Is God violent? Naming the questions

 Ted Grimsrud—February 29, 2012

This question (“Is God Violent?”) seems to me to be one of those great questions that challenges us to wide-ranging theological reflection. And it triggers a bunch of further questions that are worth thinking about in order to get at our main one. I will raise nine here. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brian McLaren’s short but thoughtful and provocative article in the January 2011 issues of Sojourners (also titled “Is God Violent?”).

What are our options?

McLaren offers a helpful fourfold typology of the different options for how Christians might answer our question: (1) God is violent and human violence is okay, sometimes even good. (2) God is violent and only in limited cases might human violence be morally acceptable. (3) God is not violent, so human violence is always a violation of our being created in God’s image—hence it is always tragic and regrettable; it is never justified. (4) God is not violent, so human violence in any form is always absolutely forbidden.

I had to read this list several times before I could figure out what the difference between #3 and #4 is. There must be a difference, since McLaren says, regretfully, that he holds #3 and not #4—though he aspires to #4. Finally I figured out that he had left out an additional sentence in his description of the third view that would have made him more clear: “Sometimes violence happens in ways that are the lesser evil; it’s not morally good but it may be the most realistic and least bad possibility.” To this clarification, McLaren might also have wanted to add a thought borrowed from Reinhold Niebuhr that in such cases we rely on God’s pardon; we don’t claim we are doing something that is not sinful.

Unfortunately, McLaren leaves out another option that probably is the most common option for Mennonite pacifists who have thought about these issues. At least it’s a very common option among Mennonite intellectuals. This would be the belief that God is violent but that human beings are called not to be. On the one hand, it is “God’s prerogative to exercise God’s sovereign power however God sees the need to;” on the other hand, God forbids human beings to take this expression of governance into their own hands. They interpret “vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Romans 12:21) as a call to leave the violence to God. Willard Swartley, Miroslav Volf, Mary Schertz, and Millard Lind  all have published various versions of this view—as did John Howard Yoder (see John Nugent’s account of Yoder’s Old Testament interpretation, The Politics of Yahweh).

So I would offer a slightly different typology than McLaren, folding his options one and two together and adding a different option #2. I sketched this in an essay from several years ago (“Is God Nonviolent?”), though at that time I thought of option #3 as purely hypothetical. I now understand McLaren’s own view to be an example of a version #3 and an indication that it may actually be a pretty common view.

These are the options on the question of God’s violence as I see them: (1) God is violent, thus human violence can be okay (the view of most Christians over the past 1800 years). (2) God is violent, but Christians must never be (the writers I mentioned above hold this view; many, perhaps most, Mennonites and other theologically conservative pacifists likely hold a view somewhat like this). (3) God is not violent, but sometimes in a fallen world human beings may be (it could be that those in the Niebuhr-shaped “Christian realism” school hold something somewhat like this view—the violence we need at times to do reflects the fallen world more than God’s character). (4) God is not violent and we must not be violent, either (an increasing number of Christian pacifists are arguing that it is important to ground pacifism in a conviction that pacifism “goes with the grain of the universe”).

What is the relationship between what the Bible says about God and God?

Most Christians who believe that God is violent would argue that this view is simply a reflection on the clear teaching of the Bible. The Bible does obviously portray God both as acting violently and as commanding violence on the part of God’s people—mainly in the Old Testament. However, some also see divine violence in the New Testament in the teaching about judgment, especially in the Book of Revelation.

For these Christians, the Bible is read as a fully accurate representation of what God truly is like. What the Bible says about God is factually true. Our questions about the biblical God are simply questions about God. To say “God in the Bible” is the same as to say “God.”

Many of those who argue that God is not violent approach, the Bible in a different way. Rather than saying the God of Bible is precisely the same as God, this other approach would say that what the Bible says about God is a record of human impressions of God. Our questions about the God of the Bible are, then, not necessarily questions about God so much as questions about the Bible’s perspective. God is seen more as a “character” is a story told by human beings than as precisely the same as portrayed in the Bible.

Brian McLaren seems to point toward this second view when he writes in his article that “I stopped reading the Bible as an inspired and authoritative constitution and started reading it as an inspired and authoritative library.” I am not exactly clear what he means to say here—his comment seems to be more about the Bible as a rulebook than about the historical accuracy of its portrayal of God. But perhaps he means to open the door to a more literary than historical way of reading the Bible on God.

A recent book by Anabaptist Old Testament scholar Eric Seibert, Disturbing Divine Behavior, takes up the question of how best to read the stories of divinely initiated violence in the Old Testament. Seibert, who is a pacifist, argues that ultimately the best approach to these stories is to recognize that they are not accurate records of what actually happened, hence they are not proof that God is violent.

Seibert’s book, well-written and widely noticed, has perhaps offered its sharpest challenge to scholars who themselves are inclined toward pacifism but are also committed to reading the Bible as fully accurate in its portrayal of God and historical events. Greg Boyd, a prominent emergent church leader and prolific writer with strong pacifist inclinations, praises Seibert’s book but departs from him on this issue of the historicity of these accounts of “disturbing divine behavior.” A symposium of Mennonite scholars published in Direction in general also disagrees with Seibert’s views on this issue.

How are God’s love and God’s justice connected?

We may see two distinct general views in relation to the question of how God’s justice and holiness on the one hand, and God’s love and mercy on the other hand, are connected. One area of intense discussion these days where this question comes up is in relation to atonement theology—an issue McLaren raises in his article. Again, though, he is a bit cryptic in how he discusses this issue and in how precisely it relates to the “Is God violent?” question.

One view of God’s love and God’s justice would state that God’s love stands alone as God’s core characteristic; everything else about God should be understood as being, as it were, in service to God’s love. This would include justice and holiness. These aspects of God, while real and important in understanding God, are secondary to love. God’s justice, in this view, works to further the intentions of God’s love. In this view, then, salvation is simply about God’s healing mercy that is always available for those who trust in it. God’s justice, in this view, is largely understood to be restorative justice.

The second view would be to see God’s love and God’s justice to be separate aspects of God, in some sense on the same level, perhaps even in tension with each other. God’s justice and God’s holiness require God to work within certain moral parameters. When justice is violated, something must be done to balance the moral scales of the universe—that is, God’s justice must be satisfied before God might offer forgiveness. For salvation to be effected, a sacrifice must be offered. This is why Jesus died. In this view, God’s justice has a strong retributive element.

McLaren addresses the issue of atonement by suggesting we think about where God is on Good Friday. Is God with Jesus (and other sufferers throughout history) on the cross or with the Romans putting Jesus to death in order that Jesus might be a necessary sacrifice to God of allow God to bring salvation? The justice as subordinate to love view would be more likely to see God with Jesus on the cross on Good Friday. The justice as separate from love view would be more likely to see Jesus with the Romans putting Jesus to death as the necessary sacrifice that satisfies the demands of justice and holiness.

One way to focus this issue is to consider the meaning of the Greek word ekdikeo, which generally is translated “vengeance” or “avenge” in English Bibles. The root of this work, dik, is part of other words often translated “justice” (e.g., dikaiosune). So a possible translation instead of “vengeance” in, say Romans 12:21, would be “procuring justice is mine, says the Lord.” To use “vengeance” here seems clearly to imply an action by God that has a punitive component—as in “retribution is mine says the Lord.” However, using “justice” here opens the possibility that what Paul had in mind was something a bit different. If “justice” is not separate from love, Paul could mean something like—“don’t take things into your own hands with your retaliatory violence, but leave the resolution of the problem to God, trusting that God’s healing justice will deal appropriately with wrong-doers”—an approach, notably, parallel with Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” and “forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.”

If God is violent, how is that expressed in today’s world?

It is one thing to discuss God’s violence in the Bible in the past and God’s violence in the eschaton in the future, as most of those who argue that God is violent do. But it seems a bit more complicated to reflect on where and how in our present world we would want to understand God’s violence to be present.

If history is one (an assumption not all would share, of course), shouldn’t a violent God who has acted thus in the past and will act thus in the future also be acting thus in the present? Perhaps not, necessarily. But we can ask, on the one hand, why we would imagine that the present would be different than the past or future. Or, on the other hand, if we do understand that God does act violently in the present, we might ask, “How so?”

So, if we assert that God did (and will at the End) act directly in violent ways—smiting and killing babies and the like—what would our basis for saying God is doing so now? Or, conversely, what would be our rationale for saying that God is not doing so now?

If God is violent, who specifically deserves this violence?

It is one thing to speak of God acting violently toward people—again in the past and in the distant future—in an abstract sense (or against one-dimensional characters such as most of the victims of God’s violence in the Bible). But it seems like another matter entirely to imagine who in our present world God should act violent towards.

If we, perhaps in imitation of Jesus, perhaps in light of the insights of modern understandings of human fragility and the factors that damage violent people, seek to understand with compassion and respect the factors that enter into a wrong-doer (the kind of person presumably we would imagine being the recipient of God’s violence), might we then have difficulty in actually concluding that God should be violent toward this person?

Writers such as Alice Miller and James Gilligan have studied people who have perpetrated major acts of violence—mass murderers, leaders such as Hitler and Stalin—and shown how these killers are created by abuse and damage they have undergone. Would it be consistent with what we know of God through Jesus to imagine such a God acting violently against such people who themselves have been damaged by others’ terrible violence toward them? (To argue instead that some people are simply “born evil” would not seem to solve the problem—should God be violent toward someone born with such a flaw, one they did not choose?)

What would such acts of violence by God would that would further the work of healing that God seems committed to? Would our arguments against the death penalty as pursued by states necessarily be different if the argument were applied to God?

Here we also face the issue of how we understand “justice.” Is God’s justice “restorative”—serving God’s love? Or “retributive”—serving, as it were, the need for moral balance in the universe? Writers such as Rupert Ross and Tony Hillerman have given accounts of “justice” as understood in some Native American communities wherein the response to wrong-doing is focused not on punishment but on seeking to restore harmony in the community and bring healing for both victim and offender. In such a view, no one “deserves” violence.

How do we interpret the variety within the Bible on this issue?

McLaren writes about how in the Bible there is a “plethora” of examples in the Bible that seem to support the view that God is violent. His awareness of this plethora shaped his acceptance of such a view for many years. He adds, though, that he gradually “realized that there was another plethora of verses” that point toward God as not violent. “I realized that I was going to have to choose one plethora over another, or subordinate one to another.”

On the other hand, Mennonite Old Testament scholar Derek Suderman, in his response to Eric Seibert’s book, suggests that it is better to recognize that “the Bible as a whole is remarkably unharmonized. We need a both/and view, not either/or” (as reported in The Mennonite Weekly Review).

We might identify three different approaches to the question of how best to deal with the variety within the Bible on this issue.

One would be to accept as accurate the biblical portrayal of God as violent. These texts should be recognized as truthful revelation of the character of God. This recognition could lead to an affirmation of violence as part of God’s will for human beings. Or, presumably for a thinker such as Suderman, it could lead to an acceptance of this violence as part of a “messy” portrayal of God in the Bible that should not be seen as a basis for human violence.

A second approach would also focus on the question of historical accuracy. This view would conclude that the biblical accounts that portray God as violent should be acknowledged not to be historical. They do not portray God as God truly is. So these texts should be set aside as revelatory. This would seem to be Seibert’s view. Perhaps the central arbiter for determining the truthfulness of such texts should be the life and teaching of Jesus.

A third approach would be to subordinate issues of historical accuracy to the task of a literary reading of the Bible as a whole. The deepest level of meaning is to be found in the completed story, not in the specific stories. This literary approach is comfortable with the effort to “harmonizing” the various components of the biblical account—not in the sense of assuming everything neatly fits together and the differences need to be ignored or explained away, but in the sense that each part (even if disconcordant with the overall message) still contributes to the whole. The plot of the book as a whole culminates in the message of Jesus and all the parts in their various ways contribute to that culmination. With this culmination it is possible to conclude that God is not violent without dismissing a non-revelatory the elements of the story that present God as violent.

How do we understand our question in relation to Trinitarian doctrine?

The issue of God as violent relates closely to how Christians understand the inter-relationships among the members of the Trinity. One view, held by Mennonite theologian Jim Reimer and echoes the great 20th century American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, suggests that God the Father and Jesus the Son actually have differences on the issue of violence. Even if Jesus is nonviolent, this does not mean that God the Father is.

On the other hand, another Mennonite theologian, J. Denny Weaver, uses the Trinity as part of his argument that God is, like Jesus, nonviolent. Weaver suggests that Jesus, God Incarnate, is our clearest expression of what God is like. If we are Trinitarians, we should understand that God revealed in Jesus is definitive of God as Trinity.

Are there practical and negative consequences of believing that God is violent?

One of the practical issues that fuels this question about God’s violence is the concern by those who question easy assumptions that God is indeed violent that such an assumption might actually contribute to easy acceptance of human violence.

How much are we shaped in our understanding of our own lives by what we believe about God? Is it not true that we become like the God we worship (Psalm 115:8)? So, if we believe that God is violent, does that not almost make it inevitable that we ourselves will affirm human violence?

To state this concern differently, might not it be problematic to imagine that humans should follow an ethical standard (nonviolence) that God does not follow? Would this not contradict Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God in that we could imagine a nonviolent God who would seem ethically superior to what we see as the actual God who is violent?

Those who affirm that God is violent and that human beings are not to be violent generally base at least this part of their ethics on commands. We should be nonviolent not because this is the way God is but simply because the supreme God commands to be. This strikes some as a heroic ethic that may not be sustainable or practicable as a communal ethic. It may be easily abandoned once people think of it as an unattainable standard.

Various writers have traced the impact of theology that affirms God as violent on human cultures. Timothy Gorringe, in God’s Just Vengeance, traces the impact of Anselmian satisfaction atonement theology (with its need to satisfy God’s honor through a violent sacrifice in order to make salvation possible) on violent criminal justice practices in the West. Reinforcing Gorringe’s analysis, historian Harry Potter shows how British Christian theologians actively and persistently resisted popular sentiment against the death penalty for several generations. And another historian, Robert Hughes illustrates the impact of British Christian retributive theology on the early history of Australia as a brutal penal colony.

What role should our own vision of what is needed play?

Ultimately, in wrestling with this question about God’s violence, we must ask how major a role our own vision for human flourishing should play in our analysis of the data and our drawing conclusions.

Is our main job as Christians in relation to using the Bible one mainly of describing the Bible’s “unharmonized” complexity, its “mystery and paradox”? Is Christian theology, especially in relation to this question of God’s violence supposed mainly to be working to echo the various ways the Bible speaks about this issue—even if that leaves us with mostly unresolved questions, little clear guidance, and a general sense of “messiness”? We could call this the “biblical studies” paradigm and ask if it might not in large part be the product of training in non-normative “scientific” scholarship that focuses mainly on a close, disinterested reading of ancient texts.

Or is our main job, ultimately, to wrestle with the texts in order to gain clarity for how best to proceed with ethically faithfully living? We could call this the “peace advocacy” paradigm. In this approach, our loyalty is not ultimately to an objective and as-accurate-as-possible reading of all the texts, but to using the texts to further an ethical agenda that we understand to be the agenda left us by Jesus and the prophets.

In my earlier article on this theme, I considered the testimony of the Bible, Christian tradition, and human experience regarding the question of God’s violence. I concluded that these various testimonies all end up being quite ambiguous when considered on their own terms. However, I suggested that as human beings we still have commitments to make and practical life to negotiate. To do so as faithful Christians, we need more than ambiguity from our main theological sources.

So I suggested that we need to add a fourth source, what I called “vision.” Our sense of where it is we believe we should be heading, our vision of what characterizes human flourishing, our sense of what makes us whole and healthy as human beings, our vision for what heals us—from these we gain a sense of what it is need from our sources, including the Bible. Christians understand our clearest vision of what constitutes human flourishing to be expressed in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

With this vision in mind, we may return to the other sources—still seek to read them on their own terms and to treat them with integrity, but to look carefully at them for what will most help us live toward the vision for wholeness Jesus gives us. In thinking this way about the issue of God’s violence, it may then be clear why we should want to seek bases from the Bible for seeing God as nonviolent, as a sure source for our commitment ourselves to making the love of neighbor (including “neighbors” who are enemies) the central moral compass for our lives in every area.

13 thoughts on “Is God violent? Naming the questions

  1. Ted,
    When you quote McLaren’s line, “…the Bible as an inspired and authoritative constitution…” I had a different take on what he meant. It seemed clear to me that he was referring to a wholeness, where one part cannot be read alone but must be taken only as a part of the whole. In this meaning, any two (or more) passages must be harmonized together since they are but fragments of the singularity of meaning that can only be gotten by taking all the parts together. In his new understanding, then, “…an inspired and authoritative library,” he is admitting that he will read any one part for internal consistency. Therefore, the God he reads about in Amos is – theoretically – only applicable to the book of Amos. Nevertheless, by calming authority in al the Bible, he confesses all parts to be true, even if they clearly conflict.

    Am I barking up the wrong tree?
    – David Vogel, TheNexus at CMC

    1. I think what you say does seem right, David. I was trying to get him to say what I wanted to say–which is a bit different than what he is actually saying!

      This seems like fairly complicated stuff. I think we find it difficult to think about how we actually approach the Bible.

      I find McLaren’s metaphors helpful–I do wish he had elaborated quite a bit more on what he has in mind with them–but would like to know more what he would mean by “claiming authority in all the Bible” in light of calling it a “library” rather than “constitution.” Plus, that he would spell out more straightforwardly how to think about the problematic “plethora” in light of his change of emphasis.


  2. Is there a stream of thought that would also say, echoing the perspective that there is a difference between “God” and the “God of the Bible,” that portrayals of a violent God in the Bible are interpretations of historical events by witnesses who view God as a violent kind of Being? This wouldn’t necessarily bring in to question the historical accuracy of events, but would question the witnesses interpretations of those events. Is there a difference, or am I just saying what Seibert says in a different way (approach number two under “How do we interpret the variety within the Bible on this issue?”)?

    I also have a question about what you mean by “revelatory” in the same paragraph under “How do we interpret the variety within the Bible on this issue?”: “. . . [T]he biblical accounts that portray God as violent should be acknowledged not to be historical. They do not portray God as God truly is. So these texts should be set aside as revelatory.” I’m just not understanding what you mean by that.

    Thanks, Ted, for your thoughts and continued conversation on this topic. I look forward to more discussion this Sunday.

    1. I appreciate your thoughts, Matt. Sorry I didn’t get to this response sooner.

      I do think that it is probably a fairly common view to see the issue in the interpretations of the witnesses (as in, Joshua thought God told him to kill…). I would tend, as you suggest, to see this as a variant form of the view that the events don’t reveal the true God. I’m not sure if this approach better protects the historical accuracy of the text or not.

      By “revelatory” in the sentence you quoted I meant to say that the texts that are not historical are seen as not being revelatory. I think I left out a word.

  3. It would seem to me that if Christians want to know whether God is violent or not, they would have to look at Jesus. Since Jesus says: ” To have seen me is to see the Father.” ” I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:9-10) ( Does Niebuhr discount this passage? ) To hear what Jesus teaches and how he acts is to see what God is like. Few claim that a case can be made from the gospels that Jesus is violent. Any attempt to portray Jesus as violent must come from outside the four gospels. So if Jesus is not violent, it must follow that God the Father is not violent. Christians have long believed that the Old Testament must be seen through the lens of the four gospels to be interpreted properly. Jesus, by virtue of who he is, would qualify as the supreme interpreter of scripture. “You have learned how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance.” (Matt. 5:38) Here Jesus is interpreting the Old Testament scripture. It follows then that all of the Old Testament must be viewed in the light of Jesus’ teachings and actions. Jesus shows us through his words and deeds what God is like and what God expects of those who claim his Lordship.

    Looking to Jesus to see what God is like is really a simple and straightforward process. However, it may be that what we see in Jesus is something that is difficult to accept. This is understandable given our cultural nuturing. Nevertheless, for Christians, there is an imperative to accurately see Jesus and thereby God the Father, and thereby be enabled to do that which Christians are called to do: to love all, friend and enemy, as God loves them.

    1. I like this, Mark.

      As I remember from Niebuhr, the disjunction for him that would allow for violence is not between Jesus and God (as it might be for some other Christians who read the OT over against the gospels—this view may go back at least as far as Augustine). Rather, for Niebuhr, the disjunction would be between Jesus/God and the realities of the world. That is, God’s ways are only of limited practicality in this world.

  4. I think Jesus showed that he could be violent when he drove out the corrupt merchants from the temple. The Bible states he used a whip. Imagine someone going into a large church and taking a whip to the coffee shop personnel. I think that qualifies as violence. Also Jesus commanded the evil spirits into the pigs and they jumped off a cliff. With that in mind I think this whole article should be rewritten especially the conclusion. It seems hastily drawn. It is obvious from Jesus’ actions that there is a place for violence and that God can be violent. The pigs incident is especially hard to explain using what this article says.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Eric. Whatever else might be wrong with my article, it is definitely not “hastily drawn.” This is what I truly think based on years of reading, talking, thinking, and writing.

      Both the examples you give are stories that are full of symbolism. It’s a mistake to read them too literally. It’s even more of a mistake to think they in any sense imply that “there is a place for violence” in our lives.

  5. Subject: Christian Century article
    Christian Century 11/15/2013 Jewish and Pacifist…Denny Weaver

    “The notion that God does not hesitate to use violence or destruction to punish evil and exact vengeance is widely held and often reinforced by the popular media. The Left Behind books and movies featured divinely caused mayhem. The History Channel’s series The Bible put divine violence on graphic display.
    Such depictions raise questions for people both inside and outside the church. Beyond the obvious question of whether we can really love and worship a God of violence, a problem of ethics arises. It is a very short step from depicting violence as God’s way of responding to problems to seeing human violence as a way of helping God. I want to challenge both this view of God and this application.
    Christians have long professed to believe that God is in Christ and that God is revealed in the story of Jesus Christ. It is also generally accepted that the narrative of Jesus shows that he refused to use violence in responding to his adversaries. Putting these two affirmations together leads us to describe God as one whose actions are consistent with the merciful and nonviolent Jesus.
    Over the centuries however, many Christians have found ways to reject that equation….”

    In a rough inventory of the “red-letter” sayings of Matthew’s Jesus, I count curses, maledictions* and violently divisive metaphors** occurring roughly 4 times as often as exhortations to meekness, forgiveness, neighbor-love and non-resistance.
    How then, can we be surprised that …”the notion that God does not hesitate to use violence or destruction to punish evil and exact vengeance is widely held”?

    While Matthew’s Jesus (almost) never responds in a directly violent way to his adversaries, he clearly defers violent recompense to a future Day….and seems to see himself as the agent of that coming judgement and punishment.

    * * * * * * * * * * *

    *I included a dozen or so “Woe-to-you”s. ( the meaning of “woe” is not completely clear, but it’s apparently worse than what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah) see Matt. 11:22,24
    **Matthew’s Jesus offers explicit apocalyptic interpretation of his weeding, sorting, culling, throwing-out-and-burning metaphors. see Matt 13:36-51.

    R. Martin

  6. I should make clear… the first extended quote above is an excerpt from the Christian Century article. What follows is my own response. R. Martin

  7. Thanks for the reminder of your comment, “R”. I think it is clear that the Bible contains a lot of violent imagery, including that which Matthew attributes to Jesus. If we take them literally, then the Bible becomes an incoherent mess, it seems to me—plus we have something like we see in Christian history where faith makes people more violent and unjust.

    So, really, it comes down to what kind of world do we want to live in and whether we want to treat the Bible as a positive or negative resource. I think it can be a positive resource that does help in creating a peaceable and just world. But we have to do some interpretive work and not just settle for prooftexts.

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