William Cavanaugh Interview

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

And below is a single, combined post of all of the above.

Violence and Theology?

Thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed, I really do appreciate that! I’ve always been interested in:

  • theology—particularly how it applies to sort of everyday life.
  • politics—it often seems to be an application of one’s worldview.
  • economics—the way societies function in terms of distributing wealth and resources.
  • social justice—my wife is a social worker.

So is mine! {both laugh}
William Cavanaugh (as are all the quotes below)

So it keeps you thinking about social justice. And so there’s lots of things I could ask about but I just wanted to focus on one particular thing. I’ve listened to your lecture on religion and violence and how “religion” is a constructed term, that’s not very useful as it’s often defined to suit someone’s agenda. So I thought I’d try to narrow it down and ask you about whether some theology promotes, or excuses, or desensitises us to violence?


Yes {both laugh}… Some atheists say that theology pretty much has no impact on what people do at all. Do you think that is an overstatement? Do you think that theology actually does influence the way we act?

Sure it does. I mean it does for some people so I don’t think there’s any question that there are some Islamic terrorists that take inspiration from theological ideas—no matter how distorted that might be—no matter what other kinds of influences there are in their lives. I don’t think there’s any denying that. The Crusaders were inspired by a certain kind of bad theology. And Islamic terrorists are inspired by a certain kind of bad theology. I don’t think it can be reduced to theological causes but I don’t see that there’s any point in denying that’s certainly in the mix of influences.

What I don’t buy is the idea that theology always has a kind of tendency, or a greater tendency than other kinds of ideas, to promote violence. Some people say, “Well, if you believe in God, then you have this kind of divine mandate for kind of extremism—it’s an absolute command that you can’t disobey”. But you can just as easily argue that if you have no God, then there is no kind of power looking over your shoulder and you are God, so you can do whatever you want. And you can make that argument very easily historically, with figures like Stalin and Pol Pot, and so on.

Yeah, totally. If I had more time I’d ask you about that more. But I think—you probably agree—that there’s also some theology that can actually promote peace? I guess, even nonviolence?

Right, yeah, absolutely. That was the subject of the Girard conference last week and I think that’s at the heart of Christianity—it’s certainly what I’d want to claim—this claim of nonviolence. God becomes incarnate, we kill Him, and He doesn’t retaliate.

Yes, I think there is a lot of positive things about Christianity. I think most theology is actually a positive influence.

Just War and Pacifism?

But just focusing on a couple of negative ones: the Just War theory.What do you think about the Just War theory, particularly in light of Pope Francis’ recent criticism or critique of it?

Cardinal Ratzinger, before he was Pope Benedict the sixteenth, in the context of the Iraq war, said we have to ask whether it’s even possible to talk about a Just War anymore. Oftentimes it’s presented as if there are two positions that a Christian can take:

One is pacifism and one is Just War—that these are two separate positions.

But I kind of see them as concentric circles because really at the heart of the Just War idea is the notion of nonviolence and therefore you have to justify any act of violence under very strict criteria. And so the Just War idea kind of draws the circle a little bit wider than a pacifist would. But nonviolence is at the heart of both of them.

I think I’m not sure if I’ve made up my mind whether to call myself a pacifist or not. For one thing there’s nothing at stake, I mean it doesn’t cost me anything and that I think is a really important consideration. But also I think that even if we took the Just War tradition seriously, it would have enormously radical consequences. If we took seriously the idea that we should not simply defer judgment on these matters to the nation state but that the Church itself should make these decisions about what qualifies as a justifiable act of violence or not. It would have enormous consequences, I mean many of the churches, including John Paul the second, the Vatican and so on, had grave reservations about whether the Iraq war would be justifiable.

Yes, I remember that.

So you can imagine how dramatic it would be if large numbers of Christians, or even Catholics, just said, “We’re going to sit this one out.” Not because they’re pacifists but because they simply judge that this is not a just war and so we can’t, in good conscience, fight it. But the Just War theory never seems to work that way. It only seems to work in terms of justifying acts of war once they have already broken out.

Yes, the bar seems very low! “We’re going to save them! That’s justified it.” But do they need saving??

I’d probably answer the same as you. I’m undecided, and again, because I’m not about to go off to war, it really takes the pressure off. So I’d want to be very, very, very sure that it was completely morally justified, and I think a lot of wars haven’t been—particularly in recent history…

Was God Violent To Jesus?

Was God violent to Jesus on the cross? Basically, is Penal Substitutionary Atonement 1, as taught by some people, an act of violence against Jesus?

As it’s taught by some people, yes. I think that I much prefer what Girard has to say about these matters. Which is, of course, based on the idea that God the Father didn’t kill the Son—we killed the Son.

That makes so much more sense {laughs}.

Right, absolutely {laughs}.

I think proper reading of what Anselm has to say about this is that the judge condemns the defendant. But then comes down off the bench and takes the defendant’s place—this is an act of self sacrifice. It’s not an act of violence, of one person of the Trinity against another.

Yeah… {both laugh} Yes, I totally agree. The way some people talk about it, it’s violence by our loving Father God against an innocent person, Jesus. I don’t think that sets a very good precedent.

Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?

Some people use some of the imagery in the Book of Revelation to try to frame Jesus as a military figure. He came the first time as a nice, meek, and mild Jesus but the second time He’s coming back as a military leader to conquer with the sword. Then they sort of use that to say that we should actually get on with that now—we should start bringing Jesus’ kingdom pretty much by military means—and you see them trying to reclaim the temple mount, etc. There’s a whole theological outworking. Do you see that as problematic and how would you interpret the passages in Revelation where it’s talking about wars basically?

To read through Revelation that way is to prove that Nietzsche was right about Christianity, that it’s a resentful, kind of slave religion, that would take revenge if it had power but doesn’t because it’s a religion for the weak but we fantasize about getting our revenge and take our revenge in kind of passive aggressive sorts of ways. I think that’s just a really horrible way to read Christianity, and it’s a misreading of the Book of Revelation too.

I mean, you’ll notice that the rider’s rope is already dipped in blood before the battle begins at the end of the Book of Revelation, which means that it’s the martyrs that conquer. I mean this is a book of martyrdom and it’s not a book of vengeance, and so the whole experience of the Church under the Pagan Roman Empire—under which the Book of Revelation was written—is an experience of martyrdom and not of violence. It’s of experience of refusing to commit violence, and suffering it instead, and praying for the conversion of the empire, which eventually happens.

But I think any other reading of the Book of Revelation as vengeance, is a misreading of the Book of Revelation and it’s really hard to square with the Gospels as well, where Jesus comes back with the wounds in His hands and says, “Peace be with you”. You know people want him to come back in life as Arnold Schwarzenegger—”Jesus is back and he’s mad as hell!”—and He just doesn’t.

Yes, He is the Lamb that was slain, seated on the throne.

Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?

I started reading through your comments on Constantine but I only had access to the Google preview, so couldn’t read your conclusions! {both laugh} So obviously, with Constantine, in one sense he stopped the persecution of Christians, which was a relief, but on the other hand, as far as I can tell, he still had to play two roles: as the Emperor—who was a military man—and as a Christian. Do you think that had a positive or negative influence on Christianity?

Suddenly Christians have gone from being persecuted, to basically having the power of the State, and Constantine being a military leader, whether or not he was a Christian (I assume he was but I don’t know). But how do you think that played out? Do you think it did make Christianity sort of go in a negative direction when it came to militaristic things and violence, or do you think it didn’t really have a big impact?

Well certainly it had a big impact. But I think there’s a few different ways of narrating it.

There’s the John Howard Yoder way of narrating it, where it’s a fall of the Church. The Church was relatively peaceful and the church was a kind of visible contrast of the rest of the world before Constantine and then the churches becomes very worldly after Constantine and the church is no longer visible because it’s blended into the world, and we use acts of violence, and so on.

Then there’s the Peter Leithart way of reading it, which read it as the fulfillment of all the promises of God, or the Eusebius way of reading it, where God has been chastising the Christians through the persecution, only in preparation to give them the sword. So that we can wield the sword justly.

Yeah… {in an unconvinced tone}

I don’t really buy either one of those.

Stanley Hauerwas was my dissertation director and so clearly I have been influenced by the Yoder kind of reading. I think a lot was lost when the Church began to wield the sword but I don’t think that you can read it as an Anabaptist would and read Church History as just the Holy Spirit abandoned the Church in the fourth century.

Yeah, that seems a bit too much.

Yeah, and the real Church survives only in small remnants.

I think instead of a kind of fall narrative of the Church, what we need to do is read Church History in the way that Yoder reads the Old Testament, which is kind of pedagogically. There’s a movement going on there, by which the people of God are being led towards greater and greater understanding of what God wants of them and that’s the way he looks at the all the passages about the conquest of the Holy Land, Joshua, and so on. Yoder looks at those incidents and says we shouldn’t impose a kind of moral reading on them and condemn them for unfaithfulness but read them as a faithful Jew would’ve—seeing them as kind of the way that God has miraculously saved His people and that God is ultimately in charge of the means of violence and that we should not take those into our hands.

I think that kind of reading the Old Testament is the way we ought to read Church History as well. We’re not always very clear about what we’re doing, we go through different historical periods where we’re trying to kind of discern what it means to be a faithful disciple of Christ and we learn things along the way and something that we may have learned from the whole experience of Constantine is that when the Church wields the sword it’s not very good for the gospel, for anyone, but to narrate it just as a kind of fall into unfaithfulness is going to far. This was pretty much what the Church was hoping and praying for, that the persecution would stop and that the Emperor would become a Christian and so the Emperor becomes a Christian, what do you say? “Well, that’s great but you need to find a new job!”

{Both laugh} That’s easy for us to say!

Yes, it’s very easy for us to say. “There’s an opening at the bakery down the street…”

Has God Ever Commanded Genocide?

You mentioned Joshua. That’s another question which comes up, do you think God commanded the genocides in the Old Testament? You know, “Kill every man, woman, child, animal” and all that kind of thing. Do you think that was their misunderstanding of what God was saying, or do you think He was saying that, or do you think there’s some other way of dealing with it?

Yeah, that’s a really, really tough one. I suppose I would want to say that, no, God did not command that. That this was a kind of misunderstanding. I mean this might be one of the reasons I suppose that the early Christians developed allegorical ways of reading Scripture, which we tend to dismiss as being pre-critical and so on, but in many ways are necessary.

What is Justice?

How do you define “Justice”? What do you think “Justice” means because “Justice” seems to mean different things to different people? How do you define “Justice”? What does “Justice” look like?

Oh goodness, wow! Give me some context for that question?

Some people frame it as: when I take your eye, the only way for justice to occur is for you to take my eye. So a retribution model is essential for justice to work.

Other people see it as: what’s happening when I take your eye is that I’ve broken our relationship and trust and so the ultimate justice can only be served when the relationship is being restored and healed and that may require me sacrificing something back, but it may not.

So you’ve got some people who sort of put an emphasis, when you talk about justice, on the retribution side of things. It’s all about just making sure that a person suffers as much as the other person suffers.

Whereas for other people it’s about trying to bring a relationship back, that you’ve shattered relationship and you’re trying to reconcile the two. When you’ve got restored harmony, that’s when you’ve got justice.

Augustine discusses this question in The City of God and he talks about how a republic is based on justice and that justice is suum cuique, “to each his own”, or “to each his or her own”, “Whatever corresponds to each one”, and he says the problem with Pagan Rome, is that God has not been given God’s due because the true God is not worshiped, so there is no justice in ancient Rome. That seems to me to be a way of thinking about justice, that ultimately it’s not just kind of dividing up what belongs to each person and therefore you get retribution, eye for an eye, and all that kind of stuff. But it means ultimately giving God what is God’s due and, if God is the God of Jesus Christ, that includes inaugurating this kingdom of forgiveness and mercy, and so justice in that broader sense, that I think that you’re pointing towards in your second alternative. Justice can never be spoken of as what pertains between two people without including the third element, which is God.

Yes, I agree. I should’ve framed it a bit more precisely. In Eden, before the Fall, we see how God intended humans to be, in relation to Him, everyone else, and Creation. So I’d say it is a very, very good picture of what “justice” looks like. When I’m trying to achieve justice for people, I want them to be in right relationship with each other, with God, and with Creation. Obviously we’ve got quite a few limitations here with our ability but I think that kind of justice is what God has always intended and will achieve.

I think all other forms of justice are stepping stones, or potential tools, in order to get to there. There will be our Father’s discipline, the Gardener’s pruning, the Metal Worker’s purging and purifying—there are various analogies the Bible uses. There is a whole range of ways God uses, it’s not just a “sweep it under the carpet” and “let’s have a group hug” kind of thing. There’s an acknowledgment of wrongdoing.


This feeds into Restorative Justice where you’ve got an acknowledgment of fault, you have the opportunity for the victim to explain the hurt and the damage that’s been done, so that the perpetrator can see and actually go, “Argh! I’ve done the wrong thing!” and an opportunity for them to apologize and an opportunity for the victim to forgive, and possibly work together to fix some of the consequences and stuff. So that’s a little picture of what God’s doing on a cosmic scale.

Is God Violent In Hell?

What do you think of the doctrine of hell, which in many ways is how God treats those who reject Him and how do you think that influences the way we treat people now?

I really like C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and I think that puts forward a speculative—but I think a very orthodox view—that Hell is self imposed and it’s not imposed by God. It’s a kind of self imposed separation from God… So the kind of gratuitous torturing God, I think that’s not the Christian God—just finding exquisite and inventive ways to torture people for all eternity. So this kind of self separation from God I think is the way to think about it and I think there’s a kind of general, broad agreement on that.

The question is whether anybody can resist God’s grace forever, whether anybody’s sin is strong enough to resist God’s grace forever and so I tend to think of these things in terms of… It’s not all necessarily over at death but, I guess this kind of points towards the Catholic idea of purgatory in some ways, that there is a continuing process after death of purgation.

Yes, I’d agree with that 2.

But I suppose you need to leave open… I mean Barth I think was wise on these questions to say at some point you have to just maintain a kind of holy silence. We don’t know and so there might be the possibility that some people are not saved and we can’t presume and be guilty of the sin of presumption.

In which case, I think Annihilationist ideas kind of make sense. Paul Griffiths recent book Decreation makes a pretty cogent argument for Annihilationism and that kind of fits into a whole Augustinian scheme of the farther away you get from God the less being that you have and so it might be possible that people that have kind of permanently excluded themselves from God’s communion might just cease to be in some sense. I think C. S. Lewis kind of points to that, in that eventually there might be nothing left but ashes.

Yes, I usually call that “Soft” Annihilationism, as it’s self inflicted, as opposed to “Hard” Annihilationism, where God is deliberately doing the annihilating.

Right, “Zap!”, yeah…

And you’re right, that particular view has gained a lot of popularity. As opposed to the view where, according to some people, God will be basically torturing people forever.

Does Our View of Hell Influence Our Judicial Systems?

Do you think our view of hell affects our view of Justice? Do you think our view of how God treats people in hell influences our judicial systems now? For example, our ideas of what prisons are about and what prisons are for? Whether they are simply, “Person makes a mistake, therefore they get locked away forever”. Or whether there’s a different kind of model, where we’re actually trying to bring about change. Prison, put loosely, is seen as a means to an end—as an opportunity to reform the person. 3

Whether or not Christian views of hell influence that… I think that they certainly could, and probably did, at least in the past. Certainly, yeah, but there’s a pretty clear divide between people who call it a penal system or people who talk about a Department of Corrections, as it’s called in the US. But so often there’s no longer any attempt at correction and I think that’s a huge scandal, especially the United States where we have an enormous number of people locked away.

And there seems to be money involved as well.

Right, a lot of for-profit prisons, which is astonishing isn’t it?!

Yeah, that seems absolutely… it’s just mindblowing. That is sooo just going to cause a problem!

Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved?

What do you think of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? ? Have you read it?

I have, actually I just reread it recently. I think again that’s the sort of Barthian idea that we should at least hope that all will be saved. There’s that passage in first Timothy I think that kind of indicates that. But we can’t say for sure. And again the question is how could anybody resist God’s grace forever.

Mmm… Peter Kreeft, when he was interviewed about this, said, “We hope and pray that everyone is saved but we can’t say for sure.” So again that’s kind of the standard Catholic and Eastern Orthodox position. I think George Pell said that hell may be empty. I think he was criticizing people who dogmatically say there’s people in Hell. He says we can’t say there definitely will, or won’t, be.

Somebody told me there’s a website out there with lists of people that definitely are in Hell… {concerned laugh} that’s so…

Yeah… I don’t doubt that.

Four Views on Hell?

Have you read Zondervan’s Four Views on Hell?

No, I haven’t.

It’s from an Evangelical perspective, and they’ve got a case for Annihilationism, a case for Eternal Conscious Torment, a case for Universalism, and a case for Purgatory.

From an Evangelical point of view??


{chuckles} That’s good.

Yeah, it’s the first time that a major evangelical publisher has admitted that Evangelical Universalism is a biblical and theological Christian position, even though they disagreed with it. {shows William Four View on Hell book} It only came out this year and I haven’t actually finished reading it.


What do you think about some of the Early Church Fathers? What do you think about Gregory of Nyssa and Origen, for example? Who both appear to hold to Universal Salvation. What’s your view on that?

{laughs} I think Origen was probably a little too confident. I haven’t read Gregory of Nyssa on that. But again I think the wiser position if to say we hope but we don’t know for sure. Origen seemed to know for sure. He seemed to know a lot of things for sure.

OK, that’s cool 4.


You wrote a book on torture, which I haven’t actually read. Do you think torture is ever justified?


No… that’s good! {both laugh} I’m glad to hear that! Some people seem to think it is…?

It’s listed in various church documents as an intrinsically evil act and I think that’s the way we should treat it. What’s interesting to me is just the way torture works in the popular imagination. You know it doesn’t work at all as it does in reality. In reality it doesn’t really work much. You very rarely, if ever, get real, actionable intelligence. It’s more for intimidating people and breaking up social bodies and things like that.

But the role it plays in the popular imagination in United States… it’s really important for some people to know that we’re torturing terrorists because that seems to protect us. This is I think, in part, behind the popularity of Trump. “He’s going to be a strong person with few scruples, going to protect us from the bad things that are out there.” It doesn’t make any logical sense but torture is a kind of theatre, is really what I argue, a sort of liturgy—anti-liturgy—that reverses the Eucharist.

Yes, I found the idea interesting, well the little bit I could read in Google, {both laugh} and I wondered how it worked.

Is Everyone A Child Of God?

We’ve almost run out of time but quickly, do you think everyone is a child of God?


Coming from a few different passages. I think starting in Genesis.


Yes, you do think that, and I agree. {both laugh} My latest blog series was on everyone being a child of God. What are some of the implications of that—of everyone being a child of God?

Well, you need to treat everybody with dignity, even people that seem completely alien—these days, Muslims. Children of the same God. I mean that’s at the most basic level.

1. As William implied, I think some explanations of Penal Substitutionary Atonement make a lot of sense but some don’t.
2. Every time I hear someone advocate for C.S. Lewis’ view on Hell, I can’t help but think of Thomas Talbott’s insightful observations about C.S. Lewis’ own conversion: Why C.S. Lewis’ Conversion Suggests He Should’ve Been A Universalist.
3. Helpful further reading on the relationship between hell and our current justice systems A cheat sheet on hell (although re: Kevin’s last point, I think UR actually achieves more justice than the other views).
4. Upon further reflection, I was puzzled by the description of Origen as “presumptuous”, as he doesn’t come across that way to me. So I asked Dr. Ben Myers, who lectures on Origen:

Short answer: no, ‘presumptuous’ would be the last word anyone would use to describe Origen! Even on the topic of universal salvation, he’s actually very tentative and suggestive and exploratory, never fully decided or dogmatic. This is because he’s essentially an exegete, not a theologian, so he’s always keenly aware of the huge diversity within the biblical canon.