A Christian Perspective on Just War
War by its very nature is a spectacle of violence, destruction, suffering, and death. War is filled with many horrors and is a great human tragedy. War tends to unleash the worst of human passions: hate, vengeance, wicked ambition, cruelty, base desires, and blood-lust. Erasmus was fond of the adage of Pindar: “Sweet is war to him who knows it not.” Or as those who do know war testify: “War is hell.” These things being true, how could a Christian ever be in favor of war?
The undeniable fact of history is that war is a common condition in human affairs. From the earliest days of man’s existence, he has been at war with his fellow man. How has the church responded to the fact of war? There have been two basic stands concerning war among Christians and their particular church denominations: pacifism and just war. Pacifists declare that all war is evil and contrary to the principles of Jesus and the New Testament. Hence, Christian participation in war is forbidden. Just war adherents believe that a war may be just if it meets certain criteria. If the war is just, then a Christian may participate in it. The purpose of this article is to summarize and defend the just war position.
Introduction to the Just War Position
The teaching of the Bible leads the Christian to presuppose the possibility of a just war. There are five arguments that show that war is not necessarily sinful (though, of course, a particular war may be), and that war can indeed be the righteous response to evil.
First, God, through the inspired words of Scripture, depicts Himself as a “man of war” engaged in battle against His enemies (Ex. 15:3-9; Isa. 42:13). The Lord reveals that He is “mighty in battle” (i.e. warfare; Ps. 24:8). He describes Himself as using weapons of war (e.g., the sword and arrows; Deut. 32:41-42) to take vengeance on His enemies. If warfare is always evil and the warrior is always acting sinfully when wielding his weapons, then God could not depict His nature and ways by reference to war. The fact that God so extensively associates Himself with war and the warrior indicates that war can be just. The Messiah, the Lord Jesus, is also depicted as a warrior engaged in battle in both the Old and New Testaments (Ps. 110; Rev. 19:11-21).
Second, God commanded Israel to engage in war and went forth with His people to give them victory in battle. This included the charge to destroy the Canaanites and the commands related to the defense of the land of Palestine against invaders and oppressors (e.g., Judg. 4:6-7; 6:11-17; 1 Chron. 14:8-17). God cannot command His people to do that which is intrinsically evil.
Third, the Lord gave specific instructions on the conduct of war in His revealed law (Deut. 20:1-20). All of the laws of God are just. Therefore, it follows that war itself is just if the laws of God concerning it are followed.
Fourth, men of God, such as Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and David, engaged in warfare with God’s approval and help. Furthermore, the New Testament specifically endorses the warfare of these men as examples of faith in God and what faith can accomplish (Heb. 11:33-34).
Fifth, the New Testament does not repeal the Old Testament law in regard to war, and specifically upholds, in principle, the civil magistrates authority to go to war. The sword that is given by the Lord to the civil ruler, which he does not wield in vain as God’s minister, is a weapon of war and a symbol of warfare (Rom. 13:1-4). Additionally, Jesus, John the Baptist, and Peter did not call soldiers who believed in God to leave their profession of arms (Luke 7:9; 3:14; Acts 10).
The just war position recognizes that every war comes about because of the evil in the heart of man (cf. James 4:1-2). If we lived in a world where all men sought to love God and their neighbor there would be no war. However, the truth is that wicked men yet abound and seek to tyrannize other men and nations through their weapons and armies. It is the righteous duty of civil rulers to act to stop the rapine and murder of their people by wicked assailants and restore peace (1 Tim. 2:2). So, even though the genesis of war is found in the evil of man, the taking up of arms to stop that evil can be righteous.
The principles of the just war position that have been formulated by the Christian church have their root in the teaching of Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas. These men sought to address the issue of war from a Christian perspective. In seeking the answer to the question of when a war can be considered just, they employed the Bible and classical ideals of just war that had been developed by Greek and Roman thinkers. The Old Testament revelation concerning warfare was central to their thinking, as was the general biblical revelation of the standards of God’s moral law, but they also found significant insight into the nature of just war from men like Cicero. Holmes provides a summary of Cicero’s view:
The pagan Cicero provides the first organized statement of a just war theory. In the ideal state where law is based on right reason rather than utility (1) the only just cause for war is the defense of national honor and safety, (2) war is a last resort when all negotiations fail, (3) it must be formally declared, in order to give due warning, (4) the purpose may not be conquest or power, but the securing of a just peace, (5) prisoners and all who surrender should be spared and (6) only those who are legally soldiers should be involved (De Republica iii. 22-29; De Officiis i. 11-12).
Augustine rejected Cicero’s ideal state as unrealistic, and did not believe that natural law or universal reason could provide the basis for peace and justice.Nevertheless, he and others saw much that was true in the classical just war formulation and adapted it, with modifications, to coincide with biblical ethics. More in line with the classical emphasis on natural law and reason was Thomas Aquinas. Holmes states that according to Aquinas: “A just war...is one that is governed by laws which derive from natural law, and hence from the eternal law of God.”
Regardless of the contribution to just war principles that was made by Greek and Roman philosophers and statesman, the Christian view on just war must ultimately be derived from the Scriptures, which alone are the final rule of faith and practice.
Statement of Just War Principles
A war can be considered just if the following standards are met.
- 1. The war is conducted by legitimate civil authority. The authority to go to war resides in the state alone; no other institution or individual can commit a nation to war. Each nation needs to constitutionally designate who has the authority to define and formally declare war.
The truth that only duly constituted civil authority may wage war is based on the biblical teaching concerning the state. In distinction from the institutions of the family and church, God has given the state the responsibility and authority to restrain and punish evil by means of force. As God’s minister, the civil magistrate is charged with protecting the person and property of those under his authority from evildoers (Rom. 13:1-6; 1 Pet. 2:14). The ruler should so act and govern that the citizens may live in peace, secure from threats to their well-being from criminals, domestic and foreign (1 Tim. 2:1). Justice and the protection of individual rights and liberties is the work of civil government (Deut. 16:18-20).
The restraint of evildoers and the maintaining of justice, peace, and liberty may require the civil government to go to war. The sword, which is the biblical symbol of the state’s authority to enforce criminal law and to punish evildoers to the point of death, if necessary, is also a weapon of war. That is, the state’s authority to defend its citizens includes both the police and military functions. There is no essential difference between police force and military force: one is employed against enemies of justice within and the other to enemies of justice without. The power of the sword extends to taking the life of a murderer and the lives of enemy soldiers in war.
Therefore, war is an extension of the biblical duty of civil government to protect its citizens by punishing evildoers who strike at their lives and liberties. In war, the evildoers are those of another state who act unjustly at the command and authority of their civil rulers.
- 2. The war is based on a just cause. If the state is the minister of God for justice, then it can only wage war to uphold justice and avenge evil. Thus, a just war is one that is fought for the purpose of defending life and property, vindicating justice, and reestablishing peace. A just war is a response to evil; it is an act of defense against international criminal activity (as defined by God’s law); it is a resistance to lawlessness and a terror to evildoers.
Augustine said that war can be waged justly as a defense against aggression and for the protection of life and liberty. He also believed that war, on certain occasions, could be fought because of wrongs inflicted on a nation through economic or other means. Thus, war should only be waged to vindicate justice. The goal of war, taught Augustine, was the restoration of international peace.
Calvinist political thinker Johannes Althusius (1557-1638), in his important work Politica, states:
There are seven just causes for declaring and waging war. The first cause is the recovery of things taken away through violence by another people. The second cause is the defense against violence inflicted by another, and the repulsion of it. The third cause is the necessity for preserving liberty, privileges, rights, peace, and tranquility, and for defending the true religion. The fourth cause occurs when a foreign people deny peaceful transit through its province without good reason. The fifth cause occurs when subjects rise up against their prince and lord, do not fulfill their pledged word, and are not willing to obey him, although they have been admonished many times. The sixth cause is contumacy, which occurs when any prince, lord, or city has so contemptuously and repeatedly scorned the decisions of courts that justice cannot be otherwise administered and defended. The seventh just cause of war occurs when agreements are not implemented by the other party, when he does not keep his promises, and when tyranny is practiced upon subjects.
It is significant to note that in Althusius’ seven just causes for war, the first four refer to the just causes of war between nations and the last three to the just causes of civil war. In another place in Politica, Althusius restates these same causes under five headings:
The causes of war that rely upon the right are (1) defense of liberty and of one’s rights, and repulsion of a launched attack, (2) defense of the pure religion, (3) recovery of properties unjustly seized, (4) denial of justice, and (5) conspiracy with an enemy, and rebellion....
Finally, he summarizes just cause under two headings:
But these causes can easily be reduced to two, the first is defense and the other vindication. The former repulses and the latter vindicates injury launched against God, the commonwealth, its subjects, or the church. I understand defense to be either of your own nation or of another.... Vindication is a legitimate cause for war when a judgment and recovery of what has been seized has not yet taken place.
Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s greatest theologians, demonstrated that “he held to the just war tradition and considered it sometimes obligatory for the Christian to bear arms.” In a sermon on 1 Kings 8:44-45, “A People of God may be called of God to go forth to war against their Enemies,” Edwards gives his views on what constitutes a just cause for war. McDermott encapsulates Edwards’ teaching in the sermon as follows:
In the remainder of the sermon Edwards outlined the circumstances in which a professing people may feel justified in going to war: (1) when the rights of a public society are invaded and the preservation of the community requires it; and (2) when a people are obliged by a “Just alliance or Covenant” contracted with another people for their “mutual defense and Preservation.”
In summary of Edwards view on just cause for war, McDermott writes:
Military force is justified, thought Edwards, when the “rights and privileges of a people are threatened,” or “when the preservation of the Community or Publick society so requires it.” If “injurious and bloody enemies” molest and endanger a society, it is the “duty” of government to undertake that society’s defense by the use of force. This follows “from the Law of self-Preservation.”
The Christian consensus is that a war is only just when its cause is to defend the life, liberty, and property of a people who are being assaulted by an aggressor. In defending against the crimes of a belligerent foe, a just war is also the punishment of evildoers and a vindication of justice. As Dabney states: “Defensive war is, then, righteous, and only a defensive war.”
Defensive war is supported by Scripture. The case law of Exodus 22:2-4 that authorizes deadly force in self-defense against a dangerous intruder, also, by application, authorizes the use of deadly force in national defense against those who invade or attack the lives, liberties, and properties of the people. National defense in warfare is the exercise of the right of self-defense collectively by citizens under the authority and direction of the civil magistrate. The laws of war given in Deuteronomy 20 authorize war in national defense. Abraham’s rescue of Lot (Gen. 14) and Israel’s wars of defense against the hostile nations around them (cf. Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings) indicate God’s approval and sanction on defensive war. Proverbs 24:11-12 and 31:8-9 would justify a stronger nation going to the aid of a weaker nation to defend it against wicked aggression, while texts such as Psalm 15:4 would require a nation to defend a nation with whom it has a “just alliance” for mutual defense when that nation is attacked (cf. Josh. 10).
Christians may participate in a war only if it is based in a just cause — to defend life, liberty, and property against evil aggression. In regard to Christian participation in war, Carnell states:
Of course, it is needful that the government be on the side of righteousness before a Christian can conscientiously fight. And while it may be complex to determine when a government is the defender and not the aggressor — for motives are infinitely compounded with the subtleties of propaganda and emotion — nevertheless the principle is incontestable that a Christian may not fight in either a preventive or an aggressive war.
In summary, there are three kinds of war that are just: (1) wars of defense against aggression; (2) wars to help and defend an ally or weaker nation from aggression; (3) civil wars to overthrow rank tyranny and oppression by the rulers or to put down evil insurrection.
- 3. The war is waged with right intention. Not only must the cause be just, the just cause must be the reason why a nation goes to war. The intention must be justice and the restoration of peace and not national honor or development. Often, a “just cause” is just a cover for national or political ambitions. Augustine wisely pointed out that nations often go to war for no more than political and economic reasons. Political reasons include the desire for power, conquest, personal glory and national pride, and solutions to domestic problems. Economic reasons include the acquisition of new wealth, territory, natural resources, and access to trade routes and ports.
The essence of this principle is that the nation waging war is doing so in the pursuit of justice and not for reasons of self-interest or aggrandizement.Mosely contends that “a just war cannot be considered to be just if reasons of national interest are paramount or overwhelm the pretext of fighting aggression.”
The Bible teaches that the intent behind our actions is morally determinative (Matt. 6:1-5, 16; 1 Cor. 3:13; 10:31; 13:1-3; James 4:1-3). The true nature of human conduct is determined by our motive, so that even that which in itself may be right becomes evil when the purpose behind the action is self-centered. Apparent good conduct has often been only a cloak for evil. So a war is only just if the true intent is the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31) through the suppression evil aggression and the establishment of peace and justice.
- 4. The war is undertaken only as a last resort. All non-violent means and options for the redress of grievances and the establishment of justice between nations should seriously be tried and at an end before the use of deadly force can be justified. Althusius stated: “Just cause for waging war occurs when all other remedies have first been exhausted and peace and justice cannot otherwise be obtained.” He further explained:
This authority to undertake war ought not to be employed by the magistrate unless all other remedies have failed, and there is no other way to repel an attack upon his subjects, to avoid and vindicate injustice to them, or to obtain peace and tranquillity in the realm....But before undertaking war a magistrate should check his own judgment and reasoning, and offer prayers to God to arouse and direct the spirit and mind of his subjects and himself to the well-being, utility, and necessity of the church and community, and to avoid all rashness and injustice....
The Scriptures support the concept that ultimate sanctions should not be pursued until other options for reconciliation and redress have been exhausted (cf. Matt. 18:15-17). The Bible condemns those who are hasty and rash in their actions because they exalt folly (Prov. 14:29). When one contemplates the misery and suffering that war brings, it is certainly folly to go to war when the injury can be made right without war. The law of God instructs Israel to offer terms of peace to an enemy city (Deut. 20:10-15) before attacking it; only after the offer is rejected can Israel begin hostilities. Rushdoony gives the following explanation of this law:
...[biblical] military law requires that, prior to an attack, or rather, a declaration of war, an offer of peace be extended to the enemy. The offer of peace cannot be an offer to compromise. The cause, if it be just, must be maintained; the enemy must yield to gain peace.
Rushdoony reminds us that peace should not be secured at the price of justice. The principle that war should be a last resort does not mean that we are required to negotiate a base peace that leaves aggression and tyranny unopposed. To abandon justice in the name of peace ultimately is to lose both.
- 5. The war is fought on the basis of a reasonable chance of success. Before war is pursued there must be a careful calculation to determine if a nation has the strength and resources to win the war. If not, the commencement of military action should either be abandoned or postponed until the nation is ready. It is considered unjust to commit soldiers to die and to subject citizens to the depravations, sorrows, and horrors of war in a vain undertaking.
The Word of God generally supports this principle of the just war position. In Luke 14:28-32, Jesus teaches the folly of those who begin something without considering if they have what is necessary to finish it. He specifically speaks of the wisdom of a king who does not go to war unless he calculates that he has a good chance of success. If the king determines that he cannot win the war, according to Jesus, he shows prudence by sending ambassadors to the leader of the army coming against him to seek conditions of peace. Also relevant is the word of the prophet Jeremiah where he called on Judah to not resist (fight) the Babylonians who were coming to conquer them because it was futile to go to war against them. It was futile because God had decreed judgment against the wicked rulers and people of Judah.
But there are questions concerning this principle of just war doctrine. These questions are aptly raised by Mosely:
The next principle is that of reasonable success. This is another necessary condition for waging just war, but again is insufficient by itself. Given just cause and right intention, the just war theory asserts that there must be a reasonable probability of success. The principle of reasonable success is consequential in that the costs and benefits of a campaign must be calculated. However, the concept of weighing benefits poses moral as well as practical problems as evinced in the following questions. Should one not go to the aid of a people or declare war if there is no conceivable chance of success? Is it right to comply with aggression because the costs of not complying are too prohibitive? Is it not sometimes morally necessary to stand up to a bullying larger force, as the Finns did when Russia invaded in 1940...? Besides, posturing for defense may sometimes make aggression itself too costly, even for a much stronger side. However, the thrust of the principle of reasonable success emphasizes that human life and economic resources should not be wasted in what would obviously be an uneven match. For a nation threatened by invasion, other forms of retaliation or defense may be available, such as civil disobedience, or even forming alliances with other small nations to equalize the odds. Historically, many nations have overcome the probability of defeat: the fight may seem hopeless, but a charismatic leader or rousing speech can sometimes be enough to stir a people into fighting with all their will.
And a factor that Mosely does not mention is the power of God granting victory against seemingly impossible odds to a people who obey and trust in Him as He did repeatedly for Israel.
- 6. The war has the establishment of a superior peace as its goal. This principle raises the issue of proportionality and states that war should not be waged unless the good that may reasonably be expected from taking up arms is greater than the evil to be redressed and the evils that may result from the conflict. To state it in another way, the peace that is sought through going to war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought. And again, the overall death and devastation anticipated by the war should be outweighed by the good that hopefully will result.
Proportionality also is applied to the conduct of the war. The force used in actual combat should not go beyond that which is necessary to achieve the goals of the war.
The legal principle of lex talionis (the law of retaliation) calls for proportionality in sentencing criminals — the punishment must fit the crime. It was given to judges to enable them to carry out their duties as God’s ministers of vengeance on evildoers. As a just war is waged for the suppression of evil and visiting God’s judgment on evildoers it seems proper to apply the principle of lex talionis to warfare, at least in the general sense of proportionality.
The laws of war given in Deuteronomy 20 raise interesting questions concerning proportionality. These laws suggest that there is a dear price to pay if you are a tyrant or the aggressor nation in a war. The retribution for unjustly starting a war should be so terrible that anyone will think twice before committing this awful crime. If death is a necessary sanction to restrain men from murder, what should be the penalty for those rulers who through their lust for power and fame bring death and suffering to multitudes by aggressive wars? Rushdoony’s answer is to the point: “...if warfare is to punish and/or destroy evil, the work of restoration requires that this be done, that an evil order be overthrown, and, in some cases, some or many people be executed.”
- 7. The war is waged with proper discrimination between combatants and non-combatants. This principle of just war states that civilians and civilian industry and property are not to be deliberately targeted nor abused, and that all due care should be taken to minimize collateral damage to civilian life and property. In other words, non-combatants are to be granted immunity from attack by the armies waging the war. Military personnel and military industry should be the sole objects of military operations.
However, if a civilian engages in hostile actions, he becomes a combatant, regardless of his non-military status, and becomes a legitimate target. Also, when a soldier is captured and disarmed he ceases to be a combatant and, though he may be kept as a prisoner of war until the end of the war, he must be treated properly and cared for if wounded.
Biblical law supports the concept of discriminating between military and non-military targets. In the laws relating to the conduct of war given in Deuteronomy 20, all women and children are to be spared from the sword, and all fruit bearing trees are to be spared from the ax. These laws stand against the concept of “total war.”
According to the doctrine of total war, anyone or anything of the nation that you are at war with is a legitimate target (e.g., civilians or civilian targets), if the targeting of these will weaken the enemy’s resources and will to fight. Total war is evil for it leads to the wanton slaughter of women and children and to the wholesale destruction of homes, farms, and industries — all of which biblical law forbids.
Concluding Observations on Just War
The principles of just war are distinguished between those that justify when one may go to war (jus ad bellum) and those that govern how a war is to be waged (jus in bello). The jus ad bellum principles are that war must be waged by a legitimate civil authority, have a just cause, be fought with right intention, as a last resort, when there is probability of success, and when the good to be achieved is greater than the suffering brought about by the war. The jus in bello principles are the need to make proper discrimination between military and non-military targets, to fight with right intention (i.e., a just peace, thus avoiding acts of war that will ultimately hinder peace), and to seek proportional good from the tactics and methods employed in the war (i.e., no tactic should be used unless the good expected from its use is greater than the evil caused).
The just war doctrine rejects the mindless patriotism of “my country right or wrong” and challenges the citizens to make a moral judgment concerning the wars their nation fights. If a citizen believes that the war is unjust he needs to refrain from participation in or support of the war. The just war position logically entails the righteousness of conscientious objection against unjust wars: “since war is to be waged in a just cause only, and normally, in defense of homeland and of justice, the right of conscientious objection means that one has the moral right to refuse support to an ungodly war.”
King Solomon says that there is a “time for war” (Eccl. 3:8), indicating what all wise men understand: going to war is sometimes necessary to withstand the wickedness of aggressive rulers and nations that murder, pillage, rape, steal, and tyrannize others. Rushdoony explains:
Similarly, physical resistance, whether in the form of warfare or personal resistance to murderous attack, or the attempts of evil men to overwhelm us, is a godly stand and by no means wrong. In an evil world, such resistance is often necessary; it is an unpleasant and ugly necessity, but not an evil. David could thank God for teaching him to war successfully (II Sam. 22:35; Ps. 18:34; 144:1). In an evil world, God requires men to stand in terms of His word and law.
Warfare is a part also of a sinful order, but no less right under godly circumstances, and the right of the sword is by no means withheld because war belongs to the state of sin. Hardly an aspect of our lives can be separated from this sinful order in any full sense, but the law [of God] speaks to covenant-keepers in a sinful world, not to men in heaven.
The fundamental essence of a Christian perspective on just war is encapsulated in the following statements by Dabney and Carnell:
Defensive war is, then, righteous, and only defensive war. Aggressive war is wholesale robbery and murder. If the magistrate is armed with righteous power to destroy the domestic murderer, a fortiori he has the right to destroy these alien murderers, committing the crime wholesale. The “Peace Society” used to argue that all war is sinful, from the horrors of war. They are enormous. But common sense would rather argue from this the guilt of the perpetrators and the right of punishing it in some appropriate way. Who may do it if not the magistrate? But war should only be defensive. As soon as the invader is disarmed, his life should be spared; especially as individual invaders are usually private subjects of the invading sovereign, who have little option about their own acts as private soldiers. It is scarcely needful to add that the Scriptures of both Testaments expressly teach the righteousness of the patriot soldier’s profession. The Apostle, in Heb. ii , teaches that the valour of the defensive soldier is one of the noble fruits of religious faith, a principle he ascribes to the inworking of God himself. A moment’s reflection shows that the rightfulness of capital punishment stands or falls with the lawfulness of defensive war.
Defensive warfare is simply the use of a national police force to destroy gangsterism on an international scale. The soldier is in exactly the same position as the civil officer at the scene of a bank robbery. Each must put down perversity with force. War is the last expedient to which a nation can turn when its survival is threatened by those bent on world domination and the lust for power. There is no doubt but that war is a terrible thing, almost too awful to speak of without tears in our voices. But the consequence of not matching force with force within the collective ego is infinitely less bearable. We will destroy the very securities within which men can preach and hear the Word of Life; we will betray all of the forms that guarantee our basic freedoms; and, worst of all, we will commit a sin against the very God who has ordained that Christian citizens be subject to those who have been placed in civil office as a praise to the good and a terror to the evil.