The problem of pigs

pigThis may seem humorous or lighthearted, but for many it’s not. I was reading through Mark 5 (Luke 8) this morning and settled into the very interesting story of Jesus’ healing of a demoniac man (vv. 1-13) and the reaction of townsfolk (vv. 14-17) to his healing and to the prospect of Jesus entering their town. The story is familiar. Jesus delivers a demonized man from the “many” spiritual agents that torment him. Upon the exorcism, the demons plead with Jesus “not to torment them” but to allow them instead to enter a heard of (some 2,000) pigs nearby. Jesus grants their request. The demons enter the pigs and the pigs hurl themselves over a steep bank and drown in the waters below. Nearby townsfolk hear of it and meet Jesus on the edge of town to urge him to take his tour elsewhere.

We have a question for our good friend Greg Boyd: Does Jesus either do violence or is he complicit in some less than perfectly loving way in the doing of violence here?

Greg’s known for maintaining the absolute non-violence of God. Being love, God cannot do violence. Even in seemingly obvious instances such as the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) or the blinding of Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13), God cannot be said to have willed the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira or to have directly taken their lives or the sight of Elymas. Other explanations have to be sought. Perhaps, Greg suggests, Peter retained lethal spiritual powers he was able to exercise independently of God. Whatever the explanation may be, it doesn’t include God willing or executing such judgment since that involves the doing of violence. This especially includes Jesus who is our only reason for believing God is non-violent benevolence. One might question Jesus’ absolute pacifism by noting his behavior in driving merchants from the Temple. Greg doesn’t see this as violence. Alright. One might suggest then that Jesus cursing a fig tree and its dying would qualify as violent on some level. But trees aren’t sentient creatures who experience pain and suffering, so it’s difficult to see killing a tree as doing it violence. We think these examples are worth debating, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant Greg that they don’t constitute violence.

Now consider MK 5/LK 8. Pigs are sentient creatures who do suffer. Consider also Greg’s concern about animal suffering within the prolonged history of evolution. It’s a main reason why Greg adopts his warfare worldview (in which carnivorousness and, well, entropy itself are the product of demonic agents wreaking violent havoc within the created order). Animal suffering is a huge theological concern for Greg. So the question here is how to relate Jesus to the possession and deaths of these pigs (assuming the story is historical). It’s not possible to argue the pigs are being judged by God in terms of what Greg describes as divine “withdrawal” (or divine “Aikido”), i.e., as an act of judgment in which God withdrawals his umbrella of protection over these pigs and allows pent-up demonic forces to execute judgment. That won’t work here because pigs can be no more objects of divine judgment than they can be subjects of moral agency. These pigs are entirely victims of violence.

Who perpetrates the violence? Obviously the legion of malevolent forces. But it’s not possible to leave the story there, because Jesus grants specific permission to this legion to take their violence out upon an innocent herd of pigs. He didn’t have to agree to the request of these demons. And there is nothing about the pigs that warrants his permitting this violence against them. So this looks like a case of Jesus being complicit in violence (for some point he wished to make no doubt, but let’s leave that aside for the moment) in a way particularly objectionable to Greg (i.e., not as a form of judgment by which moral agents are exposed to the natural consequences of their choices by divine withdrawal).

Might we suppose that the fate of the pigs wasn’t certain, that Jesus supposed things might not end so violently for the pigs and that this gets Jesus off the hook of any objectionable complicity in perpetrating violence upon these animals? No, we may not suppose this, for there is violence in the possessing of these sentient little cloven hoofed creatures, not just in their descent to drowning. Their possession is a violence they suffer, and they can only be possessed if Jesus permits it, and they did nothing to deserve Jesus’ exposing them to the violence of such possession, and yet Jesus knowingly feeds them to demonic violence.


(Picture here.)

6 comments on “The problem of pigs

  1. Alan Rhoda says:

    A well-argued post. I wonder why Greg would be against violence of any sort on God’s part. If all “violence” means is “acting forcefully in a way that hurts someone” then “being love, God cannot do violence” is a non sequitur. For surely there are contexts in which love is compatible with violence in this sense. Suppose God loves persons A and B, and A starts mercilessly attacking B. Under these conditions it seems like God would be well within His rights to forcefully intervene in a way that caused A to suffer in order to stop A and protect B.

    The get the result that love is incompatible with violence we need to take “violence” to mean something like “acting with intent to harm for harm’s sake.” Love is incompatible with violence in *this* sense because love essentially desires the true good of its object, which rules out desiring harm that is not a necessary and proportionate means to a greater good. In other words, one might lovingly desire harm, but not for harm’s sake. But in *this* sense of “violence” there is no clear reason to think that the cases of Ananias and Sapphira etc. would be cases of divine violence *even if* God were “directly” responsible for their deaths.


    • I think the latter is exactly how Greg ought to respond, Alan. And I think that when one’s actions, be they violent or non-violent, can affect a group of sentient beings, one has to weigh the value of the sentient beings and the harm or help done to them in order to properly execute that sense of “nonviolence.”

      In the case of the pigs, we might resolve this by saying that 1) Jesus had power over a relevant collection of sentient beings (the man, those affected by the man, and the pigs), 2) pigs are much less valuable than humans, and 3) therefore it is plausible that Jesus act nonviolently by sending the demons into the pigs.

      The biggest problem I have with my line of suggestion for Greg here is that I think pigs are pretty darn valuable.

      But I’m curious what you think, Tom?


      • tgbelt says:

        Hi Jacob,

        I agree that ultimately ‘violence’ has to be defined in terms of final ends. That’s what I tried to say HERE, i.e., to do violence to another is to will them some end other than their good in God. That’s the heart of violence.

        I agree there’s a way to construe Jesus’ treatment of the pigs as ‘non-violent’. I don’t think Greg has a (consistent) way to construe Jesus’ treatment of the pigs as non-violent, and the reason (I think) is that Greg has a very narrow understanding of how ‘creaturely good’ (willed by and fulfilled in God) is understood to function. That good is virtually reduced to a person’s (or an animal’s) physical well-being and psychological comfort.

        God, for example, literally cannot will/intend the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. He can’t ‘take’ their lives. That, in Greg’s view, would be ‘violent’. To take somebody life is ‘violence’, period. So for Greg there’s no conceivable way God’s taking a person’s life can be compatible with God’s willing himself as that person’s highest end (maybe because of his annihilationism; he might think physical death spells the END of a person’s possibilities with God). Greg’s very clear on this (at least late at night on his back porch). ;o)

        But the story of these pigs makes Greg’s insistence on violence thus understood impossible to maintain. Jesus does violence to the pigs, and none of Greg’s available categories (“Aikido withdrawal” OR “latent spiritual powers exercised independently of God’s will and intentions”) can work here. This isn’t Peter or Paul exercising some latent spiritual power to execute people independently of God’s will. This is Jesus who ONLY did what he saw the Father doing, who perfectly reveals the Father’s character, and here he giving up some innocent pigs to demonic violence and death. So for Greg to agree no violence is done by Jesus to the pigs here, he would have to agree that God’s taking the life of some sentient creature is not in principle violent, that is, taking life can be compatible with the highest good of sentient creatures in God. And I think that’s precisely what Greg means to deny.

        If it were true that ‘taking sentient life’ were not in principle incompatible with that life’s highest good in God, Greg couldn’t assume that the Spirit of God didn’t in fact take Ananias and Sapphira’s life. Greg wants a principle on which to assume such things across the board (about death, sacrifice, harm, blindness, judgment, etc.). But if he wavers here with the pigs and agrees that their sentient life is expendable in light of some higher good, his project is dead in the water.



  2. Tom says:

    Looks like Greg addressed the passage. See what you think:


  3. Tom says:

    Greg’s final paragraph: “But even if one insists that Jesus did know, or at least should have known, that his permission for the demons to inhabit the pigs would have this unfortunate outcome, we could only charge Jesus with cruelty to animals if we knew that there were better options available to him. As I have point out, however, the multitude of unanswerable questions this episode raises prevents us from discerning this. And given the character that Jesus exhibits throughout the Gospels, I think we are on firm ground trusting that, had there been an option that involved no possibility of animals losing their life (or hosting demons for that matter), Jesus certainly would have taken it.”


  4. Tom says:

    If all we do is agree with Greg’s final point, that “…had there been an option that involved no possibility of animals losing their life (or hosting demons for that matter), Jesus certainly would have taken it,” Greg’s own position (viz., that God is absolutely non-violent and never resorts to violent means of relating) fails, for God here resorts to violence in a fallen world where there are no perfectly non-violent options. Greg assumes that since God is perfectly loving, this violence must just be the best available option. But this is precisely the belief Greg’s entire project is set against, i.e., that God ever resorts to violent ways of relating.


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