Is War or the Use of Force Ever Justified by God?
By Juan Baixeras
This has been a question for many people throughout the centuries. A topic for many debates. There are two extremes to this debate. One claims that any war is justified if you are in the right; the problem is that everyone thinks that they are in the right. The other extreme claims that any war or killing no matter what the reason is wrong before the eyes of God. Their claim goes as far as to say that we are not allowed to use any type of force even in self-defense. For example, if a man tries to rape your wife in the parking lot, we are not supposed to resist or use force to defend our wife. We are supposed to pray and let God intervene if he so wishes. Those are the extremes in this debate, and as of yet I know of no topic in which the extremes have been correct. The answer is usually somewhere in the middle.
Many people initially remember Jesus being called the “king of peace,” they remember the 5th commandment “Thou shall not kill,” and quickly jump to the conclusion that any war and killing must be wrong before the eyes of God. They seem to forget that the Messiah is considered to be a warrior king who will fight and wage war for God. They also seem to forget that God commanded that anyone who took a human life be put to death.
Leviticus 24:17 – “Anyone who takes the life of any human being shall be put to death.”
Does that mean that the person who carries out the punishment set by God on the murderer is also guilty of murder and should also be put to death, and so on and so on. Of course not. The person carrying out the sentence of death is justified by God. Killing in that instance is justified. Or is God wrong?
The 5th commandment would be better understood as:
“Thou shall not kill unless I allow it.”
First let us review a few definitions.
Justified War – A war that is sanctioned by God. God allows it for a special reason. He determines when and why you will go to war.
Unjustified War – A war that is not sanctioned by God. A war with the sole purpose of attaining gain for the participants. Almost all wars fall into this category. An unjustified war is simply murder and grand larceny on a large scale.
Justifiable killing – Killing someone either in self-defense or in accordance with God’s commands.
Murder – Klling for one’s own gain.
Self-defense – Defending oneself against an unjust attack. This can be on a personal level or on a national level.
Let us first address the argument that war and killing is never justified no matter what the circumstances. This argument is completely unbiblical. It cannot be a sin if it is sanctioned by God, and in the Old Testament, God commands the Israelites to go to war and kill many times. God also commands killing for certain crimes. In God’s eyes right is right and wrong is wrong, always. Something cannot be right today and wrong tomorrow and vice versus. This leads us to two possibilities:
1.Logic holds that if war and killing today is a sin no matter what the reason, then war and killing has always been wrong no matter what the reason. If we hold this to be true then God sinned when he ordered the Israelites to go to war and kill. God himself has killed. He killed off the whole world during the great flood except for Noah and his family. That is definitely killing. Was he wrong? Of course not. I do not know of anyone that would say that God has sinned. This is obviously not the correct choice, which leads us to the second possibility.
2.War and killing is allowed by God under certain circumstances such as in the Old Testament. Almost the entire book of Joshua is about God commanding the Israelites to War. David was sanctioned by God to be a warrior king. And of course as I mentioned earlier, Jesus comes back as a warrior king. It is also justified as a punishment for certain crimes in the Bible. Let’s look at a verse from the book of Joshua.
Joshua 11:10-12, 15 – “At that time Joshua, turning back, captured Hazor and slew its king with the sword; for Hazor formerly was the chief of all those kingdoms. He also fulfilled the doom by putting every person there to the sword, till none was left alive. As the LORD had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua acted accordingly.”
This verse is an excellent example. Joshua kills Hazor’s king, he then kills everyone else in the city leaving no survivors. This was commanded by God. It then goes on to say that Joshua acted “ACCORDINGLY.” So either God sinned for ordering Joshua to capture Hazor and kill all its inhabitants, or war and killing is justified under certain circumstances.
Some will say that that was then, only in the Old Testament. That it does not apply now. I would counter that argument with three points. First, is what I said earlier that a sin is a sin is a sin. If it is a sin now with no exceptions, then it was a sin back then with no exceptions, and it cannot be a sin because God commanded it. Secondly, it is just not true. It is still allowed in the New Testament. We are all familiar with the account of Jesus' cleansing of the temple area. When Jesus sees that the merchants of Jerusalem have converted God's temple into an outdoor mall, he first makes a whip (which takes some planning, it is not just impulsive) and then using the whip he chases them out of the temple area. He also overturns their tables.
John 2:15-16 - He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area...and overturned their tables."
There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Jesus used force to accomplish his goal. A whip is not a pacifist's tool. Jesus as we all know is sinless; therefore we must logically conclude that the use of force is not a sin and is allowable under certain conditions. I believe that since God allowed Jesus to use force to clear the temple area that he would allow us the use of force to defend our families in a life threatening situation. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to believe that God would say, "Juan, I find you guilty of sin because you used force to save your child from a pedophile, or for saving you wife from a rapist. You should have just stood there." God did create us with common sense.
The third example is that when Jesus returns he comes back to wage war on evil.
Revelation 19:11-15 – “He judges and wages WAR in righteousness…He wore a cloak that had been dipped in blood…he himself will tread out the wine press the wine of the fury and wrath of God the almighty.”
As you can see a righteous war is acceptable in the New Testament as well. Jesus who is our king and savior, who is God’s right hand and is personally sent by God, wages war against God’s enemies.
In this study we are not going to cover God’s reasons for ordering the killings in the Old Testament, it would take another paper in itself. God had very good reasons. We are just concerned with the fact that it is allowed.
It should now be obvious that there is the concept of a justified or righteous war in the Bible, which is really justifiable killing on a grand scale. The problem is knowing when a war and killing is justified. So when is a war justified?
A war can be justified by only two ways. The first is easy to see, it is when it is commanded by God as in the Old & New Testament. The second one is not spelled out in a verse but implied throughout the Bible. It is the act of self-defense. God gave Samson to Manoah and his wife in order for Samson to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. The Philistines had invaded Israel and God allowed Samson to defend Israel against the invaders that were oppressing them. While the Spirit of the LORD was with Samson he killed many Philistines in the defense of Israel. This same principal applies to an individual. If someone attacks you, you do have the right to defend yourself. Peter cut the ear off of one of the men that was trying to arrest Jesus. This was in defense of Jesus. Peter knew that if they got their hands on Jesus that they would kill him. Jesus did not rebuke him or correct him. He simply told him to put his sword away. He then goes on to say that he could call twelve legions to his defense but then how would the scriptures be fulfilled? (Matthew 26:51-54)
But the fact remains that he could have called twelve legions to defend him, and they most certainly would have used force in order to accomplish that task. So the principle of self-defense applies to individuals and nations. But it has to be purely self-defense.
When trying to determine if your reason for using force is purely defensive, one must consider the intent of the individual or nation. In the following paragraphs I will list some examples and we will look at the intent and try to determine if the individual or nation had a right to use force.
A.You are at home with your family and a stranger breaks into your house with a knife, whereas you and the attacker enter into a struggle. During the struggle you manage to get to your gun and shoot the intruder dead.
Answer – Yes, you do have the right to use force. You in no way instigated the incident. The intruder was also trying to use lethal force against you and very possibly your family. You had the right to defend yourself and your family with whatever means possible.
B.You are watering your lawn and accidentally wet a passerby. The passerby is angry and assaults you only with his fists. A fistfight ensues. The fight is pretty even. Suddenly you run inside the house and come back with a gun and shoot the passerby.
Answer – You had the right to defend yourself with your fists, you did not have the right to escalate the fight by bringing a weapon into it and killing him. You had the right to kill him during the fight if he was beating you so badly that you thought that your life was at stake and you grabbed a rock and hit him over the head. But in this example his life was not at stake. In this example if he did not want to continue the fight he could have run inside the house and just locked the door.
C.Your neighbor tells you that someone that he did wrong to called him on the phone and told him he was coming over to kill him. He asks you for help and you go over to his house with a gun and wait for the attacker. He shows up and kicks the door in, whereas you shoot him dead.
Answer - You did not have the right to kill him. Your life was not in danger, neither was your friend’s. You had several alternatives such as calling the police or, leaving. You forced a situation that put you and your friend in danger.
D.You are the Olympic 100 meter champion. You are taking a walk at night when someone jumps in front of you with a knife and demands your money. You happen to have your gun with you and you shoot him dead.
Answer – No, you did not have the right to kill him. Being the fastest man in the planet, you could have easily run away with no chance of being hurt. You chose instead to use force when there was a way out of the situation that required no force. Same scenario but you are a 300 pound fifty-year-old man. Yes, you do have the right to shoot him if you feel your life is in danger. I would show the attacker the gun first and see if that scares him away, if it doesn’t I would even give him my money even though I am holding a gun. If he tries to hurt you even after you have given him your money, then you have done everything possible and you have no other option but to use force.
You are asleep at night and you hear your car alarm go off. You look and see someone is stealing your car. You grab your gun and shoot the thief as he is getting inside of your car.
Answer – No, you do not have the right to kill someone over a material object. Your life was also not at risk. You killed someone over money.
F.You are a Polish citizen in 1939 when Germany for no reason invades Poland. You hear of the invasion and decide to join the Army and defend your country and its people.
Answer – Yes, you do have the right to defend the people in your country from an invading army. The reason is that your country did nothing to provoke the invasion. It is fighting a defensive war. You as a soldier have the right to kill enemy soldiers, but you do not have the right to kill enemy non-combatants who pose no threat.
G.Your country and another country are having a dispute over bordering oil fields. The other country invades the oil fields and takes them over but continues no further. You hear of this and join the army and go to war against them.
Answer – No, you did not have the right to go to war. It is being fought over oil and it does not constitute a life or death threat to the people in your country. You will be killing over oil. Same as example E but on a national level.
H.Your country invades another country over a land dispute. The other country is winning the war and they enter into your country. You join the army to stop the invasion.
Answer – No, you do not have the right to go to war. Your country started the war and it is being fought over land. The war your country is in is not a defensive war. It was the aggressor. The fact that it is now on the defensive does not make it a defensive war.
I.You are a Polish soldier in the Polish army in 1939. Germany invades Poland for no reason. The Polish army tries to defend Poland and its people.
Answer – No, you do not have the right to kill enemy soldiers because your intent was to fight regardless of why. You joined the army to fight for your country regardless of the reason. If it had been a dispute over land you would have fought and killed over land. The fact that it is a defensive war does not justify your intentions. Your country has the right to use force and so does anyone who joins the army after the invasion but you as an individual in the army do not.
As you can see it is sometimes a bit difficult to determine if you have the right to use force. The intent of the individual or nation is what must be considered.
The people that claim that you can never use force no matter what the circumstance (such as in the example that I gave in the beginning of the paper where a man is trying to rape your wife all you are allowed to do is pray for God’s intervention) base their belief on one verse in particular. Let’s look at that verse:
Matthew 5:38 – 39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right check, turn the other one to him as well.”
This verse is about retaliation. It is quoting Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24: 17-22 which says that if you kill someone you will be put to death, if you inflict injury on your neighbor you will receive the same treatment, limb for limb, eye for eye and tooth for tooth. In Israeli life back then, if someone beat you and broke your arm, you were allowed by law to go over there and break their arm. Sometimes people would take relatives to help them. It is a retaliation that is very close to revenge.
When someone was killed in a dispute, even if it had been in self-defense or by accident, a relative or relatives of the deceased would go and try to get their revenge on the individual. It was legal and biblical (Numbers 35:16-28). The relative who was executing the killing was called “The avenger of blood.” He was authorized by God to kill the perpetrator.
But God knew that sometimes the killing might have been in committed in self-defense or by accident, which is why God created safe cities. These cities were a place where a person who was being sought after by the avenger of blood could flee to and be safe.
What Jesus is saying in Matthew is for you to not retaliate or seek revenge. In other words, “to forgive them.” He is not saying to let someone kill you. He is saying that if someone does something wrong to you, for you to not retaliate and do it to them. The New American Bible has an excellent footnote on this verse:
NAB footnote - Matthew 5:38-42 – “The Old Testament commandment was meant to moderate vengeance; the punishment should not exceed the injury done. Jesus forbids even this proportionate retaliation.”
To interpret this verse to mean that you cannot resist someone who is trying to kill you or a family member is very irresponsible. It is simply not Biblical.
Summary – As we have shown above, there are two reasons that allow for the use of force. The first is by a command or a decree from God. The second is in self-defense. It can be in defense of yourself or someone else, or in the defense of your country which is really the defense of other people who are being attacked without provocation. Self-defense is determined by the intentions of the individual or nation and not the actual circumstances such as in example I above. If in order to avoid the use of force your ego has to take a beating, then let your ego take a beating, but if you are physically in danger and you have no other options, then you are allowed to defend yourself. This also applies on a larger scale with nations.
God bless, and may you never have to use force.