How can the violence in the Bible be reconciled with a God of love?

Q. Hello – I am really glad to have found your site. It helped answer my question and astonishment over the issue of God or Satan inciting David to take census. Thanks. Yet, I am still extremely disturbed by the use of sacrifices in the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures. Why would God demand, expect, permit, approve of any such killing, violence against any thing in creation? The 10 commandments state : You Shall Not Kill. Isn’t that crystal clear? Humans are to be the caretakers of the earth, along with all life. Much of the Hebrew Scriptures is filled with Killing, Destruction, War, Annihilation, of men, women, children, babies and animals. How can this be reconciled with a GOD who is a Father, GOD of LOVE? Makes no sense and I’m really struggling. Sure appreciate your reply!

Let me assure you that you are not alone in your struggles. Thoughtful readers of the Bible throughout the ages have wondered how the violence it records can be reconciled with its own teaching that God is love. Other readers of this blog have asked similar questions previously. Let me quote from my response to one of them in answer to your question.

I consider these violent accounts to be exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible.  The challenge is not to see how we can incorporate them into the heart of our faith and practice (for example, by interpreting them figuratively as symbolizing the struggle against sin), but rather to see whether we can somehow account for them without losing our faith.

I think the way to do that is to recognize that Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity. In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.  Jesus taught that we should love even our enemies, and that we should show mercy to others so that we will receive mercy ourselves.  He died to save people who were, at the time, his own enemies.  So his life and teachings show that judgments of total destruction are truly exceptional.

The question then becomes, “Why did such exceptional events even occur?”  This is one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.  It does not have a simple, easy solution.

But I would suggest that if we did abandon the God of the Bible because we found these violent episodes impossible to reconcile with the biblical presentation of God as essentially loving and merciful, then we would also be abandoning that loving, merciful God in the process.

I think it’s better to take as our bottom line John’s statement that “no one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”  If we want to know what God is really like, we can look to Jesus.  This is the “made him known” part. The challenging questions that remain then have to do with the “no one has ever seen God” part. We can hope that those will finally be resolved once we do see God.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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