The Bible and Holy War
1. The Holy War tradition
Warfare in the name of religion is the most talked about topic right now. Certain elements in Islam - call them extremists or fundamentalists, or simply men and women who take their sacred writings seriously - have declared a holy war against the enemies of their faith. Of course, Christianity, as much as Islam, has had a tradition of holy war. Just as one finds within the Muslim world a variety of opinions regarding the waging of war, similarly Christians have historically taken different stances, the most notable being pacifism and the ‘just war’ tradition.
This theological justification for Christians participating in war dates back to Ambrose and Augustine, and was endorsed by the Reformers. It remains the majority view of most Roman and Catholics and Protestants. (1) In summary, the position holds that, under certain, clearly defined conditions (such as a just cause, right intention, noncombatant immunity, and last resort), a Christian is permitted to take up arms to restrain evil, when called upon to do so by a legitimate authority, normally the government.
2. The Bible and Holy War
As with the study of any issue, issues of interpretation, or hermeneutics, are central in understanding the Bible. Superficially, the Bible seems to present quite contradictory instructions to the people of God regarding fighting.
For example, enjoining warfare are verses like the following:
But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them - the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, just as the Lord your God has commanded you so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods… (Deut 20:16-17)
They said (to Jesus), “Lord, look, here are two swords”. He replied, “It is enough”. (Luke 22:38)
But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:4)
On the other hand, other verses are often cited which seem to advocate a position of pacifism:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. (Matt 5:38-39).
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it
is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God. (Rom 12:18-19)
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12)
3. The Wars of the Lord of Hosts
We will begin our study of the teaching of the Bible on holy war with the Old Testament, although, theologically, there is wisdom in beginning with Jesus, as we will see in a moment. However, the character of the wars of God in the OT presents for us in stark terms the dilemma that faces any interpreter of the Bible. For a sensitive reader of the Bible, God’s commands to utterly exterminate the tribes of Canaan presents considerable moral difficulties. There are a number of very good scholarly treatments of this issue, (2) so all we need to do here are outline some of the key features of this divinely sanctioned warfare.
Among the many pictures the Bible gives to us of God (Father, Shepherd, King, Rock) is that he is a warrior. It is a consistently important Biblical image. (3) Among his many designations is that he is the ‘Lord of Hosts’, or the Lord of the armies of heaven. He is a God consistently portrayed as making war against his enemies, both without and within his chosen people. And this is not simply an early, primitive designation of God. In fact, about one-third of the occurrences of the title appear in the writings of the post-exilic prophets.
An integral component of the foundational promise of this warrior God to Abraham was that he would give to him and his descendants a land: “Go…to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). It later becomes clear that warfare is the means by which Israel will occupy this land, their inheritance. One, therefore, understands Israel’s wars of conquest in terms of the fulfilling of God’s covenant promise to the patriarch, Abraham.
In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 20, Moses lays down God’s commands for the waging of war. The OT affirms that fundamentally holy war is God’s war: “for it is the Lord your God who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory” (Deut 20:4). Moses, then, allows a number of exemptions (for example, to those engaged but not yet married, and those who have just built, but not yet occupied, a house). Deuteronomy 20 envisages two contexts for war. Firstly, war against those towns adjacent to, but not within the boundaries of, the promised land. Here, the Israelites are to offer terms of peace, and if these terms are accepted then the occupants are to serve Israel as forced labour. If the offer is refused all the men are to be killed, and the women, children, and livestock taken as booty. If one reads the Qur’an, one finds similar instructions to Muslim believers, although in Islam the reception of the offer of peace implies some acceptance of Islam. Deuteronomy 20 does not envisage that the captured town will necessarily embrace the God of Israel.
However, in the treatment of those tribes who live within the Promised Land the OT commands a ruthlessness that exceeds that of anything found in the Qur’an. There is to be total annihilation of all the people of these towns, men, women and children, and the destruction of all booty. There is no ambiguity in this command: Israel is to attack and wipe out the tribes marked for destruction. There is, though, always the opportunity for a repentant member of a foreign tribe to join Israel and embrace the faith of Yahweh (e.g. Rahab and Ruth).
How are we to understand these stark commands for total destruction? Firstly, it is God’s righteous judgment on unspeakable evil. The Lord had told Abraham that he would not at that time bring judgment on the tribes of Canaan “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Gen 15:16). However, by the time of the Conquest the sins of the heathen nations are so abominable that the time has come for them to be vomited out of the land. Chris Wright wisely comments,
The destruction of the Canaanites was not a matter of arbitrary divine favouritism, but of explicit moral judgment on a society which is described in the Bible, and confirmed by archaeology, as degraded, perverted and oppressive. Furthermore, God showed his moral consistency by not only threatening Israel with the same judgment for the same sins, but also actually carrying it out in their history. (4)
Secondly, these wars are explicitly designed to protect God’s holy people from the corrupting influence of the idolatrous and immoral practises of the neighbouring tribes. Peter Craigie has noted that “it is the story of a group of people, few in number, and almost unbelievably weak and fickle in their spiritual loyalties, battling against mighty forces which were degrading, seductive and ruthless”. (5)
It should also be noted that when the Lord consigns a people to total destruction, or herem, the command was to be obeyed to the letter. 1 Samuel 15 records King Saul’s failure in this area. He was instructed to be the arm of the Lord’s judgment against the Amalekites and “utterly destroy all that they have”, but he spared their King “and the best of the sheep and the cattle…and all that was valuable” (v.9). The writer then records that, as a result of this disobedience, the Lord rejected Saul as king over Israel.
Of course, not all Israel’s wars were of this character. The book of Judges, for example, records the victory of Gideon, where God takes a tiny handful of soldiers, and without an Israelite raising a single sword, routs the army of Midian. The Lord is here making the point which he had repeatedly affirmed throughout Israel’s history, that with or without a great army, victory in battle is due to the enabling of the Lord of Hosts.
Implicit in what we have seen, so far, is that these commands to the nation of Israel are time bound, and apply only to that period in her history when she was a political entity, in her own land, under her judge/king, who ruled as a vice-regent of her divine, heavenly monarch. It is at this point that we see the crucial difference between the teaching of the Bible on holy war and Islam. So, we turn to the New Testament’s understanding of holy war.
4. Holy War in the New Testament
It goes without saying that Jesus’ attitude towards warfare was very different from that of either Muhammad or Moses. No one has seriously suggested he was a man of the sword. The only time someone could accuse Jesus of violence is when he cleanses the temple precincts of those who have corrupted the worship of God with crass commercialism. But it is worth noting that even here he lays his hands on no-one, and no one is injured (e.g. Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17). Before his betrayal and death, as he talks with the confused and fearful disciples, Peter announces that they have two swords. Jesus’ reply, “That is enough”, is not an endorsement of violence, as is made clear by the fact that he chides Peter a little later when the hotheaded disciple actually draws his sword (22:38-51). It is a word of rebuke.
Jesus has rightly been called the ‘Prince of Peace’. More importantly, though, we need to ask how did the process of salvation history move from the first Joshua (‘Jehovah is salvation’) who wiped out his enemies, the inhabitants of the land, to the second Joshua, who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to lay down his life for his enemies?
The Christian Hermeneutic
Earlier, we made the point that, theologically, the starting point for this treatment of warfare, as for the discussion of any Biblical theme, is Jesus Christ. He is the centre of the Biblical revelation. All the promises of God find there ‘Yes’ in him (2 Cor 1:20) and, therefore, he is the interpretive key of the Bible. All that is written in the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of the ultimate reality which is found in Christ and the kingdom which he inaugurates. This understanding is absolutely crucial both for a grasp of the true character of Christian warfare.
The army of Israel served as the instrument of judgment on the godless nations of Canaan. In the unfolding drama of salvation, this act of judgment on the nations, and salvation for Israel prefigures the one, great act of salvation that the Lord of Hosts would do many centuries later in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. This fact becomes ever clearer throughout God’s revelation in the Old Testament. Under Israel’s greatest warrior-king, David, the nation reaches its zenith of material and military success. Yet God foreshadows something greater, and of a different order. The seminal prophecy of 2 Samuel 7, that the son of David will sit on the throne and establish an eternal kingdom points forward to the Messiah, a theme picked up by both the Psalms and the Prophets. The dissolution of the earthly kingdom of Israel in the exile and captivity in Babylon, and the pitiable character of the restored kingdom after the return of the Lord, are all used by the prophets to point Israel forward to something far greater.
As Graeme Goldsworthy notes,
It is characteristic of the writing prophets that they take up the events of Israel’s prior experience of God and reuse them. Creation, captivity, redemptive exodus, covenant regulation, possession of the Promised Land, and kingly rule, all become invested with deeper significance as God promises a new experience of them. This will not be a mere shadow but rather the solid reality of redemption and the kingdom of God. (6)
The prophets now focus on a renewed people, in a new land, gathering around a new temple, under the rule of their true king. In brief, the message of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of these promises and hopes. He is the temple (John 2), and through union with him, his people are this temple (1 Cor 3). The prophets began to describe the land in terms of a new Eden, a theme the New Testament picks up and places in the future, with the coming of the new heavens and the new earth. And, of course, Jesus is the true King of David, which is the affirmation of the opening words of the New Testament (Matt 1:1). In other words, with the coming of Jesus these great kingdom realities are removed from the realm of the earthly and temporal and placed on the heavenly, eternal plane. Jesus makes explicit that his kingdom is not of this world. Indeed, he goes on to say that if his kingdom were an earthly one then “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews” (John 18:36). Jesus persistently chides his disciples who assume that his Lordship will be expressed in a political and militaristic sense (e.g. Mark 10:35-45). His rule, which is now in the hearts of men and women, will one day be over the entire renewed creation. There is, therefore, a clear disjunction between spiritual and secular authority: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). While the Christian is to be subject to the governing authorities who serve, usually unwittingly, as ministers of God, they are essentially aliens and exiles even in their own lands, and therefore ultimately subject to a higher authority.
Christian Holy War
This spiritualising of Old Testament themes is particularly evident in the issue of warfare. Holy war is still a dominant New Testament theme, although the battle is now largely transposed from the earthly, temporal realm, to the heavenly and spiritual realm. Jesus is God’s warrior who sends out his twelve disciples, like the ancient tribes of Israel, into the land. There they preach the kingdom and come back rejoicing that they saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Lk 10:18). Jesus is the stronger man who binds his enemy, Satan, before plundering his house (Mk 3:22-27). Indeed, as Charles Sherlock points out, we see in the death of Christ the great paradox of the Bible’s teaching on holy war. On the cross God’s warrior, the Lord Jesus, himself experienced what it meant to be the enemy of God. (7) In the same moment the victorious warrior is the defeated enemy experiencing the wrath of God. Not surprisingly, then, the effect of Jesus’ death on the cross is described by the Apostle Paul in military metaphors:
Having stripped the principalities and powers of their authority and dignity God exposed their utter helplessness for all to see, leading them in his triumphal procession in Christ. (Col 2:15) (8)
Christ’s death on the cross meant the defeat of his enemies, and these are seen as primarily spiritual beings. It is this reality that lies behind the apostle Paul’s most explicit teaching on Christian warfare found in Ephesians 6. Paul describes the arsenal of the Christian warrior. He is strengthened, not with military might, but with the power of God himself (v.10). Paul then identifies the enemy of the Christian warrior. Paul is explicit that essentially God’s people do not struggle against flesh and blood “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (v.12). I say ‘essentially’ because, of course, from one perspective Christians do wrestle against flesh and blood. Paul’s opponents in Galatia and Corinth and Colossae and elsewhere were very human, and he sometimes mentions them by name, and these letters we read were part of his struggle against them. But Paul’s point is that ultimately their real enemy is Satan and his host of evil heavenly beings. Finally, Paul lists the armour of the Christian warrior. Once again, he is clearly using imagery. Their belt is truth. Their shield is faith. Their sword is the word of God. The armour Christians put on is “the whole armour of God”, implying that they are clothed with God himself. In summary, Paul’s point is that as God’s faithful people live lives of faith and godliness, then such conduct is both their defense and our offense in their jihad with the forces of darkness.
Paul uses similar imagery in 2 Corinthians 10 where he defends the character of his apostolic ministry. He writes,
Indeed, we live as human beings but the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to obey Christ. (vv.3-5)
Consistent with what he says in Ephesians 6, Paul here makes clear that it is by the preaching of the gospel that the Christian wages war, and he subdues the enemy as their thoughts and wills become subject to the Christ he is proclaiming.
A number of years ago I had the privilege of pastoring, for a short time, the Protestant International Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. My wife’s brother and his wife attend that church. They were there on Sunday morning, March 17th, 2002. The preacher was speaking from John 15, on the text, “When the world hates you, remember it hated me before it hated you.” The last words they remember him uttering were ‘Suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life’. They didn’t hear anymore of the sermon because a Muslim man entered the church and threw several grenades into the congregation. They sustained injuries, and a young Afghan boy sitting just two chairs away from them was killed. In total, there were five dead and 46 injured. In his e-mail to us, Joel wrote that “in 2 weeks (at Easter) we celebrate the ultimate victory of our Lord.” That is the weapon with which Christians fight in their struggle. When a grenade is hurled, they stand firm trusting in the ultimate victory that Christ has won. That is their shield of faith. After the blast, church members began to reach out in love to those who had been hurt , and to pray for them. But not for them only, also for the perpetrator of this awful crime. That is the armour that God covers his people with: lives of faith and love. And how did this little band of wounded, but faithful, Christian warriors respond? What was their counteroffensive in the battle with the enemies of the gospel? On the following Easter morning they launched their attack. There and then they boldly proclaimed that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is Lord of Lords, and the Judge of all the earth. On that day they took up the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
The Bible concludes with John’s Revelation, which contains the most extensive holy war imagery in the New Testament. Here apocalyptic imagery is invoked to portray the final judgment of God and the establishment of the new heavens and the new earth. It is clear that on this occasion God will make war upon all enemies, both human and spiritual. The imagery, again drawn largely from the Old Testament, is particularly graphic, intended both to reassure persecuted and beleaguered believers, and to strike fear into the hearts of any who remain opposed to God and his Christ.
We have seen that the New Testament spiritualises the character of God’s kingdom, and this means that Christianity is not attempting to establish a theocracy in this world. Christendom, then, understood as the attempt to legislate religious belief and make the kingdom of Jesus Christ co-extensive with the kingdoms of this world, was a serious departure from New Testament teaching. In other words, the separation of church and state is a New Testament concept. The spiritual kingdom of the Lord Christ, and earthly temporal kingdoms are not be confused. The church can exist and minister under a variety of political systems (monarchial, democratic, oligarchic, dictatorship etc). The call of the New Testament is to spread the knowledge of the Lordship of Christ throughout the world, but this is not to result in the establishment of geopolitical entities known as Christian nations. Submission to the Lord Christ, while an obligation laid on all people, is not to be coerced.
Our confidence is that the Lord of Hosts has already won the victory against the true rulers of this present age, the spiritual forces of darkness. Today, through his church, he is announcing and extending the benefits of this victory by the proclamation of the gospel. He who ultimately rules the hearts of people will one day soon manifest this rule for all to see when his Son, the Lord of Lords, returns to bring to an end once and for all to all expressions of rebellion and godlessness. After this last great ‘holy war’ then the kingdom of our God and his Christ will reign forever.
Michael Raiter lectures in Missions at Moore Theological College.
(This article is an excerpt from Michael Raiter’s, Contending for God: Holy War in Islam and Christianity, available from Moore Books)
1. There are many discussions and defenses of the ‘just war’ position. For a succinct summary see Robert C. Clouse (ed.), Four Views on War and John Stott, Human Rights and Human Wrongs: Major Issues for a New Century. Third ed., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999, pp.107-111.
2. Peter C. Craigie, The Problem of War in the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978, Charles Sherlock, The God who Fights: The War Tradition in Holy Scripture. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Meller Press, 1993, and John Wenham, The Enigma of Evil. Guildford: Eagle, 1994, chap.9
3. See for example, Tremper Longman III and Daniel G. Reid, God is a Warrior. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995
4. Christopher J.H. Wright, ‘Leviticus’, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition. eds. D.A. Carson et al. Leicester: IVP, 1994, p.146
5. Craigie, The Problem of War, p.139.
6. Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible. Leicester: IVP, 1991, p.245.
7. Sherlock, The God who Fights, p.316.
8. Translation by P.T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco: Word, 1982, p.102