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What’s Really Going On?

• Greg Boyd

Many people struggle in their faith because they have read in the Old Testament about the violence promoted and done by God. They ask how that violence is actually loving, and how it aligns with the God revealed in Jesus Christ on the cross. In this sermon, Greg provides a way to read these passages so that they point to the cross and demonstrate God’s love for the world.

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This sermon addresses a major question that causes people to question their faith. The question is, how do we understand the depictions of God which read that seem to portray God as inherently violent? This is a huge issue because there appears to be a tension between the revelation of God’s loving character as demonstrated by Jesus on the cross, and the many gruesome stories where we are told that God either does horrendous acts or commands others to do them.

Jesus models a God who chooses to love enemies and die for enemies rather than to use his power to crush them. Yet, in the Old Testament we seem to find God driving humans and every other species on the planet to the brink of extinction by sending a flood. God incinerates entire cities, like Sodom and Gomorrah, strikes dead Uzziah when he tried to keep the ark of the covenant from falling off a cart, smites people with leprosy and other diseases, and commands fornicators, adulterers, gay people and those who gather wood on the Sabbath to be stoned to death. The most heinous of all is when the Old Testament states that God commanded the Israelites to “utterly destroy” entire people groups (see Deuteronomy 7:2, 20:16-17 and other passages).

It’s not obvious how these depictions bear witness to the other-oriented, enemy-embracing love of God revealed on the cross. However, Jesus said all scripture points to the need for the Messiah to suffer and die before being exalted, as we see in the focus scripture quoted above. We must ask this question: How does a portrait of Yahweh commanding his people to utterly destroy others bear witness to the other-oriented, enemy-embracing love of God revealed on the cross?

To answer that question, we have three options to consider. The first argues that the Conquest Narrative where God commands the complete destruction of entire people groups is not actually historical. This is called the Dismissal Option, but it means we do not have to take the Old Testament seriously.
The second option takes both the revelation of God’s love in Jesus and the depictions of God as promoting violence and holds them together. Those who hold this view put the best possible spin on each of the Old Testament’s violent depictions of God. However, even if God is demonstrated as being a little less blood-thirsty and cruel, God is still violent and he definitely is not aligning with the love demonstrated on the cross.

In the third option, Greg offers what he summarizes he writes about in Crucifixion of the Warrior God and Cross Vision. Because God is fully revealed in the cross, the depiction of God commanding genocide cannot be an accurate reflection of God’s nature. But, Greg states, since this ghoulish depiction of God is part of the inspired word, it has something to reveal to us. Therefore there must be a deeper meaning.

We find this deeper meaning when we ask how the cross reveals God. When Jesus died, he appeared to be a guilty crucified criminal. It was horrifyingly ugly on the surface. But if you are a believer, you see that something else is going on: God was in Christ on the cross, bearing our sin and reconciling the world to himself. Our faith gives us the ability to peer “behind the scenes” of the cross to see what else is going on. The shocking ugliness of the cross reflects the shocking ugliness of the sin of the world that God is bearing. The shocking beauty is the fact that God, out of love, voluntarily stooped to become this ugliness.

The cross reveals what God is truly like, and what God has always been like. This means that we should read scripture expecting to find places where God stoops to bear the sin of his people and thereby take on an appearance that reflects the ugliness of the sin God bore. Therefore, a biblical depiction of Yahweh commanding his people to “show no mercy” and “slaughter everything that breathes,” doesn’t tell us anything about the character of God in a direct way. Rather, the ugliness of the sin God is bearing is based in the deeper beauty of his willingness to love so much that he takes on that sin to the point of allowing himself to be depicted as violent.

God is stooping to bear his people’s sin—in this case, the sin of their fallen, culturally conditioned, genocidal and diabolic conception of God, which was common during the time of the writing of the Old Testament. God has always been willing to stoop as far as necessary to bear the sin of his people and to thereby take on an appearance that reflects the ugliness of that sin.

If we trust that God is altogether light, love, and good, we must conclude that something else is going on behind the scenes of the genocidal portraits of God. When we interpret violent divine portraits of God through the lens of the cross, these violent divine portraits become simultaneously ugly and beautiful for the same reason the cross is simultaneously ugly and beautiful. God was manifesting the beauty of his humble cross-like character by bearing the ugly sin of his people.

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Topics: Defense of Christian Faith, Non-Violence

Sermon Series: Unraveling Truth


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Audio File
Study guide
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The MuseCast: July 11

Focus Scripture:

  • Luke 24: 25-27

    Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

For Further Reading:

Cross Vision by Greg Boyd
The Crucifixion of the Warrior God by Greg Boyd

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11 thoughts on “What’s Really Going On?

  1. DAVID L says:

    Apply the rules in the art of biblical narrative by Robert Alter to the text in Deuteronomy and Joshua just before attacking Jericho. The angel in josh 6:2 commanded the killing of the fighting men, not all of the people of Jericho, the first instance of application of Deut. The point was to eviscerate local cities, positions of power, who’d pressure the Israelite to become cultural canaanites, just as they had become cultural Egyptians in Egypt…, at the end of Judges, you see how they’d become so much like the canaanites doing to the Benjamites what they were supposed to do earlier to the Canaanites….

  2. Ann says:

    How about something simpler. That the OT writers attributed things to God that weren’t from God. Then pretzel twisting of ones’ self to understand the violent depictions of God ends.

    1. Matthew says:

      According to Rene Girard, the whole scriptural story is about moving from the often violent, very archaic narrative we find in the Hebrew Bible to the pinnacle of God´s revelation in the non-violent, all loving, ever merciful Jesus Christ. It is a slow unveiling, if you will, that takes a lot of time but it is a very important unveiling. I would suggest “I Saw Satan Fall Like Lighting” by Rene Girard for those interested in unpacking his thesis more fully. Time doesn´t allow me to do this unpacking right now. I am with you Ann. I think the Hebrew Bible is more about how an ancient Near Eastern people understood their God, rather than an account of the character traits of a violent God.

      1. Jerry says:

        I can attempt some basics for Rene Girard’s theory on The Scapegoat mechanism, the book “I Saw Satan Fall Like Lighting” being a portion of, from which I’m sure Matt will further unpack for you.

        I’m not sure how much Greg is in tune with Rene’s’ ideas as they tend to align with Walter Wink.

        Some compelling questions Greg might have:
        • Is it from mimetic theory The Satan an anthropological category or is it a theological one?
        • Is the devil about us humans, our violence, our projection, our victimizing, and our idolatry?
        • Is it about some supra-temporal being that God created?
        • Is it about both?
        • Did we humans create the Satan the moment the male imitated in paradise?
        • Does the Satan dwells within us, creates our communities and rules our ideologies?
        • Do we, mired in the imitation of our violent culture, express corporately and individually the Satan?

        Unlike the animal kingdom with its built-in braking mechanism, (dominance/submission), humans, left to ourselves, having mirror neurons, unconscious imitation/copy devices of each other’s desires, tend to escalate things out of proportion to retaliation leading to hostilities creating scapegoat mechanisms. Not only can we imitate one another but we can also discern their intentionality.

        For Rene The Satan is an anthropological category, not a theological one. The devil is about us humans, our violence, our projection, our victimizing, and our idolatry. It is not about some supra-temporal being that God created. We, humans, created the Satan the moment the male imitated in paradise. The Satan dwells within us, creates our communities, and rules our ideologies. We mired in the imitation of our violent culture express corporately and individually the Satan.

        Vengeance, the desire to “get you back”, is the desire to do to you what you did to me, or at least the equivalent if I cannot do exactly the same. In vengeance, I copy your act. More profoundly, I copy the desire you displayed or imagine you displayed when you caused me harm and now I desire to cause you harm as well. Culture then was not linear but repetitive ritual.

        It appears nothing can save a community when the internal threat is reciprocal violence, the desire to destroy one another because of mutual rivalries; however, a solution is found in the scapegoat.

        As scapegoat mimetic rivalries accumulate, tensions reach a paroxysm then a specified enemy, a victim is chosen and eliminated to restore peace. They believed this was instituted by the gods.

        To gain God’s favor, increase fertility, and prosperity, guarantee covenant, ensure victory in war, and so on sacrifice, Hebrew Torah for example: with its seemingly endless regulations governing proper sacrificial ritual in which every unwavering detail was important and the slightest error or omission could cause the sacred to fail and chaos and calamity to ensue, served the sociological function of allowing a community to blow off violent energy in a channeled and controlled manner, so that mimetic rivalries, always present within a community, would not escalate to the point of anarchy and destroy the entire community. The ritually repeated sacrifice offered the community a chance to “kick the dog” rather than each other, the dog being the unfortunate sacrificial victim.

        Human beings imitate each other, and this eventually gives rise to rivalries and violent conflicts. Such conflicts are only partially solved by a scapegoat mechanism. After the reign of Solomon, Israel split into the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel, inaugurating a vicious rivalry that threatened to destroy both territories. Half of the book of 1 Kings, and the entire book of 2 Kings, are devoted to chronicling this rivalry which ended only when Assyria destroyed Israel in 722 BCE and Judah 150 years later by Babylon.

        Behavior is imitated then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth, codified in religion, and then criticized in prophetic philosophy ending in repeating loops of violence and then to chaos with a need for sacrificial scapegoats.

        John 12:23-27 In speaking about the seed that dies and bears much fruit, Jesus is commenting on the generative power of the scapegoat mechanism. It will signify that the victim is innocent and that the crowd is guilty, composed of murderers and liars, who “know not what they do”, unconscious, whom Jesus forgives. Jesus’ death will throw all cultural institutions into question because all institutions, religious, legal, political, and economic, combined unanimously to condemn Jesus.

        Every accusation, condemnation, subjugation, or victimization comes from the wrong story and Jesus exposed the Satan in all of us, the accuser and humanity’s dark side, for he was truly the innocent victim. A complete exposure of the lying murderous scapegoat game!

        On the cross, with nails through his hands and feet, he does all that he judges needs doing and he does it all by doing precisely nothing. He just dies. He does not get mad and he does not get even; he just gets out of something he was never into the judging and comparing business, we are into, driven by our fears. Colossians 2:15 and having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. In that moment we see that we need no longer engage in that awful business of making ourselves good over against, or by comparison with each other.

        1. Matthew says:

          Thanks for this unpacking Jerry. I wonder if Greg has read Girard?

          1. Jerry says:

            Hi Matt – I believe he has. see:

            https://reknew.org/2017/05/christus-victor-atonement-girards-scapegoat-theory/

            Greg posted this on Aug 2, 2023

            https://reknew.org/2023/08/how-did-the-gospel-writers-know-what-happened-with-jesus-in-the-desert-podcast/

            Tim Mackie (The Bible Project) – Testing Jesus in the Wilderness takes a somewhat Girardian approach to [the Satan] and how we can use various scriptures, as Greg details, to unpack, (how did the gospel writers know), what the desert story was about?

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nur0SFmH–0&list=PLZ1ocmtU5AOeCEkYKe-E-WeADSTD3oa-0&index=3

          2. Jerry says:

            Greg and Dan posted this recently:
            https://reknew.org/2023/08/is-satan-a-personal-being-podcast/
            Good stuff!

            I wanted to comment on one of Jesus’s three temptations, one I believe we all struggle with.

            Luke 4:5-6 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to.

            Do we turn down promotions, bonuses, raises, or avoid better opportunities? We are, created in the image of God, wired for progress, creativity, ambition, and achievement. Like God, we are hard-wired to step in and bring order out of chaos but if we hand these four things the reins of our lives they wear us down and they wear us out. These are good things but they are poor masters so is this an opportunity of a lifetime or a temptation?

            Luke 4:7 if you worship me, it will all be yours.”

            Jesus answers – [from Deuteronomy 6:12-13 Be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery] – with Matthew 4:9-10 “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: Fear the LORD your God, serve him only, and take your oaths in his name.

            God had sidestepped Egypt playing by the rules of kingdoms of this world in order to set the stage for a brand new kingdom, [the way of the cross], inaugurated by his son King Jesus that would be nothing like this world.

            1 Corinthians 1:17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.

            Luke 9:23 Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

            1 Corinthians 1:18 for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.

            The way of the cross is about suffering and loss representing everything those who are perishing resist but it is our power. The invitation to stop chasing what can’t be caught and clinging to what can’t be kept.

            The Spirit produces thru us what we will never produce ourselves as long as we are striving, competing, and comparing – chasing after the wind with no finish line – fueling discontentments that leak onto those around us.

            Galatians 5:22-25 The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

            In order to have these fruits we need to pick up our cross and suffer the loss of our self ambitions. In the absence of the power of God Christianity is just a religious cover for a group of people who want things their way.

            1 Corinthians 1:20 Where is the wise person? …. Has not God made foolish the wisdom, [kingdoms], of the world?

            What choosing to lose looks like in situations of life is the power of God being demonstrated through you.

    2. Mark says:

      That’s what Greg said in the sermon – God allowed people to have a skewed portrayal of him, but he took that “ugly image” since he respected those biblical writer’s free will to do so.

    3. Becky says:

      I had the same thoughts

  3. Jerry says:

    Thank you Ann.

    I believe you hit the nail on the head!

    I would like to add Jesus came to illustrate and demonstrate what God is like.

    Paul adds to that in (Acts 17:24-31): The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.  And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything…..In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

    1. Jerry says:

      Sorry old age is setting in, hit my prior comment send too quickly, I’d like to add;

      The arrival of Jesus signaled the END [not abolishment] of the Old Covenant, a nation-specific Temple Model [a COCOON], that granted extraordinary power to sacred men in sacred places who determined the meaning of sacred texts — marking the BEGINNING of a Watch: Brand New [covenant, command, ethic, movement] Jesus [BIRTHED] when on the cross He said “it is finished” and the temple vail tore in two [fulfillment].

      The Temple Model, tailored for the elite, requiring followers to come to make peace with God caused leaders to become self-righteous, followers to become hypocrites, texts to be manipulated and people to be mistreated.

      The Passover is in remembrance of Jesus who turned the leadership paradigm upside down, after He washed their feet, by saying “As I have loved you, you must love one another”, a signal verb LOVE applying to God, your neighbor, and enemies.

      The 630+ laws, all vertical, how am [I] doing, [temple thinking], Jesus raised the bar so high on — none could meet. Then Jesus said God is not in need of your peace offerings, [by vertical grace – a free gift – you’re in], but rather if you want to know how you’re doing look around [horizontal] to the folks on your left and right for there is NOTHING more sacred then these now Spirit inhabited mobile temple folk. 1 Cor 6:19

      An ἐκκλησία, [gathering/assembly], not about attendance or offerings or even what’s legal but rather What does love require of me? as portable temples everywhere at all times, is more scared than the temple model [a church sacred place].

      Galatians 5:6 The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

      The entire bible hangs on this one verse:

      Galatians 5:13-14 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.

      The rest of the Bible, to this point, might well be considered a cocoon.

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