What Does the Bible Say About War?
Posted by faithandthelaw on June 6, 2010
FAQ: I know some Christians who say they are “pacifists,” and that war is always wrong. Some go so far as to say they would not defend themselves even if someone tried to kill them. One called me a “militant” Christian because I said I would. What does the Bible say about war?
While there are verses that some have interpreted in a pacifist way, we assert that the belief that a person should not defend himself, his family, his society, or his nation comes from a misinterpretation of the Bible. Even a cursory reading of Scripture will show that if one were to put a sub-title on Genesis 3:7 – Revelation 20:10, it would be “God at war.” With whom is He at war? And what are they fighting about?
God is at war with the spirit being we know as the Devil, Satan, or Lucifer, who rebelled against Him, and then twisted the hearts of Adam and Eve to get them to disobey Him. Satan is the same one who has since wreaked havoc on mankind, stealing, killing, and destroying everything and everyone he can (John 10:10). As the antithesis of God, who is love, Satan is pure hate.
What God and the Devil are fighting over is people. Knowing that his doom is certain because of the finished work of Jesus Christ, the Devil’s goal is to hurt God as badly as he can. He does so by trying to keep people from hearing the truth of God’s Word about Jesus Christ and thus getting saved. If people get saved, he still does all he can to make their lives miserable and to kill them. This relentlessly cruel being, who disguises himself as an angel of light, is in reality a liar, a deceiver, a murderer, and the personification of evil. If you give him a millimeter, he will take a light year.
God and the Lord Jesus are the epitome of love, and they will one day bring peace on earth, but they know that the wicked stand in the way of peace, and must be dealt with. When it comes to the pure evil that Satan embodies, the only way to have peace is by war, including eventually destroying him and all his allies. In the battle between good and evil, on the side of good there is God and his armies, both angels and human. On the side of evil is the Devil, his demons, and the people who knowingly or unknowingly side with him. Although it will not always be this way, the background of the spiritual and physical universe we are living in today is conflict. That is why the Bible says that God is a warrior. “The LORD is a man of war” (Exod. 15:3, KJV).
If the pacifist position were correct, it would seem logical that throughout history God would either prevent war, or at least not take sides in human conflicts, but that is not the case. God is certainly no pacifist, and the acts of our warrior-God fighting on behalf of His people, often via his angels, are seen all through the Bible. Some pertinent examples are: God removed the wheels of Egypt’s chariots as they pursued Israel, and drowned them in the sea (Exod. 14:25, 28); He threw hailstones down on the Canaanite army (Josh. 10:11); He rained down fire from heaven and burned up the enemy soldiers who came to get Elijah (2 King 1:9-15); He killed 185,000 Assyrian soldiers who were attacking Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35); He blinded the false prophet Bar-Jesus, who stood against the teaching of Paul (Acts 13:9-11). In the future, He will throw huge hailstones, weighing about 100 pounds each, upon his enemies (Rev. 16:21).
God’s angels are warriors also, and are in His army. In fact, God is called, “LORD of hosts” more than 200 times in the Bible (cp. 1 Chron. 11:9; Ps. 46:7-11; Isa. 13:4; Jer. 11:22; 51:33; Nahum 2:13; Haggai 2:6). Unfortunately, the average Christian does not know what the phrase means, and it has even been translated out of some versions, such as the NIV, which uses the phrase “LORD Almighty” instead of “LORD of hosts.” This change greatly dilutes our understanding of the spiritual battle. The Hebrew word translated “hosts” means “armies” (as does the Greek word in Luke 2:13). The angels are a major part of the army of God, and the Bible reveals that angels join God in His fight against evil, as the following verse shows:
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon [the Devil], and the dragon and his angels fought back.
If God is a warrior, and His angels are also warriors and fight with Him, what about Jesus Christ? Scripture reveals that he also is a warrior. The warfare he waged while completing his earthly ministry was spiritual and mental. He cast out evil spirits, stood against the evil rulers of his day, and helped people in every way he could. His ministry was short, and its purpose did not involve going to war on earth to defend God’s people. However, when Jesus comes back, he will show himself to be the consummate warrior, something that is foretold in the Old Testament and portrayed in Revelation. Consider the following prophetic verses from Isaiah about the Lord’s return to conquer the earth from the grip of evil, and how he is pictured with his robes spattered with blood.
Isaiah 63:1-4, and 6
(1) Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? “It is I [the Messiah], speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.”
(2) Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress?
(3) “I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me. I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing.
(4) For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and the year of my redemption has come.
(6) I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground.”
The book of Revelation, which is still future, also shows Jesus coming from heaven and fighting against evil.
Revelation 19:11, 13-15a
(11) I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider [Jesus Christ] is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.
(13) He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.
(14) The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean.
(15) Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations.”
After Jesus defeats the enemies that now threaten the earth and sets up his 1000 year kingdom (Rev. 20:4-6), he will not rely on the “good nature” of people to keep order in society. Scripture is clear that he will keep order by wielding a “rod of iron” (Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15 KJV). Although this may seem cruel and harsh, it is not, because no one has to be a criminal, and being harsh on criminals protects the innocent. Christians and civil authorities should take note: if Jesus will rule his kingdom with a rod of iron to keep order and protect the innocent, why would we think our society should be ruled differently? Our lenient laws have caused our unsafe society, and we and our children will not be safe until we decide to be as harsh on the guilty as Jesus will be. [For further study read, The Death Penalty: Godly or Ungodly?.]
Jesus is clearly a warrior, and the fact that there is no verse in the Gospels showing him protecting his family or society does not mean that he would not have done so. Likewise, nothing in the Word says that Jesus did not support the punishments prescribed by the Mosaic Law, including the execution of criminals. We saw that he will certainly execute his enemies in the future.
We have seen that God is a warrior, so are His angels and so is Jesus. But what about Christians? First, we must remember that throughout the Old Testament, the people of God were, like God, warriors. Moses, Joshua, the Judges, David, and the kings of Judah all led armies, and God helped them win their battles when they stood with Him. Examples of God helping His people win battles include His telling Joshua how to conquer Jericho (Josh. 6:2-5); telling him that an ambush was the way to destroy Ai (Josh. 8:1,2); telling David how to attack the Philistines (2 Sam. 5:22-25; 1 Chron. 14:14-16); and telling Israel how to attack the Syrian army (1 Kings 20:13,14). The faithful of the Old Testament understood that there were occasions when fighting and war were necessary, and they relied upon God, their weapons, and their training during those times.
Psalm 18:34 and 35
(34) He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
(35) You give me your shield of victory, and your right hand sustains me; you stoop down to make me great.
Psalm 144:1 and 2
(1) Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.
(2) He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues peoples under me.
Did all that change when Jesus came to earth? Did God stop asking His people to fight evil, and did He stop helping them in battle? We assert that God still wants people to fight evil, and still helps them win. To understand Scripture, we must realize that unless God clearly changes a commandment He has given, it is still to be believed and obeyed. And we see no revision of God’s commands to protect oneself, participate in the protection of society, or go to war to protect one’s nation.
Some people may disagree, saying that Jesus taught us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44), turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39), and warned us that, “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). But these verses do not refer to protecting one’s life, family, or nation. Jesus loved his enemies too, but he loved them by giving them every conceivable chance to turn from evil; he did not “love” them by letting them harm the innocent, for that would not be love. We saw above that when evil people refuse to take advantage of the loving opportunities they are given to turn from their wicked ways, Jesus will one day kill them to protect society. God loves His enemies too, and even gives them blessings, knowing that it is His kindness that might lead them to repentance (Rom. 2:4). But when the wicked do not respond to His love, and are a danger to the innocent, God will fight against them just as He has in the past, and the final end of the wicked and unrepentant will be His throwing them into the fires of Gehenna (Rev. 21:8).
It is important to remember that just a few hours before Jesus was arrested, he said to all his apostles, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36), but then told Peter while he was being arrested, “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus would never tell his followers to buy swords and then say it was wrong to use them. Why did Jesus make that statement to Peter? The answer is that although the priests and soldiers who arrested Jesus were immoral, what they did was not illegal, because they had the governmental right to arrest Jesus. Thus, Peter, although he thought he was doing the right thing in defending Jesus with his sword, was actually breaking the law. Had Jesus’ trial been fair and unbiased, he would have been released soon after his arrest. Many innocent people are falsely accused, arrested and jailed, but then released at trial. By using his sword, Peter was breaking the law, and neither God nor Jesus give us the right to do that.
On the other hand, we do have the legal right to defend ourselves and our society against evil, and Jesus knew that, so he told his followers to buy swords. Evil people are a danger to those around them, which is why self protection, and the outgrowths thereof, (such as the protection of one’s family, society, and nation) is vital to survival. Since Jesus told his followers to buy swords the night of his arrest, and never modified that command after his resurrection, there is no reason to believe that things should be different today. We need to be willing and able to protect ourselves and our society.
More evidence that God expects us to fight for what is right in today’s world is that, both in Philippians 2:25 and Philemon 2, Paul refers to another Christian as a “fellow soldier.” He also writes to Timothy, his young protégé in the faith:
2 Timothy 2:3 and 4
(3) Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
(4) No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants to please his commanding officer.
We assert that the term “soldier” goes beyond just spiritual warfare, and, if necessary, also includes the physical warfare that all too often is a part of life.
There is still more biblical evidence that a person in the military is not out of favor with God due to his chosen profession. The first Gentiles recorded as becoming Christians were a Roman soldier, Cornelius, and his family and friends. Cornelius was guided by an angel to hear the Good News from Peter himself (Acts 10). With so many non-military people in Palestine, the fact that God chose a soldier as the first Gentile to get born again speaks volumes about His acceptance of the military.
Still another, though non-biblical, reason for believing that God supports Christians in war are the firsthand accounts of God helping Christians in battles. While early records are understandably scarce, thousands of accounts from the Revolutionary War to this present day clearly show that God still supports godly troops.
Along with the physical battles that we fight against evil, the spiritual battle continues to rage around us. It started in Genesis and will not end until Revelation, so every Christian must be a spiritual warrior. Ephesians 6:12 tells us that in this administration of the Sacred Secret we fight against spiritual forces, demons, that work in people to obstruct God’s purposes.
If and when the spiritual battle escalates in the physical realm to the point that an evil person (or a nation of them) is going to harm us, the message of Scripture is clear: With God’s help, fight back and prevail! We know that when Noah came off the Ark after the Flood, God instituted civil government as the means to keep order on earth. This meant that mankind was responsible to execute people who murdered others (Gen. 9:5 and 6). Wicked people may not fear God, but they do fear other people (government officials) who have the power to execute them. God has made it our responsibility to keep evil at bay.
As a point of interest pertinent to this topic, Exodus 20:13, properly translated, reads: “You shall not murder.” All murder is killing, but not all killing is murder. Throughout Scripture God defines and encourages three kinds of killing that are justified and often necessary: 1) self-defense; 2) society-defense (execution of criminals); 3) national self-defense, which we call war.
Some Christians say that it is not their place to determine who lives or dies, so they would not defend themselves if someone tried to kill them. Not only is that contrary to God’s command to dispense out justice in our society, it lets the murderer decide who lives and who dies. What sense does that make? It is easy to see why Satan promotes the lie that war, either individually or nationally, is always wrong—it’s a good way to get some of God’s people to give up their lives.
Certainly, no government is the ultimate standard for when war is godly. As per Acts 5:29, we must obey God rather than man, so if or when a government edict contradicts what God tells us to do, we obey Him. We may not always know which wars precipitated by governments are the right thing to do, but the Bible makes it very clear that for the sake of God and the purposes He desires to accomplish by way of us, we must take up arms if we are threatened with destruction. Thus, in God’s view, there is a time for war.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 and 8
(1) There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…
(8) …a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
As Christians, we are guaranteed the everlasting victory, but until the Lord Jesus comes for us, we must trust and obey God in order to stand against our mortal enemy, Satan, and against those wicked people in whom he works. If and when evil threatens us, we are foolish and irresponsible if we do not defend ourselves to whatever degree is necessary to stop those who would destroy us. Jesus gave his life—and it provided deliverance from sin for all mankind. If we needlessly or foolishly give up our lives, it does not provide deliverance for anyone, it just means there is one less righteous person to help and bless people. Jesus won by giving his life. We win by fighting for God and His people, defeating evil whenever we can by whatever godly and legal means are available, and staying alive to bless and serve God’s people.