19 Dec 2010

Prince of Peace, but God of Justice

Pacifism, Religious 32 Comments

On Facebook someone (who shall remain anonymous to preserve Facebook etiquette) hailed Jesus as the Prince of Peace, and asked that militaristic Christians reflect on that title this Christmas season. In the comments, someone was challenging this view, by pointing to aggressive statements that Jesus made. In response, the original poster analyzed the context of those statements, and showed that they were consistent with Jesus being a paragon of peace, not hostility.

I think there is a definite tension, or apparent contradiction, that stems from the admittedly difficult Christian claim that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. There can be no doubt that in His capacity as a man, as a role model for how we should live our own lives, Jesus was a pacifist. It would be inconceivable that in the gospels Jesus would have physically harmed someone as punishment for that person’s transgressions. (The only thing remotely close is Him driving the money changers from the temple.)

On the other hand, there can be no doubt that the God of the Old Testament was punitive. Look at Jeremiah 15: 1-9:

1 Then the LORD said to me: “Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go! 2 And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the LORD says:

“‘Those destined for death, to death;
those for the sword, to the sword;
those for starvation, to starvation;
those for captivity, to captivity.’

3 “I will send four kinds of destroyers against them,” declares the LORD, “the sword to kill and the dogs to drag away and the birds and the wild animals to devour and destroy. 4 I will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth because of what Manasseh son of Hezekiah king of Judah did in Jerusalem.

5 “Who will have pity on you, Jerusalem?
Who will mourn for you?
Who will stop to ask how you are?
6 You have rejected me,” declares the LORD.
“You keep on backsliding.
So I will reach out and destroy you;
I am tired of holding back.
7 I will winnow them with a winnowing fork
at the city gates of the land.
I will bring bereavement and destruction on my people,
for they have not changed their ways.
8 I will make their widows more numerous
than the sand of the sea.
At midday I will bring a destroyer
against the mothers of their young men;
suddenly I will bring down on them
anguish and terror.
9 The mother of seven will grow faint
and breathe her last.
Her sun will set while it is still day;
she will be disgraced and humiliated.
I will put the survivors to the sword
before their enemies,”
declares the LORD.

Now I know a lot of Christians justify violence against evildoers because they think they are simply being instruments of God’s justice. But that’s hard to reconcile with some of Jesus’ explicit commands (e.g. Matthew 5: 39, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also”).

To repeat, one possible resolution of all this, is to say that God will smite evildoers, and that we are not supposed to worry about others, but instead should focus on the beam in our own eyes.

(Of course, if you are given an explicit order from the Lord to go out and, say, invade another country–like the Israelites received–then obviously that’s what you’re supposed to do. I am talking about the default presumption of how a self-identified Christian should live his or her life.)

It’s ironic because evangelical Christians are some of the loudest opponents of genetic engineering and other such attempts to “play God.” You never hear a pastor say, “It’s fine for us to tinker with the genetic code, because after all God created life as we learn in Genesis.”

So the fact that God would wipe out people for their idolatry by itself is hardly proof that therefore it’s fine for us to establish earthly systems of punitive law enforcement, in which some men (and women) pass judgment on others and throw them in cages or even put them to death.

32 Responses to “Prince of Peace, but God of Justice”

  1. Robbie says:

    When God gave Adam dominion over the whole earth, he also passed title. The right of disposal. This right to dispose of property is the Law.

    To determine if we are justified in our actions we have to ask if we are disposing of property that already belongs to someone else.

    Proverbs 21:7 The robbery of the wicked shall destroy them; because they refuse to do judgment.

    Heavenly Judgement is different than the worlds standard of “justice.”

  2. Sceptra says:

    Dr. Murphy, Long time reader first time writer. Let me preface this by saying that I do, truly, respect people who have strong religious convictions. Knowing as I do that some of my favorite thinkers — people whose minds and accomplishments far surpass my own — are very strong believers in the divine, I do not in any way think of religion people as stupid.

    Having said that…

    Does something not seem prima facie wrong to you about God being so, well, human. I mean, the God of the Old Testament is just downright petty. He acts in anger and in jealousy, he comes across as rash and unmerciful and, frankly, unjust.

    As someone who was raised Jewish but who never really held any particularly strong religious beliefs, and who arrived at an Agnostic/Atheist position at a young age, I guess I’m just truly fascinated by someone who went the other way — from disbelief to belief. I mean, in truth I would love to believe as you do. But how do you rationalize, not individual snippets of the Bible (in which contradictions do abound), but the Old Testament God taken as a whole, as an entity. A God who often sounds more like a guy playing an old game of Sim City 2000 than an omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving Alpha and Omega.

    What am I missing?

  3. fundamentalist says:

    I think the OT law gave the Israelis the authority to punish criminal behavior. And Paul says that the governing authorities are there to carry out God’s vengeance against evil doers. Christ’s teachings were primarily about person behavior, not governmental policy.

  4. knoxharrington says:

    fundamentalist echoes a point made famous by Reinhold Niebuhr in Moral Man and Immoral Society – that as individuals we would condemn group actions if undertaken individually but as a group not only do we not condemn those actions but we oftentimes willingly participate, i.e., murder by an individual is condemned but murder by the state is allowed and often commended. This, of course, raises the anarchist objection – namely that governments by definition transgress individual morality and therefore should not exist.

    But the Old Testament begs a question which is this – is it possible for God to command people to commit immoral acts? Christians are very fond of saying that without God anything is possible and there are no objective moral standards. When God commanded the Israelites to invade a land and commit genocide – was that wrong? I think examples such as this show that with God all things are possible too. I know, who am I to question God? God’s commandments are not worthy of contemplation by a mere mortal such as myself but then, of course, the answers (from fundamentalist et al.) will not be worthy of consideration either because they involved contemplation of God’s commandments too.

    • Robert Greenwood says:

      “God’s commandments are not worthy of contemplation by a mere mortal such as myself”

      Did God communicate these commands (or record of) to you personally or was there an intermediary in the form of man? Should we not always question the intermediary lest we be led down the wrong path?

      • knoxharrington says:

        That’s a great point and one hashed out here before. For fundamentalist the Bible is the word of God and no questioning of mediating factors is allowed. Well, to be honest, he would say you can question things but the overwhelming evidence is that the Bible is an accurate portrayal of God’s commandments and that our questioning of a being beyond our comprehension is a meaningless exercise because that would bring God down to our level which is impossible. For humans to understand God and his ways fully is impossible because the very nature of God defies such an understanding.

        Personally, the fact that the will and commandments of God were transmitted to people through individuals who communicated with God as individuals begs a bunch of interersting questions.

        • RG says:

          Overwhelming evidence is a ridiculous statement.

          • knoxharrington says:

            I agree – I would say the overwhelming evidence runs contrary to the Bible.

          • RG says:

            That’s when you hear the call to faith.

    • fundamentalist says:

      No, it’s not possible for God to command people to commit immoral acts. God’s morality comes from his character and he can’t act differently than who he is. Now in Islam Allah can command people to commit immorality because human morality is something that he crafted just for people and he is not bound by those laws. In fact, some Muslim scholars claim that Allah will send some very good people to hell and very bad people to heaven just to demonstrate his sovereignty.

  5. RG says:

    Didn’t Jesus drown someone’s herd of pigs and then they kicked him out of town?

  6. K Sralla says:

    But aren’t you guys who don’t believe really in the same place? Look around at the world. Can you make sense of things? Maybe it is easier to cope with this world if one’s brain is not vexed by the idea that it all comes from the decree of God. However, I think my own brain is more vexed with the possibility that we may live a stochastic soup of random occurences, with the only meaning defined by whatever a chunch in the soup says. Guys, with all the heavy and weightly questions that roll around in my brain, in the end, I would not want to switch brains with you.

    And yes Knox, the point you bring up is very weightly even for theologians. How can a just God demand genocide? We evangelicals often tend to want to give nice contrite pithy answers to such questions, but if one does really not feel the weight of this charge, that person is not being honest with themselves. A few months back I stumbled across a good sermon on this topic by Derek Thomas, a theologian of some regard. You may be interested in listening to this and note how a Christian thinker sees some of these issues: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/conferences/tough-questions-christians-face-2010-national/if-god-is-good-how-could-he-command-holy-war/

    • knoxharrington says:

      Thanks, I will check it out.

  7. fundamentalist says:

    I think it would be an interesting exercise to trace the history of the morality of genocide. What little I know, I would say that genocide wasn’t considered an evil thing until roughly the Reformation. And I would bet that Christians were the first to consider it evil. Can anyone show me a culture in history that didn’t practice genocide?

    • knoxharrington says:

      I think the Canaanites probably thought it was evil first – seeing as how they were the victims.

      fundamentalist thinks any morality not grounded in God is meritless, contingent and relativistic – as he says below genocide becomes a matter of personal taste – but the question is if “genocide wasn’t considered an evil thing until roughly the Reformation” – why not? Either genocide is immoral or it isn’t – what happened in the Reformation – other than a development in personal taste – to make it evil? Doesn’t the Reformation condemnation of genocide fall into the trap you lay out for non-Biblical morality claims – hopelessly contingent and relativistic?

      As to your question regarding cultures in history that didn’t practice genocide isn’t that another example of pernicious relativism? We don’t practice genocide here in Dallas. But I guess you want to put the “sins of the father” on to me for genocide against Native Americans, etc. Unfortunately, that is an ethical and moral non-starter.

      We have had this discussion before but was murder wrong prior to the 10 commandments? The answer is yes and I don’t need God to tell me that.

  8. fundamentalist says:

    BTW, genocide isn’t evil if there is not God. It’s merely something people find personally disgusting.

    • knoxharrington says:

      “BTW, genocide isn’t evil if there is not God.”

      What color is the sky in your world?

    • David K. says:

      So you think you can start from the premise “There is no god” and arrive at the conclusion “Genocide is not evil”? I would like to see how the argument is supposed to work.

      • bobmurphy says:

        I will let him speak for himself, but my guess is that he would say it’s the other way around. That if you are objecting to a genocidal tyrant, he can ask you, “Prove that what I’m doing is wrong,” and if you are an atheist then you have nothing to say besides, “I personally would prefer that you stop doing that.”

        (I’m not even necessarily agreeing with this position, but I think that’s what a lot of theists would say on this issue.)

        • knoxharrington says:

          I think you are exactly right – that is what fundamentalist would say. Unfortunately, that is just a second order resort to personal taste or preference – my imaginary friend prefers that you not do that therefore I prefer that as well. The resort to the God explanation for preference is even less satisfactory given God’s command to genocide.

        • fundamentalist says:

          Yes, that would be my response. I’m aware that some natural law theorists, such as Grotius, argued that not only can ethics be discovered by reason based on human nature as natural law did, but that those principles would exist whether or not God existed because they are based on human nature. Opponents of that view argued that even if morality could be discovered by reason, it would have no authority over other men without God giving them that authority.

          I think Grotius was wrong because he forgot that the ethics derived from reason with which he was familiar were based on the assumptions of a rational God who loved mankind and wanted mankind to flourish. Without those assumptions natural law ethics don’t make any sense.

          However, people can start from other assumptions and be perfectly rational as well in the sense that they don’t make any logical fallacies. For example, assume that God is really the devil and doesn’t care whether people flourish or not. The system of rational ethics you derive will be very different, though rational.

          So whatever ethics you derive from reason, they can’t have any authority over anyone but yourself, so they quit being anything but personal opinion, usually based on what you find personally disgusting. So you find genocide disgusting. Who cares what you find personally disgusting? So you can find a thousand friends who also find it disgusting? I could probably find a million who don’t. So is morality nothing but popular vote?

          • knoxharrington says:

            It appears to me that God is a useful tool for fulfilling your moral claims and desires. You claim that morality absent God is a popularity contest. I wholeheartedly disagree but leave that aside for a moment. Why do you get to invoke your imaginary friend as the ultimate trump card? I find your claims to be less relevant because you invoke the “Roaming Gnome” or whoever rather than laying out in a concrete, reasoned manner why your claims are to be believed and why your morality is one that I should live by. The ironic thing is that I live that way anyway regardless of the deity – as do most other people. Maybe there is a shared heritage across cultures and religions that speaks to people apart from what a barely literate Bronze Age clan of land thieves and genocidal maniacs thought? Maybe?

          • fundamentalist says:

            Knox, I gave you my reasons above. You refuse to respond to any of them.

          • knoxharrington says:

            You did? I saw you name-dropped Grotius and invoked a mystical being that loves us but I didn’t see anything there which actually speaks to the relevant issues. You agreed that we characterized your response correctly – i.e., a tautology that God cannot make immoral commands because everything God does is moral and that your position is to invoke a Zeus when you can’t reason your way out of a corner.

            • bobmurphy says:

              I think it would be funny if the Catholics are right and you guys are sentenced to 200 years in purgatory, where you must argue with each other non-stop.

          • fundamentalist says:

            Bob, That wouldn’t be possible. To have an argument, each side must respond to the points the other makes. Knox ignores my points and goes off on a tirade of insults.

        • knoxharrington says:


          As I say below I am declaring a unilateral cease-fire for the rest of the year. Clearly, we just disagree – and that’s ok with me. I will not call you a dilettante or anything else until next year.

          I hope you and yours have a Happy Holiday season and a Merry Christmas – I don’t mean that facetiously or with animus – I really mean it. Enjoy your time with your family and we can go at it some more next year.



  9. Daniel Hewitt says:

    That would turn purgatory into hell for their fellow inmates.

    • knoxharrington says:

      That hurts. Didn’t the Catholics get rid of limbo and purgatory when they stopped selling indulgences?

      I’ll call a truce and stop busting fundamentalist’s balls until after the first of the year – when I see softballs I have to swing for the fences.

      Happy Holidays to everyone.

      • Daniel Hewitt says:

        Sorry knox, I can’t answer that one for you. I am a Protestant and don’t know Catholicism very thoroughly.

        Enjoy your holidays too, and I will look forward to more knoxharrington/fundamentalist deathmatches next year!

  10. Robert Greenwood says:

    This discussion really interests me. It appears that people of faith/religion and agnostics/atheists accept their own belief as the status quo and lay the burden of proof on the opposing view. Personally, I’m not so sure that belief in a creator god requires rash assumption or suspension of reason. I recently watched a fascinating program that outlined all the elements required for intelligent life and the statistical probability of all these factors. Even when safe-siding, the statistical probability all these factors occurring are astronomically small. Also, the more we learn about nature and the universe, the more we learn that it operates according to some apparent order (laws of nature, etc) and not incomprehensible magic or chaos.

    I’m sure discussions here have come down to this before, but is it more logical to accept that everything came from nothing or the idea that there is an intelligent force behind it all? Or is this a false choice?

    • knoxharrington says:

      The burden of proof falls on the party making the positive assertion. To say that their is no God requires proof to be provided – and many atheists fall into this camp. I am not one. I simply say that there is no good proof that God exists and require proof from those asserting same.

      fundamentalist recommends a book called The Last Superstition by Feser which discusses the first cause, prime mover arguments from a Thomist/Aristotelian perspective and, while it is on my nightstand, I can’t claim to have read it in detail. That may be a good place to start. I personally think the infinite regression argument wins out in this instance but my mind is open to better evidence and argument.

      As to the statistical probabilities argument Disraeli famously noted there are lies, damned lies and statistics. I think its easier to believe in a deist conception of God as originator than to believe in the Christian conception of God for a variety of reasons but at the end of the day the deist and scientific explanation for the universe seem to get you to the same place (no, hell jokes please).