The Centrality of God’s Love: A Response to Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision, part 4

Ted Grimsrud—10/5/18

In the final section of CV (“Seeing Something Else Through the Looking-Glass Cross”), Boyd focuses mainly on the place of cosmic forces of evil in the dynamics of violence and judgment in the OT—discussing an account of punitive judgment in Numbers, the Flood of Noah, and the Exodus. He ends the book with reflections on two final themes, the violence done by several OT prophets with their extraordinary God-given special powers and the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac.

God and the Satanic cosmic powers

Boyd’s argument at this point in the book runs like this: (1) Yahweh is a humble, sin-bearing God. Christians today read the Bible backwards in the sense that we start with the definitive revelation of God in the cross and consider everything earlier in the story from the perspective. God has alwaysbeen like the God revealed in Jesus.

(2) God does do judgment when it is appropriate, and this judgment doeshave negative consequences. However, in line with God’s nonviolent, sin-bearing character, God does not use violence in effecting the judgment. Rather, God’s method of dealing with the worst wrongdoers is to withdraw “his restraining Spirit to allow sin to punish sin and evil to vanquish evil” (p. 179).

(3) The truths that God is always consistent with God as revealed in the cross, and that God’s way of judging is to withdraw and allow for “organic punishment” (where sin is allowed to suffer its natural consequences—as opposed to some kind of outside, “judicial punishment”) are present throughout the Bible. It often takes reading with a “cruciform hermeneutic” to see the truths a present in the text, especially in the OT. The Bible contains numerous cases where God allows the flawed perspective of the writers to shape texts in ways that obscure the cruciform character of God, especially in the OT. But read carefully, the texts often yield information that does confirm Boyd’s account.

(4) Often the violence in the Bible that is attributed in some way to God is done by human beings. In cases such as the events of punitive judgment recounted in Jeremiah (and discussed in Part Three of CV) it is relatively easy to see that God did not actually want the violence to happen. In Boyd’s view, God only allowed the distorted accounts to go forward out of respect for the free will of the writers and their environment in projecting human violence onto God.

(5) However, the Bible also contains numerous stories when punitive violence occurs and it clearly cannot have been perpetrated by human actors. Boyd asserts that since it is impossible that God could have authored the violence (we know this because of our Cruciform Hermeneutic where we read everything in light of the cross), it “must be attributed to violent cosmic agents” (p. 179). This attribution will be the focus of Part 4 of CV. Boyd will argue that it is not only deductive logic that leads to this attribution, but that, if read carefully, the texts themselves do point in the direction of the presence of violent cosmic agents in the stories.

In the background for Boyd lie beliefs about centrality of those violent cosmic agents in our world. These agents are all under the dominion of Satan. According to Boyd (and consistent with his own beliefs), the New Testament views “the world in its present state as being fundamentally evil and ruled by a powerful, diabolical being.” Jesus and his followers of course believed that God is the ultimateruler over creation, but for now Satan is the functionalruler over the earth (p. 180).

So, we live in a world that “is saturated with powerful, corrupting demonic agents” (p. 181). To recognize the extent of this “saturation” is better to understand the way the “violent cosmic agents” participate in the dynamics of punitive dynamics. Because of the power and extent of these “rebel cosmic agents,” there is no need for God “to engage in destructive acts to punish people.” God need only step aside. “For people to fall under God’s judgment, God needn’t doanything. He needs only to stop doing something: namely [to stop] preventing the cosmic forces that are bent on destruction from doing what they are perpetually trying to do” (p. 183).

To illustrate this assertion, Boyd discusses three representative OT stories. He looks at the somewhat obscure story of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 6. And he looks at the much more famous stories of the Flood in Noah’s time (Genesis 6–9) and the Exodus of the children of Israel from slavery in Pharaoh’s Egypt (Exodus 1–15).

Korah’s rebellion

Boyd’s first example of the actions of cosmic forces of evil serving the purposes of God’s judgment is the role they played in punishing some “grumblers” who undermined the leadership of Moses and Aaron in Numbers 6. These “grumblers,” led by a man named Korah, defied Moses while the children of Israel were in the wilderness. The text presents what follows as actions of God’s punitive will. However, the actual events suggest other, independent, agents were involved.

First, Korah and a number of other instigators were swallowed by the earth—to their presumed destruction. That stimulated a much bigger circle of grumbling, leading to a massive plague that led to death for 14,700 Hebrews (Num 6:49).

Boyd characterizes this story as a “literary crucifix,” evoking his crucicentric reading strategy. The story “bears witness to our heavenly missionary’s sin-bearing nature” in that God allowed the story to be told and preserved as a story of God’s direct punitive violence—even though, as we know from the cross, this is not how God ever has been (p. 184).

“What actually happened was that God, with a grieving heart, allowed evil to punish evil by turning these rebels over to experience the destructive consequences of their sin at the hands of agents who were already bent on violence” (p. 184). In Boyd’s telling, God did not open the earth to cause people or directly bring death-dealing plague upon the people. The grumblers “were swallowed by a menacing cosmic beast that is always hungry for someone to devour” (p. 188).

The key point for Boyd here is that God did want the people to suffer the consequences of their sinful rebellion. But God does not do violent judgment. Instead, God simply steps back. God quite preventing the beast from doing what it always tries to do. The beast (an expression of Satan’s will to destroy) simply did what it always does when it can—but here it is “divine judgment” because of God stepping back and using the Satan’s evil to serve God’s purposes.

Boyd understand God’s “wrath” to be the dynamic of God stepping back and allowing negative consequences to result—not God’s outrage that leads God directly to intervene to punish. “For wrath coming ‘out from the Lord’ need mean only that the Lord had decided to allow these people to experience the destructive consequences of their sinful choices” (p. 190). In the end, Boyd seems to say, the “grumblers” deserved to suffer punitive violence, even to the point of death. But God has found a way for this to happen without God directly intervening in ways that would contradict the nonviolent character of God revealed in the cross.

The Great Flood

Boyd begins his discussion of the most destructive God’s punitive judgment story of all with a deductive assertion. We must see the Flood as a “literary crucifix” because of what we know about God’s character as revealed in the cross. God could not have been the agent of violence in the Flood. What follows from that is that, as we recognize that of course human beings could not have created the Flood, the only option logically is that the Flood was caused by Satan and his evil minions (pp. 194-5).

The Flood storey shows “what collective human sin looks like when God withdraws his merciful restraints to allow it to run its self-destructive course” (p. 196). This means that the events in this story are indeed judgment against human sin, but organic and judicial judgment. “When God saw that his merciful striving had no hope of turning the earth’s landlords around, he had no choice but to withdraw his Spirit.” By this withdrawal, God used evil to punish evil (pp. 196-7).

Boyd points out that the Flood story does notdescribe God directly acting to cause the destruction. The agents of destruction in the story are the floodwaters and the springs of the great deep. That is, God uses cosmic waters in the same way God later uses Babylon to effect judgment—a dynamic where the waters (an agent of the cosmic powers of evil), with a malevolent will, act independently based on their own destructive intentions. But God is also involved in stepping back, ceasing to prevent the powers from destroying, and allowing the just punishment to find expression.

We may see a close connection between Genesis 1 and the Flood story. Genesis 1 tells of creation happening when God constrains the cosmic forces of chaos by separating the waters (1:6-7). “It is likely [that the “vault”/”dome”] was also a bulwark against the ever-threatening cosmic forces of chaos” (p. 198). Then, with the Flood, God allows the process of creation to be reversed. In lifting the restraint, God allows “the deep” to return things to chaos (p. 199).

After the time of chaos is completed, God “remembers” Noah and reconquers the cosmic agents of chaos and restores creation. This restoration is signified when God places the rainbow in the sky (9:8-17). This redemptive outcome shows that God’s intent is not destruction but rescue for creation. The Bible’s Flood story echoes numerous other ancient versions of this kind of divinely initiated massive destruction with waters of chaos. However, notably, on in the Genesis version do read of God being grieved, not enraged. The Genesis Flood, according to Boyd, is “a necessary judgment that God reluctantly allowed only after he had spent centuries striving with humans to prevent it” (p. 202). This severe event, culminating with God’s rescue, was the only way God could preserve God’s dream, given how evil humanity had become (p. 202-3).

The Exodus

The third example in Boyd’s discussion of the role of the cosmic powers of evil in the OT’s violent portraits of God is the story of the exodus of the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt. He points out that we have the same dynamic in that story as in the other two. There is no human agent bringing the violent judgment—and we know from the cross that it can’t be God doing violence. So, “we must assume that destructive cosmic agents were behind [the exodus’s] violence” (p. 206).

A key to discerning how the exodus story fits the pattern is to recognize that the Red Sea should be linked with God’s “cosmic foe” that was tamed when the waters of chaos were tamed in the creation story and in the Flood story. The Deep, Rahab (an Ancient Near East monster mentioned at Isaiah 51:9-11), and the Red Sea—are all parallel forms of the cosmic and historical adversary. Hence, “it was the sea monster, not God, who devoured Pharaoh’s army” when the waters slammed down on the Egyptian soldiers as they pursued the escaping Hebrews (p. 201). This was just another case of the familiar dynamic. God did intervene the protect the Hebrews from the “sea monster” (or, monster as sea); then God withheld the protection to allow the monster to destroy in the way it always wants to. In Boyd’s view, this sea monster, the chaotic waters, and Rahab are all expressions of the same cosmic beast that later in the Bible is named as Satan (p. 211).

Earlier in the exodus story, we read of the various plagues that helped loosen Pharaoh’s hold on the Hebrew slaves. Boyd argues that the plagues follow the same dynamic, where God merely ceased restraining the forces of destruction. God did not cause the devastation of the plagues; God merely allows Satan in these specific circumstances to do what Satan always wants to do. And, Boyd adds, for God to allow the story to be told as if God was directly the cause of the violence is another example of the willingness to bear the “literary crucifix” of having an ungodly action attributed to God—even though such an attribution is inaccurate (p. 214).

Furthermore, again parallel with other examples Boyd gives earlier, God profoundly grievesthis destruction caused by the Destroyer. Most notably, God feels unmeasurable sorrow at the deaths of the Egyptian first-born children and soldiers (p. 216). Boyd, though, does not adequately explain how this all works. Why did these Egyptians have to die? Is it that God recognizes that each child is so bound up in sin that they would never repent? Or is God constrained by the underlying power of retributive justice in the universe that God mustallow the repayment of violence with violence? Why couldn’t God have rescued the people without withdrawing the protection that prevented Satan from previously killing Egyptian babies? Or have managed the Red Sea escape so that the waters would have closed behind the Hebrews before the soldiers entered the sea?

Two final issues: Misusing divine power and “sacrificing” Isaac

Boyd concludes the book with two brief discussions of addition issues in the OT that challenge his thesis about God’s nonviolence. The first are cases when human beings who receive special empowerment from God use that power to act violently—perhaps most obviously the cases of famous prophets Elijah and Elisha. Boyd’s response is this: “Just because a person has received exceptional authority from God does not mean that the way they use it agrees with God” (p. 221). Even these human beings remain independent agents, capable of using their special powers in ways that are not indicative of God’s will. These prophets, who are fallen human beings, bear the responsibility for their misuse of their God-gifted power. The stories about these prophets do not highlight God’sactivity so much as “the extraordinary supernatural power that resided in these men and that they had at their disposal”—for better and worse.

The story of Abraham being “told” to sacrifice his son Isaac, according to Boyd, is best understood as an attempt to educate the Hebrews that they actually did not need any longer to follow the dictates of their “pagan neighbors” and practice child sacrifice. The point is not that Abraham was “commanded” to sacrifice Isaac but that God provided an alternative. That is, God does notwant child sacrifice (pp. 240-1).

Final thoughts

Boyd offers not a grand summary of his argument to conclude CV, only a few inspirational comments to encourage his readers to embrace his case for a nonviolent God and to recognize the spiritual implications of doing so. He offers this challenge: If you still imagine that the OT authors might be right about God when they present God as directly doing violence, then you will be compromised in your passion for God—and in your own movement toward wholeness (p. 248). That is, this is not simply a matter of intellectual interest. It’s not simply a call for coherence on the abstract theological level. It is an issue that has profound ramifications for how we live—even though Boyd does not help us by further elaborating on this “compromised passion.”

We must remember, Boyd concludes, that the key truth here is that God as revealed in the cross is the true God. This revelation provides us with a perspective that helps us interpret appropriate everything else in the Bible. In this way, our struggles with fitting all the seemingly contradictory elements of the stories the Bible tells are resolved. However, crucially, the cross only works as “looking-glass” for discerning the meaning of the OT when we fully affirm that “Jesus’s cross-centered life and ministry fully reveal what God is like” (p. 248).

Finally, Boyd offers an encouraging response to the concern that his affirmation of a nonviolent God is wishful thinking. His view is often dismissed as a projection of human values of peace and wellbeing onto God. Boyd would agree with this paraphrase of a comment by the great Jewish theological of God’s compassion, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Understanding God as nonviolent is not an anthropomorphism. Rather, understanding that human beings are called to nonviolence is a theopomorphism. As Boyd writes, “If the God you’re envisioning feels too good to be true, that simply means that you are moving in the right direction” (p. 249).