Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What Does the New Testament Say About Violence?

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I have recently finished reading the New Testament and I am collecting my thoughts about what I read in this series of posts. Today I am writing about what the New Testament says about violence. Other entries in this series:
  1. Slavery
  2. The Apocalypse
  3. Women
Often Christians will claim that the words of Jesus are of paramount importance when it comes to determining what we should learn from reading the bible. Given that their religion is named after him, this seems somewhat reasonable, so let's start our exploration of violence in the new testament by examining what Jesus himself says. In Matthew 26:52 Jesus explains that you should put down your sword, because those who live by the sword will die by the sword. A pretty clear anti-violence message it would seem, and with a good reason; if you are a violent person, you are likely do be met with violence. But as often happens in the Bible we get some mixed signals here. In both Matthew 10:34-39 and Luke 12:51 Jesus says that he does not bring peace to the earth, but a sword. I'm not 100% sure what this means, but he certainly seems to be advocating some type of violence here.

I would like to explore Paul's writing next, as he wrote a huge number of the books of the new testament. We can start with 1 Timothy 1:9-10 which names people who attack their parents as well as murderers in a list of bad people. Paul also argues that we should not repay evil for evil in 1 Peter 3:8-9 as well as 1 Thessalonians 5:15. With these instructions, Paul is saying the old law of eye for an eye is a thing of the past. Hilariously, in 2 Thessalonians 1:6 (the very next page in my bible) Paul states that God considers eye for an eye just. How is that for mixed signals?

If you are inclined to focus on the anti-violence verses, you might think that the message is that we should not only avoid violence with others, but we should actually wish everyone well. You might cite Matthew 5:44 which says that we should love our enemies. While this does sound quite good, it is contradicted in the bible as well, in 1 Thessalonians 2:16 Paul seems to delight in the fact that his enemies will be punished by God. Granted, he is not attacking them himself, but he is reveling in the fact that they are being punished. Similarly, in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 those Paul writes that those who do not know God will receive vengeance from God, and again there seems to be a sense of glee from the author.

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As we continue to focus on to divine violence the message gets much more clear. In Hebrews 1:13 and Hebrews 10:12-13 there is mention of Jesus making his enemies into footstools. He's going above and beyond simple violence and is humiliating his enemies. And of course there is all of the horrible imagery from Revelation. We see God threaten to kill people if they don't follow him in Revelation 2:15-16 and we see him start to follow through with this plan in Revelation 6:4,8 by releasing the horsemen of the apocalypse. And simply killing them is certainly not enough, in Revelation 14:20 God put a huge number of people in a giant winepress and killed them all, producing a river of blood 184 miles long. Just...why? But even killing people is not enough for God, in Revelation 9:5-6 he torments people to the point that they wish they were dead, but he doesn't allow them to die, instead he would prefer that they are tortured for five months. But torturing people for five months is clearly just the beginning with God, we see in Revelation 14:10-11 and Revelation 19:20-21 that God has no qualms about providing someone with an eternity of torture.

When it comes to violence down on the earthly realm, the bible just seems to serve up a big pile of mixed messages. This to me is worse than having nothing. If both sides of an issue can each find a verse to support their position, everyone will think they are supported by God and progress toward some kind of agreement will basically impossible. When we consider violence on the part of God, we get a pretty clear picture of the nature of God, although it is probably not the God that most people envision.

12 comments:

  1. When I read the many discrepancies in the Bible, I get carried back to images of early Christian monks, sitting on hard wooden stools for years, laboring with a feather quill in candle light, trying to recall the various accounts of the apostles and Jesus, who wrote nothing...it's all hearsay and if I tell a neighbor a story, by the time it goes around the block and returns, it's going to be a completely different story.

    I am totally convinced what's now in the Bible is what the old Popes wanted the flock to believe that would keep them chained to the devils and demons that have never existed. Prior to that, the Jews did the same thing with the old Testaments. Abraham and Moses were not writers. Neither were any of the other characters portrayed in the "good" book.

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    1. That's a great perspective. It's a shame more people don't take into consideration the history of the writing of the bible. Even for those people who think that the bible is the word of God, it seems like it would be a good idea to consider the actions of those in charge who might want to alter things a little bit to serve their purpose. And of course, monks you mention, who are most likely well meaning, but human and prone to honest mistakes.

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    2. Sounds reasonable.

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  2. Hey Haus---I have been super busy this week and last---so I haven't had as much time to comment as I would like. I do want to point out that I am very much enjoying these "sum up" posts. It is rare to see so many of the contradictions of the NT on one topic in one place. Well done.

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    1. Thanks John,

      it's definitely been interesting looking back and writing these. My only wish at this point is that I had this in the back of my mind when I started, I'm pretty sure there is a lot of material that I didn't properly make note of, especially from the earlier books. It is going to give me a bit of focus on doing the summary stuff when I go through the old testament though.

      No biggie though, like most things in life, I didn't know what I was doing at the beginning and refined as I went along.

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  3. "...everyone will think they are supported by God..."

    ... and indeed they do think that! :-) Keen observation.

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  4. I find this blog post to be blatantly an unfair judgement of God's intrinsic being. Jesus never commanded us to physically kill anyone, He did, however, tell people that sinners would suffer punishment. In this case, the sinners were warned well in advance of the punishment, to presume them as innocent is analogous to defending the Nazis.

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    1. I don't think it's unfair. I tried to be as fair as possible, I pointed out verses where Jesus was anti-violence and well as his seeming pro-violence message. I even pointed out that I don't really know what "I bring not peace but a sword" means, but it certainly seems violent to me.

      Nice use of Godwin's law by the way

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law

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    2. Joshua...regardless of how you read it the deity represented in the Bible is an extremely violent one... considering Hell and Devils and Demons "It" supposedly created to punish humanity for its "sins."

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    3. Give it up, Joshua.

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  6. http://skepticsannotatedbible.com/cruelty/nt_list.html

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