Theology of War

The Christian faith is essentially non-violent. However, some people claim that it forbids all physical force regardless of the circumstances. They think that the Christian position is religious pacifism – it is immoral and sinful to participate in any war, and one never has the right or duty to take lives. Although these people consider themselves full of love and obedience, their position in fact represents a blatant defiance against what God has revealed on the matter.

The Bible records many instances in which God’s people went to war by his command or approval:

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner.” (Exodus 17:8-15)

After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD said to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ aide: “Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them – to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates – all the Hittite country – to the Great Sea on the west. No one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:1-5)

God initiated a number of wars to accomplish his plans and purposes, and many of them were not fought in self-defense. When King Saul disobeyed God and spared King Agag, Samuel hastened to complete the assignment: “But Samuel said, ‘As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women.’ And Samuel hewed Agag to pieces before the LORD at Gilgal” (1 Samuel 15:33, NASB).

When God’s people inquired him concerning military decisions, he often responded with approval and assurance, and sometimes dictated the strategies that led them to victory:

David and his men reached Ziklag on the third day. Now the Amalekites had raided the Negev and Ziklag. They had attacked Ziklag and burned it, and had taken captive the women and all who were in it, both young and old. They killed none of them, but carried them off as they went on their way. When David and his men came to Ziklag, they found it destroyed by fire and their wives and sons and daughters taken captive. So David and his men wept aloud until they had no strength left to weep. David’s two wives had been captured – Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the LORD his God. Then David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, “Bring me the ephod.” Abiathar brought it to him, and David inquired of the LORD, “Shall I pursue this raiding party? Will I overtake them?” “Pursue them,” he answered. “You will certainly overtake them and succeed in the rescue.” (1 Samuel 30:1-8)

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly. He said: “Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the LORD will be with you.'” Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the LORD. (2 Chronicles 20:14-18)

Then the LORD said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack Ai. For I have delivered into your hands the king of Ai, his people, his city and his land. You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king, except that you may carry off their plunder and livestock for yourselves. Set an ambush behind the city.” (Joshua 8:1-2)

As David said, “Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle” (Psalm 144:1). The Bible portrays God himself as a mighty warrior, an active fighter in war, conquering his enemies:

The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name. (Exodus 15:3)

Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Rise up, O LORD! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.” (Numbers 10:35)

The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary. When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious – that you, O LORD God, might dwell there. (Psalm 68:17-18)

The LORD will march out like a mighty man, like a warrior he will stir up his zeal; with a shout he will raise the battle cry and will triumph over his enemies. (Isaiah 42:13)

The New Testament does not contain the same kind of passages on warfare, but this does not translate into a lack of clarity on the subject, because the New is in implicit agreement with the Old. There is no reason to assume a sharp dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments, when the Bible itself asserts an essential unity. As Loraine Boettner writes, “There is absolutely no question that in the Old Testament wars were sanctioned as a means of gaining righteous ends…When rightly understood the two Testaments are supplementary, not contradictory. The silence of the New Testament on the subject of war apparently rests on the assumption that the subject had been adequately treated and did not call for any addition or modification.”[1] The New Testament does not teach pacifism, and it does not overturn the Old Testament view of war.

Jesus says in Matthew 5:39, “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This is often used to support pacifism. However, we must be sensitive to the use of hyperbolic language. The verse appears in a context where Jesus also says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

Although it is literally true that it is better to lose a part of the body than to be thrown into hell, Jesus does not in fact advocate that as a solution to sin; rather, he is using graphic language to teach what has been called the mortification of the flesh. It is possible that Jesus also employs hyperbole in verse 39. It teaches against avenging oneself of personal insults and wrongs, and does not constitute a welcome of abuse. Both Jesus and Paul give evidence to this understanding:

Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.” When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded. “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:19-23)

Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” (Acts 23:1-3)

They did not “turn the other cheek,” but criticized the wrongful violence used against them. Thus the Sermon on the Mount does not teach that one must always show no reaction under unjust treatment.

Moreover, Matthew 5:39 applies to personal injustice, and does not forbid military action, capital punishment, or self-defense. But the verse is often used to forbid these other things rather than to encourage patience when one suffers personal insults and wrongs. As Boettner explains, “If we are truly Christian, we will live unselfish lives, not always seeking to vindicate our own petty dignity, but returning good for evil…A reasonable amount of patience on our part, together with the manifestation of a good motive, will go a long way toward smoothing over difficulties.”[2] This is the verse’s intended meaning. It does not exclude the use of physical force for reasons of retributive justice, national security, and so on.

John the Baptist “went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” John knew that Roman soldiers fought wars and killed people, and if there was ever an opportunity to speak against military service, this would be it. But he answered, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay” (v. 14). He warned them about the temptations that they frequently faced, but he did not speak against their profession, and he did not call them murderers or any such thing.

The pacifist often uses the sixth commandment to condemn all wars: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13, KJV). The translation of the Hebrew word rasah (or ratsach) as “kill” has been the reason for much confusion on warfare, capital punishment, and self-defense. The NIV correctly states the commandment as, “You shall not murder.” It is “a more precise reading than the too-general KJV ‘thou shalt not kill.'”[3]

Murder is the deliberate termination of a human life without biblical justification. This justification is a reason derived from the Bible that establishes the killing as morally acceptable or even necessary according to God’s command. If to kill a person requires such a justification in the mind of the one who kills, then murder is not only a physical act, but it is as much intellectual as it is physical. This is consistent with Matthew 5:22 and 1 John 3:15[4] — one who strikes with an unjustified intent to kill is a murderer in God’s sight even if the victim survives.[5] In fact, God regards him as a murderer even if he does not strike at all.

There are those who wish to think that the commandment defines all intentional killing of human beings as murder. However, if they seize on the words of the commandment alone and refuse to allow the rest of the Bible to define what the commandment means, then the verse could condemn even the killing of vegetables and bacteria, since it does not exclude anything in its wording. Just by being alive, these people continuously kill bacteria, viruses, and such things, and they kill vegetables and perhaps even animals for food. Therefore, those who refuse to allow other parts of the Bible to define the meaning of this commandment condemn themselves as murderers. By their standard, they commit murder themselves, but they dictate to others as to what they are allowed to murder. They seize on several words in the Bible to advance their self-righteous prejudice, but it backfires on them. The Bible clearly narrows the definition of murder, so that it does not refer to the killing of anything for any reason.

God permits the slaughter of animals for food: “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Genesis 9:2-3).[6] Therefore, it is not murder to kill an animal. It is still not murder to kill an animal that belongs to another person without his permission, but it would be theft. God provides instructions for the treatment of animals and warns against abuse, and Proverbs 12:10 says, “A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal.” Nevertheless, a righteous man may kill his livestock to put food on the table, and he has not committed murder.

Then, God restricts the definition of murder to the killing of human beings, because he made them in his own image: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man” (Genesis 9:6). The verse institutes capital punishment as the appropriate compensation for murder, but the execution itself is not murder. By the same principle, not all wars involve murder, since some wars are divinely sanctioned, either by special revelation or biblical precepts.

Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture. Any passage should be understood in the light of the whole scope of divine revelation – never out of context, and often not only within its immediate context. In any case, the same people who distorts the commandment on murder often refuse to acknowledge the Bible’s condemnation against homosexuality, materialism, divination, and non-Christian religions, but they think that they occupy the moral high ground when it comes to murder. They are self-righteous hypocrites.

Prior to his arrest, Jesus instructed his disciples: “Then Jesus asked them, ‘When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?’ ‘Nothing,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one'” (Luke 22:35-36). Some pacifists claim that the sword refers to “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17), but the purse, bag, cloak, and sandals are not figurative, and there is no reason to believe that the sword is figurative. In fact, the interpretation is impossible because one cannot sell a cloak for money to buy the sword of the Spirit. Likewise, contrary to another absurd claim, the sword does not represent an aggressive spiritual attitude, since one cannot sell a cloak for money to buy an attitude.

Jesus clearly told his disciples to buy weapons for self-defense. He would soon leave them, and so he instructed them to obtain tools for self-preservation, such as sandals and swords. God permits us to acquire tools, including weapons, to ensure our own safety and welfare, although this freedom is probably regulated and restricted by the laws of the land.

As Jesus was betrayed and arrested, Peter[7] struck with his sword and wounded one of the men: “While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus asked him, ‘Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?’ When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him” (Luke 22:47-51).

Pacifists object that Jesus stopped the disciples, and healed the one already wounded by Peter. Matthew’s account adds, “‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword'” (Matthew 26:52). We agree that Jesus did not want the disciples to defend him in this instance, but the passage cannot show that he opposed the use of weapons in self-defense. He was the one who told the disciples to buy swords, and then we read, “The disciples said, ‘See, Lord, here are two swords.’ ‘That is enough,’ he replied” (Luke 22:38). One interpretation claims that Jesus cried, “That is enough!” – that is, to express frustration that the disciples misunderstood him when he was in fact referring to the sword of the Spirit. Again, this interpretation is false, because he told the disciples to sell their cloaks to buy swords, but the sword of the Spirit is not purchased with money.

He said, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” The statement came in the form of a proverb, which affects the intended sense and usage, but we can answer the pacifist interpretation without exploiting this fact. First, if it is meant to be a universal prohibition against violence, even in self-defense, then he could have instructed the disciples to dispose of their swords, but he did not. Then, he said, “Put your sword back in its place” (Matthew 26:52), rather than to discard it. If he did not want the disciples to own and use weapons, this would be another lost opportunity to tell them.

Finally, the obvious reason that Jesus restrained the disciples is recorded in John’s account: “Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?'” (John 18:11). He had been telling the disciples about the things that he must suffer (Matthew 16:21), and this was one situation where injustice was not to be resisted: “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” He was supposed to suffer for our sake. He was the one arrested, and it was up to him to give up himself so that we could be saved. Pacifists overlook the very sacrifice of Christ in order to advance their own self-righteous interpretation. This sin is worse than murder.

Another popular objection against physical force is the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). We have seen that the definitions of terms are crucial, and the pacifist definition of murder is unbiblical and ridiculous. The pacifist definition of love is also false. Scripture must interpret Scripture, so that what is stated in one part of the Bible must be defined and illustrated by other parts of the Bible.

First, the use of force and the command of love are not mutually exclusive. We have seen what the Old Testament says about war, but it is the same Old Testament that issues the command of love: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:18). Therefore, we reject the view that the Old Testament teaches a “law ethic” that is superseded by a New Testament “love ethic.” The Bible is one book, and teaches one view of law and love. Both Testaments declare the same command of love, and assumes the same definition of love.

Romans 13:10 offers a definition of love: “Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”[8] Love does not abolish God’s law, but fulfills it. Love performs what the law commands. Galatians 5:14 says that love is a summary of the law, and not a replacement: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” A summary that summarizes nothing is meaningless. Since the summary refers to what it summarizes, then what is summarized must remain; otherwise, the summary would refer to nothing, and would be nothing. Therefore, the meaning of love depends on the law of God.

There is the teaching that if one walks in love, he will not need to consciously obey the Ten Commandments. One who loves another will not murder him, steal from him, lie to him, and so on. However, if there are no commandments against these things, it is impossible to know that love would not do these things. Millions of people have committed the sins of murder, adultery, homosexuality, theft, and perjury in the name of “love,” but that is not the Bible’s idea of love. “Love” by itself is without content, and remains undefined. God defines love by his commandments.

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). To walk in love is to obey God’s laws, including the Ten Commandments. As Ezekiel prophesied, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27). The Christian is not free from God’s laws, but he has received the desire and ability to obey them.

In the place where the Bible says, “Love does no harm to its neighbor” (Romans 13:10), it also says that God has ordained that the law official should punish the wrongdoer by the sword: “For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (v. 4). Pacifists impose their own definition of love on the Bible, so that it cannot accommodate verse 4, and it must pervert the meaning of verse 10. It is pointless to consult a text if we refuse to allow it to define its own terms. If we allow the Bible to define love for itself, then there is no contradiction. It teaches that the command of love does not always exclude the use of force.

This difference in the definition of love fuels numerous conflicts between Christians and non-Christians. Some non-Christians would impose their unbiblical definition on the command of love, and then attempt to manipulate Christians with it. Their notion of love forbids words and actions that they find offensive, and so Christians who condemn their sins are regarded as unloving. However, Christians are obligated to love only as the Bible defines the term. If we walk in love, we will speak the truth (Ephesians 4:15). As the Bible says, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).

If the non-Christians wish to hold us accountable to a command in the Bible, then they cannot complain when we uphold all the commands in the Bible as we condemn adultery, homosexuality, abortion, covetousness, dishonesty, drunkenness, all non-Christian beliefs and religions, and many other things. The Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and the same God sends non-Christians to hell (Matthew 10:28). Thus the Bible’s idea of love is consistent with truth, justice, and hellfire.

Of course, non-Christian pacifists do not care what the Bible says; rather, they favor an ideological principle that has not been scrutinized, but that has been taught to them. They are like those who say, “I will think for myself – I will not let anyone tell me what to believe,” when this very principle came from their parents and teachers. In effect, they only refuse to hear from God, but they remain susceptible to all kinds of influences from their culture. They believe that they are independent thinkers, but they are just pawns, and total morons.

The non-Christian teachers tell them, in effect, “Do not let anyone tell you what to think – think for yourselves. And in this lecture, I will tell you exactly what you must think when you think for yourselves.” Students who dare to oppose evolution, homosexuality, abortion, and other non-Christian dogmas discover that the teachers do not want them to be independent at all, not even a little bit. It is a sham. It is a cult: “You are free to go, but don’t you dare leave.” In contrast, we do not stupidly boast about independent thinking, but we realize that it is necessary to submit to a first principle or ultimate authority. The issue is which principle or authority offers the truth. Men will either submit their thoughts to God and gain the very mind of Christ, or they will become ensnared to the deceptions of Satan, wallowing in absurd theories and lies, all the while thinking that they are intellectual pioneers and heroes.

[1] Loraine Boettner, The Christian Attitude Toward War; Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1985; p. 18-19.

[2] Ibid., p. 20.

[3] R. Laird Harris, editor, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2; Chicago: Moody Press, 1980; p. 860.

[4] “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him” (1 John 3:15).

[5] One who accidentally kills another is held accountable, but it is not the same as murder. See Numbers 35:10-15.

[6] The expression “everything that lives and moves” does not include human beings, but refers to “all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air…all the fish of the sea.”

[7] See John 18:10.

[8] 1 Corinthians 13 contains a description of love, not a definition.