Challenge Response: Didn't Jesus Say He Wants Christians to Kill All Non-Believers?

Here's my response to this week's challenge

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This challenge comes from a website that says, “Top 50 Questions Christians Can’t Answer.” Here’s number 25: In the book of Luke, Chapter 19 verse 27 Jesus says, “but those enemies of mine who do not want me to reign over them, bring them here, and kill them in front of me.” Then the author of this website goes on to say, “This is pretty clear that Jesus would have Christians kill all non-believers. How do you explain this? Convert them or kill them, right?” 

The challenge assumes that Jesus was commanding believers to go kill all non-Christians. When I first read this challenge, I thought it was a joke. Not to be mean, but the passage they site in Luke is a passage I site when I teach on hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation. One of the points I make is that when you take a passage out of context, it can sound really strange. That exact passage is one of the passages I site as a silly, ridiculous, and obvious example of what happens when you take a passage out of context. 

How do we respond to this passage? I believe there are three key factors to consider when it comes to proper interpretation of the Bible. The three keys are context, history, and genre. Each of the keys has a related question. For example, the question for context is, “What is the author talking about in the surrounding text?” By reading and understanding the context, you’ll find out something about what the passage means. 

The key question to ask with history is, “What is the historical occasion for why the author wrote what he wrote?” Is there some cultural aspect in history that we need to understand in order to better make sense of this passage? Or is there a piece of geography that is relevant to what is being talked about? Or is there an idiom that we do not understanding in the original language? 

The third key is genre. Genre is simply literary style. What literary style is the author using to write the particular passage? The reason this is a key question is because the Bible includes almost a dozen different literary styles, or genres. Each literary style has its own unique interpretive principles that bear on how to interpret that particular genre. 

Let’s now apply the three keys and each of the key questions to this Luke passage to see if we can better understand what is being talked about. First, we want to look at the genre. The genres that are being used are gospel, and within this particular gospel, we find the subgenre of parable. A parable is a fictitious story that is used to illustrate a point. In this particular passage, Jesus has invented a story to illustrate a point. Therefore, it’s important to recognize that the words Jesus is saying are not his own words; rather he is putting those words into the mouth of the character within the story. 

What story is Jesus referring to? That’s where context comes in. What is the author talking about in the surrounding text? Luke is recording here a story that Jesus tells. Here’s how the story goes: A wealthy man leaves his land and his servants to go to a foreign land in order to be appointed king. Before he leaves, he gives his servants some money and tells them to invest it. While he’s away, his servants send word that they don’t want him to be appointed king. Nevertheless, he gets appointed king, returns back to his servants, and asks them how they invested his money. The first two servants did well, but the third had not invested his money. The king now gets angry, but in addition, he commands that those servants who petitioned against him to be brought before him and killed. 

Notice, it is the king in the fictitious story that is saying to bring people before him and have them be killed. It is not Jesus; rather, he is putting those words in the mouth of a character that was frustrated with servants who had petitioned against him. 

Moreover with context, Luke actually spells out at the beginning of this section of scripture what the point of Jesus’ parable is. He points out that many people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately. So, Jesus uses this parable to illustrate the point that the kingdom of God is going to appear at a later date. 

The third key we need to apply to this passage is history. What was the historical occasion? There was a historical event very similar to Jesus’ story. There was a man named Herod the Great, and his son was in charge of a particular Roman territory. He went over to Rome to be appointed king, and he was to return and rule over that Roman territory. The people under his rule did not want him to be king. 

Even though Jesus created a fictitious story to illustrate a point, he’s actually drawing on an actual event, which everyone at the time would have known about because it had happened at a recent time in history. 

The question arises, why does Jesus portray this really harsh treatment where he has the king kill the servants? It turns out, the Herodians, or Herod the Great’s son, would have engaged in such behavior because that was their character to be extremely violent and cruel. Again, it’s not the character of Christ that would have engaged in such behavior. Rather, he’s talking about Herod the Great’s son and using that as an illustration to help people understand that it is those kinds of people who engage in such horrific behavior. 

When we combine these three elements, context, history and genre, and we ask the key questions as they apply to this passage in Luke, we come to realize that no, Jesus is not commanding believers to kill all non-believers. He is simply using a parable to illustrate a point. 

I will offer one final thought for people who doubt that Jesus would not actually command such killing. Realize this passage does not suggest Jesus would make such a command. If you look at the rest of Jesus’ life recorded in the New Testament, there’s nothing else in his life that would make such a behavior seem consistent. Everything else about the nature of Christ is opposite of this notion of him being violent and calling for people to be killed and executed. Every time he was attacked he would flee. When people crucified him, he didn’t fight back. When Peter drew his sword to protect Christ, Jesus told him to put away his sword for those who live by the sword die by the sword. In fact, Isaiah 9 refers to Jesus as the Prince of Peace.

Jesus was so peaceful that many people mistake him to be a pacifist. There’s no way you can take what we know about the life of Christ and the commands and demands of his disciples to be at all consistent with this person who commands all people who reject him to be instantly slaughtered in front of him. The way we figure this out is by looking at context, history, and genre. 

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Alan Shlemon

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