Violence in the Bible—How Should We Respond?

What does the Bible teach about violence? Some critics make the case for a moral equivalency between Christianity and Islam, claiming that the Bible is no less violent than the Qur’an.1 Certainly the conquest of Canaan, as described in the Bible, was a bloody one. Some cities like Jericho were put to the sword.

joshuaIsn’t it dangerous to have such material in the Bible? Might not these stories incite Christians to acts of bloodshed or even genocide against others? The answer to this question is a very emphatic “No!”

There are a number of reasons why the conquest of Canaan, and other stories of conflict in the Bible, do not incite Christians into violent acts of insurrection, murder, and genocide.

One is that the account of the conquest of Canaan was entirely situation-specific. Yes, there is a divine instruction reported in the Bible to take the land by force and occupy it: “you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places” (Num. 33:52). However this was not an eternal permission to believers to wage war.

It was for a specific time and place. According to the Bible, the Canaanites had come under divine judgment because of their religious practices, of which, perhaps, the most offensive example was child sacrifice: “And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you” (Deut. 18:12; see also Gen. 15:16).2

The sacrificing of firstborn children by immolating them before an idol (Deut. 18:10) was a persistent trait of Canaanite religion. The Phoenicians were Canaanites, and as late as the second century B.C., the people of Carthage, a Phoenician colony, were sacrificing children to their goddess Tanit. Archeologists have found charred remains of tens of thousands of newborn infants and fetuses buried in Carthage. The practice of child sacrifice made the Romans despise the Carthaginians.

Although the Old Testament does condone the use of force to purge a land of violence and injustice, the Bible’s attitude to such violence is not that it is sacred or holy. On the contrary, King David, who fought many wars with God’s active support and guidance, was not allowed to be the one to build God’s temple in Jerusalem, because there was so much blood on his hands: “You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood” (1 Chron. 28:3).

The conquest of Canaan was indeed a unique moment in the history of God’s dealings with His people. It prefigured a coming day of restoration when evil would be erased from the face of the earth and peace would come. No serious person can suggest that the warring principles involved in securing the Promised Land are to be practiced by Christians today.

Violence is regarded by the Bible as an inherently evil symptom of the corruption of the whole earth after the Fall: “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). In contrast the prophet Isaiah looked forward to the day when violence would be no more: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise” (Isa. 60:18). Astoundingly, and in absolute contrast to the earlier kings of Israel, Isaiah describes the Lord’s anointed as unacquainted with violence: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:9). This prophecy, of course, reaches its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.3

The key question for Christians is “What did Jesus have to do with violence?” When we turn to consider Jesus and His followers, we find a systematic rejection of religious violence. Jesus’ message was that His Kingdom would be spiritual and not political. Jesus explicitly and repeatedly condemned the use of force to achieve His goals: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

As Jesus goes to the cross, He renounces force, even at the cost of His own life: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).4

Jesus’ take on violence was reinforced by the apostles Paul and Peter, who urged Christians to show consideration to their enemies, renouncing personal retaliation and revenge, living peaceably, returning cursing with blessing, and showing humility to others (Rom. 12:14-21; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:20-24).5

If only Christians had maintained this New Testament position down the centuries, the world would have been a better place. The invention of “Christendom” in the fourth Christian century, and the later influence of a centuries-long struggle against the Islamic jihad, ultimately led Christians to develop aberrant theologies which regarded warfare against non-Christians as “holy” and soldiers who died fighting in such wars were regarded as “martyrs.” Thankfully this view of warfare has been universally denounced in the modern era as incompatible with the gospel of Christ.

The New Testament’s teachings on the state continue to sustain the more than 300 million believers who live in over 60 nations where Christians are persecuted. In none of these countries has persecution resulted in Christian terrorism or violent Christian insurgencies aimed at overthrowing civil authorities. On the contrary, China’s 70 million Christians remain loyal to their nation and government, despite 50 years of the most intense oppression. In Nepal it is the Maoists who have been engaging in terrorism, not the half a million indigenous Christians.

The example of the IRA, so often cited as “Christian terrorists,” actually proves our point, because its ideology was predominately Marxist and atheistic. Unlike modern-day jihadists, who constantly quote the Qur’an in their public statements, the IRA terrorists found no inspiration in the peaceful teachings of Jesus of Nazareth!

 

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Endnotes:

Written by Dr. Mark Durie, this article was first published on Kairos Journal. Dr. Durie is vicar of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Caulfield, Melbourne, Australia. He is fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and the author of Revelation? Do We Worship the Same God? Jesus, Holy Spirit, God in Christianity and Islam.

1 For example, in November 2005 Julia Irwin, Labor member for Fowler in the Australian Federal Parliament, presented a speech in the House of Representatives entitled “Religious Tolerance.” Irwin made extended comments on the Bible, comparing it with the Qu’ran:

Those who refer to Muslim fundamentalists may choose to quote from the Holy Koran, and there are passages that might be taken to show a vengeful God. But when it comes to good old-fashioned violence, the Judaeo-Christian God is hard to beat. I will take one example from the Bible story of the Exodus . . . as Moses heads into the Promised Land . . . he is urged [by God] to hack women and children to death, rip unborn babies from their mother’s womb and level the cities.

Julia Irwin, Grievance Debate, November 28, 2005, Hansard Parliamentary Debate, Commonwealth of Australia House of Representatives, No. 20, pg. 60-61, http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au/piweb/Repository/Chamber/Hansardr/Linked/4403-4.PDF (accessed March 6, 2007). See also Kairos Journal articles, “The Qur’an, The Old Testament, and Violence: Part I” and “The Qur’an, The Old Testament, and Violence: Part II”.

2 Additionally, the Bible’s stories of the use of force against the Canaanites are more than balanced by the accounts of the destruction of Israel and Judah by foreign armies. These violent invasions are also described as being God’s judgment, now turned against the Israelites, because they did not distance themselves from Canaanite religious practices. Even the kings of Israel and Judah are charged with practicing child sacrifice (2 Kings 17:7-13, 2 Kings 21:6, see also Ezek. 16:21).

3 In this way the Old Testament sets the scene for the revelation of Jesus Christ, and as the agnostic Andrew Bolt pointed out, “Christianity’s biggest inspiration comes not from the Old Testament, but from the man who gave his name to the religion and made it so very different to what had been before. Jesus Christ’s words, deeds, death and resurrection are the rock on which Christianity is built.” See Andrew Bolt, “Giving Thanks Where Due,” Herald Sun, June 3, 2002, 19.

4 The Sermon on the Mount elaborates several aspects of Jesus’ non-violent ethic. Retribution was no longer acceptable (Matt. 5:38, 39), enemies were to be loved, not hated (Matt. 5:43-44), the meek will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5) and Jesus’ disciples should rejoice when they are persecuted (Matt. 5:10). The Sermon on the Mount has been read throughout most of Church history as statement on personal ethics and not as a statement on whether a state can rightly wage just war.

5 They also allow that the (most likely pagan) civil authorities will need to use force to keep the peace, and this role should be respected (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).



 

Revelation Paintings

I’ve always been intrigued by works of art keyed to biblical texts. In the realm of music, I think of the father and son contributions of Johann Sebastian Bach (e.g., St. Matthew Passion, based on this Gospel’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus) and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (Magnificat, based on Mary’s song of exultation at learning she would bear the Messiah). As for painting, my favorite site is the Arena Chapel on Padova (Padua), Italy, where, in the 14th century, Giotto covered the walls and ceilings with dozens of scenes, from the flight into Egypt to the raising of Lazarus. And, last year, I enjoyed putting together some parable paintings for a seminary magazine, including a Van Gogh Good Samaritan, a Rembrandt Prodigal Son, and a Brueghel rendition of the blind leading the blind.

These were works requiring months and even years to produce, but there is a special type of Christian artistry, works constructed between Sundays for the use in the next Lord’s Day service. In this vein, the elder Bach was known for his prodigious output of worship pieces, where a new cantata was required of him every week (for a total of over 200) when he served as organist of St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig. For instance, on June 24, 1724, he first performed Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (Christ our Lord came to the Jordan), marking the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin who baptized Him in the Jordan River).

With Bach’s example in mind a few years ago, I turned to an artist in the church that I pastored1 for help with my series on Revelation. I asked if he might bring us one painting or drawing a week, and offered him essentially Wal Mart greeter wages. Happy to say, he was game.

Sure enough, each Sunday he showed up with a fresh work, executed on eight-inch-square pieces of drawing paper—some in pencil, some in pen or paint, some with Rev.1bigencaustic techniques, using heated tar and wax. In one instance, he held the paper over a candle flame to capture the look of black smoke. They featured fantastical, symbolic animals, landscapes and cityscapes, saints and stars.2 We pinned them on the wall to the congregation’s right, saw the collection grow week by week (ten in all), and kept them posted long past the series’ end. (They’re now framed on our dining room wall, where we use them for gospel conversation with guests.)

Addressing the Second Commandment in their Larger Catechism, the Westminster Divines condemned drawing any member of the Trinity. Of course, the Commandment goes beyond that to prohibit likenesses of anything whatsoever in “in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). But context is important, for following God’s instructions, the Ark of the Covenant cover bore cherubim sculptures (Exodus 37:7), and Solomon’s Temple featured carved palm trees and flowers (1 Kings 6). The issue was idolatry. Much could be said about this concern, but suffice it to say here that we did not worship the drawings. Rev.5Rather, we extended Revelation’s word pictures into hand-crafted pictures, in order to advance the strong biblical teaching of the destruction of the devil’s works and the exaltation of the saints in glory.

Of course, artists can get it wrong (and often do in their free-wheeling push for drama, novelty, or provocation), but so can preachers. Yes, the Word has primacy, but not exclusivity, and blessed is the church which regularly enlists the fresh work of musicians and artists to serve with the Holy Spirit in magnifying the holy text.

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Endnotes:

1 Dan Addington (danaddington.com)

2 E.g., the winged eyes of Rev. 4:8, the crowned locust/horse/scorpions of Rev. 9:7-10; the frogs of Rev. 16:13; the resurrected, ascending witnesses of Rev. 11:12; the river and fruit-laden trees of Rev. 22:1-2; the burning Babylon of Rev. 19:3; the descending New Jerusalem of Rev. 21:9-21; the rise of prayers from a golden bowl of Rev. 8:3-4; seven stars in the Lord’s hand of Rev. 1:16.

Rev.4

Rev.3

Rev.1


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Drunks, Derelicts and the Unquietable Conscience of John Wesley

On a bright April day in 1743, John Wesley stood preaching to an open-air crowd the great truths of salvation. The rag-tag congregation, who had come out into the countryside to hear this famous preacher, listened enraptured to his message of regeneration and new life. Just then, an old drunk rode his horse into the middle of the crowd, rearing the beast up and shouting all manner of curses and bitter words at the preacher. Wesley, who by XJF384017this time was used to such displays, tried to ignore the man and continue his sermon. That course, however, quickly proved impossible when the fool drew his horse up and, still spewing venom at Wesley and his gospel, tried to run down some of the crowd. People scattered, no one was trampled, and in a few minutes the situation was brought under control. Speaking later to some local residents, Wesley was shocked to learn who the old wobbly drunk was: a clergyman from a neighboring parish church!

After months of open air preaching, Wesley had learned to expect such opposition. Anglican rectors early on refused to allow him to preach from their pulpits, so Wesley finally forsook the beautiful established churches altogether and took his message first to the church cemeteries and then to the countryside. Thousands of hearers followed him, but even there in the remote regions, he could not avoid trouble. Hecklers and other troublemakers hounded him wherever he went, running through the crowds screaming, banging pots and pans together, or even throwing rotten eggs and over-ripe fruit at him to silence his preaching.

Wesley’s message evoked such a vehement response because he called on Christians to do more than merely recite their creeds once a week. He expected the gospel of Christ to change their hearts and, from there, to reform their lives and ultimately their entire society. “Christianity is essentially a social religion,” he said, and “to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”

With that conviction, Wesley publicly addressed at one time or another nearly every social and cultural issue of his day. He took aim, for example, at Britain’s thriving slave trade, calling it the “execrable sum of all the villainies” and insisting on the “equal and priceless value” before God of “every immortal soul,” including blacks. He also abhorred war and worked tirelessly to urge a peaceful solution to the conflict with the American Colonies in the 1770s. He rejected the common notion that religion could be kept separate from business, for unless it was permeated with Christian values and dedicated to Christian goals, Wesley thought, business could not help but be turned to diabolical ends. Wesley railed against the social and cultural degradation of his day, championing the poor, castigating Britain’s aristocracy for wasting and hoarding their goods, condemning the liquor traffic which had reduced the nation’s labor force to a drunken stupor, and rebuking lawyers and politicians for using the law to gratify their own greedy desires. Secular or religious, sacred or profane, no department of human affairs was exempt from the word and command of God.

Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons during his life and traveled more than 200,000 miles, mostly on horseback. When he died at the age of 88, his tireless efforts had made Wesley an internationally revered figure. His Methodist movement had won official recognition by the government, and its influence had spread far beyond the shores of Great Britain.

Wesley suffered scorn for his down-to-earth, practical Christianity, but the Lord used his faithful, persevering labors to build a worldwide Christian movement.  Even if faithful Christians disagree about how exactly to apply the conscience of Christianity to society, all can benefit from a careful perusal of the life and legacy of John Wesley.

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Endnotes:

J. Wesley Bready, England: Before and After Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers).

Besides the 294 preachers and 71,668 members on the Isle, there were 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America, as well as some 5,300 new Christians brought to Christ by 19 missionaries spread throughout the world. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed., s.v. “Wesley, John.”

In Christ, Everything; Outside Christ, Nothing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA2 I said to the LORD, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.”

3 As for the saints who are in the land,
they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight.

4 The sorrows of those will increase who run after other gods. I will not pour out their libations of blood or take up their names on my lips.

Psalm 16:2-4 (NIV)

Now that our next-door neighbors present us with a multitude of religious choices, the pressure to choose other faiths can be very attractive. Even more alluring is the possibility of mixing and matching; we construct our own garments of faith from the exotic cloth now available from the local religious malls. Our culture revels in diversity and do-it-yourself religion. We are told that we are narrow and intolerant if we stick to the way, the truth, and the life in Christ.

On the run from his enemies, David ran into an earlier version of this option in his day. Israel was surrounded by colorful, foreign alternatives that promised real tangible benefits socially and materially. Yet he did not budge an inch. He had discovered that his own personal faith in God was pivotal to his welfare; apart from the Lord, he had no good thing (v. 2). He knew who his heroes were; his delight was in the saints of the land (v. 3). He was not taken in by the superficial allure of alternative religion; he saw the sorrow that resulted from misplaced confidence in other gods (v. 4). He made up his mind; he would neither join in their practices nor take their names on his lips (v. 4).

Christians are totally indebted to Israel for her refusal to negotiate on her hard-won monotheism. Being tenacious in faith is not being perverse; it is a matter of standing by the truth. Faith is rooted in reality. Christ confirmed and enriched this faith by nailing it down in history with His cross and by conquering all the alternatives in His resurrection from the dead.

The great heroes have proven this faith’s worth over the years. Just to recount their lives is a source of delight and inspiration.

Abandoning the faith or mixing and matching it with bits and pieces of other religions are recipes for disaster and regret. We gladly take Christ’s name upon our lips absolutely and exclusively. His is “the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).

In making the case for Christ, believers cannot shirk the clear-cut choice that Christ presents. We can do so with confidence when we are secure in our own confession of the Lord and when we remember that apart from Him we have “no good thing.” Christ delivers the goods; the alternatives multiply sorrow.

 

The Glorious Love of the Father—Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)

By the age of twenty-one, Charles H. Spurgeon was arguably the most popular preacher in London. His passion and gift for proclaiming the gospel did not limit him to pastoral duties within one congregation; rather, they stimulated him to found Sunday schools, churches, an orphanage, and the Pastor’s College.

Possessing a simple yet profound understanding of how God views His children, Spurgeon would often proclaim the Church glorious. In two sermons on Luke 15:20 titled, “The Prodigal’s Reception” and “Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son,” he tells how the Father looks upon and receives His child who is in sin—a picture of how Christ transforms wretched sinners into His bride, the Church, purified. The grace of God, explained “The Prince of Preachers,” produces a grateful people who stand ready to “face the world” and serve their Master with joy.

“He fell upon his neck and kissed him.” This I can understand by experience, but it is too wonderful for me to explain . . . I can understand how God manifests his love to a soul that is washed in Jesus’ blood, and knows it; but how he could fall upon the neck of a foul, filthy sinner as such! There it is—not as sanctified, not as having anything good in himself, but as nothing but a filthy, foul, desperate rebel, God falls upon his neck and kisses him. Oh! strange miracle of love! The riddle is unriddled when you recollect that God never had looked upon that sinner, as he was in himself, but had always looked upon him as he was in Christ; and when fell upon that prodigal’s neck, he did in effect only fall upon the neck of his once-suffering Son, Jesus Christ, and he kissed the sinner because he saw him in Christ, and therefore did not see the sinner’s loathsomeness, but saw only Christ’s comeliness, and therefore kissed him as he would have kissed his substitute.1

God on the neck of a sinner! What a wonderful picture! Can you conceive it? I do not think you can; but if you cannot imagine it, I hope that you will realize it. When God’s arm is about our neck, and his lips are on our cheek, kissing much, then we understand more that preachers or books can ever tell us of his condescending love.2

God’s people do not always know the greatness of his love to them. Sometimes, however, it is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. Some of us know at times what it is to be almost too happy to live! The love of God has been so overpoweringly experienced by us on some occasions, that we have almost had to ask for a stay of the delight because we could not endure any more. If the glory had not been veiled a little, we should have died of excess of rapture, or happiness. Beloved, God has wondrous ways of opening his people’s hearts to the manifestation of his grace. He can pour in, not now and then a drop of his love, but great and mighty streams.3

It is a hard thing for a man to confess Christ if he has not had an overwhelming sense of communion with him. But when we are lifted to the skies in the rapture God gives to us, it becomes easy, not only to face the world, but to win the sympathy of even those who might have opposed themselves. This is why young converts are frequently used to lead others into the light; the Lord’s many kisses of forgiveness have so recently been given to them, that their words catch the fragrance of divine love as they pass the lips just touched by the Lord. Alas, that any should ever lose their first love, and forget the many kisses they have received from their heavenly Father!4

When God takes men from being heirs of wrath, and makes them heirs of grace, they have just as much privilege at the first as though they had been heirs of grace twenty years, because in God’s sight they always were heirs of grace, and from all eternity he viewed his most wandering sons.5

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1 C. H. Spurgeon, “The Prodigal’s Reception, Luke xv. 20,” Miracles and Parables of Our Lord, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 377-378.
2 C. H. Spurgeon, “Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son, Luke xv. 20,” Miracles and Parables of Our Lord, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 382.
3 “Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son,” 383-384.
4 Ibid., 391.
5 “The Prodigal’s Reception,” 380.

Can Theology Be True If It’s Self-Contradictory?

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) took the curious step recently of adopting an “Authoritative Interpretation” (AI) of its constitution that blatantly contradicts the document it purports to interpret. Passed by a vote of 317-238, the AI allows PCUSA ministers to perform gay wedding ceremonies in the 19 states where the practice is legal. But the PCUSA constitution states (at least for now)1 that “marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man.” How can a document that defines marriage as a heterosexual institution be “interpreted” to permit homosexual marriage? When a commissioner at a PCUSA committee meeting raised this issue, his point was ruled “not well taken” in parliamentary rules.2

contradictorySad to say, this is not the only instance in recent times of a prominent theological or ethical assertion that involves foolish contradiction. Fortunately, Scripture tells us how to respond to such assertions in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit . . .” The Louw and Nida Greek lexicon explains that the phrase translated “empty deceit” refers to a “misleading or erroneous view concerning the truth” related to “a complete lack of understanding.” Though Paul likely had a broad array of errors in mind, contradictory statements certainly fall under that umbrella. Of course, some doctrines taught in the Bible (like the Trinity and creation ex nihilo) are mysterious and may seem unreasonable at first blush. But nothing in the Bible is a true contradiction. We accept biblical mysteries by faith as we pursue a fuller understanding. But any assertion that involves irreconcilable contradiction is unbiblical and must be rejected, lest it “take you captive.” Consider the following examples:

Atheist ministers. A 2010 study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola profiled five Protestant “preachers who are not believers.”3 The study described the supposedly victimized atheist ministers as “ensnared in their ministries by a web of obligations, constraints, comforts, and community.” These five individuals may have served in church-related vocations, but it is a contradiction to claim that any atheist is a true minister of the gospel.

Gay marriage. Though it’s a common phrase these days, it’s a contradiction. God defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Relative truth. “All truth is relative,” some postmodernists claim. But a statement is either true or relative, not both at the same time in the same sense.

No-fault divorce. Since the late 1960s this has been a common legal designation. But Jesus said there is always sin on at least one spouse’s part when the covenant of marriage is dissolved (Matthew 19:1-9).

Errors in Scripture. The Bibles says, “all Scripture” is “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), and God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). Either the Bible is Holy Scripture or it contains errors, not both. Yet some supposed Christians claim the Bible both errs and is God’s Word.

Human non-persons. Abortion advocates have employed this term in attempt to justify the killing of unborn children. But all humans are persons, knitted together by God in the womb (Psalm 139:13).

When discussions of theology or ethics become self-contradictory, some may regard it as a move toward sophistication and enlightenment, a casting aside of outdated truisms. Yet those who believe the Bible know better. They will take care to shun such “empty deceit” and in so doing will find themselves “established in the faith” (Colossians 2:7).

 

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Endnotes:

1 The General Assembly approved an amendment to the PCUSA constitution redefining marriage as between “two people” rather than “a woman and a man.” But the amendment must be approved by a majority of the PCUSA’s 172 presbyteries, which is expected to occur. Until then, the AI contradicts the constitution.

2 Carmen Fowler LaBerge, “Calling Their Bluff—With the Hope of Keeping the General Assembly From Erring,” The Layman Online, June 19, 2014, http://www.layman.org/calling-bluff-hope-keeping-general-assembly-erring/ (accessed June 26, 2014).

3 Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, “Preachers Who Are Not Believers,” Evolutionary Psychology 8, no. 1 (2010): 122-150, http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP08122150.pdf (accessed June 26, 2014).