If spending indicates affection, then we’d have to admit that a big chunk of the world is absolutely enthralled with the idea of avenging. More precisely, we love the idea of punishing, even angrilypunishing, evildoers (think: The Incredible Hulk in avenging mode).1 At least box office receipts earned by something called the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” supports that claim. The top eleven movies in this “Universe” feature evildoer-obliterating heroes like Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, and have grossed over $8.1 billion worldwide. The most recent movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, grossed over $325 million in the first two weeks after opening.2 Yep, it seems like we love the idea of avenging.
Well, sort of.
At least we like it on screen while slurping down a sixty-four ounce “Thirst Blaster” that we bought for $15 at the theater concession stand. Our love of avenging is so primal and strong, that if we don’t get it within ninety minutes (i.e., the end of the movie), we might just throw a green-skinned tantrum ourselves. In fact, plotlines for most of the individual films in the “Universe” keep us glued to our seats by capitalizing on this longing, “So, when is Bruce Banner finally going to get stark-raving mad, turn green, and tear the bad guy’s head off?!”
Imagine applying anything remotely close to that sentiment to God vis-à-vis real evildoers. Like I said, we sure like the idea of avenging. Well, sort of.
Does it strike anyone besides me as curious that we movie-goers gladly plunk down $8.1 billion to watch superheroes avenge evildoers, while we refuse to even whisper the words “God” and “avenge” in the same sentence? Isn’t it strange that we go to one theater on Saturday night and cheer when a guy in a nifty armored suit (Iron Man) rips a rebel in half, and then slog into a different “theater” on Sunday morning to worship a God who we’d never, ever, ever associate with anything of the sort?
I’m puzzled by this disconnection, and have been wondering why it is so in myself and in the Christian communities I frequent. Even if we dare to admit that we long to see God avenge evildoers, can we go a step further and admit that this longing right? It sure seems right at the movies with a bucket of popcorn in our laps. But what about in corporate worship? In our private prayers? In times of praise? When we chafe under a manipulative, self-serving boss? When we’re ravaged by a sexual abuser? When we watch a terrorist cut off a hostage’s head? When we endure thievery in commerce? When we realize that the abortionist really wasn’t our friend? When we meet a Christian whose hands were chopped off by Muslim extremists? What then?
As I’ve scanned my Bible for answers, I’ve become reacquainted with a God who is, among many other things, a righteous and consistent Avenger who punishes (sometimes with extreme violence) evildoers. I’ve seen Him avenge through individuals like Moses, Joshua, David, and Peter. I’ve seen Him avenge through groups of people, like the nation of Israel. And I’ve seen Him avenge by His own hand in both the Old and New Testaments. So, at least when carried out by divine prerogative, avenging does indeed seem right, since everything God does is always right.
That being the case, can or should we go a step further and actually ask God to avenge? Should we rejoice when He does so? Well, hold on to your Raisinets, because the answer to all these questions is “yes.” There are definitely qualifiers to this “yes,” such as how Old Testament Israel’s time-bound, divine imperative as a theocracy relates to avenge-requests then and now. But even with important qualifiers like these, it is undeniable that throughout the Bible, God’s people ask Him to avenge and praise Him when He does (Psalm 145:20, 146:9, 147:6, 148:14, 149:5-9). And lest we think that this is only an Old Testament phenomenon, note that the book of Revelation abounds with praises to The Lamb (Jesus) whose “robes are dipped in blood” (19:13) as He and his heavenly armies avenge evildoers.
Even Psalm 139, a Psalm quoted so often by life-affirming people to highlight God’s life-creating and person-loving attributes, includes a strenuous request that God would avenge (“slay the wicked,” verses 19-22). Upon further reflection, it’s downright convicting how often life-affirming people (including me as a coach in the life arena) “conveniently” skip those verses when spotlighting God’s interest in life. In this and other texts, it seems that God’s love for life, and His avenging work upon those who take it, are two sides of one biblical coin. It is precisely because God loves human life so much that He would rightly avenge those who so recklessly or maliciously destroy it. It is the avenging work of God which causes life-lovers, including God’s people through the ages, to rejoice, “The LORD protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, but He thwarts the way of the wicked” (Psalm 146:9).
Certainly we must continue to humbly pray that God would convert legislators, parents, families, doctors, lobbyists, educators, counselors, and pastors that condone, fund, applaud, or otherwise participate in shedding innocent human blood. In addition, perhaps we should not feel so afraid or guilty or un-Christian when we desire for God to avenge such evildoers according to His holy will. Perhaps we should seek God for the words to ask Him to avenge. Perhaps we should seek Him for help to rightly praise Him when He actually does avenge. Perhaps in doing these things, we Christians can redeem and take back ownership of the righteous, internal craving to avenge from the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” and return it to the Christian Universe where it can be properly understood and employed.
This blog is most certainly just a beginning of this discussion; a pot-stirring prompt for me and others. Before I close, let me say two more extremely important things. First, our biblical study of avenging must never lead us to the place where we take avenging into our own hands, as do our box office heroes. In that sense, they are evildoers! Vigilante avenging is not biblical avenging at all, and is explicitly forbidden in Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:41, Proverbs 20:22, Ezekiel 7:9, Romans 12:9, 13:1-7, Hebrews 10:30). In the life arena, this grotesque and unbiblical brand of avenging has shown up from time to time when an individual citizen murders an abortionist. This type of action definitely cannot be the conclusion of all our pot-stirring.
Second, understanding God as The Avenger should certainly heighten the praises of those who know His mercy through the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s because Christ-trusters know that Jesus bore the full load of God’s furious avenging wrath for their sins when He was crucified. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation (wrath-absorber) for our sins” (1 John 4:10). We adore, praise, love, and serve God precisely because He met His own holy, avenging justice with His own holy, redeeming love in Christ. This gospel-astonishment must thoroughly permeate all our thoughts and conclusions about this difficult and important topic.
1 A definition based on a combined understanding of avenge, revenge, and avenger from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Co., 1953.
2 http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=avengers.htm, May 18, 2015