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Issues: What Does the Bible Say About War?
Does the Bible support war?
There’s a lot in the Bible on the topic of both peace and conflict. They inform both sides of the debate.
The Old Testament
The Ten Commandments were given to the nation of Israel by God. They offer God’s word on living with others. Life is shown to be precious in the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)
Further into the law, God provides a penalty for injury (created as a deterrent to others): “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Exodus 21:23-24)
Many people take this as a sanction for retaliation, but some scholars suggest this was actually a way of limiting it. At the time people were more likely to take back more than they lost, a head for an eye, for example, which in turn would create further conflict.
There are numerous stories in the Old Testament of God sending the Israelites into battle and giving them victory over their enemies, for example, Moses, Gideon, Joshua, King David. Some people use these verses to justify holy wars, where war is seen as a legitimate means of eliminating evil.
Ultimately, the Old Testament prophets look forward to a time when there will be no more warfare. For example, the prophet Micah writes:
“In the last days… [God] will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” (Micah 4:3)
The New Testament
In terms of ethics, many Christians add the most weight to Jesus’ teaching. He knew the Old Testament very well and had respect for what it taught. He was not contradicting the laws found there. Instead, he got to the heart behind it: God’s heart.
Some of the things he taught around the question of conflict include:
- “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39, from the Sermon on the Mount)
St Paul was a leader of the early church and his letters form a large part of the New Testament. He gave a lot of advice to the first Christians about how to live a life that pleased God. On the subject of relating to others, he wrote:
“Do your best to live at peace with everyone. Dear friends, don't try to get even. Let God take revenge… Don't let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.” (Romans 12:18-21)
It is clear that the New Testament favours a peaceful response as far as personal relationships with others go. The question some may have is, will it work on an international scale? Is it right to oppose wars that are declared for the sake of a nation under oppression?