Does Jesus promote violent acts? I don’t think so. Sometimes those who DO think Jesus promotes violence bring up a passage where Jesus tells us to severely injure ourselves. Mark 9 reports this saying of Jesus:
If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.
It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.
Why would Jesus say this?Why Would Jesus Say this to Us?–Hyperbole!
I would say this example is not used much by believers who think Jesus promotes violence, for there are few believers who follow through literally on these ideas. However, there have been some from time to time, the most famous of whom might be the ancient Church Father, Origen, who is said to have castrated himself.
Most who use this passage to show Jesus’ violent side seem to be unbelievers who challenge the idea of a consistently loving Jesus. However, the question remains: Why would Jesus say this? I think the simple answer is hyperbole. I agree with my friend, Newton Finn, who commented on this saying in another venue:
Severe sayings like these–difficult, if not impossible, to take literally–seem to be hyperbolic, involving the use of vividly and shockingly exaggerated imagery to drive home a point not merely on the intellectual level but also on the deeper emotional level.
I couldn’t have said this any better myself!
Might there be something in Jesus’ harshest teachings akin to a father telling his child, to “scare the life out of him” to insure his safety, that if he runs into the street, he’ll be squashed into a pancake?
I, myself, probably would not use the phrase ‘scare the life out of him’ though it is not inappropriate. I would say, instead, that Jesus uses hyperbole to catch people’s attention and strongly emphasize the importance of his point. And Jesus uses hyperbole all the time in the gospels.
What is Jesus’ Point in this Hyperbolic Saying?
If this is so, then what is the important point Jesus makes?
I think it has to do with our new life as followers of Jesus who identify with the kingdom of God. In order for us to participate in the fullness of this new life, there may be hindrances that stand in our way that we need to get rid of. And I am not speaking of legalistic rules we have to follow but personal hindrances.
I think hindrances differ from person to person, and I’m not even going to suggest possibilities. Jesus did, though: he suggested that some people cannot live in the fullness of new life because of attachment to money. He used another example of hyperbole in Mark 10 to make this point:
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
In fact, he told one candidate to sell all he had to give to the poor; but the inquirer sadly declined. This does not mean that the rich cannot experience new life but that, for them, money can be a hindrance to their total commitment to the kingdom.
Hebrews 12 says something similar about hindrances in a sports metaphor:
Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.
Each of us probably knows what these hindrances are for ourselves. We should always be watching against such things.
What about Hell where the Fire Never Goes Out?
By the way, Jesus’ use of ‘Hell where the Fire Never Goes Out’ is not a reference to eternal torture in a lake of fire, as some people believe. Jesus never taught the existence of such a place. Instead he uses the familiar imagery from Jeremiah of Gehenna, a local valley in Jerusalem, often combined with another familiar passage in Isaiah.
Jesus uses this imagery a lot. If you want to read more about these sources, see Jesus and Old Testament Imagery.
Jesus’ words in today’s saying might seem like a threat, but I think most of Jesus’ ‘threats’ are not threats at all but warnings. He does not threaten us with punishment for our actions, rather he warns us of the natural consequences if we allow certain things to prevent us from experiencing the fullness of life he intends for us. And he delivers his point very effectively through exaggeration—hyperbole.
So is Jesus violent? If he is, there is no support for it in this saying! What IS here is a warning for us to not miss the fullness of new life because of conflicting hindrances.
Articles in this series: Does Jesus Demonstrate Threats and Violence?
Does Jesus Demonstrate Threats and Violence?
Does the Cleansing of the Temple Show Jesus’ Violence? – I Don’t Think So
Addendum to the Cleansing of the Temple—What about the Fig Tree?
What does it Mean that Jesus Brings, not Peace, but a Sword?
3 Possible Reasons Jesus Told His Followers to Carry Swords
Isn’t it Violence for Jesus to Tell Us to Cut off our Hands to Avoid Punishment?
Jesus’ Final Act of Anti-Violence—Crucifixion
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