The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision, part 3

Ted Grimsrud—9/19/18

Is punitive violence God’s default response to wrongdoing?

With Cross Visionand The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, Boyd seeks to counter Christian acceptance of warfare and violence in general. Part of the problem, as he sees it, that needs to be addresses is the tendency to assume that God must resort to violence in judging sin and evil. We do this because this is what wehave always done and because we believe that other gods have always judged with violence. That is, we tend to project onto God (and the gods) our own proclivities. And we live with an age-old assumption that violence fixes problems, what Boyd (following Walter Wink) calls “the myth of redemptive violence” (p. 139).

Boyd argues throughout these books that instead of having this God-as-violent judge assumption, we should try to set aside that starting point and begin with the crucified Christ as our window into God’s approach to sin and evil. When we make such a move in our thinking, we will look at the entire history of God in the world as one where “the power and wisdom that God has always used to punish sin” is in fact the same as the power shown in the cross (p. 137).

In Part 3 of CV, Boyd develops his argument about “The True Nature of God’s Judgment.” God indeed is nonviolent, a God of love. However, God being such does not mean that God does not oppose sin and evil and work in the world to hold wrongdoers accountable. It is just that God’s work versus sin and evil is consistent with God’s nonviolence.

What is revealed in the cross?

God’s power and wisdom in dealing with sin find its paradigmatic expression in Jesus’s crucifixion, where he “suffered the judgment that we deserved.” However, all that God did at the moment was “withdraw his protection” and allow the Satanic elements that were bent on destruction to do what they wanted to do with Jesus—to kill him (p. 139). God was in no way directly involved in that act of violence.

This withdrawal of protection is God’s method of exercising judgment against sin and evil. God thereby turns people over to the death-consequences of their sin. God does this reluctantly, only because this is the only way that God can bring salvation in face of human intransigence. And, God does this withdrawal experiencing tremendous grief. We find this dynamic present when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem shortly before his death—expressing the heartbreaking grief of God over human beings experiencing the consequences of their sin.

The judgment of God we see typified in the cross occurs only when “people are not willing to be protected and God sees that his mercy is simply enabling their sin.” At that point, the power and wisdom of God discerns that there is no redemptive option other than God “handing people over” to the consequences of their sins (p. 141). The dynamic of the outworking of the dynamics of sin and closed-offness to God’s mercy is what Boyd calls God’s “wrath.” God is not an active agent in the punitive dynamics of this wrath. The violence does not come from God. All God does is withdraw the protection that has heretofore prevented the violence from happening.

As we learn from the Old Testament, the ancient Israelites—amidst the violent portraits—at times did have a sense of how God truly works and feels. But these are only fleeting glimpses. Hence, often we are not given a sense of God’s deep grief in the midst of the outworking of God’s wrath where God allows punitive violence to happen.

However, Boyd argues, as people who are able to understand the true God as revealed in the cross, we must look behind the culturally-conditioned misrepresentations of God that imagine God as directly involved as the source of the violence. We may know the full truth about God’s character.

The cross allows us to understand two key points about God’s ways. First, we may understand that God judges sin by turning people over to the consequences of their wrong actions and beliefs. Second. We may understand how God defeats evil—through God’s “Aikido-style of judgment” (p. 144). Aikido is the martial arts technique where a person turns the aggressors violence against the aggressor, in effect facilitating the violence turning on itself.

The divine Aikido as at work in Christ’s cross, has three elements: First, the actual orchestration of the crucifixion is done by Satan, not God. Satan makes the events happen. Second, though the demons know exactly who Jesus is, they do not understand why he is on earth. All they know is that he is present and vulnerable. They have the opportunity to do him in (they think), and they do so. But, then, third, by raising Jesus from the dead, God turns the crucifixion from Satan’s seeming victory to his decisive defeat. Satan takes the initiative to kill Jesus and God turns the momentum of that back on Satan and crushes him (p. 144).

In the cross, through these three elements, “God used evil to defeat evil.” This is God’s Aikido strategy in action and establishes the “looking class” that Boyd uses to interpret God’s work throughout history. Since the cross shows what God has always been like, we see in it how God has always and continues to deal with sin and vanquish evil (p. 146).

What seems to be missing, though, in Boyd’s account of the cross is the political dimensions of Jesus’s crucifixion. Boyd seems to separate Satan and the Powers from social structures and ideologies. And he focuses only on the autonomous demonic realm, as it were, when he discusses the cross. In doing so, he fails to note how Jesus’s life of concrete resistance to the ways of Empire led to his death—and how Jesus’s death exposes the Powers of empire, law, and religion as idolatrous rivals of God’s for human loyalty. In ignoring these political aspects of the story, Boyd ends up having little to say about howexactly the Powers are defeated by the cross.

Biblical punishment

According to Boyd, the Bible presents us with two distinct types of punishment. The first type he calls “judicial.” This is punishment that is externally imposed and separate from the wrongdoing that leads to the punishment. It is when a person is determined to be guilty by some kind of judge of violating some law or standard and as a result is inflicted with punishment.

The second type is “organic” punishment. This is punishment that consists primarily of negative consequences that are inherent in the sin itself. “The Bible generally construes God’s punishment of sin as organic in nature. God doesn’t impose punishment on people. The destructive consequences of sin are built into the sin itself. God only needs to withdraw and let sin run its self-destructive course when he judges people” (p. 148-9).

To the extent that the Bible does attribute judicial punishment to God, that mainly reflects the “indirect” revelation of human beings misunderstanding what God actually is doing (and not doing). This is another example of God allowing the Bible to contain portraits of God that do not accurately portray God as God truly is. While there is this problematic sensibility that is wrongly attributed to God, once we realize that God is different we will be empowered to see in the OT a great deal more nuance on how God’s judgment works and numerous cases where “direct” revelation does occur and where God’s essentially organic style of punishment is present—and mainly consists of God’s withdrawal of protection against hostile forces.

A key to the dynamic of God using organic punishment is the centrality of God’s presence in the OT description of life in ancient Israel. God’s presence was both the source of all good things that the people enjoyed and the basis for protection from nations and other forces that would hurt Israel. So, the loss of this presence would be devastating.

Interestingly, Boyd argues, the OT does not actually have a distinct word that clearly means “punishment.” The language that is used to describe judgment does not refer to an external penalty that God imposes on guilty Israel (the judicial sense of punishment). Rather, the texts refer to the effect of human sin. For example, the terms translated “pay back” mean “bringing to completion,” i.e., “the sin is allowed to be brought to completion” (p. 151). This “b ringing to completion” alludes to organic punishment.

Boyd brings the cross into the picture here to make his point about God’s judgment. If we remember the centrality of the cross to the biblical portrait of the true God, we will note that God did notimpose a violent judgment on Jesus, but merely allowed destructive forces to kill Jesus. So, in this sense, Boyd distances himself from the penal substitution notion of the atonement where God’s judicial punishment is visited upon Jesus, who receives it as a substitute for human beings.

The lesson Boyd draws from this account of biblical punishment is to assert that the organic conception of sin and its consequences reflects the Bible’s direct revelation and thus serves as our norm for understanding the dynamics of sin and judgment in the Bible. The violent portraits of God in the Bible that portray God’s response to sin as direct and violent punishment are indirect revelation—telling us not what God is like but telling us of mistaken human notions of God that are nonetheless allowed by the vulnerable God to remain in the Bible.

The way organic punishment in the Bible works

The OT contains many cases that show how people’s sin lead to natural destructive consequences. These cases show that sin is inherently self-destructive. We don’t always realize that the presence of all these cases makes an important theological point about how God ultimately exercises judgment. These cases are more central to the true portrait of God than the accounts of God’s direct intervention to punish.

In the NT, Jesus himself embodies God’s Aikido response to evil (p. 154). Jesus does not impose himself on anyone, and he never retaliates against those who reject him or persecute him. Yet, in the gospels there are often portrayed cases of wrongdoers nonetheless suffering consequences of their sins.

Paul outlines the dynamic in the first chapter of Romans. Human beings are created by God but come to a point, too often, where they fail to respond with gratitude and instead trust in idols. Such false trust leads to the dynamic of people becoming like that which they worship. This dynamic leads to hardheartedness toward God. At some point, Boyd continues, God sees that there is no hope in human beings repenting. At that point, God has not choice but to withdraw the Holy Spirit and thereby allow the self-destructiveness inherent in idolatry to run its course. The result is violence and devastation that in some sense may accurately be understood at the outworking of God’s “wrath.” But it is organic and not judicial punishment, and God is not the perpetrator of the punitive violence (pp. 157-8)

With the dynamics of organic punishment, things are necessarily a bit imprecise. Boyd argues that the moral order of creation is “a complex, loose causal weave of act and consequences” (p. 158). It is the case that sin inevitably reaps consequences, but the process takes time, is often messy, and may at times be unpredictable in the details.

There are many agents at work as God’s wrath plays out in its imprecise way. God does certainly use people to inflict punitive violence on wrongdoers, including wrongdoers who are members of the community of God’s chosen people. Boyd emphasizes, though, “God never influences people in a direction that is contrary to his own cruciform character.” That is, God does notinfluence destructive people to do their violence. Rather, all God does is withdraw God’s protection that is usually in effect to protect people from that destructiveness. Thus, God only uses people who themselves choose to do violence; God’s use of such people does not mean that God influences them to do their evil. Only after those choices for evil are made does God use evildoers as part of God’s organically punitive work (pp. 158-9).

Boyd goes on, a bit surprisingly, to state also because the human free will of wrongdoers is respected by God, “God cannot coercively intervene to prevent the harm they intend toward others” (159-60). This point seems consistent with his emphases on God’s non-coercive love. However, I wonder if there is not a tension between saying, as Boyd does, on the one hand, that God does use organic punishment by choosing, when necessary, to withdraw God’s protection in order that unrepentant wrongdoers suffer the consequences of their sin, and on the other hand, saying that God can’t coercively intervene to prevent harm. Is God’s “protection” always non-coercive? How does it actually work. I don’t think Boyd makes this clear.

God’s violence and the role of “other agents”

Another element of Boyd’s presentation of God’s method of organic punishment is that while the OT stories do often (inaccurately) tell of God’s direct involvement in violence, quite often the stories tell of the involvement of forces that are not God. That is, they “contain indications that confirm that the violence they ascribe to God was actually carried out by other agents” (p. 163). So, if we read the stories in light of the cross, we will be able to see within the stories both the “indirect revelation” of the misattribution of violence to God and the “direct revelation” that helps us see that it was not God who actually did effect the violence.

Boyd provides several examples of this dynamic. The story of the Exodus stands at the center of any list of OT violent portraits, especially the final plague when the first-born children of the Egyptians are killed. However, Boyd points out that the agent of the death is not God. The killer is called “the destroyer” in Exodus 12—and we are given no indication that the dealer in death operates on God’s behalf. We may infer that the destroyer is an independent actor who is bent on destruction and would have destroyed the Hebrew children if given a chance. God’s only involvement here is in protecting some in face of the violence (p. 164).

Another major story is the end of the Hebrew kingdom, Judah. The prophet Jeremiah provides a kind of theological analysis of the destruction the Babylonian Empire visits on Judah. On the one hand, Jeremiah quotes God stating “I will smash and destroy” Judah (13:14). On the other hand, the actual killer here is Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s emperor.

“Truth is,” Boyd writes, “that God with a grieving heart and with redemptive motives, merely withdrew his protecting presence to allow evil (the violent Babylonians) to punish evil (the idolatrous Israelites)” (p. 166). Likewise, in Lamentations, we find similar language about God viciously crushing “Virgin Daughter Judah” in a winepress (1:15) when it is again the Babylonians who actually did the deed.

The point, according to Boyd, is that Jeremiah actually presents the fall of Judah as a kind of organic punishment where the sins of the Judeans led to the consequences of Babylon’s conquest. God did not do the violence; God only did not stop it. Babylon remains evil and not an agent of God’s will.

The Babylonian conquest of Judah was a prime example of God’s indirect punishment, not an example of God acting violently. And the parts of the story that attribute the violence to God are inaccurate, reflecting human misunderstandings. Still, God allows those inaccuracies to stand, even though they slander God. “The true God actually … humbly allowed himself to appear guilty of things he merely allowed.” For us to recognize this dynamic we must trust that the true God is revealed in the cross (p. 169).

The term Boyd uses for the two angles the Bible gives us on God’s involvement in violence is the Bible’s “dual speech patterns” (p. 169). The duality is seen in how the Bible sometimes tells of direct action by God (God’s presence), which is always consistent with the self-giving love of God shown in the cross. And the Bible sometimes tells of God’s withdrawal and the allowance of destructive natural consequences (God’s absence).

Some questions

The most helpful element of this section of CV is Boyd’s demonstration that a straightforward reading of the OT reveals that the paradigm for dynamics of judgment is organic, not judicial. Over and over, negative consequences are internal to the events not an intervention from the outside. The “violent portraits” of God are not nearly as much about God’sviolence as they are often assumed to be. The picture we get is of a God who does not regularly actively intervene to punish so much as allow negative consequences to work themselves out. However, it does not seem to me that Boyd is as clear and consistent in how he presents these ideas as he could be.

A huge question arises for me in relation to Boyd’s use of the term “protection.” On the one hand, he argues for a God who is largely non-interventionist. However, when he writes about “protection” he seems to be describing a God who is fully capable of intervening and makes the choice to withhold that intervention. So, then, we must wonder—is a God who could stop evil from happening and doesn’t truly a loving God? Isn’t the bystander who could intervene to save lives and chooses not to also morally culpable for what happens? Maybe the agent of death in the story of the exodus the “destroyer” (a seemingly independent actor in Boyd’s reading), but a God who selectively saves only some infants and allows many others to die (despite having the capability to protect those infants too) does not seem like the paradigm of self-giving love that Boyd proclaims.

I think Boyd is on to something with his brief comment that God can’t coercively intervene to agents of evil who exercise their free-will capabilities to hurt others (pp. 159-60). What if we say that God actually cannot protect? Boyd suggests that God feels profound grief because God must make the “necessary” choice to allow punitive violence enacted by free beings. What if, instead, we understand God’s grief in relation to God’s inability to protect (this is how we might think of the “bad things happening to innocent people” conundrum)? In this sense of God as a “weak God” we could say that God’s main involvement is not withdrawing protection but rather helping people to respond creatively and redemptively and with resilience when the hard things happen.

That leads to a question about the use of the notion of “punishment” in Boyd’s argument. To me, punishment implies an active agent inflicting pain on wrongdoers. If the main dynamic is more that of consequences internal to the wrongdoing, in what sense is God punishing? And why would God even want to punish? It could be better to think of God caring most not about “punishing” but about healing. Part of the healing dynamic, certainly, would involve repentance and work at reconciliation. But none of that really fits under the rubric of punishment.

Finally, the issue of the “inspiration” of the Bible continues to be present. Could we not say that Boyd’s distinction between “direct” and “indirect” revelation enables him to follow a process of “picking and choosing” what parts of the Bible to see as authentic portraits of God and what parts to see as inauthentic? Is his criterion of the “revelation on the cross” something he imposeson the text to get it to say what he wants it to say?

My criticism of Boyd’s approach would not be that he shouldn’t make this distinction and “pick and choose.” It’s rather that he should admit that what he is doing is not different than those writers he critiques for “dismissing” parts of the OT. I think it is fine for Boyd to affirm biblical inspiration and also to affirm that all of the Bible is inspired (I’m comfortable using those terms for my approach). But I think he should be more clear about what he means by inspiration and more clear about how inspiration is actually compatible with “picking and choosing.”