Winter 2013

Religion and Spirituality

God and Violence

David Hulme

Where was God when “the Great Dictators” of the past century brought about the deaths of millions of innocent people, many of them their own countrymen? When Stalin purged 5–9 million of his people by famine and arbitrary death quotas in the 1920s and ’30s, and Hitler approved the systematic extermination of 11 million innocent men, women and children, more than half of them Jews, did God turn aside? What are we to make of Mao Zedong’s ruthless elimination of 70–80 million people during his rule? Did God not care?

With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world by its moral adolescents. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it.”

General Omar N. Bradley, Armistice Day Address, 1948

The vexed question of “theodicy,” or God’s relation to evil, continues to plague us. Inability to resolve “the problem of evil” has turned many away from God.

One of the most puzzling and perplexing aspects of the Bible is what appears to be God’s approval of violence in certain situations. This is even true of His own Son. Why would a God of love allow His Son to die one of the most excruciating deaths? When Jesus was on the crucifixion stake, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, English Standard Version). Was He truly forsaken by His Father?

How can a God who claims to be a loving Father condone violence and be unwilling to prevent suffering?

Revelation as Violence

Some scholars view the troubling book of Revelation with its violent overthrow of a globalized human religious, political and economic system by the returning Jesus Christ as encouraging violence on God’s behalf. Boston University’s David Frankfurter told Vision, “I would be afraid of talking about [Revelation] as having a helpful message, either for people who are in difficult straits in this world or for people who are hoping for a better world, because the violence that is committed—against, not oppressors, but those who are unclean in this text—is quite extreme. And if you were to identify yourself as the hand of God and decide that you want to take it that far, you could use this text—and people have used this text—as license to do fairly violent things.” Implied in this is the idea that God is violent for negative ends.

Religion professors Judith Kovacs and Christopher Rowland acknowledge this critical view of Revelation on the part of many: “Its catalogue of disaster and destruction, apparently sanctioned by God, its cries for vengeance, and its terrible gloating over the fall of Babylon, all seem so contrary to the spirit of Jesus” (Revelation: The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ [Blackwell Bible Commentaries], 2004).

These authors suggest that it can be difficult to reconcile the Jesus of the Gospels with the Jesus of Revelation. Yet Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all reveal a Jesus who makes declarative statements and takes definitive action against human wrong (see “Gentle Jesus?”). 

In considering the question of violence, it helps to distinguish between the human and the godly. Is there a difference between human war and godly war? Is there a contradiction between Christ as conquering King of kings and as Prince of Peace?

War seems to be inseparable from the human condition.”

Victor Davis Hanson, The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern

The prophet Isaiah shares this insight: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9, ESV). This passage is foundational to understanding violence undertaken by God.

In Revelation the returning Messiah is presented as a bloodstained warrior on horseback. The key difference between Christ and His enemies is that He acts based on righteousness or right principles. John writes: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war [emphasis added]. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:11–16).

From this account, the return of Christ will certainly mean a violent end to the opposition of man to God.

Who Is Fighting Whom?

Exactly who are the protagonists in this ultimate confrontation? John writes, “And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army” (Revelation 19:19).

Here we note that it is a broad swath of humanity that is fighting against the returning Christ under the leadership of one identified as “the beast,” a man of great cruelty and cunning. This superleader comes to the fore in a time of universal crisis. The armies will have been gathered together by evil spirits: “For they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty” (Revelation 16:13–14); “And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon” (verse 16, ESV). Armageddon (in Hebrew, Har Megiddo, “Mount Megiddo”), otherwise known as the Plain of Esdraelon or the Valley of Jezreel, is in northern Israel today.

These evil spirits are the same fallen angels who rose up in war against God, under Satan’s violent influence during his rebellion before humanity existed. Violence is part of his nature and underlies his activities (Ezekiel 28:16; Isaiah 14:12–17). Since he is the Adversary (in Hebrew, satan), violent opposition is his modus operandi.

Among those fighting Christ will be 10 leaders and their armies: “The ten horns which you saw are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. These will make war with the Lamb” (Revelation 17:12–14).

Once the nations have massed at Armageddon, they will make their way south and be gathered by God near Jerusalem. The prophet Zechariah spoke of this time when he wrote of Christ’s ultimate intervention in human affairs: “Behold, the day of the Lord is coming… . For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem… . Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives” (Zechariah 14:1–4).

The immediate outcome of this battle is the destruction of Christ’s enemies: “Then the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who worked signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image. These two were cast alive into the lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the rest were killed with the sword which proceeded from the mouth of Him who sat on the horse. And all the birds were filled with their flesh” (Revelation 19:20–21).

This is a horribly violent end to the time of greatest violence in human history.

A History of Opposition

Why must Christ make war? The answer lies in how God can deal with human nature and its underlying attitude, which originates with an ungodly being. It is the influence and action of this being that gives rise to Christ’s intervention at the close of this age. And we will see that it comes at the end of a long history of opposition.

As we’ve noted, Satan is a violent being who predates humankind in opposition to God. His violence is ungodly. He does not make war in righteousness. Satan is the one behind human opposition to God. Consider that

  1. he persuaded Adam and Eve to oppose their Maker—they violated their relationship with God (to “violate” is to treat violently);
  2. he exploited Cain’s individual weakness and failure to overcome temptation to sin and had him do violence to Abel;
  3. he caused the pre-Flood world to become so violent and corrupted that God had to intervene by ending it.

Soon after the Flood, Nimrod emerged as a defiant person, opposed to God—“a mighty hunter” (Genesis 10:9) and, as we learn, a tyrant, a despot, “the first powerful ruler on earth” (1 Chronicles 1:10, Complete Jewish Bible).

Even though Cain’s line was ended, Nimrod arose, and his similar approach has prevailed among humanity. Today we are dealing with the legacy of Cain—what the New Testament writer Jude identifies as “the way of Cain” (verse 11), and what we might also call “the way of Nimrod,” otherwise identified as “Great Babylon” (Daniel 4:30; Revelation 16:19) after the city, the system and the way of life he founded at Babel. The book of Revelation deals with the final end of this system that has plagued humanity. This is an economic order that enslaves and does massive violence to all human beings. It trades in the “bodies and souls of men” (Revelation 18:13, New King James Version) or “human lives” (New American Standard Bible).

Nimrod’s defiance and those who followed his way at Babel came as no surprise to God. Immediately after the Flood, He had already concluded that humanity could not change of itself: “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done” (Genesis 8:21). Nothing had changed in the way people thought naturally; this is the same language God used of humanity just before the Flood (see Genesis 6:5).

Human violence and unrighteous war were the reason God had to intervene before, and it will be part of the reason He intervenes in future.

As far as humans go, war is more often than not the only answer, but for unrighteous reasons. The “Great Dictators” were men who thought they were gods. Yet they could not produce peace from their wars and violence—just more of the same. It’s all a horrific demonstration of the depravity to which Satan has driven people. For those who will be defiant in the final era before Christ’s return, righteous war is the only way for God to deal with them. God makes war only for righteous reasons.

Rare Wisdom

There have been those who to some degree have grasped what the problem with man is. The horror of war has taught some military men important truths. In 1951, the American World War II leader Douglas MacArthur said: “Military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations—all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. The utter destructiveness of war now blocks out this alternative. We have had our last chance. If we will not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature, and all material and cultural developments of the past two thousand years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.” MacArthur knew that war is too often the only answer to human differences and that it can be overcome only by spiritual renewal.

Another who knew that spiritual principles are the only answer to human violence and aggression was American general Omar Bradley. In 1948 he said, “We have many men of science; too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount… . The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

But these men are not typical, nor were they able to do anything about humanity’s downward spiral. Historian Victor Davis Hanson puts it this way: “Conflict will remain the familiar father of us all—as long as human nature stays constant and unchanging over time and across space and cultures.” His summary statement is that “war is an entirely human enterprise” (The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern, 2010).

That last statement is a partial truth. War is not entirely a human work. Satan is also involved, and he is the mastermind behind unrighteous war. Jesus prophesied that total war would come because of human will. He said of the end of this age of man, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened” (Matthew 24:21–22). This is the kind of war that MacArthur and Bradley feared.

In pondering why Christ must make war, it’s also important to state that Father and Son do not view human life as we do. Death does not carry the finality that it does in the minds of most human beings. They know that resurrection or change to spirit life is possible. They know that humanity can be brought back to life from the grave, from the depths of the oceans to the reaches of outer space. The Father knows that His desire is to see all humanity saved. If death must come before He has begun working with a person, He can choose to allow that.

They also know that the human evil that comes from sin cannot be atoned for without the death of a replacement, a sacrificial lamb. This is what Jesus willingly became and what the Father had to allow by turning away from the sin it covered. He did forsake His sinless Son—the substitution for everyone’s sins. Human sin, yours and mine, and that of everyone who has ever lived and will yet live, is paid for by Christ’s sacrifice—the death of a God Being in our place.

Peace, Not War—Forever

Of course, the coming Day of the Lord is not just about war; it’s also about the beginning of the new world. It’s about the defeat of God’s enemies and the initiation of peace. It’s about the beginning of the bringing back to life of all who have died so that they may have their opportunity to know the way of God. The innocents who died under violent leaders in all of history will come to know the true God, not the false messiahs who deceive and destroy.

He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

Isaiah 2:4

Jesus Christ came with a clear message of a coming universal peace on earth, when human nature would undergo transformation. He spoke of a future time of “regeneration” (Matthew 19:28). The apostle Peter referred to the “restitution [or restoration, NKJV] of all things” (Acts 3:21, King James Version). Peace is one of the things to be restored. Significantly, in God’s coming kingdom unrighteous human war will largely become a thing of the past: “The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever. My people will dwell in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places” (Isaiah 32:17–18).

That comes about because Christ’s righteous judgment will lead to the end of nations and peoples even learning to be warlike: “He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Micah 4:3, ESV).

We are going to see the closing down of the military-industrial complex. Aggression is not going to be viewed as the way ahead. The way of God will be centrally sought and taught, and the human proclivity for war will be prevented: “At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart” (Jeremiah 3:17, ESV).

God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 21:3–4, English Standard Version

The human way of thinking, taken advantage of by the violent spirit leader, Satan, will not be possible. The result: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise” (Isaiah 60:18, ESV).