Violence in the Bible—How Should We Respond?
Dr. Mark Durie is vicar of St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Caulfield, Melbourne, Australia. He is fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities and the author of Revelation? Do We Worship the Same God? Jesus, Holy Spirit, God in Christianity and Islam.
What does the Bible teach about violence? Some critics make the case for a moral equivalency between Christianity and Islam, claiming that the Bible is no less violent than the Qur’an.1 Certainly the conquest of Canaan, as described in the Bible, was a bloody one. Some cities like Jericho were put to the sword.
Isn’t it dangerous to have such material in the Bible? Might not these stories incite Christians to acts of bloodshed or even genocide against others? The answer to this question is a very emphatic “No!”
There are a number of reasons why the conquest of Canaan, and other stories of conflict in the Bible, do not incite Christians into violent acts of insurrection, murder, and genocide.
One is that the account of the conquest of Canaan was entirely situation-specific. Yes, there is a divine instruction reported in the Bible to take the land by force and occupy it: “you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places” (Num. 33:52). However this was not an eternal permission to believers to wage war.
It was for a specific time and place. According to the Bible, the Canaanites had come under divine judgment because of their religious practices, of which, perhaps, the most offensive example was child sacrifice: “And because of these abominations the LORD your God is driving them out before you” (Deut. 18:12; see also Gen. 15:16).2
The sacrificing of firstborn children by immolating them before an idol (Deut. 18:10) was a persistent trait of Canaanite religion. The Phoenicians were Canaanites, and as late as the second century B.C., the people of Carthage, a Phoenician colony, were sacrificing children to their goddess Tanit. Archeologists have found charred remains of tens of thousands of newborn infants and fetuses buried in Carthage. The practice of child sacrifice made the Romans despise the Carthaginians.
Although the Old Testament does condone the use of force to purge a land of violence and injustice, the Bible’s attitude to such violence is not that it is sacred or holy. On the contrary, King David, who fought many wars with God’s active support and guidance, was not allowed to be the one to build God’s temple in Jerusalem, because there was so much blood on his hands: “You may not build a house for my name, for you are a man of war and have shed blood” (1 Chron. 28:3).
The conquest of Canaan was indeed a unique moment in the history of God’s dealings with His people. It prefigured a coming day of restoration when evil would be erased from the face of the earth and peace would come. No serious person can suggest that the warring principles involved in securing the Promised Land are to be practiced by Christians today.
Violence is regarded by the Bible as an inherently evil symptom of the corruption of the whole earth after the Fall: “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). In contrast the prophet Isaiah looked forward to the day when violence would be no more: “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise” (Isa. 60:18). Astoundingly, and in absolute contrast to the earlier kings of Israel, Isaiah describes the Lord’s anointed as unacquainted with violence: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:9). This prophecy, of course, reaches its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.3
The key question for Christians is “What did Jesus have to do with violence?” When we turn to consider Jesus and His followers, we find a systematic rejection of religious violence. Jesus’ message was that His Kingdom would be spiritual and not political. Jesus explicitly and repeatedly condemned the use of force to achieve His goals: “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
As Jesus goes to the cross, He renounces force, even at the cost of His own life: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” (John 18:36).4
Jesus’ take on violence was reinforced by the apostles Paul and Peter, who urged Christians to show consideration to their enemies, renouncing personal retaliation and revenge, living peaceably, returning cursing with blessing, and showing humility to others (Rom. 12:14-21; Titus 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:20-24).5
If only Christians had maintained this New Testament position down the centuries, the world would have been a better place. The invention of “Christendom” in the fourth Christian century, and the later influence of a centuries-long struggle against the Islamic jihad, ultimately led Christians to develop aberrant theologies which regarded warfare against non-Christians as “holy” and soldiers who died fighting in such wars were regarded as “martyrs.” Thankfully this view of warfare has been universally denounced in the modern era as incompatible with the gospel of Christ.
The New Testament’s teachings on the state continue to sustain the more than 300 million believers who live in over 60 nations where Christians are persecuted. In none of these countries has persecution resulted in Christian terrorism or violent Christian insurgencies aimed at overthrowing civil authorities. On the contrary, China’s 70 million Christians remain loyal to their nation and government, despite 50 years of the most intense oppression. In Nepal it is the Maoists who have been engaging in terrorism, not the half a million indigenous Christians.
The example of the IRA, so often cited as “Christian terrorists,” actually proves our point, because its ideology was predominately Marxist and atheistic. Unlike modern-day jihadists, who constantly quote the Qur’an in their public statements, the IRA terrorists found no inspiration in the peaceful teachings of Jesus of Nazareth!
For example, in November 2005 Julia Irwin, Labor member for Fowler in the Australian Federal Parliament, presented a speech in the House of Representatives entitled “Religious Tolerance.” Irwin made extended comments on the Bible, comparing it with the Qu’ran:
Those who refer to Muslim fundamentalists may choose to quote from the Holy Koran, and there are passages that might be taken to show a vengeful God. But when it comes to good old-fashioned violence, the Judaeo-Christian God is hard to beat. I will take one example from the Bible story of the Exodus . . . as Moses heads into the Promised Land . . . he is urged [by God] to hack women and children to death, rip unborn babies from their mother’s womb and level the cities.
Julia Irwin, Grievance Debate, November 28, 2005, Hansard Parliamentary Debate, Commonwealth of Australia House of Representatives, No. 20, pg. 60-61, http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au/piweb/Repository/Chamber/Hansardr/Linked/4403-4.PDF (accessed March 6, 2007). See also Kairos Journal articles, "The Qur'an, The Old Testament, and Violence: Part I" and "The Qur'an, The Old Testament, and Violence: Part II".
Additionally, The Bible’s stories of the use of force against the Canaanites are more than balanced by the accounts of the destruction of Israel and Judah by foreign armies. These violent invasions are also described as being God’s judgment, now turned against the Israelites, because they did not distance themselves from Canaanite religious practices. Even the kings of Israel and Judah are charged with practicing child sacrifice (2 Kings 17:7-13, 21:6, see also Ezek. 16:21).
In this way the Old Testament sets the scene for the revelation of Jesus Christ, and as the agnostic Andrew Bolt pointed out, “Christianity’s biggest inspiration comes not from the Old Testament, but from the man who gave his name to the religion and made it so very different to what had been before. Jesus Christ’s words, deeds, death and resurrection are the rock on which Christianity is built.” See Andrew Bolt, “Giving Thanks Where Due,” Herald Sun, June 3, 2002, 19.
The Sermon on the Mount elaborates several aspects of Jesus’ non-violent ethic. Retribution was no longer acceptable (Matt. 5:38, 39), enemies were to be loved, not hated (Matt. 5:43, 44), the meek will inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5) and Jesus’ disciples should rejoice when they are persecuted (Matt. 5:10). The Sermon on the Mount has been read throughout most of Church history as statement on personal ethics and not as a statement on whether a state can rightly wage just war.
They also allow that the (most likely pagan) civil authorities will need to use force to keep the peace, and this role should be respected (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17).