Joshua Defeating Amalek—Pauwels Casteels

Is God a ‘Genocide Joe’?

The Moral Bankruptcy of Retributive Protestantism

Abjan van Meerten
10 min readMar 18, 2024


For the original Dutch version, see here.


Many Christians struggle to call out genocide, even when it is happening right in front of their eyes. More worryingly still, many Christians don’t seem to have that much of a problem with genocide in itself—that is, it only becomes problematic when the wrong people do it for the wrong reasons (implying there are right people and right reasons!).

To further understand these sinister dynamics, I will first lay out what is arguably the core of Protestant theology, using a construct of Douglas Campbell called ‘Justification Theory’ (JT). Secondly, I will take a closer look at the role of violence in JT. Thirdly, I will look at the implications of the Calvinistic expansion of JT for human dignity. Finally, I will consider the question: when can we call a religion ‘inherently violent’?

1. Justification Theory

Douglas Campbell’s construct of JT captures many fundamental presuppositions of Western Christians regarding salvation, God, humanity, Judaism, etc., within a coherent progression. JT can be summarised in four steps (and, as a disclaimer for those who are not acquainted with my thinking, I myself do not support this in any shape or form):

  1. All people know God from the cosmos and his law from their conscience, and are responsible for keeping God’s law perfectly. However, no one actually does that; everyone sins and therefore deserves to be punished forever in Hell. This punishment will be executed when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.
  2. When people are confronted with their obligation of perfect obedience, either from their conscience or from the Scriptures, they can respond in two ways: either they think that they do meet that requirement and (foolishly) become arrogant, legalistic and hypocritical; or they become aware of their sin and (rightly) despair at the prospect of eternal torment. (The Jews were privileged with the written law, on top of the natural law, and thus should be the ones par excellence with knowledge of sin and appropriate despair.)
  3. Fortunately Christ came, and in his life he perfectly kept the law, which humanity had to keep, in its place, and in his death he bore the punishment, which humanity had to bear, in its place. Then he rose again, which demonstrated that God had accepted his righteous ‘sacrifice’.
  4. This ‘good news’ of Christ’s first coming must urgently be proclaimed to all people so that they can make the choice of faith before he returns. If, and only if, they choose to believe, the gospel benefits will apply to them, which means they will be saved from God’s future punishment and allowed into heaven.

Now we can consider the role of violence within this theology.

2. Violence in JT

According to JT, every disobedient human being deserves violent punishment from God. This ‘principle of retribution’ plays a fundamental role within JT; it determines the course of the entire theory:

  • At the beginning: every human being has the obligation to keep the law perfectly, on pain of eternal torture by God. The main incentive for people to keep the law is, therefore, to avoid violent punishment (in other words, self-interest).
  • In the middle: Christ bears the violent punishment of God’s torture in his suffering from the Roman empire (including a scourging, a crown of thorns and, above all, a death on a cross).
  • In the present: All people who do not currently believe (or have not yet had the opportunity to believe) are essentially a ‘walking target’, as it were, destined for the violent punishment of Hell unless they choose to convert to Christianity (and that choice therefore, again, being mainly motivated by self-interest).
  • At the end: All who have not kept the law perfectly (everyone) and who have not chosen to believe (many) are eternally tortured by God, supposedly for the glorification of his wrath and justice and for the joy of his people.

This is a crucial insight: retributive violence as the appropriate — even required — response to sin is a core presupposition of the model. In this way, the model provides justification for divine violence in the Old Testament, such as the collective punishment God inflicts on the Israelites by sending murderous, torturous (pillaging, raping, etc.) Assyrians and, to a lesser degree, Babylonians upon them. [1] Ezekiel uses the image of gang rape for the punishment God inflicted on his two wives, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Samaria’ (also sisters) because of their immorality (see Ezek. 16, 23). On the individual level, we even encounter literal rape as a punishment God threatens to apply to David’s wives because of his sin involving Bathsheba (see 2 Sam. 12:11–12).

Now, Christians are not supposed to take such righteous violence into their own hands (Rom 12); that’s what the government is for! (Rom 13). [2] The state has been divinely authorised to wield ‘the sword’ to exercise righteous wrath on sinners. The two most common instances of this are the death penalty and ‘just wars’ (and the latter is, of course, particularly relevant at this time). With the latter, one could also think of the Old Testament genocide of the Egyptians and Canaanites respectively before and after the exodus: if these genocides actually occurred, they were morally justified because all those disobedient people deserved it (which is grounded, importantly, on natural theology).

So, human lives have no inherent value; violence is what every human being deserves, so, as long as it is carried out by the right — that is, divinely authorised — party, there is nothing to object to. People have value only as being possible converts; accordingly, the tragedy of lethal violence is that people no longer have the opportunity to choose conversion; the doors of Hell have been slammed shut (but justly so). People have rushed to their deserved fate when they could have had avoided it. However, the state (or whatever divinely authorised party) simply did what it had to do: carry out God’s righteous, violently retributive will.

3. Calvinism, Original Sin, and the Image of God

So much for JT. Many Calvinists have expanded on JT with emphases on human depravity and divine unconditionality. Very shortly, when it comes to the important, normative stuff, humans can’t do it, so God must effect it. And the reason humans can’t do it is original sin, which means human nature is radically depraved.

For this reason, people post-Adam cannot possibly keep the law — and yet they deserve punishment, because Adam represented them when he sinned. (For Augustine, this made literal sense; people were present in Adam’s scrotum when he sinned.) Moreover, if they had been in Adam’s shoes (for a change), they would have done the exact same thing, and therefore they just as much deserve eternal punishment. This immediately creates two major tensions with the presuppositions of JT with which we started:

  • First, JT consistently assumes that humans are capable, at least of rationally drawing the right conclusions about God (from the cosmos) and about the law (from their conscience), and thus about their own future destiny (despair), and of making the right, rational decision when they hear the gospel: faith. However, according to Calvinists, humans are capable of none of this! The Spirit and regeneration play a decisive role every step of the way.
  • Second, Calvinists break the direct link between offender and offence by making all people bear the punishment of someone else’s action, namely Adam’s. People are no longer judged for their own actions but for somebody else’s; they are punished not on the basis of their own merit but that of Adam. Thus, a core principle of JT has been jettisoned.

These tensions aside, Calvinist expansions of JT have sinister implications for human value. First, Calvinism actually erects another wall of defence for divine violence, namely by arguing that even if natural theology does not apply (e.g., to infants), and people therefore cannot be treated on the basis of their own merit, people can still be held violently accountable — to the point of death — because of Adam’s sin. From the moment people are born, they already carry a burden of infinite guilt and can therefore be punished to an infinitely violent extent. (This also has the crazy consequence that every human being everywhere has the exact same amount of guilt — namely infinite —, no matter how many sins they actually commit themselves! A baby deserves and receives the same punishment as a mass murderer.)

In addition, the ‘image of God’ has been deeply ruined by original sin; Calvin is fairly clear about that. But if human value is a derivative of the presence of the ‘image of God’ in humans—which is often held as self-evident today by Christians—then, according to Calvin, humans have preciously little value! (at most a fraction of their original value). This again suggests that, for example, death row inmates and civilian war casualties are not tragic in themselves. People have in fact been dehumanized by original sin, so when people are dehumanised in real life (to the point of death) it is only a concretization of this spiritual truth: people outside of Christ are worthless in themselves. Spiritually, they have always already been dead.

So much for Calvinism.

3. Inherently Violent Religions?

Finally, after terrorist attacks by ‘Islamic’ groups like Hamas, it is often said that Islam is a violent religion. But how do you actually determine whether a religion is inherently violent?

First, you can approach this question historically: if a religion has led to a lot of violence in practice, then it is an inherently violent religion. With Islam, one could then point to terrorist organisations, for example, and with Christianity to the Crusades and the Inquisition. However, Muslims/Christians can easily parry this by saying that those were simply exceptions; the people in question were not ‘good’ or ‘true’ Muslims/Christians. In other words, they were believers in name only who tarnished the good reputation of the religion, to the regret of the true believers.

Second, you can approach this question theologically. In that case you examine whether the violent actions of such historical cases are consistent with certain widely held theological principles of that religion. And no doubt there will be different answers to this question because religions do not have a single theological ‘essence’ but contain multiple theological traditions. But at least an answer can be given for each individual theological tradition.

And when we look at the Protestant tradition, as captured by JT, we can state the following:

If Protestants think it is morally justified for God or for a divinely-appointed state to commit genocide against an unbelieving people in retribution for disobedience, or to put unbelieving individuals to death, or to torture all unbelievers forever — then their God and their religion are inherently violent and dehumanising. And if these things are even grounds for believers’ joy and worship, then their religion glorifies violence.

This is the moral bankruptcy of Protestantism: by building a system of retributivism on the foundation of natural theology, they are giving God a moral license to do whatever ancient tyrants or modern dictators have done or are doing, only now nobody could possibly object. Natural theology says that anyone can be held responsible for not (perfectly) keeping God’s law; retributivism says that violence is the appropriate way to do so. Combine the two, and you have a violent religion.


In short, violence is not discordant within Protestantism; it is the keynote from beginning to end. This partly explains why Protestants react so ambivalently to contemporary violent conflicts. Protestants are socialized into a certain way of reading the Bible and viewing the world in which violence (murder, genocide, etc.) is not in itself morally problematic. Bizarrely, according to Protestant theology, all victims ultimately deserve what they get. ‘Human rights’ pale in the face of these claims. All that people have a right to is violence — and violence they will get. Hell on earth, as we see now in Gaza, is thus not an indictment of God — as those with a conscience would have it— but a judgment of God against humanity.

Or at least, that is what Piper would say.


[1] Several texts demonstrate that, according to the prophets, God was directly involved in the merciless killing and destruction (and torture and rape, etc.) by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Some relevant texts are, for example, Isaiah 10:5–6:

Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger —
the club in their hands is
my fury!
Against a godless nation
I send him,
and against the people of my wrath
I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. (NRSVue)

And Jeremiah 25:8b-9:

Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts:
“Because you have not obeyed my words,
I am going to send for all the tribes of the north, says the Lord,
even for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon,
my servant,
I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants
and against all these nations around;
I will utterly destroy them and make them an object of horror
and of hissing and an everlasting disgrace.”

And 34:22:

I am going to command, says the Lord,
and will bring them back to this city,
and they will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire.
The towns of Judah
I will make a desolation without inhabitant.

And, in broader terms, speaking about Israel, 51:20–23:

You are my war club, my weapon of battle:
with you
I smash nations;
with you
I destroy kingdoms;
with you
I smash the horse and its rider;
with you
I smash the chariot and the charioteer;
with you
I smash man and woman;
with you
I smash the old man and the boy;
with you
I smash the young man and the girl;
with you
I smash shepherds and their flocks;
with you
I smash farmers and their teams;
with you
I smash governors and deputies.

[2] For those worried about Paul: yes, alternative ways of reading Romans 13 are available.



Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on the liberating theology of Paul and the universal love of God