Three Phases of Biblical Violence

In the Bible, there are two major paradigm shifts. The first, much more widely acknowledged, shift comes with the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Before the arrival of the New Testament, faith in God had a decidedly earthly, nationalistic attitude. The result is that, within the Old Testament, there is a firm concept of geographic outsiders as God's enemies, and warfare populates its pages accordingly. In no small manner, the New Testament redefined faith in the Old Testament God, giving it a new, spiritual aspect. Rather than geographic outsiders, the new enemy to the religion is Satan, a spiritual enemy. Everybody else is potentially good, even people of foreign nations, because Satan is the enemy of all humanity. Thus, violence between humans loses its virtue. Patience—to convert nonbelievers to the faith—becomes the new virtue. This is true, at least, until the book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. This book constitutes the second major paradigm shift within the Bible, redefining once again faith in God. Revelation is a statement of lost patience, and because of it, violence becomes justified once again as a Christian virtue.

Populating the Old Testament are stories and passages showing a strong consciousness of other human beings as enemies of the religion. The book of Psalms contains many examples. The very first psalm outlines this consciousness, defining two possible paths humans can take in life, the righteous and the wicked, stating that "the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, / but the way of he wicked will perish." Thus, this psalm quickly establishes an us-and-them mentality for the book. God clearly affiliates with only one human camp, and is against all others. The second psalm goes even further with this concept, with the first two stanzas stating:

Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take council together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
"Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us."

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
"I have set my kind on Zion, my holy hill."

Compounding this concept of enemies is the idea that certain enemies, namely the citizens of other nations, could not stop being enemies. In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve banish their son Cain for the murder of his brother Abel, with rehabilitation not mentioned as an option (Gen 4:1-16). Appropriately it is from Cain, the story goes on to say, that all future foreign nations would spring. Abraham, the patriarch of the Israelite nation, settles in the land of Canaan, but refuses to allow his son Isaac to be married to any woman of the Canaanite population. Instead, Abraham instructs his servant to return to the land of Mesopotamia, from which Abraham and his family came, in order to find a suitable wife (Gen 24:3-4). Isaac's own son, Jacob, follows this tradition as well, traveling to Mesopotamia himself to find a mate (Gen 29). These proto-Jews of the Old Testament view nations such as the Philistines and Babylonians as permanent enemies. Much later, in the New Testament book of Acts, the apostle Peter explains that, traditionally, "it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile" because Jews consider them to be "profane" and "unclean" (Acts 10:28).

The result of this mindset is the Old Testament's strong endorsement of warfare and other violence. "Righteous" battles, slaughters, and murders fill the books of the Old Testament. The Israelites fight the first such battles in the book of Numbers, while they are still a wandering nation without territory. Righteous warfare reaches its peak with the reign of King David, second king of Israel. His battles to expand the nation's borders were some of the greatest examples of both religious devotion and God's favor (2 Sam 8:1-14). Even the Jewish leader Moses advocated violence in dealing with enemies to the faith, commanding, "Show them no pity or compassion and do not shield them. But you shall surely kill them. Stone them to death for trying to turn you away from the Lord your God" (Deut 13:8-10).

With the coming of the New Testament, a powerful new mentality appears in the worship of God. Jesus Christ, the central character of the books of the New Testament, casts faith in God as a spiritual faith, where the ultimate show of God's support is not national prosperity, but entrance into the spiritual nation of Heaven. Heaven is a nation of love, something expounded upon by the apostle Paul when he states that "love never ends," that love is part of the "complete" that will come (Acts 13:8-10). In other words, love is greater than the mortal realm; it is the infinite stuff of Heaven itself. This is one sense of Jesus's meaning when he commands his followers, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Lk 6:27-28).

In another sense, Jesus's command to love one's enemies also demonstrates the new concept of an enemy within the New Testament. No longer are enemies of God outsider nations descended from the world's first outsider; the enemy of God is Satan, the angel of evil. Also, the new enemy is no longer simply an enemy of the Judeo-Christians, but of humanity at large. Thus, in the new view, all humans are potentially good. Those who follow Satan (those who do not follow the teachings of God) are enemies, but only in the sense that they are currently hostile towards God. A good person must never forget that evil people are also Satan's victims. Jesus's call for Judeo-Christians to love their enemies is a call for the patience necessary to bring these "lost sheep" back to the flock (Lk 15:1-7).

Of course, this shows another major break from Old Testament thought. Suddenly present is the idea that all enemies are capable of change. The Gospels of the New Testament depict Jesus associating with notorious people such as tax collectors and prostitutes, despite the negative effects such association has on his public image. In Jesus's opinion, though few ultimately may be saved from the grip of Satan, all people are deserving of being saved (Lk 5:31-32). In the book of Acts, there is a story showing how Judeo-Christian opinion toward outsiders has improved. In the story, the apostle Peter has a vision of Jesus. In the vision, Jesus tells Peter, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane," which Peter interprets as license to associate with gentiles (Acts 10:15). Soon after, he preaches to a group of gentilesone of whom an angel of God has already visitedtelling them at one point, "You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean" (Acts 10:28).

The result of this New Testament mindset is an exceeding pacifism. With no human any longer an enemy, violence between people loses its Old Testament virtue; violence in the New Testament is merely a sinful loss of patience. The central example of this pacifism is Jesus's command in Chapter 6 of the book of Luke. "If anyone strikes you on the cheek," Jesus says, "offer the other also." Nobody is your enemy, even if they attack you. The contrast between this idea and the idea of Psalm 2 is stark.

Those who would call Christianity a religion of patience, however, neglect the book of Revelation. Here, in the final book of the New Testament, there comes a second major shift in mindset. The book is a written account, circa 90 CE, of a vision of the prophet John. In his vision, John is shown the eventual decline of human civilization into evil at the hands of a number of Satanic agents, a decline that comes to an end by a series of massive wars led by both the angels of Heaven and Jesus Christ himself. It is the first time warfare occurs within the New Testament, and it is especially jolting after the unequivocally pacifist teachings of Jesus's ministry.

Suddenly, the once-peaceful Jesus appears in Chapter 19 of Revelation riding a white horse, leading an enormous army on Earth against Satan's forces. Verses 13 through 15 of Chapter 19 describe the scene:

He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with an iron rod.

Soon after, all the defeated minions of Satan are slain by that sword of the rider, and God establishes a new paradise in the city of Jerusalem. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Jerusalem—enlarged and beautified with the riches of Heaven—will be a refuge of peace and goodness for all who live in it. John goes to great lengths to describe the massive walls that will surround the city in his vision—a sign of a renewed Old Testament us-and-them mentality, this time incorporating the New Testament's spiritual aspects (Rev 21:12-14).

Revelation is a statement of lost patience. What it accomplishes, as no other book of the New Testament before it does, is the casting of patience as a ticking clock, its time waiting to run out. Love may be infinite, according to Paul, but patience is not. Eventually, according to John's canonical prophecy, there will come a time when the forces of good will throw up their hands, declare that evil people are beyond saving, and march over the face of the planet, wiping out all who remain in Satan's grip.

The fact that Revelation is a work of prophecy does not lessen its immediate impact. Justifying a loss of patience in the future effectively numbers the days that patience has left. Patience, in effect, shows itself to be perishable, transitory, not the fundamental state of things. And thus, the same applies to pacifism. Suddenly as a result of the book of Revelation, Jesus Christ becomes a wrathful figure, speaking softly at first, but carrying a very big stick, a weapon that, when time runs out, will fly ruthlessly.

This paper has attempted to identify three distinct philosophical paradigms within the Bible. the paradigm shift between the Old and New Testaments is widely acknowledged, identified here as a shift from violent opposition to to outsiders to pacifist patience with everyone. However, the paradigm shift within the New Testament itself, brought about by the renewed violence in the book of Revelation, is also significant. Indeed, those who would be inclined to say that modern Christianity remains a patient religion must first reconcile the preemptive loss of patience within the very document they use to validate their views. Each philosophical shift offers a new angle from which readers perceive that which came before it. Accordingly, one can not ignore the perspective offered by the book of Revelation on the body of work preceding it.