John Piper on Violent Depictions of God (and a Brief Response of My Own)

Desiring God has a new video in which John Piper answers the question of why it was right for God to command the slaughter of women and children. I’ll post the transcript below (I’ve done my best to type out what he said, but some parts of the video were unclear), but here’s how I interpret his overall answer:

“God was right to command such a thing because He has power over all life, and we, as sinners, have no claim to receive anything good from Him. It was acceptable for Him to command Israel to wage total war against her enemies, but the church today is called to love its enemies and die for them.”

What I wish Piper would have engaged with (and maybe he will at some point in his video series) is the idea that these texts of terror shouldn’t be interpreted literally. The best revelation of God that we have is Jesus Christ, and when a particular interpretation of the Bible conflicts with the character of Jesus, then we have to assume that it’s our interpretation that has gone astray and it’s time to rethink how we read the passage at hand.

This is why a good number of Christians don’t think Joshua is a literal account of history, because the God who commands genocide cannot be reconciled with the God who became a human being and died for his enemies. It isn’t because they don’t take the Bible seriously enough. It’s because they do.

But what do you think? Is Piper’s explanation compatible with what we see in Jesus, or is another interpretation of troublesome passages needed? 

As promised, here’s the transcript with the video:

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. So God is taking life everyday. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in his hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be. And whether it ends through cancer, whether it ends through a bullet wound, God governs. God is God. God rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good.

“God owes us nothing. If I were to drop dead right now or if a suicide bomber were to blow this building up and I were blown to smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. … He does no wrong to anyone when he takes their life, at age two weeks or at age 92. God is not beholden to us at all. He does not owe us anything. Now you add to that that we’re sinners and we deserve to die yesterday and go to hell—the fact that we’re even breathing today is sheer, common grace from God.

“So, I could make the question harder. As it was stated, it doesn’t feel hard to me because God was stated as the actor, but if I make it harder, I’ll take longer than three minutes … So I think my basic answer is, the Old testament and the New presents God as the one who has total rights over my life and over my death. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taketh away. Blessed by the name of the Lord. How he takes away is his call. He never wrongs anybody.

[Piper is asked how he could make that question harder.]

“The question that makes it harder is that he commands people to do it. He commanded Joshua to slaughter people. So you got human beings now killing human beings. So now you got a moral question for what is right to do. The Bible says thou shalt not murder, and God says to Joshua, “Go in and clean house, and don’t leave anything breathing. Don’t leave a donkey breathing. Don’t leave a child breathing, a woman breathing, an old man or an old donkey. Just wipe out Jericho.” So then my answer is, there is a point in history, a season in history, where God is the immediate king of a people—Israel. Difference in the way he is the king over the church, which is from all the peoples of Israel. It does not have a political ethnic dimension to it. So there was a political ethnic dimension; he is immediate king, and he uses this people as his instrument to accomplish his judgment in the world at that time. And god, it says, let the sins of the Amalekites accumulate for 400 years, so that they would be full and then he sends his own people in as instruments of judgment. So I would vindicate Joshua by saying, in that saying, with that structure of people and God, it was right for Joshua to do what God told him to do and that is annihilate the people. But that’s much more complex than morally saying, God does it. He can cause a flood and kill everybody on the planet, except eight people—and he didn’t do a one of them anything wrong. But he didn’t ask anyone else to do that.

“Right now, an example would be that God has given the sword to the government. So I believe the government has the right to take a rapist and a murderer and put him in jail—or kill him. I think capital punishment is consistent with Genesis 9 and with God’s character, because of the value of man. ‘The blood of a man shall be shed for taking the blood of a man.’ But that’s very different than saying, anyone can go around killing people. So God has his times and seasons for where he shares his authority to take and give life. The church today is not Israel and we are not a political entity, and therefore the word we have from the Lord today is, love your enemy. Pray for those who abuse you. Lay your life down for the world; don’t kill in order to spread the Gospel. Die in order to spread the Gospel.”


3 thoughts on “John Piper on Violent Depictions of God (and a Brief Response of My Own)

  1. James August 22, 2013 / 1:53 pm

    If a God who called for genocide can’t be reconciled, then how can you reconcile a God who required the sacrifice of his son? I’m with Piper on this one.

    • Justin Boulmay August 22, 2013 / 7:46 pm


      Can you elaborate? A God who called for genocide can’t be reconciled to what?

  2. James August 26, 2013 / 1:57 pm

    “This is why a good number of Christians don’t think Joshua is a literal account of history, because the God who commands genocide cannot be reconciled with the God who became a human being and died for his enemies.” It seems you’re missing the part about God requiring such a brutal sacrifice. Yes, I know Jesus is God but take into account the Father requiring the sacrifice and it lines up with his commands for gencocide. I just think you’re missing a crucial part of God’s character when you remove the literal aspect of Joshua.

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