A reader named Jen left this comment on the recent article, What is the Wrath of God?
So here is my question: You believe the parts in the Bible about God’s love and God is Love, and all the feel good parts about God. But when it comes to the anger of God and all the terrible curses and mass slaughter and such, it is either “this is only what people thought God was like and have attributed to Him” or it is explained by evil doers not liking the light. We are only supposed believe the good things about God and cherry pick over the unpleasant stuff that doesn’t make sense?
On the spiritual plane the hiding from the light and sending yourself to hell makes sense. But when you read in the Bible that supposedly God told his people to go into a city and kill everyone right down to the infants and the cows, it is kind of hard to accept.
So why do you believe the Love stuff and not the vengeance and physical violence stuff about God in the Bible?
Jen is not overstating the case about the violent marching orders given by God in the Bible. Here are just two of many examples:
However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16–18)
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.” (1 Samuel 15:2–3)
Sometimes the women and children were spared. Usually the livestock was taken as booty. Regardless, the God of the Old Testament is presented as a warlike and bloodthirsty God, who commands the wholesale destruction of Israel’s enemies. And as with the commandment to destroy the Amalekites, the stated motivation is often vengeance for previous attacks and wrongs against the Israelites.
How is this compatible with a God of love?
Did God really command the Israelites to commit genocide?
It is indisputable that the Bible says that God did so.
And can people who adhere to such violent, bloodthirsty religions really be considered God’s children? Are warlike, murderous, and genocidal people really living in the spirit of a God of love?
Or is God not always loving? Does God actually want whole clans and even whole races of people to be wiped out, as the Bible says?
And finally, can people who commit horrible acts of violence as commanded by their religion really go to heaven?
More questions about a violent God and violent religions
Several other readers have asked similar questions. For example, here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Shane:
I feel God has put it in my heart to have a burning desire to protect women and children from violence.
I just cannot make sense of the Old Testament passages that has God ordering the slaughter of women and children by the Israelites.
I understand what you say about evil being necessary for free choice, but it seems God has chosen to murder in these passages. What gives?
If God commanded the Israelites to kill women and children, doesn’t that go contrary to the many commandments in the Bible, and the urgings of our own hearts, to protect women and children—and all people—from violence?
And here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to by a reader named Kate Gladstone:
Many of the pages on your site make the case that we will be saved by following the religion we were born into, whatever religion that may be. What about people who are born into horrible, cruel religions (such as the ancient Aztec religion of human sacrifice)? Do they go to Heaven through accepting THAT religion? If they reject it, are they barred from Heaven because they rejected the horrid and cruel religion that they were born into?
This Conundrum broadens the scope. Ancient Israel was certainly not the only violent and bloodthirsty culture that had a God who was warlike and cruel. Many ancient religions practiced animal and human sacrifice, and had warlike gods who commanded the torture and killing of enemies. Even today there are still religious groups and movements that are warlike and cruel in their practices.
And finally, here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to by a reader named Eric:
I am a college freshman who has been investigating my Christian faith and a lot of what Swedenborg writes resounds with me. I have one major question that has bothered me: I understand how many religions fit together today, but what about ancient religions that may have involved elements that we don’t see in spirituality today, such as Norse or in particular the Mayan religion. I have had a hard time fitting these into perspective with other faiths and was wondering if you had any reflections to help out.
Once again, how we can find any spirituality in ancient religions that practiced not only animal but human sacrifice, and in cultures that were often brutal and warlike? Could people who engaged in these sorts of practices really be good and heaven-bound people?
These are tough questions!
First, we should acknowledge that these are tough questions! Christians (and people of other religions, too) have been struggling with these conundrums for centuries.
And yet, most of them have had to throw their hands up in the air and admit that they really don’t have a satisfactory answer to the question of why God commanded wholesale slaughter in many places in the Bible, and why so many religions have been so brutal.
This, I would suggest, is because so far we have not had a deep enough understanding of the nature of the Word of God, or of how God interacts with humankind.
Specifically, as long as Christianity is stuck with a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible, these questions will have no really satisfactory answers. The fact of the matter is that in many places, the God of the Bible is brutal, violent, and bloodthirsty—just like the gods of many other ancient cultures.
Until Christianity recognizes that God speaks to us in our own language and in our own concepts, including when our cultures are brutal and warlike, much of the Bible will remain dark, mysterious, and unintelligible in the light of present-day knowledge and ethical standards.
But once we realize that the Bible has both a divine side and a human side, we can look beyond the outward appearance. We can see the true, loving nature of God hidden behind the harsh ways God comes across to us when we are in a fallen and brutish spiritual state.
The Bible is a fantastically complex book. That’s true even if we look at it only as human literature. But when we factor in the divine inspiration of the Bible as the Word of God, its complexity and depth goes many orders of magnitude beyond any merely human literature.
The Bible was written through the minds and hands of many ordinary and extraordinary human beings over a period of many centuries. And yet, God was shaping and directing it from within so that it has depths of spiritual and divine meaning that go beyond anything even the most profound thinkers among us is able to fathom. On the surface, the Bible often looks crude, brutal, and violent. Yet hidden in its depths is a wisdom that goes infinitely beyond our human wisdom.
We can’t even begin to flesh out that depth and complexity here. But as you read the rest of this article, please keep in mind that even though in some places the narrative of the Bible is horrible and repellant to our present-day moral and humanitarian sensibilities, that is only the surface of the Bible. There are deeper meanings underneath the surface that go far beyond even our most well-developed human morals and ethics.
Before we delve deeper into the tough questions posed by Jen, Shane, Kate, and Eric, here are some of the most common answers offered by traditional Christians as to why the God of the Bible gets so violent and bloodthirsty:
- God is all-powerful. God is all-knowing. Who are we to question God?
- The people whose slaughter God commanded were guilty of terrible sins, and deserved to die.
- God had to have them killed or they would have corrupted and destroyed the Israelites.
- God didn’t really command the Israelites to kill all those people. They just thought God did.
Unfortunately, all of these answers have serious problems for the Christians who propose them:
- Maybe God is all-powerful and all-knowing. But does that really justify God commanding violence and even genocide? Shouldn’t God be far better than bloodthirsty, genocidal human tyrants and warlords?
- Maybe some of the people whose slaughter God commanded were guilty of terrible sins. But were all of them guilty? What about the children? What about the animals?
- Does protecting the Israelites really justify slaughtering the people of other nations? Besides, according to the Bible, the Israelites themselves become so corrupt anyway that eventually their own nation was destroyed by foreign powers, just as they had earlier destroyed other nations.
- This solution is a Pandora’s box that most traditional Christians don’t want to open up. The Bible says in many places that God commanded the Israelites to slaughter their enemies. If we consider the possibility that the Bible might be wrong on this one point, where will it stop? How can we trust the Bible at all? Opening up this possibility is just too threatening to the faith of many traditional Christians.
The fourth answer actually does come closest to the truth. However, to avoid calling the entire Bible into question, it requires a deeper understanding of how the Bible is written, and how God interacts with fallen, brutish human beings.
No, I’m not just talking about the enemies of the Israelites. I’m talking about the Israelites themselves. After all, they were the ones the Bible was originally addressed to. And like most other races and nations of their era, they were a brutal and violent people.
The fall of humankind
First, we must understand that by the time most of the Bible was written, humankind had fallen far from the original beautiful, pristine state in which God originally created us. The story of the fall of humankind is told in the mythic narratives first few chapters in Genesis.
Genesis 2 tells the story of God creating humanity, symbolized by Adam and his wife, and placing them in a beautiful and peaceful garden: the Garden of Eden. The chapter ends by evoking these early humans’ simplicity and innocence:
Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. (Genesis 2:25)
Spiritually speaking, they were like infants in the “womb” of the Garden of Eden, where God first created them. They trusted fully and innocently in God’s love and care for them, and lived without shame or fear, in mutual love, just as God had created them.
But this beautiful and innocent state didn’t last long. In Genesis 3, it all came crashing down around their ears.
You know the story. The serpent tempted Eve, Eve ate from the fruit of the forbidden tree, and gave it to her husband Adam, who also ate it. Immediately shame and guilt entered into their lives. They covered their nakedness with clothing, and hid from God’s presence.
When God discovered what they had done, their lives of peacefully tending to the garden came to an end. God banished them from Eden, and their lives became filled with pain and hard labor.
In Genesis 4, one of Adam and Eve’s children became murderous. Cain killed his brother Abel. Cain’s descendants continued on that downward path toward polygamy and more murder.
By the time Genesis chapter 6 rolls around, we read that:
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. (Genesis 6:5)
Humankind’s initial fall from the innocent, loving, and pristine state of our original creation had now run its course.
And this is precisely when God perpetrated the greatest genocide recorded in the Bible: the killing of all humans and animals on earth, except for a representative few who were preserved in the ark that God commanded Noah to build. The story of the Great Flood is told in Genesis chapters 6–9.
And yet, even though “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 6:9), it didn’t take long for Noah and his family to fall into corruption, too. You can read all about it in Genesis 9:18–28. In that story, Noah gets drunk, and curses his son Ham and his grandson Canaan because Ham (the father of Canaan) had seen his father Noah drunk and naked in his tent. This “origin myth” set up the conflict that many generations later became the Israelites’ violent conquest of the land of Canaan.
We could keep on recounting humankind’s long, downward slide from our original peaceful and innocence state in Eden to the greedy, power-hungry, and violent societies that we find in most of the Bible story—and even right up to our own era. For as long as historical records have been kept, human society has been filled with conflict, violence, war, and bloodshed.
This is the brutal, bloodthirsty nature to which we humans fell over the centuries because of our rejection of God’s love and God’s laws.
And these are the brutal, bloodthirsty humans God had to deal with throughout most of the Bible—and even right up to today.
Speaking to a fallen human nature
What’s a God of love to do when the humans God created to be loving and wise have instead, by their own stubborn disobedience, become selfish, greedy, ignorant, and violent? How can God reach these fallen humans in their spiritually dark and loathsome state?
Will brutal, violent, and ignorant people listen to a kind, loving, wise, and peaceful God?
Will they listen to sweet words of love and compassion?
Will their hearts be touched and warmed by gentleness and mercy?
Will their minds be open to subtle spiritual wisdom and sublime heavenly light?
In a word: No.
- Does a drug kingpin listen to words of compassion and love for enemies?
- Does a serial rapist listen to words of gender equality and respect for women?
- Does a virulent racist listen to words of racial equality and the dignity of all people?
- Does a tyrant listen to words about all people being equal in God’s eyes?
- Does a white collar criminal listen to words about economic justice and fairness?
People who are greedy, power-hungry, violent, racist, sexist, and self-centered simply don’t listen to words of love and compassion, justice and fairness, sweetness and innocence. They don’t even know what those words mean. All they understand is violence, greed, oppression, and fear.
How does God reach people like that?
How does a God of pure love, wisdom, compassion, mercy, and peace reach people who are full of hatred, folly, oppression, revenge, and violence?
Does God actually become the violent, oppressive, and bloodthirsty God depicted in so many stories of the Bible?
God always remains the same infinitely loving and wise God.
But to people who are driven by selfishness, greed, and violent anger toward all who oppose them, God must appear to be all of those things if they are going to listen to God at all.
People who are bent on violence, oppression, greed, and theft will rarely, if ever, be reached by words of love, kindness, and compassion, as Jesus said:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. (Matthew 7:6)
Criminals and oppressors are not stopped, or even slowed down, by love and understanding. In fact, they will use the human kindness and understanding of their victims against them, trample all over it, and tear their victims to pieces.
Criminals and oppressors are stopped by one and only one thing: fear. They are stopped only by fear of punishment, pain, loss, and death.
These are the only things they understand. These are the only things that have any effect on them at all, as long as they continue in their evil and brutish state.
What’s a God of love to do?
This causes serious problems for loving, thoughtful people who want only what is good for their fellow human beings.
And it causes serious problems for a God of love, who loves all people, both good and evil, as Jesus taught:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43–45)
God does not want to show anything but love to all people, both the good and the evil. And as Jesus says, God doesn’t do anything but love all people, both friend and enemy, both good and evil.
But let’s look at it first from a human perspective.
- Parents who truly love their children don’t want to punish them. But they must do so in order to teach them right from wrong, and steer them away from a destructive path in life.
- Judges who truly love justice don’t want to punish criminals. But they must do so in order to protect the innocent and deter other would-be criminals.
- Soldiers who truly love their country, when going to the battlefield to protect their country, don’t want to kill the enemy. But they must do so in order to protect their country and the people they love.
- People who defend their homes from burglars don’t want to maim or kill intruders, but they must do so in order to protect their home and their family.
In all of these cases, good and thoughtful people have no desire to punish, harm, or kill others. But they must do so because the alternative is even worse.
In the very same way, when God is dealing with a fallen, greedy, power-hungry, selfish, and violent humanity, all God wants to do is love even those evil and brutish humans. Unfortunately, tender love and understanding simply doesn’t work when dealing with humans who are bent on evil.
So what’s a God of love to do?
Somehow those evil, brutish people must be brought up short. Somehow their violence and oppression must be met and stopped by an opposing force. That’s the only thing they understand. Only when their own force and violence is met by an equally strong opposing force and violence will they cease from their path of death and destruction.
The Bible lets us believe that it is God who engages in that opposing force and violence. For more on why God lets us believe this, see the earlier article, What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful? Short version: When we humans are bent on evil, if we don’t believe that God is angry at us and will punish us miserably for our evil actions, we won’t pay any attention to God at all, and we’ll keep right on doing hateful and evil things.
So God lets us believe that God will punish us and even kill us for our misdeeds in order to get us to stop, think, and consider the possibility of following God’s way instead of our own way.
That, in a nutshell, is why the Bible often presents God as being angry, wrathful, bloodthirsty, and violent against evildoers and against all the enemies of God’s people—and even against God’s own people when they disobey God’s commandments.
But the Bible says that God is violent!
Perhaps you really want to believe that God only appears to be violent and angry. Perhaps you really want to believe that in reality God is only love and understanding, and not at all wrathful and bloodthirsty.
But the fact remains:
The Bible says in words as plain as day that God is angry with the wicked, and that God commanded the wholesale slaughter of whole nations of people, including men, women, children, and even livestock.
As Jen says, can we really cherry pick through the Bible, accepting the nice and loving things it says about God, and ignoring the dark and violent things it says about God?
Doesn’t believing in a God of pure love, with not a violent bone in his body, require us to reject the Bible?
This is precisely why many, if not most Christians back away from believing in a God of pure love. They might want to believe in such a God, but the Bible says otherwise.
Is the Bible lying to us?
Lying of the sort that is forbidden in the Bible involves intentionally deceiving others in order to harm them, or to get ourselves out of trouble, or to gain some advantage for ourselves, or from some other ulterior motive. Notice that the commandment does not say, “You shall not lie,” but “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). We are breaking this commandment when we tell untruths in order to harm our neighbor, or to gain some unjust gain or advantage for ourselves.
God does not do that. God has no ulterior motives. God wants only our eternal good.
What God does in the Bible is something very different.
What God does in the Bible is to say the things we need to hear in the language and concepts that we can understand. In other words, in the Bible, God speaks in human terms—which are often very different from the way things are in God’s own mind:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9)
God does not lie to us in the Bible. Rather, God reaches out to fallen, brutish humans in the only language they can understand: the language of anger and of fear of punishment.
God doesn’t do this because God is actually angry at us, nor because God wants to punish us. Nothing is farther from God’s mind and heart!
In fact, God actually doesn’t punish even the worst evildoers. Yes, they do get punished. But not by God. As Psalm 34:21 says, “Evil brings death to the wicked.” It is not God, but our own evil that brings punishment and death upon us. Even in hell, none of the punishment is meted out by God. Rather, it is meted out by other evil spirits in hell. (See “Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?”)
Like a good parent, it is painful for God to appear to be angry, violent, and punishing. Yet God is willing for us to think that God is angry, violent, and punishing if that’s the only thing that will get us to stop our evil and destructive ways, and turn our lives around toward what is good, loving, honest, and truthful.
The human side of the Bible
Now, if it still sounds like this means that God is lying to us in the Bible, I understand. These are very tricky concepts to grasp.
Isn’t it obvious that if the Bible says God is violent and angry, that means God actually is violent and angry? And isn’t it obvious that if we try to deny that, we’re denying the plain truth taught in the Bible?
Yes . . . it’s just as obvious as it was to people several hundred years ago that the sun moves around the earth, and the earth stands still.
When people like Copernicus and Galileo started spouting those crazy ideas about the earth moving around the sun and the sun standing still, it was obvious that they were wrong, wrong, wrong! Why, we can see with our very own eyes that the sun moves across the sky every single day! What could be more ridiculous than to deny such an obvious fact?
And yet, we now know that Copernicus and Galileo were right.
Yes, even though we see every day with our own eyes that the sun moves across the sky, we know that’s not what’s actually happening. It’s just the way it appears to us because we’re standing on the surface of a planet that rotates on its own axis every day, making the sun appear to move.
In other words, how things look from our human perspective may be very different from how things really are.
That’s precisely how the Bible works, too. It says many things that are exactly as they appear to our human eyes, from our human perspective. And yet, the reality is often very different from the appearance.
It’s not a matter of God or the Bible lying to us. Nature does not lie to us. It does not have any intention of deceiving us when we see the sun moving across the sky. It’s just a matter of our human perspective. And in the Bible, it’s just the way God expresses to us the things we need to hear, in human terms. For a fuller presentation on the divine and human sides of the Bible, please see the article, “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.”
Think of the Bible as a relationship between God and humanity. Every relationship has two sides. In the case of the Bible, it has a divine side and a human side.
- The divine side of the Bible is the love and truth of God as they really are.
- The human side of the Bible is how God’s love and truth appears to us humans in our fallen, dark, ignorant, and often violent state.
Does the sun become dark and stormy?
Think of how differently we see the sun depending on the weather, and depending on which direction our side of the earth happens to be facing at the moment. We may see the sun as genial and pleasant. We may see it as bright and hot. We may see it as blinding and searing. We may see it as a faint disk obscured by clouds. We may not see it at all when the skies are stormy. And in the middle of the night we may see nothing but darkness, as if there were no sun in the sky at all.
Does any of this change what the sun actually is?
Not at all.
The sun remains the same brilliant, hot thermonuclear sphere through it all. But because of our position on the earth, and because of the clouds and weather that often obscure the sun, the sun looks all these different ways to us.
Keep in mind that all of those thick storm clouds are very close to us: only a mile or two above the surface of the earth, compared to the ninety-three million miles that separate us from the sun. The sun looks different to us at different times because of events taking place very close to us.
This is exactly how God can appear so different to us in different places in the Bible. Sometimes God appears loving, compassionate, kind, and peaceful. Other times God appears angry, condemning, bloodthirsty, and violent.
And yet, all of those differences are in the human side of the Bible. God looks all those different ways to us not because God actually is all those different ways, but because in the Bible, God often must speak to us through thick “clouds” of human appearances that hide and distort the true nature of God.
The Bible must speak to us not only in our bright and sunny spiritual states, but also in our dark and stormy spiritual states. So although God, like the sun, is always pure warmth and light, pure love and wisdom, God will often appear to us to be dark and stormy, bloodthirsty and violent, because that is the state we humans are in.
Appearances of truth
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) calls this Biblical phenomenon “appearances of truth.”
Appearances of truth are not lies. Instead, they are the way truth appears to us depending on our own state of mind. When we are in dark, stormy, egotistical, and violent states of mind, everything we see looks stormy and violent. Even God looks wrathful, bloodthirsty, and violent to us.
Now consider the ancient cultures, whether Israelite, Aztec, Norse, or Mayan. Those cultures existed in a brutal and violent era of human existence. War and bloodshed were common. Strong and brutal tribes and nations survived, while peaceful and weak ones were commonly conquered and crushed underfoot.
How would God appear to those cultures? Would those cultures see God as peaceful and kind, loving and forgiving?
Of course not.
In their eyes, such a God would be as contemptible as the inferior tribes that they conquered and subdued. To them, such a God would be a weak and powerless God, unworthy of their respect and obedience.
And yet, the reality is that God is all-powerful.
So consider what the people in these warlike cultures would hear if God said to them, “I am all-powerful.” They would hear, “I am violent and bloodthirsty, able to attack and destroy my enemies.” And they would have respect for that sort of God. That sort of God would have a powerful influence on them. They would know that if they did not respect such a powerful God, that God would have the power to conquer and crush them underfoot like grasshoppers.
In other words, they heard God’s true statement, “I am all-powerful” through the thick clouds of their fallen, brutal, and violent human nature. They understood God’s power (which is really only to save and lift up) as the ability to destroy all who disobey God and stand in God’s way.
Violent religion for violent people
As a result, those ancient cultures, as bloody and violent as they often were, also had strict codes of conduct that their people were bound to obey on pain of agonizing punishment or death. The ancient Israelites, as brutal as they were, had a strict code of laws that forbade them to engage in theft, lying, adultery, murder, and all manner of other evil actions that they otherwise would have engaged in with abandon.
For brutal, violent people, believing that God can be even more brutal and violent served as a brake on their violence. It restrained them from being even more violent than they otherwise would have been. If God couldn’t prevent them from slaughtering their enemies, at least God could prevent them from slaughtering one another, as they otherwise would have done.
And even with regard to enemies, those ancient cultures commonly had codes about how captives, slaves, and subjugated people must be treated. Yes, those codes were very harsh by today’s standards. But they served to bend the people of those cultures away from the unrestrained violence that they otherwise would have engaged in.
All of those harsh codes, and all of those ancient cultures’ beliefs in a harsh, brutal, and violent God, were appearances of truth that reached them in their low, brutal, and violent spiritual state. They were the best conception of God that those people were capable of grasping. And those beliefs served to bend them away from their most violent tendencies, and toward being more civil and humane than they otherwise would have been.
In the Bible narrative, we find that the most brutal and genocidal commandments of God came in the earliest times of the Israelite nation. It was especially in the early days of the conquest of the Land of Canaan that God commanded the slaughter of men, women, children, and even animals. As time went on, the commandments of God became less brutal and more merciful toward enemies and criminals. That’s because God was gradually bending the people of those cultures away from their fallen and violent natures, and toward more merciful, loving, tolerant, and enlightened ways.
That’s also why in much of the world, those ancient, brutal religions have given way to more broad-minded, loving, and peaceful religions.
Of course, the transition to more peaceful and enlightened religion is nowhere near complete. There are still many dark and violent areas of this earth, where people are still prompted by their religion to maim and kill. But over the centuries we can see a general forward progress in the religions of humanity. That would not have happened if God had not spoken to those ancient, brutish people in a harsh language that they could understand.
In short, God is nothing but love, mercy, understanding, and peace. But to brutish and violent cultures of people, God will appear brutish and violent in order to reach into their spiritual darkness and begin turning them back toward the light.
That is the power of the human appearances of truth in the Bible. God is willing to speak to us in our own dark and ignorant concepts in order to penetrate the thick darkness in which we are, and begin to bring some light of truth, and a glimmer of divine love, into our lives.
But what is really happening is that like the sun with its perpetual heat and light, God is speaking only words of love and understanding; but we are hearing those words of love and understanding through a thick and stormy mental cloud cover that transforms them in our human minds into harsh and violent ideas that fit our dark and brutish mental and cultural state.
So as counterintuitive as it may seem on the surface, the deeper meaning of God’s “violence and wrath” is God’s compassion and love for all people. It is God reaching out to us even in our lowest and darkest spiritual states, and using the only effective ways of turning us around toward the love and wisdom of God.
Can people like that really go to heaven?
What about those brutal, violent, bloodthirsty ancient Israelites, Aztecs, Norsemen, and Mayans and their violent gods and violent religions? Can people who live like that really go to heaven?
The answer is yes.
God provides a pathway to heaven for all people, of all cultures, both enlightened and unenlightened.
Those ancient religions may have been unenlightened and brutal by today’s standards. But for those cultures in those brutal and violent times, they provided guidance and a code of conduct that people could follow (or not), and become good and decent people (or not) by the standards of their times and their cultures.
And anyone who strives to follow the commandments of God as they are taught them, and strives to live a decent, law-abiding life according to their conscience as formed by the culture in which they live, will find a place in heaven, not in hell, in the afterlife. That’s true even if their conscience told them that they must slaughter their enemies and sacrifice their own children to please their gods.
Of course, after they die, before they actually get to heaven, they’ll have to go through some re-education about how to treat their fellow human beings. (See “What Happens To Us When We Die?”) However, because their intention and practice was to live a good and godly life as they were taught, they will be willing to be taught better, less violent morals and ethics once they reach the other life.
What if while they are still living on earth they simply can’t stomach the violence of their culture and religion? If they violate the violent codes of their religion, will they be condemned?
That all depends on why they violated those codes.
If they refused to go to war or practice animal and human sacrifice as their tribe and their religion taught them simply out of cowardice and faint-heartedness, or out of an unwillingness to put their own lives on the line for the defense of their tribe and their people, then they may in fact be spiritually condemned. Weakness, cowardice, and an unwillingness to lay down one’s own life for the sake of others are not a virtue in any society.
However, if they had somehow, despite their acculturation in that violent society, developed a higher conscience that prevented them from engaging in acts of violence and destruction, that’s a whole different story. They may be punished or killed by their tribe for violating the tribal codes. But because they did it from a deep desire to follow their conscience, and to act rightly even against the will of their entire community, they will find their place in heaven, not in hell, in the afterlife.
Further, these individuals who develop a higher conscience are precisely the people who, over the years, move their communities and their societies to higher and higher levels of morals, ethics, human decency, and spiritual enlightenment.
God’s goal is always to lift us higher
In fact, even in the darkest times of humanity, God’s goal is always to lift us to higher and higher spiritual levels.
- When we are spiritually in the depths of hell, God seeks to save us and lift us out of that pain, destruction, and damnation.
- When we are skimming along the surface of life, not growing spiritually, God seeks to shake us out of our superficiality, and raise our minds and hearts to a deeper understanding of life.
- When we are focused on living a good and spiritual life, God seeks to move us to an even higher spiritual level—sometimes in ways that shake us to the core.
In short, no matter what our spiritual state, brutal and violent or thoughtful and caring, God’s goal is always to lift us higher. But only to the extent that we are willing to be lifted higher, or at least don’t put up too much of a fight against God’s will.
For those ancient, brutal people, there was only so much God could do. They lived in dark times. Only a few faint rays of God’s light could make it through. If God had tried to stop them from waging war altogether, they would have rejected God altogether. Instead of gradually becoming less violent over the centuries under God’s moderating influence, they would have plunged deeper and deeper into violence, barbarism, and savagery, until they completely destroyed themselves both physically and spiritually.
Yes, God was working even in those dark times to gradually lift the people out of their darkness and violence, and into the light of peacefulness and love.
That’s exactly why God often appears so violent and bloodthirsty in the Bible.
No, God didn’t really command the Israelites to slaughter their enemies, man, woman, and child. Nor did God command the ancient Aztecs and Mayans to sacrifice their own children. That’s just what those people thought they heard God say when God was actually saying, “Be brave and obey me, stand up for the truth, and follow my commandments, so that you may live and not die.”
As that message sank down to their low spiritual level, it got garbled in translation until it sounded to them as if God was saying, “Be brave and obey me, fight against your enemies and destroy them so that you may live.” And if, in good conscience, they did so, they were saved by their faithfulness to God as they understood God.
And yet, the real message behind those dark and garbled human understandings of God’s message became clearer and clearer as time went on.
By the time of the prophets of the Old Testament, the message that got through was already broadening to include love and concern for enemies. Consider the story of Jonah, who was commanded to prophesy repentance and salvation to the Israelites’ most hated enemies.
And by the time of the New Testament, the people were finally ready to hear these words:
You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43–48)
This article is a response to a comment and three spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.
For further reading:
- Can Gang Members Go to Heaven? (Is Life Fair?)
- What is the Wrath of God? Why was the Old Testament God so Angry, yet Jesus was so Peaceful?
- How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads
- If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth