The atrocities committed by terrorists against Christians are generally attributed to their ideology. Usually it falls into the category of radical jihadist ideology. While ideology may play a role of being a catalyst that spawns extreme violence, there is something deeper and darker that is the root cause of such evil acts. It is more than just a clash of ideologies—the infidel verses the jihadist.
Back in the late 1960s when the Western world was fascinated with secularism and rejecting any need for a supernatural realm, there was a theologian at Harvard Divinity School who saw things differently. Secularists would attribute violent acts against humanity (and the persecution of Christians) to social conflict caused by economic, cultural, or political factors but not by any intervention of the supernatural world. Arthur C. McGill, then Bussey Professor of Theology, saw things differently and from my perspective, he saw them correctly. His little book, Suffering: the Test of Theological Method, describes the origin of violence and suffering which eerily describes our contemporary situation.
McGill addresses the question how an omnipotent God can allow suffering and violence to pervade the world. He approaches the topic by examining the concept of power. He contrasts the two opposing powers in the world—the demonic and the power of God. What he gives to the reader is a very interesting analysis of the power of domination that causes the suffering of people (demonic) but contrasting this with the self-giving, self-expenditure of God as the expression of his power and love.
McGill begins his discussion with a description of violence. He writes: “When suffering is caused by an excessive application of power and there gives a person the experience of being twisted or crushed by that power, we have an instance of violence” (20). Suffering is the result of an abuse of power. This correlates with our topic of suffering for righteousness’ sake or for Christ but I think McGill had a wider view of human rights abuses and oppression and was not specifically thinking of the oppression of the church. Still, what he says gives insight into the dynamic of persecution and suffering.
The seriousness of violent suffering, says McGill, is not just one of the inevitabilities of life that people expect and learn to live with, but it is the “scandal” that “threatens to undermine all confidence in decent values that make life possible” (21). In many ways he has captured the psychological effect that terrorists seek to cause, and in some cases it is the intent of persecutors to demoralize the church.
If one were to poll at random people today, most likely they would have a negative view of power. McGill believes that most people think that the “most decisive manifestation of power exhibited today is destructive power” (47). These destructive powers, he says, have a very peculiar character. They intrude the human scene and then suddenly withdraw with such arbitrary suddenness that it is difficult to rationally define them. They seem to have no faces or names. They just erupt and disappear (47-48). Terrorists or persecutors swoop in, burn churches and homes, kill Christians, kidnap children and then disappear into the night.
McGill explains why Christians experience violence from the world. When a Christian renounces the power of domination as his lord, he/she provokes the world to rise up in violence against him/her (114). The world reacts against Christians to inflict pain and suffering on them (114).
McGill describes demons as “that peculiar energy of destruction.” He is not denying that demons are spiritual entities but he is focusing more on the function of demons—the energy or power of destruction.
The energy of destruction accelerates and radicalizes human emotion. He writes: “the dynamic of hate…magnifies the hostility into inhuman proportions, until it becomes an insatiable rage” (48). This energy enters into the inner life of a person and carries them into “inconceivable excesses of brutality” (50). This sounds all too familiar as our world seems bent on further escalating violence, brutality, and inconceivable inhuman actions of terror and rage, often against Christians.
Although he does not address the issue clearly, McGill appears to disregard the idea of original sin or of personal evil embedded in the human soul. His emphasis is more on human evil being the result of enslavement to the diabolical kingdom (51). He does say that the evil of human sin is “not primarily [italics mine] his perverse will or corrupt nature.” That statement implies that he believes sin has corrupted human nature but that it is not enough to explain the extreme acts of evil we are seeing now days. No doubt the fact that humans are able to be enslaved by the diabolical kingdom factors heavily in extreme acts of brutality and even persecution. According to McGill, the New Testament teaches that demons are the source of oppressive power (87).
The question that often arises in the minds of people in the world is, in view of the terribly destructive forces we are seeing and experiencing, how can Christians say that God is the Lord of the world?
McGill answers the question by contrasting the powers of domination with God. He begins with the statement that Jesus, through both his teachings and actions, “stands forth as the advocate of love.” This love is defined as self-expenditure for another’s needs” (53). On the part of Jesus, it is his “deliberate and uninhibited willingness” to expend himself for others. Jesus is not telling humanity how to change or reshape their lives. He is telling them what their individual lives would become when and if they participated in God’s own life, which means that their lives become “a momentum of self-expending service” (59). Jesus reveals to the world that God’s Lordship and sovereignty does not consist in the domination of humanity but by giving his own life to and for them (93).
In one of the more descriptive passages of the book, McGill describes what was going on at the cross:
“In that event the entire energy of the world moves in unison to destroy Jesus and to prove that the power to deprive holds sway. The disciples desert, deny, and betray him. Jesus is whipped, mocked, and tortured. In the end he dies” (21).
But Jesus is not a passive victim but continues to be active in at least two ways. First, he offers all that he does and is to the glory of God and, second, he expends himself to serve he needs of his brothers, which shows the emptiness of satanic power (94). Redemption in Christ now means that humans are liberated from satanic power and they are, in turn, possessed by the power and presence of God (93).
The answer to the brutality of our age is defeating the diabolical kingdom through spiritual warfare in the form of prayer. We must kill the root, and evil ideology will wither and die.
Roy Stults, PhD, is the Online Workshop Coordinator and Educational Services Coordinator for The Voice of the Martyrs. He graduated from Olivet Nazarene University (BA and MA), Nazarene Theological Seminary (M.Div.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Doctor of Missiology), and The University of Manchester (England) with a PhD (theology). A Vietnam veteran, Dr. Stults served as a missionary for 19 years and pastored U.S. churches for eight years. Prior to joining VOM, he was a Professor of Religion at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.