God and Mass Killing
How can a loving God condone or even command the killing of whole groups of people?
During our winter sermon series on The God the Impossible at Grace, we’ve encountered multiple Old Testament passages in which large groups of people are killed in the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel. In fact, several occasions affirm the explicit command of God to kill, or “slaughter,” certain populations or clusters of people. We’ve faced this in Joshua 10, in 1 Kings 18, and this coming Sunday in Isaiah 36–37, in addition to other examples.
How can this be? How can a loving and merciful God condone the extermination of groups of people? If we are to trust a deity who seems vengeful, how can we reconcile this with our sense of compassion and justice? Charles Templeton mused: “The God of the Old Testament is utterly unlike the God believed in by most practicing Christians,” 1 One with only appealing traits like love, grace, and forgiveness. These questions are not only posed by skeptical readers of the Bible. Truth be told, more than a few sympathetic readers are greatly troubled by the seemingly arbitrary and evil response of the God of the Bible to whole groups of people. What gives‽
This cluster of issues raises thorny philosophical and moral challenges, many of which have spawned a plethora of books and articles. Heated debates wrestle over the topic.
But for readers who take the claims of Scripture seriously, I’d like to suggest a few principles to help us understand and perhaps even come to grips with the possibility of a good and loving God who, consistent with His nature, can call for the judgment of whole groups of people as well. These may not satisfy all our inner tensions or answer all our questions, but perhaps they give us a fuller perspective to consider.
God is wholly consistent with Himself and can simultaneously express His nature of love, mercy, and compassion with holiness, righteousness, and judgment. God is not schizophrenic, nor is He the projection of our skewed wishes. The God of the Bible, Old and New Testaments, is a God of love and justice, even if that discomfits us.
God intends to bless the nations with knowledge of who He is and an opportunity to respond to that knowledge (Genesis 12:1–3). While He has chosen a people in the Old Testament (the Jews) His larger purpose is to reveal Himself and His glory to all peoples (Psalm 67).
Sin, an active rebellion against God and selfish indifference to Him, is an affront to the Creator of the universe and—consistent with God’s righteousness—requires a response of justice and judgment. God does not “wave off” or ignore sin like an unaware grandfather, and every person, ethnic group, and culture this side of the fall is permeated by sin (Romans 3:1–10).
Since God made us, He has the right to give life and take it away. Every one of us will die, and most do so by natural causes after a longer life. But God can “prematurely” conclude our lives whenever He wishes, including because of our active rebellion. This doesn’t inherently diminish His love. Rather, it confirms His sovereignty.
Those who actively lead others into worship of other gods (idolatry) provoke condemnation from God. In the case of the false prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18, their wickedness demanded the death penalty, which God had already stipulated in Deuteronomy 13:13–15; 17:2–5. Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser writes, “When one considers that because of these prophets many persons went into eternity forever cast away from the presence of God, the sanction (killing of them) is completely justified.” 2
How we view God and morality are greatly impacted by our culture. Tim Keller points out that “in ancient times it was understood that there was a transcendent moral order outside the self, built in to the fabric of the universe. If you violated that metaphysical order there were consequences… Modernity reversed this. Ultimate reality was seen not so much as a supernatural order but as the natural world, and that was malleable.” 3 In other words, we feel that we can rewire the moral universe to match our enlightened ways. The Bible doesn’t support that notion.
The grace of God has been part of His character from the very beginning, but we see the fruit of that grace as history unfolds and the depravity of people comes to light. That’s true on a personal level as well. You will never fully understand the grace of the Gospel and appreciate it until you first recognize human depravity and the wrath of God.
God’s Good News
Often we wrestle with the thought that God seems to advocate killing entire peoples or armies, whatever the justification. Yet God Himself knows something about injustice. His Son, Jesus, willingly incurred the righteous wrath of God for the unrighteous sin of humanity. Although He was perfect, Jesus experienced mind-boggling punishment for our sins. That cosmic injustice should bother us, too, until we realize that it serves a greater good: salvation offered to us! He suffered in our place. That’s the Gospel.
God is not an ethnic cleanser. He is not a nationalistic bigot or tribal god who practices genocide. The God of the Bible is a “moral purger” who, in His time and way, protects His glory and honors His design for righteousness to rule. God gets the last word. Especially in the Old Testament, He often pursued His moral purging through His chosen people. Sometimes even they were the recipients of His moral purging (Numbers 14:20–45).
Additional topics and objections surely exist. The morality of the great flood, of hell, and of other biblical stories remain in our minds, but so should the morality of God’s patience, His forgiveness, and Christ’s cross! Just when we think that we have God cornered or have outed Him as a moral monster, He shows us unfathomable kindness. In fact, when God describes Himself, it’s breathtaking:
The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.
Shortly thereafter, the one true God says: “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). Wise people heed that warning.
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Mike Yoder and his wife, Letitia, moved to Columbus in 2011. He became the lead pastor after a decade of missionary service in Berlin, Germany and later working in cross-cultural leadership training. Mike has educational background in sociology and communications (Grace College), theology (Grace Seminary), and intercultural studies (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). In his free time, Mike enjoys basketball, water sports, travel, and being a news junkie. He also roots for all Chicago sports teams including the World Series champion Chicago Cubs! The Yoders have four children.
1 Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2000, p. 114.
2 Kaiser, Walter. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1996, p. 229.
3 Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. Dutton: New York, 2008, p. 71.