Christians and War
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D.
Read the accompanying Newsletter for July 2001The matter of war seems so repugnant to the teachings of Christ and his apostles. In the New Testament we readily witness how Christ focuses his attention in a primary sense on the principle of love and respect as the philosophy to govern the actions of men ó even expressing love toward oneís enemies. At first sight it would appear that a Christian should never contemplate the killing of another fellow human being no matter what the circumstances. Yet there is another side of the coin. Anyone who studies the Holy Scriptures in a more extensive manner comes to realize that the Bible in many instances countenances the act of war. Even Christ said that if his kingdom were of this age (our present time period), his servants would fight to preserve him and his ruler ship from being jeopardized or harmed (John 18:36). God also commanded in a precise way that Israel had to war against the Canaanites ó and this included their extermination as a people (Deuteronomy 20:10-18). In the final chapters of the Book of Revelation we find Christ himself warring against the world powers who will then be in a belligerent and hostile stance to him (Revelation 19:11.21). These references reveal that Christ could not be considered a pacifist. In spite of his wonderful teachings that advocate love and tranquility among men, we find that Christ does not justify the actions of evil men. He expresses his wrath against them with wars, natural disasters and powerful judgments. In his retributions, Christ not only sanctions war (when he approves or commands it), but he actively encourages his servants to fight when the time arrives (John 18:36). Certainly, Christ Jesus was no pacifist in any of his teachings.
The writings of the Bible show that God acknowledges that the killing of people is justifiable as long as it accords with His wishes. One of Godís ways of executing judgment is by the sword (Matthew 10:34). Though God specifically taught in the Ten Commandments that the Israelite should not kill (Exodus 20:13), a few verses further on He ordered the execution of persons who committed capital crimes (Exodus 21:14-17). This indicates that the command "Thou shalt not kill" refers only to illegal killing (that is, murder, or the like). This allowance to execute criminals for capital crimes was also shown by the apostle Paul. He said that even Gentile governments had divine authority to use the sword against evil doers (Romans 13:1-4). When the word "sword" is used in Scripture it is not used in a limited sense such as pricking the skin to give superficial pain. It means to use the sword as an instrument of authority, even if it results in the death of the criminal. "And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword" (Revelation 6:8). Paul said that the Christian should submit to the dictates of the government (as long as those commands, of course, do not violate biblical principles). "For he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil" (Romans 13:4).
These scriptures (among many others) indicate that God advocates the legal killing of humans. If criminals jeopardize the lives of normal, law-abiding citizens, the police have a right to apprehend them and to deal with them in accordance with the laws of justice. Important also in this matter is to mention that all such judgments upon human beings in this life have NOTHING to do with their salvation which Christ Jesus has worked out for the whole of the human race. The fact is, all humanity will eventually be saved into being members of the Family of God (I Timothy 2:4-6). Every one was saved in Christ before the foundation of the world (II Timothy 1:9). For a full discussion on this significant teaching of the Holy Scriptures, see my new Second Edition of "The Essentials of New Testament Doctrine." It will show in the clearest of ways that ALL humans who have ever lived will find a salvation in Christ Jesus. This includes even the Oklahoma City Bomber (because the Bible teaches that he will one day repent of his dastardly crime and ask forgiveness). No one will be lost in the long run. This is a wonderful teaching and principle that God has worked out for each of us through His GRACE that He bestows on each of us through the activities of His Son Jesus Christ. Christ was a substitute for each of us humans. He lived a perfect live for all of us. And Christ Jesusí actions are holy enough and powerful enough to save the totality of the human race. This will be done eventually. In the meantime, temporary judgments can be meted out on evil human beings. Even we have to pay such judgmental penalties for running a red light. Humans are required by God to pay their proper dues to the societies in which they live.
As I have shown, the Bible teaches that all people will eventually be saved, but there are special time periods when their salvations will be awarded (I Timothy 2:6 see Greek). In the meantime, there are wars that take place, both in heaven and on earth. Before we get into the subject of conducting war on a grand scale, let us look at a local situation that can show an overall principle regarding retribution. In most civilized countries, the laws have been enacted to protect the well being of the citizens and to insure the general tranquility of society. If those normal laws which respect the person and property of law-abiding citizens are infringed upon, the Bible sanctions the use of force (even the sword) to maintain the peace (Romans 13:4). Let us look at it this way. If some person broke into your home and at gunpoint tried to harm yourself, your wife (husband) or children, any person would recognize the legal right for household members to protect themselves or their loved ones. Indeed, the Bible even teaches that a person who refuses to protect his own is worse than an infidel (I Timothy 5:8). It is the responsibility of the "head" of the home to feed, house, clothe, and to protect his loved ones. These things are responsibilities placed upon adults that God demands, or else one would be worse than an infidel. The New Testament shows in numerous verses that Christians should not shirk their duties.
All people with common sense should know that it is wrong to break into another personís home and put in jeopardy the lives of the people therein. When a criminal does such a thing, he should be well aware that he is taking his own life into precarious circumstances. He knows that he could be killed. And, he very well might. The use of fire arms or other weapons for the defense of oneís life and property varies from state to state and country to country. Yet it is held in common by all modern societies that a person has the right to protect himself in a reasonable way from those who would illegally harm you, your loved ones, or destroy your property. The law of self-defense is a well-recognized right in all civilized countries. This means that one should respect and honor the life of another even of the criminal, but if criminals literally get away with "murder" the whole of society could be placed in danger. This is why a proper police force is sanctioned and blessed by God himself.
Society needs such protection. Take the case of the Oklahoma City Bomber. He deliberately took explosives and detonated them and killed scores of innocent persons. All humans ought to respect and to value the worth the life of each other human on earth, and that includes even our own lives. This is because it is God who gives life to all. Life must be reckoned as sacrosanct. The preservation of human life is so valuable to God that His salvation is a promise from Him that each of us will experience a period in the future in which death (because it is an enemy) will be annihilated. The destruction of "death" will come by a grand resurrection from the dead that will embrace all humans who have ever lived on earth (I Corinthians 15:22-28). All mankind will eventually be granted that divine salvation that Christ Jesus has worked out for us by His activities that He performed as a substitute for each of us (see I Timothy 2:4). This means that "life" and its perpetuation is the centerpiece of Christian doctrine. And "death" (any death dealing with human beings) is reckoned by God as an "enemy" that will soon be defeated. See the new Second Edition of my book "The Essentials of New Testament Doctrine" that explains this in detail. This book is the primary text that you will need to understand the Gospel.
If "death" is an enemy to all Christians, is it right or even allowable to execute another human in a judicial sense for high crimes against others of the human race? One might think executions are against the basic principles of God. Some may feel that Christians should have nothing to do with the judicial killing of any person. But wait a moment. There is another way of looking at death (and it is a benign way of viewing the matter). This is because death is not the end for humanity. God can resurrect such a person back to life. In fact, through the efforts and merits of Christ Jesus, there is promised by God a resurrection for all people who have ever died (no matter the manner in which their deaths have taken place). So, even the death of a human on earth is only a temporary thing. It is not as severe or as terminable as some might think. Again, see my book above for the details.
The fact is, there IS a resurrection coming to all people (see I Corinthians 15:20-28). This fact does mitigate the matter of death in the eyes of most mature Christians. In the meantime, does God show that it is justified for the governments of this world to execute outright criminals who do not value the rights of others to live in tranquility and peace like those of society are expected to do? In the very beginning of the Book of Genesis we find God telling humanity that if they kill or maim others: "At the hand of man [that is, by man doing the job]ÖI require the life of man [the killing of the perpetrator]. Whoso sheddeth manís blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man" (Genesis 9:5,6). Also at the start of the history of Israel, God gave to the judges of that nation a dictum to which He expected their judiciary to adhere. For any type of "mischief" God demanded: "Thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, stripe for stripe" (Exodus 21:23-25). If this law of God were applied to the case of the Oklahoma City Bomber who openly confessed to his terrorism, then the government should have tied a stick of dynamite to his chest, strapped him to a post, and then detonated the dynamite. Severe? Unkindly? Crude? Yes, possibly on all three counts! But still, God in earlier times must have thought the procedure a proper one in order to serve as an example to others for the preservation of society from evil individuals who might want to commit "mischief." Such an execution was to be in public and to serve as a deterrent for other people.
But what if the murderer confessed repentance for his crimes and begged for mercy? Certainly, each case must be judged on its own merit. But note that when one of the two robbers at Christís crucifixion asked Christ to forgive him of his doings (and Christ did, even by saying the man would be in Paradise with Him), yet the man was still executed for his crimes. We must all pay our debts to society.
As a further example, when the apostle Paul heard that a Christian man in the City of Corinth in Greece was living with (and having sex with) his fatherís wife (whether the father was dead or not, we are not told). Paul was incensed over the vile act that he said was revolting even to the Gentiles (I Corinthians 5:1). He demanded: "Deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (verse 5). What did Paul mean by his sentence to "deliver unto Satan"? So many people misunderstand the apostle on this issue. But his teaching is easy to explain.
You see, Satan is the angel that God has placed in charge of all governments on earth (and that includes not only evil and rogue governments, but he is in personal authority also of benevolent and democratic ones). As a reminder of this principle of Satanís control of the earthís governments (under God, of course) is when Satan told Christ that if Christ would but worship Satan, that the angel who had rulership over the nations would give Christ "all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them" (Matthew 4:8,9). Satan would have bestowed on Christ total dominion over all governments on earth. Christ, however, refused to worship Satan even when Satan had such power to do as he promised. It is important for us to note that Christ did not rebuke Satan as being a liar in his boast. The Bible clearly shows that Satan was (and still is) the present prince of the air (atmosphere) that surrounds all the nations on earth with his authority, and even the benign and moderate governments are Satanís to command. What is interesting is the fact that even our democratic nations are under Satanís rule. For the full teaching of this intriguing ó yet very misunderstood ó subject, see my new Second Edition of my book "The Essentials of New Testament Doctrine". You will be surprised at what this teaching reveals.
What does this mean in regard to the Christian brother who was committing incest of the most vile kind (according to Paul). Paul knew that the City of Corinth had on its law books the death penalty for such a crime of incest (and Corinth was a part of the world-system over which Satan is in control). So, Paul said to deliver such a person to the civil authorities controlling Satanís society who would subject him to trial in a court of law and then execute him. Sure, Paul knew that the manís spirit would be saved in the resurrection, but Paul actively promoted the right of the civil authorities to execute the man "for the destruction of the flesh" (I Corinthians 5:5). Thankfully, the man fully repented of his actions. His attitude of repentance was so genuine and thorough that in his case the members of the Body of Christ (the ekklesia) forgave him entirely (II Corinthians 2:6,7). The brother was NOT handed over to the civil authorities and his life was spared. This could serve as an example to all of us to let mercy predominate. Yes indeed, but not to the extent of being foolish in oneís decision.
In summation, the apostle Paul (who wrote under divine inspiration) said: "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power [of the government]? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee [even within Satanís realm] for good. But if thou do which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain [which the government will use for judicial killings]: for he [in this regard] is a minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil" (Romans 13:3,4). Thus, according to the Word of God, the Oklahoma City Bomber paid for his terrible crime in a proper biblical manner. This is why the Bible says that God sanctions legal authorities for the preservation of the peace. They "bear not the sword in vain." The nations have the legal right to exercise their judgments with their judicial swords.
But what about wars that take place on a grand scale? The use of war (as a judgment on evil nations) is simply a ramification of this biblical principle concerning individual chastisement. The Bible shows throughout its pages that God has used wars among nations to execute his judgments upon evil empires (II Samuel 22:35; Jeremiah 51:20). Indeed, Christ himself will use an aggressive war against the worldís armies at his second coming in order to achieve his ultimate peace upon earth (Revelation 19:11-21). So, war in itself is not wrong (according to the Bible) if it is conducted for proper reasons. This is the biblical teaching. But what reasons are proper? There is one thing for certain. If your country were invaded by a hostile power to take over your persons or property ó and such an invasion was against all common decency, international law, or the biblical principles of respect for human rights, then one would have biblical authority in joining with his neighbor (and other citizens of the state) to war against such evil in order to preserve the life and property of those in his country (John 18:36). It is the same principle as defending oneís home from a criminal ó only war is on a much more grand scale.
The armed forces of the state, in this case, would be acting in a legal way towards the defense of the country much like the police would be defending the rights of people in the local community. They "bear not the sword in vain." The establishment of a military force (or maintaining such a force) for protection against international aggression is as sanctioned by biblical teaching as is the right to maintain a local police force. The only difference is that one is local and the other is international. Even John the Baptist recognized the need for soldiers in our present societies. He advised soldiers to be content with their wages. At no time did he advise soldiers to get out of the military (Luke 3:14). In actual fact, the armed forces of civilized countries are as necessary today for the preservation of the peace as they were in the time of Moses, in the time of David or when Christ comes to war with his divine army to prevail against all evil. For Christís use of war, read all of Revelation 19.
So, war is justified. But when could one legally go to war? This is the question of questions. This is where problems arise. It is not "if" one can go to war (because the Bible says one can participate in a just and legal war), but it is "when" and "for what reason" one is engaged in that war. These are the difficult questions for all to answer. Certainly, if a gang of criminals is invading the privacy of your home with intent to injure or kill you and your loved ones, you (or anyone) has a legal, moral, and also the biblical right to defend himself and those under his responsibility ó or to help anyone else who is in such need. Also, if a hostile power is invading oneís homeland, the same principle applies. But, what if oneís country were entering a war that you considered to be unjust? If you felt that such actions were not in accord with common sense, with international law, with (if one is a Christian) the biblical principles of respect and love for the lives and property of others, then oneís conscience would surely have to guide. In this case the principle of conscience must prevail. Paul said: What is not of faith is sin (Romans 14:23). If one truly felt that such actions of the state were wrong according to his concept of "right," then one could hardly feel correct in joining in the action. Only you as an individual can decide on such matters. Ernest L. Martin or no one else can tell you what you should do. I would, however, recommend Peterís advice. Peter said: "We ought to obey God rather then men" (Acts 5:29).
As for myself, I feel that war is one of the worse curses that has plagued mankind since the creation of the world. I have even wondered why God uses such means to accomplish his purposes. But God does use wars that he initiates. God knows what He is doing in these matters. I personally wish that there would never be any wars whatever. But I must be honest and admit that I would not have the slightest compunction in exercising the full authority that God and the government have given me to protect my loved ones or friends from hostile and illegal intrusions. Also, I would join hands with any of you to help you protect those under your responsibility. And I would not hesitate for a moment to help my neighbor and fellow citizens in protecting the territorial integrity of my country. But I must confess that I would weigh very carefully the actions of my government if they wished to interfere in the lives of nations on this earth if their actions were not compatible to internationally recognized laws. These are only personal opinions that I hold at the present time. Everyone, of course, has the right to believe what he pleases on such matters. I offer no advice to anyone ó with the exception of my wife and children, and even in such personal cases, it could only be advice. In matters of conscience, like the subject we are discussing, it is always best to let people make up their own minds on such delicate personal issues. This is a proper approach. Oneís conscience may even be sending a wrong message to the person that is not in accord with biblical teaching (because of faulty advice being given to the person), but even here one must respect the conscience of another. You and I would expect the same treatment even if we are right.
As an overview to the whole subject, there is one quest I have. I am looking for the time when there will be no more wars, no more hatred, no more greed, no more hurting of any kind. I am looking for the period when even God wonít have to use war any longer. But in the meantime, I hope that the police and the military (as long as their actions are legal and within the prescribed limits of proper behavior) are staying on the job and doing their biblically ordained roles of keeping the peace ó both locally and internationally (Romans 13:1-7). May God speed the day when we will need no more police or military forces, and that all people will express a respect and love for all in the universe spontaneously. The Bible says that time is coming. We Christians should try to practice it now.
Ernest L. Martin
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