The twentieth century was the most violent in history, and the twenty-first promises to be just as bad. But Loren Seibold says the Bible promises a better future.
The reporter on my television screen appeared stunned. He mopped his brow, stammering in an effort to find words to describe what he was hearing and seeing. It was April 16, 2007, and he and we were at that very moment learning that an insane gunman had randomly killed 32 people at a usually quiet, peaceful university in Virginia. The reporter’s difficulty was understandable; indeed, what can you say in the face of such an atrocity?
In William Shakespeare’s most violent play, Titus Andronicus, his characters are faced with a similarly gruesome scene. Titus holds the severed heads of his brother’s two children in his hands—and laughs incongruously. Marcus asks his brother Titus, “Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour.” Titus replies, “I have not another tear to shed” (Act 3, Scene 1). We live in a world in which violence overwhelms the bounds of understanding. The tyrant Josef Stalin knew this. “One death is a tragedy,” he opined; “A million is a statistic.” Accordingly, Stalin killed millions with hardly a reflective thought.
How do we account for ours being such a violent world?
The seeds of violence
Violence occurs in nature, of course. Animals kill one another impersonally, unfeelingly, as a source of food or to protect territory. Human beings, though, claim a level of consciousness that animals don’t have. We claim to reflect on our motives, to think about consequences, and to empathize with the feelings of others. What, then, prompts a person to wantonly hurt and kill other human beings?
Some psychologists and philosophers suggest that violence is learned—the result of childhood exposure to cruelty. Others speculate that the tendency toward violence is as natural a part of the human psyche as hunger or reproduction— that we are, in other words, but another species of animal with the instinct to kill.
We Christians see the roots of violence going far deeper, though, back to a cosmic conflict almost lost in the mists of time. Violence originated with one of God’s closest attendants. Scripture calls him the “morning star” (though he is generally known by the Latin word “Lucifer”), who indulged his own pride and jealousy. Sin, according to Scripture, fed on Lucifer’s arrogance, which grew into this powerful angel’s conviction that he ought to become God (Isaiah 14:12–14).
Pride was the seed of sin, but its very first fruit was violence: “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back” (Revelation 12:7). Lucifer was cast out of heaven, so it was on our world that he took his stand against God, by corrupting its inhabitants.
We human beings were not created violent creatures—quite the opposite. We were made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26, 27), with God’s instincts of right and goodness. But Lucifer infected God’s perfect creation with a terminal moral disease.
And so those first human beings lost some of their Godlike luster and took on instead the dark hues of their tempter. The first violent crime was domestic: in a jealous rage, Cain murdered his brother Abel (see Genesis 4:8–10). It was only the beginning of a long downward slide into brutality.
As generations passed, God’s patience wore thin. Scripture says, “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. . . . Now the earth was . . . full of violence.” (Genesis 6:5, 11).
A violent earth
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the earth is no better now than it was then; arguably, it is worse. Not a day passes without unimaginable horrors wreaked upon innocent people. The violence here is a reflection of the greater cosmic war. As the nineteenth century Bible commentator and author Ellen White put it, “The fallen world is the battlefield for the greatest conflict the heavenly universe and earthly powers have ever witnessed. It was appointed as a theater on which would be fought out the grand struggle between good and evil, between heaven and hell.”1
I recently heard an interview with Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi, Iraq’s former (interim) minister of defense. Allawi is an articulate, well-spoken man, a graduate of Harvard and a professor at Oxford University. The interviewer asked his reaction to the murders at Virginia Tech. He acknowledged that it was a horrible event. But, he added, “Please remember that [in respect to the young people who died at Virginia Tech] many young people have died in my country every day, for the past four years.”
It’s easy to forget them—they’re on the other side of the world. But God’s people on both sides of the world are God’s creation, and all wars, just or unjust, are evil’s violent legacy.
Is there a way to end the rising tide of violence? Many have tried. We restrict the availability of weapons. Philosopher Hannah Arendt believed that violence increased in proportion to the lethality of the implements of destruction. Now the lethality has become so great that “no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential,” said Arendt.2
Similarly, we try to contain those who do violence; prisons are filled, yet we can’t imprison enough people to end the violence! Some speculate that poverty leads to violent crime; but that theory is discounted by the observation that even wealthy people are not immune to vicious behavior.
The reason we can’t end violence is because it’s in our human hearts. Even if we could create a society in which everyone’s needs were fully met, some would still be violent.
A violent God?
The Bible tells much about human violence. Some of the best people are shown doing horrible things. Especially troubling, though, are those passages that seem to describe God ordering cruel punishment on human beings. Theologians have wrestled with this problem for millennia.
And I will tell you honestly that I can’t explain all of God’s behaviors in the Bible—I doubt that any human being can. “ ‘Can you fathom the mysteries of God?’ ” one of Job’s friends asks him (Job 11:7). Not wanting to be guilty of the kind of presumption that fueled Lucifer’s hubris, we consider such subjects only with caution.
This I do know, however: that God hates sin and wants to rid the universe of it. At one point He becomes so discouraged with the violence on the earth that He announces his intention to “ ‘wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth . . . for I am grieved that I have made them’ ” (Genesis 6:7). You’ll find similar reasoning wherever God orders war or commands killing: He does violence in order to end violence.
But does that make sense?
I have a friend who developed a dangerous tumor that had to be surgically removed. It was, frankly, a rather violent process. The surgeon cut her skin, pulled it open, cut away pieces of bone, and reached inside to excise a mass of tissue from her internal organs. Along the way he employed knives, saws, and burning electric tools that seared her tissues. She was left sick, very sore, and bleeding, and it took many weeks before she was healed enough to go home. It occurred to me when I saw the extent of her surgery that if a thug on the street had hurt her that badly, it would have been a crime, and the perpetrator would have been imprisoned. But the cutter was a physician; by cutting her, he saved her life.
We humans sometimes resort to violence in order to put an end to violence. The Allied powers fought World War II in order to end Hitler’s cruel violence.
God, too, has at times had to hurt in order to heal. The prime example: He sent his own Son to be executed by one of the most cruel, inhumane methods ever devised by man. Jesus, who never did violence to anyone, died a martyr’s death at the hands of the creatures He’d created—the ones, in fact, that He’d come to save! And yet that act of violence, says the Bible, was the turning point in the history of humankind. “He was wounded for our transgressions,” says Isaiah, “He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5, NKJV). The violence done to Jesus erased our culpability for sin and made our salvation possible.
Cruel on God’s part? No. How happy could sinners be in a new heaven and a new earth permeated with righteousness and goodness (see 2 Peter 3:11–13)? Far better that God cleanse the universe of sin and so mark the end of violence forever. John is very specific about what will not survive the final act: “There will be,” he says, “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Imagine that: a world of perfect peace and perfect safety! There won’t be even one tear to shed, because God will have removed from this universe every reason for violence and the pain and sadness that it causes.