One frequent objection raised against the Christian faith is the violence described in the Old Testament. Gideon, David, Joshua: they were among the many leaders who conquered and killed in the name of the Lord. Israel appears to have been a violent nation, and God seems like a despotic warmonger.
What was the Lord’s purpose for war? Why is the Old Testament so violent in contrast to the New Testament — where Jesus offers peace?
The Theme of War in Scripture
A biblical concordance offers over 400 references to war. Break these down, and they include examples of military conflict and of interpersonal conflict. Scripture tells us that there is “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8).
Battles were planned throughout the ages, according to God’s appointed time and purpose. The Lord describes his people as “my hammer and weapon of war: with you I break nations in pieces; with you I destroy kingdoms” (Jeremiah 51:20). Jesus warned that his return will be preceded by “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6).
According to Billy Graham, “The Bible certainly urges us to pray for peace and support those who work for peace. […] But the Bible also warns us that we will never bring about a complete end to wars and conflicts.” Countries, communities, and families engage in wars, which leave a painful legacy.
Later generations return to those conflicts in physical or emotional ways, hurling bullets or abuse back and forth. Any peace between traditionally hostile nations and neighbors is uneasy, suspicious. Both sides know that a new conflict could flare up out of the bitterness of defeat. The defeated side nurtures a thirst for revenge.
Weapons of war have included swords, guns, cannons, and words. There is always a risk that nations and people living side-by-side with their unresolved tensions will again pick up their weapons for a new attack. Until Christ returns, there will always be war.
Old Testament Bloodshed
There are several Old Testament examples of military engagement where the Lord’s people are overcome by oppressors or are ordered to kill their enemies. “Even a cursory reading of Joshua can provoke questions that leave us confused, angry, and perhaps even ready to give up on the Bible and on God. Why would a good God send his people to take land that belongs to another nation?”
The Lord sent his people into lands, which he had laid aside for them. Israel conquered lands and took lives. The Book of Joshua is particularly challenging, but as Andy Patton argues, we need to read it in context. Yes — there is plenty of violence here, but also a nation of idol worshipers engaging in pagan rituals, which included child sacrifice, rejecting, and mocking the one true God.
The Root of Judgment
Canaan did not spring up out of another god’s creation story; the Canaanites were descendants of Ham, the son of Noah. Each person slain by Joshua and his men was made in the Image of God and descended from Adam and Eve.
Yet, the Canaanites were led to reject God, turning to debauched religious practices. They were guilty of treason against the commandments, the roots of which were implanted in each person when he or she was shaped by God, even before he gave Moses the Ten Commandments, even if they were not exposed to the teaching of religious leaders.
Paul explains, “The work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:15). The Canaanites stood accused.
The Finer Points of War
When Joshua led his army into battle, they were not descending upon a regular town; this was a military outpost. Joshua Ryan Butler explains that “God is pulling down the Great Wall of China, not demolishing Beijing.”
Patton also reminds us that there were boundaries and limits established by God, which limited Joshua’s military pursuits. Parts of Canaan were to be left alone, and Israel was commanded to offer mercy and invite the Canaanites to worship God. Few accepted.
While some might say it was mercy, which motivated the Israelites to spare lives where the Lord had told them to spare none, the Christian knows that God has a purpose for every command he gives.
He is never gratuitous, never delighting over bloodshed. The Almighty hates “hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil” (Proverbs 6:17-18).
Finally, Patton explains that the language of warfare is full of hyperbole and rhetoric, “extreme battle language” typical among the writings of ancient nations. Obviously, when a nation is said to have been wiped out, this cannot be the case if some remnant of that nation is describing events they witnessed.
War is always bloody, but it also has a purpose. In God’s economy, that purpose was to wipe out evil and to be glorified as Sovereign, not gratuitous violence.
New Testament Wars
Israel was a conquered nation by the time of Christ because they continually chose to worship idols instead of worshiping the Lord. They were never overcome, however, owing to the military prowess of an Imperial power such as Rome or Egypt.
The Almighty demonstrated his sufficiency with the few hundred men who conquered the Midianites (Judges). The problem was internal. In James 4:1, the eponymous epistle writer asked, “What causes quarrels and fights among you?” War never ceases because there is an internal and painful confrontation within the believer, the war to overcome sin.
Christ did not come to earth to lead a decisive battle against the physical enemies of Israel because internal strife is the real problem. James 4:1 tells us, “Your passions are at war within you.”
When Christ healed the paralytic, he first said, “Take heart my son, your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). The most important enemy was the one, which prevented an individual from experiencing eternal life with Christ rather than eternal death in hell with Satan.
So, while Christians are taught to love their enemies instead of fighting them, they still wear the Armor of God (Ephesians 6) against sin and Satan, their most ruthless enemies. As Gandalf said as the Fellowship faced the Balrog, “Swords are no more use here.”
Paul exhorted the church at Corinth to fight sin with “the weapons of our warfare [which] are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4).
The Coming War
Christians anticipate one final, decisive confrontation between Christ and Satan. Christ came to save his people for eternity from their biggest enemy — sin — so removing Satan from his rule over the earth will be the most dramatic and violent war ever to take place.
We know who the winner is already. What we do not know for sure are the details. Revelation offers clues, but much of the language is symbolic. Historical battles are described using extreme language, but how can language avail us to try and depict the final, epic battle?
Fire came down from heaven and consumed [the enemy], and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Revelation 20:9).
Unlike some of the warriors of Israel, Christ will follow through and completely destroy Satan and his minions. We know that victory is certain and since Christ is the leader, he will obey his Father to the last detail.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.