Revelation as Cognitive Dissonance

The God of the Old Testament who commands that the Jews slaughter every living creature (e.g., Dt. 20:16), who tells soldiers they can take Midianite virgin women captive (if they find them sexually attractive) but to slaughter everyone else (Num. 31:1-17), who specifies that Amalekite children, infants, and women are to be slaughtered (I Sam. 15:3), who commands the stoning of disobedient children prone to too much drinking and eating (Dt. 21:18-21), who portrays himself, using the instrument of Babylonian warriors against Israel, as indiscriminately slaying both the righteous and wicked Israelites (Ezek. 21:3-4), who promises he will dash Israelite fathers and sons together (again using Babylon) so as to slay them without pity or mercy (Jer. 13:14), who depicts himself as crushing virgin Judah like grapes in a winepress (Lam. 1:15), who depicts both the fetus and the pregnant women of Samaria being “ripped up” and newly born infants being “dashed in pieces” at his behest (Hosea 13:16), and who causes parents to eat their children and children to eat their parents (Lev. 26:28-29; Ez. 5:10), bears a striking difference to the one who defeats death rather than deal in death, who is a gentle shepherd providing rest for the weary (Matt. 11:29), who is so gentle so as to not break a bruised reed (Matt. 12:20), who commands an end to any form of violent resistance or any type of violent thoughts but instead, insists upon loving the enemy (Matt. 5), who as Lord of the universe (“knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands”) models absolute humility by washing the disciples’ feet (Jn. 13), who depicts his Father as filled with such love and compassion that he runs to meet the prodigal son (Luke 15:20), who even as king is gentle, riding on a donkey (Matt. 21:5), who does not inflict violence or death but weeps at the tomb of his friend and raises him from the dead (Jn. 11), who heals the lame, the blind, the paralytic, the lepers (e.g., Lk. 4), who commands Peter to put away his sword, and who bears the lash and torment of violent men and ultimately dies a torturous death on the cross. What one does with this sharp contrast is not only determinative of their view of God, of the Bible, of the meaning of Christianity, but ultimately it is an insight into how they view themselves and the world. What one does with the violence of the Old Testament indicates what would be done with violence in general, whether it is to justify it or ignore it. What one does with the former picture of God in light of the revelation of the latter, is the very question which the revelation of Christ raises.

The attempt to reconcile the two perspectives has resulted in a dual notion of God, in which the Father is angry and violent and the Son absorbs this violence. No matter the extremes to which one might go to explain the violence (it is a hyperbolic description, it was a temporary necessity, etc.), the tendency to justify the violence presumes violence is necessary even for God. On the other hand, one might dismiss the Hebrew scriptures (with Marcion), or reject belief in God or belief in biblical revelation, but perhaps the very point of inspiration and revelation is a long hard look at the contrast, and though we might be tempted to turn our heads or to skip over the unworthy and ugly portrayal of God in light of Christ, could it be that dwelling on the contrast is part of recognizing Christ as the final and full revelation of God?

 Jesus identifies himself on the basis of this contrast. He declares John the Baptist the greatest spokesman for God up to that point (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28) but then says, “the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John” (John 5:36). There is an unfolding progress in revelation culminating in John, but then the revelation of Christ completes this progress. As the writer of Hebrews describes, what came before Christ was a shadow but now the full reality has come (10:1). To blend the two things as if they bore equal weight will reduce the reality to its shadow or it will relinquish the fulness of the Gospel by harmonizing it with what is incomplete.

The thesis of Hebrews is to spell out this difference: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (1:1-2).  J. B. Phillips translates the “many portions” (polymerōs) as “glimpses of the truth.” This previous message would not hold up in a court of law as “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as it is a portion or glimpse of the truth. The implication of the difference, which Hebrews draws out but which is summarized in this opening verse, is that the previous messengers brought a message lacking in glory, lacking in what it represented (God, life, salvation), lacking in substance (it left the Israelites dying in the wilderness), lacking in coherence, lacking in power, lacking in its challenge to sin, or lacking in reality.

To suggest that the previous message is partly wrong or mistaken does not get at the profundity of the difference. It is not simply that God gave a message that was distorted by the messengers, but the world in which this communication occurred was distorted and distorting. It is as if the entire field of gravity, that which holds all things together, has been disrupted. What is needed is cosmic correction. So, this messenger is he “whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (vv. 2-3). The world distorted by sin and violence cannot be undistorted with new information, as what is needed is new creation. The problem of the message of the fathers and prophets concerned the message, the messengers and their world, and what is needed is of cosmic proportions. To speak of this previous word as mistaken then, misses both the depth of the problem and the solution.

It is not simply information about God but the nature of God, truth, and the world that suffer from distortion apart from Christ. Jesus says as much, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (Jn. 14:6-7). To imagine that you know God apart from Christ, on the basis of the Hebrew Scriptures is, according to Jesus, on the order of mistaking the evidence for the reality. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (Jn. 5:39-40). What is at stake in this misidentification is to take mere testimony as the thing itself; it is to mistake the evidence pointing to God as God himself; it is to imagine a dead letter is the same as the living Word.

Partial truth or glimpses of the truth are better than no truth but only the Son is the truth itself. God cannot be discerned in shadows or partial truth, but as Jesus explains to Philip: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (Jn. 14:9). Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, and as the one who resolves the problem of sin, overcomes the distortion of the Law of sin and death, but as Hebrews explains, the previous message is shaped by this field of distortion: “After saying above, ‘Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them’ (which are offered according to the Law) then He said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will.’ He takes away the first in order to establish the second” (Heb. 10:8-9). The writer puts in the mouth of Jesus the long counter-prophetic tradition which explains that it was not God who wanted sacrifices and offerings and the notion that he enjoyed their smell or delighted in their slaughter is denied – he finds no pleasure in them. Though sacrifice is offered according to the Law, the Law is not identified with the will of God. In fact, Christ as the one who has come to do the will of God, exposes the false premise upon which the Law is built. The writer explains, “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second” (Heb. 8:7). There was something wrong with the first covenant. It dealt in shadows, it did not penetrate to the heart and mind but left these untouched and it falsely purported to establish a relationship with God (8:10), and for these reasons this covenant is declared “obsolete” and will “disappear” (v. 13).

This declaration of the faulty nature of the Law and its need for correction more or less characterizes the ministry of Jesus. His continual refrain, “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you” makes it apparent that Jesus was not simply supplementing the Law but was pointing out its errors. Though a great deal of ink was spilt explaining clean and unclean foods, Jesus dismisses the very concept: “And He said to them, ‘Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus He declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:18-19).  The failure of the food laws is like the failure of the sacrificial system and of the law in general; they did not change either the heart or mind. 

Keeping the Sabbath holy, the fourth commandment, was a key consideration, as breaking Sabbath law was punishable by death. Even gathering necessities like firewood on the Sabbath resulted in death (Numbers 15:32-36). The presumption of the Law is that since God rested on the seventh day, this day should commemorate His rest (Exodus 16 & 20). Yet, here too Jesus questions the very premise of Sabbath Law: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Whether it was healing on the Sabbath or picking grain on the Sabbath, Jesus presumed he was not constrained by Sabbath Law as “the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

Jesus contravened the Law of stoning for adultery (John 8), he declared invalid the Law of oath taking from Deut. 6 (teaching that we are not to make oaths at all (Matt. 5:34)) and declares that more than yes or no “comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). He pronounces James’ and John’s suggestion that fire be called down from heaven on the Samaritans (which was to emulate Elijah, who had used fire to incinerate a hundred people in this same region (2 Kgs. 1:10-12)), as deriving from another (evil?) spirit (in some manuscripts). He directly contradicts and undoes the law of retaliation (the lex talionis). No more will it be an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth.  “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:38-39). Where the OT presumes wealth is a sign of blessing, Jesus pronounces a curse on the rich. Where the OT presents victory in battle as a divine blessing, Jesus presumes it is only the nonviolent peacemakers who are God’s children.

As Greg Boyd concludes, “To follow Jesus and be considered a ‘child of the Father,’ one has to be willing to violate this law. Indeed, Jesus taught that to be considered a ‘child of the Father,’ a person has to commit to doing the exact opposite of what this law commands!”[1] The implication Boyd draws out, in the light of Jesus command to refrain from violence and to love one’s enemies, is that Jesus contradicts and displaces the portrayal of God and ethics found in the Law. He concludes, “We have compelling reasons to interpret the entire Mosaic law, together with the law-oriented portrait of God it presupposes, to be an accommodation.”[2]

The price of this accommodation and the stark contrast it poses, culminates in the one who embodies the truth of the Law being crucified by the protectors and keepers of the Law. The High Priest, the chief Jews, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, in alignment with powers of Rome, saw Jesus as a threat to their Law, religion and Temple. Though he was the fulfillment of the Law, though he was the true Temple, though he was the glory of God, the price of accommodating sin in the Law was the distortion that made God incarnate unrecognizable. Though every Jew understood that love of God and neighbor, as in Jesus two great commands, is the summation of the Law, this love was also distorted beyond recognition. Jesus concludes that they cannot recognize the word of God because of their traditions (Mark 7) and though these traditions might be thought to refer to something other than OT Law, it is specifically the food Laws and the accompanying ritual washings he targets. As Paul describes it, the law and the old covenant can function to veil or obscure reality, creating a dullness of mind (2 Cor. 3:13-14). Christ lifts the veil or undoes the obscuring effect of the Law (v. 16).  The Law, in Jesus’ critique, concentrated on non sequiturs, yet accommodated every form of human violence (even against one’s own parents in this case). This violence was projected onto God, so that the Law’s center and purpose was obstructed and made impossible.  Of course, to imagine that Law is the problem is to miss the distorting effect of human sinfulness, the real problem.

The distortion of God posed in the OT, the distortion of love, the distortion of ethics, the distortion codified in the Law, stands in sharp, irreconcilable contrast with the truth of God in Christ, and this difference is what killed him. This difference, this curse of the Law, is sin itself. To cover over this difference, to live with the dullness of mind induced by the obscuring of the Law, to rid oneself of all cognitive dissonance, is to miss the cross. The cross is the final and full revelation of God, in contrast to the Law of sin and death, and it is on the cross that he bore this difference. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor 5: 21). The difference between the Law that killed him (the curse of the Law) and the truth of the Law (unadulterated love, even of the enemy), the difference between sin and love, is the difference he bore. By doing so “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal 3: 13). Where the power and wisdom of this world puts people on crosses and equates this violence done to the enemy, this redemptive violence, with salvation, Christ bears this curse. It is the curse of capital punishment (Dt. 21:22-23), the curse of Law sanctioned homicide, the curse of Lawful execution, the curse of holy war, the curse of crosses, which he bore.

His death is an act of love, not because he bore the legal weight of sin, but because the violence done to him in the name of Law, God, and nation, was itself sin under the guise of Law. He is afflicted with the core of evil – religious violence carried out in the name of God – and in his divine identity he exposes the fact that God is not on the side of Herod, Pilate, the Jews, or the Law, but God, in Christ, is their victim. God is not the one who victimizes and oppresses, he is not the one who commits genocide, or the one who approves sex slaves and sexual assault, or the one who slaughters infants, God is the one who rescues the victims of murder, oppression, and assault by identifying with them.

God is love, and the love of God is enacted in doing what he did. “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (I Jn. 3:16). This passage into self-sacrificial love entails passage out of death into life and out of a lie into the truth (3:14-19). I suppose there is an inevitable cognitive dissonance in recognizing how deeply engrained our world, with its laws and religion, is in this lie but this is the dissonance of revelation.  


[1] Gregory, Boyd, Cross Vision (Kindle Locations 633-637). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. I am relying on Boyd’s summary of the biblical depiction.

[2] Ibid, Kindle Location 1763

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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