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).

In the book of Daniel, we learn about three Hebrews who opposed a tyrant and accepted the possibility of death by fire (Dan 3:1-30). Daniel chose to face death in 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). Paul also accepted unjust persecutions, beatings, and imprisonment for Christ (2 Cor 11:23-30; 2 Tim 2:8-9).

Jesus before PilateEven 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; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 2 Cor 5:21; 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).

Should Christians be Pacifists?

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). But is this a call for Christians to practice total pacificism? Norman Geisler states, “Biblical arguments for total pacifism are flawed. For example, Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39) refers to a personal insult (like a slap in the face), not to bodily harm.”[1] I agree with Geisler on this matter. Overlooking a personal insult can be very difficult at times, but this is what we’re called to do.[2] The apostle Paul said, “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. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom 12:17-19). As growing Christians, we should have a calm spirit, not be hypersensitive, exercise self-discipline, control our emotions, and learn to dismiss an insult. Solomon said, “A man’s discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov 19:11).

Is Killing the Same as Murder?

Killing is not the same as murder. Murder is the taking of a human life for unjustified reasons, and under God’s Law, “the murderer shall surely be put to death” (Num 35:16; cf. Ex 21:12; Lev 24:17). God authorized killing 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). In fact, God Himself has killed (Lev 10:1-3; 2 Sam 6:1-7; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor 11:27-30; cf., Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6) and will kill again (Rev 9:15; 19:11-21). God’s law for Israel listed specific violations that warranted the death penalty.[3] Though these are few in number, they clearly show that killing is not wrong in God’s sight. But if an offender displayed humility, God may grant a reduced sentence.[4] God’s directive for capital punishment continues into the New Testament (Rom 13:4-6).

Good Government’s Right to Kill

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. Capital punishment is necessary to exact justice for those who have been innocently murdered and to deter future acts of evil. Killing is justified when God commands it.

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). Furthermore, governments employ and empower police and military as a means of restraining evil, and this sometimes requires force, and even deadly force. Good government will adequately fund and support their police and military. And 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.

Biblical Examples of Self-Defense

Self DefenseIn Genesis, we read that Abram fought against Chedorlaomer to defend the innocent and restore stolen property (Gen 14:1-24). David used force to rescue his family and belongings from Amalekites who destroyed and plundered the city of Ziklag (1 Sam 30:1-20).[5] In the book of Esther, we learn about a man named Haman, who “sought to destroy all the Jews” (Est 3:6). By deceit, Haman convinced King Ahasuerus to pass a decree that would allow him to kill all the Jews, and the king blindly passed the law (Est 3:7-14). Later, Haman was hanged on the gallows he intended for the Jews (Est 7:10; 8:7), and afterwards, King Ahasuerus passed a second law which “granted the Jews who were in each and every city the right to assemble and to defend their lives” (Est 8:11). When they came under attack, “the Jews struck all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying” (Est 9:5). The sword was the weapon being used against the Jews, and the sword was used by Hebrews to defend themselves. This was clearly self-defense. When Nehemiah was rebuilding the city wall in Jerusalem, both he and his builders were under threat of attack (Neh 4:1-10). Nehemiah split his forces between defenders and workers, and Nehemiah said, “half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates; and the captains were behind the whole house of Judah” (Neh 4:16). And it is said of the builders themselves that “each wore his sword girded at his side as he built” (Neh 4:18). Clearly these swords were for self-defense. Jesus, toward the end of His ministry on earth, told His disciples, “Whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Norman Geisler states, “while Jesus forbade His disciples from using a sword for spiritual purposes (Matt 26:52), He urged His disciples to buy a sword if necessary for protection (Luke 22:36–38).”[6]

Sometimes legal defense is the preferred course of action. 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 a Roman citizen to protect himself from a flogging that might have killed him (Acts 22:25-29). And Paul 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.

Non-lethal Use of Force

In Genesis, we see an example of a non-lethal use of force to neutralize a threat (Gen 19:1-25). Lot, while living in Sodom, had received some male guests (who were actually angels) that he welcomed into his home (Gen 19:1-3). However, there were men in the city who came to Lot’s house and demanded he turn out his male guests so they could have sexual intercourse with them. It’s likely these men intended to rape Lot’s guests. The text tells us, “Before they went to bed, the men of the city of Sodom, both young and old, the whole population, surrounded the house” (Gen 19:4), saying, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Send them out to us so we can have sex with them!” (Gen 19:5). Surrounding the house and making demands was an intimidation tactic designed to cause fear.

Lot SodomLot tried to reason with them, saying, “Don’t do this evil, my brothers” (Gen 19:7), even wrongly offering them his two daughters in place of his guests (Gen 19:8). The men of the city then demanded Lot get out of their way, and “they put pressure on Lot and came up to break down the door” (Gen 19:9). When the men of Sodom did not get what they wanted, they resorted to force and tried to break into Lot’s house. This mob would certainly have committed a great evil against Lot and his guests, but fortunately, “the angels reached out, brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door” (Gen 19:10). Since the mob was not rational, the angels were required to use force, so “they struck the men who were at the entrance of the house, both young and old, with a blinding light so that they were unable to find the entrance” (Gen 19:11). Here, we witness the angels employing a measured use of nonlethal force sufficient to stop the men of Sodom from advancing. Of course, this was a temporary use of nonlethal force until such a time that God could render fatal judgment on the city as a whole (Gen 19:12-25). Though the actors in this example were angels, it still demonstrates an example non-lethal force used to neutralize a threat.

Americans and Self-Defense

Guns-Self-Defense-Law-Maryland-1080x630Law-abiding responsible Americans have the right to own a firearm for self-defense. This is our 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.” There is no conflict between Christianity and our constitutional right as Americans to own guns for protection and self-defense. Wayne Grudem states, “A gun is the most effective means of defense in all kinds of threatening situations, especially against attackers who may be stronger or more numerous. Protection of the right to own a gun is especially important in areas of higher crime or more frequent violence.”[7]

Self-defense with a gun is not mandatory for believers, but is a matter of Christian liberty. If you don’t like guns as a method of self-defense, then by all means have some protection, whether pepper spray, a knife, taser, or whatever increases your ability to neutralize a threat. Having an alert mind that pays attention to your surroundings is your best defense. Also, it might be helpful to use psychological deterrents to keep criminals away from your home.[8]

Summary

There are times when using lethal force is justified, and other times not. God sanctions justified killing, but not murder. God has granted good governments the right to kill, both as a means of exacting justice and deterring crime. And there are clear examples of believers in Scripture who used lethal force as a means of protecting themselves from unjustified attacks. Furthermore, God Himself has killed and will kill again. And non-lethal uses of force may also be used to neutralize a threat. Lastly, law-abiding Christians in America have the constitutional right to keep and bear arms as a means of self-defense.

In closing, I would like to reference an article on guns and self defense by pastor John Piper. In his article, he states he “would personally counsel a Christian not to have a firearm.” Though I disagree with his final position, his article offers a different point of view, which is helpful when considering this sensitive subject.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] Norman L. Geisler, “Does the Bible Support a Just War?” 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] As God’s children, we should expect unjust persecution and suffering in this fallen world (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).

[3] The sins that warranted the death penalty include: intentional murder (Ex 21:12-14; cf. Gen 9:6), attacking or cursing a parent (Ex 21:15), kidnapping (Ex 21:16), habitual rebellion against God (Deut 17:12), sacrificing to pagan gods (Ex 22:20), cursing God (Lev 24:15-16), working on the Sabbath (Ex 35:2), being a false prophet and leading Israelites into idolatry (Deut 13:1-5), religious human sacrifice (Lev 20:2), the practice of divination, sorcery or witchcraft (Ex 22:18; Deut 18:9-14), adultery and premarital sex (Lev 20:10-14; 21:9; Deut 22:22), sex with an animal (Ex 22:19; Lev 20:15-16), incest (Lev 20:11-12, 14), homosexuality (Lev 18:22; 20:13), and the rape of a married woman (Deut 22:25-27).

[4] For example, in Scripture we read about David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah (2 Sam 11:1-17). The divine estimation was, “the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the LORD” (2 Sam 11:27). Biblically, both offenses warranted the death penalty under God’s law (Ex 21:12-14; Deut 22:22). What is commendable about David is that he handled his sin in a biblical manner by confessing it and seeking the Lord’s forgiveness. Concerning Uriah and Bathsheba, David said, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Sam 12:13; read Psalm 51 for the longer version of David’s confession). And upon his confession, the prophet Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Sam 12:13). Here we see God’s grace and government at work; for though David was forgiven and restored to fellowship with God, there were still consequences for his actions and the Lord dispensed judgment upon David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:14-18).

[5] David was a man of war and had spent years developing his martial skills. He even 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” (Psa 144:1; cf. Psa 18:34).

[6] Norman L. Geisler, “Does the Bible Support a Just War?”, 995.

[7] Wayne A. Grudem, Politics according to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 211.

[8] For example, keep the outside of your house well lit, install cameras (or fake ones if you can’t afford real ones), post signs that say your property is managed by a security company, or signs that say you’ll use force if needed. For most criminals there is a risk verses reward mentality, and they are often deterred from committing crime if the risk of being caught, injured, or 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 a mental disorder).

2 thoughts on “Is Self-Defense Biblical?

  1. Thanks for your balanced write-up on this thorny issue. And even more thanks for being so gracious as to refer to John Piper’s views on this issue as well. I’ve been deeply enriched by reading both accounts. God bless you for your uncommon fidelity to the truth.

    For me personally, the Christian’s calling is to save life, not to destroy it. Christ suffered and left us an example to follow in his footsteps —to be insulted and assaulted without retaliating, but to accept such situations gladly, being ready to suffer unjustly for our faith. We saw that throughout the book of Acts. Just imagine if Saul the persecutor had been killed in self-defence, by some sword-wielding believers? He would have died a sinner and would have been lost, not forgetting what Christianity would have lost in the ministry of Paul the apostle. Isn’t that sobering?

    I tend to agree almost entirely with John Piper that, though we may have the right to bear arms as citizens in countries where it’s legitimate, we should realise that not everything legally permitted by a country is to be utilised and enjoyed by Christians. Our kingdom is not of this world, and our primary goal is to save lives from Satan’s grip. Look at it this way: if a Christian kills an unbeliever in self defence, the unbeliever is eternally lost. However, a believer who is killed goes to be with the Lord. Shouldn’t we do everything, including laying down our lives, if possible, like the Lord did, to give every unbeliever a chance to get to know the Lord and be saved, like the early Christians gave to Saul the persecutor?

    This is not an easy issue to discuss, I must agree, and I appreciate your forthrightness and willingness to present all views for consideration.

    God bless you!

    1. Thank you for your response. Yes, a difficult issue with godly believers on either side of the discussion. Your comments are thought provoking and worthy of serious consideration. Wishing you a blessed day friend.

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