(April 2003 – Volume 9, Issue 4) 

Christians have long struggled with the issue of war. Are there any circumstances that justify a Christian going to war? In the light of the biblical commands to love and forgive our enemies, is war justified? Let’s take a look.

Christian Views

Radical Pacifism – Radical pacifists believe that all violence is evil, and therefore, not only is war wrong but so is the maintenance of a police force and personal resistance to aggression. After all, they reason, it is rather difficult to love your enemy when you are killing them or punching them in the face. What would be the response of a radical pacifist to the crimes of Osama bin Laden? Love! Alice Walker, writing for the Village Voice, represents this position well: “What would happen to him if he could be brought to understand the preciousness of the lives he has destroyed? I firmly believe the only punishment that works is love.”

Faced with war, the consistent radical pacifist would chose to allow their nation and themselves to be destroyed rather than take up arms. Even self-defense is viewed as evil.

Pacifism – The pacifist recognizes that God has given the sword to the state (Romans 13:1-4), and therefore, it is permissible for established governments to maintain a police force and provide military defense, and under some circumstances go to war. But a Christian must never actively and directly participate in the taking of human life or other acts of violence. On the other hand, many pacifists feel at liberty to participate in war as noncombatants, such as medics, cooks or chaplains. But as a citizen of God’s kingdom, the Christian must never engage in violence.

Just War – Those who endorse “just war” theory distinguish between violence and force. “Violence, they would say, is disordered, unauthorized force that aims to injure, destroy, abuse, elicit terror. Force, rightly authorized within the constraints of a just war theory, aims to secure justice, defend the innocent and is deployed to ward off or rectify some far greater malady.” Just war advocates contend that a nation has the right to protect itself against aggression.

First articulated in detail by Augustine, and later refined by the likes of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and John Locke, just war theory has been the predominant view of Christians throughout the ages. A number of rules comprise just war theory. While these rules vary from author to author, the primary ones are these: 1) Just cause: For a war to have just cause it must be fought for just reasons, such as the protection of innocents and defense against aggression. It was Augustine’s view that “just war is justified only by the injustice of an aggressor.” 2) Just intent: The motive for war must not be greed or vengeance, but justice, love, and the restoration of peace. 3) Legitimate authority: God has given the authority to the state (established governments), not to individuals, to declare and wage war. 4) Last resort: War should be declared only after all other alternatives have been exhausted. 5) Reasonable hope of success: While highly subjective, this rule recognizes that if there is no hope for success, resistance is counterproductive. If the object of just war is to provide justice, love, and peace, and if these cannot be obtained, then war is futile. 6) Just conduct: Civilians and the innocent must never be the focus of military acts. All force must be directed toward the aggressor.

Preventive War –There are two schools of thought amongst those who support preventive war. The first says that war is permissible in anticipation of aggression. Why wait for the enemy to strike when we have good reason to believe he will soon do so and thus endanger innocent lives? A pre-emptive strike is justifiable when the evil intentions of the enemy are beyond question. A more expanded version of preventive war would see war as legitimate in the correction of gross injustice even within a nation that is not a direct threat. Should America, for instance, sit by and watch Saddam Hussein torture and murder his own people? Would it not be just to stop these heinous crimes?

The Old Testament on War

The Old Testament understanding of war as often necessary is irrefutable. “[There is] a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8). Wars of all kind, just, unjust, preventive, etc. are found throughout the Old Testament. Even more important is God’s constant involvement and even instigation of war. The Lord commands Israel to wage war and destroy the seven Canaanite nations that inhabited Palestine before the Exodus (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). God sent Assyria to destroy Israel and punish Judah, and then in turn sent the Babylonians to wipe out Assyria (Isaiah 10:5-19). Later the Babylonians would be God’s instrument to send Judah into exile (Habakkuk 1:5-11). Take out the accounts about war and the threat of war and the Old Testament is greatly reduced in size. Add to this fact that God’s fingerprints are all over the war accounts found in the Old Testament, and it would be literally impossible to support pacifism from an Old Testament perspective.

The New Testament on War

Of course, there are a number of things that were true of Old Testament life that is no longer incumbent upon the New Testament Christian. Perhaps war is one of these things. After all, did not Jesus himself command His followers to “turn the other cheek?”

Let us start with Jesus. Is there any evidence that Jesus was a pacifist? While a number of Roman soldiers became followers of Christ, none were ever instructed to leave their profession (Luke 3:14; Matthew 8:10). Later, both Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48) and the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30-34) came to Christ, and yet there is no hint that they were told to lay down their swords.

Jesus’ actions and teachings clearly exemplified Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes (“A time for war, a time for peace”). While our Lord came to bring peace between God and man, and while He was the epitome of love, nevertheless, as He approached the cross He told His disciples to purchase swords (Luke 22:36-38). And, apparently on two occasions, Jesus made a whip and drove the moneychangers out of the Temple (Matthew 21:12; John 2:15).

Probably the most important New Testament passage on war is Romans 13. After establishing the fact that human government is both ordained and controlled by God, Paul states, “For it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (v. 4).

A sword, while symbolic of authority and power, is also a literal weapon used for the purpose of capital punishment, law enforcement and war. If Paul was a pacifist, he disguised it well.

Then, of course, the whole book of Revelation is filled with war. In particular, the descriptions of the Lord’s return are replete with images of war (Revelation 14:14-20; 19:11-21), as is Satan’s final revolt (20:7-10). No matter what view is taken of the Revelation, no one would find pacifism within its pages.


The overall biblical picture would seem to be clear enough: under the right conditions war is justifiable for both the state and the Christian. But there are a number of legitimate objections to this understanding that deserve attention.

The most important has to do with love. How can we love our neighbor as ourselves; more, how can we love our enemy and yet go to war against them? This is not an easy question and deserves careful thought to avoid a superficial answer.

First, just war theory is predicated on the second great command – to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). It is because we love our neighbor, who may at times also be our enemy, that just war theory has been established. Under just war rules, war is never an act of aggression, but only permissible for defense or protection of innocent people. The goal is peace. War is initiated only when all other options have failed, and all reasonable efforts to protect noncombatants are made. If love were not important to the just war proponents, then none of these rules would have been established.

Still, war kills, maims, and destroys lives – seemingly very unloving things to do. How are we to justify such actions in the face of the command to love? Consider this example. When the terrorists highjacked Flight 93, with the intention of ramming it into one of our government buildings, what was the loving thing for the passengers to do? They could have remained passive, claiming it would be quite unloving to rush the terrorists. Instead, Todd Beamer said, “Let’s roll”, leading a charge that probably saved thousands of lives. Were Todd Beamer and his friends participating in an act of love? Would it have been more loving for those brave souls to have sat in their seats, knowing that innocent people would soon be murdered?

Framed this way, most of us can probably see the issue. Translate this over to the subject of war, and we understand that doing the loving thing is not all that simple. Our choice, in such circumstances, is not between whether to love or not, but to whom to show love, the victim or the aggressor. D. A. Carson says it this way: “Clearly, this appeal to love and justice focuses primary attention on the victims, not the perpetrators. If someone asks, ‘How does the Allied response in World War II show love for Hitler?’ The first answer must be, ‘Do we not first of all have an obligation to show love for Hitler’s victims, present and (potentially) future?’ . . . Focusing on the enemy and forgetting the victims is a typically sentimental, liberal-humanist error.” Francis Schaeffer saw this and confessed, “This is why I am not a pacifist. Pacifism in this poor world in which we live – this lost world – means that we desert the people who need our greatest help.”

There have been many other honest objections foisted against war. Four of the most valid ones will be briefly addressed below.

  • “Those who take up the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). These words of Jesus to Peter have often been used to support views against everything from guns to capital punishment to war. But a closer look at the context reveals a different picture. Peter had just taken a whack with his sword at the head of Malchus, the slave of the High Priest. Fortunately, Peter was a bad aim and only managed to slice off Malchus’ ear. Jesus then told him to put away his sword, “For all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” If Jesus was condemning all uses of the sword, why did He earlier command His disciples to buy swords (Luke 22:36)? Jesus was condemning neither the sword (in its proper place) nor war. What Jesus was condemning was murder. Peter certainly was not a sharpshooter aiming for the slave’s ear. He was clearly planning to murder Malchus and anyone else who attempted to arrest Jesus. Jesus’ remarks to Peter were a reminder that murderers will be executed. Capital punishment, by the sword of the state, was the penalty for murder.
  • War involves murder. Since all war results in killing people, and since killing is forbidden in the Ten Commandments, then all who participate in war are murderers. This objection is not difficult to answer. First, the word in Exodus 20:13, which is sometimes translated “kill”, is really the word for “murder”. More importantly, the distinction between murder and killing is well documented in the Old Testament. Not only did the Lord command Israel to kill every human being from the nations inhabiting the Promised Land, but He identified more than twenty crimes deserving of capital punishment (e.g. Exodus 21:12ff). If all killing is murder, then God is a murderer. No Christian is willing to accept this.
  • War may have been permissible in the Old Testament but is not in the New Testament. The continuity/discontinuity debate is an ongoing one in theological circles. But no matter which side of the fence one stands in this debate, everyone agrees that God has not changed, nor has His moral standards, nor has sin and God’s hatred and judgment of it. While the Lord surely changed certain ceremonies (e.g. sacrifices), certain methods of dealing with His people (e.g. the church, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit), and so forth, He has not changed Himself. That God, who calls for war throughout the Old Testament, and who will come again to earth (this time in battle formation) could demand a cessation of war, is a given. But did He? If He did we would expect direct and conclusive revelation to that fact. Where is such revelation? Some believe it is found in our last objection.
  • The Sermon on the Mount and other related passages. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) contains a number of seemingly pacifist statements: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (5:9). Blessed are the persecuted (5:11,12). Hatred is on a par with murder and deserving of death (5:21,22). “Whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (5:39). “Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44). “However you want people to treat you, so treat them” (7:12).

It must first be admitted that the Sermon on the Mount is a virtual “black hole” of biblical interpretation. Some press it far beyond its original intent, while others all but dismiss it as irrelevant for the church age. Not pretending to have the perfect balance, nevertheless, I believe that all sides would agree that the Sermon is addressed to personal obligation not civil. In ancient times, much like today, a slap on the face was more of an insult than an injury. Rather than retaliation, Jesus calls for His followers to accept insult and return a blessing (1 Peter 2:23; 3:9). At the same time Jesus does not say to stand still while someone relieves us of our head nor does our Lord demand the same from civil government.

In perhaps the closest parallel passage in the epistles (Romans 12:14-21), this becomes even clearer. Here we are instructed to “never pay back evil for evil to anyone” (v.17) and “never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” At least two observations should be made in the context of our present discussion. First, none of Paul’s admonition is new. Not taking our own revenge was taught in the Old Testament (e.g. Proverbs 20:22; 24, 29) and “Vengeance is Mine” is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 32:35. So in Old Testament times God was calling for the same personal behavior, while simultaneously empowering Israel, as a nation, to wage war on the nations around it. Secondly, immediately following these personal instructions, Paul turns to the state and declares it to be a bearer of the sword and an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil (13:4). The individual is called to accept insults and express love for the perpetrators of evil, but the state is ordained to administer justice and even vengeance on those who practice evil.

Having said all of this, we still must use discernment when faced with war issues. Because the state has the right to declare war does not mean that all wars are just. A Christian would have been wrong to fight for Nazi Germany during World War II. Additionally, not every Christian will agree upon the justice of a war situation nor on their involvement in war. We must respect the convictions of others to choose a different course of action than what we may choose, as we look forward to the day when we will never again learn war (Isaiah 2:4).


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