When God Declares War

The violence of God can only be understood in the shadow of the Cross.
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"Listen … the Lord of hosts is mustering an army for battle. … Wail, for the day of the Lord is near. … See, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger" (Isa. 13:4-9, NRSV).

Isaiah won't let us escape the fact that our God is violent. In fact, Scripture often describes him as a warrior, a warring king who obliterates his enemies. That leaves thoughtful Christians wondering how we deal with this biblical motif. Does the Bible endorse violence? Is violence one of the ways we can fight the Lord's battles?

This biblical language of violence is especially unsettling in this closing decade of the twentieth century, which is clouded with bloodshed—much of it religiously tinged. Christians who aspire to love their enemies have rightly been shocked by public and domestic acts of violence inspired or justified by misreading a "Christian" ideology of the biblical "Wars of the Lord."

Still, moments arise when our thoughts echo those of the disciples when they said (after being snubbed by Samaritan villagers), "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Luke 9:54; all references are from the nrsv). Rightly sensing that Jesus was on a mission of divine warfare, they wrongly perceived his strategy. They—and we—are rebuked by Jesus.

What then is Jesus' warfare, and how should we tell the ancient story of the wars of the Lord? Those who stand firmly in the biblical tradition know they cannot refashion the language of Scripture to suit their tastes. "Wrath of God" passages remain part of the authoritative Word. Few would want to follow Marcion, the ancient church heretic who edited out offensive portions of Scripture, including the Old Testament ...

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