Question: Is it ever right to make war? Can violence be moral? Doesn’t Jesus teach that all violence is contrary to His ethic?
God is not the creator of war. It exists because of greed and rebellion against God’s rightful reign (Gen. 14:2; cf. Psa. 2:1-2). But, God will end all wars! He promises to ultimately abolish war and establish eternal peace (Psa. 46:9; Isa. 2:4; Hos. 2:18; Zec. 9:10).
The answer to your question involves three periods in history: Old Testament times, End Times, and the in-between times, i.e., the time between the OT and the End Times. I’ll address each period in that order.
In OT times, God claims the right to end human life (e.g., the flood; cf. Gen. 9:6). God authorizes angels to take human lives (2 Kgs. 19:35; 2 Sam. 24:16). God authorizes humans to take human life in war (Num. 31; Deut. 7). Therefore, since God cannot do what is immoral, the taking of human life in war cannot be inherently immoral.
During the End Times, Jesus will return to receive his kingdom and order, “But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence” (Luke 19:27).
When the Son of Man returns, he commands concerning the evil, drunken slave: “cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 24:44-51). In Revelation 19, the Greek words translated ‘war’ and ‘wage war’ occur for their final time.
The One who is called Faithful and True, whose name is the Word of God, rides forth to judge and wage war in righteousness. The armies of heaven follow Him on white horses, and “from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations” (Rev. 19:11-15). In preparation for the great battle, an angel invites birds to come gorge themselves on the flesh of the dead (Rev. 19:18-21).
Jesus’ teaching, whether in parables or visions, pictures the sinless Son of God and his servants using violence and waging war. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that the use of violence and waging war are not inherently immoral. The problem is that in both the OT and End Times examples given, God is personally directing the wars.
But what about now—the in-between times—when we don’t have that kind of access to the Most High King? Some Christians hold that all forms of violence are contrary to Christ’s law of love. They point to Jesus’ command, “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39).
In the same context, Jesus said, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).
I find help interpreting Jesus’ non-resistance and non-violence sayings from two places. First, John 18:36 says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting.” This text seems to imply two things:
- during these in-between times, Jesus’ kingdom cannot be advanced through violence; and
- fighting would be a proper response if Jesus’ kingdom were of this world.
We must distinguish Jesus’ redemptive purpose in His first coming from His reigning purpose in the second coming.
Second, in Romans 12:19-13:7 Paul distinguishes personal and civil vengeance. The individual mandate is “never take your own vengeance but leave room for the wrath of God” (Rom. 12:19). The civil mandate is “[government] is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4).
Navigating these two mandates is complex, multi-layered, and often situation-specific. The extent to which believers may serve as an avenging civil minister of God will be a function of their understanding of Scriptural justice, their individual consciences, and the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
Originally published in the God’s Bible School & College Ministry Library.