Matt and Madeleine Flanagan have a wonderful post up to answer this thorny question. These guys are professional apologists, not amateurs, like me! They have footnotes in their post!
If someone asks you a question like this, there are two responses you need to make:
- Explain why the Bible does not condone slavery
- Ask the challenger why slavery is wrong, on their worldview
Let’s start with number 1.
Does the Bible condone slavery?
MandM’s response is based on the writings of John Locke in his “Second Treatise on Civil Government”. Locke based his argument on a reading of Exodus 21, where the rules of “slavery” are defined.Locke’s argument is that the definition of slavery in the Bible is not the same as the slavery of modern times.
MandM quotes Locke’s argument. Then they summarize it:
 If a person is a slave then that person is “under the absolute, arbitrary power of another, to take away his life, when he pleases.”
 The institution referred to in scripture that people could sell themselves into, was not one where they were “under an absolute, arbitrary, despotical power.”
Then they explain some reasons why the indentured servitude in the Bible is not the same as slavery in the last few hundred years.
- there was no kidnapping of an indentured servant, they served voluntarily in order to get rid of a debt
- there was no racial component to indentured servitude
- killing an indentured servant was a capital offense, striking one was illegal
- indentured servitude was for 6 years, not for a lifetime
- if the indentured servant fled from an abusive master, it was illegal to return teh servant to his master
References are provided for each of these points.
So the Biblical concept of “slavery” wasn’t what we mean as slavery when we look at British, Arab, or American slavery in history. Instead, the Bible is talking about indentured servitude.
What’s wrong with slavery, on atheism?
I think a more fundamental question that needs to be pressed on the atheist is whether slavery is wrong on their worldview. I’ve argued elsewhere that worldviews like atheism do not support the minimal requirements for rational morality.
Specifically, atheism does not ground:
1) Objective moral values: where is the standard?
2) Objective moral duties: to whom are moral duties owed?
3) Moral accountability: will I get caught if I am immoral?
4) Free will: are humans capable of free choice?
5) Ultimate significance: does it matter ultimately?
NEVER let atheists get away with making any moral statements, because even though an individual atheist might get lucky and act morally based on the objective moral law that God actually made, their actions are not rationally grounded by their worldview. Call them out!
This actually came out in the comments for MandM’s post, where John W. Loftus, a prominent lay-atheist, chimed in.
Here is a sample comment:
Rob says: (from Manawatu Christian Apologetics)
I presume John Loftus is a born-again atheist? If this is so, then upon what grounds would he criticize slavery at all?
If atheism is true truth, then I fail to see any possible ground that could provide a basis for outrage against moral evil, since moral evil cannot exist.
Indeed, if the universe is material only, then at what time did atoms create morality?
So John Loftus has to assume a Biblical morality to attack Biblical morality, but he would then be rejecting the basis for his indignation at slavery in the South, or any other slavery for that matter. He cannot logically have his cake and eat it too.
I can’t recommend this post and the comments enough. This is a great post and the comments are totally awesome, although you may find them difficult to understand. You will learn a lot from this post and exchange.
I am really impressed with MandM’s blog. Please pay them a visit and have a look yourself.
You may be interested in similar challenges made by atheists that I answered in previous posts.
More questions here.