The Bible is a book in which violence is commonplace. The Old Testament is the record of the centuries before Jesus. It describes wars in which God’s people brutally conquered those who lived in the land which they believed God intended as their own. And they too were brutalised. Very often God is described as demanding the destruction of those who do not worship him. Violence is much less intense in the New Testament (the record of the beginning of the Christian church). But even amongst the peacemaking teaching of Jesus are statements which suggest that we have a sometimes belligerent God.
Those who do not believe in God are deeply troubled by this, because it leads them to believe that Christianity has been and is something that propels people to war. However, Christians too are deeply troubled because there is no explanation that is totally satisfying for why the endlessly loving God they believe in should appear to condone killing.
Immediately after the First World War (and again after the Second) there was profound soul-searching by Christian thinkers. They found parallels between the destruction through which they had lived and the brutality described in the Bible. For the last twenty centuries, but particularly since 1918, Christians have tried to come to some conclusions in three different ways.
The nature of evil
Some Christians focus on the fact that there are certain evils so great that only utter destruction can bring them to an end. A twentieth century example they might give is the bombing of Hiroshima which, terrible of itself, brought six years of war to an end. They argue that in the Old Testament, the nations which God demanded should be obliterated by the Jews practised child sacrifice, idol worship and prostitution as a religious act. Only by God unleashing an overwhelming judgment could this be stopped. However, this way of thinking cannot explain why a completely just God would encourage the slaughter of innocent children while his own flawed and sinful people thrived.
The nature of God
Some Christians come to terms with this by pointing out that the coming of Jesus changed everything. Jesus shows us what God is like more fully than anyone else in history. The God of the Old Testament demanded confronting evil with violence. The God of the New Testament demands confronting evil by loving your enemies. This suggestion that God’s nature changed with the resurrection of Jesus was first put forward by Marcion, a bishop in Turkey about a hundred years after Jesus. He was excommunicated for his writings, but his views have persisted. In fact, the distinction is not as stark as it seems. The Old Testament also attributes to God words of unutterable love and mercy.
The nature of writing
Some suggest that God has not changed, but the way people understand God has definitely changed. Being human, the writers of the Old Testament interpreted events in the culture of their time. It was entirely to be expected that, because the Jews were victorious in battle, they would interpret it as God honouring the fact that they worshipped him. The writers of the New Testament had the benefit of Jesus’ teaching, which helped them understand what God wants for the world in a fuller way, and Jesus inclined them towards peacemaking. The Holy Spirit at work in the world over the two thousand years since Jesus has further revealed to Christian thinkers that God utterly opposes brutality. The Bible as a whole tells the unfolding story of how humans left behind their primitive view of a violent God and discovered the truth of a God of grace and love.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
The word of the Lord will [go out] from Jerusalem.
He will judge between many peoples
and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war any more.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
and under their own fig-tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
for the Lord Almighty has spoken.
Where to find it:
About these words:
This was written by an Old Testament prophet and poet called Micah, who lived seven centuries before Jesus.
And they said…
David Mitchell, comedian:
The argument given [for atheism] is that religion has caused lots of killing and pain. And I dispute that because so much killing and pain was done in the name of communism or fascism. Humans have killed humans in the name of anything, whether it’s religious or political or whatever. Humans just like to kill each other. And they’ll use religion as an excuse, and they’ll use politics as an excuse, and they’ll use freedom as an excuse. But the idea that if you take away one of the excuses the killing will stop happening is absurd. What you actually take away is the comfort that a lot of people have as they face the possibility of oblivion.
Albert Schweitzer, 1875-1965, German (after the war, French) doctor, missionary and winner of the Nobel peace prize:
In the [First World] War religion lost its purity, and lost its authority. It joined forces with the spirit of the world. The one victim of defeat was religion.
Karl Barth, 1886-1968, theologian:
One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wilhelm II. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics or their understanding of the Bible and of history.
John Hemer, biblical scholar:
The Bible is in fact the story of the slow, painstaking and sometimes faltering escape from the idea of a God who is violent to a God who is love and has absolutely nothing to do with violence.