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.
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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