Does the Bible Justify War?

Borrowed Light
Does the Bible Justify War?

“War, huh
What is it good for?

War, huh
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing, say it again”

- Edwin Starr

Does the Bible agree with those lyrics? Does God condone war? Is there such a thing as a holy war? Can it be good for something?

What Does the Bible Say about War?

This is an incredibly difficult question. When we have a difficult question like this, it is important to establish what we can almost all agree upon. What is clear?

- War is not present in God’s good creation, prior to Genesis 3

- War is not present in God’s redeemed creation, after Revelation 21

- In between those two poles, living outside of Eden, war is.

While evil exists, war in some form or another, will exist (James 4:1)

- God abhors those who love violence (Psalm 11:5)

- Human life is valuable (Genesis 1:26)

- Blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9)

When it comes to what the Bible says about war, it certainly acknowledges that war is present. And it also appears that God will often use war to accomplish holy ends. It might be said that God Himself is at war with all that is evil and wrong and harmful.

But does God condone war? Can it be said that God is “pro-war”?

Does God Condone War?

Reading throughout the Old Testament, and even Revelation in the New Testament, it might seem as if God loves to battle. He is often sending the Israelites into battle. He blesses their efforts, and at times He even commands total destruction of a people. As Exodus 15:3 says, “The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is his name.”

But Romans 15:33 refers to Him as a “God of peace.” Which is it? How can God be both “of peace” and also “a man of war”? How does Jesus say “love your neighbor as yourself” and then in the Old Testament we read of God calling for the death of the Canaanites?

Some have tried to say that this is the difference between the God of the OT and the God of the NT. But that will not fly. For one, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Secondly, there is just as much language in the New Testament. God is consistent throughout. So, what then, do we do with what seems like an inconsistency?

In his book, The God I Don’t Understand, Old Testament scholar Christopher J.H. Wright grapples with the difficulty of the Canaanites. He says this,

“The conquest is consistently and repeatedly set within the framework of God’s international justice and punishment…It is repeatedly portrayed as God acting in judgment on a wicked and degraded society and culture — as God would do again and again in Old Testament history, including against Israel itself. In that sense, although the story is unique and limited (as we have just seen), it is also entirely in keeping with the way the rest of the Old Testament shows God using nations as the agents of his anger against collective human wickedness.” (Wright, 92)

What this means is that when we look at war within the Scripture, it is much different than the war we might see today. It’s not a “holy war;” that is not a phrase ever used in the Scriptures. But rather it is a war in which God has won victory over the enemies of Israel — and thus the enemies of God. It is a picture of God’s judgment against sin. Ultimately, it points to the gospel. Wright’s conclusion of the matter is helpful:

“Within that overall biblical perspective, the road to Canaan was one small stretch along the road to Calvary. From that point of view, I cannot do other than include it among the mighty acts of God for which all his people are called to praise him. I have to read the conquest in light of the cross…the cross too involved the most horrific and evil human violence, which, at the same time, also constituted the outpouring of God’s judgment on human sin. The crucial difference, of course, is that, whereas at the conquest, God pours out his judgment on a wicked society who deserved it, at the cross God bore on himself the judgment of God on human wickedness, through the person of his own sinless Son—who deserve it not one bit. (Wright, 107)

In other words, we must view the biblical narrative in regards to war in light of the gospel. When we do this, a few different Christian positions on war arise.

What Are the Different Christian Positions on War?

The first Christian position is known as pacificism. There have been several groups of Christians throughout the history of the church which believed firmly that any use of deadly force is inconsistent with the gospel. It held a significant position within the early church. Those who hold to this position would read Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38-48 as prescriptions for Christian conduct — and not merely the attitude one has when facing persecution. They would say that Christ, who freely laid down his life, is the model for Christians. We should never fight.

Others would respond to the position of pacifism by noting the difference between public and private duties. There is a difference between what God has called government to do (punish evildoers) and what a private citizen is allowed to do. While I may freely give of my own life as Jesus did, would it be a Christian ethic for me not to defend the life of my brother or sister who is being harmed? From this emerged what is known as the Just-War theory.

As Christianity held different places within the Roman Empire, it had to wrestle with questions of war differently. It’s not surprising that the early church would have overwhelmingly been slanted towards pacificism. They were not in a position of power. They did not have to grapple as much with what it would mean to defend their neighbor. But by the time of Augustine (354-430), Christianity held a different place in the empire. It's not surprising, then, that Augustine would have developed a just-war theory as a now Christian Empire was being attacked by barbarians. What would it mean to “keep the peace”?

Most discussions today of just-war theory are indebted to both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. In his book, Evangelical Ethics, John Jefferson David summarizes the position:

“Such discussions commonly distinguish between jus ad bellum criteria, i.e., those governing the decision whether or not a given war is justified, and jus in bello criteria, those used to evaluate given lines of conduct once war has commenced. The jus ad bellum criteria include competent authority, just cause, proportionality of proposed means and the probable costs in the light of the probability of success, exhaustion of peaceful means of resolution, and right intent…Once war has been entered into, the jus in bello criteria include a principle of proportionality, i.e., the use of force and violence must be limited in terms of legitimate military necessity and the principle of discrimination: direction, intentional attacks on noncombatants are prohibited. These criteria, like the jus ad bellum ones, are all attempts to limit the level of violence and destruction that inevitably are a feature of war.” (David, 242-43)

Both of these positions have been held by Christians throughout the centuries. Both agree that peace is ideal but differ on how that is accomplished. Both look to the new heavens and the new earth when all war will be eradicated. But does that happen through the peaceful actions of Christ or the judgment of Christ? Perhaps it is a bit of both.

How Can We Pray for People and Countries Experiencing War?

Sadly, this is not a discussion confined to the halls of academia. There was a New York Times article which claimed, “Of the past 3,400 years human have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.” But even those numbers have been challenged.

According to the Council on Foreign relations humanity is presently involved in 27 global conflicts. People are in war at present. We are called to pray. We should pray for justice as well as grace. We should pray for an end to conflict, that the vulnerable are protected, and for peace to reign. As we pray this, we’re essentially praying “Maranatha,” Come Lord Jesus!

We should also pray for love and wisdom to reign. We should pray for courage for people to do the right thing. As we do this, we should consider confessing our own greed, hostility, lust for power, and anything else that is present which conflicts with the kingdom of Christ.

As we pray these things let us also rest in God’s sovereign care. May it create in us a longing for the new heaven and the new earth. We should pray that conflict would lead to gospel proclamation, gospel healing, and gospel resolutions.

Longing for Peace

War is complicated. Faithful Christians will disagree about whether or not a war is just or whether we should ever engage in war. It’s a difficult question. At the end of the day, I think every Christian is longing for peace. It’s clear that being a war monger is contrary to Christian ethics. We should never enjoy the savagery of war. And yet some might believe that war is necessary in a fallen world in order to move towards peace. Others might believe that such action is never just. Both should obey their conscience as we together long for the return of Christ.

Some day war will be no more. How we navigate a world with war is difficult. But we can be united in our hope. 

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/cineuno

Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.