A few months back in my essay “Might God call Christians to participate in a future genocide?” I pointed out that Christians who believe that God commanded genocides in the past are forced to consider the possibility that he might command a genocide in the future. I pointed to Revelation 19:11-18 which describe a cataclysmic future battle and noted that for those who begin with a commitment to the possiblity of divinely commanded genocidal slaughter, this could be a future instance of it, and one into which they are called to participate.
My colleague Jerry Shepherd accepts this possibility. While he believes the church is presently called to pacifism, this is a temporary command which may be rescinded in the future as the church is called to annihilate all apostates. This raises a rather glaring question: if you believe God might call you at any point to drop your call to pacifism and begin slaughtering the civilian population, then how will you know when that call has been made? This is how I put the question:
“Jerry, since you believe God commanded the wholesale slaughter of children and infants in the past you are open to God commanding it in the f [sic] future (as in Revelation). So how will you know when that day has arrived? What criteria will you use to judge whether you should participate in a future slaughter?”
I hope we can all appreciate the gravity of this question. If a person believes that they could in principle be called by God to participate in genocidal slaughter of non-Christians then it would seem to be a matter of rather pressing concern for them to explain how they will know when to take up their weapon.
With all that riding on the question this was Jerry’s response:
“When I see Christ himself riding the white horse.”
Given the gravity of the question, I can only describe an answer like this to be inexcusably flip. As Jerry knows, Revelation is one of the most difficult books to interpret. Controversies about it rage. Such are the difficulties that even intrepid commentators like John Calvin have decided not even to wade into the interpretive quagmire. So to answer the question “How will you know when to begin killing non-Christians?” by simply referring to one of the highly controverted statements in the book is to provide no answer at all.
Jeff made a similar point in his response to Jerry:
“How will you know that it is indeed Christ himself who you see riding the white horse? Is there any reason in principle why you couldn’t be mistaken about such a sight? Perhaps you’re hallucinating, or perhaps it’s actually Satan in disguise (he is the Great Deceiver after all, right?)”
Of course all this assumes that Jesus will literally be riding a white horse. But since this is a book of symbols one could readily interpret the image non-literally and that opens up all sorts of interpretive possibilities for when to begin the killing.
History is a sober teacher in this regard. In 1533 the radical Anabaptists under Bernard Rothmann gained control of the city of Munster in the German state of Westphalia. Over the next months the Anabaptists gradually became persuaded that they were living in the end times culminating in this chilling public declaration from Rothmann:
“Dear brethren, arm yourselves for the battle, not only with the humble weapons of the apostles for suffering, but also with the glorious armour of David for vengeance… in God’s strength, and help to annihilate the ungodly.” (Cited in Owen Chadwick, The Reformation, 190, emphasis added)
Many people were butchered in the city as a result until the bishop’s army finally entered the city on June 25, 1535, thereby ending the brief apocalyptic rule of blood.
Jerry’s position is that he will remain pacifistic to neighbor until he believes Christ has arrived on the white horse to signal the start of the killing. What does this kind of position do for the Christian witness to the peaceable kingdom? The answer was perhaps best stated by one of the critics of the Anabaptists following Munster: “At the moment they are peaceful, law-abiding lambs, but soon they may be wolves….”