By the Sword: The Moral Use of Deadly Force
Updated: Jan 5
Violence can be difficult to reconcile with morality. Yet war, capital punishment, self-defense, and defending the lives of others are all biblical concepts. Indeed, justice itself carries with it the image of a sword as it cannot be guaranteed without the use of force. Even freedom is hard won and must be defended vigorously—the Framers of of the US Constitution understood that in their inclusion of the Second Amendment. But the cultural attitude, particularly among Western nations, is increasingly demonizing of guns, weapons, or deadly force of any kind. The idea that humanity has evolved or grown past its propensity for violence and predilection for power has produced a false sense of security and a dangerous naivete. In the church, this flirtation with soft Utopian ideas has produced an incomplete theology which is hyper focused on God's grace and mercy while completely ignoring, or even rejecting, His justice.
The Cycle of War
It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men and knowledge to men of understanding. -Dan 2:21 NASB
There are just and unjust wars, but regardless of motivations, political justifications, or how history remembers them, the reality is there always has been and always will be war. From the opening pages of Genesis to the final pages of Revelation, the Bible makes clear that due to the nature of man, violent conflict is inevitable. History has borne this truth out time and time again with human "progress" simply enabling bloodier conflict though technological advancement. The weapons of our warfare have changed, but the nature and causes of warfare have not. The 20th Century was the bloodiest in human history, but it wasn't an anomaly—every century has been marked by war. And while we're currently living in one of the most peaceful seasons ever and have just enjoyed the best decade in human history (though you wouldn't know it with today's news coverage), every indicator points to it being the calm before the storm—World War III is on the horizon. As the famed Stratfor founder and geopolitical scientist Dr. George Friedman once said, "... every century has a war. The 21st century is not going to be the first century without major warfare."
The overarching cyclical nature of warfare can be broken down into three geopolitical categories: Multipolar, Bipolar, and Unipolar seasons. Multipolar seasons in world history are defined by multiple great powers vying for position, which results in large-scale wars (eg: WWI & II). Through that process, several contenders fall out of the running and eventually the world enters a Bipolar season where two great powers are left to contend for global dominance (eg: the Cold War). In the end, one of those great powers is defeated and the winner goes on to become the world superpower. This relatively peaceful time is called a Unipolar season.
The current Unipolar season began in 1991 after the collapse of communism with America gaining superpower status. The US may very well be the shortest-lived empire in world history however, as she has already plunged into what historians call "decadence"—the final stage of a civilization right before its collapse. While no one can pinpoint the exact moment America entered this phase, what is abundantly clear is that we are there now and that the next phase is collapse. What happens next is the beginning of another Multipolar season marked by world war via a cycle which has occurred without fail 26 times in human history, with the fall of the British empire being the last example.
So what should be abundantly clear is that whether we like it or not, war happens with almost clockwork regularity. That of course doesn't make it moral, but it's important to begin the discussion with a firm foot in reality—it can't be completely avoided. So what does make a war moral or just? A just war can often be tricky to identify because there are often both just and unjust elements and motives involved, but defining one is usually a little more straightforward (see Just War Theory). From a Christian perspective, St. Thomas Aquinas (drawing heavily on previous works by St. Augustine) wrote the most systematic exposition of the just war in Question 40 of his treatise Summa Theologica in the 13th Century. A summary of his conditions are the issues of authority, cause, and intent.
The declaration of war should come from the proper authority, as Aquinas acknowledged that in scripture the power to wage war was given exclusively to the sphere of government, not private citizens (Rom 13:1-4).
The party declaring war should be doing so to avenge a wrong, or to punish a nation state for actions which it refused to make amends for.
The party declaring war should have just intent in promoting good or avoiding evil. Aquinas notes that St. Augustine clarified this point as a war should "not be for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good."
In Aquinas' (and Augustine's) writings, we see from a biblical, moral perspective that not only are some wars just, but to not engage in them would actually be unjust. Aquinas even addresses and rebuts four common objections against the morality of war in the same section of Summa Theologica. The principles put forth there should inform every believer in their understanding of use of force and taking up arms. The Latin adage, Si vis pacem, para bellum (if you want peace, prepare for war) is certainly echoed and corroborated by the early church fathers—peace and justice are not established in the world without great effort.
This is important to understand in the context of the cycle of global power. Empires rise and fall and their own morality is an enormous factor in that process (Pro 14:34). But their rise to power on the global stage is not merely a product of their goodness or greatness, but also has a purpose in God's design and order: to serve the greater good as a peacekeeper among the nations. Just as God designed government to keep the peace, ensure national security, and promote the rule of law internally via a justice system and a police force, He also designed government to project authority and influence externally as much as possible to promote justice on the international scene via diplomacy and military power.
The reason Multipolar and Bipolar seasons are so chaotic and bloody is precisely because there isn't a dominant Unipolar power in place to keep the peace. Some may characterize great powers as bullies, but the reality is the overall positive and beneficial function and purpose of a Unipolar power cannot be dismissed simply because imperfect examples exist. No one denies the overall benefit of having a police force simply because on occasion, that role and function has been abused in history. Simply put, we are currently experiencing one of the greatest periods of peace in human history because America rose to Unipolar status and is able to project its might and ideals like no other nation before it. The world is at relative peace because the US has prioritized defense spending (but still a relatively small 15% of the federal budget) and has developed unrivaled military power.
But again, this world dominance is tenuous and easily lost. The Pax Americana (Peace of America), like the Pax Britannica, Pax Mongolica, and Pax Romana before it, can be toppled and the world can be plunged into war and darkness in a single moment in history. While America has succumbed to a festering rot at home, abroad the vultures are circling. Multiple global players are building up their military and economic power, waiting for the opportune moment to strike—particularly China and Russia, who together could quite possibly defeat the US in an all-out war today. The fall of America doesn't just affect America unfortunately, and internally we've already committed suicide, so maintaining our military might is one of the few things keeping the current Unipolar moment alive. For the sake of world peace, now more than ever America needs to prepare for war.
The Case for Capital Punishment
Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand all things. -Pro 28:5 NASB
Obviously the Old Testament is replete with examples of capital punishment. In fact most unbelievers, and even many Christians, feel Old Testament Law to be unjustifiably harsh in its penalties. The theological reality however is that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23)—so Mosaic Law was actually quite lenient by not punishing every sin with the strict severity that justice demanded. Regardless, different cultures have certainly had different views on the death penalty, which crimes were worthy of it, and the exact process by which the sentence was carried out. While the list of offenses punishable by death were fairly numerous in Old Testament Israel (36 to be exact), the methods of execution were few. Stoning was the default method of execution with burning only prescribed for two capital offenses (Lev. 20:14, 21:9). While hanging is recorded a few times in the Old Testament, it was typically in a non-Jewish context and is never prescribed by Levitical Law.
While many Christians believe the death penalty to be incongruent with the New Testament themes of grace, mercy, and forgiveness, the reality is there is absolutely no indication anywhere in the New Testament texts that government has been stripped of that authority and role. Paul actually emphasizes in Romans chapter 13 that government has been given the power to wield the sword to punish evil-doers. Even Jesus affirms that Pilate's governmental authority to put Him to death was given by God (John 19:10-11). What is conspicuously absent in the New Testament writings is any condemnation or rebuke whatsoever of government for even the barbaric capital punishment Christ had to suffer under Roman law. There is also not a single verse rebuking or correcting government authorities for executing masses of Christians—including many of the apostles. Those governments were certainly acting unjustly, but they were not operating outside of the scope of their authority by sentencing people to death. So capital punishment itself clearly remains a province of government, even in the New Testament era. Evil and wrongdoing still exists in the world, so the role of government to punish and deter such behavior is still every bit as valid. In The City of God (426 AD), St. Augustine said:
"The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill' to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of the State's authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice."
Others may view support for capital punishment as inconsistent with the general view in scripture of the sanctity of life, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Certainly scripture does not support the unjust killing of an innocent, but if a person willingly commits a crime punishable by death, the guilty has forfeited their right to life and therefore the judge is not taking a life merely by carrying out the sentence. This logical truth is of course intrinsic to the biblical theology of judgement for sinners. It is not God who is guilty for condemning people to the second death in the lake of fire—their blood is on their own heads as they freely chose to break the law of God and to reject His payment for their crimes.
Of course the practical purpose of capital (and even corporal) punishment over an incarceration sentence is the deterrence effect it has on the populace. Throw someone in jail for the rest of their lives and people forget about the severity of the punishment—out of sight, out of mind. Execution on the other hand has a significant psychological impact on the rest of society which promotes a healthy fear and respect for the rule of law. In modern societies, there is great debate surrounding the traditional wisdom of deterrence with the general consensus from recent studies indicating that the death penalty actually has no effect on crime rates. I do not challenge the conclusion of these recent studies, I merely wish to point out a critical difference between capital punishment throughout all of human history and capital punishment merely in the last 80 years which can easily account for this: it's no longer public. It is of course rather difficult for capital punishment to serve as a warning if those who need warned don't witness it. In the Old Testament, not only were the executions public, but it was the public who carried out the sentence of stoning. They were not passive observers, they were instructed to be active participants in justice. This principle is carried into the New Testament as well as Paul states that believers will be active partners with God in judging both the world and angels (1Co 6:2-3). And if the thought of a public execution sounds off-putting and barbaric to your modern sensibilities, consider this: scripture indicates that not only will we participate in judging the world, but we will also witness the fate of those who were judged.
"For just as the new heavens and the new earth Which I make will endure before Me," declares the LORD, "So your offspring and your name will endure. And it shall be from new moon to new moon And from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me," says the LORD. "Then they will go forth and look On the corpses of the men Who have transgressed against Me. For their worm will not die And their fire will not be quenched; And they will be an abhorrence to all mankind." -Isa 66:22-24 NASB
The Sword of the People
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? -Mic 6:8 NASB
Turning now from government to private individuals, it is interesting to note that all throughout history, free peoples have been armed. Historically, it has actually been the mark of a tyrannical and repressive government to restrict its citizenry from owning (keeping) weapons. This was true in ancient times all the way up through the 19th century—it has only been in the last ~100 years that disarming the populace has really become politically in vogue. In many societies throughout history, even being armed in public (bearing) was considered both appropriate and fashionable, often being a symbol of status. Many would argue that the disarming practice of modernity has made society safer and more civil, but has it? While it is impossible to compare modern societies to ancient ones due to a lack of comprehensive criminal statistics, there is plenty of data to draw upon in the modern era which sheds light on this question.
While edged weapons, spears, bows, and slings were the default small arms throughout most of history, since their first use in 1364 (though some might argue for 1000 AD by the Chinese), firearms slowly became the weapon of choice. But the reality is even today, many acts of violence are carried out with a variety of weapons other than guns. In fact in America currently, around a quarter of even all mass murders are committed without a firearm and more people are killed with hammers every year than assault rifles. Be that as it may, guns are definitely the hot topic in today's political discourse and policy proposals. So while a few nations have gone so far as to try "knife control" laws (like Britain, with terrible results), most of the headlines in America are myopically focused on firearms.
With that deluge of media hype, most Westerners are under the impression that the US is the murder capital of the world, where assault rifles and high capacity magazines are handed out like candy and kevlar is the fashion fabric of choice. Most believe that this narrative is not only true, but a product of the fact that every other industrialized nation has strict gun control laws while America stubbornly remains the Wild West. The reality however, is that America is not the murder capital of the world. It doesn't even rank in the top 10, or the top 50, or even the top 100. The US actually currently ranks 143rd in the world in intentional homicides (as of 2019) with a rate of 5.3 per 100,000 people. This is actually well below the world average of 6.2 per 100,000. So despite the fact that America remains one of the few nations left on earth which protects their citizens' right to keep and bear arms, it has not led to rampant murder rates. Even in Europe, the nation with the lowest murder rate—Switzerland—is actually the one with the second highest gun ownership rate (around 28% of households compared to the US' 42%).
A particularly fond topic of the media is mass murders, which of course the US tops the chart in due to lax gun control laws... Actually, no. Regardless of the media's hyperventilation, your chances of being shot in a mass murder are slim to none. In fact, with an average of only 111 deaths per year (2009-2017 FBI data), you're nearly twice as likely to be killed by a domesticated animal in America than a mass shooter. But surely the US still experiences more mass murders than other developed nations? Nope. Even if we were to remove all instances of other forms of mass murder and focus solely on firearms, the US still isn't at the top of the charts. In fact, the US isn't even in the top 10. In deaths per capita via mass shootings, the US is ranked 11th among European nations with countries like Norway, France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Finland ranking higher. If you don't think that metric is fair and would prefer to rank by mass shooting frequency per capita rather than deaths, the US actually drops to 12th on the chart among European nations. If you include all nations rather than just European ones, the US drops down to 66th in the world in mass shooting frequency per capita. Simply put, a legally armed populace does not make society more dangerous or less civil. There's actually evidence to the contrary.
There are a few nations which have relatively recently instituted gun bans and therefore we have good crime data both before and after these policies went into place. While these nations are often used as examples of the success of gun control by the media, the truth is rather disappointing. Both Britain and Australia passed major gun control laws in the late 20th century to much praise and fanfare, but if you look at the criminal statistics, you'd see that there isn't much to rejoice about. Britain passed gun control legislation in 1988 which had zero effect, so they tried even stricter gun control in 1997. But instead of lowering homicide rates, the rates went up after the handgun ban. In fact, despite being an island nation and therefore being much more able to control illegal imports, the ban didn't even reduce firearm homicides—they went up too.
Clearly the UK isn't a good example of the efficacy of gun control, so let's turn to the other cherished example of Australia. This one is actually more of a curiosity because not only did the 1996 mandatory gun buy-back program not have a clear effect on homicide rates (rates spiked after the ban, but eventually returned to prior trends), but it largely didn't even affect the number of guns in the country. Again on an island nation, where controlling illegal imports would be far easier than the porous borders of a land-locked nation, before the gun ban Australia had an estimated 3.2 million guns while the 1996 ban saw that number only reduced to 2.5 million... in other words, the ban was highly ineffective. But since that ban, the number of guns has increased to an all time high of 3.6 million guns in the country while at the same time, overall homicide rates and gun homicide rates were trending downward. In other words, as guns increased, homicides decreased—a conspicuous trend mirrored in the US data as well.
Biblically speaking, many believe carrying, or even owning a weapon runs afoul of Jesus' teaching. The reality though is Jesus actually explicitly instructed His disciples to be armed for self-defense on their journeys (Luke 22:36). Then of course there is the famous passage where Peter draws his sword and slices off an ear of one of the high priest's slaves coming to arrest Jesus. You'll notice Jesus didn't rebuke Peter for either owning or carrying a sword (He had literally just instructed him to do so after all), but rather Jesus rebuked Peter for using it in that particular instance as Jesus knew He must be arrested and crucified (John 18:10-11).
Life & Death: Two Sides of the Same Sword
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him... -Deu 30:19-20 NASB
The reason why God seems to align with history in the permitting of individuals to be armed is quite simple: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. While justice is primarily the province of government in scripture, it is quite obvious that government cannot always be there when you need it—in fact it rarely can interrupt a crime in progress. As an unarmed populace doesn't make society any safer, but makes the individual considerably less so, scripture makes clear that private citizens must be able to lawfully protect and defend themselves from evil-doers. One of the clearest cases of this can be found in the book of Esther as it was her influence with the king which saved her people from destruction. But it wasn't the king's army or guards which physically protected the Jews from thieves, bandits, or invaders in his lands, Esther convinced him to give the Jews the right to defend themselves (Esther 8:11).
The sword is simply a tool, it can be used to protect and defend life and liberty, or it can be used to take it. As long as there are those who would use the sword to take it, we must be able to wield it against such evil. Using deadly force to protect your neighbor or your own family from a criminal is not unloving or unjust—allowing your neighbor or family member to be raped, brutalized, or murdered while you stand idly by is. Some may think that such situations are rare, but they are far from it. In the US, lawful use of guns save an order of magnitude more lives each year than they take. While around 15,000 homicides take place each year in the US, guns prevent 400,000 life-threatening crimes in that same time frame. Overall, an estimated 2.5 million crimes are prevented every year due to lawful gun ownership.
In this fallen and broken world, death is unavoidable. Christ turned death on its head and used it to offer eternal life to those who accept God's gift, but the time when death will be abolished has not yet come. Before that idyllic eternity comes judgment, which will be swift but not bloodless. One of the more haunting images scripture paints of Jesus at His second coming is that of Him riding on a white horse, bringing wrath and justice upon the nations, wearing a robe dipped in blood (Rev 19:11-16). Whose blood is His robe covered in? The prophet Isaiah states it is the blood of men who God's wrath and justice was poured out upon (Isa 63:1-6). The reality is God cannot be love without also being just, and there can be no justice without death. We must understand that God's justice is every bit a characteristic of His goodness as His grace and mercy are. As believers, we should be careful not to forget this and allow justice to fall by the wayside in the pursuit of a misguided and incomplete concept of love and grace.
This is what the Lord says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed." -Isa 56:1 NIV