Fourteen people were slaughtered this week, not far from where I live. Two weeks ago, about 129 died in Paris. Before that, a Russian airliner was blown out of the sky. In a few months, my son and I will visit Israel where the death of the innocents is a daily occurrence. Typically, body counts are given. Rarely do we see the tragic injured: the maimed, the disfigured, and the paralyzed. Explosives and high powered bullets can devastate the human body without killing it.
We understand that God will one day end the present age of terror. We also understand that until then, God can protect His people and for that matter, all innocent people on earth. I firmly believe in both propositions, but there is another issue I wish to contemplate here and it is this:
What does God’s word say about the innocent defending themselves and each other?
This has always been an important question; as terror increases, it becomes crucial. Nature and common sense teach us that a father should protect his family, friends should protect each other, and we ought to protect ourselves. Does God’s word support what we see as self evident? Let us emulate the Bereans and “search the scriptures”. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ deals with the concepts of “evil people” and “enemies”. It seems a good place to start.
The Sermon on the Mount
Anyone reading Christ’s words in this discourse might ask the following questions:
Who is the “evil person” Christ said “do not resist?
Does this mean we are never to resist any evil person?
What does it mean to love our enemies?
Who are our “enemies” we are to love?
Finally, when our enemies seek to kill us literally; is it “godly” to defend ourselves, unto death?
Consider first what Christ says about revenge:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ (Matt. 5:38) “Revenge” is a response for a past act. Paul later taught: “Repay no one evil for evil … if it is possible … live peaceably with all men … do not avenge yourselves, but rather control your anger … if your enemy is hungry, feed him …” (Rom. 12:17-20) Christ and Paul both made it clear that revenge as a response for past acts is henceforth denied to the Christian. Revenge is not abolished, but now became the sole prerogative of God: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19)
Christ now addresses our response to present acts:
“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” (Matt. 5:39-40) “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who despitefully use you” (Luke 6:27-28)
What kind of “enemy” is Christ referring to?
Christ’s examples suggest such an enemy neither threatens your life nor the lives of your loved ones. He does not threaten anyone with grievous bodily harm. He does not appear to threaten your entire livelihood or possessions. The “slap on the cheek” is at most an insult. He is the kind of person who believes in law and will use it to “sue” you if necessary. He is one who can become a burden in our lives, an inconvenience. He is the kind of person Paul said it may be possible (with effort) to live at peace with it.
So what kind of “enemy” is Christ NOT referring to?
He does not describe someone who seeks to destroy us. He is not referring to would be child molesters, kidnappers, rapists, murderers, or suicide bombers. Neither is Christ referring to dangerous thieves, swindlers or people who have wronged us significantly in business affairs. There is a difference between giving up “your coat” and giving up your primary residence and sending your family to the homeless shelter. The words of Christ nowhere require a Christian to “not resist” any such as these and Christians routinely do so in courts of law.
In the name of love and in fulfillment of God’s spiritual law, a Christian is affirmatively called to defend against certain evil acts and resist the evil doers.
God’s law establishes a moral duty to help those in physical danger
Instead of “not resisting” an evil perpetrator, scriptures command the following:
“Do not withhold good from those who deserve it when it’s in your power to help them.” (Prov. 3:27 NLT) What does this mean? Here is an example:
“Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:16 NLT)
“Rescue those who are unjustly sentenced to die; save them as they stagger to their death. Don’t excuse yourself by saying, ‘Look, we didn’t know.’ God understands all hearts and he sees you … He will repay all people as their actions deserve.” (Prov. 24:11-12 NLT)
These scriptures express God’s concern for the victim and impose upon others an affirmative duty. He expresses here no concern for evil doer. It is easy to imagine a situation where, in order to save the lives of the innocent, we have no choice but to kill the would-be murderers. In November 2015, a few brave people including Christians possessing firearms could have saved dozens at the Bataclan Theater, and elsewhere in Paris. Deliberately incapacitating without killing the terrorists was not a reasonable option.
Since the scriptures are our guide to righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), would such actions by Christians have been considered “good”? When innocent lives are saved, most would agree that the end result is “good”. Some may argue however that the method employed (killing the terrorists) was “not good” even though it was unavoidable. I disagree with this conclusion for the simple reason that: Savings lives and preventing others from committing great evil are both acts of love.
What about non lethal self defense?
Nobody disputes that self defense is necessary and good. Some say however, that killing in self defense is murder and makes a good deed “evil”. This begs two key questions: What if killing the perpetrator is unavoidable and how does God define “murder”?
Sometimes self defense is possible without killing; at other times it is not. Usually one can incapacitate only from a position of strength or where the threat is not dire. We shall see later that God’s law allows a homeowner is to kill a nighttime intruder but requires him to incapacitate a thief during a daytime robbery without killing him, or presumably, allow him to steal and deal with it later.
In Paris, was incapacitating rather than killing terrorists armed with automatic weapons a reasonable option? Would a Christian killing a terrorist and saving lives make him a murderer in the eyes of God? Suppose a single woman with a child and a gun in her purse is confronted with four young men intent on raping and killing her; should she shoot with intent only to main?
Does God’s law of love REALLY place such a terrible burden upon her?
If she succeeded in wounding three and deliberately killed one, would she be a murderer? What if one of the wounded then killed her child? Is that the price of “non lethal” defense?
We all agree that many non-lethal steps can be done to secure our safety, from locking doors to running away etc. … but we cannot avoid the inevitable fact:
Lethal defense sometimes is necessary in order to save innocent life.
Can killing in self defense be reconciled with God’s law of “love”?
Consider a common, biblical definition of “love”: “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). Let’s apply this definition to Christians hypothetically saving lives in the Paris terrorist attacks, and see whether the definition exonerates the Christians.
The intended victim in Paris is the “neighbor”. The terrorist is the “enemy”, not another neighbor. Not everyone in the world is “our neighbor”. Were that the case, no one is an enemy, everyone is a neighbor, and words lose their meaning.
Killing the terrorists extends love to the innocent, their loved ones, friends, future generations not yet born, and future would be terror victims. God’s law, including their punishments acting as deterrents, always benefit the innocent, not the perpetrators.
Allowing the innocent to die for fear of “killing terrorists” extends love to the wicked at the expense of the innocent.This morally and perversely inverts God’s law, not to mention rationality itself.
Beyond the question of whether terrorists are “neighbors”; does killing them really “harm” them in the meaning of Rom. 13:10? Or in a larger sense, does it show them love? This same question could be asked of all serial killers: the Dahmers, the Bundys, the Gaceys, and Mansons of the world. It is easily argued and I do so now, that in a future resurrection when they contemplate their past murderous lives, they readily will see that being prevented from further killing was indeed an act of love.
How does God define “murder”?
We return to this question asked earlier. The Bible makes a clear distinction between “killing and “murder”. To say something like “God is against murder and killing” is confusing. It acknowledges on the one hand there is a distinction between the two, but lumps them together as though the distinction does not matter. God made the distinction and it matters greatly.
The 6th Commandment states “You shall not commit murder”.
The Hebrew word for “murder” is “ratzach” and means the unauthorized killing of a human being.
The Hebrew word for “killing” is “harag” and is the taking of human life not defined as “murder”.
The definition of “murder” is not a default position as in: “all killings are murder unless specifically defined otherwise”. For the commandment to be understood “murder” needs to be specifically defined. It is a specific act or sin defined by God. God defines murder in Numbers 35 where “ratzach” is never used to refer to the death penalty, killing in war, or self defense.
One who intentionally strikes another (with an instrument of iron, stone, or wood, or even his hand) causing the death of the individual is guilty of murder (Num. 35:16-21). Evil motivation (“enmity”) (verse 21) or premeditation (verse 20) must be present. Accidental killing is not murder (verse 15). The “congregation” shall determine the facts and sentence according to principles God offers (verse 24).
Self defense is not specifically addressed in Numbers 35 but is in Exodus 22:2: “If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed. If the sun has risen on him, there shall be guilt for his bloodshed.”(verse 3)
Jewish and Christian commentaries agree that Ex. 22:2 establishes self defense as a justifiable killing. When an intruder thief enters during daylight hours his crime is not worthy of death, yet should he break in at night, he may justifiably be killed by the homeowner.
Why the difference in outcome? The darkness of night may obscure the exact nature of the danger. The intruder may or may not be armed, his age, sex, and stature are unknown, he may have accomplices … and the fact he breaks in at night when family members are asleep readily suggests theft may not be his motive.
All benefit of doubt goes to the homeowner. Given a reasonable threat of death or serious harm, God grants the homeowner the full right of self defense without threat of judgment. The literal Hebrew words say of the intruder: “He has no blood” … so no blood can ever be shed for intruder’s death. The killing lies outside all definitions of murder. No compensation was required, no diligent inquiry necessary, and no need for a “city of refuge” … all evidence that God has prejudged the homeowner’s innocence as absolute.
The spiritual principle in Ex. 22:2-3 is that a person has a right to defend himself when the threat of death or serious harm is reasonable. Night time conditions in an age before electricity make that threat reasonable, but night time conditions alone are not essential. Any combination of factors that reasonably threaten life may suffice. Lethal self defense against such threat is not seen by God as hatred, vengeance, or contrary to the law of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Again, nowhere is self defense defined by God as “murder”.
No part of God’s law contradicts love; love is an unchanging constant throughout His law. Nor do any of God’s laws contradict each other. The commandment “you shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13) is not contradicted a few verses later by the law allowing a homeowner to kill a nighttime intruder for any reason and without guilt (Ex. 22:2). Both laws are consistent with “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) All God’s laws demonstrate love and unlike at times the laws of man, never contradict each other.
The New Covenant does not abolish God’s law but remains till “heaven and earth” pass away. Law in the New Covenant continues to demonstrate and define His love. Love does not change for the simple reason that God does not change. The spirit of God’s law in the New Covenant does not contradict the letter, but preserves and extends the letter.
Some argue that God’s laws applied only to the citizens of the ancient nation of Israel. Paul did not think so. God’s laws reveal His fundamental thinking and rationality. As such, those laws apply to us and are timeless and valuable for “instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Consider one Old Testament example cited by Paul: “‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.’ Is it oxen God is concerned about, or does He say it altogether for our sakes? “(1 Cor. 9:9-10)
Paul answers his own question: “For OUR sakes no doubt … “ Paul used this principle to show a laborer of the gospel should be paid for his work, but a deeper point is that Old Testament laws reveal God’s values and apply to us today. They were written for “our sakes”.
If God’s laws are timeless, then they also applied to Abraham. Abraham is called the “father of the faithful”. God says: “Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees, and my laws” (Gen. 26:5) He is one of the few servants of God before Christ demonstrating the law “written on his heart” (Jer. 31:33) Abraham understood the law against murder did not prevent lethal self defense, as when he rescued Lot and killed the warlords. As father of the faithful, he was not chastened for lack of faith for killing in self defense on Lot’s behalf, but was immediately blessed by God and had his offering of a tenth accepted by Him.
We see that contempt and unjustified anger are the spirit of murder (Matt. 5:22) and lusting after women is the spirit of adultery (Matt. 5:28). These examples teach us that Christ expands His law into the realm of spiritual intent, but NOT that He negates His law in doing so. There was no law granting the privilege of “lusting after women” that Christ needed to abrogate. He shows us that “godly discernment” by Christians expands without negating God’s existing law. God’s laws are objective limits to “godly discernment”. Without these limits, anyone can claim to make them, in conflict with other “godly discerners”. The objective boundaries of “godly discernment” are those established by scripture, not our own perceptions.
Nowhere did Christ Himself abrogate His law that allows lethal self defense as expressed in Ex. 22:2. We do not have the right to redefine “murder” on His behalf by crossing His boundaries, redefining murder where He did not, and abrogating His law in doing so. Should we tread where Christ did not?
Nor is it rational to simply apply a so called “spirit of murder” to legitimate self defense, since the motive for godly self defense is not hate but preserving life in the “spirit of love”; love for the intended victims. The “spirit of murder” addresses hate and judgment, not self defense motivated by love. Self defense may be accompanied by anger, but it is anger for good cause, and as such approved by God’s law (Matt. 5:22)
When I “search the scriptures” I find what nature and commonsense teaches me already. I see self defense as a right given to all men, enshrined in God’s law, expressing love towards those whose lives are preserved, and (yes) ultimately, towards those who would commit heinous sin. I do not see in the scriptures, Christ abrogating this right.
I welcome your comments.
In case you are interested, please also see my other post on Reason Road entitled “Why Many Christians own Guns”