How God became a pacifist?

Bob Gundry has a thorough critique of N. T. Wright’s How God Became King in the most recent issue of Bulletin for Biblical Research. Among other things, Gundry objects to Wright’s pacifist interpretation of the Kingdom of God. Gundry thinks Wright whitewashes depictions of divine violence in both the Old and New Testaments. Thus when Wright says that “bombs and bullets” can never bring “justice and peace,” Gundry is not convinced and asks a rather practical question:

Someone is bound to ask whether countering the Axis with bombs and bullets in World War II did a pretty good job of obliterating that evil, an obliteration which has brought peace and justice to Wright and a good many others (59).

I don’t know that Wright has ever claimed the pacifist label, but he does sound like one from time to time. How does he answer this critique from Gundry? Does Wright think that Great Britain, France and the United States were wrong to oppose the Third Reich in World War II?

I leave it to you to read Wright’s book for yourself and then Gundry’s review and then come to your own conclusions.

Robert H. Gundry, “An Exegetical and Biblical Theological Evaluation of N. T. Wright’s How God Became King,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 24.1 (2014): 57-73.


  • buddyglass

    Without having read the book, is it possible Wright’s point is that guns and bullets can never bring the sort of ultimate> justice and peace that only exist within the Kingdom of God? Possibly not.

  • Chris Ryan

    I’m not a pacifist but I think Jesus is: “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” ( Matt 26:52). Even in the face of great oppression Jesus and Paul focused on spiritual, not earthly salvation. There were many Jews at that time who advocated war with the Romans–and it would have been a just war, the Romans having killed many thousands of Jews. But Jesus and the Apostles ignored real tyranny, oppression, slavery, and genocide to solely focus on saving our souls. Even when the cause is righteous–as it undoubtedly was with David–God dislikes killing, 1 Chronicles 22:8. So while I may not be a pacifist I think Jesus is. God’s ways are not man’s ways.

    • Ian Shaw

      I pretty much agree with you Chris, although I have found myself moving toward just past the center towards pacificism on the pacifism-just war spectrum. (If Jesus is a pacifist, shouldn’t we try to be like Him?)

      Not involving US foreign policy into the discussion, I think we should question ourselves (our own motives) before we question those of others. A section out of Tim Keller’s ‘Reason for God’ mentioned a piece on how because God exists, it greatly tempers our desire for vengence, as those that believe know that God’s justice will prevail. My $.02, that should greatly help guide us to love our enemies.

      I also agree with buddy (werid, right?) that bullets and bombs will not bring the lost to Christ but living our lives trying to be as CS Lewis calls “little Christ’s”, and sharing the Gospel with others will win the lost to Christ.

      Without a single-shot shot or a single bomb dropped, the killing machine will forever stop. There will be no more war when the prince of peace tells all the world His name.

  • Johnny Mason

    “A section out of Tim Keller’s ‘Reason for God’ mentioned a piece on how because God exists, it greatly tempers our desire for vengence, as those that believe know that God’s justice will prevail. My $.02, that should greatly help guide us to love our enemies.”

    Wouldn’t that then imply that God is not a pacifist, since vengeance is His? I do agree that we should love our enemies and that Jesus came as a suffering Servant riding on a donkey, but He will return someday as a conquering King on a white horse.

    Rev 19:11-14
    “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. 13 He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses.”

  • Garth Madden

    When NT Wright says that “bullets and bombs” cannot bring about the justice and peace God wants, it makes me wonder if he has seriously contemplated Revelation 19 and the many OT and NT passages that support it: “in righteousness he judges and makes war.”, and “He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.”

    Even if you lead towards a spiritual fulfillment of Revelation 19, there is something fundamentally wrong and frankly, misguided, about NT Wright’s statement here. See also 2 Thessalonians 1:6-10.

    But then again, given NT Wright’s dubious views on hell, I’m not surprised that he doesn’t have a category for the wrath of God either in this age or the one to com.

      • Garth Madden

        Possibly, Ian, but even that is problematic. Scriptures show that even heathen nations and their weapons are God’s instruments of judgment and justice (e.g. Isaiah 54, Romans 13). Then we also have the examples of both David and Abraham who were commended for using military means to rescue people who were kidnapped by lawless men (see Genesis 14 and I Samuel 30). Read Psalm 18, where God delivers David from “the man of violence” via military and natural means – clearly a deliverance from oppression. So even Wright’s statement that mankind’s instruments cannot bring about justice needs to be heavily qualified, because God does in fact use these instruments in our own age, even if we are waiting for the ultimate justice. Who can seriously argue this when they witness the Allies arriving at the death camps in Auschwitz or when Pol Pot was opposed militarily?
        So Ian, while I see no justification for using violence or vengeance for personal insults (turn the other cheek) or maybe even physical attacks on one’s person, there is a Biblical precedence to exercise force when innocent people and especially women and children are being abused or attacked. I believe that Bonhoeffer probably saw this pattern in Scripture and this is ultimately why he saw that the path of faith would have him physically oppose a Hitler, even by attempted assassination.

        • Ian Shaw

          Garth, I would be in agreement with you and the scripture references. I just think there is something to be said about packing up the troops and shipping them off without careful and cautious consideration. It can be justified, but something that really should not be taken lightly. That’s all.

  • Ian Shaw

    It would Johnny, but that would only further imply that we as humans would understand that the justice/vengence God will deliver is nothing compared to what what we could ever deliver on earth and should drive our hearts away from vengence (which is a idolatrous/selfish behavior) and more to pacifism.

    I’m not making a statement about whether God is a pacificst or not, but I think we should try harder to follow Christ’s example and understand that we shouldn’t seek the level of vengence that can cloud our judgement/hearts much of the time.

    Denny posed the hard question at the end, I’d like to get his feedback and maybe some back up on it. Did the Allies have a biblical duty to act in the way they did? If they did, was the way they acted biblical? Does Christ’s teaching about caring for the poor and the oppressed, outweigh turning the other cheek? Or is a flat out, “the needs of the many out way the needs of the few or the one”?

    Therefore, and there may be a flaw in the argument I’m about to propose (so feel free to tell me I’m out in left field),…Therefore, wouldn’t there be the same grounds to kill doctors who perform abortions, as they have killed more lives in the United States than the HItler and Stalin combined?

    People love Bonhoeffer and I admit, I love reading his work. Could you say that while living for Christ, was he justified for being part of an assasination attempt on Hitler? It came pretty close to working, if I recall correctly.

    Just asking,

    • Esther O'Reilly

      These are fascinating questions Ian. Let me take a stab at teasing apart some of these strands for you.

      1. Let’s separate some of the Allies’ actions from others. For example, let’s separate the Normandy landing from the Dresden bombings, or Iwo Jima from Hiroshima. Hopefully we can all agree that dropping the bomb was wrong.

      2. Let’s make a distinction between a time of war and a time of peace. Hitler was an enemy of war when Bonhoeffer decided to try to stop him. I think the assassination attempt was legit for that reason.

      3. Let’s distinguish between vigilante justice and the actions of the state. Should abortionists receive a trial and a death penalty? Frankly, yes. They should be legally executed by the state in an ideal world. But, it’s not our place to take that justice into our own hands while the state refuses to cooperate with our ideals.

      • Ian Shaw

        Esther, thank you for your responses. I’m not trying to stir the proverbial pot, but I think often times, evangelicals can blur the black and white into gray when talking about nationalism and the military. As a Gen-Y, I knew way too many people that joined the military post 9/11 for the sole purpose of self-thought vengence against those of the islamic religion. Way too many people I went to school with had the “I’m going to kill me some…….” mindset.

        Just so we’re clear, we’re saying that the justification of the (Bonhoeffer and company) assassination attempt was based on Hitler’s geographical annexation of Europe, not because of his crimes against humanity (as a lot of those issues were discovered after the war). Though the reason we got involved in the first gulf war was due to humanity reasons (chemical weapons) wasn’t it?

        I just think people can be ignorant at times when they’ll use the phrase “God wills it” for the guise of war.

        How many wars or “involvements” that our country has been in that we can truly say was just, or was it because of our (national) interests in the area/region? That’s why I think people should more often follow the mantra of “listen, question ourself, then question the motives of others.

        Your last point I agree with. It’s not our place to take justice into our own hands, if the state refuses to cooperate with our ideals. That’s my pivot point on a lot of issues. While no one is innocent from the problem of sin in God’s eyes (apart from salvation thru Christ at least), innocence in the world’s view is a bigger problem than some evangelicals want to deal with. We drop bombs with drones on alleged terrorists and innocents (in the world’s definition) are often killed. I don’t think that many Christians realize that there will be some form of punishment for doing so. Whether in this world or the next. Just sayin,

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