Would a God of Love Order a Stoning?

Fierce debate between the religious and the secular over the justifications for God-ordered executions in the Old Testament sometimes ignores the morality of the method of execution itself.

That is, Jews and Christians argue that in the early age of human history, it was right and just for a God of Love to order his people to murder non-virgin girls, homosexuals, nonbelievers, disobedient sons, people who worked on the Sabbath or criticized God’s laws, and so on (see Absolutely Horrific Things You Didn’t Know Were in the Bible); atheists and agnostics argue such orders make any (manmade) character an immoral monster — doubly so because later generations (after the intervention of Christ) were told to love one another as a response to such “sins,” meaning anyone born in the early days was simply terribly unlucky (see Either God Changes or He’s Psychotic: Comparing Testaments Old and New). The debate then ends in a stalemate, naturally, and no one gets around to arguing over whether a loving God would select a stoning as the best method to carry out judgement.

And select it he does. In the bible, stoning is explicitly God’s idea. Take Leviticus 24:13-14: “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring the one who has cursed outside the camp, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head; then let all the congregation stone him.'” Other directives to stone nonviolent people, supposedly given by God to Moses in Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and elsewhere, are numerous and easy to find.

So say for a moment that disobedient sons and the like did indeed deserve execution for their crimes, because they disobeyed God’s laws. We can give believers the benefit of the doubt for a moment and say the Judeo-Christian god exists and that ending a sinner’s life (and presumably sending him or her straight to hell) was appropriate, moral, and just. Now the question arises: how should the execution be carried out?

A loving, all-merciful deity would surely choose a method of execution less painful than stoning. He would probably order methods of instant death, or at least its attempt. Why not have the strongest man in the village smash the victim’s temple with an iron tool in an attempt to kill her immediately, in one blow? Why couldn’t the Hebrews march the sinner up to a cliff of such a height that it might guarantee death on impact? Why not hold the sinner down and suffocate him? It’s not instant, but it’s better than a stoning. And wouldn’t you rather be drowned than stoned to death? That’s also an option. Surely you’d choose a hanging, too, if given a choice. Even decapitation, with its risk of the victim living a few heartbeats after the blade comes down, seems preferable.

But no, even with less painful and quicker possibilities on the table, the deity of the bible goes with stoning — the method used by the likes of the Taliban and ISIS! It wasn’t enough that men, women, and children had to die for working on a particular day of the week. They had to suffer as well.

Such things are important to ponder. Perhaps God is not as merciful as you. Indeed, he is clearly not “all-merciful.” An all-merciful deity would be as merciful as any being (including us) could possibly be or even imagine at every given moment! Platitudes about how “God’s ways are not our ways” and “You can’t judge God using your own morals” do little to erase the facts of the case: God could have ordered less painful methods of execution, but chose not to. That says a great deal about his character. Either religious persons worship a being that is not all-merciful or perhaps, like so many other gods, he is simply a manmade fiction, and death penalty by stoning was simply primitive people behaving primitively.

We will never know how many people died by this brutal method because of the words of a deity in a scroll. But in the age of cellphones and cameras, we can get a sense of what it was like, this chosen punishment of the Almighty.