The Problem of Violence in the Bible

The Bible is a violent book that describes a violent God. In Genesis 6 God sends a flood that wipes out life on the earth he created. Only the select few on the Ark are saved. Fast forward to the liberation of the Israelites from slavery and God kills all the firstborn sons of Egypt before drowning the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. The Israelites are brought to their own land and told to commit genocide:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you— and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Deuteronomy 7

The Israelites take the land and for some hundreds of years govern it so poorly God exiles them, again using violence to achieve his goals.

Come to the New Testament and, according to mainstream evangelicalism, violence is the centrepiece of redemption. God plans the violent death of his Son, which is accepted as the penalty for our sin. To all who accept Christ there will be etrrnal salvation but God will perpetrate violence eternally against all who refuse to acknowledge him.

I struggle to know what to do with this.

Hoping to find some help I recently read a book in which four evangelical scholars canvassed four alternate approaches to the Canaanite genocide. Only one even attempted to seriiusly deal with the horror of a violent God. The rest seemed happy with cool theological mathematics that showed how God could engage in violence but left me thinking their God is a monster.

There is so much in the teaching of Jesus that points to God as nonviolent. God loves his enemies and pursues their good; welcomes the sinner; calls us to turn the other cheek and proceeds to do this as opposition to Jesus intensifies.

The teaching and example of Jesus stand in stark contrast to the ways of Rome, the global superpower that occupied Israel. When Jesus was born Herod ordered the execution of every male infant in Bethlehem. When rebellion broke out after the death of Herod a Roman legion marched on the city of Sepphoris, razed it to the ground, crucified 2000 rebels, and enslaved the surviving population. This was typical behaviour. Violence was central to the Roman empire. It reached its nadir under Nero, who covered Christians in wax, impaled them and set them on fire to serve as human torches.

Does God really redeem the universe by meeting violence with violence? Is the difference between God and Nero nothing more than we deserve the violence God metes out whereas Rome’s victims did not?

Or is there a genuinely redemptive violence? If so does it leave retribution as the moral bedrock of the universe?

Or does Jesus represent a different way? Rather than the crucified Jesus taking punishment from God, could it be that he is absorbing all the hate, anger and violence human beings can throw at him and meeting it with love? Could the resurrection then signal that this is the way God is triumphing over violence and evil?

Could a non violent understanding of atonement open up a nonviolent understanding of future judgement? Could it lead us to reevaluate the violence of God in the Old Testament?

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Fr. Ian
Fr. Ian
10 years ago

The substitutionary theory of Atonement, that is, that Christ died to appease the wrath of God, was a theory invented in the 12th century by Anselm. You really should look into the Orthodox Church for a more beautiful and truthful understanding of salvation.

Bob Batey
Bob Batey
10 years ago

Look too at “Why the Cross” in Christian Century MArch 20th 2013, by Charles Hefling. I too was unaware of when the “substitutionary Theory of Redemption” was developed and how it has been debated and refined and evolved to penal retribution as our understanding of what went on at the Cross. I am moved to think more about the concept of restorative justice but have to confess it is all very complicated and in the end….I do not think we humans will ever quite grasp the depth of what was transacted on the Cross. Thank you Scott for raising these… Read more »

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