Since the beginnings of Christian theology, people have recognized the tension between some of the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament versus the revelation of God in Christ.
We like to pretend that these views are not contradictory. We’ve created a dance of fancy theological footwork to merge the image of violence with the image of peace. We try to say it’s not “contradiction”, and use words like “paradox” and “mystery” instead. We say things like “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”
All the while, we know it doesn’t add up. The reality is that we see two opposing portraits of God in the scriptures: a violent God of wrath slaughtering his enemies and commanding his people to do the same, and Jesus… saying his Father is kind to the ungrateful and wicked, saying he loves his enemies and commanding us to do the same.
While I can’t claim to perfectly resolve this dilemma, my goal today is to provide a compelling case for why Jesus is, as Paul describes, “the image of the invisible God,” and THE standard by which all other images of God must be held accountable.
A God Made In Our Image
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” – 1 John 4:18
For a while now, I’ve been trying to sift my way out of all the confusion that comes from a flat reading of the Bible, where everything every biblical author over thousands of years says about God is equally true.
With such a conglomeration of opposing divine portraits, I had no peace of mind. I never knew how God felt about me. He loves me infinitely but also plans to destroy me if I don’t live right? This view held me in fear my whole life. In fact, the majority of people I see holding this view are also enslaved by fear, incapable of thinking reasonably about the nature of God or love.
“God’s love is a different kind of love then ours” is confusing and just another way of saying God isn’t loving. If we remove divine love from what we relate to as love, then it becomes something else and there is no use in calling it love. Such “love” has no power to cast out fear.
Today and through history, I see the this dichotomous view of God breeding self-righteousness and fear. I see people using whatever portrait of God they can find on the biblical smorgasbord of divine portraits to excuse whatever kind of violent and unloving attitude they have against people they hate or disagree with. I see condemnation of others who have different views as “heretics” and no general consensus on the truth of God’s nature.
The Bible has been used throughout history to excuse slavery, war, genocide, torture, vengeance, capital punishment, and the superiority complex of the “chosen”. The reality is that all of this can be found in the Bible. And yet, these things are the opposite of Jesus.
This is not an exclusively religious problem, nor is it a reason to think low of the Bible. Atheists are good at pointing out the violence in the Old Testament and making the Bible into an immoral, unethical book. However, the violence of the Bible is a human problem, a case study in primitive ethics and human violence which were projected onto “the gods” throughout history, our God included among them.
The Bible reveals anthropology just as much as it reveals theology.
The Bible shows the Spirit at work within our messy societal evolution, as he progressively leads us out of our delusion and into the revelation of Christ. I believe the Bible reveals that God’s love is big enough to allow humanity’s violent projections, as he works with us where we are at to bring us into a higher revelation of truth and love. After all, the Bible also inspires the most powerful visions of compassion, social justice, kindness, peacemaking, and love of enemies.
So I’ve had to wrestle into a new understanding of God, where the higher way revealed by Jesus trumps the violent projections of mankind onto the God of their forefathers. I have resolved to simply focus on Jesus, since I believe he is the highest revelation of God – a God who gives me peace and hope and yet never lets me be comfortable in sin or apathy. A God who demonstrates reckless, furious, self-giving love and pro-active empathy for humanity and is dedicated to justice for the oppressed and victimized. A God who is with us and for us. A God like Jesus.
There are several ways that we can make a God of our own liking instead of the one found in the gospels. Many accuse those who believe in a nonviolent God of making a God in their own image, but those who believe in a nonviolent God are getting their views first and foremost from Jesus, who as Puul describes, is the perfect “image of the invisible God.” Since their faith is based first and foremost in Christ rather than the Bible – since they are called “Christians” rather than “Biblians”, this is commendable.
Yes, we get Jesus from the Bible, but on this matter Brennan Manning hit the nail on the head:
I am deeply distressed by what I can only call in our Christian culture the idolatry of the Scriptures. For many Christians, the Bible is not a pointer to God but God himself. In a word – bibliolatry. God cannot be confined to a leather-bound book. I develop a nasty rash around people who speak as if mere scrutiny of its pages will reveal precisely how God thinks and precisely what God wants.
The four Gospels are the key to knowing Jesus. But conversely, Jesus is the key to knowing the meaning of the gospel – and of the Bible as a whole. Instead of remaining content with the bare letter, we should pass on to the more profound mysteries that are available only through intimate and heartfelt knowledge of Jesus.
– Brennan Manning, The Signature of Jesus, 1996, p. 174-175
It is never okay to quote the Old Testament to endorse something that Jesus clearly forbids.
Those who easily dismiss and rationalize away the radical, counter-cultural teachings of Christ by quoting random Old Testament scriptures are not followers of Jesus; they are followers of whatever they happen to get from the myriad of conflicting images they can find in the Bible.
If someone cuts them off in traffic, maybe they can follow the “love your enemy” verse, but if someone physically threatens them, it’s time to take their pick from the smorgasbord of examples of retribution in the Old Testament (or at least the apocalyptic symbolism of the book of Revelation!). By doing this, they are able to create a God exactly in their own image by choosing whatever image of God fits what they need in the moment.
We have done this all throughout history. As Brian Zahnd so aptly put:
Even if we restrict our inquiry into the nature of God to the Bible, we are likely to find just the kind of God that we want to find. If we want a God of peace, he’s there. If we want a God of war, he’s there. If we want a compassionate God, he’s there. If we want a vindictive God, he’s there. If we want an egalitarian God, he’s there. If we want an ethnocentric God, he’s there. If we want a God demanding blood sacrifice, he’s there. If we want a God abolishing blood sacrifice, he’s there. Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test — it reveals more about the reader than the eternal I AM.
– Brian Zahnd, from his forward to A More Christlike God by Brad Jersak
A nonviolent God is really hard to make in your own image, particularly because all humans naturally see violence as an acceptable or even glorious means of shaping the world. Violence is the foundation of civilization and comes instinctively to us. This is what is so ironic about the accusation that believing in a nonviolent God is making a God in our own image.
If we want a God in our own image, a nonviolent God is NOT the way to go.
Jesus says God loves his enemies, and that we are to emulate him in this. If that does not rule out God killing and torturing his enemies, then there is no reasonable thing we can conclude from Jesus telling us that God loves his enemies, nor is there any example we can follow as to what loving one’s enemies might actually look like.
Jesus tells us to be like our Heavenly Father who is “kind to the ungrateful and wicked”, and THEN we will be his true children.
Old Testament Portraits Vs. Christ
“Love your enemies. In so doing, you will be like your Father, who is kind to the wicked. Be merciful as your Heavenly Father is merciful.” – Jesus in Luke 6
Here we have juxtaposed two images of God. One is an image of God in the Bible from thousands of years before Christ and one is the words of Christ himself who is “the image of the invisible God” and the “exact representation of God’s being.” Like it or not, this demonstrates a black and white contradiction.
The answer is not to throw out the Old Testament, as Marcion did in the 2nd century. Because the Old Testament has the second voice too: an ever progressing understanding of Gods unconditional love – how he pleads the cause of the victim and hates violence.
Rather, the answer is to acknowledge the obvious problem and recognize two views of God wrestling with each other in the people of God and the writers of scripture, culminating in the higher way revealed in Christ.
The Son, not the Bible, is the perfect representation of the Father. You cannot overemphasize Jesus. You cannot believe in Jesus too much. Don’t try to “balance” Jesus with other stuff. Believe in him. This is the Son, with whom God is well pleased. Listen to him!
The writings of numerous authors over the changes of thousands of years within one religious tradition which we call “the law and the prophets” or “the Old Testament” by no means presents a univocal view of God. There is a conversation going on – a progressive, evolving understanding of the divine. Later writings sometimes critique earlier writings, and later prophets critique earlier prophets.
Just as we see the progression and evolution of ideas and awareness throughout human history, so too do we see a progression in the Jewish people’s revelation of God.
When the time was right, the Messiah came forth into history, and while many prophecies foretold him, he represented the fullness of truth in a way that went far beyond the limited, immature framework Israel had received and processed revelation through. Christ respected the law and the prophets because he recognized and affirmed the progressive revelation of God, and they, through the limited framework they knew, were inspired by the Spirit to come into agreement with the righteousness and truth of God being established on the earth.
Jesus was the fulfillment of this progressive revelation. This is why he said in Matthew 5:18, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
In Christ, the Law was fulfilled. And in Christ, the prophets’ framework of righteousness and truth being established through violence became an allegory for the “violent” aggression of God’s inescapable love.
The law of Moses helped humanity progress out of the law of the jungle – the primal, survivalist humanity bent on conquest, where the powerful subjugated the weak. A more primitive humanity which followed the survival instincts of conquest needed a strict code of conduct, with the threat of punishment, in order to progress. It was their paradigm. It’s what they understood.
This is the beginning of bringing humanity out of a reality where violence was the foundation. The law was a product of its time, and therefore reflects that time. Its values were actually quite progressive for the day they were written. It served as a stepping stone. It sent them on a trajectory towards a societal order that valued justice for all instead of survival of the fittest.
As Israel progressed, we see the prophets giving an increasing voice to the oppressed. We see mercy and justice becoming the greater focus. We see the vision of a tribal God who demands sacrifice fading and becoming the God who “desires mercy and not sacrifice” (a phrase Jesus quoted twice) – a God who loves the nations and desires to be a father to all peoples, just as Abraham had envisioned in the beginning.
While the law put us on a progressive trajectory, it was ultimately unable to usher in the true image of God. Only love could do that. Only love incarnate could show us that.
The law therefore set us on a trajectory towards societal order and justice, finally concluding in the revelation of our need for the rebirth experience through Christ. The law is therefore perfected in love. The law is fulfilled by the indwelling Christ who through us shapes a new humanity – the kingdom of God. Those who are led by the Spirit of grace are revealed as the children of God.
As Peter Enns says:
The New Testament leaves behind the violent, tribal, insider-outsider, rhetoric of a significant portion of the Old Testament. Instead, the character of the people of God–now made up of Jew and Gentile–is dominated by such behaviors as faith in Christ working itself out in love, self-sacrifice, praying for one’s enemies and persecutors.
Having a “biblical” defense for anything is easy. You can have a solid biblical defense for slavery, genocide, war, polygamy, nationalism, sexism, and racism. But when we hold these things accountable to the image of God revealed in Christ, we find them to fall short.
When people hold the nonviolent teachings of Jesus to be the truest image of God, it doesn’t make sense to say, “You’re trying to make God into your own image! His ways are higher than ours!” In truth, these short-tempered, violent, demanding portraits of God look strikingly similar to you and me, or at least, how we would be without Jesus.
It seems that the God many of us believe in needs to ask Jesus into his heart!
God’s Ways Are Higher
Violence is not a way that is higher than man. Violence is exactly like us. It is perfect altruism that is so much higher than our ways and our thoughts.
A God who slays his enemies, we can relate to, but a God who dies for his enemies… that is incomprehensible.
And a God that commands us to do the same? This is where it starts getting uncomfortable for us.
Jesus is the way of God that is so much higher than sinful man. In fact, in Isaiah, when God declares that his ways are higher than ours, it is in the context his lovingkindness and mercy, which is so unlike our human ways.
“’Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:7-8
The chapter literally goes on and on in extravagantly describing the outlandish lovingkindness that God has for us, detailing the overflowing peace and joy we’ll have – for the mountains will burst forth in joy before us and the trees will clap their hands for us – when we turn back to him.
So how are God’s way higher than ours? He has outrageous mercy and he freely pardons.
In fact, when Jesus finishes teaching us to love and do good to our enemies, he then says, “Then you will be children of the MOST HIGH who is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” This is the only place Jesus calls God the “Most High”. In other words, you can’t get any higher above human thought than this, and it is against all natural violent human instincts of selfishness and survivalism and revenge.
This reveals, without question, God’s core essence of love: the Most High is kind to his enemies. If someone were to strike God on the cheek, God would turn to them the other cheek. If someone were to kill God, God would not fight back. He would submit. And his submission would be his triumph over all powers. This is Jesus. This is the way of the cross. This is the high way of God.
Allow me to suggest that God never deviates from this highest way. God never deviates from being like Jesus. God is the high way. God is like Jesus.
The title “Most High” is used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s power, particularly his power over the nations as well as over all other powers and “gods”. Jesus usually spoke of God in terms of his Abba, Father, but when Jesus speaks of God in terms of his power as the “Most High”, he does so in terms of loving enemies and being kind to the ungrateful and wicked. This is typical of Jesus – subverting our ideas about God and about power.
“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” – Luke 6:35
This is how God is the Most High. This is how God has power over the nations and above all spiritual powers: God loves his enemies and is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. In the way of the world, power is who has the biggest muscles, the biggest bombs, the most resources that can do the most destruction, who has the most skill, etc.
But as 1 Corinthians 1 says, it is the cross that is the power and wisdom of God. God’s power is greater than the power of the world, not because he operates in the same manner only with bigger muscles, but because he operates in the opposite manner: humility, servanthood, kindness, forgiveness.
This is the tenacity and strength of the truth. This is Jesus. This is the cross. This is how the kingdom comes.
Children Of The Most High
But Jesus not only says that is how God is the “Most High”, but that is how we are children of the Most High. In other words, we are participants in this power. When we love our enemies, we become examples of the Most High’s nature.
Scripture even goes as far as to describe us as “gods” in this sense. Yes, when Jesus used the phrase “children of the Most High”, there is one other place that phrase is used, “You are gods; you are all children of the Most High.” – Psalm 82:6
When we learn the way of love and the Christ-heart takes form within us, it causes us to become peacemakers in a world of hostility – to reject tribalism, enmity, and retaliation – to have such an empathy for humanity as to seek the best for even our enemies. This is when we become like “like gods”. We become images of our Maker – children of the Most High.
There is a theme in Jesus’ thinking concerning this idea of being “children of God” or “sons of God.” (The phrase “children of God” and “sons of God” is interchangeable. Some use “children” instead of “sons” to be gender inclusive).
First, Jesus says if we love our enemies then we are children of the Most High. And again, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes the connection: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”
Sonship is not just a small part of the gospel. It IS the gospel.
John says that “To all that received him, he gave the power to BE CALLED SONS OF GOD.” Where else did we hear that phrase? Who will “be called sons of God”? Peacemakers.
So here we have receiving Christ made synonymous with becoming a peacemaker. The gospel, after all, is the gospel of peace and the good news of the kingdom of God, of “peace on earth and good will toward men”. Christ is the Prince of Peace. Jesus says the most prominent feature of the sons of God is peacemaking. To all that received the Son, he gave the power to be called sons of God – to be peacemakers – to usher in the kingdom of God.
Paul also uses this phrase “sons of God” in Romans 8, when he says all of creation is eagerly anticipating the revealing of the sons of God, for within this revelation creation will be liberated into glory. The renunciation of hostility towards our fellow man and the fostering of the Spirit of God within, of such great love, humility, and compassion, that we become peacemakers: creating family, destroying hostility, standing against the powers of injustice in the power of the Spirit, laying our lives down, shaping a new world, liberating this creation into the Fathers kingdom.
Peacemakers. This is when the righteous shine like stars in the kingdom of our Father.
Regarding peacemaking, why don’t we as Christians take this seriously, when Christ emphasized it over and over? Why do we not seek to live out the commands of Jesus, who we profess to be our Lord. “Why do you call me Lord and not do what I say?” – Luke 6:46
Good question, Jesus, let me think about that.
Violence is easy, instinctual, and natural. It’s all of our default. It takes but a quick glance at the world to know this is true. But as Jesus said, loving our enemies and bringing peace is what makes us true children of God.
Being a peacemaker is challenging. It takes far more creativity, imagination, and sacrifice than violence ever required.
And yet I love how Jesus gives us zero outs on this. Nowhere does he endorse or demonstrate violence. The best people can come up with is the temple episode, where we see Jesus at his most intense, but nowhere does it say he inflicted injury on anyone’s person.
So then it’s back to the Old Testament to vindicate our violence. Or at least the extreme apocalyptic imagery of Revelation! Yes, we can use that metaphorical apocalyptic imagery to vindicate our not taking Jesus seriously! John the Revelator to the rescue! Whew.. Almost put us in a bind there, Jesus. (For a better way to read the book of Revelation, click here)
Even with zero “outs” from Jesus, we are fishing, fishing, fishing, for some way… ANY way… to excuse our violence. We have a western world full of professed followers of Jesus, 99% of whom completely ignore his blatant command to love one’s enemies and renounce violence – who see peacemaking as weak and “not pragmatic”.
In this way, our “Christianity” has become like the Pharisees Jesus spoke so forcefully against, who “look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead.”
The Sword Jesus Came To Bring
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – Matthew 10:34
Many people seem to think this verse throws a giant monkey wrench in the idea of a peaceful Jesus. Only in a world of one-line, out-of-context verse quoting is this the case.
In this verse, Jesus is not suddenly contradicting his ENTIRE message. Obviously! He is not discussing a literal sword, but rather, the sword of his mouth, just as the book of Revelation portrays.
This sword is his message of the kingdom of God, that wages war on the principalities and powers, the mindsets and ideological strongholds in people and cultures which individually and collectively form strongholds of oppression over humanity. As the apostle Paul said,
“We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” – Ephesians 6:12
The message of God’s humanity in Christ and his solidarity with the marginalized and victimized is a seed that begins to grow and infiltrate the thinking of this world, deconstructing ideologies of violence and injustice, and bringing into reality the angelic announcement that came with Christ’s arrival into the world, “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men.”
Christ’s command to peacefully love our enemies forces us to see common humanity in our rivals. It overturns tribal scapegoating, condemns the oppressive hoarding of wealth, and teaches us to care for the poor. Jesus demonstrated purity of heart, union with Abba, reconciliatory cosuffering, the ethics of peacemaking, and what it means to lay down one’s life.
When we enter into the message of Jesus, it begins a radical transformation within us and becomes a prophetic announcement of the kingdom of God in this world. In births in us a new way of being human… truly human. Human as Christ is human, as sons and images of Abba, who do what they see the Father doing.
This is how the lamb and his community of followers “wage war” and triumph over the beastly systems of this age, by the peacemaking blood of the lamb, by the testimony of those who have become like the lamb, and by those who have embraced the sacrificial, nonviolent love of the lamb, even if it means their own deaths.
The image of God on the cross deconstructs all images of a violent God. The Crucified God simply hangs lifeless, bloody and marred, as a symbol to humanity, drawing out empathy, exposing victimization, condemning violence, demonstrating forgiveness, making peace, deconstructing false images of God, casting down powers, and creating a new humanity with resurrection life.
Nothing makes me desire to be merciful more than knowing my Father is like that. My desire is to emulate him. Like Jesus, I want to do what I see my Father doing.
If my Father smites his enemies and pours retribution upon them, I will view my own enemies through that lens. Rather than responding with Jesus’ radical compassion and mercy, I’ll gleefully think about how those I dislike will be destroyed or tortured eternally.
But if, as Jesus said, my Father loves his enemies, is kind to the wicked, and gives to them without expecting anything back, then I will find myself hoping the best for my enemies, looking for the gold within them, keeping no record of wrongs, and seeking redemption in their lives.
In an odd twist to the “imago dei”, we become made in the image of the God we worship. The God you worship will be the God you become like.
A violent god is not the God we see in Christ. It’s a god fashioned in our own image. A nonviolent God is so very unlike us – so much higher – calling us into our true image. Our violent God does not exist. But neither does our easy-going Jesus exist. His love is both tender and furious. It comes to level the mountains and raise up the valleys. It comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. It continuously shakes us out of our delusions to expand our awareness of the cross’ divine wisdom – kenosis and theosis – self-emptying love and partaking in the divine nature. It lures and pushes us forward to become peacemakers and lay down our lives for one another – to grow into the true image of God – children of our Father. This is the kingdom come. This is peace on earth, good will toward men.
A violent and retributive God makes followers who don’t take radical forgiveness and peacemaking very seriously. Jesus is not that God. Jesus lays down his life for his enemies.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that instead of following Jesus, people follow the Bible. The Bible is good if you see it as a progressive, incremental revelation of God finding it’s fullness in Jesus (meaning that all revelation before him was inferior).
Jesus IS the point. He IS God incarnate. If there is something in the Old Testament that seems to contradict Jesus, always go with Jesus.
Thanks for reading. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Are you thinking about Jesus’ comments on Hell? Click here to read our series covering EVERY SINGLE TIME Jesus mentions “Hell” in the Bible. Would you say, “Yes, God is merciful, but he is also just”? If so, subscribe below to receive our upcoming article on the false dichotomy of mercy and judgment.