Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org
Why is the Bible so violent? It is very violent — so violent it’s gotten the attention of a listener named Scott, who writes us this: “Hello, Pastor John! I walk my dog early each morning while I listen to various audiobooks and to this podcast. This year I set myself the goal of listening to the Bible from start to finish. I am on Judges at the moment and came across a passage that I’d not read before: Judges 19. I was shocked! Why are passages like this in the Bible — passages that are so violent? And what can they teach us? I have young teens, and I would never let them read or watch media that describe this level of violence. And yet, here it is in God’s holy Scripture!”
Maybe I should make matters worse before I offer any answer.
If you were shocked, Scott, by Judges 19 — that is, a concubine killed by sexual molestation and then cut into twelve pieces and sent throughout the tribes to muster revenge — you probably are a newcomer to the Bible, and maybe a newcomer to the faith. I am very glad that you are reading or listening to the whole Bible. I would encourage everybody who can read to read all of the Bible over and over again because the apostle Paul wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16). That’s what he said. All of it is profitable and God-inspired — and that includes the most violent parts.
I would not withhold any of it from teenagers. And I say that while totally agreeing with you that most worldly presentations of violence are not profitable and should be avoided. But God’s presentation of these things in writing in the inspired Scripture is no mistake. He presents the world in divine, context-laden, interpretive words — not lurid videos of blood and gore that preempt and replace the God-intended movement from reading written words to having word-built images in the mind. Verbal descriptions with divine explanations are not the same as worldly depictions for entertainment or education with no ultimate divine meaning.
We live in a very soft, easily offended, emotionally fragile culture that unfits us to grasp what most of history has been like, and what most of the world is still like. I think God gave us the Bible the way it is, with all the horrors, partly because he knew the day would come when we would be so spoiled, so cocooned, so overprotected, so coddled that we would not have the emotional and mental capacities to grasp utterly crucial realities in the Bible and in the world.
In other words, I think that saturating ourselves in the whole Bible, year after year, shapes our minds and our emotions and our expectations, so that we have the mental and emotional wherewithal to come to terms with central biblical realities, which otherwise we would reject as simply outrageous. There are truths about God and about his ways in this world, and there are truths about sin and judgment, that, unless we have been made resilient in the face of horrors, we will not be able to grasp. We won’t be able to grasp them with any sense of proportion and truth.
All of that, Scott, just to say that I hope you will press on in immersing yourself in the whole Bible year after year. Those horrors are there for a reason.
So, let me cut to the chase and give three answers to the question, Why is there so much violence in the Bible? Let’s start with the context of the book of Judges. Four times in the book of Judges, we read this sentence: “In those days there was no king in Israel” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). And in two of those instances, that sentence is followed by: “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25).
One of those sentences, Judges 19:1, stands at the very gateway of the chapter Scott is asking about, as if to tell us up front what this violence signifies: it signifies what happens to a society when the river of evil flowing from the human heart runs wild without a dam of civil authority to keep it from spilling out over the whole earth and corrupting with violent effects. That’s the point: There was no king. Everybody did what was right in his own eyes. This is what happens when human beings run rampant without any restraints. That’s the most immediate, contextual explanation for the violence in the book of Judges. The book of Judges is written to demonstrate what happens when human beings, in all our sinful rebellion against God, have no restraints.
This is a very, very valuable lesson for us to learn from the Bible, lest we have some naïve, romantic notions about the essential goodness of the human heart, and lest we think it would be a very good idea to dispense with civil authority. But that’s not an answer to the most ultimate question of why there is so much violence in the Bible.
The reason there is such an abundance of violence in the Bible is because there is so much violence in the world. And so, we must ask the ultimate question, Why is that? The Bible is documenting what is. It’s not creating what is; it’s just telling us what is the reality.
And the biblical answer is that when sin entered the world, described in Genesis 3 — that is, when God-opposing, God-rejecting, God-disparaging, God-demeaning treason against God entered the world — God responded not simply by judging man’s emotions and thinking and willing and relationships, but also he responded by subjecting the human body and the entire material and physical creation to his judgment. And we see that in Genesis 3, and we hear it explicitly in Romans 8:20: “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it [God], in hope.”
Now, why did God do that? Why did he ordain that the effect of moral evil would be displayed in the horrors of physical evil — earthquakes, floods, famines, pandemics, wars, and every manner of horrible mistreatment of man on man? Oh my. He did it because he knew that people who are dead in their trespasses and sins would never comprehend the moral outrage of treason against God unless they saw it reflected in the physical outrage of violence against men.
Nobody loses sleep over their treason against God. But let their physical body be touched with cancer or their house be touched with rioting, and then their emotions really rise up with moral indignation. Violence and suffering exist in this world as a divine witness to the meaning and the seriousness and the outrage of sin against God.
There’s one more answer to why there is so much violence in the world and in the Bible. Revelation 13:8 says that there was a book in God’s presence before the foundation of the world. And the name of the book is “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” All thoughtful Christians know that at the center of our faith and at the foundation of our salvation is one of the grossest, most violent and gory events in the history of the world — namely, the crucifixion of the Son of God. There is no salvation without this violence.
And what Revelation 13:8 shows is that this was God’s plan before the foundation of the world. And not only was it God’s plan before the foundation of the world, but Revelation also tells us that we will sing about this violence forever.
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered [slaughtered is the right word; slain is a lessening of the feel], and by your blood [spilled, shed, gore] you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)
Now, we might plan a different kind of world and a different kind of salvation from eternity to eternity if we were God, but that isn’t our choice. God planned to save us through violence — the gruesome death of his infinitely precious Son. And he said that this is how we know his love. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And we know how he died. Christ died for us. There is no softening the death of Christ, as though it were a little gold symbol hung around our pretty necks.
So, those are my three answers.
- The violence of Judges exists to show what happens when the river of human evil is not dammed up by civic authority.
- The futility and corruption of creation exists to give us some idea of the horror of sin against God.
- The most egregiously violent act in history exists to save us and to show us the love of God.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.