This week “Unbelievable” with Justin Brierley featured an engaging discussion on God and wrath between Brian Zahnd and Joshua Ryan Butler. I think highly of both Zahnd and Butler. They are both learned, articulate, and irenic. (By the way, you might want to pick up Butler’s new book The Pursuing God. It’s getting rave reviews. And Zahnd mentioned that he has a new book coming out next year under the title Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.)
If there was a problem in the discussion, it was that at several points it was hard to find the daylight between Zahnd and Butler. And when the format of the show is based on reasoned disagreement, that’s a bit of a problem.
One of the points where Zahnd and Butler did appear to disagree is over the question of whether God uses divine violence. Zahnd repudiated the divine use of violence, and with it the human use of violence in God’s name. Along the way he referenced the genocidal eradication of the American First Nations people under the textual justification of Joshua as well as the infamous Nazi belt buckle: Gott mit uns.
So how does Butler reassure us that his views don’t allow for Christians appealing to the divine will to carry out acts of violence in the future? Here’s how he responded to Brierley’s question (at about 45 minutes into the show):
Butler’s key phrase is that the proper motto of the Old Testament Israelites is not “We will fight for God” but rather “God will fight for us.”
The problem is that the Israelites did fight. Indeed, according to the standards of international law, the narrative of Joshua describes military acts that would today qualify as both a genocide and an ethnic cleansing. (On this point see part 2 of my review of Copan and Flannagan’s Did God Really Command Genocide?) So the stakes are high and Zahnd’s question remains unaddressed. If Butler believes God operated in the past by commanding his human agents into battle, how do we know he won’t do so again? And if we don’t know that, then what is to prevent a particular Christian group from believing they have been called to just this task, as so many groups have throughout history?
Near the end of the section, Butler seems to suggest (via a quote from Miroslav Volf) that the Christian should wait for God to act in the future through divine violence to establish his kingdom. But once again, how does Butler know that God will not “fight for us” in the future in the same way he allegedly did in the past, i.e. by calling his faithful subjects to take up arms in his name and with his divine aid?