Giving Our Enemies Blood to Drink

How are we to think about violence in the New Covenant?  What does it mean to love our enemies?  In a recent exchange with some friends on Facebook, they argued (Biblically) in defense of the idea that we can take pleasure in the killing of our enemies, at least, assuming those enemies are actually wicked, and thus deserve to be killed.  I sought to emphasize that, whether or not this was appropriate in the Old Covenant, Christ’s command to love our enemies, and his example of sacrificing himself for them, demonstrates that we are to grow up out of such attitudes.  Even if killing enemies is something that must sometimes be done, for the protection of the helpless, it must be done in a spirit of regret and grief, always desiring the best, not the worst, for the one who is slain.  This was part of the response I received:

“First, Jesus makes himself out to be pretty ruthless in his own parables. In the Luke’s version of the parable of the talents, he calls himself a hard master and ends by commanding the execution of his political enemies before his face. No shyness there.

Second, Revelation makes him out to be the same way and tells us how his martyrs see their martyrdom. In chapter 6 the martyred saints cry out impatiently to God for justice. “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” They are told to wait just a little while longer. Their blood is then soon avenged and God’s praises are sung for it. There is no remorse or pity or hesitation when it comes. See 11:17-18, 15:3-4, 16:5-7, and 19:1-4. I will quote from chapter 16: “Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was, for you brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!”

That’s new covenant stuff. What Jesus does, when he comes back in all his glory, is akin, mechanically speaking, to what the Marine Corps does. He sheds blood. Lots of it. We shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Jesus isn’t that nice. We don’t need to be, either.”

This problem is not quite as simple as we would like it to be.  In involves reconciling two clear and seemingly contradictory pictures we have in the New Testament.  On the one hand, we have a clear picture of Jesus as coming to die on behalf of those who are his enemies, to receive all the evil they can throw at him and to overcome in love, and teaching his followers to do the same.  On the other hand, another picture, more familiar from the Old Testament, clearly remains: that of a righteous God who must judge His enemies, and whose righteous judgment we are to hail and rejoice in.  The saints in Revelation have done both: they have followed Christ and received martyrdom for witnessing to their foes, and yet now they call for Christ to come and judge these foes, and rejoice in that judgment.  How can we love our enemies and desire their salvation, while also desiring or at any rate rejoicing in their destruction?

Ultimately, this comes down to very fundamental theological questions about we reconcile God’s justice with his mercy.  When we look at only one side of the matter, they can appear to work well together–God’s justice consists in his merciful intervention on behalf of the oppressed.  But then we find that this means being very unmerciful to the oppressors, which bothers us…and even if that’s necessary, it doesn’t seem like something we should be happy about. 

I won’t try to answer the fundamental theological questions about how justice and mercy relate in God himself, but I’ll try to make sense of the question about how we’re to respond to and imitate both.  First of all, we could argue this way: there is a difference between on the one hand, accepting the righteous judgments of God as in fact righteous and praising Him for them, and other the other hand desiring and rejoicing in them before they happen.  Indeed, on one level, we are to learn to praise God for all that happens, even, for instance, the death of a loved one, trusting that His will is right; on the other hand, we do not thereby take joy in the prospect, and we pray that God’s will might be otherwise.  To praise God’s justice once it has manifested itself in the destruction of the wicked is to accept that God’s will is always right; but to desire to see the wicked destroyed and to rejoice in the prospect of that destruction seems contrary to Christ’s commands that we are to love our enemies, and seek their good and their conversion.  Could we distinguish this way–we don’t desire the deaths of the wicked, but if they are slain, we rejoice that God’s will is done?

It would be nice if we could solve the problem this simply, but I don’t know that it is that simple.  Certainly in the Old Testament, there is plenty of praying for the destruction of the wicked, and as my friend pointed out, this does not disappear entirely in the New Testament–the martyrs in Revelation do not merely praise the judgment that has already happened, but actively call upon God to enact His vengeance in Rev. 6:9-11.  Does the Sermon on the Mount then merely mean that we are not to take vengeance ourselves, but we are still to secretly desire vengeance against our enemies, and call upon God to enact it?  This interpretation, however, runs counter to the standard interpretation which tries to rescue the legitimacy of self-defense from the Sermon on the Mount–”Jesus doesn’t really mean not to resist evil, or to accept the violence of the wicked against us, only that we should be willing in our hearts to do so, free from all malice and vindictiveness.”  Is Jesus talking about heart, outward actions, or both?  To me, it seems it must be both.

The tension we are wrestling with also appears in Romans 12:19-21: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselvesm but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.  Therefore, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him: If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’  Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”  Interpreters have been deeply divided on this passage for centuries, and the hinge is what we understand by “coals of fire.”  The majority of interpreters have understood this as a metaphor for “burning shame” or something along those lines (and there are good reasons for such a reading); others, however, have insisted that it must be divine judgment, as the most natural reading of the image would suggest.   The latter then read the passage as saying, more or less, “Do not take vengeance on your own account, rather, do good to your enemies so that you may heap up more judgment against them, so that God can let loose on them in his wrath.”  The former, however, insist that such an attitude turns the doing good into a wicked hypocrisy, and doesn’t sound like overcoming evil with good at all; the reminder to leave vengeance to God is not then to be understood as desiring that vengeance upon the foe, but rather, of leaving the matter to God’s vengeance in confidence that He will be more merciful than we would be inclined to be.  

Perhaps we could settle things with a distinction like this: we must seek the good of our own enemies, not seeking vengeance upon them and instead desiring their good, but we may and should desire the destruction of God’s enemies.  It is not for their own sake that the martyrs in Revelation desire vengeance, but for the vindication of God himself.  I think we certainly want to affirm something like this, however, this still leaves us unsatisfied.  Shouldn’t we desire the conversion of even God’s enemies before we desire their destruction, and aren’t we to lament if destruction is left as the only alternative?

Such appears to be the attitude of Jesus.  My friend pointed me to the example of Jesus harshly commanding the destruction of his enemies in several parables, and while clearly this is present, we must not forget the grief with which Jesus anticipates this destruction.  We musn’t forget powerful passages such as these: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34) or “Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.  For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (Luke 19:41-44).  Jesus brings judgment upon those that will not repent, but hopes for another outcome, prays for another outcome, and grieves that they will be slain, even though He himself will be the agent of that slaying. 

Our attitude, it seems, cannot be any different from this.  We desire the death of the wicked only as a we desire the amputation of a diseased limb; we would much rather that the limb be healed, and we grieve at the prospect of amputation.  But if it will not be healed, we accept the amputation, and in a sense, rejoice in it.  Living this out in practice seems difficult, but it seems that we must seek a mindset something like this.


There is a related question on this whole subject that deserves some investigation, and through which we can perhaps draw closer to an answer to this first question: to what extent can we see ourselves as agents of God’s wrath?  (The original question on Facebook, I should clarify, was whether we could rejoice not merely in the death of enemies, but in our own slaying of them.)   In the past, I have drawn something like the following distinction: there are pacifists who say that we shouldn’t kill because God is a God of peace, and there are pacifists who say that we shouldn’t kill because God reserves that right to Himself.  I don’t really see how to reconcile the former with the Bible.  I have tended to lean toward something like the latter, although never absolutely.  I have argued something like this: the reason we can accept things like the purge of the Canaanites in the Old Covenant but can insist that we can no longer kill in this way is because we no longer are delegated with the task of exercising God’s judgment.  The wicked deserve God’s wrath (although he often shows mercy), and in the Old Covenant, God calls upon the people of Israel to be instruments of that wrath.  However, when Christ came, God as man, the Judge judged in our place, he took upon himself the task of judgment, and inaugurated the final judgment.  Henceforth, God no longer delegates to us men the task of executing His wrath, but calls on us to leave that to him.  

But I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with this paradigm, because it suggests that we have been demoted, rather than promoted, in the New Covenant.  Rather than maturing and being given more responsibility, we hand back to God responsibility which He has entrusted to us.  Peter Leithart suggests the opposite paradigm in the final chapter of his forthcoming book, Defending Constantine:

“The first covenant, the covenant with angels, was a childhood covenant.  Swords are sharp, and fire burns, and so long as human beings were in their minority, the Lord restricted access to dangerous implements….With the coming of the conquering Seed of the Woman, the sword and fire of angels are given back to a man, to Jesus.  In union with her husband and head, the church is a warrior bride, called to carry out his wars in and with him….In fact, we receive weapons even more powerful than the weapons of a Samson or a David.  We have the Spirit of the risen and exalted Jesus, the Last Adam who has eaten from the tree of knowledge, and our weapons are not fleshly but Spiritual, powerful for demolishing fortresses and destroying speculations raised up against the knowledge of God.  Our armor is righteousness, truth, faith, salvation, the Word of God and the gospel of peace.”

Perhaps this points us towards a solution.  We still fight Yahweh’s wars for him against his enemies, but love is stronger than death, and now that Yahweh fights against his enemies by sending his Son to die for them, so we fight them by dying for them.  We overcome them by loving them, and their overcoming is their conversion, not their death.  These lines get blurred even in Revelation, where the sword that proceeds out of the mouth of the Son (19:15) tantalizingly suggests the Word that is sharper than any two-edged sword, and where the blood from the chalice given to the wicked to drink seems to recall the shed blood of the Eucharist.  Of course, there is still vengeance; I don’t think we can get around that.  But this vengeance still falls first of all on the Son who bears it for his enemies, and who laments when it rebounds back upon them.

 If we ever do find ourselves having to slay the enemies of our God, first of all, we’d best make sure that they really are his enemies, and not just our enemies.  And second, we must recognize this as a failure in some sense, a failure to have brought them to reconciliation before the final wrath of God’s judgment comes.  When that day of judgment comes, we welcome it as a display of God’s righteousness, but in the meantime, we try to make sure that as few opponents of God as possible remain to fall under it.

This is not a complete answer, of course, but it seems to me to help us get in the right direction.  I welcome any input or challenges anyone has on these questions.

7 thoughts on “Giving Our Enemies Blood to Drink

  1. Truzzi

    This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, as I have a good number of friends either in the military or thinking about joining up, but could never actually tame the various threads of argument. I feel like you intelligible-ized my thoughts for me, a much needed and much appreciated feat.


  2. I commend you for giving serious thought to your response. As I saw it General Mattis’ words – the words that prompted the discussion – were outrageous given the context of the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. I had responded by asking a series of questions regarding the context in which a warrior might rejoice in killing someone because outside of a very specific set of circumstances – the sort of circumstances which don’t currently exist – Mattis’ comments are entirely anti-Christ. I believe that a scenario can exist where Christians would be justified in slaying God’s enemies, and rejoicing over it. And I wouldn’t attempt to justify the slaying by associating the act with a ‘civil’, or ‘secular’ government. This sort of justification appears to be the default approach by most evangelicals today.


  3. Alexander Garden

    I think you are missing a couple fundamental things and heading in the wrong direction on other things.A) We cannot fail to have brought anyone to repentance who was ordained to it. Christ’s death is entirely effectual. He has saved or will save everyone for whom he has died. And we are the savor of death unto death unto those who are damned.Our job, according to Paul in Corinthians, isn’t really to bring people to repentance. It is to witness to Christ and tell people that they ought to be repenting. Whenever anyone preached in the New Testament, some believed and some didn’t. Most of the time, most didn’t. That isn’t a failure. As Paul goes about preaching in cities in Acts, repeatedly those whom God was saving believed and the rest tried to kill him. Success. The people God wanted saved got saved and the rest increased their guilt.B) God is patient. This, I think, is the realy fundamental issue. It isn’t wether or not we should kill our enemies, but when. When is enough, enough? When is the cup of vengeance ready to be poured out and the bowls of wrath overflowing?Think how many hundreds of years passed with the Israelites toiling away in Egypt because God wanted the sins of the Canaanites to come to full fruition. He didn’t give Israel the green light until the land itself was ready to vomit the Canaanites out. Think how many desperately bad kings the Northern kingdom had before God shut them down and deported them to Assyria. Think how much he let Elijah go through and how corrupt Ahab was and how long he reigned. God brought judgment on him, but not until it was really obvious just how bad he was. (Not, in fact, until he was dead; for the man humbled himself and God showed mercy.) Think of the parable of the fig tree that Christ tells in Luke 13. It hasn’t born fruit for three years and so he’s ready to cut it down but another intercedes and begs for another year, saying he will fertilize it and tend it. If it still doesn’t bear fruit, well enough; it shall be cut down. Think of Abraham begging for Sodom to be spared. Think of what God would have done if there had been just ten righteous men left in Sodom.The problem isn’t destroying our enemies, it’s destroying them before we are fully sure they are who we think they are. Better to err on the side of mercy. Christ makes that abundantly clear.C) I read Romans 12 as indicating that blessing one’s enemies brings further judgment upon them. He says to never take your own vengeance because God is the avenger, so leave room for his wrath. On the contrary, be kind to your enemy. By doing things that way, you make it a really cut and dried case, and God will judge with vengeance.This doesn’t require hypocrisy. Paul isn’t asking his readers to feign a real heart-interest in the well-being of their persecutors. He is telling them to treat them well and be above-board. Go out of your way to make sure it is obvious that you haven’t been the troublemaker.For your consideration, I provide two case studies. I think they are about as strong as could be.1) David vs. Saul. Saul tried to kill David, though David had done him nothing but good. David did not respond by trying to unseat Saul from his throne, but continued to be totally above-board. He twice spared his life when others urged him to take it and after Saul’s death, he avenged him on the man who claimed to have killed him and then later on the men who did kill his son. He then proceeded to seek out descendants of Saul that he might treat them well. Saul himself confessed to David that "you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil." David loved his enemy Saul.2) Christ vs. Pharisees. Jesus was not nice to the Pharisees. He offended them on purpose. He ripped into them in public. He called them sons of Satan and told people they should do what they said only because they had to. Indeed, he made them so mad that they connived to kill him. But when they tried to bring him up on charges, he had behaved himself so blamelessly that they couldn’t find anything they could pin him with. In the end, the only thing they could get him for was that he confessed to being the Christ. He was so obviously innocent that even Herod, even Pontius Pilate, and even an anonymous Roman centurion could see that the only thing they had against him was envy. This is rewarding evil with good. This is heaping coals of burning fire on their heads. It isn’t feigning a real heart-interest in their well-being.D) In Matthew 5, where Christ commands us to love our enemies, he gives as the reason that we should be like our Father in heaven, who sends his rain on the just and the unjust. Similar story in Luke – for a greater reward and to be sons of the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and evil. And this makes sense. God does send rain on the fields of the unjust as well as the just. He does cause their crops to grow, too. But he doesn’t do it forever, and he isn’t kind and patient forever. What does Romans say? The goodness of God leads thee to repentance? God gives men good things for a while, allowing them time to repent, time to change, time to realize their folly and mend their ways. But that time ends eventually, and then he ceases to give those good things.This seems to me a general operating principle, a default attitude. Like when Jesus sends out the apostles to preach and tells them to enter the first house and bless it with peace. If the house was worthy, their peace would remain with it. If it was unworthy, their peace would return to them, they would move on and knock the dust of their sandals off in witness against them. (Witness, by the way, as in a testimony against them for when God reviews their case. To witness against someone is to ask for judgment on him.) The command is to exercise the same sort of common graciousness that God does. Go ahead and shop at Wal-mart and sell coffee to sodomites. The time will come to quit both.Finally, I don’t think we have two distinct and clear images, one from the old covenant and one from the new, one of harsh vengeance and one of overpowering mercy. I think we have one continuous, consistent character manifesting itself in his modus operandi. For God always saves his people and then destroys those who do not believe.God came to earth in human flesh. He preached that men must repent. He worked miracles. Some believed, some didn’t. Those who didn’t believe killed him, but God judged him just and raised him from the dead. Those who believed were tasked with witnessing this fact to the rest. They were given a window to repent, then they were destroyed as they were told they would be.God is merciful. That means he is patient and gives time for men to change their minds. If they do, he is quick to forgive them and pardon their transgressions. But if they don’t, he destroys them to the uttermost. This isn’t harsh wrath versus overpowering love. This is such a powerful love that it cannot stand to have its beloved tarnished by unworthy things, such a fierce love that it can do nought else but destroy anything that stands between it and its beloved. Let us rejoice in the love of God that destroys our enemies, within and without the church.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey,I wanted to see if anyone else wanted to jump in on this and interact with Alex, but, if not, I’ll try to reply briefly. Thanks again for your thoughtful interaction, Alex, but I think a lot of what you say here misses the point that I’m trying to make.First of all, with regard to A) it seems to me that you are trying to press the Calvinist paradigm here. But to me, it’s with this sort of thing that Calvinism goes horribly wrong. Whatever we might want to say about God’s eternal decrees, we cannot dismiss the consistent testimony of the New Testament that "God desires all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth," and that Christ dies for the world, and that the world through him might be saved, etc. We are told that God wants to save everyone and that he wants us to get out there and do our best to witness for him to try and accomplish that goal. We are charged with the task of trying to bring all to repentance, and of praying that God would do so through us. We know that this task will not succeed, but Biblically, this is our task. That being the case, when someone fails to repent and has to be judged, it is something to be lamented. Not wholly lamented, of course, because we still recognize it as a righteous manifestation of God’s will, but nonetheless tinged with tragedy.Thus, with regard to most of the rest of what you say, it seems to me to be a bit beside the point. The question is not whether faithfully loving our enemies will bring further judgment on them for their sin; it will. The question is not whether God’s patience goes on forever; it does not, and when it runs out, we acknowledge his righteous judgment and should not try to be more merciful than he is. The question is whether, recognizing all this to inevitably be the case, we should not still grieve over the failure of the wicked to repent and their subsequent destruction. I am contending that it should always remain a matter of grief to us, and the two examples you gave fit my point perfectly. David lamented the death of Saul, and Christ wept over Jerusalem, and the destruction coming upon her. Applying this example to the situation originally under discussion, that means that if we are indeed supposed to be killing Taliban in Afghanistan (I’m convinced that we’re not, in any case), that we should weep over them, pity them, and pray that the destruction we are bringing on them will prove unnecessary.With regard to your final three paragraphs, I like this on the whole. And no, of course there is no straightforward discontinuity between how God works in both covenants. Nonetheless, the work of Christ is something new, is a more intense manifestation of God’s mercy toward his people, and I think it needs to be paradigmatic for us. The destruction of Christ’s enemies is something they bring on themselves, after he has given everything for them. When our enemies are destroyed, it must only be after we have given everything for them.


  5. Alexander Garden

    I’ve been chewing my cud on this. I had written a post explaining why all my previous points were relevant but then decided that some of them were wrong.In particular, I realized that Romans 9 was smack dab in the context of grieving over the damnation of the lost. It is very definitely true that God makes some vessels of wrath for destruction that his power and glory might be manifest, but that doesn’t slow Paul down one bit in grieving over the loss of those vessels. Because they were his kinsmen, his flesh, his own people.Nonetheless, something still smells here. While I cannot fault you for grieving that some of the lost must be lost, I cannot help but think that a fundamental discomfort with justice is what is really undergirding your stance.I think my only defence is to point out, again, that while in places the bible and its heroes manifest such grief for the damned, in many other places it does not. You want our empathy for wicked men to so suffuse us that we cannot do anything against them without regret for what might have been, but that kind of attitude does not suffuse Christ or the scriptures. He only wept for Jerusalem once; he often proclaimed its doom.If these United States were to finally get what is coming to them tomorrow, I confess that I would grieve. I would grieve because, wicked though they be, these are my people. This was my land. And I know that we once held great promise as a people. I know this place. I live here. I would count God just and grieve.But when the Afghans get what has been coming to them, I do not feel compelled to grieve. I don’t rejoice. It doesn’t make me happy. Neither does it make me sad. They weren’t my people. I have no acquaintance with their past promise or glories. In short, I have nothing to grieve over, know nothing of what was lost. And I know God is just.PS. You’ve pushed me on this, and I appreciate that. It has been a very enjoyable, profitable discussion.


  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Alex,You’re welcome, and thank you for pushing me to clarify. We are now close enough that there isn’t much point in continuing to haggle over the details. Do I have a fundamental discomfort with justice? Well, this is something I’ve thought often about over the past year, and you may find bits of it on the Old Blog–what is the relationship between justice and love? Are the duties of the virtue of justice subsumed into the duties of love as God in Christ reveals to us the more perfect way of love, or does justice remain as an independent virtue, imposing obligations different from (and sometimes at cross-purposes with) love? I’m not sure just how I want to parse this out. And, to make me feel a bit better about it, neither, it seems, was Aquinas, who seems to emphasize both at different points. And the implications are enormous, not just here, but, for instance, in economic ethics. Obviously what I’d like to say is that love does not entirely swallow up justice, but neither does it ever leave it wholly unaffected. But parsing that out in detail is difficult.I would merely add as rejoinder that Christ weeps over Jerusalem at least twice: Mt. 23:37-39 and Lk. 13:34-5 (not parallel passages); not to mention, of course, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing." Nonetheless, you are certainly right that the element of lament is not always present when the element of judgment is present, in OT or NT; this is not conclusive either way, but it is something to be taken into account.


  7. Alexander Garden

    That is the question. Is love opposed to justice? Needless to say, I don’t think they are. The old testament does not pit them against one another but treats them as complementary; in his love he shows us justice.One last thing. I think Jesus’ prayer on the cross was for the Romans involved in his execution, not the Jews. The Romans didn’t know what they were doing, the Jews did. He accused them of knowing exactly what they were doing in the parable of the vineyard tenants. And he had stated that the blood of all the prophets would fall on the heads of that generation. If he had asked for their forgiveness, would it not have been granted? But it wasn’t. They were destroyed. The prophecies had to be fulfilled.


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