The reporter on my TV screen appeared stunned. He mopped his brow, stammering in an effort to find words to describe what he was hearing and seeing.
It was April 16, 2007, and we all were at that very moment learning that an insane gunman had randomly killed 32 people at a usually quiet, peaceful university in Virginia. The reporter’s difficulty was understandable; indeed, what can you say in the face of such atrocity?
We live in a world in which violence overwhelms the bounds of understanding. That old tyrant Josef Stalin knew this. “One death is a tragedy,” he opined. “A million is a statistic.” Accordingly, Stalin killed millions with hardly a reflective thought. How do we account for ours being such a violent world?
The seeds of violence
Violence occurs in nature, of course.
Animals kill one another impersonally, unfeelingly, as a source of food or to protect territory. Human beings, though, claim a level of consciousness that animals don’t have. We claim to reflect on our motives, think about consequences and empathise with the feelings of others. What, then, prompts a person to wantonly hurt and kill other human beings?
Some psychologists and philosophers suggest that violence is learned—the result of childhood exposure to cruelty.
Others speculate that the tendency toward violence is as natural a part of the human psyche as hunger or reproduction— that we are, in other words, just another species of animal with the instinct to kill.
Christians see the roots of violence going far deeper though—back to a cosmic conflict almost lost in the mists of time. Violence originated with one of God’s closest attendants whom Scripture calls the “morning star.” Generally known by the Latin word “Lucifer,” he indulged his own pride and jealousy. Sin, according to Scripture, fed on Lucifer’s arrogance, which grew into this powerful angel’s conviction that he ought to become like God (see Isaiah 14:12–14).
Pride was the seed of sin, but its very first fruit was violence: “And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back”
(Revelation 12:7). Lucifer was cast out of heaven, so it was on our world that he took his stand against God by corrupting its inhabitants.
We human beings were not created violent creatures—quite the opposite.
We were made in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26, 27), with God’s instincts of right and goodness. But Lucifer infected God’s perfect creation with a terminal moral disease.
And so those first human beings lost some of their Godlike lustre and took on the dark hues of their tempter instead. The first violent crime was domestic: in a jealous rage, Cain murdered his brother Abel (see Genesis 4:8–10). It was only the beginning of a long downward slide into brutality. As generations passed, God’s patience wore thin. Scripture says “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time ...Now the earth was ...full of violence” (Genesis 6:5,11).
A violent earth
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the earth is no better now than it was then; unarguably, it is worse. Not a day passes without unimaginable horrors wrought upon innocent people.
The violence here is a reflection of the greater cosmic war. As the writer Ellen White put it, “The fallen world is the battlefield for the greatest conflict the heavenly universe and earthly powers have ever witnessed. It was appointed as a theatre on which would be fought out the grand struggle between good and evil, between heaven and hell.”1
I recently heard an interview with Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi, Iraq’s former (interim) minister of defence. Allawi is an articulate, well-spoken man, a graduate of Harvard and a professor at Oxford University. The interviewer asked his reaction to the murders at Virginia Tech. He acknowledged that it was a horrible event but added, “Please remember that the young people who died at Virginia Tech—that many young people have died in my country every day for the past four years.”
It’s easy to forget them—they’re on the other side of the world. But people on both sides of the world are God’s creation, and all wars, just or unjust, are evil’s violent legacy.
Is there any way to end the rising tide of violence? Many have tried. We attempt to restrict the availability of weapons. Philosopher Hannah Arendt believed that violence increased in proportion to the lethality of the implements of destruction.
Now the lethality has become so great that “no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential.”2 Similarly, we try to contain those who commit violence; prisons have never been so full. And yet we cannot seem to imprison enough people to end the violence! Some speculate that poverty leads to violent crime; but that theory is discounted by the observation that even wealthy people are capable of vicious behaviour.
The reason we can’t end violence is because it’s in our human hearts. Even if we could create a society in which everyone’s needs were fully met, some would still be violent.
A violent God?
The Bible tells much about human violence. Even some of the best people are shown doing horrible things.
Especially troubling, though, are those passages that seem to describe God ordering cruel punishment on human beings. Theologians have wrestled with this problem for millenniums.
Honestly, I can’t explain all of God’s behaviours in the Bible—I doubt any human being can. “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?” one of Job’s friends asked him (Job 11:7). Not wanting to be guilty of the kind of presumption that fuelled Lucifer’s hubris, we consider such subjects only with caution.
This I do know, however: God hates sin, and wants to rid the universe of it. At one point he became so discouraged with the violence on the earth that He announced His intention to “wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth ...for I am grieved that I have made them” (Genesis 6:7). You’ll find similar reasoning wherever God orders war or commands killing: He does violence in order to end violence.
But does that make sense?
I have a friend who developed a dangerous tumour that had to be surgically removed. It was, frankly, a rather violent process. The surgeon cut her skin, pulled it open, carved away pieces of bone and reached inside to excise a mass of tissue from her internal organs. Along the way he employed knives, saws and burning electric tools that seared her tissues.
She was left sick, sore and bleeding, and many weeks passed before she was well enough to go home. It occurred to me when I saw the extent of her surgery that if a thug on the street had hurt her that badly, it would have been a crime and the perpetrator would have done time in prison. But the cutter was a physician; by cutting her, he saved her life.
We humans sometimes resort to violence in order to put an end to violence.
The Allied powers fought World War II in order to end Hitler’s cruel violence.
God has also had to hurt at times in order to heal. The prime example was sending His own Son to be executed by one of the most cruel, inhumane methods ever devised. Jesus, who never did violence to anyone, died a martyr’s death at the hands of the creatures He’d created—the very ones He’d come to save! And yet that act of violence, says the Bible, was the turning point in the history of humanity. “He was wounded for our transgressions,” says Isaiah, “He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5, NKJV). The violence done to Jesus Christ erased our culpability for sin and made our salvation possible.
There will be at least one more act in this violent theatre of the universe: in the end, sin—and sinners—must be destroyed. “‘Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty.
‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them’” (Malachi 4:1).
Is this cruel on God’s part? No. How happy would sinners be in a “new heaven and a new earth,” permeated with righteousness and goodness? Far better that God cleanse the universe of sin, and so mark the end of violence forever.
John is very specific about what will surely not survive the final act: “There will be,” says John, “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Imagine: a world of perfect peace and perfect safety! There won’t be one more tear to shed, because God will have removed from this universe every reason for violence and the pain and sadness that it causes.
1. Ellen G White, God’s Amazing Grace, page 36.
2. Hannah Arendt, ”Reflections on Violence,” New York Review of Books, 27 February 1969.