“You will hear of wars and rumours of wars” (Matthew 24:6)
We are living through one of the most challenging times since WWII with President Putin recently ordering his nuclear forces into a state of “special combat readiness”. Russia has also warned that WWIII may break out.
Closer to home, China has built bases and militarised them in the South China Sea, stepped up threatening military manoeuvres against Taiwan and signed a security deal with the Solomon Islands. In response, Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton has recently warned Australians to prepare for war in order to preserve peace. The nation needs to stare down acts of aggression, he said.
How should Christians respond to this? The situation can, quite naturally, cause anxiety and fears. I’m sure it happened to great people of faith. For example, the Psalms express David’s anxiety and fears when he was pursued by Saul and his army of 3000 men in the wilderness of Engedi. And we can guess from Peter’s bitter tears after he denied Jesus three times, that he was anxious and fearful of the future.
The Apostle Paul describes how under the affliction he experienced in Asia, he was so utterly burdened beyond his strength that he despaired of life itself (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Even though the Scriptures are very clear that God is completely sovereign and just – the loving God who rules the world – being in difficult and uncertain circumstances produces anxiety and fear even among the heroes of the faith.
So how should we deal with that?
- Trust God. Go to the Scriptures and read the texts such as Isaiah 41:10; Philippians 4:6-7 and Romans 8:28. Remind yourself that even if you did die, you would be with your saviour in heaven (Revelation 21:3-4 and 22:3-4).
Of course, this is easier said than done sometimes and I noted above even the heroes of faith faltered on some occasions. So turn to God and ask him for help to trust him. Read of the way Jesus restored Peter after his denial of him in John 21. Read the sufferings Paul went through in 2 Corinthians 11:24-12:8 and take courage from Paul’s response in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s grace is sufficient for him.
- Pray. Our prayers are important – when God wants to give us things, he may work through our prayers (John 16:24). Pray for kings and all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Timothy 2:1-4). Pray for God to restrain evil. Pray for God to give wisdom and courage to our leaders (James 3:17). Whatever you do – pray!
- Seek help. Of course, if your anxiety and fears grow to an unhealthy level, seek help from mental health professionals such as a good doctor and/or psychologist.
But if the worst happens and war does break out what should Christians do? This is a vexed question on which Christians have disagreed practically right from the beginning. This is because there is no single text in the Bible that says that war is either right or wrong and so the sweep of Scripture needs to be considered. Let’s have a go at that!
A critical issue is the character of God. God is a holy God who punishes evil. The greatest examples of this bookend the Scriptures with the flood of Noah in Genesis and the final judgment in Revelation. In the Old Testament, confronting violence and war are frequently recorded (for example, Exodus 17:8-16; Numbers 31:3-7; Deuteronomy 20:1-4; Joshua; Judges 3:10; 1 Samuel 15:1-23; Isaiah 45:1).
This punishment is ratcheted up to the spiritual realm in the New Testament where the person who speaks the most of hell is Jesus (Matthew 8:12; 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51 and 25:30) and the picture of the judgment in Revelation 14:14-20 is terrifyingly violent.
Yet the Bible says God is love (1 John 4:7) and he even loves his enemies and does not wish that any should perish (Ezekiel 33:1-11 and 2 Peter 3:9). Indeed, because Jesus “is the exact representation of God” (Hebrews 1:3) and his behaviour is non-violent, and he teaches non-violence (Matthew 5:39; 26:51-53), combined with Paul’s teaching of non-violence (Romans 12:17-21) it could be argued that Christians should be pacifists.
It is axiomatic that God sanctions the use of appropriate violence if required … [to punish] evildoers.
However, military people are always spoken of in positive terms in the New Testament (Luke 7:9; 23:47; Acts 10:2, 16:25-34; 27:43) and the profession of arms is one of the many honourable professions that the Christian life is likened to (1 Timothy 6:12; 2 Timothy 2:3,4; Philemon 2 and Ephesians 6:11-17). The advice given to soldiers in Luke 3:14 does not contain any hint of condemnation of the profession undertaken honourably.
Paul says that God uses rulers to punish evil by the use of ‘the sword’ (Romans 13:1-7). As part of their ruling mandate, it is axiomatic that God sanctions the use of appropriate violence if required, for without it they could not discharge their God-ordained function of punishing evildoers (v4). This is quite striking when we contemplate the ruling Roman authority at the time whose police force was its soldiers! So appropriate violence in the suppression and punishment of evil is overtly sanctioned by God.
Elsewhere, God commands rulers to rescue the weak and needy (Ps. 82:2-4). Governments are instituted by God and responsible for caring for the people entrusted to them for the common good. In a sinful, fallen world, sadly sometimes they must use force to do this.
Of course, God wants peace, and Christians should too, but because people are sinful, action to bring this about is unfortunately necessary sometimes. In a broken world, war may be the loving option. It sounds really strange, so let me try to explain what is meant. Pol Pot should have been stopped. The Rwandan genocide should have been stopped. Hitler had to be stopped. Failing to intervene and allowing the Cambodians, the Tutsis and the Jews to be exterminated is not sensible restraint, but a lack of love. It is a lack of love for the victims. It is an unwillingness to sacrifice anything for what is right. It is putting God to the test to only pray but not take physical action. It is a greater failure to not go to war than to go to war. The Bible does not require peace at any price, and it is not right to leave the physical fighting to the non-Christian. Further, where there are more soldiers who follow the Lord Jesus, it is more likely that evil will be restrained in the heat of battle.
In a broken world, war may be the loving option.
So my conclusion, in line with many Christians down through the ages, is that rulers must sometimes go to war, as a terrible duty, for “the object of securing peace, of punishing evildoers, and of uplifting the good” (Augustine). The framework outlining this has come to be known as the ‘just war’ theory.
Just war is never more than rough justice. War results from human sin and is a venue for more and greater sin. Unfortunately, until God brings his new heavens and earth, we live in a world where there will be war. Just war theory attempts to limit, restrain and quickly finish the dismal task of war. God will demand an accounting for conduct in war at the final judgment.
The principles of the justice of war are commonly held to be:
- Having just cause. Just causes include defence against violent aggression, but offensive war is only permitted in very limited circumstances.
- Being the last resort. Every negotiation and other means to resolve the issue must have been properly tried and failed.
- Being declared by proper authority. In our situation, this is the nation-state.
- Possessing the right intention. A nation waging a just war should be doing so for the cause of justice and not for reasons of self-interest or aggrandisement. It seeks to limit the inflicting of harm or vengeance, lust for power, and such things.
- Having a reasonable chance of success. This seeks to prevent wars where a nation faces overwhelming odds in order to preserve human life. However, a seemingly ‘hopeless’ defensive action might still be ‘just’.
- The end should be proportional to the means used. Is the expected gain or just redress proportional to the total harm likely to be inflicted?
During the conflict there are two further considerations:
- Is the expected military gain of a particular action proportionate to the collateral damage and injuries that are expected?
- Are the targets legitimate? Civilians are not legitimate targets.
We should not underestimate the gravity of current events on the world stage and our response must be one of prayer for those who are subject to war currently, for our leaders and the leaders of other nations.
This is serious stuff, and life in a fallen world is full of compromises. So, if the worst happens and war breaks out, Christians ought to be at the forefront of serious reflection on the issues at stake. We should join the debate using the just war theory which is biblical in its roots, broad in its compass, and deep in its application to beseech the government for clear, just, and achievable outcomes.
The scourge of war will be with us until Jesus returns. I thank God for this time of peace in our part of the world. But it’s not guaranteed to last. Only when Jesus returns will swords be beaten into ploughs, spears into pruning hooks, and nation not lift up the sword against nation anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)
Come, Lord Jesus!
 Job 42:2; Isaiah 45:7; Acts 4:27-30; Ephesians 1:11 to name but a few
Grant Phillip Dibden is an Australian Anglican bishop and former military officer and chaplain, who is currently Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force.