 


January 2018 Pulse

In recent years, there has been a revival of enthusiasm for space and planetary exploration. This is undoubtedly sparked by hype generated by the activities of international space agencies and the discoveries of planets orbiting around other stars, some of which bearing Earth-like conditions.

In 2015, the Boeing Company was awarded its first commercial crew rotation mission by NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme (CCP). It aims to launch the first capsule to the International Space Station (ISS) by late 2017, thereby signalling the dawn of the era of commercial human spaceflight.

There is even serious interest in the possibility of terraforming a planetary body (Mars being the most suitable candidate) or planetary ecosynthesis. According to the iGEM Valencia Team, terraforming a planet has to do with the ‘hypothetical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere composition, temperature, topography, or ecology to be similar to those of Earth to make it habitable for Terran organisms, including humans’.

Space colonization is attractive because we are becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of Earth, in terms of space and resources. Some have argued that space colonies could even prolong the survival of the human species.

‘Earth will remain habitable for a few billion more years’, explains Seth Baum. ‘Stars will continue shining for about 1014 more years. That gives us an additional 105 times more energy, for a total of 1023 times more energy that is available on Earth … And even if our current universe eventually becomes uninhabitable, it may be possible to move to other universes’.

The rapid expansion of space exploration raises so many moral issues that a new field of ethics – variously described as space ethics or astro-ethics – is emerging. While each of the endeavours mentioned above would raise its own set of ethical questions that demand serious consideration and robust debate, space ethics as a newly minted discipline also throw up a number of fundamental philosophical and methodological issues that must be adequately addressed.

For example, what should be the basis of a plausible ethics of space exploration? Can the earthbound moral concepts that we work with be extended and fruitfully – if analogously – applied to astro-ethics? Which concepts are applicable, and which ones are not? How should they be analogically applied, and what are the limits of such approaches?

In addition, space ethics should also be self-critical of those habits of mind that have unconsciously shaped our moral reasoning and influenced our ethical decisions. For example, an anthropocentric ethics would have no difficulties with space colonization as long as such enterprises promise to benefit human beings.

In similar vein, space ethics forces ethicists to be critical of a geocentricism that would cause us to abdicate our responsibility towards wider space ecosystem(s). For example, an Earth-centred or Earth-only ethics would have no qualms in supporting an asteroid mining industry even if pollutes outer space – as long as it improves conditions on Earth.

The space environment has already been seriously affected by our space projects. We have littered space with countless debris that may eventually be detrimental to the space ecosystem(s).  Mark Williamson provides these harrowing examples: debris from spacecraft and upper stage explosions in LEO; debris from launch vehicle separation devices in LEO and GTO; growing population of defunct satellites in GEO graveyard orbits.

What approach should space ethics take? Should space ethics be deontological, consequentialist or utilitarian? Should it be seen simply as an extension of environmental ethics?

A Christian space ethics must be undergirded by a robust doctrine of creation and an equally profound theological anthropology. That is to say, it must take into consideration the integrity of the universe that God has brought into being and our human role as God’s vice-regents.

The closest analogy to a Christian extra-terrestrial ethics would therefore be an environmental ethics that is informed by the Christian vision of reality.

This means that a Christian space ethics must critique the anthropocentrism and geocentrism alluded to above, and work instead on the basis of the purpose and goal (telos) of the Creator for human beings and the created order they are a part of, as revealed in Scripture. The familiar principle of responsible stewardship, so central to Christian environmental ethics, must also be the guiding principle in extra-terrestrial ethics.

These considerations have profound bearing on a number of issues related to space exploration. Space allows us to briefly consider one or two issues.

Take space colonization, for example. A Christian extra-terrestrial ethics informed by the theological considerations delineated above would not categorically prohibit space colonization. But it would insist that space colonization could only proceed if the colony does not harm or destroy the indigenous biota and ecosystem of the colonised planet.

What about research ethics? Researchers and explorers must exercise responsible stewardship by self-imposed constraints. As Dan MacArthur and Idil Boran put it in their discussion of agent-centred restrictions: ‘… priority should be given to the constraints humans ought to impose on themselves, even (and especially) if they do not know the nature of the given object of exploration (say, a primeval ecosystem) and the consequences their actions may have for this object’.

This kind of self-discipline and humility, however, is rare, if current proclivities evident in biomedical and biotechnological research are reliable indications.

Space exploration has raised many important issues that must be taken seriously and publicly debated. Christians should actively participate in this debate and bring to the discussion their profound vision of reality that is informed and shaped by Scripture.


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Divine Genocide?

January 2018 Credo

At a recent Ethos Institute conference on ‘Justice and the Common Good’, a participant asked how Christians should interpret the so-called violent passages of the Old Testament that record Yahweh’s command to the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites. One example of these haram (Hebrew for ‘destroy’) passages is Deuteronomy 20:16-18:

But as for the towns of these people that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.

Atheists have used this and similar passages in the OT to mock Christians and the God they worship. For example, in his book The God Delusion the atheist scientist at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins asserts that ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it, petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’.

Some scholars, like Raymond Bradley, Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, even go so far as to extrapolate that the Bible commands Christians to kill innocent human beings. In making this assertion, Bradley is merely echoing the view of the late Christopher Hitchens, who maintained that the barbarism of the Bible is because it was written by ‘crude, uncultured human animals’.

Christians should roundly reject these uninformed and unsophisticated readings of these passages. How, then, should Christians read and interpret passages like Deuteronomy 20?

An Occasional Command

Firstly, we must recognise that there are different types of commands in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. There are commands in the OT that are meant for every human being, not just for the ancient people of Israel. Examples of such universal commands include the prohibition of murder and theft in the Decalogue (Exodus 20: 13, 15). These commands are meant for every person, at all times and in all places. Obeying such commandments would result in the flourishing of human societies.

But there are other commands in the Bible – which scholars describe as occasional commands – that are meant specifically for certain individuals or for the ancient people of Israel. For example, in Genesis 12, we read about the call of Abram: ‘Now the Lord said to Abram: Go from the country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’. This is an occasional divine command in the sense that it was given to Abram alone. No one reading this passage today would conclude that God is calling him or her to leave the Ur of the Chaldeans.

There are also commands that were meant specifically for the ancient people of Israel. A good example is the dietary laws in the Torah. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, we find a series of laws concerning clean and unclean food. Deuteronomy 14 sets the context for these laws in this way: ‘For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all peoples who are on the face of the earth. You shall not eat any abominations’ (vv 2-3). It then provides a list of clean and unclean food.

These dietary laws were given in order to set God’s covenant people apart from the other nations in the Ancient Near East. They are not universal in the sense that they do not apply to all peoples at all times. This is made clear by the fact that Israel was allowed to sell these prohibited foods to the sojourner and foreigner (Deuteronomy 14:21).

The command to ‘destroy’ the Canaanites found in the haram passages of the OT is also an occasional command. This command was given to the ancient people of God, as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. It was confined only to the seven nations that were occupying Canaan, and did not apply to the nations beyond it. In fact, Moses explicitly prohibited Israel from conquering other neighbouring nations (See Deuteronomy 2:4, 9, 19; 23:7).

As Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan have rightly pointed out:

The command to Israel to destroy the Canaanite nations, according to the biblical text, is tied to Israel’s special status as a nation chosen by God to be a treasured possession – a status rooted in his covenant with Abraham and the patriarchs. On the face of it, this is not a general command to all people, Israelite and gentile.

This command therefore cannot be understood as a general command for Israel to exterminate people who belong to other nations. It certainly cannot be interpreted in the way Bradley and Hitchens have suggested, namely, as a divine sanction for Christians to kill innocent people.

Whose Land?

Atheists have routinely accused Israel – and therefore Israel’s God – of injustice because of the divinely sanctioned programme to exterminate or drive out the Canaanites from the land that rightfully belonged to them. However, it should be pointed out that the land of Canaan belonged to Israel, and not to the nations that were occupying it at the time. The title to the land belonged to Israel, and the peoples who have made their home there were illegal occupants.

In Genesis 12, Yahweh called Abram to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go to an unknown land. But in Genesis 17:8 we read: ‘And I will give to you and your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God’. Gordon Wenham notes that ‘this is the first time its title “Canaan” has been used by God, and the description of it as “the land to which you have migrated”’. He adds that the ‘tenure of the land is dependent upon the overarching goal of the covenant: “I shall be their God”’.

Thus, the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, belonged to Israel because it was given to Abraham and to his offspring for ‘an everlasting possession’ as part of God’s covenant. Israel did not steal the land from the seven nations in Canaan. Israel took back the land that was rightfully theirs from its illegal occupants.

The Sins of the Canaanites

It is quite fashionable for atheists like Christopher Hitchens to describe the texts that we have been discussing as accounts of the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites in fulfilment of the divine command. The United Nations Commission of Experts defines ethnic cleansing as ‘rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of a given group from the area’. The expulsion of the Canaanites by the people of Israel cannot be strictly described as ethnic cleansing because time and again the relevant texts stress that it was on spiritual and moral grounds – not ethnic ones – that the command was given.

Consider the following passages:

  1. ‘They shall not live in your land, or they will make you sin against me; for if you worship their gods, it will surely be a snare to you’ (Exodus 23:33).
  2. ‘You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice. And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods’ (Exodus 34:15-16).
  3. ‘You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 20:18).

OT scholars generally agree that it was because God wanted to protect his people from the corrupting influence of the pagan nations with their idolatrous and immoral practices that he sought their displacement.

The abominations practiced in Canaanite idolatry do not only include occult practises like witchcraft and sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) but also cult prostitution (Deuteronomy 23:17). But the most reprehensible practice of the Canaanites is child sacrifice. Here are the descriptions of this Canaanite practice:

Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bull-headed idol with human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed that would be burned to death … And it was not just infants; children as old as four were sacrificed.

A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as it laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.

Commenting on Exodus 23:33, John Durham notes that in this passage, ‘the singularity of the devotion expected by Yahweh is stressed. Israel is not to covenant with the people of the land’. The Canaanites must be displaced in order to ‘prevent their influencing Israel against Yahweh primarily by the advocacy of their gods: service of these gods, in any manner whatever, would constitute an entrapment of Israel’, he adds. On Deuteronomy 20:18 Duane Christensen writes: ‘The aim of the harsh policy in destroying the Canaanites is to prevent the people of Israel from doing “according to all their abominations”’.

Extermination or Expulsion?

 While there are indeed a number of passages in the OT that describe God commanding the Israelites to ‘kill’ or ‘destroy’ every inhabitant that resided in the land of Canaan, a closer look at the relevant passages (in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Joshua, Judges and Numbers) will lead one to discern a more complex picture. Alongside the commands to exterminate the inhabitants of Canaan are the commands to expel them. In fact, many OT scholars maintain that the command to expel the Canaanites is more dominant than the injunction to utterly annihilate them.

In Deuteronomy 7:2 we read: ‘… and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them’. It seems quite clear from this passage that Yahweh has given an explicit command to the Israelites to completely destroy the inhabitants of Canaan.

But in an earlier passage in Deuteronomy, the language of expulsion – not extermination – is used. Thus, In Deuteronomy 4:37-38 we read: ‘And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after then and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you the land for a possession’ (Deuteronomy 4:37-38).

In chapter 6, the language of expulsion is used again: ‘Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you, thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord promised’ (vv 18-19).

This is repeated in a number of other passages in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 9:1, the Israelites were told that they were about to ‘cross the Jordan today, to going in and dispossess nations that are mightier than you …’ The text goes on to say that because of the wickedness of the occupants of Canaan, God will ‘thrust them out before you’ (9:4-5).

Again in 18:12, we read that ‘… it is because of such abhorrent practices that the Lord your God is driving them out before you’. This idea is repeated yet again in 18:14, which says: ‘Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so’.

The juxtaposition of the texts that speak of extermination with those that command expulsion warrants a more nuanced reading of the so-called haram passages.

After carefully examining these passages, Copan and Flannagan came to the conclusion that the ‘text … continually and repeatedly states that the Canaanites will not be exterminated in the sense that the Israelites are to kill every single man, woman, and child in Canaan. Rather, it states they are to be driven out’. ‘[T]he language of “destroy” or “annihilate”’, they added, ‘is typically in the context of gradually driving out the nations – or of nations fleeing from before the battle is joined’.

Rhetorical Hyperbole

Joshua 10 and 11 record the victory of Joshua and his army over the inhabitants of Canaan. On the surface of it, it appears that Joshua took the command to exterminate the Canaanites literally.

Joshua 10:40 records the victory thus: ‘So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel has commanded’. We get the same picture from Joshua 11:21: ‘At that time Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns’.

However, when we turn to Judges, which gives an account of the same conquest, we get a different picture. In Judges 1:21, we are told that the Jebusites were not entirely driven out, not to mention exterminated or destroyed, and that they have even assimilated with the Benjaminites in Jerusalem. But it is Judges 2 that gives us with the clearest contrast to the Joshua passages above:

… I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died … the Lord left those nations, not driving them out at once, and had not handed them over to Joshua (vv 21, 23).

The passages in Judges not only show that Joshua had not ‘utterly destroyed all that breathed’, but that he and his army did not even drive all the inhabitants of Canaan out. Furthermore, Judges 2 has Yahweh declare that he ‘will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died’ (v 21).

Just as the commands to exterminate the Canaanites are juxtaposed with the instructions to expel them, so the accounts of total annihilation are juxtaposed with passages that indicate that huge numbers remained even after Joshua’s death. Scholars like Brevard Childs have long noted the tension between the two accounts.

How, then, should we read the haram passages?

Scholars like Copan and Flannagan argue that these passages should be understood as hyperbolic. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘hyperbole’ is ‘an exaggerated statement, not meant to be taken literally’. When we carefully consider all the passages that describe the divine command and the conquest, we are inexorably led to conclude that the language of extermination or annihilation is hyperbolic, and should not be taken literally.

As Copan and Flannagan put it:

Taken together, these points give persuasive reasons for thinking that one should interpret the extermination language in Joshua 1-12 as offering a highly figurative and hyperbolic account of what occurred. It seems sensible to conclude that the language of ‘leaving alive nothing that breathes’, ‘leaving no survivors’, and ‘putting all inhabitants to the sword’ is not meant to be taken literally.

The historian of the Ancient Near East, Lawson Younger, Jr. and Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen have shown that there are profound similarities between the war accounts of other Ancient Near Eastern nations and that of Israel as recorded in Joshua. As was the convention of the day, these texts liberally employed rhetorical hyperbole in their respective conquest accounts.

To say that the haram passages are written in hyperbolic language is not to suggest that the divine command and the conquest of Joshua are fictitious. Rather, it is simply to acknowledge the fact that they are described in extravagant language. To recognise that the haram passages are written in hyperbolic language is to acknowledge the specific genre of these passages. Sound biblical exegesis and hermeneutics require that the different literary genres in the Bible be judiciously identified and interpreted accordingly.


The New Atheists and other authors have used the haram passages in the OT to argue that the Christian God commanded his people to commit genocide and other atrocities. This is a serious misreading of these passages. It has led to scathing misrepresentations of the Christian Faith and the Bible.

I hope that this brief article will help Christians (and anyone who is genuinely interested) achieve a clearer and more nuanced interpretation of the passages in the Old Testament.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.