“In the cities of the nations that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes…as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
These words give most of us pause when we read them – and they should. The problem of a God who responds to evil and injustice with violence, and who even commands certain people to do so as an instrument of his judgment, is a difficulty most of us feel strongly when we read this and other portions of the Bible. I want to acknowledge that for most, this is not an issue of casual, philosophical speculation, detached from the day to day. For most of us, this issue touches at the nerve center of fundamental questions: Is God actually good? Can I trust the God of the Bible? Without pretending to offer easy “solutions,” I hope this article helps give you reason to believe in the goodness and trustworthiness of God.
There are two broad approaches you can take when dealing with troubling portions of scripture. The traditional approach, what almost all would consider to be the “historically orthodox” approach, is to see scripture as being true in all it communicates, since it is a disclosure of God and by God. This leaves Christians to wrestle with what it means for God to condone certain instances of violence, while still maintaining that it is really God who did it and approved of it. The second approach is to cast doubt on the trustworthiness of what is communicated about God in the Bible. This approach is increasingly popular, though I believe significantly flawed in light of what the Bible itself says about its reliability. Before moving on to see what sense we can make of violence in the Bible, I want to look at this second approach and point out what I believe is its fatal flaw.
The Trajectory Approach
This second approach removes the tension we feel when we wonder if God is good by reevaluating violent depictions of God, seeing them as earnest but misguided attempts by an ancient people to understand God and his will. Often referred to as the “trajectory” approach, it’s a view embraced by teachers and pastors like Brian Zhand, Rob Bell, Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren, and others. This view starts with seeing the stories and teachings of the Bible as representing a progressive movement through the history of the Hebrew people, culminating in the arrival of Jesus Christ – a belief shared among all Christians. Proponents of this view go further, however, and claim that what we see in Jesus is so radical that we have to understand it not merely as a progressive development, but in many ways as a decisive break or shift in the presentation of God. As Brian Zhand says in his book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, “Jesus is what God has to say.” Jesus represents a startling development in the presentation of the character of God – though not an entirely unanticipated one. Again, Zhand writes:
“The role of the Old Testament is to give an inspired telling of how we get to Jesus. But once we get to Jesus we don’t build multiple tabernacles and grant an equivalency to Jesus and the Old Testament…Jesus saves the Bible from itself!…Jesus delivers the Bible from its addiction to violent retaliation. Moses may stone sinners and Elijah may kill idolaters. And so violent holiness can be justified as biblical. But for a Christian that doesn’t matter. We follow Jesus!”
The Old Testament, along with some portions of the New, are viewed as presenting “contradictory” and “discordant” views to those of Jesus. Assumptions were made by the Israelites in the Old Testament that now need to be abandoned. The Bible argues with itself from passage to passage, presenting many wrong ideas about God, and attributing things to him that aren’t true. Christians are called to side with Jesus in this debate. In the words of the late scholar C.S. Cowles, Jesus introduces “an entirely new rewrite of Jewish theology.” This is not to say that all of the Old Testament is wrong, which proponents of this view would quickly point out. The story is simply one of a primitive people encountering God in an increasingly clear way, struggling to understand him as they evolve beyond their Bronze Age misunderstandings – a long, historical trajectory that ends at Jesus.
This approach is tempting, as it seems to allow us to fully embrace and declare the love of God and his concern and care for all people. It seems to allow us to firmly fix our attention on Jesus. Instead of forcing us into a place where we feel the need to look down and shuffle our feet when the more gruesome passages are brought up, we can happily declare that “Jesus isn’t like that!” But as tempting as this might be, I don’t believe this approach finally gives us what we’re really looking for – a truly good God that we can reliably know.
A God We Can Reliably Know
I want to start with the “reliably know” part. The trajectory approach essentially uses Jesus to screen out the parts of the Bible that are troubling or seem counter to our modern day ethical understandings. This immediately runs into a significant problem: Jesus can’t be used as a means of filtering out parts of scripture, because he himself repeatedly affirms the authority of the Old Testament scriptures. Jesus everywhere assumes that the Old Testament scriptures are entirely true and reliable, and in several places he makes this explicit, stating that the scriptures are “unbreakable” (John 10:35), that they all point to and reveal him (John 5:39, Luke 24:27,44), and that even the smallest letter and markings cannot be dismissed, since he came to fulfill the scriptures, not destroy or contradict them (Matthew 5:17-18). Moreover, Jesus himself says some of the most striking things about the judgment of God (Luke 10:13-15, Matt. 22:12-14, Luke 13:27-28, Mark 12:9, Matthew 13:41-42, Mark 9:4-48, Matthew 24:48-51, Luke 17:26-30, Luke 19:27). To pit Jesus against the Old Testament is to pit Jesus against himself, and the trajectory view principle of using a Jesus as a filter ends up filtering out Jesus. If we’re on Jesus’ side, then we have to affirm the Old Testament as true and reliable and approach it with a posture of humility, even as we ask hard questions. If we don’t approach Scripture this way, then we are left to piece together portions of the Old and New Testaments that we are willing to accept. But what does this do to our ability to reliably know God? When we approach the Bible with a pair of scissors, does the reliability of the end product then become dependent on our own reliability? In light of what Jesus has to say about scripture, the historically orthodox approach offers the only solid foundation to move forward. If Jesus trusted scripture, then his followers should do the same.
A God Who Is Truly Good
On to the “truly good” part. There is much that can and should be said about the conquest of Canaan, the commands to kill and wage war, and the harsh, violent punishments for breaking the laws God gives to Israel. These are difficult subjects that do not have easy answers. All of these are tied together and interconnected as aspects of God’s response to evil, injustice, oppression, and cruelty, and each of these deserves its own article. What I want to focus on in this space is the way that God’s response to evil with violence is a source of hope – and how it corresponds to our deepest longings for justice.
In his book The Skeletons in God’s Closet, Joshua Butler helpfully points out that “If there were no sin, God would not be violent. Violence is not essential to his being.” What he means by this is that God’s violence is his response to what the Bible calls Sin – a rebellion against God’s direction and care that brings evil and death into the world. This mutiny leads to every injustice and oppression, every murderous thought and act, all hate and lies, and every twisting of God’s good design in creation. God made his world good, we rejected his design a long time ago, and we reject it still today in little and in big ways.
What lies behind all of the most difficult passages surrounding conquests and lawbreaking is God’s response to the evil humanity has introduced – his plan to make things right again. He does this by taking Israel, a weak and oppressed nation, and rescuing them out of brutal slavery. He uses this nation to judge the people of Canaan – a people who are exceedingly wicked and with whom God has been exceedingly patient. God is so patient with the people of Canaan that he waits for 400 years while Egypt enslaves Israel, since “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15) This was a nation most famous for burning their own children to death as sacrifices to the god Molech. (Leviticus 18:21,24) God continues his plan by establishing the nation of Israel in this land and providing them with a law that will ensure justice is done – not just for Israelites themselves but, as is repeated again and again in the law, for the foreigner within Israel’s borders. God even does this by judging Israel, his own people, when they become as unjust and evil as the nations that used to occupy the land – contrary to any ethnocentric interpretations of God driving out the Canaanites. God seeks justice against any nation that would stand opposed to what is good and true and beautiful, and against any nation that would trample on the poor or the marginalized. God’s plan throughout Israel’s history is to remove what is evil and establish what is good.
God must remove evil in order for good to flourish. God must put away everything and everyone opposed to his plan for justice and peace in order for the earth and humanity to be whole again. But there’s a problem with this plan: injustice does not want to be put away. Oppressive rulers don’t want to be removed from power. And so something must be done. The Bible presents God as a loving King and Father who is willing to do anything to bring joy to the realm, the home of his children – children ultimately not just from Israel, but from every nation. The story of scripture shows us that violence is the effectively just response to a violent and wicked opposition to what is good. That might cause you to wince – it still causes me to. But I also wince when I hear a stories of rape. I wince when I hear about child abuse. I wince when I read about terrible corruption and greed in the highest halls of power. And so does God. And you probably do too. Our culture is increasingly sensitive to and vocal about matters of injustice – we all know that this world is not right, and we often feel helpless to do anything about it. A good God does not wave his hand and dismiss wickedness on the basis of a modern, western definition of love. A good God is passionately committed to making things right, and the longing that you feel when you hear of some horrific or tragic event is the longing for the King to return and “deliver the Kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” (1 Corinthians 15:24) To put it positively, you and I long for the vision of Isaiah 11:9, where “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
The best part is that the story of the nation of Israel I outlined doesn’t end in the Old Testament. Ultimately, God is so good and gracious that he paid the highest price himself in order to bring about this peaceful kingdom. God became man in Jesus Christ and endured torture and death at the hands of the Roman Empire and the religious leaders of Israel. God does not stand far off in his commitment to get rid of evil – he endured the worst evil for us so that he might defeat the most wicked of powers – Sin, death, and Satan – and drive out the evil that is in each of our hearts. Jesus showed he is good and trustworthy when he sacrificed his life for us. Whatever struggles we might face when we’re wrestling with the violence in Scripture, we have to remember that Jesus, God himself, willingly suffered violence to put an end to violence.
God’s Violence and Ours
The problem of justified violence on God’s part leads to an even bigger problem – what’s to stop us from justifying violence and conquest today? This is where this issue comes to a sobering point, since a cursory look at history shows that many atrocities and unjust actions have been rationalized on the grounds of God’s violent actions and commands in Scripture – from the Crusades, to the European expulsion of Native Americans, to the Rwandan Genocide. The Bible, however, makes no attempt to justify its misuse at the hands of wicked people by sanctioning these acts of violence. In fact, it does the opposite. God’s judgment on what is wrong in this world is, to use the words of Joshua Butler, “quite possibly one of the greatest resources for living peacefully in our violent world today.”
Maybe this strikes you as an outrageous claim. How can a God who acts violently motivate us to live peacefully? What we find in the Bible, and explicitly in the New Testament, is that the promise of God’s commitment to put things right in the end is an encouragement given for us to love our enemy and forgive even the most wicked persons. In Romans 12, Paul tells Christians to “Live peaceably with all” and to “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’…on the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” God’s vengeance stays our hand when everything in us cries out for justice and retribution. Christians suffering intense persecution in the first century are repeatedly encouraged in Scripture to endure hardship while loving and seeking the good of their enemies, precisely because justice will one day come. (2 Peter 3:1-13, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12)
In one portion of his book Exclusion and Embrace, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf defends the picture of a God who will come with vengeance, and discusses how this view restrains us from seeking vengeance on our own terms. As a Croatian acquainted with the war, genocide, rape and murder surrounding his homeland in the 20th century, he comes to a sobering conclusion, that “it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die.” These are strong words that challenge those of us who live in a culture where the idea of judgment is offensive – but we would do well to remember that these are unique sensitivities that can in part reflect certain cultural assumptions, along with the privileges of peace we enjoy.
Learning to Wrestle Well
You may be thinking right now of dozens of passages that I haven’t addressed or difficult questions that I didn’t raise. What I want you to hear is that those questions matter, and those passages are difficult. This is one of the most troubling aspects of Christian belief for many of us, and I can’t pretend that this article didn’t raise more questions for you than it answered. For a longer discussion of the subject, I heartily recommend the book I referenced earlier: The Skeletons in God’s Closet by Joshua Ryan Butler. What is important for all of us is that we continue to wrestle with these things. I want to close with the words of Alastair Roberts, taken from a blog post he wrote on the same subject, where he sees the story of Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32 as an illustration of our own struggle:
It is in the difficult texts of Scripture that God meets us, as if an enemy, wrestling against us. Our duty as Christians is to wrestle back, and not let go until God blesses us through these texts. We should, however, be aware that wrestling with such texts, while it can bless us, will leave us with a limp. As we faithfully engage with such difficult texts, we lose the jaunty gait of those who avoid such struggle. (alastairadversaria.com)
We can learn to wrestle with these difficulties well, holding tightly to the surprising and challenging goodness of a God who is on a mission to bring peace and justice to our world.