War, Military Service, Violence, and Self-Defense: What’s a Christian to Do?

The Bible sends mixed messages about war. The Lord is presented as the Prince of Peace; the Lord is also presented as a warrior, commanding the people in battle. How can a Christian decide about war, military service, violence, and self-defense?

There are many wars in the Bible, and God often serves as the Commander in Chief. But from a spiritual perspective, the real wars we face are the inner wars of good against evil: of love for God against lust for power, of love for others against greed and self-indulgence.

As long as we have selfish and materialistic desires in our hearts, we will come into conflict with others. It is the desire for power that drives our efforts to control others and conquer their lands. It is the desire for wealth beyond any usefulness that drives our efforts to acquire others’ possessions for ourselves through fair means or foul.

Even if we ourselves have no desire to rule others and gain their wealth by force, we may find ourselves up against others who wish to do so. How can we decide when, if ever, violence and war is justified? Why are there so many wars in the Bible? Why does God allow war in the first place?

For more insight on these difficult issues, please read on.

Peace or war?

Blessed be the Lord, my rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. (Psalm 144:1)

A child is born to us, a son is given to us; and the government rests on his shoulders. And he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Are you confused yet? The Prince of Peace trains our hands for war? If the Bible says both, how can a Christian decide what to think about issues of war, military service, violence, and self-defense?

Looking at the world around us, we face a similar conundrum. Hardly a decade goes by without a major war going on somewhere in the world, along with a number of minor conflicts. On one side stand the military and its supporters, and on the other the peace movement and its supporters.

These two views can even exist within the same group or person. No less a figure than General Douglas MacArthur famously stated in his Farewell Address to Congress in 1951, “I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a means of settling international disputes.” Yet we are far from the complete abolition of war, and it remains all too common a means of settling international disputes.

With so much war in the Bible, can Christians believe in peace?

The Bible is full of violence and war.

The first murder in the Bible takes place only four chapters in, when a jealous Cain kills his brother Abel. It only goes downhill from there. By chapter six, “The earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was full of violence.” (Genesis 6:11).

It only takes another eight chapters to get to the first war, involving a rebellion and a major campaign of re-subjugation pitting various kings against one another (Genesis 14:1–12). Later in the Bible many wars are described, including the Israelites’ own extended war, by God’s command, against the inhabitants of the land of Canaan and surrounding areas. These wars stretch through eight books of the Bible starting with the book of Judges.

If there are so many wars in the Bible, many of them at God’s command, how can a Christian object to war? Even Jesus, the “Prince of Peace,” used a whip to drive merchants out of the temple courts (John 2:13–16). And he described a future time when there would be “wars and rumors of war” before the final conflict, the end of the age, and the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:1–35).

That final conflict and judgment, which includes several wars, is described in great detail throughout much of the book of Revelation, which is the last book of the Bible. Just as violence starts right near the beginning of the Bible, it continues to within a few chapters of its end. Only in the second-to-last chapter of Revelation does it say, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4). And even then, evildoers will be consigned to “the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

Based on the promises of the final book of the Bible, a Christian can hold to an ideal of war ending on earth at some time in the future—and can even work toward that future. But what about the present, when there are both wars and rumors of war? We will return to this question.

Why so many wars in the Bible?

First, why are there so many wars in the Bible?

One view is to take literally the statement in Exodus 15:3 that “The Lord is a warrior.” In this view, God not only supports but commands war—and a good Christian must take up arms and fight for God and country.

However, considering what war is like in reality, if we believe God is a God of infinite love, we can hardly believe that war is something God desires. As Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) wrote:

It is not because of divine providence that wars happen, because wars are inseparable from murder, plunder, violence, cruelty, and other appalling evils that are diametrically opposed to Christian caring. (Divine Providence #251)

A loving God could not possibly want us humans to go through the pain, suffering, and death, both physical and psychological, that war always involves.

Then why does God allow war, and why are there so many wars in the Bible?

Well before the 1960s when the anti-war movement became popular, my grandfather, the Rev. Louis A. Dole, preached a sermon (full text here) that contained the following words:

War has been a conspicuous part of human history, particularly in the history of so-called Christian nations. The wars in the Bible describe the battles of right against wrong, of good against evil, which have to be fought in the human heart and mind. Men have always easily been led to fight against other men, but we should recognize that it is the unwillingness to fight against evils in our own hearts which is the real cause of these wars in the outward world. Wars must take place within or without, and if men refuse to fight against and overcome pride, ambition, the love of power, the love of conquest, and the desire to rule over rather than to serve the neighbor, these loves will continue to break out in open hostilities and wars.

Many centuries earlier Jesus was making the same point when he said:

There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. . . . For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:15, 21–23)

The Bible is a spiritual book. And the wars in the Bible are not so much about the external wars that we fight with swords and guns, as about the internal wars of good against evil, compassion against anger, generosity against greed, love of service against lust for power.

Every time we read about a war in the Bible, we can think about the inner, spiritual battles of love for God and the neighbor against an uncaring desire for personal power, possessions, and pleasure. It is in these battles that “the Lord is a warrior,” fighting for what is good and true against what is evil and false.

Only when the people who inhabit this earth have fought and won the inner wars against the evil and selfish desires in the human heart that lead to war can the Lord “make wars cease to the ends of the earth” (Psalm 46:9).

Why does God allow war?

Unfortunately, we humans tend to focus much more on our outer circumstances than on the state of our hearts within. Though all the things Jesus lists do reside in our hearts, we prefer not to see them in ourselves, and we avoid fighting those inner battles.

Yet when we do avoid fighting those inner battles, sooner or later what is in our hearts will come out. Our training in childhood and youth keeps us from expressing our socially unacceptable desires much of the time. But when push comes to shove, those desires will come out. And that is the source of all our interpersonal and international conflicts.

If God did not allow those inner drives to be expressed in open conflict and warfare, we would never see the great destructiveness of the desires we nurse inside ourselves. And if we never saw them, we could never fight against them and overcome them. They would continue to fester within us until eventually they could no longer be contained, at which point they would break out into even greater devastation.

In short, God allows conflict and war because if we refuse to see and overcome the evil desires within ourselves it is the only way for us to see them so that we can fight against them. It is precisely to end war that God allows war. However, the real battle is not on the battlefield, but in the human heart. When we humans become willing to fight and win our inner battles, wars will cease on the earth because the human heart will no longer contain the greed, arrogance, and folly that lead to war.

What’s a Christian to do?

Clearly, wars have not yet ceased on the earth. And Christians may be called upon to fight for their country. Is this right or wrong?

The answer depends on whether the war is one of aggression or one of defense. Swedenborg provides spiritual insight on this:

When we go through spiritual trials, which involve conflicts with evil spirits, it is never the angels [who are with us] who attack. It is always the evil or hellish spirits who attack. The angels only ward them off and defend us. This quality of theirs comes from the Lord, who never wishes to afflict us with evil or send us down into hell—not even if we were the bitterest enemy of God. (Secrets of Heaven #1683)

In other words, the nature of evil is to attack, while the nature of good is to defend. It is on this basis that Swedenborg says:

It is appropriate for all people to protect their country and their fellow citizens against invading enemies. . . . But it is not appropriate to make enemies for no cause. When the cause is one’s own glory, that is essentially diabolical, since it comes from self-love. (Divine Providence #252)

The basic message is this: Whether the conflict is between individuals or between nations, it is contrary to God’s will to attack others for reasons of wealth, power, or glory. But if others attack, it is not wrong to defend ourselves and those we love.

Of course, this is a complex issue. There are also times when it is best to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). The Bible contains both commandments to make war against evil and commandments not to resist an evil person. God gave us rational, thinking minds so that we can search the scriptures and act with integrity, according to our conscience, in every situation we face.

War is never a good thing. But there are times when it is unavoidable in the face of an enemy who desires to rule over us and forcibly take our lands and possessions. Similarly, if we are confronted with an individual who intends to harm or steal, we may have no other choice but to “get physical” in defending ourselves and those we love. Remember Jesus with the whip, defending the integrity of God’s house against the commercialization of the merchants.

A world without war and violence?

The dream of a peaceful society and a peaceful world is one that not only Christians, but good people of all religions hold in common. It is an­ excellent dream—one that the Prince of Peace holds out to us.

It is also an achievable dream. Perhaps not in our lifetimes. But as we humans wake up to the spiritual realities of life, and engage in the inner battles required to overcome our self-centered and materialistic desires, and replace them with love for God and for our neighbors, over time we can and will overcome violence and war. Then within ourselves, in our relationships with others, and among the nations of the world we will experience “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

This article is © 2018 by Lee Woofenden

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Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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2 comments on “War, Military Service, Violence, and Self-Defense: What’s a Christian to Do?
  1. larryzb says:

    Not to sound too cynical here, but there are those of us who wonder about the veracity of all that is in the Old Testament. But, that is a topic for another day.

    As Christians, we must try to love our fellow human beings. Sadly, there will be times when national self-defense, as in war, is unavoidable and necessary. The 2 things to bear in mind is that our elected leaders need to work for peace, and not for war. (The reality is that notable Western figures failed to work for peace throughout the terribly bloody 20th century.) Second, if war is unavoidable and needed for true national self-defense, it must still be fought by moral means. The ends does not justify the means. Allegedly Christians nations (England and the US) committed terrible atrocities in their prosecution of the Second World War (in both Europe and in the Pacific theatre)..

    Lee, I thought your blog was about spirituality. You now seem to be getting down into the worldly details. Keep up the good work.

    • Lee says:

      Hi larryzb,

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      The Bible was never intended to be a historical document. Whether or not the things in it took place historically as described is, for the most part, not particularly important. The purpose of the Bible is to tell us what we need to know and what we need to do to be saved and enter eternal life, and to motivate us to do it. The Bible therefore often speaks in human terms, according to human understandings of things, based on existing human culture, in order to reach us. See:
      How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads

      As for WWII, there were evils and atrocities on all sides, as there are in every war. One group says how evil the Axis powers were, and the other says how evil the Allies were. But war is evil. There are seldom any good guys. I’m not aware of any wars that the United States has fought in the last century or more that really had anything to do with defending the United States from invasion. Still, people have to follow their own conscience on these issues.

      As you say, this is a spiritual blog, not a political blog. The purpose of the above article is to provide some spiritual principles for people considering the issue of war and violence. I published it at this time because a reader asked for insight on these issues from a spiritual perspective.

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