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Fire in the Bones [Biblical, Heterodox Christianity]: Is God Violent? A Response to “Light on the Dark Side of God

Greg Boyd describes a work by M.M. Campbell, Light on the “Dark Side of God”, aiming to show that God is never actively violent but rather allows unsavory things to happen to people by removing divine protection.

One problem with discussing this view is that its flexibility allows it to explain more or less anything. No matter how obviously God acts as an agent in a given Biblical narrative, one can generally come up with some way to show that it wasn’t really God implementing violence, but rather evil spirits. The author suggests that God sees and describes Himself as doing what he merely permits. Clearly, it’s going to be hard to show that God actually does any violence if you make such an idea a universal principal. Just think, what evidence would you find available if everything God is described as doing something it didn’t actually mean what it says?

Take, for example, the author’s own explanation for how the killing of the firstborn takes place during the passover:

The midnight hour arrives. Invisibly God’s “death angel” appears, carrying in its hands the destroying weapon from the eternal Throne. He looks at one house, sees the blood and passes over. He sees no blood on the house next door, and he comes down. What does he carry in his hand? Is that a sword? Perhaps a laser or a lightning bolt? No. It is a document on which is stamped the name of God. He shows it to the guardian angel, throughout the years stationed at the door of the house devoid of the saving blood. “Release,” says the document. Together the angels fly away, exposing the firstborn within to the destroyer, waiting eagerly without.

The author promises to explain later why the destroyer could be limited to killing the firstborn when all the protection is gone… but I don’t actually see where she does so. I hope this illustrates the difficulty in assailing the position when one can posit such scenarios. Nevermind that God explicitly says “I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike…” [Exodus 12:12]

The author derives her version of the events from Exodus 12:23, where the verbiage is a little different: “…then the Lord will pass over the door and not permit the destroyer to enter your house and smite you.”

As this hypothesis is clearly spawned from a desire to make God more palatable to us (a property shared by several doctrines of Orthodoxy), it should not be too hard to show it untenable. Even given the challenges inherent to debunking such a hypothesis, the following objections leap to mind.

  • The author claims that God simply “backs off,” leaving people to the realm and power of evil forces when they reject the Living God. One obvious problem with this idea is that several times the destruction was not based on the sins of the victim. For example, the individual citizens in Egypt are punished in the passage described without there being any allusion to their sin.
  • Violence is often demanded by God, which is rather different from God simplying allowing violence to take place without stopping it. Examples abound.

    • God required Israel to sacrifice animals, not all of which were sacrifices for sins
    • God required Israel to stone murderers, adulterers, etc.
    • God demanded Israel to totally annihilate certain nations they came into contact with[Deuteronomy 7:2]. Astoundingly, the author attempts to deal with this language by claiming the Israelites forced God into such choices by choosing military action. The problem with this viewpoint is that the sparse evidence given (where God tells Israel it need not use its armies[Joshua 24:11-12 is the first]) occurs after God has already decreed this destruction. Furthermore, no admonition or reproach is given to Israel the first time they do take up the sword to suggest God had another plan.[Exodus 17:8-11] It’s further simply unreasoable to assume God would scrap an entire policy of non-violent conquering because Israel choose to use force in a single battle. God also directs people to battle in other prophetic messages [Jeremiah 49:28]
  • Often violence is not only demanded by God, but is clearly done by one of God’s agents. This includes the “Angel of the Lord” being the specific agent who killed 185,000 Assyrians [Isaiah 37:36, 2nd Kings 19:35]. Remarkably the author mentions this as a type of “Exercise for the reader.” Indicating the reader should figure out how this could really be someone else. I find it rather bizarre to envision an angel walking through the camp, having personal discussions with each of 185,000 other guardian angels so that some third-party evil spirit could come in and slaugher 185,000 soldiers, and instead the “Angel of the Lord” is given credit for the slaughter. Similarly, Nebuchadnezzar is called My servant several times and God speaks of specifically calling him to attack others [Jeremiah 25:9, Jeremiah 43:10.]
  • Often violence attributed to God in the Bible is prophetic. Given the general strength [and one would assume intelligence] of Satan and his forces, one is hard pressed to understand why they would willfully act to legitimize God by showing such prophecies to be true.
  • The author attempts to show, concomitant to God’s lack of violence, that Hell is not a place of eternal suffering. To do this the author shows that the word “eternal” could be being used metaphorically given the magnitude and terror of annihilation. There is some merit in this given that the Greek word translated “eternal” in most places does not really mean “eternal.” However, there is no way to get around Jude 6, where the Greek word used is actually the real word for eternal and it is not destruction that is described but imprisonment [literally “chains.”]
  • In Revelation 20:15 we read “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, that person was thrown into the Lake of Fire.” My question for the author is “by whom?” Satan, Death, and Hades were already in hell…there were no more evil spirits around to blame for the “throwing.” As far as I can tell, the author skips from the other wrath [the pre-judgment wrath on the earth] to the question of “how long Hell lasts,” skipping this rather obvious [and some would say most troubling] vignette of God’s violence.
  • In an effort to defend Christ’s death, the author is forced to see Christ’s words My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me as actually referring to God having forsaken Christ, a viewpoint that is far less Scriptural (for when did God really forsake the Word…and HOW could that be ontologically possible?) than seeing this as a final exhortation of encouragement as Christ quotes the first and last verses of psalm 22 [Matthew 27:46, John 19:30], essentially givng His followers one final reason to believe that Christ had fulfilled the prophecies, even those in the Psalms.
  • Contrary to the author’s beliefs, the Judaic viewpoint of God’s righteousness was inextricably linked to the notion of retribution and vindication. In fact, the same Hebrew word is used for both. Consider for example Isaiah 10:22, where the NASB translation [using the word “righteousness” instead of “retribution”] makes little sense. For how can “righteousness” overflow in a verse smack dab in the middle of a passage where God is referring to destroying most of Israel. Surely it is not the “righteousness” of God’s people [elsewhere described as shining to the nations] for very little of Judah would survive. No, the Jewish Publication Society’s translation of this, speaking of the “retribution” or [“just punishment” as described by the NET] is more accurate. The situation is shown even more starkly in Isaiah 5:23, where the KJV in particular makes no sense. In any event, given how much language there is God having retribution for sins against The Almighty, it is hard to ascribe those acts of violence as merely the acts of evil forces.

I’m sure there are more problems to be found, but the above should suffice.