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!
 Randal Rauser, “‘Let Nothing that Breathes Remain Alive’: On the Problem of Divinely Commanded Genocide,” Philosophia Christi 11, no. 1(2009), 34.
 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.
 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
 Ibid., 32-33.
 Ibid., 32.
 Ibid,, 16.
 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.
 Gard, Four Views, 55.
 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.
 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.
 Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 142.
 Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 33.