First and foremost, nothing in this blog or in anything else I say is intended to lessen or excuse the acts of terror which have been wrought by ISIS. They are evil. They are evil of the highest order. But how should Christians view them? For that, I’d like to turn to Jonah. I’ve recently been translating the book of Jonah. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting a few verses of that translation at a time with some detailed explanation of my translation decisions. Hopefully this will help substantiate some of the claims I’m about to make. Here is a link to the next post explaining translations a bit. Here is a link to the first installment of my translation.
Jonah was called to prophecy to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, because their evil had risen up to God (Jonah 1:2). Here are some of the things we know about the Assyrians. They were evil. They were evil of the highest order. Nothing could excuse their actions. This is helpful when we consider Jonah’s response to God’s call: he literally goes to the other side of the known world (Jonah 1:3). He needs to head from Israel to what is now northern Iraq. Instead, he goes to Spain. Yeah, that’s a bit of a detour. That’s the kind of response that was elicited by God telling him to go to Nineveh.
For a tangible example, let’s look at the Balawat Gates. These imposing gates are intimidating enough on their own. But let’s look at the bands that hold them together. Basically, the Assyrians wanted to send a message, but the size of their gates wasn’t enough. So they decorated those gates with artistic renderings of their cruelty. They wanted visitors to know how they did business. This included all manner of dismemberments, executions and tortures.
©Trustees of the British Museum
Notice the person being torn apart beside a person being impaled, beside ten severed heads that are used as decoration. That’s how Assyrians decorated their gates. So it shouldn’t be hard to understand why Jonah was a little reticent about approaching them.
But actually…that isn’t why he avoided them. They are perhaps the most despicable people on the entire planet, and he doesn’t seem to be afraid of them. He’s afraid of something else entirely. He’s afraid that God will forgive them.
O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.
This is the prophet of God. He’s the one God chose to reach out to the most despicable people you could possible imagine. In spite of this, Jonah manages to be more evil than any other character in the book that bears his name. Why did he go to the other side of the world? To prevent forgiveness. I know for many of us, that might contradict our long-held Sunday School versions of Jonah. I’m sorry to break your bubble. Jonah was not the hero of the book.* He’s not even a supporting character. If anything, he’s the villain. He wants to keep God’s grace for himself and his fellow Israelites.
If this is challenging for you, it should be. We are all very much like Jonah. We like grace when we are the recipients. But when someone else does something wrong…we want to see them pay. We revile them and we accuse them and we ask God why his justice is taking so long. I believe that God is just. I believe that he does punish wickedness. More accurately, I believe he has punished it at the cross. It’s noteworthy that scripture records a figure who seems focused on reminding God of other peoples sins. That’s Satan. He’s the accuser of the brethren (Rev 12:10).
I agree with you that ISIS is evil. From a civil standpoint, I hope that governments do one of the things for which they were designed: punishing evil (Romans 13:1-4). But as a Christian, I hope and pray that those who harbor evil in their heart will turn to see Jesus. I pray that we take no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ez 18:23, 33:11). I pray that the accusation against them will be rendered null and void by the cross. I pray that God continues to turn religious extremists like Paul into zealous evangelists of grace.
Perhaps most importantly, I pray that my prayers are sincere. Because at the end of the day, I’m still Jonah. I still hurt when I think of all the innocent lives that have been cut short. I still want to run to the other side of the world, away from every drop of evil on the planet. I still get angry and wish I could do something about it. I understand why Jonah didn’t want the Assyrians to be forgiven. And I agree with him. I don’t want evil people to receive grace. I still yell at God and ask him when he’s going to step in and deal with all those horrible people. Then he reminds me of the cross. He reminds me that he already stepped in, and he did so even while WE were all incredibly evil (Romans 5:8).
What does the Bible say about ISIS? That God loves them. He loves them just as much as he loves you. He wants to reconcile with them just as much as he wants to reconcile with you. Don’t for a minute think that you deserve something that they don’t. Don’t let yourself hate them. Don’t let yourself accuse them. That’s not the gospel. That’s not the Bible. That’s Satan. Satan is an idiot. Don’t be like Satan (or Jonah).