Bible God Theology

5-part series: Conquering the ‘violent God’ of the Bible

Part 1 | Genocide is okay if it’s commanded by a holy God?

There is a gruesome story about a Catholic priest who witnessed the atrocities of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He recounts “a woman who spent a whole day on the river bank killing other women who were handed over to her with a hammer. She was neither drunk nor under the effect of drugs. She was acting on her own free will, without any difficulty or remorse, without feelings; on the contrary, she was motivated by a great sense of morality.”¹

Among the estimated one-million victims slaughtered in Rwanda, approximately four-hundred thousand of these were children.

Our modern moral sensibilities tell us that a calculated massacre of this kind represents the greatest evil one can imagine. Yet for some Old Testament scholars, pastors and Christians today, even though they would agree that what happened in Rwanda and at Auschwitz was evil, they are quick to defend similar events in the Old Testament as God-initiated “prefigurations” of End Times judgement soon to be unleashed by Jesus onto our “godless” world. This has led to a popular and very unfortunate belief that the God of Christianity is a violent, genocidal tyrant.

In this 5 part series, I will provide a well-researched critique of the violent God and put forward a view of God that is more sound from a theological, moral and biblical perspective in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus.

Eschatological continuity (or how to turn God into a psychopath?)

Eschatological continuity maintains that “images of Old Testament genocide can be seen as types of an eschatological event” – prefigurations of the End Times war when Jesus will execute violent judgement against the wicked inhabitants of the earth.² G.K. Beale explains: “When such anticipations of the last judgment occur, ordinary ethical rules of the preconsummation world are suspended and the ethical principles of the last judgment penetrate back into history.”³ Beale argues that in such cases, God is “not bound to any of the ethical standards found in the Ten Commandments.” 4

Wait…what?! God is not bound to ethics in these situations? He’s not bound to love and goodness? He’s not bound to the teachings or example of Jesus? I’m as equally shocked as you that Christian scholars are teaching this. Why? Well…because it’s not all that Christian. 

According to Beale — God help us — at the core of God’s essence is His “self-sufficiency and self-determination.” 5 As such, God can suspend ethics at any time He pleases, since He is not bound to anything outside of Himself – especially anything human. This provides justification for the violent slaughter of innocent Canaanites, which includes children and infants (“do not leave alive anything that breathes” – Deut. 20:16). For Beale, “The scriptural command for people not to…take human life in a premeditated way…cannot apply to God.” 6

Have you felt shivers run down your spine yet? 

But why is this God violent? If this is true of the God of the Bible, what gives Him the freedom to command genocide other than the fact that He alone is not bound to human ethics? Eugene Merrill proposes in Four Views On God and Canaanite Genocide: Show Them No Mercy, that it is permissible for God to sanction genocide because of His holiness.

For Merrill, if God sanctions genocide, it is no longer a question of whether genocide is good or evil – “its sanction by a holy God settles that question.” 7 Merrill goes on to explain his reasoning (if you want to call it that): “biblical genocide was part of a Yahweh-war policy enacted for a unique situation, directed against a certain people, and in line with the character of God himself, a policy whose design is beyond human comprehension but one that is not, for that reason, unjust or immoral.” 8 Ultimately, Merrill is asking us to unquestioningly trust in a transcendent military tyrant who has no moral problem commanding mass murder – and this is part of His nature he tells us!

Tremper Longman III offers a similar disturbing view. Alluding to God’s grace, Longman suggests that “we should not be amazed that God ordered the death of the Canaanites, but rather we should stand in amazement that he lets anyone live.” 9 Yes, under God’s law, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). But should we really be astonished that the God of the Bible allows wicked and sinful people to live?

This of course depends on your understanding of God’s essence. If you believe that God’s essence is defined by self-determination and raging holiness, then yes, I suppose we should stand in amazement that God lets us depraved sinners breathe.

However, if we believe in a God whose core essence is love, would we not expect God to let us live – to save us from our sin – rather than to destroy us? If so, what is more amazing about God is His all-encompassing love, not the “charitable” withholding of His violent wrath.

With such distorted views about God circulating in the Church and popular culture, many people are led to believe that God condones evil and violence. Daniel L. Gard further entrenches this distortion when he says: “What appears to the human mind as ‘evil’ acts of God (such as the genocide commands against the Canaanites) are in fact not ‘evil’ acts at all since they come from the Lord himself.” 10 This kind of statement not only undermines God’s character, but it also severely questions humanity’s ethical capacities.

When we apply eschatological continuity to Revelation we get…

When the book of Revelation is interpreted literally through the lens of eschatological continuity, “the non-violent Jesus of the Gospels is transformed into a violent warrior.” 11 Not only is a literal reading of Revelation present in the philosophy of eschatological continuity, but so is a futuristic-prophetic understanding of Revelation’s events (i.e. dispensationalism). These scholars justify their violent image of Jesus by alluding to Old Testament depictions of God as a divine warrior. Bandy writes,

One of the most graphic and violent images depicting Jesus as the divine warrior is his blood-soaked robe (19:13) from treading the winepress of the fury of God’s wrath (Rev 19:15). […] The blood on Jesus’ robe is that of his victims, as confirmed by the allusion to Isaiah 63:2-6. […] Jesus, therefore, is the full revelation of the divine warrior from the Old Testament who executes judgement against all the enemies of God and his people. 12

This literal interpretation of Jesus shedding the blood of his enemies has entrenched the belief that God is violent into the minds of cultural cynics and unquestioning Christians alike. In opposition to this highly literal, dispensational and prophetic interpretation, Mark Noll writes, “Against dispensationalism, I believe that the major point of biblical prophecy is to reveal affective and cosmological dimensions of redemption in Christ and not to provide believers with a complete and detailed preview of the end of the world.” 13 Here, Noll affirms that biblical prophecy reveals a God whose eschatological love comes to the forefront over and against the impending doom of apocalyptic destruction.

The God of eschatological continuity, whether depicted in the conquest narratives of the Old Testament or in the book of Revelation, is a “violent and vengeful god [that] overcomes evil and violence with greater violence.” 14

It’s as if Beale, Gard, Longman and Merrill are jumping out from behind the couch and shouting: “Surprise! God isn’t like Jesus after all!”

However, we will see in Part 2 that the God of Joshua and Judges, beyond all appearances, is not a violent, genocidal maniac.

There is hope for humanity after all!

[1] Randal Rauser, “‘Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive’: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1(2009), 34.

[2] Daniel L. Gard, “The Case of Eschatological Continuity,” in Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide: Show Them No Mercy, ed. Stanley N. Gundry (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), 115.

[3] G.K. Beale, The Morality of God in the Old Testament, eds. Peter A. Lillback and Steven T. Huff (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Westminster Seminary Press, 2013), 17

[4] Ibid., 32-33.

[5] Ibid., 32. 

[6] Ibid,, 16.

[7] Eugene H. Merrill, “The Case for Moderate Discontinuity,” in Four Views On God and Canaanite Genocide: Show Them No Mercy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), 93.

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Gard, Four Views, 55.

[11] S. Cowles, “A Response to Tremper Longman III,” in Four Views On God and Canaanite Genocide: Show Them No Mercy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003), 193.

[12] Alan S. Bandy, “Vengeance, Wrath and Warfare as Images of Divine Justice in John’s Apocalypse,” in Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and Old Testament Problem, eds. Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans and Paul Copan (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2013), 127.

[13] Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 142.

[14] Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 33.

  1. Hey Josh, well done for taking on this tough but crucial topic. I think you’ve laid some great groundwork in this post. I have my own views on what’s going on in the so-called “terror texts” of the OT, but rather than jump the gun I’ll wait and see how this series unfolds before I share them!

    • Hey, thanks Rob 🙂 Would love to hear your thoughts and looking forward to continued dialogue on the issue. I think it’s needed, if anything because we need to learn from each other and move forward in pointing people to Jesus. Cheers bro!

  2. I can’t wait to read the rest of the posts i the series. The topic you’re tackling is of the utmost importance. Thanks for writing this.

    • Glad your liking this Juan! Yes, it’s very important. Anything that takes our focus off Jesus — the crucified God of resurrection hope deserves to be confronted. Looking forward to continued dialogue 🙂

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  8. I will go on and read your next posts, but I wanted to ask you to consider the following.
    If you believe that it is unjust of God to kill a human being, or perhaps that God is love and so would not kill a human because of his mercy, then why does the Bible say that the wages of sin is death? Why is every single one of us under the sentence of death already, and how does that differ from God condemning certain people to die at a certain time?
    Secondly, consider 2 Peter 3:4-7
    “They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’  For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”
    It is not out of God’s character to judge the ungodly, and that term applies to all of us. BUT! It is not out of God’s character to have mercy. What is the meaning of mercy and grace? Not receiving the deserved punishment, and receiving undeserved favor. In that same passage Peter declares that God is seemingly slow in bringing justice so that all have the opportunity to repent not perish!
    Finally, consider the cross of Jesus the Messiah, our Lord. Jesus saved us with great love that is unfathomable, and is the true revealed nature of God. Saved us from what? The wrath of God arising from his holiness and justice. Let us not forget the fear of the Lord, for this is the beginning of wisdom, and, with obedience, the whole duty of man (Prov. 9:10, Ecclesiastes 12:13).

  9. It’s curious to me that if God’s ethics are determined by what he does and can change at any time, why so many humans want a vengeful God.

    Also, if God can change his ethics, doesn’t this contradict one of the pillars of theology that these very same people hold to: that God is the same throughout eternity and doesn’t change, so we can trust him?

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