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That is a Great Question -Week 6: Is Christianity Violent?
Richard Root
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That is a Great Question -Week 6: Is Christianity Violent? Oct 25, 2020
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Sermon -Sunday Online -2020/10/25 11am -Richard Root -"That is a Great Question -Week 6: Is Christianity Violent?"

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6. Is Christianity Violent?

October 25, 2020

What do we make of the violent depictions of God in the Old Testament? How do we account for the violence carried out in the name of Jesus? In Christendom? The crusades? The Inquisition? Colonization? Residential Schooling? These are the questions we will be addressing today.

The Elephant in the Room
We believe that God is altogether beautiful, loving, compassionate, and just. This is how the Bible generally portrays God. Most importantly, this is the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. However, there are some portraits of God in the OT, which we also confess to be “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16), that are most definitely not beautiful, loving, compassionate, or just.
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sado-masochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. —Richard Dawkins
Though it may sound irreverent to say it, some portraits of God in the OT are, quite honestly, really ugly! For example:
• God seems to order his people to mercilessly annihilate every member of the Midianites except for the virgin girls, whom Israelite soldiers were allowed to keep as spoils of war. (Numbers 31:1–17)
• Deuteronomy 7:2-3 says that God told Moses to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan totally, adding that they were “…to make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” (Deuteronomy 7:2–3).
• Later in Deuteronomy God tells Moses: “…do not leave alive anything that breathes” (20:16). Variations of this command are given or carried out 37 times in the OT.
• King David was revered for killing not just thousands, as Saul had done, but tens of thousands. His divinely sanctioned military campaigns are celebrated in the Bible, saying it was his practice never to “leave a man or woman alive.” (1 Sam. 27:11)
Yahweh not only commands violence in the OT, he sometimes is portrayed as actively engaging in it:
• The most famous example is the Genesis Flood that wiped out every living thing upon the earth with the exception of a few humans and animals that found refuge on the Ark (Genesis 6–8).
• Only slightly less famous is Yahweh’s ferocious rain of fire that incinerated all the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19).
Some of the most brutal violence ascribed to God are the accounts of him using other nations as means of judgment.
• For example, as Babylon was planning an attack on Israel, Yahweh is depicted as telling his people, “I am against you. I will draw my sword from its sheath and cut off from you both the righteous and the wicked … my sword will be unsheathed against everyone from south to north” (Ezekiel 21:3–4).
• Other depictions are even more troublesome. Jeremiah depicts God declaring that mercy and compassion will not influence him: “I will smash them one against the other, parents and children alike, declares the Lord. I will allow no pity or mercy or compassion to keep me from destroying them.” (Jeremiah 13:14)
• Other passages depict God declaring that, as judgment for the Israelites’ sin, parents would have to witness their babies being dashed to the ground while pregnant women would have their unborn babies ripped out of their wombs. (Hosea 13:16)
• And, perhaps the grisliest of all the OT’s portraits of violence is God causing parents to “eat their children” and children to “eat their parents.” (Ezekiel 5:10)

How Do We Respond to the Violence in Scripture?
• One option is simply to accept that God’s ways are unfathomable by the human mind; that he is not subject to the standards of human morality; that he is both loving and ferocious, filled with wrath and with mercy, governed by compassion and holy anger.
• Another option is to simply reject passages that depict God in violent ways. This solves our dilemma, but it conflicts with the fact that Jesus repeatedly endorsed the OT as the inspired word of God.
• If we confess Jesus to be Lord, that he is the fullest revelation of God’s nature and God’s plan, then we should suspect that something else is going on when the biblical authors ascribe such atrocities to God.
Origen taught that when we come upon a biblical passage that seems unworthy of God, we must humble ourselves before God and ask the Spirit to help us find a deeper meaning in the passage that is worthy of God. He sometimes referred to this as a “treasure buried in the depth of a passage.”

The Whole Counsel of God
Part of the challenge is the Bible itself. Specifically, what it is? How it came to be? And what we mean when we say it is inspired by God?
1. Scripture is not Divine Dictation
2. Scripture is a Progressive Revelation
3. Scripture has been co-opted for the purpose of empire building
4. Scripture is inspired (“God-breathed”) but what does that mean?
• Jesus himself taught that everything else in Scripture is to be interpreted in a way that points to him. Thus, nothing in Scripture should ever be interpreted in a way that qualifies or competes with his revelation of God.
• Listen carefully to what the author of Hebrews says about the revelation of God in Christ:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Hebrews 1:1–3)
• While people in the past got “glimpses of truth,” the Son of God is the truth itself. Jesus claimed to be: “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6)
“Jesus is the perfect revelation of everything that makes God God.”

Reading Backwards
• Jesus is the lens through which we must read the whole Bible, including the violent passages in the Old Testament and our own violent history as the church that bears his name.
“You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (John 5:39–40, 45–46)
• We should regard Jesus as the key that unlocks the “revelatory content” of every passage of Scripture. Jesus is “the central subject matter of the Hebrew Scripture” as well as its “goal and fulfillment.” (Graeme Goldsworthy)
“Jesus is the looking-glass through which all Scripture must be interpreted.”

A Cruciform Through-Line
Through-Line: a theme that runs from the beginning to the end of a book, film, or play,
Cruciform: the shape of a cross; reflecting the self-sacrificial character of the Crucifixion.
• The most beautiful message in the Bible is that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But while every Christian believes this, many are confused about what love means. And it’s been this way throughout most of church history.
• There is no such ambiguity about the meaning of love in the New Testament. The NT defines love not by giving us an abstract definition, but by pointing us to its supreme illustration.
“This is how we know what love is, Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” And from this John concludes, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).
• The love that characterizes God’s eternal nature, and the love that his children are to extend to all others, looks like the cross. We might say that the cross is the definitive revelation of God’s cross-like, or cruciform, character.

Putting it All Together
Until we fully trust that God is as he’s revealed to be on the cross, the cross cannot function like the defining revelation of God, the most majestic and unsurpassed sign of God’s love.
• The OT is a shadow of the reality we are given in Christ. The shadow will point you to the reality, but only if you remember that it’s a mere shadow. If you instead mistake the shadow for the reality, the shadow can’t point you anywhere.
• God stoops, bends, accommodates even the distorted human understanding of his nature. He allows his beautiful character to bear the ugly sin of his people, thereby taking on a surface appearance that mirrors that sin, just as he does on the cross.
“God, out of his love, is humbly stooping to bear the sin of his people, thereby taking on an ugly appearance that reflects this sin. This is true of the violence in the Old Testament and the violence of the cross in the New Testament.”
• Interpreted through the looking-glass of the cross, portraits of violence in the Old Testament become both beautiful and revolting for all the same reasons the cross is both beautiful and revolting.
• All the violence attributed to God actually falls on his shoulders at the cross, itself a symbol of humanity’s worst—violent, repugnant and cruel. And there, at the cross, the forces of darkness, both spiritual and physical, are confronted by the greater forces of love and sacrifice. The true character of God is fully revealed. Violence is overthrown.

Love wins.

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