The story that has developed over centuries among Christians, particularly in the West, is a strange and violent twist on the gospel, which literally means “good news.”
This modern gospel is that God is willing to save some people and abandon the rest. And since we are all sinful, depraved, and prone to violence anyway, God is just in his violent retribution because he is holy and righteous.
Those whom he saves, he saves through the violent act of the murder of his Son on the cross, to satisfy his own wrath toward sinful human beings.
Those who believe this message are saved by grace through faith. And those who don’t believe are violently cast into a lake of fire to consciously experience torment forever with no further opportunity to repent and believe.
So… much… violence.
And then there is Jesus. Who seems to be so… nonviolent.
Other than flipping over the tables in the Temple, which had become a place of oppression and marginalization of the poor, we don’t see Jesus doing anything violent in the scriptures at all.
He teaches and heals. He helps and serves. He washes feet.
He tells his disciples to love and to pray for their enemies, not just their friends. Jesus tells stories that involve Samaritans helping victims of random violence. He invites Simon the Zealot, a violent terrorist of sorts, to learn about a different kind of revolution.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Peter lops an ear off a soldier, Jesus tells him to put away his sword. Then he surrenders to the Temple police.
When the Roman soldiers whip him, then pin him to a cross and begin to swing their hammers, driving nails through his wrists and feet, Jesus prays that God would forgive them because they are acting rather violently, but in ignorance concerning what is really going on.
Jesus is nonviolent. He resists the abusive power of the state nonviolently. He usurps the false teaching of the legalistic leaders with words and acts of love, not by challenging them to duels in the streets.
And here’s the thing…
Jesus is, as the writer of the general letter to the Hebrews says, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3 NRSV). In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.
If Jesus is nonviolent, God is nonviolent.
I must stop to mention that there are plenty of stories in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) that depict God acting violently in judgment of people or commanding others to commit acts of violence on his behalf.
Without belaboring the point, I believe these are not stories of God bent on violence, but accounts written long ago by people who were rather prone to violence. They passed on oral traditions about how they perceived God to be revealing himself and working among them. We have the written records, based on oral traditions, of what they believed God was telling them to do, not actual permission from God to take human life violently.
And then we also must stop long enough to consider a few apocalyptic New Testament passages that depict God showing up to take vengeance on nonbelievers or King Jesus, riding in on a white horse to slaughter those who had rejected him in the massive, climactic battle of Armageddon.
But when it comes to interpreting ancient apocalyptic literature, even modern-day experts are novices in their interpretive work. I see, in Revelation in particular, King Jesus fully and finally overthrowing political, commercial, and religious systems that had been guilty of oppressing people and causing massive suffering through their violence.
At the end of the day, those of us who have decided to follow Jesus Christ by faith have adopted a new lens through which we read all scripture and interpret all philosophy – the person, work, character, and teachings of Jesus as presented to us in the gospels.
And the Jesus of the gospels is… You guessed it, nonviolent.
I’m a follower of Jesus. I trust that God is, indeed, rescuing and redeeming a lost, broken, violent world through the sacrificial act of his Son’s willingness to die on a Roman cross as the ultimate takedown of earthly power. Having absorbed all of the sin and violence of mankind, Jesus still offers forgiveness and grace and rebirth to anyone who recognizes their need for it.
And I believe that Jesus rose from the dead in a triumphant showing of divine power over the force of sin and violence and the grip of death itself. I have hope that there is more beyond the curtain of death because Jesus is alive.
But I don’t believe God is renewing the world or saving anyone through violent acts of retribution toward nonbelievers. I don’t believe God required the violent murder of his Son as a kind of payoff to satisfy his own wrath. As Brian Zahnd says in his book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of a Very Good News,
The cross is many things, but it is not a quid pro quo to mollify an angry God. Above all things, the cross, as the definitive moment in Jesus’s life, is the supreme revelation of the very nature of God. At the cross Jesus does not save us from God; at the cross Jesus reveals God as savior! When we look at the cross we don’t see what God does; we see who God is!
Or as Richar Rohr shares in his work, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe,
God is the ultimate nonviolent one, so we dare not accept any theory of salvation that is based on violence, exclusion, social pressure, or moral coercion. When we do, these are legitimated as a proper way of life. God saves by loving and including, not by excluding or punishing.
And I don’t believe that people who didn’t believe, understand, or even hear the good news about Jesus are going to be thrown into the fiery pit of hell forevermore. Nor do I believe Jesus ever taught this.
There was a time when my faith in God was really fear of the possibilities of his violent answer to my sins and shortcomings. I’ve come to see, instead, that Jesus leads us away from worry and anxiety toward God and into joy and hopefulness. He draws sinners who don’t get God right at all into his forever family. He serves and acts in grace toward people who continually misunderstand and misrepresent him.
The love of God, expressed through the saving work of Jesus, is good news for everyone. Everybody gets an invite. Everybody matters. Everybody is wanted. And even those who don’t believe, don’t understand, or never even hear of the good news, are still the objects of his love and his redemptive work.
I believe God has a plan for saving the world, and it is a nonviolent plan. It is characterized by sacrificial love and grace that acts on behalf of those who cannot save themselves, and that is all of us.
Confused? Have questions? Good. Embracing the mystery surrounding God’s ways is a far better course to follow than being absolutely certain and yet still wrong.
Photo by Dimitri Kolpakov on Unsplash.
- Zahnd, Brian (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 224 Pages - 08/15/2017 (Publication Date) - WaterBrook (Publisher)
- Rohr, Richard (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 288 Pages - 02/16/2021 (Publication Date) - Convergent Books (Publisher)