THE BLOG
08/31/2015 05:46 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2016

Killing in the Name of God

George Doyle via Getty Images

A man and a woman from Mississippi were arrested several weeks ago. They were trying to fly to Istanbul and spend their honeymoon joining the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

Having recently returned from an interfaith trip to Turkey, I wish this couple could talk with some of the Muslims I met there. One Turkish man expressed complete disgust with ISIS and Al Qaeda. Another family is working hard to help the two million refugees fleeing violence in Syria. And most Turks are horrified by the recent deaths of Turkish students by a suicide bomber in a border town.

If that Mississippi couple had made it to Turkey, they would not have been encouraged to join ISIS. Instead, I think they would have discovered that these ISIS extremists are killing in the name of God, in a brutal and bloodthirsty way. Unfortunately, they are not the first to do so -- such killing was done thousands of years ago by the people of Israel.

In the Book of Joshua, the people of Israel are preparing to cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land. Their leader Joshua asks them to draw near and hear the words of the LORD. He says, "By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites" (3:10).

Joshua promises that God will help them to drive out the natives of the Promised Land. And they are to do this in an ultra-violent way. When the Israelites fight the battle of Jericho, they destroy by the edge of the sword "both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys" (6:21).

Such annihilation is an example of killing in the name of God, similar to what is being done today by ISIS. This terrorist group has a long list of enemies, from the United States to the Arab oil sheiks. ISIS even wants to conquer Muslim countries such as Iran, Iraq and Syria, which they consider to be corrupt Islamic states.

ISIS has been on a "slaughter-and-condemnation-fest," writes Kurt Eichenwald in Newsweek. It "has been indiscriminate in large part because it believes Islam must be cleansed before it can be successful in jihad." This is, he says, "the fatally flawed logic of true believers." ISIS wants to slaughter everyone who does not follow God, according it is perverse theology.

So how can we read passages in Joshua without falling into "the fatally flawed logic of true believers"? This is an important question for us, because there are a lot of people all around us who are turned off by a God who is associated with violence.

When I was in Scotland this month, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I saw a one-man play by a young man named Daniel Tobias. Daniel is a survivor of testicular cancer, and describes his family as Jewish Atheists. He struggles with a God who demands that Jewish men be circumcised. He cannot understand a God who sends a flood to kill everyone in the world except for Noah and his family. What kind of a God would do this?

Daniel spoke of a Passover Seder that he attended with his family. Everyone in the family dressed up in costume, representing a character from the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Daniel dressed up in a scary costume and called himself "The Angel of Death." His cute little niece dressed up as Pharaoh. When she saw Daniel, she asked, "Are you the bad guy?" He answered, "No, I am the good guy. You, Pharaoh, are the bad guy."

When the Angel of Death is the good guy, killing all the first-born children except for the Israelite children, you can understand why people get confused about God.

So here are two questions to consider. First, did God really order the Israelites to annihilate their enemies, or is this simply what the Israelites understood they were supposed to do? And second, does the message of Jesus give us a new way to understand how we are to treat our enemies?

Some people think that God really did order the Israelites to annihilate their enemies -- they suggest that God commanded the extermination of the Canaanites because they worshipped the god Molek, who demanded child sacrifice (1 Kings 11:5, 7, 33; Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Jeremiah 32:35). God ordered annihilation because of the Canaanite's idolatrous influence on the Israelites.

It is certainly true that God wants us to avoid idolatry and to be faithful, worshiping only the one LORD God of Israel. The book of Deuteronomy warns that the Israelites will be destroyed if they turn away and follow Canaanite gods (7: 4). But I am not convinced that God orders violence in order to preserve faithfulness. Instead, I think that the Israelites came up with this understanding in order to help them to remain faithful to God.

I believe this because of the answer to question number two: Does the message of Jesus give us a new way to understand how we are to treat our enemies? The answer to this question is clearly yes -- Jesus says that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). It does not make sense to worship a God who says annihilate in one book and love in another.

The importance of love is stressed in the New Testament, such as in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." John makes clear that God "did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (v. 17).

Saving, not condemning. That's the desire of God for everyone, not just the people of Israel.

And in the Book of Revelation, John writes, "I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (7:9). John sees a vision of a multitude from every nation standing in heaven before Jesus, the Lamb of God. This international gathering is made up of people who have "come out of the great ordeal" on earth" (v. 14).

We live in a violent world. There is no doubt about it. But we should not be engaged in killing in the name of God. Instead, we should be focused on loving in the name of God. If we do this, we will come out of our great ordeal on earth and take our place in the great international gathering of God's people in heaven.

We prepare for life in heaven by our behavior on earth. This means that we don't destroy our enemies in the workplace, but instead we try to turn them into friends. We don't grumble about the immigrant family across the street, but instead we try to welcome them and get to know them. We don't annihilate cultures with different customs or beliefs -- instead, we try to build bridges and live in peace.

We can begin by building bridges with moderate Muslims who oppose the violence of Islamic extremists. Fethullah Gulen, the leader of the group that hosted me in Turkey, recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that one of Islam's core ethics is that "taking the life of a single innocent [person] is a crime against all humanity (Quran 5:32). Even in an act of defense in war, violence against any noncombatants, especially women, children and clergy, is specifically prohibited."

The world still contains people who think that God is ordering them to kill. Groups like ISIS want to slaughter and condemn, and our nation's military power is going to have to be used to degrade them and defeat them. But as Christians, our work goes beyond military action to the long-term challenge of changing the world through acts of love and mercy and justice.

We serve a Savior who was killed on a cross, just after saying, "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34). Jesus responded to hatred with love, and to violence with forgiveness. Because of this, we can never kill in the name of God.