The Bible and War

What do the Scriptures teach about the morality of international conflicts?

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Photo (c) by stock.xchng user geertcolp.

You've probably heard the old saying, "Nothing is certain in this world except death and taxes." That certainly rings true, but I might add another item to that list: war.

According to this article from the New York Times, there have been a total of 268 years when all of humankind has been at peace, without any wars in the world. That's a little less than 8 percent of recorded history. In other words, for every decade of human civilization on this planet, more than 9 years were spent in the throes of war somewhere on the globe.

It's no surprise, then, that the Bible has a lot to say about the topic of war.

A Grim Reality

Actually, the Bible doesn't just talk about war as a concept -- it includes a lot of military history and actual records of war. In fact, there are many places throughout the Old Testament where God explicitly commands His people, the Israelites, to engage in war with neighboring nations and people groups.

The best-known example is probably Israel's conquest of Canaan, also known as the Promised Land. After Moses led the exodus from slavery in Egypt (see Exodus 12 through 14), and after the Israelites wandered around the wilderness for 40 years (see Deuteronomy 1-2), God commanded His people to conquer the Promised Land by military force.

Here's an example of God commanding the Israelites to take up arms and go to war:

Then Moses went out and spoke these words to all Israel: "I am now a hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you. The Lord has said to me, 'You shall not cross the Jordan.' The Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you will take possession of their land. Joshua also will cross over ahead of you, as the Lord said. And the Lord will do to them what he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, whom he destroyed along with their land. The Lord will deliver them to you, and you must do to them all that I have commanded you (Deuteronomy 31:1-5).

Make no mistake-the conquest of the Promised Land was a brutal military campaign. It involved dozens of battles against a number of different people groups, stretching over the course of years. And the Israelites weren't charged simply with defeating armies; they were ordered by God to execute His judgment against the Canaanites by slaughtering everyone they conquered, including women and children:

That day Joshua took Makkedah. He put the city and its king to the sword and totally destroyed everyone in it. He left no survivors. And he did to the king of Makkedah as he had done to the king of Jericho.

Then Joshua and all Israel with him moved on from Makkedah to Libnah and attacked it. The Lord also gave that city and its king into Israel's hand. The city and everyone in it Joshua put to the sword. He left no survivors there. And he did to its king as he had done to the king of Jericho (Joshua 10:28-30).

So, does that mean we have our answer -- that the Bible is totally in favor of war, and we should break out our guns and bombs whenever possible?

Not so fast. The tricky thing about war and passages from the Old Testament is that those passages were written to the Israelites. And the Israelites were a theocracy -- they were a people group under the religious and civil government of God. In other words, the Israelites followed God as their Pope, their King, and their Commander-in-Chief all rolled up into One.

Therefore, the Israelites didn't go to war in order to secure boundaries or acquire resources, which are the major reasons nations have gone to war in recent centuries. Instead, the Israelites went to war because they were commanded by God.

(This also explains why the verses listed above seem so cruel -- they were examples of divine judgment rather than national conflict.)

Obviously, it's difficult to compare the Israelites' experience as a theocracy with the experiences of modern governments and armies today. Thankfully, the New Testament sheds a bit more light on the topic of war for those who seek to follow God.

Two Kingdoms

One thing to remember is that modern Christians are also part of theocracy of sorts. I don't mean we belong to any earthly nations that follow a divine rule. Instead, I'm talking about the kingdom of God. All Christians are members of God's heavenly kingdom, established by Christ:

Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place" (John 18:36-37, NIV).

To be a Christian, then, is to be a member of two kingdoms -- one is the kingdom of God, and the other is whatever nations or governments we're loyal to here on earth. What's more, the Bible makes it clear that each of those kingdoms should influence our positions and decisions regarding war.

Peace in God's Kingdom

In his letter to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul made it clear that individual Christians should hold peace as a high priority and avoid revenge:

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.

Jesus also made it clear that individual Christians should choose peace over retaliation or violence:

You have heard that it was said, "Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth." But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also (Matthew 5:38-39, NIV).

In another letter to the church, Paul went beyond the level of individuals when it comes to the topic of war. He encouraged all Christians (all members of God's kingdom) to actively seek peace through both civil engagement and prayer:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people-for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Timothy 2:1-2, NIV).

All in all, the Bible makes it pretty clear that God's people are to reject violence and retaliation whenever possible, and instead to strive for peace.

So, does that mean war is always bad and Christians should always be against it? Again, not so fast.

The Sword of Government

Christians are members of two kingdoms, remember? We participate in God's heavenly kingdom, but we're also citizens of earthly nations. And the Bible makes a pretty strong case that earthly governments have the authority to use force as a method of seeking peace and administering justice.

The most common passage of Scripture supporting this idea also comes from the Book of Romans:

For the one in authority is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:4-5, NIV).

Paul wrote these verses largely in an effort to discourage the Christians of his day from attempting to rebel against Roman authority. But modern Bible scholars agree that the underlying principles still apply--namely, that God has extended authority to local governments (see Romans 13:1)), and that these governments can, and sometimes should, exercise that authority through the use of force.

Now, it is certainly true that many modern nations and governments choose to abuse their God-given authority, both in terms of persecuting their own citizens and seeking war against other nations for selfish means. That does happening, and it's probably happening somewhere in the world right now.

But we can't reject the use of force for all occasions simply because it is abused by some on some occasions.

The truth is that God loves justice (see Psalm 11:7 and Isaiah 61:8), and God is capable of using modern nations and governments to administer justice in the same way He used Israel throughout the Old Testament.

Conclusion

So, what does the Bible say about war? Is God pro-war or anti-war? You've probably guessed by now that the answer is both.

As members of God's kingdom, the Bible encourages us to work for peace whenever possible, especially in our individual lives. But there may also be moments when God uses earthly governments and national conflict as a way to administer His justice and judgment -- and to resist these uses would be to resist God.

Unfortunately, this means we don't have a clear-cut, black-and-white path to follow whenever national conflict arises. But the good news is that we don't have to make decisions regarding war on our own. As individuals and as nations, we can turn to God for guidance whenever the specter of war is raised.