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Vengeance is Mine – Or Is It?

Vengeance is Mine - Or Is It?

Is God vengeful?

God’s vengeance can be seen throughout the Bible. 

Take Deuteronomy 32:35 and 41, for example. They state, “Vengeance is mine” and “I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me.”

God seems quite vengeful in many passages of the Bible.

But there are other passages that highlight God’s mercy and forgiveness.

When it comes to revealing God’s mercy, Psalm 103 is one of the greatest chapters of the Bible. 

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Verses 2-5)

Psalm 103 also cares about justice. Along with the prophets, the Psalmist knows that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors. “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed,” states the Psalmist.

But how does the Lord work “vindication and justice”? Does the Lord seek vengeance against the Lord’s enemies? You know, fire and brimstone retribution against evildoers?

Not according to Psalm 103. You don’t get a God who kills or destroys. Instead, you get a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” You also get a God who “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”

But isn’t that God’s job? Isn’t God’s job to deal with people according to their sins and repay the bad guys according to their iniquities?

Sure, Psalm 103 states, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.”

Does this mean that God is vengeful toward those who don’t fear him? The psalm doesn’t say that. In fact, this psalm emphasizes God’s steadfast love, mercy, and grace so much that it’s hard for me to see any vengeance within the depiction of God in Psalm 103.

Ahh, but I know some will say we have to keep the tensions within God. God has steadfast love, but God is also vengeful. I don’t like this argument, but the best justification for this is that God is a mystery and we just don’t know how these coexist within God. The worst try to justify this line of thought by saying God’s love is revealed in God’s vengeance. I don’t think either of these positions is tenable, but the last one is the mentality of an abuser.

And God is not an abuser.

In addition, there is no “tension” within God. I have tension. Quite a bit of it, actually. Which is why I see a therapist once a week. But I don’t think God needs to see a therapist.

Also, for Christians, there is no great mystery to God. John 1 states,

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth….From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace…No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (Verses 14-18)

For Christians, God has been fully revealed. And in that full revelation that we find in Christ, “we have all received grace upon grace.” Not vengeance upon vengeance, but grace upon grace. Jesus sides with Psalm 103 to the extent that God gives us grace upon grace.

Further, there are only two definitions of God in the New Testament. They are “God is love” and “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” There is no dark or mysterious side to God. Everything we need to know about God has been revealed. And what has been revealed? The fact that God is love.

Still, Paul quotes Deuteronomy in chapter 12 of his letter to the Romans, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'”

Paul’s ethic for Christians in the chapter is explicitly connected to nonviolence. If Christians took Paul more seriously, we would never seek vengeance and we would dedicate our lives to nonviolence.

But what about God? Are we supposed to be without vengeance, but God can be vengeful?

The Gospel of John states that in Jesus we received God’s “grace upon grace.” But does God store up “vengeance upon vengeance” for evildoers?

Actually, Jesus reveals a God who deals with evildoers very differently. There’s a form of theology called the “Theology of the Cross.” NT Wright discusses it in his commentary in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Wright states,

The theology of the cross, in fact, can be glimpsed under this apparently detached ethical maxim: When God came to defeat evil, this was not achieved by using an even greater evil, but by using its opposite–namely the surprising and initially counterintuitive weapons of goodness. To be consumed with vengeful thoughts, or to be led into putting such thoughts into practice, is to keep evil in circulation, whereas the way to overthrow evil, rather than perpetuating it, is to take its force and give back goodness instead. (pg 715)

In my view, this radically reinterprets our understanding of God’s vengeance. God deals with evil, not with our understanding of vengeance, but with love and forgiveness. As Jesus prays on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

So leave room for God’s vengeance. In doing so, we allow God to deal with evil in the way God deals with evil.

Through Jesus, we see that God deals with evil not through vengeance, but through nonviolent love and forgiveness. That’s not to say evil is okay. Evil should be resisted, but now with more evil. Not with more vengeance. God’s way of dealing with evil is, as NT Wright suggests, how to take evil out of circulation and replace it with a new circulation of love.

Adam Ericksen

Adam Ericksen

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