Discussion about God and violence are becoming quite common. Many writers are reacting to the violent portrayal of God in the Old Testament and rejecting it because it does not fit with the picture of God that Jesus gave on the cross.

Types of Violence

Before rushing to judgement, we need to distinguish between at least four types of violence that are contained in the Old Testament:

Violent World

We must recognise that God created a world in which violence is possible.

God gave freedom to humans and angels, so he deliberately created a world in which it was always possible for evil to break out. I presume he went ahead anyway, because he knew that he could work it for good bringing benefits that far outweigh any harm that rebels could do on earth.

God takes Responsibility

God does not shirk his responsibility for the beings that he created, even when they do evil. The spiritual powers of evil were created by God and then rebelled, so they belong to him. Therefore, responsibility for their actions can be linked back to God. This is why the scriptures often say that God will do something, even though it later becomes clear that it was one of the spiritual powers of evil that did it.

For example, the scriptures often say that "the wrath of the Lord is aroused". This makes it sound like God is angry. However, wrath is not one of God's emotions, but an evil spirit called Wrath who loves doing evil on earth (Ps 78:49; 1 Cor 10:10). He is called God's wrath because God created him, but he is not under God's control.

In the same way, the destroying angel that killed the firstborn of the Egyptians is one of the spiritual powers of evil. He is called God's angel because he was created by God and he does not deny his responsibility for doing that. The spiritual powers do great evil, so God takes responsibility for them, even though they had rebelled against him. They were able to kill and destroy because humans had given them authority on earth. Nevertheless, Moses sheets responsibility back to God, because he was their creator. That is a burden that God is willing to carry.

For Our Sake

The truth is that humans are the ones responsible. God created humans and gave them authority over the world. Humans invited the powers of evil into the world, so we are really the ones responsible for the consequences. Humans love to point the finger and blame God for evil, but we are the ones responsible for evil getting a hold on earth, so we cannot shift the blame back to him. Humans are responsible for every evil that occurs on earth. When God takes responsibility for things that humans caused, he carries our burden.

God takes the blame for what the powers of evil do because, if he spoke the truth, he would have to put the blame on humans. He does not want to do that because it would give the powers of evil another reason to accuse and attack us. God does not want to give them any more grounds for hurting us, so he takes the blame to protect us. He is still speaking the truth, as he is ultimately responsible because he created the powers of evil.

This is another situation where God took our sin and carried it. Humans allowed the powers of evil to seize authority on earth, but the scriptures do not put the blame on us. Instead, God carries the responsibility. For example, the spirit of wrath is called God's wrath, but he should really be called humans' wrath because it was humans who gave him a place on earth. God chose not to point the finger at humans during the Old Testament age in order to protect them. If he had accused us, that would have given the spiritual powers of evil extra ammunition to use against us.

God carried our burden by allowing the spiritual powers and the people world to blame him for evil. This foreshadowed Jesus carrying our sins and allowing the powers of evil to punish him. He allowed them to punish him, so we would not need to be punished. This is what the Lord had been doing through the Old Testament age. He accepted unjust blame for evil to prevent humans being further harmed by the powers of evil.

God could carry this burden without lying because he created humans and the spiritual powers, so he is ultimately responsible as their designer and maker. If he had not made them, they would not be able to do evil. He takes responsibility for the way that he set up the world.

Violence Unavoidable

God gave authority on earth to humans. When they rebelled against God, they unwittingly handed authority over to the spiritual powers of evil. God was unable to work on earth because the spiritual powers of evil were in control. They embarked on a millennium of evil as they sought to destroy God's good creation. God could only intervene on earth if humans gave him authority to act and that did not happen very often, so he was limited in what he could do to turn the situation around.

Once God has chosen Abraham and brought his people into the promised land, he had a place where he had authority to work. However, he had to protect his work from the spiritual powers of evil trying to use the power of empires and nations to destroy it. He could not destroy the spiritual powers, because they had authority to be on earth, given to them by humans. So, God had to resist the armies and kings of the nations that tried to wreck his work.

Once the spiritual powers of evil had seized control of the world, violence became necessary. The worst violence was that done against Jesus on the cross. He surrendered to violence in order to break the power of violence and evil. Prior to Jesus, God had to use violence to constrain their actions and prevent them getting out of hand.

The spiritual powers of evil use God's justice against him. God's character requires justice. He is publicly committed to doing justice. Even though they do not believe in it, the powers of evil demand justice on earth. Once God said that life is in the blood, they demanded blood for all sins. They used God standards for justice against his people. They demanded that God punish all sin, and if he showed mercy, they demanded the right to execute judgement and punishment on sinful people. In the incident with the Golden calf, God showed mercy, but the powers of evil demanded plague and death (Ex 32:14,35).

Once humans surrendered to the powers of evil, they were owned by them. The spiritual powers of evil refused to give them back to God unless humans paid the price they demanded, which was blood. If humans had done that, they would be dead, which would not help them. God sent Jesus and allowed the spiritual powers of evil to kill him and take his blood to pay the price that they demanded. His death redeemed us because it met the demands of the powers of evil.

Jesus' violent death destroyed the authority of the spiritual powers of evil to be on earth. The outpouring of the Spirit allowed him to work through love. The spiritual powers of evil still trespass on earth, but God now prefers that we engage in spiritual battle and use the power of the cross to prevent them doing evil, because that is more effective.

Limited Authority

During the Old Testament age, God had limited authority on earth. He had given humans authority over the earth, but they surrendered it to the spiritual powers of evil. God had given this authority without recourse, so he could not demand it back when humans messed it up. He had to deal with the spiritual powers of evil, but they had more authority on earth than he had.

To change the situation on earth, God had to fight an enemy that he did not have authority to fight, because humans had given the spiritual powers of evil permission to operate on earth. He could not attack them directly or destroy them, so he had to deal with them obliquely in the spiritual realm.

God's lack of authority severely limited the scope of what God could do on earth. He was fighting against a ruthless and violent enemy with very little ability to fight back. He sometimes had to resort to using violent nations to hold back the worst of evil and protect his growing work on earth.

God could not touch the spiritual powers of evil while they were working on earth, as they had authority to be there. However, he still had authority in the spiritual realms, so he had to work there, by deceiving and manipulating the powers of evil. Because they are evil and love violence, he was mostly limited to getting them to stir up violence on earth. They were not interested in doing good things, of course.

By persuading the spiritual powers to fight against each other, and getting the strong nations to attack evil nations and empires, he was able to constrain the worst effects of evil on earth. Working in this way was not ideal, but it was better than letting the spiritual powers of evil get out of control.

God does his own dirty work. Humans had allowed the evil powers in, but God did not expect us to force them out. He chose to do the necessary violence himself, so we would not have to engage in violence. He initiates violent judgment when it has to be used so that we do not have to be violent.

God's Purposes

God had to use the spiritual powers to accomplish his purposes. Of course, he can use evil spirits if they do his will by mistake, but he cannot make them do things they do not want to do. They are in rebellion against God, so they prefer to do the opposite of what he wants. However, they love violence so they are quite happy to engage in violence, even against other evil spirits that are opposed to God too.

The spiritual powers of evil are not very smart and mostly do what they have done before. If God puts an idea in their minds, they will usually run with it, if it provides an opportunity for them to be violent. The powers of evil love violence so they are quite happy to use violence against their own side. One was happy to be a deceiver when God suggested that to him, because he wanted to destroy a king (1 Kings 22:22).

God uses powerful evil nations to accomplish his purposes. He uses bad nations to destroy evil nations. For example, he used Cyrus of Persia to destroy the Babylonian empire. So while God, might not have organised the violence, he colluded with violent nations to accomplish his purposes. He had no alternative, because he had such limited authority on earth. No other means were open to him in the situation.

While the spiritual powers are doing evil, God seems to trick them into doing what he wants them to. He can accomplish his purposes by manipulating them to destroy other evil. He does not make them more evil. Instead, he gives them ideas to change the direction of the evil that they would be doing evil anyway. They switch from meaningless evil to doing evil that allows God to achieve his goals in the world.

God uses the spiritual powers of evil to accomplish his purposes. They are often extremely violent. They led Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea, where they were destroyed. Could God have stopped this from happening? I don't think so. He did not have any authority once the Israelites had departed, so the powers of evil had a free hand to destroy the Egyptian army. I presume they did it for their enjoyment. However, it did have the benefit of protecting the children of Israel from being pursued by the people that they had escaped from.

Desperate Situation

Before judging God, we must understand how desperate the situation was during the Old Testament age. Humans had given the spiritual powers of evil a free rein and they took full advantage. Prior to the flood, they nearly destroyed the earth. The flood got rid of some of them, but the rest still had authority to be on earth.

Through Abraham and Moses, God established a people in a small area of land, but it was still touch and go. If Egypt had recovered and attacked them in the wilderness, the new strategy would have come to an end before it got started, so it was just as well the Egyptians enemies were destroyed. Likewise, if a powerful empire had invaded and destroyed the Israelites once they were in the land, all would have been lost.

Jesus death on the cross is unbelievable. A god allowing himself to be tortured, tormented and killed by beings that he created is a bizarre idea. We are now so familiar with the cross, that we take it for granted, but it was a shocking event. Gods do not allow the objects they have created to harm them. The fact that Jesus had to die shows what a serious threat the spiritual powers of evil are to life on earth. If Jesus had been killed by Herod as a baby, God's bold strategy of coming as a baby would have failed. I do not know if he had a Plan B, but it hard to imagine what it might be, once his son was dead (Matt 21:33-45).

The gospels say that Roman soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross. Paul explains that it was the spiritual powers of evil who did it (1 Cor 1:2). That is why the world was so dark. The crucifixion was not just a nasty incident by a brutal political power. It was a tense moment in a brutal struggle that had been going on since the beginning.

The situation on earth was desperate, so desperate that the God who had created it had to die. It had been desperate from the time of Adam's sin until Jesus was raised to heaven. God had limited authority on earth. He had to do what did, or just surrender the earth to the spiritual powers of evil as a permanent possession. God refused to do that, so he did what did, even though it was nasty at times.

Modern critics are looking for the cross-like behaviour in the Old Testament. This is the wrong way around. They should be looking at the Old Testament and seeing the desperation that made the cross necessary.

Some of the things that God had to do in the Old Testament do not reflect his character, except for his desperate love for the earth and the people that he had created. When he did what needed to be done, he acted in a way that is contrary to his character. That was a cross he had to bear to deal with the mess that humans had made. He loved us so much, he was willing to appear evil to rescue us.

The cross does not really reveal his full character either. It was a clever trick that fooled the spiritual powers of evil. They walked into it and deserved what they got, because they are tricky, but deceit is not what a good person does. The cross caused terrible suffering for God's son. That is not what a loving father does, but in this case God was desperate.

I see his character more fully revealed in the ascension and outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that allow him to work in the hearts of a people who love him because he loves them. That is his true nature.

Humans put God in a situation where had to act in ways that are contrary to his character. It is a bit rich for us to criticise him for not complying with our standards of behaviour.

Last Resort

Because God uses violence to accomplish his purposes, we cannot say that he is absolutely opposed to violence. In situations where he has limited authority, this is the only way that he can get his will done. He seems to be able to use evil to restrain evil. In this way, he uses evil to achieve good. We do not have his wisdom, so he forbids from trying to do the same (Rom 12:21).

God sometimes had to allow his people to use violence to protect themselves from being defeated by the spiritual powers of evil. Killing the Midianites is an example. The women had seduced the men once before and nearly destroyed the nation, so Moses could not risk that happening again. They would be more subtle and clever and harder to resist the second time.

However, it is clear that God strongly prefers not to use violence. He would sooner convict people and change their hearts by the Holy Spirit. However, because people are free, that is not always possible. In a world where he had limited authority, because he had given authority to humans who had lost it to the spiritual powers of evil, he sometimes had to use violence to accomplish his purposes.

God only uses violence as a last resort. He is perfectly wise, so he knows when it is justified. In the same way, humans should only use violence as a last resort. We do not have the same wisdom as God, so we are at risk of using violence when it is not appropriate. In most situations, violence is not the best option.

Defence and Protection

An ideology of nonviolence cannot be justified from the scriptures. Violence is occasionally justified for defence; however, these occasions are very rare. Violence should only be used as a last resort.

God allows the use of force for defence when a person or community is being attacked. A person whose family is being attacked can use force to protect it (Ex 22:2). However, a protective miracle is a better option (Luke 4:30; Acts 5:19; 12:6-7; 14:19-20).

A community that is attacked is entitled to defend itself to defend itself, eg the Israelites defended themselves against Og of Bashan and Sihon of the Amorites (Num 21:21-35) and the Midianites (Judges 7). However, physical defence is only justified if:

Spiritual war is always more effective. God organised Balaam to prophesy in favour of the Israelites against the Moabites and Midianites. If the men of Israel had not been seduced, the power of the prophetic word would have kept Israel safe (Num 23-24). Isaiah's prophesy released the angels to destroy the armies of Sennacherib when he was attacking Jerusalem (Isaiah 37).

Rather than jumping to physical defence, Christians should seek a spiritual victory over the power that are stirring up people to attack them. Resorting to physical defence is a sign that spiritual protection has failed.

Violence should always be the last resort and is rarely justified. Jesus lived a perfect life. He lived his entire life without any need to use violence, except when hammering nails and cutting his meat and vegetables.

Misunderstood

The violence in the Old Testament has been misunderstood due to poor translation and interpretation. Much of the violence attributed to God was actually initiated and perpetuated by the spiritual powers of evil. Part of the problem is translation. Traditional translations often choose the most violent possible translation of the worlds. There are three reasons why they do this.

We need a much better translation of the Old Testament that would help us to understand better what is happening (see Spiritual Warfare during the Exodus).

God-breathed

God inspired the scriptures, but humans wrote them using the language and words that were familiar to them. The Holy Spirit spoke into their minds, but they wrote his thoughts in their own words. His ideas were quite radical, so he often had difficulty getting them to write them down correctly.

When the Holy Spirit was inspiring the scriptures, he was engaging in cross behaviour. He was doing an important task with people that he did not control. He could put thoughts in their minds, but he could not make them use the words he wanted. Sometimes writers used a word that was not the best one for what the Holy Spirit was wanting to say. Provided that the word conveyed the meaning, he would make do with what they put. We must seek the meaning he wanted conveyed.

Moses was responsible for recording the Laws for Society. The only law that he knew was what he had learnt from the Egyptians. Their laws were ugly, ruthless and vindictive. He had also learnt a bit about God from his mother, but his knowledge was limited. The Holy Spirit gave him a set of laws that was radically different. Getting Moses to write them down accurately was extremely difficult.

Moses probably thought that the laws he wrote down were harsher than they were. The Holy Spirit was getting him to record a set of laws that were less violent than he expected. This was cross behaviour, because the Spirit was committed to working through a human who limited his ability to communicate.

Moses sometimes used words that were not exactly right, but the Holy Spirit went along provided the word supported his meaning. We have to look behind what Moses wrote to understand the message the Holy Spirit was communicating. We have to find the ideas that the words carry for him, even if Moses did not understand them. The key question is "What was the Holy Spirit saying to us here?"

Hebrew words often have a range of meaning. Moses often intended the harsher meaning, but the Holy Spirit wanted a milder meaning. If we read the Old Testament with violence in our hearts, we will get the violent message. If we listen to the Holy Spirit as we are reading, we will discover his pure message.

Voluntary Law

The system of government that God gave in the Laws of Moses is entirely voluntary. There is no provision for the use of force to coerce people into complying with the law. We are so used to the existence of police and military power to enforce the laws of nation that we assume that the same system of coercion existed in the Laws of Moses. The surprising truth is that they are totally missing.

God did not establish any group or agency to enforce the Laws of Moses. His laws are entirely voluntary. People will obey the law because they are committed to God's covenant and wanted to receive the benefits that flow from it.

Pressure to act on God's laws would come from the rest of the community. However, the only power that the community had was to exclude someone who failed to acknowledge the law and decisions of judges from their community. Belong to a community was a privilege. If people refused to honour the covenant that was the basis for the community, they could be excluded from the activities of the community.

God's Silence

When Jesus was serving in the world, he would not let the demons speak. The first one he encountered called out,

"What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God (Mark 1:24).

The demons' words were correct. Jesus is the Holy one. He had come to destroy the power of the spiritual powers of evil. Jesus could have said, "You are dead right", but he did not. He commanded the demon to be silent (Mark 1:25).

Jesus did not allow the powers of evil to control his revelation of his character or his plans. Jesus did not want to be associated with the word "destroy", because it would be misunderstood, even though it was true. He wanted to associate his ministry with the word redeem, which was much more positive. He did not want to give the demons to gain glory for themselves by proclaiming the truth.

The same principle applied in the Old Testament. God does not give glory to the spiritual powers of evil. He does not want them given any glory. So he does not ascribe all the violence and evil that they are doing to them. The result is that he often gets blamed for the stuff that the powers of evil were doing. He prefers to remain silent about their actions in the world, because he does not want them getting unnecessary glory. Although he could blame them, he remained silent, even though it means that he often gets blamed for things that he has not done.

Spiritual Warfare in Genesis

Spiritual Warfare in Exodus