The Bible, Violence, and the Gospel

Even if we haven’t seen many examples of violence up close and in real life, we are very familiar with it. From news stories about shootings and mob riots to movies and TV series full of serious violence, we know what it is. And we know it’s not good! Speaking of violence, there’s a helpful article on this topic in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. I can’t put the whole article here, but after the article discusses violence in the OT, it moves to the NT’s view of violence. And yes, the cross is central. Here’s the last section of the article that follows a discussion of Christ’s crucifixion:

….The cross embodies Jesus’ victory over violence and is the climax of the biblical story of violence.

The theme of loving one’s enemy is reiterated by Paul in Romans 12:17–21. Revenge is strictly ruled out, and believers are to ‘leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord’ (Rom. 12:19). God’s love demands human imitation; it is the foundation of the ‘law of Christ’ (Gal. 6:2; cf. 5:6, 14; Jas. 2:8). But God’s wrath does not demand imitation, which is fraught with pitfalls and failure. As Paul points out, God’s own action towards us, ‘when we were God’s enemies’, was not wrathful vengeance but reconciliation ‘through the death of his Son’ (Rom. 5:10). And Paul habitually transposes the imagery of warfare into the context of spiritual warfare (e.g. Rom. 6:13; 2 Cor. 10:3–6; Eph. 6:10–17). James warns those who would take the course of violence: ‘the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God’ (Jas. 1:20, RSV; cf. 2:11–13). And Hebrews commends those who, without anger or retaliation, have suffered violence for the sake of the gospel (Heb. 10:32–34).

The righteousness of God will be expressed further in eschatological judgment. Jesus employs imagery of violent judgment (e.g. Hades, fire of hell, eternal punishment) to speak of the end of those who ultimately resist God’s will. Paul and other apostles follow this pattern in speaking of the violent destruction that will accompany the ‘coming wrath’ (1 Thess. 1:10) when Jesus the divine warrior will come in ‘blazing fire’ and punish his enemies with ‘everlasting destruction’ (2 Thess. 1:6–10; 2:1–12). 2 Peter 3:10–13 speaks of a violent, fiery judgment that will envelop the cosmos as a precursor to the emergence of a new heaven and earth. And the book of Revelation depicts manifold violent judgments and scenes of divine warfare (Rev. 19:11–21; 20:7–10) that precede the advent of the new creation (Rev. 21). But this apocalyptic violence takes place according to the sovereign will of God, the all-wise creator and redeemer. The people of God are followers of the slain Lamb (Rev. 5:5–6, 9–10), a veritable army 144,000 strong, sanctified for holy warfare like Israel’s warriors of old (Rev. 14:4). Their strategy is not violence but faithful witness to the Lamb, even to the point of suffering the violence of martyrdom.

The twentieth century was probably the most violent in human history. All too frequently and sadly, violence in the West has been undergirded by an appeal to biblical texts. Consequently serious charges have been laid against the Bible, its interpreters and Christianity. The irony, however, is that this moral aversion to violence and concern for its victims owes much if not all of its impetus to the influence of the Bible, and particularly the cross of Christ. As René Girard has argued, it is the gospel of Christ crucified that subverts the world’s ideologies of violence. Any consideration of the question of divine and human violence in the Bible must begin by admitting that the issue resists easy resolution, for violence (in its many dimensions) involves a seemingly impenetrable mystery. But extracting biblical texts of violence from their canonical context, particularly from their climactic resolution in the NT, leads to a serious misreading of these texts and of the biblical story as a whole.

New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, p. 834.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

2 Replies to “The Bible, Violence, and the Gospel”

  1. This comment, “Jesus employs imagery of violent judgment (e.g. Hades, fire of hell, eternal punishment) to speak of the end of those who ultimately resist God’s will” is somewhat misleading isn’t it? As if to suggest that the will’s of apostate sinners ultimately resist God’s will?


  2. Thanks for the comment! I appreciate the feedback.

    If understood theologically, I’d say the statement is fine. Typically theologians distinguish between God’s decretive will and his preceptive will. In the above statement I take the author to be referring to God’s preceptive will. That is, it’s God’s will as in “what he wants us to do” (e.g. 1 Thess. 4:3, 5:18, etc.). If I’m not giving thanks in all circumstances, I’m not doing God’s will (1 Thess. 5:18). We could also say that Pharaoh resisted God’s will (His command) to let His people go. Hope this makes sense!

    If you want more info, here’s a section of Richard Muller’s “Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics” that I found helpful:

    “…The divine will] is distinguished into the decretive and preceptive will, the voluntas eudokias and voluntas euarestias, the will of good pleasure and the signified will, the hidden and the revealed will. The former terms present what God himself wills to do or to permit: the latter what he wills for us to do. The former is determining, the latter instructs and approves.

    The basis of these distinctions is provided by those places in Scripture in which the will of God is indicated either as the decree or as a precept: thus, as a decree, Rom. 9:19, “Who can resist his will?” and Eph. 1:11, “All things are accomplished according to his will.” Or as a precept, Ps. 143:10, “O Lord, teach me to act according to your will.” And there are also places [in Scripture] which indicate both wills of God, such as John 6:38, where Christ says, “I came down [from heaven] to do the will of him who sent me,” i.e., to fulfill what was decreed by God and to obey the command of the Father.” (Vol. 3, p. 451).



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