Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2018
[This is the 25th in a long series of posts that will work through Greg Boyd’s important book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Interpreting the Old Testament’s Violent Portraits of God in Light of the Cross (Fortress, 2017). The 24th post may be found here—and an index of the series here.]
In Chapter 23, “When Hell Breaks Loose: Redemptive Withdrawal and Cosmic Conflict” (pages 1099-1142), Boyd reflects further on the implications of his cruciform hermeneutic for understanding OT violent portraits, focusing especially on the Genesis story of the Flood. A key element of his perspective is his emphasis on the cosmic evil powers who actually are the agents of the destruction, while God’s role is simply to withhold God’s protections and let the powers do their damage.
The way to justice: divine withdrawal or something else?
Boyd begins the chapter by summarizing his basic argument concerning spiritual warfare: “When God decides he must withdraw his protective presence to allow one form of evil to punish another form of evil…. Satan and other cosmic powers are … present, looking for every opportunity to kill, steal, and destroy” (1099–1100). I sense that in order to save his belief in God as in ultimate control, Boyd must project onto God a will to punish. Why “must” God “withdraw his protective presence”? I suspect that Boyd wants to hold on to the belief that God is in ultimate control of what happens in the world. The only way God can be in control and still be nonviolent is if God exercises “control” by “withdrawing” and letting Satan, et al, be the actual enforcers of the needed punishment that a “just” world requires.
One way this notion ends up being deeply problematic is the extraordinary imprecision of this punishment with its enormous collateral damage. The “killing, stealing, and destroying” that Satan, et al, do in this scenario catches up everyone in its path, just and unjust, innocent and guilty. And it is not only human beings that are crushed but also the rest of creation. Not only does God actually remain complicit in the violence if God could stop it, but God’s means of punishing sin are extraordinarily unjust toward those who don’t deserve to be punished.
I tend to think that the only moral alternative to Boyd’s scenario (because I agree with him that a violent God who actively punishes contradicts the truthfulness of the definitive picture of God we have in Jesus) is a weak God who is not all-powerful. God does not exercise brute power to destroy God’s enemies. For example, Satan (i.e., the Dragon) is not punished in Revelation but defeated and robbed of existence simply through disbelief—disbelief that emerges from the self-sacrificial, persevering love of the Lamb and those who follow him wherever he goes. The power of the Powers rests solely on the power given them through idolatry, through people’s consent.
Though Boyd professes to reject Anselm’s satisfaction view of the atonement, he does not actually seem to have a genuine alternative in mind. His God still seems alienated by human sin, the presupposition for Anselm’s call for “satisfaction.” Boyd writes: “Whenever God stops holding these ‘raging waters’ at bay (Ps 124:4-6), they too became a means by which people experience the destructive consequences that are inherent in all sin” (1000). What seems implied here is that God is offended by sin and wants to “teach people a lesson” by ceasing to hold the raging waters at bay. That contradicts the message of Jesus that shows us a God who is always compassionate and views “sin” more as a disease to be healed than as an offense to be punished.
Just one Satan?
Boyd links together the picture of Satan in Job with the Satan of the New Testament (assuming as well that the NT has just one understanding of Satan). He sees “Satan” in Job as the same “Satan” of the NT due to his “canonical approach” (1106). That is, he seems to be saying, that Job and the NT are in the same canon means that we should realize that they are going to have a single understanding of a motif such as Satan.
Such an approach, I think, does not allow the book of Job to have its own integrity. A different kind of “canonical approach,” seen in Walter Wink’s chapter on “Satan” in Unmasking the Powers, recognizes an evolution in the understanding of Satan in the Bible. The texts that refer to Satan are all part of the same Bible, but seeing them in the single Big Story is actually a stimulus to try to understand how, within this one collection, the views change and evolve.
A huge consequence of Boyd’s approach is that it allows him to see the book of Job as an account of “cosmic conflict” wherein Job and his family are “tragically caught in the cross fire” (1108) in the struggle between God and the very powerful forces of chaos and evil overseen by Satan. I interpret Job quite a bit differently. I am attracted to the view that the book is actually a critique of God (i.e., a certain view of God) where God is actually the problem. Satan is essentially no more than a plot device who disappears after the second chapter. One of the roles Satan plays in Job is to help us learn that Job is indeed a righteous person who is unjustly treated with violence due to a petty bet by God.
Boyd, on the other hand, links Job’s “assault on God’s character” with Satan’s original “assault” (which seems like an odd characterization of the interaction God and Satan have in the book’s first two chapters). With this interpretation comes the implication that the book’s God is unassailable and obviously just and truthful and Job is actually on Satan’s side—instead of, as I think the book makes clear, Job being righteous and God being unreliable and disrespectful.
God, violent judgments, and biblical inspiration
Boyd again asserts that the violence natural disasters visit on humanity in the Bible always comes from “hostile cosmic powers,” never from God: “While biblical authors often reflect a pre-Christian understanding of God and attribute actions to him that he in fact merely allowed, as did Job and his friends, our cross-centered perspective … allows us to see that it is always hostile cosmic powers that carry out whatever violence is involved in divine judgments brought about by ‘natural’ disasters” (1121; emphases added).
I agree with the idea that God in fact did not do the violent judgments in the Bible—so Boyd’s assertion rings true. However, I can’t see how that idea is compatible with Boyd’s own view of the Bible because the Bible itself clearly teaches over and over again that God is the source of these judging natural disasters. I would rather say that indeed the intent of many the stories that are told is for us to see God as the punitive judge who sometimes directly uses nature to effect the judgment. However, these stories stand in tension with other stories and the cumulative message of the Big Story that tell us that God is not like that. We must choose which perspective we will accept as truthful—and conclude that the other perspectives are not truthful, except as part of the overall picture that clarifies that God is the God of Jesus.
I also think that Boyd attributes too much to “hostile cosmic powers.” For me, it makes much more sense to recognize the randomness of creation and the weakness of God without adding a strong sense of actual nefarious Powers (which isn’t to say that the Powers are not an important part of the picture, just that Boyd overstates their might). One obvious problem with Boyd’s view of the “hostile cosmic powers” is that he seems to let humans off the hook—especially human power structures and ideologies. Instead of “spiritual warfare” we need to critique ideology (and idolatry) and to imagine alternative ways to order our common life—and to realize that the Bible is kind of a handbook for these alternative socio-political visions.
The Flood and God’s punitive judgment
Boyd continues his method in addressing the Flood story in this chapter. He writes that while clearly Genesis 6–8 “interprets this disaster to be a judgment that was directly carried out by God,” because “we know from the cross the true character of God and the true Aikido-like way he brings about his judgments, we must assess this portrait to be a sin-bearing literary mask God stooped to wear…. We must see past this sin-bearing mask to discern a revelation of the same humble, agape-loving God we discern on the cross” (1123).
I have the same problems with these comments that I had earlier. I think it disrespects the text to import assumptions from the outside as a basis for interpreting it to say something obviously not present in the text itself. Boyd seems to insist on saving his view of biblical inspiration and the “hegemonic” cross no matter what the text itself says. He also wants to save an idealized view of the God of the Bible with his “mask” theory that allows him to dismiss the actual portrayal of God in the text.
In contrast to Boyd, I am attracted to the view that Genesis imports a standard ancient near eastern flood story that itself portrays a terrible and arbitrary God. But, crucially, Genesis adds a few key qualifiers that point to a different kind of God. The God of these “qualifiers” (e.g., especially the rainbow story) becomes the God of Israel and the God of Jesus in the Big Story. Reading the Flood story in this way respects the text itself more, and it push us to value the on-going biblical story much more than Boyd does when he fits everything into his cross “meta-narrative” and robs the story of its own intrinsic value.
Boyd presents the Flood as a justifiable act wherein God withdraws God’s protection and allows the earth to destroy itself. “God, with a grieving heart, decided he had to stop ‘contending’ with the stubborn wills of the people and to withdraw his Spirit” (1128). I would rather say that the Flood story gives us a picture of the “old” God that this Big Story actually leaves behind. I believe the Flood story in the end teaches that God “changes” and becomes a merciful God, one the on-going story tells us will never stop “contending.” The value of the Flood Story is not that it reveals what God is like but that it reveals what God is not like.
Boyd suggests that with the Flood, God decided to allow “the sin of the human race to become ‘full grown’ and to ‘give birth to death’” (1134). However, this apparently justifiable punishment killed all humans and all other creatures. That is, the punishment greatly outweighed the crime. Another problem with Boyd’s view follows from the reality that the Flood apparently did no good since Genesis tells us that humanity remained “evil in the inclinations of their heart” (8:21) after the waters receded.
I think this story must be read as a kind of parable. Genesis uses a standard ancient tale of a great flood to make some points distinctive to the OT: that God changes (since the punished human beings do not) and resolves not to punish like this again. God’s resolve not to punish in this way again becomes the default view of God in the Bible. We could say that the Flood story needs to be understood in terms of its outcome (like the story of the “sacrifice” of Isaac, the meaning of which follows from the fact that Abraham did not in fact sacrifice his son). And, we could say that the Flood story as a whole contributes to the hermeneutical process of interpreting later texts. That the true God is the God of the rainbow, not the God of later punishment, is confirmed with Jesus.
Is there a difference between God “allowing” violence and causing it?
Boyd summarizes his understanding of the relationship between the Flood and divine judgments: “The biblical account of this more horrendous ‘natural disaster’ was indeed a divine judgment,” but it did not involve “attributing any of its violence to God…. The fallen and culturally conditioned perspective of the author did not allow him to distinguish clearly between a destruction that God allows and a destruction that God causes…. God’s way of overcoming evil is not by engaging in violence but by simply allowing evil to violently destroy itself, always as a stepping-stone to the ultimate self-cannibalization of all evil on Calvary” (1135).
Two significant issues that I have already discussed immediately draw my attention. First of all, Boyd attributes what he sees as an inaccurate statement where the Bible presents God as directly causing the violence of the Flood to “the fallen and culturally conditioned perspective of the writer.” Now, I don’t have any trouble with the idea the writers of the Bible present things in an inaccurate way due to their “culturally conditioned perspective.” But I wouldn’t affirm that idea while at the same time insisting on the Bible’s inspiration and infallibility in the way Boyd does. The entire “conundrum” that his book presupposes has to do with his high view of inspiration coexisting with the Bible’s violent portraits of God that seem to contradict the character of the God revealed in Jesus. If he can so easily dismiss the accuracy of Genesis’s account of the Flood, I am not able to see how he is still operating within the circle of biblical infallibility. He seems here to be dissolving his conundrum in a similar way to how I would—denying that the Bible is indeed infallible. It is disconcerting that he won’t admit that he is doing that. Hence, he creates many unnecessary problems for his argument.
Secondly, I don’t see how the overwhelming violence of the Flood could be a “judgment” (with the implication of it playing a central role in God’s moral engagement with the world) and part of God’s way of “overcoming evil” without God also being responsible for the horrendous and unjust (at least in the sense of the killing of young children and non-human creatures who had nothing to do with the corruption of human life on earth) violence. The problem of God’s responsibility for the Flood actually is made worse by Boyd’s belief that God does act to prevent such violence all the time except when God chooses to let the punitive destruction happen. Boyd’s God does seem to be directly engaged in violent judgment even if the actual acts of violence are indirect and not straight from God’s hand.
Boyd adds: “While God in a sense participates in, and takes responsibility for, all the violence he allows, it is nevertheless violence that he merely allows, never causes” (1136). I am afraid that that point seems like casuistry to me. Boyd goes on: “It is violence God allows with a grieving heart and only because the alternative of continuing to protect people from the consequence of their decisions would result in them sinking even further into evil” (1136). I think this is projecting motives onto the God of this story, making God like a punishing parent. Ironically, in Boyd’s attempt to make God “nonviolent”—in a technical sense where God retains a kind of deniability—he actually ends up reinforcing the dynamics of violence: the need to punish for the other’s “own good,” the inability to break the retributive spiral by thinking of creative alternatives to the spiral of wrongdoing—> necessary consequences—> more and more pain. Boyd accepts the death-dealing mentality where the “only alternative” to punishment is letting people “sink even further into evil.” Hence, this omniscient, all-powerful God is reduced to a punitive parent rendered impotent by the “moral fabric of the universe.”
I do tend to agree with Boyd when he writes, “the biblical account stands alone [in the ancient near east] in ascribing pain to God as he contemplates the hopeless state of humanity and the judgment he is about to bring” (1137). I should say, that is, that I agree with the “pain” or grief part, though not the “judgment” part. Boyd seems to use this sense of grief as a way to justify the idea that God is forced to “punish.” God only causes the Flood by the withdrawal of protection because God “had to”—due to the moral nature of the universe that in practice limits God’s ability to show mercy. At least God was weeping while God did this.
I doubt that those who were killed by God’s choice to let the Flood happen were comforted by this “grief.” It is strange to imagine an all-powerful God grieving due to being “forced” to do something. In contrast to Boyd’s view, I would say that the “grief” is a clue to the dynamics that lead to a change or clarification of God’s approach to human brokenness. The Flood story in effect teaches that God realizes that violent punishment is not the way to fulfill God’s intent in creation. We could say that God faced a choice—cultivate the grief or cultivate the punitive dynamic. Thinking of the choice in this way is very different than Boyd’s picture that God punishes and grieves at the same time—with the perverse sense that the grief should make us more sympathetic about the punishment.
Boyd claims, “God’s love for each judged individual is incomparably greater than any human’s love for them” (1138). This claim seems like mystification. We have no way of knowing what God’s interior feelings are, but we can see the effects of God’s actions (or purposeful inactions) in the Flood story, which are devastating and not noticeably tempered by God’s “grief.” Boyd seems to say: I know that God is love, therefore I have to believe there is love in this story of the intentional killing of every single human being and animal on earth (except for the very tiny remnant in the ark). The effect of such mystification, it seems, is to make God’s love a meaningless concept since it apparently includes such actions that in any objective sense are the opposite of love.
Boyd goes on to argue that God had to allow the Flood in order to save the earth. “If God had not intervened in the drastic way he did, his long-term plans for humanity and the earth would have been irreversibly destroyed. And this is precisely why God decided to rescue Noah, his family, and a remnant from every kind of animal while withdrawing his Spirit and allowing anti-creational cosmic forces to undo creation. By this means, God preserved the future of creation and of humanity while preparing the way for a new start for his long-term dream for his image-of-God co-rulers” (1139-40).
It is almost as if Boyd says here that God had to destroy the world in order to save it! This is a problematic thought. It does not make sense that God would “have to” kill all children and (presumably) many good people in order to deal with the wrongdoers. And why would God need to destroy all the animals? Why would God say this would never happen again if it were a good and necessary thing? Especially since after the flood people were still evil? (8:21).
I think it makes much more sense to see this story as a parable that shows how God changed from the punitive destroyer of the Flood. Seen as a parable in this way, the Flood is “salvific” only in that it shows how the world was saved from this punitive God who as a result of the failure of the Flood to change humanity, vows never to punish in this way again.
The Flood and history
Boyd earlier wrote that he accepts “the historicity of the flood account” (1122). I assume by that he means that he believes that it happened in history as described in Genesis (more or less). He claims, though, that the historicity of the story is “irrelevant to the theological task of disclosing how the portrait of God within this narrative bears witness to the God revealed on the cross” (1122). However, when I read how he interprets “the flood as a rescue operation” (1140), I do think the historicity issue is theologically relevant. It is remarkable to think someone who believes that the God who punished evildoers by destroying almost everyone and almost all creatures could possibly be the God of Jesus and the God we worship today (even if the punishment took the form of God’s strategic withdrawal).
Boyd claims “that every narrative in which God is depicted as using ‘natural’ catastrophes as tools of judgment can and should be reframed in this cruciform fashion” (1141, my emphasis). This “reframing” may be a way to save biblical infallibility, but it comes at a great cost. For one thing, such reframing ignores the obvious intent of the writers to attribute the judgment directly to God. As well, from a Jesus-centered perspective, Boyd leaves intact the understanding of God as a judging and punitive God.
Boyd uses his crucicentric hermeneutic to draw a line in the wrong place. He concludes God doesn’t directly punish (using the hermeneutic to make a distinction the texts don’t make). His hermeneutic allows him to say that the story is true except in directly attributing the violence to God. In those instances, he can say the text is wrong because it contradicts the message of the cross. God remains formally nonviolent and in some sense the Bible remains infallible. However, Boyd’s argument leaves God’s motivation to punish intact. I believe that if we are to draw lines between what is truthful in the Bible and not, we should do so to exclude the punishing motive. A God who has a will to punish will still be a violent God. If Boyd truly wants a nonviolent God, he will need to reformulate his understand of the cross so that it is understood to be a rejection of the idea that God wills to punish—or he will need to find a different hermeneutical key, perhaps Jesus’s own life and teaching, than the cross. I think either option would work.