What Does the Bible Say About Killing in War?

Killing in war is part of the reality of the present fallen creation. Christians can serve the state as soldiers and fight in wars. Christians should keep their hearts from hating others, even in war.

What Does the Bible Say About Killing in War

The Bible records many occasions of wars, ranging from civil wars (2 Samuel 3:1) to conquering entire nations (1 Samuel 15:3). But God has also given a specific command not to “kill” or “murder” (Exodus 20:13). An important question for Christians, then, is whether killing in war is sometimes permissible or always sinful?

“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” 1 Samuel 15:3

In this verse, God wants King Saul to wipe out an entire nation, including women and children. Saul ended up killing everyone except for their king. This was a very tragic event, but it was commanded by God. If we trust that God would never tell us to partake in sin, we must deem that killing in war, while ultimately terrible, is allowed by God in some situations.

What Does the Bible Say About Killing in War (KJV)?

“But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth” Deuteronomy 20:16-17

In the Bible, war was sometimes necessary for the purging of evil. God sought to eliminate nations and practices which would lead his people away from him. As their Creator, God loves and respects all people, so he does not flippantly prescribe killing in war. But because he is holy, he cannot stand for the celebration of evil. Just as God will one day execut justice on all evil, so too in the Old Testament were the people of God commanded at times to act as the instrument of God’s judgment on the nations.

“And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshiped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh.”Revelation 19:20-21

Some biblical interpreters take this passage to speak to a great war when Jesus returns, wherein he will execute judgment on evildoers. The enemies of God will be either thrown into the lake of fire or slain by the sword.

Is Killing in War a Sin?

“Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him.” Leviticus 19:17
“For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” Matthew 15:19

The verdict of sinfulness is ultimately up to God, even in the case of killing someone in war or otherwise. Because sin is a matter of the heart that expresses itself in actions, there could be occasions where killing in war is a sin and occasions when it is not. This type of sin would be particular to the individual and must be handled by God. The Bible, however, commands us not to hate others—all people are created in God’s image. Performing the duties of a soldier can be done, though perhaps with great difficulty at times, without hating the enemy. Even enemy soldiers are created in God’s image, and they themselves are often carrying out the actions of superiors whose intentions, for good or evil, will be judged by God at the end of the age.

“Thou shalt not kill.” Exodus 20:13

The word translated “kill” in Exodus 20:13 (rāṣaḥ) speaks most prominently to muder and negligent homicide. In the event of a just war—and particularly, in the Bible when God commands his people to take the lives of others in judgment—it is not a sin to kill in war.

“But God said unto me, Thou shalt not build an house for my name, because thou hast been a man of war, and hast shed blood.”1 Chronicles 28:3

Although it may not be a sin to kill in war, there are often detrimental effects, both personally and corporately. In the Old Testament, David was not allowed to build God’s temple because he had shed much blood in war. It was a very serious matter to God.

It is important to note that because of Christ’s work, killing in war does not keep a Christian from access to God’s holy temple. Christians are covered by Jesus’ sinless blood and are able to approach God’s throne with confidence (Hebrews 4:16).

What Does the Bible Say About Killing in War

Is War Justified in the Bible?

There are occasions where war is justified in the Bible:

“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.” 1 Peter 2:13-14

The apostle Peter commands believers to be submitted to the commands of the nation, nations who bear responsibility for protecting and defending the people within a nation, as well as “punishing evildoers.” Believers should obey the government so long as the state does not encourage believers to disobey a clear command of God.

“When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee.And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it”Deuteronomy 20:10-12

In this respect, war is to be seen as a last resort when terms of peace are rejected.

“For [the ruler of the state] is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”

It can be considered just for soldiers to fight in a war when the war is the government’s means of punishing wrongdoing.

Although there are occasions when war can be justified, especially for soldiers who are commanded by a government to fight, theories for what counts as just war for nations are debated.

What Does the Bible Say About Killing in Self-Defense?

“If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.” Exodus 22:2-3

It is biblically acceptable to defend yourself against criminal activity carried out against you or your household. In such a situation, killing in self-defense is biblically allowed. While killing is a tragedy, the Bible considers the defender “not guilty” in most situations.

“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” Matthew 5:11-12

As Jesus makes clear in the book of Matthew, if a Christian is being persecuted for their faith, the Christian is called to endure suffering for Jesus’ sake.

What Does the Bible Say About War, and Soldiers?

There are examples of soldiers in both the Old and New Testament who loved God and had faith in Him. God also loved soldiers and never chided them for their profession or asked soldiers to find new jobs.

“And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages.” Luke 3:14

John the Baptist told soldiers to be content and to do no violence to people. Most scholars argue that this word for “violence” (diaseiō) means to “extort money through violence.”

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)” 2 Corinthians 10:3-4

Paul often used the image of warriors and battle as an example of the importance and serious nature of putting sin to death. The Christian battle of the mind is not fought by the flesh alone. Christ fights on our behalf. Our weapons have divine power and are able to defeat any sin that has taken root in us.

The New Testament  also contains numerous examples of centurions who are at times regarded as “God-fearing men.” (Matthew 8:10; Acts 10:22).

Though war is a part of the fallen world, it will not take place in the renewed world where there will be no more tears or death (Isaiah 2:4; Revelation 21:4).

Stephen D

Stephen Dillard serves as a Bible Scholar with Wycliffe Associates and is a contributing writer on Revelations.org. He is a graduate of Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri. He and his wife, Madison, have four children and make their home in Indiana.

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