Is God Violent, Or Nonviolent?
Muslims did not invent “holy war.” According to the Bible, Moses and Joshua proclaimed that at God’s command, men, women, and children were to be killed: “You must destroy them totally….Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” Deuteronomy 7:2.
Yet Jesus said: “Love your enemies.” Matthew 5:44. Luke 6:27, 35. And Jesus is “the exact representation” of God (Hebrews 1:3). Also, John said that “God IS love.” 1 John 4:8,16. And in Romans 13:10 we read, “Love does no harm to a neighbor.”
So, did God change? Christians insist that God’s nature is unchanging:
o Hebrews 13:8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
o James 1:17 “…The Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
In this paper, we examine this problem of inconsistency, a possible solution, and certain implications of that solution for our study of the Bible.
Examples of violence held to be ordained by God in the Old Testament:
~The Flood of Noah. Genesis 6.
~Moses, Joshua, and Samuel proclaiming that God wanted certain men, woman, and children to be killed, e.g.,
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.’ So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses.” Numbers 15:35-36.
“For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses.” Joshua 11:20.
“Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants.” 1 Samuel 15:3.
(Interestingly, the apostle John puts truth on the Jesus side of the equation, not on the Moses side:
“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:17.)
Examples of scripturally justified violence in the New Testament, overturned by Jesus:
~The woman caught in adultery was to be stoned to death, according to the Law. But Jesus rescued her. John 8.
~In Luke 9:51-56 (KJV), John and James wanted to kill the disrespectful Samaritans by calling down fire from heaven on them, the same way the prophet Elijah had on disrespectful soldiers in 2 Kings 1. But Jesus “…Rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (So then, exactly what manner of “spirit” were they of?)
Unfortunately, violence in Christ’s name is a reality that has continued into more recent times: The Crusades of the Middle Ages. The Spanish Inquisition. Calvin’s Geneva. The Salem Witch Trials. These, in the face of Bible verses that state “Our struggle is NOT against flesh and blood,” and, “The weapons of our warfare are NOT carnal.” Ephesians 6:12, 2 Corinthians 10:4.
A Suggested Solution To This Apparent Contradiction:
Is there any way to explain or reconcile these discrepancies? Is the use of violence in keeping with God’s nature…or Satan’s?
In John 10:10, Jesus says, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In this verse, it certainly looks like God is only about** LIFE**, but that the devil is about DEATH. And we know that God considers death an enemy: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” 1 Corinthians 15:26.
Please note: Hebrews 2:14 shows us it is actually Satan who has the power of death, not God:
“Since the children have flesh and blood, he [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil.”
Author and theologian Richard Murray discusses believers’ confusion in correctly distinguishing between God and the devil, especially in the Old Testament:
So a possible solution is to concede that when Scripture appears to say God is violent, angry, cruel and oppressive, it is *not *actually talking about the GOD we know through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Rather, it is talking about the motives and methods of Satan, the god of this world; the Scripture writer, in that instance, has misattributed to God what is actually of Satan. (Please read Murray’s excellent article, referenced below, for much more evidence about this.)
How To Characterize The Bible If God Is Actually Nonviolent:
How then do we interpret and characterize the Bible, if God is in fact nonviolent? We agree that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). But what if the Scriptures are only part of a “progressive revelation” of God’s true nature in Jesus—a revelation that keeps on growing forever? Jesus himself is, after all, THE Word of God (Revelation 19:13), and showed himself to be the arbiter of all Scripture. He said, “All authority has been given to ME in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18. And, “You have heard it was said…but I say…” Matthew 5.
Theologian C.S. Cowles maintains that,
Professor Cowles further says,
Among many other interpretations about the two trees in the Garden of Eden, it has been suggested that they represent two ways of relating to God: that 1) by eating from the Tree of Life, God would rightly be perceived as unipolar, only life, and 2) by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He would wrongly be perceived as bipolar: vacillating between life and death; protectiveness and violence–if not appeased.
Recall that James says double-minded people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6-8). Surely a bipolar view of God leads to bipolar people, insecure about God, and defrauded of their full inheritance in Christ. A. W. Tozer believed we each tend “by a secret law of the soul” to gravitate toward, and grow to resemble, our mental image of God.
One thing is certain: man chose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:6), and since then, “We see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Regarding how to steer clear of that legalistic, literalistic glass in our study of the Bible, 2 Corinthians 3:6 spells out that the new covenant is not by the letter, but by the Spirit, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” We must be led by the Spirit of Jesus to correctly interpret Scripture! (We suggest here that Satan is the great legalist, not God.)
Finally, Jesus wants us to give special importance to Scriptures that point to him, as he did for the disciples on the road to Emmaus: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” Luke 24:27.
We characterize the Bible, then, as only a part of a never-ending, progressive revelation of the goodness of God.
“SATAN: Old Testament Servant Angel or New Testament Cosmic Rebel?” by Richard Murray. (The most important article I have ever read.)
“Scriptural Inerrancy? Behold, I Show You A More Excellent Way” by Professor C.S. Cowles.
[pointloma.edu/sites/default/files/filemanager/Wesleyan_Center/excellent-way.pdf] Cowles inerrancy.pdf (276.0 KB)
“Grasping at Straws Part Ten–Evangelicals Defend Genocide” by Dr. Ken Pulliam.
For Further Consideration:
If God is nonviolent, what implications would that have for other beliefs/doctrinal positions commonly held in Christianity? For example,
~Is God the one who sends prophesied destruction, as commonly believed, or is He exclusively trying to warn about danger in advance, and also to provide the way of rescue? In other words, is God genuinely a heroic fireman, humbly offering His life in order to save people? Or, is He bipolar: both warning, and destroying, both fireman and arsonist? (I have argued that any perception of bipolarity in God comes from melding Him with Satan. But God is a unipolar, loving Daddy, who only gives life; the devil is a unipolar death dealer.)
~Was it God the Father who poured out anger on Jesus at the cross, as commonly believed, or was it Satan?
Are you familiar with the “Christus Victor” theory of the Atonement? In contrast to the traditional Penal Substitution Theory, the idea seems to be that it was actually SATAN’S wrath being poured out on Christ at the cross, not God’s. Jesus did not jump in between us and an angry God, and say, “take it out on me, Father, instead of on the children,” because actually *‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our sins against us.’ * 2 Cor. 5:19. And Hebrews 2:14 reveals Jesus died to save “the children” from the devil of death, not from his loving Father!
Christus Victor is related to the Ransom Theory, with the idea that “redeeming” means “buying back.” Satan offered all the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, “in an instant” (Lk 4:5)—without Jesus contradicting his right to do so at that time. But at the cross, Jesus purchased back what Adam lost in the Garden, by his blood. Jesus is our Kinsman Redeemer (as was Boaz for Ruth).
Recall the discussion of a property deed scroll in Jeremiah 32. That passage helps our understanding of how a kinsman could buy back land lost by the owner, by paying the purchase price. The sealed book could then be delivered to the original owner, or the heir. The heir could, at his convenience, break the seals, and, with the open scroll as his authority, take possession of the land—by force, if necessary.
So, as to the Second Coming, the final process of evicting Satan begins when the Lamb starts breaking those seals on the title deed (Rev. 6). But we have been warned in advance that Satan will not go quietly.
(Regarding blood sacrifice and God’s true nature, please see “Is God Bloodthirsty?”)
~Is hell (more accurately, the lake of fire) a never-ending torture chamber, as commonly believed, or limited in time, and for corrective purposes? Recall: “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Reconsider Matthew 25:46, regarding the fate of the damned and of the saved. Jesus says,
"Then they will go away to eternal punishment but the righteous to eternal life.”
1. But the Greek word translated “eternal” (or “everlasting”) is aionios, and does NOT in fact mean “unending or everlasting in quantity of time.” Rather, aionios speaks to an "indeterminate age set by God alone.” This adjective is used to describe something within time, not outside time (that is, in eternity). Aionios is the adjective form of the Greek word aion, where we get our English word “eon” (age). Young’s Literal Translation for aionios is always “age-during.”
2. And the Greek word translated in this verse as “punishment” is kolasis, a term used to describe the pruning back of trees, to allow fuller and healthier growth. It is also used to describe corrective punishment, “inflicted in the interest of the sufferer.” (For vindictive, vengeful punishment, “inflicted in the interest of him who inflicts it, that he may obtain satisfaction,” the word timoria is used.)
Note: Many erroneously believe that if you deny that the punishment of this verse lasts forever, then you must also deny that the “eternal” life of the saved is unending. But that doesn’t follow, because this verse is dealing with life, or punishment, WITHIN TIME, during the final eon. However, eternity is outside time.
In 1 Cor. 15:20-28, we discover where time will come to its end, and eternity will begin. When the last person has repented in the Lake of Fire, the purpose of the Lake will be finished. It might take a long time, but “Love is patient.” 1 Cor. 13:4.
In a way, that Lake is like the fiery furnace in Daniel:
—Jesus will be present with the captives. Rev 14:10- Greek: basanizō means “to test the purity of gold,” but is also translated *“to torment”,
—in non-physical, purifying flames of “divine incense.” Greek: theion; also translated “brimstone,” as “divine” fire was originally used to purify and dedicate something to deity; also, “purge” comes from Latin purgare to purify, from purus ‘pure,’ which derives from the Greek FIRE, pur),
—freeing them from all their bondage.
Of course, to know God is to be loved by Him, and then to love Him in return. The only possible reasons a person would reject God are because he is either deceived, or misinformed. Those obstacles will be lovingly removed. And each individual captive there will eventually repent (change his mind), accept Christ, and come out of that Lake of Fire, with no bonds, and without any smell of smoke!
“God is LOVE” --not “loving,” but “love.” Love is not one of many competing attributes: it is His very essence, His very DNA. Yes, God is a consuming FIRE (Heb. 12:29): a consuming fire of love.
“Fire will try EVERY man’s work, of what sort it is….If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, BUT he shall be saved, yet it will be like an escape through FIRE.” 1 Cor. 3:13, 15.
Each unsaved captive will gradually be unbound by Jesus to receive him, and to accept the invitation to come through the gates into the City (“On no day will its gates ever be shut” Rev 21:25), in order to take the free water of life offered there. Jesus shall lose none of all those God has given him: all are predestined for salvation; all, sooner or later, will believe.* “In Christ ALL* will be made alive” 1 Cor. 15 v. 22. And only “then comes THE END” v. 24. All Death will have been abolished (which would include the Second Death, The Lake of Fire) v. 26, and God will finally be “all in all” v. 28.
When the classroom of time ends, the real adventure begins.
(Drawn from various resources, e.g., —
-The Meaning of Eternal and Everlasting, by Dr. Stephen E. Jones
-Eternity in the Bible, by Gerry Beauchemin
-Terms for Eternity: Aionios and Aidios in Classical and Christian Texts, by Ilaria Ramelli and D. Konstan
-The Apostles’ Creed, by William Barclay, in which he cites Plato, Aristotle, and Clement of Alexandria
Regarding time vs. eternity:
-Is Hell Eternal or Will God’s Plan Fail? by Charles H. Pridgeon )