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.