My Violent God

I heard a radio discussion about people who use the violence in the Old Testament as an excuse for terrible acts of abuse. As we know, it’s also true that the violent acts done by and on behalf of God, and recorded in our Holy Book, are a rich source of material for atheists wishing to ascribe to Christianity a deep-seated immorality and malevolence.

I wanted to make this the subject of a small group meeting, and I wanted to start by playing this ten minute broadcast, but when I started my preparations, I couldn’t find the programme.

What I found instead was a different, and wonderful, podcast from Ancient Faith Radio, in which Father Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox Christian, talked about many aspects of Old Testament violence, and gave it a context and meaning that I had never heard before. As this is one aspect of God’s word that I have struggled to understand for many years, I am very encouraged, and grateful to Fr. Tom for his insights.

You can listen to the entire podcast, which is just under an hour long, or read a transcript, here, but below I have written an abridged version. 99% of the words are Fr. Tom’s, while I have shuffled the order sightly, and provided section titles. If what you read below interests you, then I encourage you to listen to or read the original which has far more depth and detail.

The Violence of Man

We can speak of the kinds of violence that we find in the Bible. First of all, there’s the violence and the murdering that comes simply from sin. Human beings are sinful, and they kill each other. And the very beginning of the Bible is that. Cain kills Abel. That’s how humanity starts. You have Adam and Eve apostatizing, rebelling against God, refusing to love God by keeping his commandments, listening to the devil, being cast out of paradise, and then all the enmity and the strife and the hostility enters the human race, the human beings are given over unto death in enslavement to the earth, and then Cain kills Abel, one kills the other.

Now, in the Old Testament, you also have violence and killing done as a kind of vindication by human beings against evils done to them. Like, for example, in Genesis 34, when Simon and Levi kill Shechem and they kill all the males in the land and they plunder the whole city and they take all the women and the children and everything because Shechem has violated their sister Dinah. You return the evils by evils in order to vindicate your righteousness against the unrighteousness of those who harmed you.

The Violence of God

Then you have another issue in the Old Testament Scriptures to deal with, and we’ll see how the New Testament resolves all this, but God himself does acts of violence.

A Response to Sin

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy the earth.” And then he tells him to make this ark, which is a prefiguration of the holy Church. That’s what the New Testament Scriptures say clearly, in the letter of Peter, that Noah’s ark prefigures baptism and the ark of salvation is the Church.

The point we want to see here is that you have violence, and then what happens is God acts pretty violently. So that’s another thing that you have in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Bible. When people sin against God and do evil, God renders evils to the people. He destroys them. So in the time of Noah, he just drowned everybody.

An Act of Rescue

Then you have that wonderful statement in the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, where the Lord through Moses says to the people, “Listen, have faith, stand firm, be quiet, be still, I will fight for you. I will fight for you, and this very day, you will see the Egyptians perish before your very eyes. I will save you. I will rescue you. I will deliver you.” And in the Old Testament, that meant a violent act of salvation in, literally, killing the enemies. And God is killing the enemies all the time in the Old Testament. That’s what he’s doing day and night, so to speak, and some people are scandalized by it, but the Bible reader, in the light of Jesus Christ, would say, “What was God to do? How else was he going to proceed? He’s dealing with a violent world where people are killing each other all the time, and in the names of their gods they’re killing each other.”

Evidence of His Power

Now, in the Passover exodus story, eight times you have that expression with these plagues that God says, “I am doing this that you may know that I am God, that you may know that I am your God, that the nations and the Egyptians may know that I reign over all creation, and that you may know that I am the only God that there is.” So the violence in the Old Testament and the violence of God himself against his enemies—because those people who are enemies of Israel, they are enemies of him—here we should see that the warfare in the Old Testament is not so much, so to speak, a warfare between peoples. It’s a warfare, actually, between gods. It’s the one true and living God fighting against all the false gods and all those who are evilly inspired into idolatry by those false gods, by the powers of evil, by the demons.

Evidence is Needed

There’s a great Protestant thinker, a theologian named Karl Bart, who said, “Until God can establish his power over the false gods, until he can show that he can kill and make alive, that he can cast down, that he can raise up, and that he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, then God cannot really show mercy.” Because if he would show mercy without showing his power, people would think that he didn’t have the power, and that’s certainly a teaching of the Old Testament. God has to establish his power, and the way you establish your power is by killing your enemies. Sadly, that’s the truth.

An Act of Cleansing

But the most amazing thing is that God says to his own people in the Old Testament Scripture, “I am against you. I am against you, because you are trusting in horses. You think you can manipulate me. You think that because I told you you are my people that you can do whatever you want and you can be unrighteous and sinful and break that Law and not keep the commandments and not keep the Sabbath or anything else.”

So here you have the violence of God, which is needed, first of all, to preserve his people from their mortal enemies on earth and then at the same time to preserve the righteousness of his people by even showing his wrath and anger against them.

So you find all of this in the Scriptures, all this kind of evil and murder and going-on, and it’s there all the time.

The Power and the Mercy

Now, if that were the last word, then we would really have a scandal on our hands, but for Christianity that is not the last word, as we will see in a second and as we already know, I hope. In Jesus Christ, you do not have that any more. You have a radical reversal of God’s activity, because once he has established his power, then he can send his Son to show mercy and to show what the power of God really is, which is the power of truth, the power of righteousness, the power of love, which is absolutely, fully, completely, and totally revealed in the Cross of Christ and in the crucified Messiah.

Because in the Bible, all of this is done, Orthodox Christians would believe and Bible readers who read the whole Bible would believe, all this violence was done so that God’s fidelity could remain, so that his soteriological plan could be completed, which means his plan for saving the world, for sending Christ, for redeeming, for forgiving.

What people have to realize is we are all God’s enemies in some way. Jews and Gentiles, whoever we are, we are those who are in need of the mercy of God, and the Gospel of God in Jesus is he shows mercy on all.

Violence Against God

Christ sheds his blood on the Cross for everyone that Yahweh killed in the Old Testament. Everyone that was killed in the Old Testament in any way, whether it was Jephthah’s daughter who had to be sacrificed because he made a vow, whether it’s that concubine who was chopped up into twelve parts and sent through Israel, whether it’s the ravishing of the young maidens outside Sodom and Gomorrah and in other places in the Bible, whether it’s Cain killing Abel, whatever it is—all those murders, all that violence—that is all subsumed in the flesh of Christ on the Cross, and he endures it all. And it is God Almighty that is in human flesh that’s enduring it in order to have mercy on all.

Now here I would say this very clearly: if God did not so love the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, that those who believe in him would not perish, and if he did not give the opportunity for everyone to repent, and if the final judgment, when the Lord appears in glory, is not the moment of truth when anyone can finally repent of all their ignorances and their evils, their passions and their crimes, and if God did not die for everyone and shed his blood for everyone without exception, then we would have real problems with the murders of the Old Testament. All that violence would be nothing but scandalous violence. But the scandal for Christians, the scandal of the Cross replaces, so to speak, heals all the violence of men, even the violence of God himself that he had to perpetrate in the Old Testament in order for his plan to be completed for the Messiah to come.

Conclusion – Eternal Violence

Now, will God kill and destroy his enemies, ultimately, in the coming kingdom? Well, the ancient Christian scriptural answer is no. He will have mercy on everybody. But still, people may not accept that mercy, and then God’s love and his truth and his righteousness and his blood will torment them, and they will be tormented forever and ever if they blaspheme the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. The demons and the evil people who love the demons and hate God, they will suffer from the mercy of God forever, and that’s the fire of hell. But God is no longer destroying. God is no longer destroying. People are destroying themselves by opposing the righteousness of God.

So we read about the violence and the murder and the killing and the violence of God and the violence of people and the sinful violence and the unrighteous violence, but then the necessary violence that is necessary for God’s plan to be completed, we read about all this in the Old Testament. We see it fulfilled in the non-violent Christ, who as a Lamb is led to the slaughter and opens not his mouth, who is denied justice, who takes upon himself the sin of the world, and who dies for all those for all those who have died in any way, and he dies even for those whom God himself has killed in the Old Testament, because the final word does not belong to death. The final word does not belong to destruction. The final word belongs to mercy and forgiveness. The final word belongs to resurrection and life. The final word belongs to the peace of God, not the violence of God.

So let’s think about these things, but let’s know for sure that all that violence of old was necessary to produce the Christ, and then the Christ comes and takes the violence upon himself and forgives everyone everything. And that’s the teaching of the Gospel. And the victory of God ultimately is one when his Son dies the most violent, degrading, horrible death on the Cross. So for Christians, we preach Christ crucified, scandal to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but the wisdom and the power, the ultimate wisdom and the ultimate power, of God Almighty himself.

It is a thing most wonderful

It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from heav’n,
And die to save a child like me.

And yet I know that it is true:
He came to this poor world below,
And wept and toiled and mourned and died,
Only because He loved us so.

I cannot tell how He could love
A child so weak and full of sin;
His love must be most wonderful,
If He could die my love to win.

I sometimes think about His cross,
And shut my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails, and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.

But even could I see Him die,
I could but see a little part
Of that great love, which, like a fire,
Is always burning in His heart.

It is most wonderful to know
His love for me so free and sure;
But ’tis more wonderful to see
My love for Him so faint and poor.

And yet I want to love Thee, Lord:
O light the flame within my heart,
And I will love Thee more and more
Until I see Thee as Thou art!

William Walsham How (1823-1897)

My Redeemer

Oh, that my words were written!
Oh, that they were inscribed in a book!
That they were engraved on a rock
With an iron pen and lead, forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
And He shall stand at last on the earth;
And after my skin is destroyed, this I know,
That in my flesh I shall see God,
Whom I shall see for myself,
And my eyes shall behold, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!

Job 19:23-27

Today we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, Christ Jesus. What would His crucifixion have meant without His resurrection? I don’t know. This is what I know: the grave couldn’t hold Him, He conquered death, and proved that we too can enjoy an everlasting life, free from death’s curse.

God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

Matthew 22:32

Separation from God is death, and eternal separation from God is Hell. When you understand that disobedience of God’s commandments is what separates you from Him; and when you understand that as hard as you try you can never obey Him as completely as you want, or need, to; then you might lose all hope.

You reject all those who stray from Your statutes,
For their deceit is falsehood.

Psalm 119:118

But God knows our weakness, and provides the means of salvation for all of us.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

John 3:16

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6

The meaning of Easter is so profound and so broad that I simply can’t do it justice here. It is the essence of the Christian faith, and it is the real source of the Christian’s hope.

Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.

Mark 15:38

There is no longer any separation between man and God. Man only has to reach out and he finds God’s hand is there, grasping his tightly. Safe, solid, loving, healing hands.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

John 14:6

Only Jesus can pay my debt, heal my wounds and give me life. Thank you Jesus.

Belief and Understanding

I don’t know the preacher’s name but he said something last Sunday that I want to share with you because its truth struck me so forcefully. I won’t be as eloquent as he was but I’ll do my best to get his point across.

“I’m not here to explain God to you,” he said, “because I’m not able. God is too marvellous, too amazing and too mysterious. But He can explain himself. If you believe in Him then He will help you understand. But if you try to understand before you believe then you are putting a barrier between you and Him.”

I know it’s easy to scoff at people of faith who can’t explain why God would do this or allow that. But if you just for a minute accept the possibility of a Creator, then you have to immediately see how far beyond our intellect and understanding He must be. And hence how small and lacking we are in comparison. How futile it is to try sometimes, like an insect trying to figure out what a human being is all about.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8, 9 NIV)

Of course we want to understand, but let’s start from a position of humility, first understanding our limitations and His sovereignty.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10 NIV)

There is so much to learn, but there is one truth to hold in your heart, one blessing in God’s word that will transform your life and release you from all kinds of shackles.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 NIV)

Believe, and then be amazed and delighted by the new understanding you are given.