A brief guide to violence in the Scriptures
Of course, it has been some time since I was working systematically through the Scriptures on the topic of violence. I will return to it sometime. But perhaps it will give you some food for thought if I overview my schema for understanding violence in the Scriptures. This is still a thought-in-process.
The Lord gives life and the Lord takes it away. There is an absolute sovereignty that belongs to God as Creator, over all creation, which alters the moral dimension between God and creatures. In one sense, God is the one who kills everybody. If you don't believe that, then every death in the world is immoral, and God is to blame.
If you do believe it, then the OT becomes a lot easier to grapple with. The second piece of the puzzle is to recognise that death in the OT, as far as humanity is concerned, is paradigmatically given as judgement, as seen in Genesis 2-4. So every human death is God's responsibility and is an act of judgement towards sin.
So once you get to all those passages about God using people to destroy nations and commit genocide, there is a sense in which there is nothing problematic going on for God: He is Creator and He is Judge, and he is executing judgement on sinners. In fact, it is only the cultural developments from the NT onward that make us uneasy – I would suggest that in the cultural setting of the ANE and the OT period, these kinds of actions by people were not considered utterly outrageous.
And yet there is something unique about them. The theocratic uniqueness of Israel, and the time and place in redemption-history, and the relationship of God to his people then and there, is not repeated throughout the Scriptures.
This is why it is vitally important to get both the Atonement and the Ethics of Jesus correct. In the death of Jesus, the Son dies for our sins, he receives the punishment of death we deserve, having lived the life we ought. There is real sacrificial substitutionary atonement taking place. Because of Jesus' death, the grace of mercy, the grace of sins forgiven, is possible, and is extended to the world.
And God's desire is to save sinners through Jesus' death and resurrection. His preference is to save, not to judge. That's the whole basis of the gospel proclamation: that God desires to save sinners through faith in that atoning death.
The second thing we need to grasp is that the NT does a number of important things ethically and theologically. Firstly, it spiritualises a lot of OT themes. In the OT material wealth is seen as a sign of God's blessing, but the NT overturns this view of things, and talks about heavenly riches in Christ. In the OT the land is the physical environment of Israel, but the promised land of the NT is eschatological. In the OT, the ultimate punishment of the believing community is the death penalty. In the NT, I would argue, it is excommunication: spiritual exile and spiritual death. So, too, when you read through passages talking about violence in the NT (Ephesians 5, for example), the realm of conflict is spiritual, not physical.
Secondly, it constitutes a different relationship between God and his people. Following on from my point about the death penalty and excommunication: the death penalty remains in the NT, but it remains for the state. I take it that this is a part of what Romans 13 means with the “sword”. There is a difference, a marked difference, between the Church in the NT, and the governing authorities of nations. This has a number of results, but the primary one in view here is that the Church does not wield physical force to defend itself, to enforce its internal judicial affairs, or to execute judgement.
Thirdly, the point of imitation is precisely in Jesus' death-resurrection pattern. I think Tim Chester's “The Ordinary Hero” does a great job of drawing this out. Our life as Christians is modelled on Christ, who went to the cross. The paradigm of victory in the NT is the suffering death of Jesus. Christ is only Victor because he is Victim. We are called to take up our cross, to suffer innocently as Jesus' suffered (1 Peter). I would contend that it is very hard to read the NT and conclude that Christians are to use physical violence. Even Just-War proponents should admit this: Just-War doctrine emerges from a philosophical contemplation of the problems of lesser evils, and application of abstracted principles from the Scriptures. It lacks a thorough grounding in the person and work of Jesus.
The net effect of these is that the effecting of judgement is taken out of the hands of God's people. Violence is proscribed. Even for self-defence. Forgiveness, not vengeance, is the priority. And the safeguard of justice is two-edged: the death of Jesus on the cross, and the Eschatological Justice of the coming Judge. This moves us into the third movement of the symphony: judgement in the end. Christ will return, and he will come as judge of the living and the dead. And yet, the whole book of Revelation is profoundly not about Jesus coming to conquer, it is about the Lamb who was slain who has already conquered. The great moment of victory already happened: it was the cross. Revelation is profoundly anti-militant, and Jesus comes to execute judgement by his word.
This is why a biblical pacifism is rooted in both judgement and atonement. Without judgement, evil reigns and God is permissive. Without judgement, we are continually compelled by the argument that “pacifism doesn't work”. But with a robust doctrine of judgement, we trust in the faithfulness of a sovereign God who hates evil and will bring evil to an end, moreso He loves humanity and sent Jesus to atone for evil and conquer it through his death.
Therefore, we don't need to win justice for ourselves and exact it on our enemies: God is Judge. We don't need to be continually behold to the realpolitik of “what works” - God is Sovereign. We do need to pattern our lives after the suffering Messiah: and our present suffering is not to be compared with the glory that will be revealed.