Is God violent?

It is a question I was discussing with a friend last week. She, like me, comes from a background in which the stories of the Bible were regarded as unquestioned absolute fact. The problem is that as you start to take a look at some of these stories, you start to hope that they are not.

But if they are not, then the absolutes that faith has been built from start to come unravelled- if you pull at these bricks the whole wall will fall in.

I wrote a series here called ‘Bible Nasties’ in which I tried to explore some of the issues that arose from my own theological meanderings. You can catch the first one here, and the others via the links in the comments.

However, Brian McLaren does it much better in this article here. Here are a couple of quotes;

Let’s define violence simply: force with the intent of inflicting injury, damage, or death. I think believers in God have four primary responses to the question of God’s violence defined in this way:

1. God is violent, and since we human beings are made in God’s image, we’re free to use violence as one valid form of political communication (to borrow a famous phrase from Carl von Clausewitz), and in fact we are commanded to use it in some cases.

2. God is violent, but in a holy way that sinful humans are incapable of. That’s why violence is generally prohibited for humans except in certain limited cases. In those cases, only those designated as God’s chosen/elect/ordained, acting under God’s explicit direction, are justified in using violence.

3. God is not violent, so human violence is always a violation of our creation in God’s image — both for the perpetrator and the victim. If it is ever employed, it is always tragic and regrettable, never justified.

4. God is not violent, so violence in any form is absolutely forbidden, no exceptions.

McLaren goes on to describe his own struggles with this issue- how the violent version of God contrasts with the other version in the pages of the Bible- the loving, forgiving, self sacrificing one, who eventually casts himself as the victim of violence, not the originator of it. Which version is the truest one, because increasingly it becomes impossible to hold them both together.

McLaren points us to Jesus, and along the way, we again bump into how we understand attonement;

In my own grappling with this subject, a single question has brought things into focus for me: Where do you primarily find God on Good Friday?

If God is primarily identified with the Romans, torturing and killing Jesus, then, yes, the case is closed: God must be seen as violent on Good Friday. The cross is an instrument of God’s violence.

But if God is located first and foremost with the crucified one, identifying with humanity and bearing and forgiving people’s sin, then a very different picture of God and the cross emerges.

Both locations present a scandal. The former, it seems to me, subverts the entire biblical narrative. God is not then identified with the slaves seeking freedom, but with Pharoah keeping them in their place. God is not with the woman caught in adultery, but with those who want to stone her. God is not with Paul, accepting Gentiles as sisters and brothers, but with the Judaizers, upholding the Law. And God is not hanging on the cross, but stooping over it, pounding in the nail. That’s scandalous in one way.

The latter understanding subverts violence and all those who depend on it for their security, affluence, and happiness. God is with the slaves, not with the slave-drivers. God is found in the one being tortured, not the ones torturing. God is found among the displaced refugees, not those stealing their lands. And God is found in the one being spat upon, not in the one spitting. A very different scandal indeed — and a very different cross, with a very different, but no less profound, meaning.


2 thoughts on “Is God violent?

  1. I can’t believe I am commenting on a subject where you are so much more learned, but, as a student of history and a lifelong student of people and their actions, the Bible has always fascinated me.

    Could it be that the writers of the Bible created an image of God who is violent in order to control others. If there is a vengeful God to point to, a minority can control a majority. After all, any descriptions of God are based on deductions made by men.

    The violent God image also provides an explanation for the violent things that happen in Nature. Often, things we don’t understand are ascribed to God, yes?

    As for where God is, isn’t he with all of us, on all sides, because we are the ones doing, not him? That isn’t to say he takes one side over another. He is a watcher who allows us to make our way [hopefully in his image].

    I am laughing at myself at my simplistic statements and at my temerity, but I do love discussions on this, and similar, topics and I always feel safe to make comments on your blog.

    I confess, that my image of God is of a being with a tremendous sense of humour — and endless patience — or he would have become violent and wiped us out long ago.

  2. Hi Margo

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, which as ever is welcome! As for me being more learned- I am afraid this is not true. Do not mistake volume of words for understanding!

    I love your image of God being full of humour and patience.

    And I agree with you about the writers of the Bible using God as a weapon. Like the Crusaders who followed a cross into battle, or even the recent campaigns against so called evil empires. God is OUR God- and he is bigger than yours.

    Many of the stories in the OT can be read this way- the massacres and the battles for supremacy. There are others that do not fit this as well of course- floods and famines and fire from on high.

    It all does come down to what we understand the Bible to be- and like you, I am comfortable (despite this being heresy to some) with the idea that it is a work of man, telling the story of our engagement with God.

    Cheers to you and yours over there!


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