Is Self-Defense Biblical?

Are Christians biblically justified to use force for self-defense?  Depending on the situation, the answer is sometimes yes, and sometimes no.  Killing a thief is both justified and unjustified, depending on the situation (Ex. 22:2-3).  In Scripture there are examples of believers who at one time defended themselves or others, but then at other times fled and/or suffered for their faith.  David, who killed Goliath (1 Sam. 17:48-51), twice fled when Saul tried to kill him with a spear (1 Sam. 18:11; 19:10), and refused to retaliate, even when he had opportunity (1 Sam. 24:4-6).  Paul, who at one time took a beating with rods (Acts 16:22-23), later used legal force against his attackers by exercising his rights as Roman citizen to protect himself from a flogging that might have killed him (Acts 22:25-29), and eventually appealed to Caesar, hoping to gain a just trial (Acts 25:7-12).  Christians can certainly use the legal system as a means of protection.  My understanding is that there is a time to fight, and a time not to fight, “a time to kill and a time to heal” (Eccl. 3:3), “a time for war and a time for peace” (Eccl. 3:8). 

Briton Riviere - Daniel in the Lions DenScripture provides examples of believers who, when faced with hostility, did not defend themselves, but trusted God and suffered for Him, even to the point of death.  Three Hebrew teenagers opposed a religious tyrant and accepted the possibility of death by fire (Dan. 3:1-30).  Daniel chose a den of lions rather than cease his prayers to God (Dan. 6:1-24).  Peter defied the command to stop preaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:18-20; 5:28-29), and rejoiced after being flogged (Acts 5:40-41).  Stephen offered prayers and forgiveness for those who stoned him to death (Acts 7:54-60).  Paul avoided a murder attempt by escaping through an opening in a city wall as he was lowered to safety in a basket (Acts 9:23-25), and also accepted unjust persecutions, beatings and imprisonment for Christ (2 Cor. 11:23-30; 2 Tim. 2:8-9).  Even Jesus did not fight against His accusers and attackers (Matt. 26:51-53; John 18:10-11; 1 Pet. 2:21-23), but willingly laid down His life (John 10:15, 18; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:25), and died a substitutionary death on a cross for our sins (Mark 10:45; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; 1 Pet. 3:18).  When asked about His kingship and kingdom, Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36a).  When Peter drew a sword to defend Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:10), Jesus stopped him and said, “Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11).  The Son of God had the means to defend Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, for He declared, “do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53).  Twelve legions of angels (approximately 72,000) would have been more than adequate to fight against Jesus’ attackers.  However, it was not the Father’s will that Jesus be defended, either by angels or men, but that He suffer and die for our sins.  This was for the Father’s glory and our benefit (John 12:28; 32-33; 17:1).  The world is not worthy of those who suffer and die a martyr’s death for the cause of Christ (Heb. 11:36-40).

       There are Christians who love the Lord Jesus and take His words seriously when He says, “do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt. 5:39).  Paul stated, “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:17-18), and “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21).  There are times when believers need to trust God more than their instinct for self-preservation, and if the Lord decides it’s better for the Christian to suffer and die, then so be it.  His purposes and glory override our comfort and safety.  God’s children should expect unjust persecution and suffering (John 15:18-19; Phil. 1:29; 2 Tim. 1:12; 1 Pet. 3:14, 17), and when attacked because of our faith, should not retaliate (Rom. 12:17-21; 1 Pet. 2:23), but trust God that He will deliver if He chooses (Dan. 3:17-18; 6:21-22; Acts 5:19-20; 12:6-7). 

       As previously stated, there are biblical examples of believers who used force as a means of protecting themselves and others.  Abram fought against Chedorlaomer to defend the innocent and restore stolen property (Gen. 14:1-24).  David blessed God for the military skills he’d received, saying, “Blessed be the LORD, my rock, Who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Ps. 144:1; cf. Ps. 18:34).  David was in God’s will when he stood on a field of battle and killed his enemy (1 Sam. 17:46-51), and later when he rescued his family and belongings from Amalekites who destroyed and plundered the city of Ziklag (1 Sam. 30:1-20).  When soldiers approached John the Baptist with questions about their conduct, he did not tell them to abandon their profession, but said, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).  Soldiers can serve God’s will, when they promote His righteousness and justice. 

       Killing is not the same as murder, and Scripture sanctions the use of force to protect property and life.  Murder is the taking of a human life for unjustified reasons (Ex. 21:12-14; Lev. 24:17).  God authorized the taking of human life when He told Noah, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6).  Under the Mosaic Law, a thief could be killed if breaking into a man’s home at night (Ex. 22:2).  Toward the end of Jesus ministry on earth, He told His disciples, “whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one” (Luke 22:36).  It can be said, “while Jesus forbade His disciples from using a sword for spiritual purposes (Mt 26:52), He urged His disciples to buy a sword if necessary for protection (Lk 22:36–38).”[1]

…biblical arguments for total pacifism are flawed. For example, Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek (Mt 5:39) refers to a personal insult (like a slap in the face), not to bodily harm. Indeed, even Jesus refused to turn His cheek when smitten unjustly (Jn 18:22–23). The exhortation to love our enemies does not preclude the use of force to restrain them from killing us (cf. Paul’s instigation of government intervention for his protection in Acts 23).[2]

       It appears there are times when it’s valid to defend oneself against unjust persecution.  Because each situation is different, and the believer must exercise good judgment, it’s best to try to think through scenarios in advance of an emergency.  As a Christian, I am a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20), and my first allegiance is to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  I am also an American citizen, and enjoy unprecedented freedoms and prosperity (some of which are based on biblical principles).  When there is a conflict between Christian and American values, I should always choose Christ first.  I wish I could say I always make the right choice, but sometimes I fail, as we all do.  Some biblical choices are clear and easy to make; but some are not, and I am forced to wrestle with the decision.  Christian liberty gives me freedom to make many personal choices, so long as those choices are governed by wisdom (Prov. 4:7; 19:8), love for others (Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 13:4-8a; 16:14), and bring glory to God (Rom. 11:36; 16:27; 1 Cor. 10:31; Eph. 1:6, 11-14). 

     I think law-abiding responsible persons should be prepared to protect and defend themselves when attacked.  As an American, I own a firearm for self-defense, which is my constitutional right according the Second Amendment of the United States of America, which declares, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  I celebrate this right of self-protection.  I carry a gun for self-protection with the understanding that force is sometimes necessary to stop violent persons who are bent on stealing or causing physical harm.  Carrying a gun creates a heightened sense of awareness and personal responsibility.  If I’m ever compelled to draw my firearm around others, I want to be seen as the good guy; so I make it a point to behave and dress in a non-offensive manner.  Because my actions can harm others, I need to know what I’m doing before I make the decision to draw my weapon.  Before I act, I need to know that my life or the life of an innocent person is in danger.  I should also resolve in advance that I’m ready to take action that could harm an attacker if I feel my life or the life of an innocent person is in danger.  Above all, I need to know my intentions and actions are right before God; for I know a day will come when I stand before His throne and give account for my life (2 Cor. 5:9-10).  If a person does not like guns as a means of self-defense, then by all means have some protection, whether pepper spray, a pocket knife, or an alert mind that tries to avoid trouble altogether.  For most criminals there’s a risk verses reward mentality, and they are often deterred from committing crime if the risk of being caught and punished exceeds the prospect of reward.  This assumes some rational thinking, and I realize some criminals engage in harmful behavior without thought or fear (perhaps because they’re impaired by drugs or just arrogant).  Prevention is better than confrontation when dealing with criminals.  As a means of home protection I used to post signs that read beware of dog, property under camera surveillance, and beware of owner (with a picture of a handgun).  These were intended to dissuade potential criminals who may have targeted my home.  There was reality behind the signs, for I had a dog, there were cameras, and, if necessary, I would use force as a means of protection.  My hope was never to encounter a criminal, and if a psychological deterrent worked, then property and life were preserved. 

       Lastly, the governments of this world—though comprised of sinful men—are under God’s sovereign control and serve as ministers for good and justice.  When doing God’s will, governmental rulers are to be respected and obeyed, as God has granted them the authority to kill for just reasons.  Scripture states, “for it [government] is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing” (Rom. 13:4a).  The sword is a picture of capital punishment, which God sanctions by means of the governments of this world.  Having an army or police force is necessary to restrain evil.  If a Christian is called into police or military service, then he may be the one who wields the instrument of punishment to accomplish God’s will.  In this case, he needs to be the best police officer or soldier he can be; and this for God’s glory.  Certainly there are rulers who abuse their power for sinful purposes, and at times need to be resisted (with wisdom and courage).  However, for the most part, governments serve as “a minister of God” (Rom. 13:4), and for this reason, we submit ourselves “for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).  We submit to rulers in authority, “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:2).  I prefer a tranquil life so that I may pursue my spiritual walk with the Lord and do good (Eph. 2:10; Tit. 2:11-14). 

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

Related Articles:

[1] Norman L. Geisler, “Does the Bible Support a Just War?” In , in The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal, Chad Owen Brand, E. Ray Clendenen et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 995.

[2] Ibid., 995.

About Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

Steven is a Christian educator. His webpages communicate evangelical Christian doctrines and topics. Steven earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2006 from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and completed his Doctor of Ministry degree in 2017 from Tyndale Theological Seminary. His articles are theological, devotional, and promote a biblical worldview. Studies in the original languages of Scripture, ancient history, and systematic theology have been the foundation for Steven’s teaching and writing ministry. He has written several Christian books, dozens of articles on Christian theology, and recorded more than three hundred hours of audio and video sermons. Steven worked in jail ministry for over twelve years, taught in Bible churches, and currently leads a Bible study each week at his home in Arlington, Texas.
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2 Responses to Is Self-Defense Biblical?

  1. John J Flanagan says:

    I agree with your thoughtful analysis of the issue and how it relates to Christian self defense.

  2. devonwsaid says:

    This is a very good article about self-defense from a biblical perspective; and I thank you for sharing it with us because it has truly opened my heart with a better understanding of how to approach self-defense.
    Peace,
    –Devon

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