I have often written in my posts that atheists and most secular people have a distorted view of God. In a recent post I wrote the following: “The God of the Old Testament is a much maligned being. Atheists, secular people, and non-Christians have a distorted view of the God presented in the Hebrew Bible. A few Christians have adopted some of the views of these people who deny the goodness of God because these Christians have a superficial view of what the Old Testament teaches about God.”
This distorted view of God has been compounded by the cumulative acts of violence that have occurred in the past few months where the use of lethal weapons, the brutality of terrorists in the Middle East and Africa, and the spread of interreligious conflicts in Iraq and Syria have led some people to put the blame for this violence and brutality on the God of the Bible.
A good example of this distorted view of God is present in the article written by Timothy Egan that appeared on the editorial page of The New York Times on July 18, 2014. In what he calls “this summer of the violent God,” Egan said that “God is on a rampage in 2014,” instructing people “to kill one another.” Below is a brief excerpt from his article:
He’s had a busy summer. As God only knows, he was summoned to slaughter in the Holy Land, asked to end the killings of Muslims by Buddhist monks in Myanmar, and played both sides again in the 1,400-year-old dispute over the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad.
In between, not much down time. Yes, the World Cup was fun, and God chose to mess with His Holinesses, pitting the team from Pope Francis’s Argentina against Germany, home of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Well played, even if the better pope lost.
At least Rick Perry was not his usual time-suck. The governor proclaimed three days of prayer to end the Texas drought in 2011, saying, “I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God: You’re going to have to fix this.’” The drought got worse. Two years ago, Perry said that God had not “changed his mind” about same-sex marriage. But the states have. Since Perry became a spokesman for the deity, the map of legalized gay marriage in America has expanded by 50 percent.
Still, these are pillow feathers in a world weighted down with misery. God is on a rampage in 2014, a bit like the Old Testament scourge who gave direct instructions to people to kill one another.
No one who reads the Bible can deny that there is violence in the Bible, both human and divine. It is true that when people act in the name of religion they can bring untold misery to the affairs of nations and in the lives of people. But, it does not mean that everything labeled religion comes from the God of the Bible in the same way that many things that are called called Christian are based on the teachings of Christ.
Most of the violence Egan attributes to God has nothing to do with God. Violence is the result of human rebellion against the original plan God has for his creation. This human rebellion is what we call sin. If people deny the reality of sin, they will never understand the problem of violence in the world.
In a recent post on atheism, Roger Olson wrote the following: “Underlying and causing their atheism is (I detect) a resistance to moral accountability. They do not want to believe that they are or will be judged because they want to live as they want to live without judgment other than their own.” The same principle applies to the reality of sin. The denial of sin does not diminish the consequences of sin in the world and the disruption sin brings into the lives of people.
When Cain killed his brother, violence entered into our world. As a consequence of sin, violence appears in the world from the beginning of human history and it has increased with the growth of humanity, culminating with the violence we see in our day.
The violence that existed in the days of Noah is parallel to the violence that Egan discusses in his article: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11).
Human violence brings as a result violent consequences that affect nations and men and women, young and old. Although many people may not understand this truth, the fact is that human violence brings divine judgment.
Time and space do not permit me to provide a detailed discussion of divine violence. A comprehensive explanation would require many posts to study this complex subject. A short explanation of divine violence is to simply say that if human violence were not a reality in the world, there would be no reason for divine violence.
One important issue that Egan and those who criticize the God of the Old Testament often overlook is God’s opposition to human violence that is found in the Old Testament. Below I cite a few passages in which divine opposition to human violence is mentioned:
Psalm 11:5: “The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence.”
Jeremiah 22:3: “Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.”
Ezekiel 45:9: “Thus says the Lord GOD: Put away violence and oppression, and do what is just and right.”
God commands the people and the leaders of Israel to stop doing violent acts against helpless people. If they continue doing violence is not because God is commanding them to do violence. They are violent and they commit acts of violence against helpless people because they rebel against God.
God’s opposition to violence is also reflected in many passages where the Bible promotes nonviolence and where the Bible speaks of a day when people “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 any more” (Micah 4:3). On that day, people will face the future with confidence, without fear of violence. They will live in a future in which “violence shall no more be heard in the land” (Isaiah 60:18).
Terence E. Fretheim, in his article “Theological Reflections on the Wrath of God in the Old Testament,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 24 (2002) 14-17, wrote that wrath and violence are not divine attributes, but responses to human sin, primarily the sins of violence.
Terence Fretheim, in his article, “God and Violence in the Old Testament,” Word & World 24 (2004): 28, wrote:
God does not intend the violence that disrupts the life of the world, rooted as it is in the sinfulness of humankind. Again and again, God takes the side of those afflicted by violence. God so engages the divine self on behalf of those entrapped in violence and its effects that God enters deeply into the life of the world, most supremely in Jesus Christ, and shows thereby the most basic stance of divine nonviolence in the face of violence. But, in order to accomplish God’s work in the world, God may respond in violent ways in and through various agents so that sin and evil do not go unchecked in the life of the world.
This summer of violence cannot be called the “summer of the violent God.” Rather, it should be known as “the summer of the faith-based fanatics” as the title of Egan’s article states. This violent summer has been caused by people who do not respect the dignity of human life, people who will use their fanaticism to promote their ideologies and political causes.
These “faith-based fanatics” are in rebellion against God’s will for his creation. The violent God Egan criticizes is not the God revealed in the Bible.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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