How should we think about the violence in the Old Testament? [Questioning Faith #19]

Ted Grimsrud—April 7, 2023

I have heard it said that the stories in the Old Testament about God’s involvement in war, punishment, and various other forms of violence have been responsible for more Christians losing their faith than any other single thing. I have no idea whether that is actually true, but I do know from my career as a pastor and teacher that Old Testament violence is a problem for lots and lots of people. Because the Old Testament is so big and diverse and the issues so complex, it is impossible to give a quick, clear, and concise answer to the questions. But because they are so often present and distressing, I think it is important to try to have some kind response in mind. What follows is mine—which is admittedly not likely to change anybody’s mind.

Starting with God’s love

My starting point for all theological questions is my core theological conviction: God is love. It follows from that, for me, that I would affirm that God is nonviolent, as I believe that violence and love are mutually exclusive. And, I happen to believe that the Bible supports these convictions. So, when I turn to the Bible, I am seeking to understand what the Bible’s teachings are that give us the best images of God. What in the Bible leads us to confess God’s love and, thus, nonviolence? And what should we think about the parts of the Bible traditionally cited as the bases for denying that God is nonviolent?

Let me first, though, say just a bit about what saying “God is nonviolent” means for me. In a nutshell, to make such an affirmation is to confess that the Bible teaches that God created what is out of love and for the sake of love. It also teaches that God participates in the world most directly in how God brings healing in the face of brokenness, binding wounds, reconciling alienated relationships, and empowering creativity and compassion.

Also, I believe that the Bible’s definitive portrayal of God is found in the story of Jesus. That is, God is most clearly and reliably known to humanity in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. My affirmation of God’s nonviolence finds its strongest grounding in my affirmation of Jesus’s nonviolence. Just as it is unthinkable to me that Jesus would punish, hate, exploit, or violently coerce, so is it unthinkable that God would.

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