In the aftermath of the church shooting last Sunday in Texas where an armed church member killed the murderer, some pacifist Christians expressed sadness. They were sad that church members were armed in the first place; they were sad that the murderer was shot and killed. Some believe witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ itself was greatly harmed by this act of collective self-defense. They believe this because they believe the gospel is, at least in large part, about a commitment to absolute non-violence. In the minds of some it would have been better if church members refused to use deadly force even if it meant many more people would have been murdered.
Many pacifists would be okay with some type of force to stop the murderer, but not lethal force. Absolute pacifists would also object to the use of deadly force even by police officers. Killing, in their minds, is never justified. To them, Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of absolute pacifism and its ultimate example. In this light, to be a follower of Jesus involves a commitment to absolute pacifism. While some pacifists would see their view as one they would personally hold with firm conviction without condemning other Christians, others are quite aggressive (“pacifist-aggressive”) and are quick to accuse non-pacifist Christians of betraying the gospel itself as they see it.
While I respect conscientious pacifist convictions, and believe all Christians should strive to be “almost absolute pacifists,” I do disagree with them. One reason is that pacifists seem to be more committed to non-violence than Jesus. When someone is more committed to non-violence in the name of Jesus than Jesus himself was and is, something may have gone awry.
A key messianic passage in Isaiah 11:1-10 indicates that Messiah will establish a world of perfect peace by bringing perfect justice. He will judge in favor of the meek; and he will do this by killing the wicked.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. ~ Isaiah 11:3-4 ESV
Saint Paul evokes this very passage in 2 Thessalonians in reference to the judgment that Christ will execute on the Antichrist and those who allow themselves to be seduced by the same spirit of lawlessness.
And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. ~ 2 Thessalonians 2:8 ESV
Jesus reiterated the promise of the Old Testament that the meek (i.e. those humble enough to trust and obey God’s word) will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). At that final judgment, in Matthew 24 Jesus himself says of the one who fails to remain alert and faithful that his coming will catch them off guard, and he “will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51).
Some will object that Jesus executing divine justice in the final judgment does not mean other people, especially Christians, are allowed to use violence to punish and suppress evil now. Jesus, however, indicated that he would also carry out divine judgment in this world before the final judgment after the same pattern of divine judgment we find in the Old Testament. As the Lord brought judgment on Israel and Judah via the Assyrians and Babylonians, so too Jesus warned that judgment would once again fall on Jerusalem, this time via the Romans, for rejecting him. In the parable of the vineyard and tenants, where the tenants mistreated servants sent by the owner of the vineyard (i.e. the prophets) and killed his son whom he sent, Jesus said in response to his own question about what the owner would do to the tenants, “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20:16a). This was about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Just before this, in Luke 19:11-27 Jesus tells a parable in which he uses an analogy of investing for faithful discipleship while awaiting his second coming. It too may be in part a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans that also foreshadows the final judgment. Jesus ends the parable by saying: “But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me” (Luke 19:27). There are many other passages like this.
If Jesus came to teach absolute pacifism above all, he went about it in a curious way. This should make one question, at least a little bit, whether Jesus was committed to absolute pacifism. But we’re not Jesus. So, are Christians supposed to be absolute pacifists to be genuine Christians? Well, as I’ve already indicated the Bible is replete with examples of God executing lethal force to punish the wicked. In this world it was often carried out by the hands of humans, including his own people. God actually instituted government authorities to use lethal force to punish and suppress evil. The basis of this is in Genesis 9:6:
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.
Paul says in Romans 13 that government authorities have been ordained by God to encourage good and to punish, in order to deter, evil.
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. ~ Romans 13:3-4 (see also 1 Peter 2:13-14)
Contrary to what many might think, government is actually a good thing; in fact it’s a God thing for the overall good of human society in this fallen world where evil still lurks. But like any good thing, government can be corrupted by sinful people to promote evil and punish good. It happened throughout the history of Israel and every other nation as well. As a result there are times when God’s people have to say, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29; ). This is a lesson Revelation certainly makes abundantly clear. In general, nonetheless, government authorities are authorized to use lethal force to punish and suppress evil. And among many of the earliest converts to Christianity were Roman soldiers (i.e. Acts 10). There is no indication in the New Testament that soldiers who converted were required to stop being soldiers or to refrain from the use of lethal force in carrying out their duties. Although there were some pacifist voices, like Tertullian and Origen, in the first few centuries of the Church, there was also a rapidly increasing number of Christians in the Roman military. Some of the earliest persecutions of Christians at the hands of the government started first among Christian soldiers.
When government authorities are reasonably functional, nevertheless, no one, including Christians should seek personal vengeance against evildoers themselves apart from recognized government authorities. In Romans 12:9-21 Paul, echoing the teachings of Jesus says Christians should not render evil for evil, but instead meet evil with good, to meet cursing with blessing. Neither should Christians try to avenge themselves by seeking personal retribution. Instead we are to leave vengeance to God. The first section of Romans 13 referenced above should make it clear that this doesn’t mean that Christians should just avoid seeking justice in this life and simply wait for the final judgment. We should cooperate with and support governmental authorities in responsibly carrying out their duties. Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). Personal vengeance for an act of evil is not permitted, but the vengeance of God carried out through the sanctioned authorities is when absolutely necessary. But even then we should seek the ultimate good of the evildoer, that they would be led to repentance through the goodness and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ living in us. But what about in situations of an immediate murderous threat to self and others? Should Christians defend themselves and others with lethal force if necessary in situations like that?
Some will say that the teaching of Jesus itself prohibits Christians from defending themselves and others with lethal force.
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. ~ Matthew 5:38-42
To interpret this as requiring absolute non-resistance under any circumstance is a stretch, as the context of the rest of the Bible should make clear. A slap on the cheek was a personal insult to express hatred and contempt for another person. Christians are not to return hatred for hatred and contempt for contempt, insult for insult. Christians should seek to diffuse hatred with love and evil with good. Christians should avoid personal retaliation and seeking personal vengeance, as we have already seen. But we should not think that there is no limit whatsoever to Jesus’ command not to resist one who is evil anymore than we should think there is not limit to his command to give money to one who begs. We should give to those who are truly in need as we are able, but it doesn’t mean we are required to give everything we have to a swindler simply because he begs (see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). If an evil person is murderously rampaging against Christians or anyone else, self-defense and the defense of others is not prohibited. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Christians should not call the proper authorities to stop a criminal attack. An insulting slap on the cheek is one thing, an attack with a deadly weapon with the intent to murder is another.
In Luke 22:35-38, Jesus gave his disciples instruction for what they should have to be prepared after his imminent arrest. He told them to have a moneybag, a knapsack, and a sword. If they didn’t have a sword, he told them to sell their cloak to get one if necessary. The type of sword he mentioned was used for self-defense, especially to ward off violent robbers. When his disciples told him they had two swords, Jesus, in apparent approval, said, “It is enough” (Luke 22:38).
Some interpret Jesus’ statement as a rebuke for having the swords at all. This makes little sense, however, in light of the fact that Jesus had just told them to get a sword even at the cost of their cloak. Some, nonetheless, will raise the objection that the fact that Jesus told his disciples not to use their swords to defend him when he was arrested indicates that he really did not want them to use swords for self-defense at all. But just because Jesus did not want them to use their swords to keep him from being arrested and executed does not mean he did not want them to be prepared to defend themselves against sudden attacks from malevolent individuals on the streets of Jerusalem.
Jesus repeatedly made it clear, as he again reiterated in Luke 22:35-38, that he was going to be killed at the hands of corrupt religious and government officials in order to fulfill Scripture. Earlier, when he had told his disciples this was going to happen, Peter said he wouldn’t allow it. But Jesus rebuked him for his satanically inspired zeal to thwart the will of God (Mark 8:31-33). The scripture Jesus specifically alluded to in Luke 22:35-38 was Isaiah 53. There we see the righteous suffering servant called to lead Israel back to God and to be a light to the nations, who would die as a substitutionary atoning sacrifice for the sins of others in order to make many righteous. There is no indication that his death was to be the ultimate example of absolute pacifism. In light of so much of the Bible in both testaments, including the teaching of Jesus himself, there certainly seems to be some clear limits to Jesus’ pacifism.
He certainly calls his disciples to be prepared to die for their faithfulness to the word of God at the hands of a corrupt culture and tyrannical authorities like he was if necessary (Mark 8:34-38; Matthew 10:16-32). His sacrificial death and resurrection deliver those who believe from the fear of death that the evil one uses to enslave people to conformity to the ways of a wicked world. But this doesn’t mean Christians should not also be prepared to defend themselves and others in emergency situations when there is no time to wait for the proper authorities. It also doesn’t mean that Christians should discourage God-ordained authorities from justly using lethal force when necessary.
When one interprets Matthew 5:38-39 in a wooden literal sense to advocate an absolutist pacifist position, it seems to lead to a lot of distorted mental and exegetical gymnastics to interpret the rest of the Bible through that lens. Among progressive Christian pacifists, it is quite baffling how they can insist that people under all circumstances deny their God-given desire to preserve life by using lethal force only if absolutely necessary, by employing such an absolutist wooden literal interpretation of a couple of verses from Matthew 5. It’s baffling because they also give a pass on Jesus’ teaching about denying one’s illicit sexual desire especially considering Jesus’ dire hyperbolic warning in that regard (Matthew 5:27-30). Not all pacifists do this, but a lot of progressive pacifists certainly do when it comes to anything on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum of sexual desire. Nonetheless, John Wesley recognized Jesus’ exhortation to non-resistance in the face of evil was not to be taken in a strict wooden literal sense (see Wesley’s Notes). It’s better to interpret Matthew 5:38-39 through the lens of the overarching Biblical witness as Wesley did.
But we should be thankful for the witness of conscientious pacifists that help us to wrestle with these things. We should all be pacifists as far as is reasonably possible. “If possible,” we should all do everything we can “to live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). We should do our best to strive to avoid the use of violence, whether by our own hands or the hands of others. Violence should never be the first line of defense, but at times in this fallen world it will be necessary as a last resort. Thankfully, there will be a time when it will no longer will be. That’s at the second coming of Jesus the Messiah who will usher in a world of perfect peace, but only after he has used lethal force to destroy the wicked.
Come, Lord Jesus!