What does the Bible say about war?

Sometimes timeless questions take new shape as they are influenced by personal experiences and current events. One such question concerns the Christian stance on war. We all know war is horrible, but is it a necessary evil?

Much of the difficulty comes because the Bible seems to give mixed messages. Are Christians meant to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, or should we take up the sword to defend the weak and constrain evil?

Recently, as I was preparing to address some students from Newcastle University on the subject, it occurred to me that there is no single ‘Christian view of war’. Instead there are Christians views, informed by Scripture and shaped by a diverse array of theological interpretations, historical contexts and personal convictions.

A short article like this is no place to unpack all of these considerations, but it is perhaps a chance to provide a framework to help readers think through the biblical foundations of these views and the points at which Christians might differ.

Fuel your faith every Friday with our weekly newsletter

What does the Bible say about war?

The short answer is, a lot, and some of it can be quite confronting. But at the very least, the bible says the following three things about war:

First, war is the fallout of human sin. Beginning with a seemingly trivial act of disobedience in Eden, things escalate rapidly from sibling homicide to the point at which the tools of war become a trade in the first recorded military conflict in the great Battle of the Kings. War is a fallen reality, stripping away our civilized adornments and exposing our spiritual nakedness.

God’s idea of peace — Shalom — isn’t simply the absence of conflict.

Second, God’s people should strive for peace. Time and again the prophets of old called God’s people “to act justly” (Mic. 6:8) to “take up the cause of the fatherless,” and to “plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) Jesus even said things like, “blessed are the peacemakers” (Isa. 1:17), with the Apostle Paul speaking of our vocation as being ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

So, God’s idea of peace — Shalom — isn’t simply the absence of conflict, nor does it call for passivity on our part, but it speaks of a practical directive for Christians to actively pursue God’s good design as we now live east of Eden in a fallen world.

Third, wars will one day cease. A day is coming when the “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6) will return to earth to set everything right, smithing weapons of conflict into tools of cultivation (Isa. 2:4) as he restores all things to the way they were always meant to be.

The point of disagreement

Of these three points, most Christians agree on the first and the third: war is the fallout of human sin, and wars will one day cease. That leaves us with point two: God’s people should strive for peace.

But how are we to do that? Is it possible to strive for peace without engaging in violence? How do we ‘war against war’ so to speak? That is the issue that tears the Christian conscience apart, not whether war is ever ‘ok’, but whether it is, in all cases, entirely avoidable.

The Bible’s broad teachings on the moral dilemmas of war have contributed significantly to the two dominant ethical theories about the place of war in our world: Pacifism and Just War Theory.

Those of us privileged with enough peace to think about war should do so.

Pacifism is the general view that it is not right to participate in war, and that disputes should be settled by non-violent means, at least wherever possible. Christians who adopt a pacifist stance appeal to various themes in Scripture to justify their position, such as:

  • Jesus’ teachings, especially those exemplified in The Sermon on the Mount about nonviolence and unconditional love, even towards our enemies.
  • Trusting divine providence, with the supreme example being the cross of Christ, where – although it seemed like evil triumphed violently over good – God’s power reversed the apparent defeat through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, displaying how evil can be swallowed up by love.
  • The reality that Christians are citizens of God’s Kingdom, where even though some Pacifists may recognise the right of the State to go to war, Christians should conscientiously object because we are primarily representatives of God’s spiritual kingdom.

On the other side of the situation table sits Just War Theory, which is the view that, while war is undesirable, it can be morally justifiable under certain conditions.

Importantly, Just War Theory does not try to justify war as a good in itself but seeks to bring the inescapable reality of war ‘under justice’ by advocating such things as jus ad bellum (“just reason for war”), jus in bello (“just conduct in war”) and jus post bellum (“just outcome of war”).

Like Pacifism, there are many Christians who hold to a Just War Theory ethic. They argue that their view finds support in Scripture from:

  • The Mosaic distinction in killing evident in the fact that the same God who commanded “Thou shalt not murder” also sanctioned capital punishment for certain crimes. While all murder is killing, evidently not all killing is murder.
  • Pragmatic necessity evident in the ‘messy’ situational ethics seen throughout Scripture, where there seems to be precedent for taking a ‘lesser of two evils’ approach in pursuit of a higher good, especially in protecting the weak and innocent.
  • The apostle’s teaching about the separation of Church and State, and the role of the government in bearing the sword to bring about justice.

As ethical theories, both Pacifism and Just War Theory have their strengths and weaknesses. But which one is right?  Which one does the Bible support? Well, it’s complicated.

Personally, I find war to be one of those horrible faith affirming realities.

War and faith

As we’ve seen, both conclusions can be supported by what the Bible says, which is why Christianity doesn’t openly endorse or outright reject going to war. Instead it offers a framework for discernment, acknowledging a host of moral complexities. This is why I think those of us privileged with enough peace to think about war should do so, respecting biblical fidelity and individual conscience in the process.

War

Personally, I find war to be one of those horrible faith affirming realities. Evil exists in this world because it exists first in every human heart. That’s why war and violence is a human problem more than a religious problem.

But the good news of Jesus is that we can freely receive a new heart, and that’s not a quick cop-out overlooking the complexities of war. Like all open-heart surgeries, the good news of Jesus is invasive, cutting deep to expose the universal issues of human sin and death.

What Christianity clearly does advocate is the towering figure of Jesus, who puts a check on our violent impulses, teaches us to love our enemies, and inspires us to find unique ways to strive for peace, even at a great cost to ourselves.

In the meantime, until Jesus returns, as wars will continue to tear up those whom God loves around our world, Christians are to engage in the prophetic act of lament, expressing the practical love of God in serving those affected by the brutal realities of war, and all the time longing for the day when “swords will be hammered into ploughshares” (Mic. 4:1-5).

David Deane is a speaker with Questioning Christianity

David Deane

David Deane is an active speaker and published author, in a speaking role with Questioning Christianity. You can keep up with his work on his website and YouTube channel.

Related Reading

Related stories from around the web

Eternity News is not responsible for the content on other websites