Christians And The Use Of Lethal Forces
Updated: May 25, 2020
By bro Justin Kwan The justified use of lethal force is a subject not commonly heard of in Singapore, probably due in part to the peace we enjoy. When it comes to murder, none can disagree that it is inherently evil and unjustified. God repeatedly condemns murder throughout the OT and NT (Lev 24:17, Rev 21:8). How about the taking of lives in the course of self- defence? Is it sinful? This article focuses on whether the Bible condones the use of lethal force for self-defence or the protection of others.
Lethal force is defined as the use of force that is likely to cause serious bodily injury or death to another person. In most jurisdictions, the use of lethal force is justified only under conditions of extreme necessity as a last resort, when all lesser means have failed or cannot reasonably be employed.
Does the Bible justify the use of lethal force even if it causes death? Some denominations and faiths take the position against the bearing of arms and the taking of human life. One of their supporting reasons is that the NT tells the story of Jesus preaching peace, love and the salvation of mankind, and, ultimately surrendering himself freely to a people bent on having him killed for His supposed blasphemy. Despite all the suffering Jesus endured, He prayed on the cross for the forgiveness of those who mistakenly crucified Him. How accurate is this view?
Christians must base their decisions not from human reasoning and secular laws but from a source with absolute authority – The Bible. Otherwise, such an issue would be subject to personal opinion. The use of lethal force for self-defence can be justified from a Biblical perspective. Scripture supports this understanding in the following ways:
Self-Defence in the Old Testament
The Hebrew text for "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex 20:13) is written in the context of unlawful killing resulting in bloodguilt. God prohibited “murder” that involved intentional malice. From the OT, we learn that the principle for the application of lethal force was not for senseless brutality but for the protection of the innocent (Gen 14:14-16) or personal property (Exo 22:2). Similarly, when the Jews were faced with external threats during the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, the men divided the labour in such a way that some took up weapons while others worked. Those who carried the loads or built the wall did so with their weapons readily available (Neh 4:16-18).
Jesus Told His Disciples to Carry Swords
After the Last Supper, Jesus suggested to his disciples to arm themselves with swords (Lk 22:35-38). The sword was an instrument of injury and even death. To be armed with a sword, one would be capable of causing grievous hurt and even death. Jesus would have forbidden the carriage of such weapons if he did not condone any form of violence, whether justified or not. So why did Jesus suggest that his disciples buy a sword? One reason could probably be self-defence. This was the night before Jesus’ crucifixion and Jesus may have guessed that the angry mob which sentenced Him to death would also come for his followers. After all, it was such perilous and fearful circumstances that possibly compelled Peter to deny Christ.
Despite the sanctioning of lethal force for self-defence, the spiritual battle was never intended to be won by the physical sword. Instead, we are told to pick up the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17) as Christianity is a spiritual fight, not a physical one. We wrestle not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12).
The Bible Does Not Condemn the Duty of Soldiers
When John the Baptist preached to the people, some soldiers believed his teachings and they responded to his command to repent (Lk 3:14). The context suggests that these soldiers were abusing their authority and extorting money from people for personal gain. To repent, John instructed them to deal fairly with people and not abuse their authority. John never said that it was wrong for a Christian to engage in such a profession and that to repent, they had to stop being soldiers. In essence, John was telling them to conduct themselves professionally. A similar situation is found in Acts 10 which records the conversion of Cornelius the Centurion. In fact, there is no record or passage of a Christian being condemned for military or police service.
Paul Affirmed the Use of Lethal Force
Paul recognised the fact that the government has the authority to use deadly force as it “bears the sword” (Rom 13:1, 3-4). He entreats Christians to submit to the government as it is authorised by God to exercise lethal force for the preservation of peace and to subdue evil. When faced with imminent danger and with no time for recourse from the protection of public authorities, most jurisdictions permit their citizens to exercise the right to defend themselves, others and their property, and not hesitate due to fear of prosecution.
Conclusion While we are called to value the lives of others by protecting the weak and vulnerable (Ps 82:3-4; Prov 31:8-9; Isa 1:17), the right to self-defence must stem from an honest belief to protect the innocent and not to exercise vengeance. The principle of valuing the lives of others should not only drive us to protect the innocent, but also compel us to exercise a careful and measured response towards any perpetrator. The right to self-defence in no case extends to the inflicting of more harm than is necessary to neutralise the threat and such a threat should be only be responded with reasonable and proportionate force that should discontinue as soon as the threat ceases. The right, may in circumstances even extend to causing death of the person who poses such a threat, provided such an application of lethal force can be justified to be of absolute necessity.