War, Judgment, Pacifism and the Bible

In the Old Testament we confront the concept of God commanding war and the complete destruction of the Canaanites.  How do we handle that as Christians in light of the New Testament, in a very different day and age? 

This is clearly a sobering question. Most of us, upon first reading these stories in the OT have been put off or even shocked by the concept of God commanding outright slaughter.  Therefore, this is a question that Christians need to come to terms with. It can be be approached from several angles. For example:

1. God’s right to judge.
2. God’s right to choose the means of carrying out his judgment.
3. The wickedness of the Canaanites, which Israel was commanded to destroy.

Let’s take them in order:

1. God’s right to judge.

There is no contradiction in the fact that the same judge who sentences a serial killer or rapist to death or life in prison, yet may also easily love and be loved by his family and closest friends.  He is simply both a loving man and a righteous judge – and neither a hypocrite nor a schizophrenic.

God has reserved to himself the right to judge people, the nations and ultimately the world. This is first seen in the results of the fall. There were consequences for disobedience: death, expulsion from Eden, and other things specifically aimed at the man, the woman and the serpent. The flood and the confusion at Babel are two more examples of judgment. The fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah give us yet another case; the plagues upon Egypt and destruction of Pharaoh’s army one more. All of these examples come from Genesis or Exodus, chronologically before the commanded destruction of the Canaanites. As Israel enters the land God continues to exercise this right.

We have no right to decide when judgment ought to come, but we may concede that God does. We need to allow him to judge his own world when that world does not live up to his standards. This may not be an easy conclusion to come to, but it is a necessary one for us as Christians. It is the place of submission to his authority. When God judges the world in that final end-times sense, that will also be his right, and we can be sure that his traits of love, mercy and justice will remain unchangeable throughout that process.  They simply need to be balanced with his righteousness. 

2. God’s right to choose the means of carrying out his judgment.

In the examples used above in point 1, we observe that the results of God’s judgment in each case were very different. We may never fully understand why God chooses certain means; perhaps we would like God to always act in the same way. Still, if we see the destruction of the Canaanites in light of these other cases, then at last it seems less exceptional, less unique. The Canaanites were not a lone example of God exercising his rights.

At this point we might also turn to the example of Habakkuk. At first he question the injuctice he observed in Judah. Then God revealed that Judah would be judged and that Babylon was the means of that judgment. Then the prophet questioned that. We can identify with his difficulty in grasping God’s designs; in some ways his questions are the same as ours. But the prophet ends in worship and so should we.  God’s actions are not backed by the flippancy of a tyrant, but by the endless and immutable glory and majesty of the living God.

3. The wickedness of the Canaanites, which Israel was commanded to destroy.

Before Abraham died, God said his descendants would go to Egypt, “But in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Gen 15:16). This indicates that God intentionally delayed his judgment for several hundred years. This was, we might imagine, ample time for the Canaanites to repent. Instead, we find that as the Israelites are about to enter the land, the Lord needs to tell them “When you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations” (Deuteronomy 18:9). God’s patience had come to an end.

Again, we may look to Israel. There were blessings and curses involved in the covenant as stated in Deuteronomy 27 & 28. As Israel expereinced the blessings, they also experienced the curses. If the Israelites were a means of judgment against the Canaanites and then were allowed to sin freely, that would be unjust. But Israel had no immunity as God’s people. If anything they were probably held to a higher standard.

In conclusion, it helps to see the destruction commanded against the Canaanites in the larger context of judgment in the Scriptures. Theirs is not an isolated case. If we can accept God’s right to judge at all, then we can accept this whole business of war, death and destruction. This is all serious stuff. In fact, all sin is serious and brings serious consequences. One look at the cross confirms that forever.

As a brief appendix we may add that there doesn’t seem to be any New Testament parallel to the judgment-by-means-of-a-commanded-war picture. For the church there is probably a balance that we need to strike by considering at least three things.

1. The example of Luke 9, where James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy a certain unreceptive village of Samaritans. Jesus responded by rebuking them, saying that He came to save, not to destroy men’s lives.

2. The fact that centurions and soldiers appear several times in the Gospels and Acts and neither Jesus nor the apostles ever seem to mind the fact that they are soldiers in the service of the Roman government. They receive no rebuke and no repentance is encouraged with respect to their duties. In fact when some soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do as far as repentance, he replies with a paltry “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). That’s coming from a man who a few verses earlier shouted “Brood of vipers!” at the crowds coming to be baptized by him. This prompts me, at least, to stop short of complete pacifism.

3. Finally, Jesus will judge the nations in the end and that judgment will apparently be severe. This is New Testament doctrine and this is the same Jesus who gave His life as a ransom for our sins.  Again this is not contradictory.  He is both a loving Savior and a righteous Judge.  I’ll take salvation rather than judgment, if you please.

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