Vengeance on His Heart?
Debunking Apocalyptic Visions of a Violent God
By Peter Goodgame
The grief and horror experienced recently in the Las Vegas massacre is really nothing compared to what dispensationalists and many “bible-believing” evangelicals expect to see from Jesus at His Second Coming. You see, they interpret the Old Testament predictions of a violent homicidal hero coming in the future to save Israel entirely literally. Here’s a scene of what they expect:
For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter. Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction. The LORD has a sword; it is sated with blood; it is gorged with fat, with the blood of lambs and goats, with the fat of the kidneys of rams. For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah, a great slaughter in the land of Edom. Wild oxen shall fall with them, and young steers with the mighty bulls. Their land shall drink its fill of blood, and their soil shall be gorged with fat. For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion. (Isaiah 34:2-8)
Can you imagine the carnage? The desperation of the human victims portrayed here as mere “animal sacrifices”? The piles of bloody corpses? It shouldn’t be hard to imagine, because we’ve just been confronted with horrific scenes from the grounds of the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas.
Yes, I realize that the context is different. On one hand you have a shooter targeting unarmed civilians, while in the Old Testament we have an image of a hero rescuing Israel from hostile forces. But if we interpret this passage literally then the way that it plays out will be similar because very quickly the Lord’s enemies will realize that they are no match for His power, and the situation will quickly turn to panic, horror, and disbelief for all the victims being cut down. It will be a typical massacre with an invincible aggressor on one side and hopelessly outmatched victims on the other, and in the end the blood-soaked scenes will look very much the same.
Here’s another prophecy of Israel’s hopeful expectation of a savior who will come violently with vengeance against his enemies:
Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he who is splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.” Why is your apparel red, and your garments like his who treads in the winepress? “I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel. For the day of vengeance was on my heart, and my year of redemption had come. I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me. I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.” (Isaiah 63:1-6)
A Day of Justice
1) Upon all the wicked who are alive at the Second Coming, taking the form of the literal fulfillment of numerous Old Testament prophecies as well as the book of Revelation. Many of the enemies of Christ will be literally hacked into pieces or incinerated with His fiery breath, while the rest will be forcefully captured and brought to Jerusalem for judgment and then delivered over to aionian kolasis (Matthew 25:46).
2) Upon all the wicked from all time at the final judgment, in an act of divine violence that takes the form of the wicked being cast alive into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:15), a place of absolute hopelessness and retributive punishment for all eternity.
…as if Jesus turns into a violent and vengeful Superhero who imitates and then outperforms them all!
Just like the ancient Hebrews my perceptions were the product of my own violent culture. How else was I to read these texts? Yet looking back today I see that I was in the same position as James and John, the Sons of Thunder, who were once very eager to see God’s vengeance displayed through deadly violence:
And when His disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But He turned and rebuked them, and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Luke 9:54-56)
Debunking the idea that God deals in retributive violence is a tall order, to be sure. But today I am convinced that this idea is in fact a human invention that is totally against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The problem is that it has been embedded so deep in our consciousness right from the beginning of human culture that God had to enter into our retributive mindset, and even speak the language of retribution using the symbols of retribution, in order to take us out of it.
So yes, on a superficial level we can read “divine retribution” all throughout the Old and New Testaments from beginning to end. But if we read through the eyes of Christ, with the mind of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we will see how our human ideas, expectations, and symbols of divine retribution are completely subverted, ironically fulfilled, and dramatically recast to point to a divine Victory that is truly Good News for all, even for those we would label as God’s “enemies.”
In the end God’s idea of justice is proven to be not vengeful or retributive, as in “an eye for an eye,” but rather restorative. And His triumph occurs not on a future battlefield littered with human corpses after a genocidal Second Coming, but instead the spotlight shines on the Cross, on a divine victim lifted up that spoke a final word of forgiveness rather than muttering threats of end-of-the-age vengeance.
When Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God he repeatedly contrasted it with the usual ways in which humans operate. It is an eternal Kingdom that the carnal mind cannot comprehend. So why would we think that it would mimic human kingdoms by being born out of violence? Well that’s not how it works! The kings of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all founded their empires on killing, but Christ founded His by dying. The corpses of countless victims are buried under the concrete and asphalt highways of the USA, but the streets of gold in the New Jerusalem are not paved over the bones of God’s victims.
God Loves His Enemies
The idea that God simply does not engage in retributive violence was first articulated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In what must have been a mind-boggling teaching to His listeners whose entire conception of God was based upon the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus declared the following:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:38-48)
Jesus was sent to reveal the true nature of God as our heavenly Father. We are all His children, called to become good and perfect and true just like Him. Jesus begins His teaching with the beatitudes, the seventh declaring, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” For Jesus, God the Father is a peacemaker, not a violent warrior, and those who make peace are truly His sons.
Jesus continues the theme when He teaches that when we love our enemies and refrain from violent retribution against them, then we again prove that we are true sons of our heavenly Father. Yes, God loves His enemies! This is an insight that is far from clear if all that we know about God is what we read in the Old Testament. I’m sure Jesus was grabbing His audience’s attention at that point! “Sure Jesus, tell us more… show us how you’re gonna square this new teaching with the testimony we have about God in our Scriptures!” Jesus goes on to emphasize how easy it is to love those who love us back, but when we love those who are against us then we actually imitate our heavenly Father’s perfection.
Jesus Reveals the True Nature of the Father
According to the New Testament the purpose of Hebrew Scripture was not to testify of the Father, but to point to the Son, and it is the Son who is the only true and perfectly reliable witness of the Father. That is why, on the Mount of Transfiguration in the company of Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets) the voice from heaven directed our attention to Jesus saying, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”
“I and my Father are One.” (John 10:30)
“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known.” (John 1:17-18)
“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?'” (John 14:6-10)
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Hebrews 1:3)
- No one has ever seen God, but Jesus has made Him known
- Jesus and the Father are One
- From now on we know the Father, because we know Jesus
- Jesus is the image of God
- Jesus is the perfect representation of God’s nature
The greatest statement that Jesus made about His Father was His life. Not once did Jesus steal, kill, destroy, tempt, invoke a storm, cause a plague, cause a famine, or cause sickness or disease. Not once. Instead he healed, calmed the storm, cast out demons, and rather than striking people dead Jesus raised the dead. As Jesus said, He only did what He saw His Father doing (John 5:19). Jesus lived a life of grace and truth and mercy and unconditional love and self-sacrifice and forgiveness right to the very end, because that is what His Father was doing. That is the true nature of our Father in heaven.
In His teaching Jesus straightened out the convoluted Old Testament conversation on the nature of evil and God’s role in it by indicting Satan as God’s evil adversary. The OT casts Satan as an angel who, from time to time, is allowed or even commanded to carry out God’s “dirty work,” yet remains a servant obedient to “God’s Will.” Jesus, on the other hand, points to Satan as an outsider who works against God rather than with Him. Far from being a servant Satan is actually a rebel and the great enemy of God and humankind. Satan is a liar and a murderer, while God is the source of truth and life.
By clarifying the role of Satan Jesus was able to heal some terrible misconceptions that His disciples may have had about God the Father and His relationship with darkness and evil, misconceptions that stood in the way of genuine relationship and intimacy. No child is comfortable around an abusive Father who threatens violence for the smallest act of disobedience. Jesus disarmed the fears that the apostles may have had about living as sons of God by teaching and demonstrating that God was truly a good Father, far better than any human Father could ever imagine to be.
Because of what Jesus taught we don’t need to worry about God possibly having a retributive dark side manifested in flashes of anger and violence directed at us if we happen to let Him down. It is true that God disciplines His sons, but every act of discipline is in our best interests, for correction and improvement, always motivated by love. His discipline, just like His justice, is restorative and not retributive. It is always discipline for a higher purpose, drawing us closer to our Father rather than driving us farther away. Yes, even “Depart from me, I never knew you,” is a means towards a final restorative end.
Jesus was sent to reveal the Father to humankind and to draw all of us into the fellowship of the heavenly Family, transforming us into true children of God who love unconditionally just like He loves. The letter of 1st John emphasizes all of these themes, beginning with the radical message of how Jesus revealed the true nature of the Father:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:1-5)
God is love.
God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.
All of these attributes of God the Father work together. None of them contradict. None of them seek to separate us from Him, rather they all work to heal and to restore — to seek and to save that which was lost.
So what do we do with God’s vengeance? How do we deal with the Hebrew prophecies that very clearly depict the Messiah lashing out retributively in anger and wrath at the end of the age? How do we harmonize them with Jesus’ revelation of the unconditional love of the Father that extends even to His enemies? These questions about how we interpret Scripture in light of the revelation of God in Christ will be dealt with in Part Two, but for now I want to end with a couple of uncomfortable questions:
Is God a Pharisee?
Does the same caveat apply to God the Father? “Do what He says, but don’t do what He does!” No, of course not! The whole point of the Gospel is for us to imitate Christ just as Christ imitated God, and in this way we prove that we are sons and daughters of God. The New Testament is crystal clear on this! We can be sure that both the Father and the Son follow their own Gospel!
“For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” (John 5:19)
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
“But the wisdom that is from above is … without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.” (James 3:17-18)
Are we the New Pharisees?
The Pharisees of old were convinced that the Messiah would come to save Israel by dealing out violent retribution against their enemies. Were the Pharisees essentially correct in their expectation of how God would establish His Kingdom, but they merely had their timing wrong?
Yes, this is the traditional answer fed to us by our theological systems… that Jesus came the first time as a Lamb, but He’s coming back again as a Lion, when His attitude towards the lost will be entirely different. No longer will he show mercy, grace, and love towards them, rather His voice will boom over the earth saying, “Time’s up sinners! Your Day of Reckoning has arrived! It’s time to face your DOOM!”
If this is what the future holds, then yes, Christians today are in the same position as the Pharisees of old, waiting for God to appear and win the victory for us by dealing out violent retribution against our enemies. But what if this is not what the future holds? What if Christ’s only plan is to build His Kingdom through self-sacrificing love, beginning with Christ’s example that is now passed on to us?
The problem with the Pharisees went far deeper than merely getting God’s prophetic timing wrong. They rejected Christ not simply because they failed to distinguish between scriptural predictions of the Messiah’s first and second comings. That was not it at all! No, they rejected Christ because they got the very nature of God wrong! And that is why Jesus was sent to this earth, to show all humanity, including His people Israel, what God is really like.
Jesus is pulling all of humanity forward, and the earth itself is groaning in expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promises. There will be vindication of God’s people, there will be justice, there will be the end of sin and death and hell, and evil will be decisively dealt with.
However, part of this process is recognizing the true nature of evil and recognizing who our true enemies are. The Pharisees failed to understand this and they remained blind and held captive on the broad path that led to their own self-destruction. They failed to see that in Christ there are no enemies with a human face. They failed to recognize that God’s holy war is not against the Romans (or the Muslims, or the Socialists, or the Liberals, or the Homosexuals), rather His war, and our war today, is against every inner impulse that fearfully pulls back from LOVE.
From this perspective we will discover that God’s wrath against our real enemies works in perfect harmony with His unconditional, indiscriminate, and inescapable love for all humanity.
October 8, 2017
Jesus deals with Judgement: Who’s Left To Judge? Jesus confronts the Pharisees’ desire for God to enter into history as a Judge delivering a legal verdict on the saved and the lost.
Reading Scripture through the eyes of Christ: One Story, Two Revelations, Four Voices, by Brad Jersak. The Bible reveals itself as a human conversation about God with an inspired trajectory, rather than a monologue dictated word-for-word by God.
The “Wrath of God” as understood from the non-violent perspective of the early Church Fathers: What is the Wrath of God? by Ambrose Andreano. Much of the Bible consists of authors describing God in their image, in humanistic terms, yet God is an immutable Spirit who is not subjected to the fluctuations of human passions.
The book of Revelation as a subversive critique of human empire: The War of the Lamb, by Brian Zahnd