Paul’s Blinding of Elymas: A Response to Paul Copan (#5)

In the first four posts in this “Response to Copan” series, I attempted to refute Copan’s claim that my non-violent understanding of love, as advocated in Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) and Cross Vision (CV), conflicts with Paul’s quotation of violent Psalms, the praising of the faith of warriors in Hebrews 11:30-32, the longing for justice expressed in several passages in the NT, and the insulting language Paul occasionally uses of his opponents. In this post I’d like to address yet another episode that Copan thinks contradicts the non-violent love that I claim is revealed on the cross.

In Acts we find Paul using his God-given apostolic authority to temporarily blind a magician named Elymas (Acts 13:9-12). He did this because Elymas was trying to prevent the Proconsul of Cyprus from embracing Christ. This display of supernatural power so impressed this Proconsul that he became a Christian on the spot. Does this temporarily destructive use of supernatural power conflict with the conception of love that I espouse in CWG and CV? Three considerations lead me to the conclusion that it does not.

First, in CWG I spend fifty-three pages demonstrating that when God entrusted certain individuals with an exceptional degree of supernatural authority, he did not control how they use it (CWG 1195-1248). This is why we find a number of people in Scripture accomplishing supernatural feats that were contrary to God’s will. Hence, we can’t assume that Paul’s use of his divine authority to temporarily blind this deceived magician implies that it was God’s will for this man to be blinded.

But while I think this is the best approach to explaining the slaying of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, as I’ll argue in my next post, I don’t believe this is the best explanation for the display of supernatural authority in Acts 13, and this is my second point. While it’s true that Jesus never used his supernatural authority to harm anyone, even temporarily, there is nothing inherently unloving about the temporary affliction that Elymas received from Paul. Indeed, it’s not at all hard to see Paul afflicting Elymas in the loving hope that both he and the Proconsul would see the light (pun intended) and embrace faith in Christ.

It’s worth noting that God had earlier used this same strategy to bring Paul into the faith. To expose his spiritual darkness and bring him into the light, God blinded Paul for three days (Acts 9:1-18).  Paul was simply doing to Elymas what God had done to him, and for the same reason. Like a surgeon that must break a patient’s badly cracked bone so it will heal right, or like a surgeon who must cut a patient open to save their failing heart, there are times when God must allow people to temporarily suffer if this is the only means of arriving at a greater good, such as saving their soul. In fact, I argue that all of the divine judgments recorded in Scripture, with the possible exception of the final judgment, are allowed to come about for this very reason. We thus have no reason to think Paul’s temporarily destructive use of supernatural power was inconsistent with love or contrary to God’s loving will.

But, Copan could argue (and did in fact argue in Is God a Moral Monster?), why should we not accept that all of the OT’s depictions of God commanding and engaging in violence were done with this sort of loving motive? This brings me to my third point.

Eleven years ago I began writing the book that eventually became Crucifixion of the Warrior God, and my goal at that time was to defend this very thesis. But around fifty pages into this project I had to abort it, for I had to admit that all my attempts at disclosing a loving motive behind God’s violent commands and actions in the OT were unconvincing. While it’s not at all hard to imagine the loving motive that led Paul to temporarily afflict Elymas, what possible loving motive can we imagine God having for commanding his people to mercilessly slaughter entire populations of children and infants and to do so as an act of worship to him?

Even more problematically, however, I found that even my best faltering explanations did nothing to show how a macabre portrait of God such as this one pointed to the revelation of God’s non-violent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love on Calvary, as I believe all Scripture is supposed to do. As I note in CWG and Cross Vision (CV), to discern how violent divine portraits like this one bear witness to the cross, I found I had to stop trying to defend them.

In any event, I think it is a tremendous leap from Paul’s lovingly-motivated temporary affliction of Elymas, on the one hand, and the portrait of God commanding the total extermination of entire populations, on the other. And I thus don’t consider Paul’s action in this particular instance to constitute a significant objection to my thesis.

Photo by QuinnDombrowski on / CC BY-SA

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