Must Christians Be Pacifists

You see a known murderer break into your neighbor’s house. Your neighbor and his entire family are sound asleep; the only people awake are you and the murderer. You grab your handgun from its hiding place and quietly follow him into the house. You enter to find the murderer poised over your neighbor’s children’s beds. If you do not kill the murderer, he will kill your neighbor’s children. What do you do?

I pose this hypothetical scenario (hereafter referred to as the “murder scenario”) to introduce some of the most difficult questions a Christian can ask: Is killing ever justifiable? Are Christians called to be absolute pacifists who reject killing under any circumstance? In our times, questions such as these are much more than fodder for abstract theological speculation; Christians living in a violent world have had to answer them time and time again. The United States’ recent decision to begin military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq was largely predicated upon Christian formulations of just war theory;[1] based on current geopolitical tensions, the United States may well have to determine whether yet another conflict would be justifiable.

Any discussion of this issue must center around the proverbial just war (or, in the case of the man who must decide whether or not to kill the murderer who has broken into his neighbor’s house, the “just killing”) — the war of good against evil, fought for noble reasons. Country A goes to war with country B because country B seeks to destroy country C; because country A fights solely (or primarily) on behalf of an otherwise defenseless third party (country C), it fulfills the ius ad bellum,[2] and its declaration of warfare is just. A just war, simply put, would be a selfless war — even a loving war — an action performed on behalf of another.

Note that there is a difference between “just wars” and “just killing.” The former concerns a societal or corporate commitment to killing, ostensibly for noble purposes; the latter concerns an individual’s killing another individual for ostensibly noble purposes. In my mind, the two are inseparable; if war can ever possibly be just, then individual killing must also be just, and vice versa. Thus, I will consider the questions of just war and just killing interchangeably.

Admittedly, a few different considerations come into play when pondering each of these questions. For example, calculating the potential consequences of entering into a war can be exponentially more difficult than calculating the potential consequences of perpetrating an individual act of killing. There is also the problem of understanding how personal Christian ethics translates into social, or political, Christian ethics. The New Testament constantly addresses the issue of how persons should behave and rarely addresses the issue of how governments or societies should behave. Finally, it is not entirely certain that war can be construed simply as an aggregation of individual killings. However, because these lines of thought are peripheral to the fundamental question about whether killing is ever right, I will ignore them for the time being.

Note also that I will focus primarily on acts of killing and not on violence in general. I am not sure whether anyone has seriously advanced the position that all violence is always wrong. As a crude but illustrative example, I do not believe that any pacifist would refuse the opportunity to slap Hitler if doing so could have prevented World War II. This thought experiment leads to interesting questions about how categorically different killing is from non-lethal violence — but these are peripheral questions.

At first glance, Jesus’ commands call for a categorical rejection of killing and of all violence. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus says, “for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew v. 9). “Resist not the one who is evil” (Matthew v. 39). “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew v. 44). “All those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew xxvi. 52). Such commands are not unique to the Gospels; in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans xii. 21).

The writings of the pre-Augustinian Church Fathers may appear, if possible, even more definitive. Athenagoras, a second-century Athenian philosopher who converted to Christianity, asks, “How, then, when we do not even look on [at the violence in the Coliseum], lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?”[3] Justin Martyr, another second-century Christian, claims, “[W]e who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.”[4] Similarly, Tertullian states that “the Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”[5] Hippolytus believed that Christians could not enter military service: “The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”[6] Perhaps most definitively, Lactantius, a Christian who lived in the early fourth century, writes:

For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.[7]

Significantly, then, the early Church Fathers, direct heirs of the apostle’s teachings, were strongly opposed to violence and killing.

However, almost all of these biblical and patristic excerpts refer to violence perpetrated against one’s own enemies (or in the case of Lactantius’ quotation, the death penalty). None of them even address the possibility of a just war or any war fought for selfless reasons. Importantly, Jesus’ command to “resist not the one who is evil,” occurs within a condemnation of vengeance: “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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also [emphasis added]” (Matthew v. 8-39). Likewise, Paul’s exhortation to the Romans to overcome evil with good follows instructions against vengeance and retaliation (cf. Romans xii. 14-21).

The earliest Christian communities were religious minorities whose existence was often threatened by persecution. For them, discussions of violence almost invariably focused on violent persecution of Christians and appropriate, non-violent Christian responses. In fact, they believed their non-violent resistance would only strengthen them, as evidenced by Tertullian’s famous line “Semen est sanguis christianorum”[8] and Origen’s pronouncement that “the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength.”[9] (And indeed, two of the most famous modern and successful examples of advocates of pacifism and non-violence, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, both operated within circumstances of minority non-resistance to majority aggression — in other words, conditions remarkably analogous to those in which the first Christians operated.) Because of this fact, it is not entirely clear that the statements against violence and killing in the New Testament and patristics represent a categorical and universal rejection of violence and killing. They certainly represent a condemnation of aggressive violence and even of violence in self-defense (as Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts, among others, clearly demonstrates) — but I am not sure they say anything much about hypothetically “just” violence, as in the murder scenario. (It is helpful to remember also that the earliest Church Fathers had little conception of anything resembling a Christian state, and thus probably no tangible idea of a Christian collective capable of selflessly defending some other group of people.) One exception I found was a passage from Origen: “Perhaps also the so-called wars among the bees convey instruction as to the manner in which wars, if ever there arise a necessity for them, should be waged in a just and orderly way among men [emphasis added].”[10] Furthermore, he goes on to say that Christians, though they cannot themselves fight, can pray “on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!”[11]

Beyond these brief excerpts from patristics, some passages in scripture bear mentioning. In the eighth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel (and again in the seventh chapter of Luke’s), Jesus commends a centurion for his faith without criticizing him for his military position. In Luke iii. 14, when a group of soldiers asks Jesus what they should do, he advises them not to extort or threaten people and to be content with their pay. More crucially, in the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, a Roman centurion named Cornelius becomes a Christian; in the entire chapter, there is no indication that Cornelius ever resigns his post.

To understand Jesus’ interactions with soldiers, it is useful to consider his interactions with prostitutes, adulteresses, or otherwise “sinful” women, because the relations between soldiers and violence and between these women and sexual immorality are analogous. In each of Jesus’ main interactions with such women — in Luke vii. 36-50 (with the sinful woman who anoints him), John iv. 1-26 (with the Samaritan woman who was an adulteress), and in John vii. 53-viii. 11 (with a woman caught in adultery) — the wrongness of each woman’s sexual sin is clear.12 No such clarity exists in Jesus’ free interactions with soldiers; Jesus never condemns their occupation as inherently wrong, as one would have expected if he were an absolute pacifist.[13] In the case of the Roman centurion whose faith Jesus commends in the Gospel of Matthew, the fact that he is a military man appears almost irrelevant; his profession does not overtly affect the substance of the passage at all. If the claim is that war is always wrong, it seems strange that Jesus would make no light of a warrior’s trade. It is even stranger that Jesus’ sole advice to a troupe of soldiers in Luke iii would be to avoid extortion and ingratitude over wages; at the very least, if a group of prostitutes had asked Jesus, “What should we do?”, I cannot imagine that he would have counseled them merely to be content with their pay. (Augustine argued for his theory of just war from this very same passage.)[14]

“What then shall we do?” Can war ever be a part of the Christian ethic? In my opinion, no definitive conclusion concerning absolute pacifism (the position that all killing is wrong) can be reached solely from the biblical passages directly related to violence.[15] However, I cannot agree with the position of the pacifist.

We should remember that the Christian ethic is simple: “The entire Law is fulfilled in one word: Love your neighbor as yourself ” (Galatians v. 14). Love your neighbor — and of course, love your enemies (cf. Matthew v. 44, Luke vi. 27).[16] The strength of this principle, the Golden Rule, lies partly in its abstractness; morality is not reduced to adherence to a set of rules, but becomes instead a fundamentally spiritual and emotional commitment. But it is not always simple to answer the question, “What does it mean to love my neighbor?” What, for instance, does loving one’s neighbors and enemies entail in the murder scenario? Am I truly loving my neighbor’s children if I let them die at the murderer’s hands? Am I truly loving the murderer if I kill him before he can kill anyone else?

Scenarios such as this one do not exist merely in the realm of imagination; for example, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a famous twentieth-century German theologian and pacifist for at least a part of his life, famously became involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Indeed, World War II is the archetypal just war – and Adolf Hitler the archetypal villain — for those who are opposed to pacifism.[17] Many millions more people would have died had no one resisted Hitler and the Nazis (or so the argument goes); thus, it was just to wage war against Nazi Germany. Appeasement and non-resistance could then be as destructive as war itself. In the words of the Land letter:

How different and how much safer would the history of the twentieth century have been had the allies confronted Hitler when he illegally reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936 in clear violation of Germany’s treaty agreements? It is at least possible that tens of millions of the lives lost in World War II might not have been lost if the Allies had enforced treaty compliance then instead of appeasing a murderous dictator.[18]

The inference is that the Christian ought to act in such a way as to minimize the number of deaths, even if that entails acts of war.

One fundamental tension that seems to emerge between the pacifist and non-pacifist is a clash between consequentialism (the belief that consequences of actions affect their moral status) and moral absolutism (the belief that certain actions are right or wrong regardless of context or consequence). The absolute pacifist would eschew the crude moral calculus of determining whether or not a certain killing is justifiable and instead simply hold that killing is wrong no matter how many lives could potentially be saved. It is this apparent fact about pacifism — its non-consequentialism — that leads many to reject it as idealistic and naïve.

Of course, this entire line of reasoning presupposes a certain view of history that not all pacifists would share, a dysteleological and unguided view of history in which God is relatively inactive; in such a world, “[w]ar does not determine who is right — only who is left.”[19] But what if God constantly acted in history? Had the Allies surrendered to Hitler, would God have somehow intervened? Such appears to be the opinion of many pacifists (who would otherwise be forced to concede the very real possibility of Hitler’s conquering Europe); for example, in his book Will the Real Heretic Please Stand Up, author David Bercot argues that the Pax Romana — a long period of relative peace for the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries A.D. — came as a result of the pacifistic principles of the earliest Christians. But while it is true that God often protected His people (the Israelites) in the past, it is challenging to extract from scripture the position that non-resistance would act as an absolute guarantor of divine protection; the ancient Israelites always fought to protect themselves, and the martyrdoms of Stephen and other early Christians directly contradict that claim.

It seems, therefore, that the position of the absolute pacifist is not entirely tenable for the Christian. Jesus’ prohibitions of violence were not simple categorical rejections of violence, but condemnations of vengeance, retaliation, and hatred; Jesus’ interactions with soldiers give no indication that he saw all warfare and killing as abominable; and even the anti-militaristic Church Fathers do not seem to have been unanimous in a plenary denunciation of all violence. Chesterton once said, “Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohol, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.”[20] And I think war, with all the hellishness surrounding it, can easily become a false devil (though it has just as often become a false idol). Killing itself is not the sin; oppression, rage, coercion, selfishness, cruelty, and lack of empathy are the sins. There is undoubtedly a strong correlation between killing and these sins — but it is not a necessary connection.

This does not mean that the non-pacifist is out of the woods. He still has to demonstrate some means of differentiating between just and unjust wars (and, by extension, between just and unjust killings). The Land Letter offers several criteria, including the intent of the aggressor, the authority of the aggressor, proportionality, and others. These all appear reasonable enough, but it they are much more Ciceronian than biblical in their extraction. And even if they are all sufficient criteria, how is the Christian to analyze them for wars that are inevitably complex and unpredictable? To return to a very contemporary example, would the writers of the Land Letter still maintain that the Iraq conflict was justified, knowing what they know now? Even if wars could be justified in the abstract, can Christians ever know enough about the consequences of a given war to know that it is justified? As a non-pacifist, I am not convinced that I could ever have sufficient knowledge to begin a war. (Importantly, this difficulty does not arise to nearly the same degree when considering just killings, for which the different possibilities and consequences are much more apparent.) And even if I could have such knowledge, what grants me the authority to make such a decision? In whose hands should such a decision be? These questions do not have simple answers.

Furthermore, the non-pacifist must not confuse his rejection of pacifism with a wholesale justification of violence. Even if absolute pacifism does not hold, the bloodstained past (and present) of the Christian world speaks to a remarkable shift in Christendom away from the peace-loving (though not necessarily “pacifistic”) zeitgeist of early Christianity and of Christ himself. Judging by our history, Christians have lost sight of that fact, and have grown much too fond of war. But Jesus still said the peacemakers, and not the warmongers, would be blessed (cf. Matthew v. 9). And without question, the aim or τελος of Christianity is true peace; the prophet Isaiah (among others) tells us that the nations “will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” in the last days (cf. Isaiah ii. 2-4). War and killing may sometimes be required, but they can never be loved.

I believe that Christians should reject absolute pacifism. I believe that Jesus’ actions and teachings are compatible with some form of just war theory. But I also believe we must do so with caution, with much reflection and prayer — remembering that our true “struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians vi. 12). In the end, we will only arrive at the truth through repentance and regeneration: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans xii. 2). If we seek first the Kingdom, then we have already won our battle.


[1] One main example of this is the so-called “Land letter.” In 2002, some prominent Evangelical leaders, including the then-chairman of Campus Crusade for Christ, co-signed a letter to President George W. Bush that asserted their theological support for Bush’s “stated policies concerning Saddam Hussein.” According to the letter, the proposed Iraq conflict would “fall well within the time-honored criteria of just war theory as developed by Christian theologians in the late fourth and early fifth centuries A.D.”

[2] “justice to war,” the set of criteria which determine the justifiability of engaging in war. This is contrasted with ius in bello, the set of criteria concerning the conduct of the war itself.

[3] Athenagoras, Legatio Pro Christianis (c. 177 A.D.), Chapter XXXV. Interestingly, Athenagoras seems to consider the possibility of a just execution in the same chapter of Legatio Pro Christianis. I am not certain of his exact meaning; he could mean a legal execution — one performed according to Roman law — or he could mean a morally justifiable execution. If the latter, he explicitly sanctions capital punishment.

[4] Justin Martyr, Apologia Prima (c. 156 A.D.), Chapter XXXIX

[5] Tertullian, De Idolatria (early 200s A.D.), Chapter XIX

[6] Hippolytus, Traditio Apostolica (c. 215 A.D.), Chapter XVI.11

[7] Lactantius, Divinae institutiones (311 A.D.), Book VI – Chapter XX

[8] Tertullian, Apologeticum (197 A.D.), Chapter L. “The blood of Christians is seed [of the Church].”

[9] Origen, Κατα Κελσου (248 A.D.), Book VII – Chapter XXVI

[10] Origen, Κατα Κελσου (248 A.D.), Book IV – Chapter LXXXII

[11] Ibid., Book VIII – Chapter LXXIII

[12] The authenticity of the third passage, traditionally known as the Pericope Adulterae, is in dispute. However, for purposes of this essay, I will assume that it is authentic.

[13] I specify Jesus’ “free interactions” with soldiers because his interactions with soldiers after his arrest are obviously of a very different character.

[14] Augustine, Contra Faustum (c. 400 A.D.), Book XXII.74

[15] We can, I think, conclude that scripture nowhere expressly rejects the possibility of just killing.

[16] G.K. Chesterton once quipped in the Illustrated London News, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”

[17] I am not committing myself to the position that the Allies’ involvement in World War II was just, only offering it as a useful illustration to consider.

[18] R.D. Land, Letter to President George W. Bush (2002)

[19] Unsourced comment attributed to Bertrand Russell

[20] G.K. Chesterton, The Illustrated London News – September 11, 1909


J. Joseph Porter ’12, a Philosophy concentrator living in Quincy House,
is the Features Editor of
The Ichthus.