Godly Violence and the Cross
The God of the Old Testament is known as a God of violence and wrath. The God of the New Testament has a better reputation. Yet, he gives his only Son over to a horrible death. Is that not just as bad?
Violence in the Old Testament
As you turn to the first pages of the Old Testament, you are immediately confronted with it. God allows almost all people and animals to drown in the waters of the flood. Such a massive drowning never happens again. However, blood continues to flow in the Old Testament. Sometimes this happens when people disobey God’s specific commandments and will. Very often blood flows at God’s direct command. More than once, he himself causes human blood to flow. In Isaiah 63:1-6 God appears in red apparel. In response to the question as to why his clothing is so red, he answers that he trampled the peoples as grapes in a winepress. His garments are red from their spattered lifeblood.
The Old Testament is full of the pouring out of blood and of violence. That calls forth questions, criticism and abhorrence. One of the things that is most offensive is Israel’s actions towards the peoples of Canaan. Whole cities are demolished, men, women, children, everyone wiped out. Was that not simply mass murder, genocide? And Israel did that at the command of God!
The book of Deuteronomy explains why the Canaanite peoples had to be wiped out. It was because they would entice Israel to serve other gods instead of the LORD (see Deut. 7:1-4). Israel must thus remain guarded and protected in the pure service of God. But is that a valid excuse for the genocide of a people? If you concur with that, do you really have anything to say against the Islamic terrorists who flew their airplanes into the high risers? Bin Laden and his followers set themselves in opposition to the threat against their particular religion, did they not?
Is the New Testament Better?
The violence in the Old Testament renders Christians self-conscious. Happily, the New Testament appears to offer a way out. The Lord Jesus forbids his followers to reach for their swords: “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Extermination of unbelievers is not a part of the New Testament time. Persecution must be answered with patience and endurance. Much more clearly than in the Old Testament, Jesus says: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
But the same Jesus, at one point, compares himself to someone who desires to become king and has to grapple with rebellion. He allows that king to say, once he is in power, “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27). The book of Revelation portrays Jesus as the lamb of God. But this lamb of God can become so angry that the people would rather have the mountains and rocks fall on them and crush them instead of their being exposed to his wrath (Rev. 6:16, 17). Whoever does not follow him will have to drink the wine of God’s wrath and “will be tormented with fire and sulphur…in the presence of the Lamb” (Rev. 14:10).
The judgments which God and his Son, Jesus Christ, present in the book of Revelation against their enemies, are no less than those announced by the Old Testament prophets. They are frightening and unimaginable. Yet, the question remains whether that godly violence is the most shocking thing in the New Testament. Is that really the greatest stumbling block which would cause people to refuse to entrust themselves to God? The writer Guus Kuijer does not believe in God. Recently (March 23), he was the keynote speaker at a discussion afternoon in the Protestant Theological University at the Oudestraat in Kampen. The theme for the gathering was ‘tenability of the Old Testament’. Is the Old Testament, which is so full of violence and the wrath of God, still usable? Noteworthy was that this question never received the most attention. At least as much time for discussion was given to what the New Testament and theology say about the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross. What appears to give Kuijer the most difficulty is that God would allow his own Son, although guiltless, to be tortured to death in that manner! He found that more horrible than the godly violence in the Old Testament.
Living Only In God
Later on in this article I do want to come back to the godly violence in the death of Jesus on the cross. First, I would like to say a bit more about the controversial example from the Old Testament, the extermination of the nations in Canaan. Is it true that that extermination commanded by God was designed to keep the service of God pure in Israel? You could indeed say so. In Deuteronomy this command is placed directly alongside God’s command to destroy all accoutrements with which the peoples of Canaan served their idols. The altars must be broken down, the consecrated stones pulverized, the Asherah poles chopped down and the images burned (Deut. 7:5). Pertinent to this, there may be no marriage unions with boys or girls from the Canaanite peoples (Deut. 7:3). The reason for all these regulations is clear as the sun: Israel must be guarded from the enticement to become unfaithful to the Lord by serving other gods (Deut. 7:4).
The service of the LORD as the God of Israel must indeed be kept pure. The elimination of the peoples of Canaan is a means that aids in this endeavor. But, if you say it in this way, you are not searching deeply enough. It is indeed about pure worship. This manner of speaking does however carry the risk that you remain at a human level in your reasoning. People have their religions and that religion must, according to the will of God, be preserved in a pure state. When you say this, you have only partially understood what Deuteronomy 7 is about.
In Deuteronomy 7 the pure service of God is placed in the framework of love. The LORD says that he has cast his eye on that tiny people, Israel. He chose that people to make it his own precious possession. He desired to live with that nation in a covenant, just as unique as that between a man and woman in marriage (see Deut. 7:6-7). That was the intent of the pure religion which had to be preserved in Canaan. Israel had to live with the Lord in a relationship of total love and trust. Canaan was the home where they, as a newly-wed couple, would go to live together. That love and that unique situation of God living with his people were not to be threatened by an intruder from outside. (Baal, Ashura, or anyone else).
That unique life of love with Israel was the new step in the execution of the plan of salvation, which God put in place at that time. He desired to once again bring to pass true life on earth, to begin (with) in the land of milk and honey. Life is very closely connected to faithfulness to God in the book of Deuteronomy, to loving the Lord and to obedience to his commandments (see e.g., Deut. 6:3-5). Deuteronomy 30:20 says that “loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, (for he) is your life and length of days”. That remarkable statement can be explained as follows: Israel’s life in the promised land depends on their love and obedience to God. That totally fits with what you read on practically every page in Deuteronomy. But then there still remains something on which to ponder further, that love for God and life here are so closely connected with each other.
That is even more clear in other places in the Bible; only in close connection with God is there real life. Life without Him is not life. If you endeavor to live without him, you are in a state of living death (zombie). You can already sense that this is true in Genesis 2 and 3, the history of paradise and the Fall into sin. When Adam and his wife relinquish their obedience to God, they die. They are still breathing and walking around in the garden, but life, the real life, is broken.
It has never been expressed more clearly than by Jesus Christ in John 17:3: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” True life is knowing God and living with Jesus Christ. The name Jesus Christ naturally does not yet appear in the book of Deuteronomy. But the vision of what real life is, is not essentially different. There is life only in connection with God, in trusting him and in submission to his love and will.
This is revealed further in Deuteronomy in that not only the peoples of Canaan are threatened with annihilation. Precisely the same lot awaits the Israelites if they allow themselves to be enticed to serve other gods (see Deut. 7:4, 26). In this you see very clearly; there is no life except in connectedness with the only God. You encounter the same thought when in Deuteronomy 9 the cause of the annihilation of the peoples of Canaan is stated as their own sinful behaviours: “because of the wickedness of these nations (that) the LORD is driving them out before you” (Deut. 9:5). They are wiped out only when they have committed so many transgressions that the measure is full (Gen. 15:16). The people who must die have already, for generations past, chosen death. Other rules are applied to other nations (see Deut. 20:10-18).
The big question that confronts us in Deuteronomy is: how do you view life? How do you regard God as the one who gives you life? Are you truly prepared to acknowledge that only life with him is real life? Or, do you not prefer this God and choose, as a consequence thereof, death?
The Suffering Servant
God’s command to wipe out the nations of Canaan was given at a unique moment in history. He gave Israel this task when he wanted to begin a new life with his people in a new land, as a subsequent step on the path towards redemption of all the life that exists in the power of death.
Later, God did not again give his command to wipe out nations. In the time of David and Solomon, many descendants of the native peoples of Canaan are still living there. They are put to task in forced labour, but they are not wiped out. The Israelites carried out the command to annihilate the peoples only to a small degree. They knew that.
Repeatedly they let themselves be enticed (side-tracked) to give their love to other gods instead of to the LORD alone. They had received much in order to protect them from that state. They received a sanctuary with priests, feasts and offerings, first in the form of a tabernacle, later in the form of a permanent dwelling place for God on Zion. They were given good laws, which could show them the right path. They received judges, prophets, and kings to lead them in the service of God. All of that did not help. After centuries with some highpoints and many low points, the end of the story was that they had to leave the land of milk and honey. As exiles, they had to live in Assyria and Babylonia.
But also this hard intervention by God was not sufficient. In Babel, they still allowed themselves to be impressed by strange gods, Bel and Nebo (see Is. 46; 48:1-16). Instead of totally trusting in God, they let themselves be frightened by people, and they hesitated at God’s command to leave Babel (see Is. 50:2; 51:12, 13; 52:11). In this hopeless situation, the Lord seeks his people with a unique prophecy. In Isaiah 52:13-53:12 he presents his servant to Israel, the one who takes their suffering, sin and guilt upon himself. That is the only possibility to escape the impasse. Life and the future can only be safely secured for Israel if this servant submits himself to death. As substitute for Israel, he must give his life as the only offering in payment for their guilt. Thus his life becomes what theirs should have been, a life in submission to God. Only in this way God’s plan of salvation will succeed, for Israel, but also for many others (see Is. 53:10-12).
Jesus, Himself, Wanted It
The New Testament points to Jesus Christ as the servant of God, who allows the unique prophecy of Isaiah 53 to become reality (see Acts 8:32-35; 1 Peter 2:21-25). He was delivered up for our trespasses (Rom. 4:25). He died a horrible death, after hours of torture on the cross, and all that definitely did not happen outside of God’s control.
Should you then say that God allowed his only Son to be tortured to death, in contradiction to all rules of justice? When you say it in that way, there are important elements of truth in that which you are saying. But, you are not doing sufficient justice to what the New Testament tells us about the suffering of Jesus and God’s role in it.
The New Testament leaves no room for misunderstanding: God gave his Son the task to give himself up to the cross on behalf of guilty people. Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). The letter to the Hebrews describes Christ as the high priest who brought the offering of his own life (Heb. 7:27). However, he did not take the honour of that office of high priest for himself: he was called to it by God (see Heb. 5:4-5). His path of suffering was a school of learning in obedience (Heb. 5:8).
God let his only Son die on the cross. Before that happened, Jesus appeared to be filled with dread at the event. His beseeching prayer to God in Gethsemane “Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39), came straight from his heart. And yet, at the same time the totality of this happening which fills us with horror and abhorrence, was in agreement with Jesus’ own will.
How marvellously the will of God the Father and of Jesus come together in John 10:18: “No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” Jesus obeys the charge from his Father and at the same time, in freedom, gives his life over to death. The charge of God is his own choice, even as it was also the personal choice of the Son of God to not remain in heavenly glory, but to become man, to humble himself and to become obedient to the point of death on the cross (Php. 2:5-8). When the offerings of animals no longer brought satisfaction, he declared himself prepared to carry out God’s will: “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God” (Heb. 10:7). At Jesus’ death on the cross, it is not about a Father who, in pure indifference, offers up his Son. It is about a deed of Father and Son together, in which they are in total agreement. The Son of God himself wanted this. It is also not just about torturing an innocent one to death. Indeed, that an innocent man died this death was in conflict with all rules of justice. It was a world turned upside down. But there was something that happened prior to this, namely, that this innocent one, through God, made himself to be sin (2 Cor, 5:21). He let himself bear our sins and brought them to the cross (1 Peter 2:24; Is. 53:6, 12).
At Jesus’ death on the cross, it is not even only about the death of a man. He who chose this death, in obedience to his Father, was God the Son. He was himself God, just as godly as his Father. God the Father did not hang on the cross, but the One who hung there was truly God, one in being with the Father.
The Decisive Point
That is the amazing path that God took to restore life to us. He did not just cause a man to suffer. In his Son, he drew the violence of the death on the cross to himself.
In the light of the Bible, the church has tried to come to some understanding as to why it had to be this way. We find the results of those efforts in Sunday 5 and 6 of the Heidelberg catechism. Very clearly and respectfully, the mystery of the death on the cross of God’s Son is also expressed in the Canons of Dort II art. 4: “This death is of such great value and worth because the person who submitted to it is not only a true and perfectly holy man, but also the only-begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for these qualifications were necessary for our Saviour.”
“For these qualifications were necessary for our Saviour”. That was how it had to be. It could not be otherwise. That absolutely does not mean that you totally understand it. It remains God’s plan of salvation which far exceeds our ability to grasp. In as far as you are able, you must explain and defend it. But at a certain point, you cannot go further and you stand before the inscrutability of God.
He is and remains God. He acts in an amazing way in the death of his Son on the cross. However, we are absolutely not in a position to say that he could have done it differently or better. Then we would be acting as if we were scot-free bystanders who could observe how rescuers pull someone out of the water, thereafter, on the basis of our experience, we say how they could have performed in a better way. We ourselves are lying in that water!
Only when you come to understand that, can you accept God’s manner of action, although you do not understand him. It was the same for the Israelites who express themselves in Isaiah 53. They were amazed at the suffering that overcame the guiltless servant of the LORD. They could accept it only after they came to the insight: We wandered around as sheep; everyone sought his own way. Only when you acknowledge that your own situation is just as hopeless as that of a lost sheep, can you rejoice that God laid your iniquity on someone else (Is. 53:6).
The godly violence in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the only way back to life. We only have life when we acknowledge that only life with God is real life, and that Jesus, by continuing to live with God, also when the Father forsook him, has become that life for us.
When you recognize that, you will accept, just as he did, your sentence to death and you will take your cross upon yourself. You will follow him through everything, also when he leads you in such a way that people oppress you, hate and kill you because of his name (Matt. 24:9). For you know that your life is elsewhere, hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).
Godly violence continues to elicit questions, certainly so when it is paired with the genocide of whole nations, as with Israel’s entry into Canaan. But our decision is not made there. That decision is made at the foot of the cross of Golgotha: do you really desire that God will give you life in this way?