Is war immoral?

I had a question from one of my regular visitors about the morality of war. The general theme of the question is whether we, as Christians, should consider war to be immoral by default, and is justified only in cases expressly commanded by God.

Let me start by making a couple of comments. Firstly, while I am no pacifist, I hate war. It is the lowest of low points of human existence when we have to kill others in order to survive ourselves. It is indeed a necessary evil. Secondly, I am curious as to how and where God will command a war in these days. In the reiging political climate, there seems to be numerous attempts to frame conservatives as religious looneys, and I believe that asking these types of questions are symptomatic of those efforts.

War is pretty common in the Bible, as can be expected from a historic document. It was not only the Israelites that engaged in war, but also the surrounding nations. But when it came to the Hebrews, it was clear that war was a religious undertaking for them, invoking the name of God for both the justification for war, and for victory on the battlefield.

Those actions indicate that they were in a pretty similar situation to us, relying on on the Scriptures and the guidelines therein to reach a decision. Over time, these guidelines have distilled into the “Jus Ad Bellem”, the just war convention or principles. These guidelines state that for a war to be just, the following conditions must be met:

1. The war must have a just cause. This is probably the stickiest condition, because it seems to be somewhat of a tautology…the war is just because it has a just cause. And who gets to decide whether it is a just cause or not? For that, we have to refer back to the objective moral standards that God endowed us with, and use that to determine whether the cause is just or not. Being attacked, for example, would fit in with these moral standards, while making war for the purpose of gaining wealth would not. However, this remains a difficult question and should be applied to specific situations rather than be considered as having a default answer. In the Bible, the wars described are acts of self defense, or to reclaim land that was previously taken form the Hebrews.

2. The war must be declared by a proper authority. In the western world, I guess that would mean a legitimate government. The question can still be asked on whose authority that government acts, and in a democratic country, it would be by the authority of the people that elected them. Does that mean that God condones every war declared by an elected government? Probably not, because it would still have to be a just cause, something in line with God-given morality. Wars in the Bible were not always declared officially, but then again they were carrying on for many years before. I guess everyone understood that they were at war.

3. Closely related to just cause is that the war must have the right intention. While the just cause focuses more on the reason for going to war, this focuses on the outcome. What is it that needs to be achieved with the war? Again, going to war for material gain would be questionable, but to neutralize a threat would be justifiable. For the ancient Hebrews, the desired outcome was two-fold, survival of  their nation, and having a country of their own. It sounds pretty much the same today for modern Israel.

4. The war must have a reasonable chance of success. To sacrifice many in an idealistic but unrealistic pursuit does not justify going to war. In modern times this seems to be more clear, but how would this have worked in Biblical times. The Hebrews doubted the possibility of success a few times, yet they went to war having faith that God will give them victory.

5. The final condition of a just war is that the ends must justify the means used. In practical terms, this means doing just enough to win the war, and not flattening anohter countery and killing millions when it could be accomplished with more restraint. It gets back to the overall moral principles of a jsut war and the Jus ad Bellum. The Hebrews seemed to get this right. On occasion, they had to make sure there were no survivors to make sure that hey won’t have to fight the same war again. In other cases, they were content to let the defeated retreat.

In summary, there is no default Biblical position on war, we have to apply specific circumstances to the various passages from the Bible that guides us on this topic:

Ecc 3:1  For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
Ecc 3:8  a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
Mat 5:44  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
24:6  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet.
Mat 24:7  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.
Rom 13:1  Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Rom 13:2  Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
Rom 13:3  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval,
Rom 13:4  for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.
Rom 13:5  Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.
Rom 13:6  For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.
Rom 13:7  Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
1Ti 2:1  First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,
1Ti 2:2  for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.
1Pe 2:13  Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme,
1Pe 2:14  or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.
1Pe 2:15  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.
1Pe 2:16  Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.
1Pe 2:17  Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

We should pray for those that are leading the country that they make wise and moral decisions when it comes to war, and respect their judgment whichever way it goes. In the end, God decides over life and death, and even from the evils of war can there be something good.

But I would hasten to add, as Paul said in Rom 12:18  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

As someone with personal experience of the atrocities of war, I can only concur.


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