A Time for War?
By Debbie Anderson
Tears came to my eyes as I heard my African sister in Christ describe her family’s experience during the civil conflict of spring 2011 in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa. Their neighborhood was one of the hardest hit. For many hours, they lay flat on the floor during bombardments, praying and wondering if their home would be the next to collapse. Her young daughter begged, “Mama, let me back in your stomach where it is safe.”
Men were shot indiscriminately on the streets, so she walked to market each morning for food, as did many other women. On those walks she quoted Scripture to give herself strength, and shared with other terrified women the peace she felt by trusting Christ as Savior. Piles of corpses covered with enormous flies littered the city streets and filled the air with the stench of rotting flesh. In His mercy, the Lord spared her family, and later when her husband’s job led them to a new town, He used them effectively to minister to people traumatized by war.
War is ugly, brutal, and offends our innate longing for peace and security. Many people have problems wrapping their minds around the idea that the Lord of the Universe, particularly Jesus, could be in favor of war. How could the “meek and lowly of heart” Savior (Matthew 11:29), who commanded listeners to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and corrected Peter for cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest in the Garden of Gethsemene (John 18:10-11), desire the destruction of cities, nations, or people groups? Can the One who did not defend His own rights take pleasure in genocide? Likewise, what parent’s heart does not quake at the thought of a son or daughter spilling blood on some gruesome battlefield?
Nevertheless, a rapid overview of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation records numerous battles and wars, including quite a few directly commanded by the Lord. Before the fall of man in Genesis there was no war, except the occasion in Heaven when Lucifer and his demons were cast out (Isaiah 14:15; Ezekiel 28:16-17). In Revelation, we learn of a war in Heaven, pitting angelic hosts against the devil and his hosts (Revelation 12), and of the last battle on earth, led by Jesus Himself (Revelation 19:11-16).
After that, believers will dwell eternally with our righteous King, with no more war, sorrow, or tears. The scroll of human history will be rolled up, and the Prince of Peace will reign. Until that day, however, we live in a world torn by war, where the ungodly seek their own devices, and where the godly at times must defend their freedoms and ability to worship God.
Biblically, there is indeed “a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8). What does that mean? How do we believers live with that tension? When should we leave vengeance to the Lord, and when should we pray for our husbands and sons to utterly vanquish the enemy in battle? Is pacifism a responsible option? Perhaps we can sum it up in three simple questions: 1) What does it mean that the Lord is just and righteous? 2) Is war ever just? and 3) How should we respond?
To accept the reality and necessity of war in this fallen world, we must remind ourselves of the nature of God. All the attributes of the Lord (including holiness, love, mercy, justice, and wrath) operate perfectly in Him at all times. God would not be God if He did not judge sin. As much as He loves His creation and desires only good for us, He cannot overlook wickedness, and He will judge righteously.
The only reason believers experience the loving grace of God rather than His wrath, is because Jesus took our penalty for sin upon Himself when He died at Calvary. Every human who does not receive this incredibly merciful offer will experience the full wrath of God.
Consider a few biblical examples of judgment, when the Lord brought destruction on sin Himself or used human agents to destroy cities or peoples as instruments of His judgment:
Worldwide flood (Genesis 6:1-8).
Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24-25).
Judgment on Egypt (Exodus 12:29-30).
God commands Israel to wipe out the Amalekites (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
The Angel of the Lord kills 185,000 Assyrians in one night (2 Kings 19:35).
Even God’s own people Israel eventually fell before the judgment of God after they did not heed gracious (and repeated) warnings to turn from their sins and idolatry. The Lord sent the Assyrians and Babylonians to defeat them and carry them into captivity.
If the Lord’s chosen people did not escape His wrath, neither will any other nation, if it does not turn from wicked ways. In contrast, if a nation does repent and turn to God, it can experience the Lord’s grace. The example of Nineveh in the book of Jonah provides a great example of repentance that delayed God’s hand of judgment.
Non-believers often use judgment as an excuse not to follow the Lord. “I could never serve a God who does brutal things like that to innocent people.” It is important to note that these judgments were often tempered by God’s mercy. During the destruction of Jericho, the prostitute Rahab and her family were spared (Joshua 2:1-20). King Saul showed mercy to the Kenites, neighbors to the Amalekites, before he destroyed the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15:5-7. Throughout Scripture, we find example after example of God’s mercy in the midst of judgment.
Jesus did not give war-like commands in the Gospels (to the disappointment of His disciples who thought He had come to set up an earthly kingdom). Remember why He came—to die for our sins and destroy the works of the devil. If He had fought for His own protection, He would have defeated His purpose in coming to earth.
The book of Revelation, on the other hand, is filled with God’s wrath and war, when God’s justice will be righteously administered to the wicked. Praise the Lord! When this final battle is complete, and the final judgment on sin is finished, war will end forever.
Historically, Christian groups such as the Quakers and the Amish have favored pacifism, including two early church fathers, Tertullian and Origen. Pacifism opposes violence as the means of settling any dispute or to bear arms on moral or religious grounds. Imagine what would have happened to the world if the Allied nations had refused to stand up to Hitler. And if America and other democratic nations today suddenly declared themselves pacifists, how long do you suppose it would take for the entire world to fall into the hands of Muslim extremists? How could we share the gospel and worship the Lord?
Most Christians adhere to the belief that war is terrible but sometimes necessary. This is called the Just War View. When an aggressor attacks a country and prevents its citizens from living in peace and freedom, military response is expected. Church father Thomas Aquinas once noted that for a war to be just, three things are necessary: authority of the sovereign, a just cause, and right intentions.
Consider stories from Scripture that support the idea that the Lord is not opposed to a just war or warriors who defend their country. Moses, leader of Israel, received many direct and pointed instructions concerning warfare against the enemies of God. David, beloved king, harpist, writer of psalms, and “man after God’s own heart,” was a brilliant warrior. Reluctant but obedient Gideon became an unlikely hero in Judges 6 and 7, when God directed him to lead Israel into battle against Midianite oppressors.
In these stories (and many others like them), the Lord clearly received credit for these amazing military victories. He promised and provided victory in these just causes, so His people could live in peace. It seems reasonable that throughout history, His hand has brought victory to the righteous on many occasions. Obviously, many ungodly men have waged war and won for ungodly purposes, but we can be sure the Lord ultimately will have vengeance on the unjust.
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). How do we apply these simple facts—just God and just war—to everyday life? As Christians, how do we demonstrate Christ’s mercy while seeking justice for our war-torn world?
Personal vengeance…no! Biblically, we find a marked difference between a nation’s duty to uphold justice and defend her people and the response Jesus expects from individuals when wronged. He taught us not to take vengeance on our enemies but to hold to a higher standard of personal conduct (Romans 12:14-21) that loves our enemies without defending our own personal rights, avoids vengeance, and seeks the best for those to hate us.
The Role of Government Authority. “Wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “Is the Lord saying I should do nothing if my daughter is raped or a business partner empties our joint bank account and hits the beaches in Hawaii?”
Thankfully, the Lord gives us further guidance in Romans 13 and other places, which help victims respond to these kinds of abuses. Passages in Romans 12 and Matthew 5 tell us not to respond in kind…you murdered my son; I’ll murder yours. But they do not mean we should not use government justice systems or church discipline to prevent further abuse. In fact, a just government plays a crucial role in God’s judgment on sin.
In Luke 3:14, a verse describing His interaction with soldiers, Jesus did not condemn them or tell them that their profession was wicked. Instead, He told them to seize the opportunity to act justly. Perhaps you have never thought of the police, military, or other civil authorities in this way. The just actions of government authorities should deter and terrify the wicked and the lawbreakers, because they act as swift human representatives of God’s judgment.
Mercy and Justice in Action. Christians have always shone brightly in the pursuit of justice and mercy. Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale championed the care of soldiers and influenced the creation of the Red Cross. Amy Carmichael spent her life and health to rescue prostitutes in India; Gladys Aylward poured her heart into the orphans of China. All were respected by local governments and used to settle disputes or otherwise help end barbaric customs.
Mercy is Abraham Lincoln’s treatment of the South after the Civil War and the American airplanes that dropped food to the Germans after their cities were destroyed during World War II. It is Corrie Ten Boom forgiving the Nazi guards who tortured and shamed female prisoners in concentration camps. It is William Wilberforce fighting for decades to abolish slavery in England. It is American soldiers giving shoes, gloves, and candy to Iraqi and Afghan children. Mercy and generosity find their source in the compassion of God.
Many organizations today continue to address issues of justice and mercy. Hope Clinics protect the unborn and give options to women considering abortion; The Hanna Project offers help, hope, and healing to those in need around the world; World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Compassion International provide for children in need; and the list goes on and on. Many of these organizations were founded by and continue to be supported primarily by Christians like you and me.
Every Christian can share Christ’s mercy by joining one of the causes above or other similar efforts in his church and neighborhood. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. Perhaps it is time to emerge from our cocoons and reach out to the hurting in our sphere of influence. Ask the Lord to guide your actions—not from a sense of guilt but from a heart that seeks justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly before God.
About the Writer: Debbie Anderson and her husband Verlin spent two decades as missionaries to Côté d’Ivoire, West Africa, with Free Will Baptist International Missions. Today, they continue their work as representatives of CHE (Community Health Evangelism). Debbie’s complete study on war and justice can be found at www.WNAC.org.