In the first part of this series we looked at Revelation 4:1—8:1, and saw there that it was precisely because Christ was the slain Lamb of God that he was qualified to open the seals of the double-sided scroll and unleash punishment and wrath on the earth. Far from rendering Christ as one who would never engage in violence, it is his death on the cross which specifically qualifies him to pour out God’s judgments on the earth. Now, in this second part, we will begin to look in particular at various passages in the gospels in which Christ talks about the violence which either he himself or his Father will employ in punishing the wicked. In other words, we will be looking at the “red letters”! Earlier this year, I engaged the author of a blog article which he had entitled, “What Does God without Retribution Look Like? Ask Jesus.” In my response, after listing only a few of the passages in which Christ talks about the violence in which both he and his Father would be engaged, I concluded my reply by saying, “What does a God with retribution look like? Ask Jesus. That is, if you really want an answer.” The only reply the author made was to complain about my mimicking his words. Evidently, the “red letters” only carry so much weight with those who claim to be “red letter” Christians.
Now, I have a bit of a problem. When I posted the first article in this series, I said that I envisioned this being a three-part series. However, the problem I am have is that, in discussing these texts, I am faced with a veritable “embarrassment of riches”! There are just too many of these texts to discuss in one article (I already receive complaints about how long my postings are!). So, this “Part Two” is actually going to expand into at least Parts Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, and Eight. I am not going to attach anything like extensive commentary to each one of these passages; but in each case, at least some explanatory remarks would seem to be required. Eventually, we will return again to the book of Revelation.
1. Matthew 5:21-22
21 You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.
For this passage simply note that Jesus states that anyone who uses this particular derogatory term, Raca, with reference to one’s brother, will be in danger of entering the fires of hell. Evidently, Jesus considered this act of retributive violence to be one in which his heavenly Father might be engaged.
2. Matthew 5:29-30
29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Christ’s language here about gouging out one’s eye, or cutting off a body part, specifically one’s hand, to be sure, ought to be regarded as hyperbolic. Nevertheless, his language about hell, as can easily be seen from other passages in the gospels, is not hyperbolic. Casting those who have sinned into hell as an act of retributive violence is not considered by Jesus here to be “ungodlike.” Before going on to the next text, it is important to note these two passages are located in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Those who want to argue against the idea of retributive violence are fond of quoting those parts of this sermon which they think support their idea, specifically 5:9, 38-45. Those who would argue in this way are, in fact, sometimes accused by their opponents, and rightly so, as acting as if the only words Jesus ever spoke are located in the Sermon on the Mount. Note, however, that the two passages we have looked at so far are in this Sermon. Jesus has no problem at all telling his followers to avoid retaliatory measures against their enemies, while also acknowledging that God reserves the right to engage in retributive violence.
3. Matthew 8:11-12
11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The only thing I need to note here is that, as other passages in the gospels make clear, this “outside” place, this “darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” is to be equated with the “fiery furnace.” Again, the idea of retributive violence does not seem to be incompatible with the rest of Jesus’ teachings.
4. Matthew 10:28 (Luke 12:4-5)
28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Again, Jesus uses the concept of retributive violence on God’s part to discourage actions that would warrant punishment in hell. So the violence here is not only considered to be retributive, but also a deterrent. One additional note for this one. Luke is often thought of as being a “kinder, gentler” gospel than Matthew. So it is interesting that in the parallel account in Luke, the wording is more expansive, and sounds even more ominous.
4 I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. 5 But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.
5. Matthew 10:34 (Luke 12:51)
34 Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
In this passage, Jesus utilizes a negative hyperbolic contrast, “not this, but that,” in which the negative part is exaggerated for the purpose of effect. Jesus certainly did come to bring peace. But in this statement, Jesus relativizes this concept of peace, such that it does not serve to be something more important than the person of Jesus himself. The figure of Jesus is, indeed, a divisive one. In Luke’s account of the nativity, in the very same chapter in which we are told that the heavenly choir sang “peace on earth,” we are also told that the child Jesus is “destined to cause the falling and rising of many” (Luke 2:14, 34). Jesus does not bring peace to everyone; to some he brings a sword.
In Part Three, we will look at five more passages.
October 18, 2014