Question

How can we reconcile images of the merciful God with passages of God engaging in violent acts?

David Arnow Jewish

God seems to grow more merciful over the course of the Bible. Or maybe the human understanding of God matures. The God of the Exodus is violently punitive. In the Book of Jonah, a later biblical work, God argues with a hard-hearted prophet who begrudges divine mercy for an evil kingdom that repents. The story ends with God’s question to Jonah: “And should I not care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left [i.e., children], and many beasts as well” (Jonah 4:11). If God “becomes” more compassionate, maybe we should too.

Mary C. Boys Christian

On this issue, Christians might draw wisdom from Martin Buber. In commenting on the notion of “holy war” in ancient Israel in the context of 1 Samuel 15:3, where the prophet Samuel demands that Saul kill all the Amalekites, including women and children, Buber asserts: “Samuel has misunderstood God.” He continues: “An observant Jew of this nature, when he has to choose between God and the Bible, chooses God…. In the work of the throats and pens out of which the text of the Old Testament has arisen, misunderstanding has again and again attached itself to understanding…. Nothing can make me believe in a God who punishes Saul because he has not murdered his enemy.”*

Muhammad Shafiq Muslim

In Islam God has 99 attributes. God is Loving (Al Wadud), the Merciful (Al Rahman), the Forgiving (Al Ghafur), the Peaceful ( Al Salaam), but God is Dominant and Subduing (Al Qahhar) too. The Qur’an reiterates that God’s love and mercy extend over everything and He is the most forgiving (6:12, 6:54). However, in this life as well as in the hereafter, God punishes those who spread evil on earth. The story of Pharaoh in the Qur’an is a perfect example. God would not destroy a community for its wrongdoing if its people were unaware of right and wrong (6:131). Nor would God destroy a community merely because of its disbelief as long as its people behave justly and righteously towards one another (11:117). In other words, God may punish, but people bring misfortune upon themselves because of their deeds and behavior (16:33). I do not see any contradiction in God’s being loving and punishing because both come about in response to one’s moral deeds.

Note: Translation of the Qur’anic verses and many of the Hadith translation with references were taken from Islamicity.com; some translations of and references to the Hadith were taken from ahadith.co.uk.

13 responses to “How can we reconcile images of the merciful God with passages of God engaging in violent acts?”

  1. Rev. Donna Kopitsky says:

    From Rev. Donna Kopitsky, via LinkedIn •

    One way is to interpret scriptures metaphysically. The Bible is the
    story of us on our spiritual path. The old testament is old
    consciousness…where God is outside of us..a punishing God as well as a
    merciful God. The new testament is new conscoiusness.the relaization
    that God id within us and that God is love, the harmonizing energy in
    the UNiverse. As we grow spiritually we move awy from old
    conscloiusness and the idea that God is outside of us to New
    Consciuosness.,,.that God lives within us and we are all ONE. Therefore
    God is not capable of doing any violent..acts the nature of God is
    Love..as God is we are.

  2. Rabbi Roger Ross says:

    From Rabbi Roger Ross, via LinkedIn •

    In my humble opinion, God does not go to war, humans do “in the name of God”

    In today’s world that’s fairly obvious.

    While ancient scriptures seem to contradict this, again, in my humble
    opinion, those scriptures where written down by human beings (read
    “men”) to either justify war in the name of acquisitions or to escape
    the blame for using war to gain power.

    I agree with Rev. Donna…the God of my understanding is neither
    homicidal or genocidal but the perfect expression of love.

  3. Revered Joan M. Kistler says:

    From Reverend Joan M. Kistler, via LinkedIn •

    I was brought up to believe in the Bible as “the Word of God,” but now I
    believe that it is the “word of man struggling to understand God.” God
    created us in his/her image, and we return the favor by creating God in
    our image. We give to God the human attributes of anger, vengeance,
    tribalism, and brutality and create stories to justify our perceptions.
    So I believe what both Rev. Donna and Rabbi Roger has said. The true God
    is Perfect Love. We humans have difficulty understanding what that
    means, and our misunderstanding is reflected in our scriptures –
    especially in the Old Testament.

  4. Bob Lawrence says:

    From Bob Lawrence, via LinkedIn •

    I agree wholeheartedly with other commenters on this post. For me, the
    challenge is in human attempts at the anthropomorphism of the Divine.
    When we give God shape and form (as a human), we are hard-pressed to not
    then give God attributes of humans. By understanding the Divine as a
    creative force, or spirit, we free ourselves to understand that Creative
    force as continuing to create and to find pleasure in what has been
    created.

    An additional challenge comes in understanding the sacred texts of our
    traditions. If instead of understanding sacred texts as being some form
    of dictated manuscripte, we understand them as sacred stories of how
    others have come to understand the Divine; as sacred insights into the
    ways in which others have attempted to answer the questions of our
    existence, then we are able to view the stories of violence (and even
    the stories of love) as simply the ways in which others have understood
    God, the Divine, our Creative Presence. That then frees us to follow in
    the paths of those trailblazers, and to create sacred stories for our
    time that reflect how we understand that Presence.

    So the question then becomes, “If ancient peoples understood God to be
    both violent and loving, how do we understand God today?”

  5. Romeo Aranez says:

    Via LinkedIn, from Romeo Aranez, Church pastor at Minister of christian mission:

    I think to separate the violent act from a merciful God. People are tempted to think that God is bad due of bad things happen to them. I am reminded my 5 years old son to go outside and bath under the rain. I said, if you want to rain stronger, you better pray to Jesus so that you can have a good rain shower, and indeed he prayed to have a heavy rain, but the opposite of what he asked, the rain suddenly stopped. He was so angry and said, “Jesus is bad”.
    Likewise, we are tempted to associate bad things happen to us projecting
    his moral attribute character. He is always merciful, and if he punish
    through violent act, it could be his another moral attribute character
    as Just and perhaps acting his moral responsibility of executing
    discipline as a father.

  6. Tim Staker says:

    From Tim Staker, Staff Chaplain, Palliative Care and Oncology at Indiana University Health, via LinkedIn:

    I’ve heard it said that Mother Kali destroys something in order for something new to rise up in its place. It is a kind of mercy to allow newness a space to arise.

    It’s like in the America where, for years, rangers were always trying to
    stop forest fires. After awhile they changed their policy to allow
    natural fires to burn since out of the ashes new growth would come up. I
    like to think that destruction is a natural force that is a part of
    creation that we must accept. As for the destructive urges within us,
    that’s another story. We can choose to not add to the destruction that
    is out there.

    When it comes to the ancient texts, whether it is Yahweh ordering a
    holocaust or Shiva slaughtering a village, may our modern ethos cause us
    to reject a literal interpretation and steer us toward more symbolic,
    spiritual or allegorical methods of engaging those texts.

  7. Guest says:

    From Abe Quadan, Director – Options Mediation Services, via LinkedIn:

    I can’t love a God that I fear because my love won’t be true and genuine and from the heart. A loving, caring, compassionate God is the one I love and worship. All religions have passages that are very violent and disturbing. I choose to get to know and learn more about the other side of God who I want to model and adoptin my daily life.

  8. Moderator says:

    Via LinkedIn, from Allyson Szabo, Minister at Patchwork Interfaith Ministries:

    Part of it is the idea that God (or any aspect or person Divine) is merciful. I have never really seen much of that. Well, okay Jesus is largely portrayed that way, but the Christian Big Guy? Nope… not so much. And the Greek and Roman and Norse gods are definitely not portrayed in that way.

    I don’t see the Divine as being merciful, in general. I see the Divine as being attentive to their worshippers, and that may look merciful from time to time. Nature is much like the Divine… not merciful, but just “doing its thing”. Is a tornado merciful? Is a hurricane or wild fire merciful? Is the marauding bear merciful? These are just the way of things, and so I see the Divine. :)

  9. Rebecca Arefin says:

    From Rebecca Arefin, Ordained Minister at King of Kings and Lord of Lords, via LinkedIn:

    We see destruction as a lack of mercy because we are looking at it from our self – centered perspective, rather than from Gods point of view. When we do not like it, so we call it “bad”, when we like it we call it “good”. The standard is based on self..what suits me, what agrees with my ideas, my ways, how I would do things, what I would like to see. We are short lived finite beings.. we do not see as God sees, we only see a very short blink in time, and God sees from an eternal viewpoint. God is all knowing, God knows what did happen, what will happen, and what could happen, God chooses what is best for us, but like little 2 yr old’s do not see the mercy and love in not being allowed to chase their ball in street, or grab that hot pan of water from the stove, we too do not see the love and mercy in Gods not allowing us to have what we think and desire would be “good”. just as a 2 yr old does not see the mercy in being told “no” when they want that new toy or candy and throw a temper tantrum, we also do not see it when things do not go our way.

    We also do not see mercy in what we as destructive, yet what could be
    more merciful than to show us we need God? For God to allow us to sit in blindness and suffer eternal separation from Gods perfect love would
    be the most uncaring thing God could do. Does a loving parent sit back
    and allow their child to play in a busy street.. no matter how much the
    child may want to? Of course not..and like them we want things that are
    not good for us, Love and mercy guides and corrects, restrains and
    protects.

    I have found it most interesting that quite a few of the recent
    greatest natural disasters have occurred in spite of mans efforts to
    protect ourselves from such things, Quakes have occurred in areas we
    thought “safe”. Tsunamis have been bigger than ever imagined and
    destroyed the walls meant to keep them out, the same with hurricanes.
    God is reminding us that we are not sufficient unto ourselves..We need
    God…what could be more merciful than that?

  10. Allyson Szabo says:

    From Allyson Szabo, Minister at Patchwork Interfaith Ministries, via LinkedIn:

    I agree with you on some points, Rebecca. I do see a lot of people who are all talking “benevolence” when the weather is good, and “lack of mercy” when it’s bad. Weather is weather, to my belief, and so I don’t see it as a mark of good or bad via the Divine.

    I’m not sure I believe that the Divine are all knowing, nor all
    powerful, but certainly moreso than we are. :) Perhaps the difference is
    more semantic than anything. I do not believe in sin the way a Catholic
    or some Christians do, nor do I believe that wrongdoing in our lives
    brings about eternal anything (least of all separation from the Divine).
    To me, that would be the ultimate in hubris, and I try very hard not to
    engage too much in hubris. :)

  11. Wayne Niederhuth says:

    From Wayne Niederhuth, Interim Minister at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Rome, GA, via LinkedIn:

    God is both perfectly holy and cannot tolerate sin and He loves His people and wants to forgive them so that they can enjoy him forever. His love is experienced by those who by faith accept the propitiation of his Son on the cross. His holy wrath is experience by those who will not believe.

  12. Allyson Szabo says:

    From Allyson Szabo, Minister at Patchwork Interfaith Ministries, via LinkedIn:

    If God was incapable of tolerating sin, then he would have created something he was “allergic” to. I suspect that isn’t quite what you mean. However, that type of semantic thing is what tends to push away people from listening to what otherwise might be a great dialogue.

    I do not see my Gods angry parents, personally. They don’t forgive (or
    withhold forgiveness) because of my actions or inactions. The universe
    spins as it was made (I do believe in the hand of the Divine in the
    direction of a rather magical journey of evolution), including the
    various laws of space and time. :)

    I’ve lived a wonderful and amazing life, and do not believe as you do,
    and haven’t had a “wrath” experience yet. Perhaps in your eyes that is
    an act of mercy, Wayne?

    As an interfaith minister, I try to use my (flawed, human) understanding
    of the Divine to show others that God (Goddess, the Universe, the
    Multitude, etc.) are not “good” or “bad” (human flaws imo), but that the
    Divine are beyond those things. That is one of the reasons I don’t see
    mercy or vengeance in the words of the Bible. They are written accounts
    of some incredibly holy people, in my eyes, no more and no less. Humans penned it, humans translated it many times over, and we’re all human and talking about it. :) Just my opinion, of course!

  13. Allyson Szabo says:

    From Allyson Szabo, Minister at Patchwork Interfaith Ministries, via LinkedIn:

    I often think that evil acts are punishment in and of themselves. I have seen people and talked to people who have done truly heinous things… they may talk tough, but there is something in them, and it eats at them. Psychologists suggest that’s why inmates who are in very long term or who are on death row will often do things to other inmates, to ensure they will be killed.

    I don’t think “real evil” acts are as much of a problem, though. Yes,
    they’re awful and we should not tolerate them, but aside from that,
    they’re also rare. It is the occasional wife beater, the woman who
    cheats on her husband, the liar and the petty thief who are causing more
    problems for themselves and others. But again… human made, and human intervention. We need to come up with ways to help those who are sick in that way. :(

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