Does God want Christians to use lethal force and other coercive means to defend themselves and others from mortal threats?
There are two presuppositions that almost always underlie the arguments in favor of the use of self-defense by Christians. Each of these presuppositions must be evaluated biblically.
At times it is necessary to use violence to stop or prevent violence.
The following Bible passages teach that violence should be avoided, if possible and never initiated.
28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10.28)
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8.35-39)
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12.14-21)
30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” (Heb 10.30)
Although a person advocating for self-defense may concede that it is God-honoring to surrender your own life when facing a mortal threat, they cannot agree that such a surrender should extend to an innocent other person. They argue that, if possible, the believer should be able to use lethal means to prevent the other person from being killed.
Here in sketch is the essence of this argument:
There is no Scripture that authorizes the use of lethal force by a believer when facing a mortal threat. (See Scriptural Support is Stark below)
It’s ironic that a believer would seriously consider taking an action that is contrary to God’s will.
Although God does not authorize lethal force, a believer has the duty to come to the aid of a threatened person even it requires lethal force.
Surely a believer has no duty to do something that if performed would be contrary to the will of God.
When facing a person threatening to kill others the only means to prevent that is to use lethal force against the threatening person before he can carry out his threat.
Obviously, before anything happens no one knows whether it will happen. Preemptive actions foreclose the possibility of other actions from happening. A believer is empowered by the Holy Spirit and endued with godly attributes, the same abilities that raised Jesus from the grave and created the heavens and earth. A person threatening mayhem is no match for a believer filled with the Holy Spirit. (See Without lethal weapons, Christians are defenseless Below)
There are an indefinite number of ways the scenario can play out differently than it first appears to be. A God-confident, courageous person can respond without fear and possibly change the dynamic in ways that the use of lethal force cannot.
Of course, if one is inclined to exercise his right to self-defense, he must be armed.
Because of the variety of jurisdictions, each with its own gun laws, it’s not possible to be armed at just any time. For any number of reasons, a person may not be armed when a mortal threat develops.
Without lethal weapons, Christians are defenseless.
This presupposition, as well as the former one, discounts or ignores the Holy Spirit.
A word commonly used in reference to the Holy Spirit is power (δύναμις, dynamis). It is an ability to perform some activity or function and because of its association with the Holy Spirit the person who has been endued with this power will succeed. (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains | Louw-Nida)
Besides power, the Holy Spirit gives the person so empowered many other capabilities, all of which are spiritual. These include the following:
Spirit of wisdom and revelation
Insight to understand the hope that God has given believers
Strength in the Lord and the strength of his might
Focus the mind on the things of the Spirit
Boldness and courage, instead of fear.
The following Bible passages show beyond all doubt that a believer is more than a conqueror and in no respect can be considered a victim and without a defense against any mortal threat. In fact, Jesus standing at the what First Century believers considered the very “gates of hell” (Bashan and Mount Hermon) strongly asserted that those gates could not and would not prevail against his Church. (Matt 16.18) The Church would be on offense attacking the gates of hell and every evil that emanates from it and it would be successful.
8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” (Acts 1.8a)
6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, 7 for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim 6-7)
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (2 Cor 10.3-7)
16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1.16-23)
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. (Eph 6.10-20)
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8.5-8)
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Rom 8.9-11)
12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom 8.12-17)
A believer who is walking in the Spirit (which means walking in obedience) will consider a mortal threat in light of his mission, the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, this mortal threat will not shake him, for the fear of physical death has been taken from him. He will be confident that he can take actions that glorify God and advances God’s kingdom. He will not think in terms of preserving his life or that of another at the expense of the life of one who poses a mortal threat. Below are examples of ways a believer might respond:
Under the influence of the Holy Spirit one will not be afraid or timid but will with confident assurance take whatever action the Holy Spirit provides at that moment
12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12.12).
One filled with the Holy Spirit will submit to death rather than disobey God:
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan 3-16-18)
There’s no end to disarming ways that a believer may respond that may change the dynamic. For example, he may say to the intruder,
“You look nervous and out of sorts, may I pray for you?”
The presuppositions that underlie the defense of self-defense by Christians are not true, and therefore any argument based on them fails as well.
Scriptural Support is Stark
The best that self-defense advocates can point to in the Old Testament is Exodus 22.2-3:
2 If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, 3 but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.
This passage does not authorize self-defense, instead it does not apply guilt to the homeowner should a thief die at night because the blow that struck him was deemed not intended to kill the thief. The fact that it was dark made all the difference. The thrust of the passage is that the thief should not be killed, but if he dies because the darkness contributed to his death, then the one presumably striking the blow (and presumably not meant to be lethal) will not be held accountable, otherwise he would. This passage does not authorize killing in response to a mortal treat.
The New Testament passage that self-defense advocates cite in defense of their position is Luke 22.36:
36 He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.
Jesus did NOT command his disciples to take their money bags and knapsacks and sell their cloaks and buy a sword. Instead Jesus told his disciples (and us) that they had already bought two swords, the proof of which is as soon Jesus uttered the words, “37 For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”, the disciples show Jesus the two swords they had purchased.
Properly interpreted this passage does not support self-defense. In fact, it rules it out. See the Final Temptation.
Conclusion – That a Christian Contemplates Self-Defense is Ironic
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matt 16.24-26)
In light of the above passage, a believer has nothing to defend, since he has already given everything up for the sake of Christ. His heart is undivided and completely at rest in Jesus Christ.
That being the situation to have thoughts let alone actions of self-defense is truly ironic. The two notions cannot coexist.