We all have notions of what God is like. These ideas and images are built from all sorts of sources – stories, pop culture, holy scriptures, teachers, friends. I imagine even atheists have some picture in their minds of what the God they do not believe in is like. In many cases, it is just this picture that they find so revolting or irrational that leads them to reject belief.
To many people, the God shown throughout the Old Testament deserves to be rejected. We see God commanding the Israelites to mercilessly slaughter thousands of people. They are not told to give up slavery, but instead are instructed on how to treat slaves. God seems to be okay with women as second class citizens. Of course, Christians make arguments that try to get God off the hook. Compared to surrounding cultures of the day, what appears to us as unjust and evil treatment of women and slaves was actually a step up the ladder towards justice. God, Christians say, was working with humans and thus allowing some evils to work towards a greater good. If there are 100 steps to perfection, God is moving the people one step at a time because to go all 100 steps at once is impossible.
Sometimes these arguments make sense. Other times they seem like an attempt to put a positive spin on things.
Christians also believe that God is most fully revealed in the person of Jesus. Traditional Trinitarian theology teaches that Jesus is literally God in the flesh. For Christians, the Word of God is not a book, it is the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.
Growing up, I was taught that Christianity is unique because Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Because of this, we did not have to work to earn God’s love. We did not have to do all the works taught in the Old Testament, whether sacrifices or Sabbaths. Jesus showed us a God who comes to us and loves and forgives us prior to us doing anything.
So when it came to things like salvation, the Old Testament laws on sacrifice that pertain to forgiveness of sin were not seen as on equal footing with Jesus’ work. Through Jesus, that way, even if it was commanded by God, was no more. At least for salvation, Jesus defines what it means.
Yet when it comes to talking about what God is like, all of a sudden it was as if Jesus and the rest of the Bible are on equal footing. This is especially pertinent when it comes to violence. Jesus shows us nonviolence, that God is self-sacrificial love. But…in the Old Testament God commands death and destruction. Thus, God is not really like Jesus since our picture of God is taken equally from Jesus and the Old Testament.
To be clear, here’s the dichotomy:
*Salvation – Jesus clearly is the final word on salvation, the Old Testament still has value in understanding how we got to Jesus, but the system in place there, though revealed by God, is over.
*What God is like – Jesus is not the final word on what God is like, he is merely one image alongside many, including many violent portrayals in the Old Testament.
What Greg Boyd is arguing in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is that if we apply the same principles consistently, then we must allow Jesus to be the final word on everything, including violence. This is a key point. He is not presenting totally new and unheard of arguments. Instead he is taking arguments of others, including key figures throughout the Christian tradition, and applying them consistently. Boyd writes in chapter one:
“The question for Christians is this: Will our view of God be completely determined by the self-sacrificial love revealed on the cross or will it also be influenced by portraits of God doing things like commanding capital punishment for homosexuals (Lev 20:13) and rebellious children (Deut 21:18-21; Exod 21:15, 17; Lev 20:9), commanding genocide (e.g., Deut 7:2, 16), incinerating cities (Genesis 19) and striking a servant down for trying to prevent a sacred object from falling (2 Sam 6:6-7)?” (19).
In chapter two he echoes this:
“In light of the material covered in this chapter, I trust it is clear that the NT does not present Jesus as merely revealing an aspect of what God is like, as though we need to supplement this revelation with everything else we find in the Bible. Jesus is rather presented as the one and only Son who is, in contrast to all revelations that preceded him, the very ‘radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being’ (Heb 1:3). He is the very ’embodiment of the truth of God…I also trust it is also clear from the material we have covered that ‘the Old Testament…is all about Jesus’ which means that ‘there is no dimension of the Old Testament message that does not in some way foreshadow Christ,’ as Goldsworthy notes” (91).
This is not to say the Old Testament has no value, just as we say it has no value when we discuss salvation. It is to say that our clearest picture of who God is, what God is like and how God relates to humans, is seen in the person and work of Jesus.