Tom Gilson

Is There Any Difference Between Islamic Violence Today and the Wars of the Old Testament?

I got a great question today from my sister:

What would you say to someone who believes the Koran teaches Muslims to kill non believers and the Old Testament people were told to kill groups of people that did not worship God, and they wanted to know the difference?

God has taken a lot of heat for the OT wars, especially the ones reported in the book of Joshua, and the later war against the Amalekites. Now Muslims are taking heat for perpetrating violence against unbelievers all over the world. There are some who would say that all religious violence is wrong, because religions shouldn’t ever be involved in that. For this whole question we’re taking the position that there is a God; otherwise it’s just an easy answer: everyone who kills in God’s name is always wrong all the time. But that wouldn’t really address the question, whether one could be right and the other be wrong.

Let’s take a closer look, then.

  1. Does God ever have the right to take human life?
  2. Is it possible he would use his people as his instruments to do that?
  3. If yes, then how would anyone know that was what was going on: that it was really God’s people acting on God’s instructions?
  4. In spite of the similarities, are there any significant differences between Old Testament killing and Muslim violence today?
  5. What difference does Jesus Christ make in all this?

This will be brief. I don’t think I’ll get to the whole answer with these five questions, but maybe enough of it for now.

1. Does God ever have the right to take human life?

Both Christianity and Islam teach that God (Allah) is the author of life, the Lord of the universe, the moral lawgiver, the king, and the judge. Every person ever born will face God’s judgment, no matter when or how they reach the end of their life. That means that every life that lives is taken in the end by God. This is not unique to times of war; it’s also true for the man who dies of cancer or the woman who is lost in childbirth.

Because God’s justice is eternal, human death is transitional, anyway: it’s not the final answer for how our lives will come out. When God takes a life he takes it to treat it according to his goodness, justice, and mercy forever. Surely if there is a God, then God has the right to bring his people from this life into eternity that way.

And justice is real, as is God’s judgment to carry out that justice. The Old Testament wars were wars to judge the people for centuries of evil: child sacrifice, ritual prostitution, and deeply entrenched idolatry. This God judges. He waited 400 years to do it, but he finally did it — as was his right.

Note that Islam, which follows that much of the Bible, agrees with this. There’s only one major point of disagreement between the two religions concerning violence: Is it right today?

2. Is it possible God would use his people as his instruments to take human life?

Both Old Testament Judaism and Islam teach that God (Allah) uses his people to execute judgment on unbelievers. In this there is little difference between the two.

New Testament Christianity sharply limits this, as I’ll return to in a moment.

God uses people to do his will. Realistically, in fact, if there is judgment to be executed, God has only two options: “acts of God,” such as he did at Sodom and Gomorrah, or the work of his people. For God to use only “acts of God” would lead to a very strange world, one in which the old joke about lightning bolts from heaven for saying the wrong thing would probably be no joke. It has always been God’s way to use humans to accomplish his will among other humans, for blessing and for judgment.

3. But how could anyone really know that it was truly God’s judgment going on, carried out by God’s people acting on God’s instructions?

If Christianity is true, then the OT judgments were truly of God, but Islamic violence is definitely wrong. If Islam is true, then the OT judgments were right, and Muslim violence is also (probably, at least sometimes) right. So it comes down to which religion is true: Christianity or Islam.

That question takes us off in other directions. I’ll just point out that I see massive reasons to believe Christianity is indeed true, that God did reveal himself in the Bible and especially in Jesus Christ, that the accounts in the Bible can be trusted, and that the same can’t be said for the history or beliefs of Islam. So on that basis I am convinced that Muslim violence today is not God’s people acting on God’s instructions.

4. In 1 and 2 we saw that God used humans to execute his judgment in the Old Testament. Is there any significant difference between that and Muslim violence today?

Yes, there is a difference. Islam’s objective is world domination. Its early history was marked by wars of conquest, and it continued in that until it reached Spain and was then pushed out at the end of the 15th century. In the Old Testament, by contrast, the goal was to create a space for God’s people, free of Canaanite idolatry; “and then the land had rest from war” until foreigners came in to disturb that rest (Josh. 11:23, Judges 3:11, Judges 14:15, 2 Chron. 14:6). Old Testament wars were limited by the needs of God’s people for an idolatry-free space to live in. God never intended to subjugate the world to his will through the use of power — although Islam believes that is Allah’s desire.

5. What difference does Jesus Christ make?

Since the time of Christ (actually before him as well, though less obviously) God’s way with unbelievers has always been to win them over with love and persuasion, never with power or violence. Christianity hasn’t always followed God’s ways in that, but there’s no doubt that when they got it wrong, they got it wrong: wrong in God’s eyes, that is. This was already the case when Muhammad founded Islam some 600 years after Christ. Islam claims Jesus as an honored prophet, but it badly misses that part of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus’ command to love our enemies was revolutionary. Islam cast that aside. Their violent acts are tragic partly because of what they have set aside: the greatest man who ever lived, God in the flesh, the source and guide to truth and love.

See also, “Did God Commit Genocide In the Bible?

Image Credit(s): The Victory of Joshua Over the Amalekites by Nicolas Poussin.

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7 thoughts on “Is There Any Difference Between Islamic Violence Today and the Wars of the Old Testament?

  1. Tom

    Can I quibble with one point in the above? You speak of God’s only being able to judge through (a) “acts of God” (lightning bolts being the example) and “his people” (Israel being compared/contrasted with Muslims).

    But for the Israelites to be “taken into God confidence” as willing agents of God’s justice against the Canaanites was exceptional, both in terms of the people (they were in covenant with him) and the scope (it was restricted to the settlement, and not a normative pattern against “unbelievers”).

    It seems the commonest source of such temporal judgement in the Bible is through human agents not in God’s confidence. We see that in the covenant curses in Lev 26 (“other nations will oppress you…”), but also in the descriptions of Babylon (OT) and the Romans (NT) as executing judgement on Israel itself. But other passages imply his providential management of non-Israelite political morality this way (eg Deut 2).

    That, of course, raises the “mystery” of what God is doing and why above the simple “Canaanites especially wicked -> unusual fate” equation: his justice in world affairs is a matter of faith, as of course it would also be for a prophet witnessing the destruction of his home city by Nebuchadnezzar and knowing many of the victims as friends.

    But in that sense, whilst Islamist atrocities are not done at God’s command, and (like the Babylonian oppression) are wicked, nevertheless they might serve some purpose in God’s economy as much as a lightning bolt on an errant Head of State might.

  2. “5. What difference does Jesus Christ make?”

    It’s the only relevant question.

    The problem with looking for fundamental sameness and/or fundamental difference amid:

    [1] the means and ends within the OT (Law, Moses, Battle), and

    [2] the means and ends which we are forced to embrace once we define all lines within what just is Scripture’s (singular, seamless) metanarrative vis-à-vis the lens of *Christ* (and of course [2] defines [1]), and lastly

    [3] the means and ends which we find within Islam

    … all about which lens we choose to apply (in all cases). Unless we talk about all three of these in the context of what each of the three is actually stating about any and all means and any and all ends with respect to the “Story” or “Metanarrative” of, well, mankind, reality, and God, then we are not digging down to the nature of things. Not even close.


    An analogy to help make the point, which is helpful but only gets us halfway is, say, something like this: If our lens sees one weapon, ten dead bodies, and one angry man holding the weapon (… got the image?…..), well, unless we pan out, and we mean all the way out with our lens, we miss the fact that clipped image is from, say, for this analogy, a photo in the Civil War in which a troop of African American solders raided a camp in which white racist adults housed 30 African American children, all female sex slaves, and, in the course of the war, well, war happened. On the Canaanites we find the fate of children in nations soaked through with child sacrifice (burning children alive atop altars of fire) persisting after several hundred years of warnings from God’s peculiar nation (Israel). “Where was God when all the kids were being burned alive in all those nations?” Well, God is patient.

    But that analogy still doesn’t zoom the lens out far enough.

    Not even close.

    If we mean to define sameness / difference amid [1], [2], and [3] then our respective metanarratives and nothing less must serve as both our “explanatory starting point” (of definitions) and also our “explanatory terminus” (of definitions).

    A brief comment on [1] and definitions:


    A simple example is the obvious reality that Law/Moses regulates, rather than bans, divorce. The Atheist and many Christians take that as God liking, loving, divorce, the fragmentation of love within families. But scripture assures us God hates divorce. So much for Moses as the end of definitions. Of course, if God hates the ends of Moses, which He Himself temporarily places, if in fact *definitions* precede and outdistance the contingent, and in fact begin and end within the immutable love of the Necessary Being, in Christ, well then the whole silly game of these “problems” just evaporates as we are forced to *define* the fundamental nature of things by something very, very enigmatic. Scripture states that God hates X. Yet He regulates, contains, limits, rather than bans, X. And yet some still seem to conclude that X is therefore The-Good. Why? Where do definitions of “The Good” begin? End? What is it, exactly, that is “going on within Scripture’s singular metanarrative?
    To answer that we must define all lines in and by *Christ*.


    Here’s a brief quote from Greg Koukl’s essay “The Canaanites: Genocide or Judgment?”

    “[The Critic must not misread the genre.] God gave the directives, to be sure (the Jews hadn’t thought this up on their own), but one must accurately understand God’s intention before he can accurately assess God’s commands. First, the wording should be understood in the context of ancient Near Eastern military narrative, the argument goes. Ancient writings commonly traded in hyperbole — exaggeration for the sake of emphasis — especially when it came to military conquest. The practice is evident throughout battle reports of the time. “Joshua’s conventional warfare rhetoric,” Copan writes, “was common in many other ancient Near Eastern military accounts in the second and first millennia B.C.” Therefore, phrases like “utterly destroy” (haram), or “put to death men and women, children, and infants”—as well as other “obliteration language” — were stock “stereotypical” idioms used even when women or children were not present. It decreed total victory (much like your favorite sports team “wiping out” the opposition), not complete annihilation. Second, Copan argues, women and children probably weren’t targets since the attacks were directed at smaller military outposts characteristically holding soldiers, not noncombatants (who generally lived in outlying rural areas). “All the archaeological evidence indicates that no civilian populations existed at Jericho, Ai, and other cities mentioned in Joshua.” Third, on Copan’s view the main purpose of the conquest was not annihilation, but expulsion — driving the inhabitants out—and cleansing the land of idolatry by destroying every vestige of the evil Canaanite religion (e.g., “You shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.” Deut. 7:1-5 ). Further, this process would be gradual, taking place over time: “The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little. You will not be able to put an end to them quickly, for the wild beasts would grow too numerous for you” (Deut. 7:22 ). Finally, the record shows that Joshua fully obeyed the Lord’s command: “Thus Joshua struck all the land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes and all their kings. He left no survivor, but he utterly destroyed all who breathed, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had commanded…. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses”. (Josh. 10:40 , 11:15 ) Still, at the end of Joshua’s life it was clear that many Canaanites continued to live in the land, left to be driven out gradually by the next generation (Josh. 23:12-13 , Judges 1:21 , 27-28 ). According to Copan, if Joshua did all that was expected of him, yet multitudes of Canaanites remained alive, then clearly the command to destroy all who breathed was not to be taken literally, but hyperbolically [as other texts from non-scriptural backgrounds affirm of that day’s obvious genre – historicity to the rescue of truth once again]. If these arguments go through—if God did not command the utter and indiscriminate destruction of men, women, and children by Joshua’s armies, but simply authorized an appropriate cleansing military action to drive out Israel’s (and God’s) enemies— then the critic’s challenge is largely resolved…..”

    The primary thrust of my post(s) / comment(s) in this thread is (are) this:

    If we mean to define sameness / difference amid [1], [2], and [3] then our respective metanarratives and nothing less must serve as both our “explanatory starting point” (of definitions) and also our “explanatory terminus” (of definitions).

    Therefore, we must look upon:

    [1] Christ

    [2] The means to the ends of that which sums to the path to Thy Kingdom come

    [3] The instantiation of Moral Excellence, which is, simply, nothing less than the Imago Dei as defined by Christ, Trinity, and love’s timeless reciprocity.

    So, if a few more words can be endured, one more comment on this topic will follow………

  3. “5. What difference does Jesus Christ make?”

    The Orlando shooting, weapons, means, and ends:

    The Self-Sacrificing God instantiates in the radicalism of the Self-Assumed Cross on behalf of, for, to benefit, unto, promoting, profiting, serving, and therein loving all which sums to the other, and not merely the warm and fuzzy *other* but in fact any and all *other*. The nature of “Self-Sacrifice” instantiated in and by “triune reciprocity”, or God, or Christ, *is* the moral and ontic-antithesis of the insanity we find in the likes of the Orlando shootings (and/or homicide bombers, etc.).

    Mr. R., a Non-Theist, stated the following: “….this is a good time for [you] to stop and think whether/how your activities with respect to the LGBT communities and the way you talk them contribute to the creation and maintenance of an atmosphere where crimes like Orlando get dreamed up and committed….”

    Mr. R. is correct about (real) complicity in the Orlando massacre.

    Large swaths of, and the commonality of, “talk” and/or “assertion” of violence (physical weapons) as a (real) component (speaking of means) in that which is the path to the Kingdom’s coming *is* complicit in a (real) way for the Orlando shooting. It’s unclear where Islam (or any other moral means/ends) lands here, but *if* (physical) means (weapons) are in fact, per Islam, (real) means to the path to the Kingdom’s coming, well then¬ “that” is something for our Muslim friends to address (discuss) internally and hopefully outwardly as well. Indeed, such discussion and clarification is (truly and openly) wanted not only by large and growing numbers of Muslims but in fact pretty much everyone.

    But this isn’t about Islam. We have to think bigger, wider. This is about means and ends period.

    Complicity & Weapons:

    Physical violence – intentional, natural, or otherwise – as the (real) means to the (real end) within mankind’s landscape:

    [1] Postmodernism
    [2] Islam
    [3] Naturalism
    [4] Pantheism
    [5] Christianity

    It’s not obvious that love’s egalitarian self-giving is found as the (metaphysically) irreducible explanatory terminus of any moral ontology there. Except [5]. That is a challenge if anyone disagrees and, obviously, such is a referent to love’s timeless processions within “Trinity”. We mean specifically the context of Means. The Self-Sacrificing God instantiates in the radicalism of the Self-Assumed Cross on behalf of, for, to benefit, unto, promoting, profiting, serving, and therein loving all which sums to the other, and not merely the warm and fuzzy *other*, but in fact any and all *other*. There is no interview scheduled for the other. There is no CV for the other to compile. There is no resume’ which the other must present. This love can be, and in fact freely is, entirely one-sided. The nature of “Self-Sacrifice” instantiated in and by “triune reciprocity”, or God, or Christ, *is* the moral and ontic-antithesis of the insanity we find in the likes of the Orlando shootings (and/or homicide bombers, etc.).

    On violence, means, and ends we arrive within the ontology of “…… the God Who is glorified by sacrificing Himself for creation and not by sacrificing creation for Himself…..” (by Fischer)


    The international language of power emerges.

    There are greater things than the sword, and when it comes to “means” in that which is “the path to Thy kingdom come”, well, Christianity stands alone atop a bedrock of love and self-sacrifice not found in any other (metaphysical) terminus of explanation. Christianity didn’t have the capacity to voice the international language of power as leverage for nearly 300 years. Yet it grew by leveraging a very different means . We might even say that its politicalized empowerment, via the sword, 300 years in, wasn’t a good thing in the “path to the Kingdom’s coming”, as it offended Scripture’s narrative on far too many fronts as per part 3 of a 5 part discussion here: ….Obviously the other four parts provide helpful context. History is on the side of Christianity’s claims upon weapons. As in:

    When we speak of that which the Postmodern cannot morally muster (well, with the exception of equivocations), and so too when we speak of the Naturalist, and, also, when we speak of Islam’s “path to Thy kingdom come”, or even if we speak of something more balanced, short of total power, Christianity is still in a seemingly hopeless state of affairs for in weakness does it flourish as we discover Christianity’s weapons in “the path to the Kingdom’s coming”.

    Christianity’s intellectual and philosophical divergence from the pack:

    [A] On Christianity the *weapons* of our warfare in “the path to Thy kingdom come” are not material (physical) weapons, but are instead spirit and truth, prayer and hope, love and compassion, service and voice.

    [B] On Christianity we discover yet another insult against the language of power: Any and all effervescence of this or that subtle tinge of even a faint, almost unnoticed *hatred* for any *other* sums (having failed to come to clarity in the lens of the ontological topography which sums to Christ) to this: murder

    We arrive, then, in and by both [A] and [B], at the following:

    [1] The weapons of the Christian’s warfare which the Christian is called to dive into and employ (as per the ontological topography which sums to Christ) as per [A]

    [2] The murder against which the Christian is to fight in and through the weapons described in [A], even as the definition of which (of murder) is found unmistakably in [B]


    There are irresponsible New Atheists, there are irresponsible Postmoderns, and so too with Christians, and so too with Skeptics, and so too with….. and with….. as the very human trait which Mr. R. (rightly) points to as being (rightly) in need of constant introspection can be, if it goes unchecked, on some level complicit. That said, we have, say, [X1] here: The Postmodern’s reference to Christianity as either irrational, or immoral, or somehow off, or all of the above, or whatever, as he (the Postmodern) presents what (in his mind) are his step-by-step efforts at presenting to us his own perception of the way things are vis-à-vis his reasoned arguments (flawed as they are). Well, given [X1], it is *not* obvious, at all, that the Postmodern is ipso facto complicit should this or that confused Christian go out and do “Evil-Act-X” in response (etc.). In fact, we can and do rationally say (and we challenge the Postmodern (or etc.) to show otherwise) that any such act cannot be found in any irreducible moral sense to be an affront against what Postmodernism (or etc.) brings to the table of mankind’s moral quandary. Whereas, on Christianity, we are forced into the unavoidable conclusions discussed earlier.


    When we say, if we say, that the highest ethic is love, reason as truth-finder discovers that such a claim upon the nature of reality either maps to the fundamental shape of reality or it does not. But if love is the fundamental shape of reality such that reason as truth finder shall (factually) be *un*reasonable should she chase after some other shape, well then we have come upon something of reciprocity, something of self/other. Something triune.

  4. Well, for one thing, the modern Islamic violence is a bit more well-documented.

    That is, when it’s not being actively covered up or ignored.

    The whole Leftist-Western-self-destruction-and-I’m-taking-you-all-with-me thing seems to be everywhere I look. It looks remarkably like the black wish of someone who, being frustrated that they cannot have exactly what they want, do their level best to destroy whatever they can get their hands on, so no one else can have it, either.

    This dovetails nicely with what I have seen of Islamists and their suicide-bombing – only the Left is trying, has been trying for decades, to take *everything* down, not just a group of happy citizens here and there.

    They have nothing to replace it with – or nothing that has ever worked. But as noted, they don’t really care about the rest of us anyway.

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