In the last several months, war has been back in the news. Just as it seemed that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down, ISIS began its most rapid and extensive territorial expansion to-date. And unfortunately, the number of lives lost has also begun to climb: Iraqi troops, Syrian rebels, Japanese journalists, Jordanian fighter pilots, Christians and Yazidis, American aid workers, and even the Islamic State’s own Muslim brothers have all faced death with courage and honor. And as a Christian, a husband and father, and an Airman, these facts disturb me.
But while their examples should call us to face and fight the evil of this world, our public forum has been mainly focused on whether or not we have the moral and legal authority to do so. Of course, different people use different words. Some remind us that “Christians” behaved the same way throughout the Crusades, others refuse to see such acts of terror as religiously-motivated, and still others say that Jesus would never have killed a man. Of course, there is some truth to each of these statements. Such views, however, are rooted in a single false premise: that violence is inherently evil, regardless of the circumstances in which it is used.
Again, though, the premise is only half-true. As Solomon wrote long ago: there is, “A time to kill, And a time to heal; A time to break down, And a time to build up” (Ecc 3:3 NKJV). Each and every human life is created in the image of God and has inherent value from the moment of conception (Gen 1:26-27; Psa 139:13-18). So no matter what the circumstances—young or old, male or female, guilty or innocent—the loss of even a single human life is a tragedy to be mourned because all lives matter (Eze 33:10-11).
It is perhaps surprising, then, that while the Author of life has declared to us these truths, he has at times commanded us to take a life in order to save the lives of others. So after Yahweh restores creation through the waters of the flood he commands Noah, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man. And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; Bring forth abundantly in the earth And multiply in it” (Gen 9:6-7). So even though Noah’s world had been destroyed, man had not, and so neither had sin; even this new start implied a future fall, including bloodshed.
But while all bloodshed is regrettable in the eyes of God and his children, not all bloodshed brings blood on our hands. So right after God tells Moses, “You shall not murder” (Exo 20:13), he describes the differences between manslaughter and murder, then prescribes the death sentence as a remedy for the latter (Exo 21:12-25). In fact, God even warns us that should we fail to carry out the sentence that divine justice demands, we are asking for even more trouble: “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Ecc 8:11).
And what we see individually is true as well for nations: those who violate the holy and loving character of God will suffer punishment from heaven through the armies of man. For, “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, Gives it to whomever He will, And sets over it the lowest of men,” “He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings” (Dan 4:17; 2:21). And while sometimes it his people whom he uses to punish others for their sins (Gen 15:16; Deu 20:16-18), his people are often just as deserving of his wrath (Deu 28:15-68). No leader, no nation, no offender is outside the reach of the Lord of heaven and earth.
Nor does the new covenant in Christ reverse these teachings; instead it corrects their abuses by pointing back to our shared humanity, and the defeat of bloodshed through the shedding of Christ’s own blood. First, Jesus teaches us that vengeance is not the same as justice:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. . . . You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you. (Mat 5:38-39, 43-44)
Throughout Israel’s history, what God had commanded as a legal remedy for murder (“an eye for an eye,” Exo 21:23-25) had become a personal ethic of vengeance. So what the Lord had given to preserve life had instead been misinterpreted as the authority to take it in revenge. But Jesus tells us to leave the law in the courtroom and instead live by the mercy that the Law had built into it in the first place: “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18).
More importantly, however, is the victory of Christ against all worldly power and self-seeking through his sacrifice on the cross. The Jewish vision of the Messiah was of a conquering king who would raise up a new army of the sons of Israel and deliver them from the power of Rome. But only moments after the apostle Peter confesses Jesus as this very Messiah, Christ tells him something startling: Don’t tell anyone who I am, I “must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Mat 16:21; see 16:13-20).
Jesus outsmarted Satan every step of the way. The devil thought that if he could kill the Messiah, Israel’s army would never come, the Jews would never be saved, the light would never shine among the Gentiles, and God’s plans would be defeated. And so, through the whips, spear, and cross of man, he murdered the Son of Man, fulfilled the ministry of Jesus on this earth, and sealed his own treacherous fate. Satan would learn the hard truth on Sunday: Jesus defeated death through death, and now lives (1Co 15). Armed force in the name of Jesus would have defeated the very purpose of Jesus’ ministry both now and then, as Jesus himself said on more than one occasion (John 18:3-11; 36). But do not be fooled: when Jesus comes to judge all mankind, there will be blood (2Th 1:6-9; Isa 63:3-6; Rev 15:18-20).
And yet, no soldier either before or after the cross was commanded by the Lord or his messengers to cease his service. John the Baptist doesn’t command such when he instructs soldiers on the repentance that is to accompany their baptism. Instead he says, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). Nor does Jesus himself when he heals a Roman centurion’s daughter, marveling to the crowd, “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” (Luke 7:9). And of Cornelius, Peter asks only, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). God forbid that we refuse to forgive and receive the one whom the very Spirit of our Lord approves!
It should no longer surprise us to learn, then, that it is the biblical doctrine of war that informs the principles of international law and the Law of Armed Conflict down to this very day: To fight only when justice and righteousness demands it, to serve under the authority of our God-given government, to make every effort to first secure justice in peace, to ensure our brothers and sisters in arms have a good probability of success, to use only as much force as is necessary, to prevent unnecessary harm, to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants, and to seek restitution and reconciliation both during and after the conflict (Deu 20:1-20).
No person should desire war (Psa 68:30), but when war comes, every man and woman of character should stand against the forces of injustice, regardless of the direction from which they approach. Sometimes, this means resisting without force, and sometimes only force will give justice its due. In either case, our work is the same as our Father’s: to “Defend the poor and fatherless; Do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy; Free them from the hand of the wicked” (Psa 82:3-4). For when we do so, we do not bear the sword in vain (Rom 13:4).