Warfare, Violence and Religion
Does the Injil teach Peace or Violence?
If you are reading this page, you have probably heard some critics like Dr Zakir Naik argue that the Bible encourages violence to its followers. This absurd allegation is based primarily on an incident found in the Torah and a couple of brief words of Jesus taken out of context. In this article we will examine each of these passages and consider this allegation that the Bible encourages violence.
Before delving into interpreting these verses and trying to determine the overall attitude of the Bible toward violence, let us begin with an impartial external litmus test of what the Bible teaches on violence. We can all agree that the best unbiased way to begin understanding what a Scripture really teaches is to look at historically how the early disciples who were closest to the original message interpreted it. This is standard procedure for Muslims, Jews and Christians.
What we find with the early followers of Jesus is a radical and extreme unwillingness to engage in any sort of violence; to the point of criticism. For the first two centuries of the community of Jesus’ followers, there was not one single war or physical fight among themselves or with outsiders, even though they were frequently oppressed, mocked, tortured and even killed by nonbelievers. During these first two centuries when early Christianity grew like wildfire, there was no Christian empire or army or even financial benefit to following Jesus, just persecution and opposition.
This is in radical contrast to the first centuries of other religions which grew on the backs of an expanding theocratic empire and were fraught with constant warfare among themselves and with others. Unlike Jesus’ early disciples, many religions have been tied to a political power which has coerced people into that religion through threat of violence and material inducements. This contrast gives us a vivid perspective on how strongly Jesus’ early disciples understood the Bible to oppose violence.
So this is the historical opinion of the early community of Jesus that we must start with as we turn now to examining God’s Holy Word.
Portion #1: God’s Commandment to Destroy the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:1-6)
The verses often used by critics to portray the Bible as violent concerns the destruction of the Canaanites right after the time of Moses. This was predicted and commanded by God in the Tawrat, and the Book of Judges describes its gradual fulfillment. Here now is the passage:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you- and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 7:1-6)
There are three major reasons why this cannot be interpreted as advocating violence, which we will list briefly and then expand on:
One might well ask, how can the ethical standards of an unchanging God be changed? The answer is that before the arrival of Jesus, God’s righteous wrath was manifest in the world, expressed in God’s acts of retribution against sinful nations. With Jesus’ death on the cross, the Injil teaches that the wrath of God was satisfied and appeased, and wrath is now withheld until Judgment Day. The Injil teaches,
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:18-21)
The message of the Injil declares that since Jesus’ time, with the new covenant and power of the Holy Spirit, believers must not retaliate but instead love their enemies.
Violence in the Injil
God had predicted that in the line of David a Messiah would come through whom God’s original plan to draw the nations back to Himself would be fulfilled.
The different prophecies of the coming Messiah – his birthplace, his tribal affiliation, his mother’s identity, his life, teaching and miracles – were all fulfilled in the Prophet `Īsā. Thus, Jesus was the Messiah, the one through whom God’s promise to bless the nations would be fulfilled.
Not only was `Īsā known as the Messiah, but also as the Spirit of God. He was called that for two reasons. First was his miraculous birth without human father by the power of God’s Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Second, was that, as he explained to his disciples, God had given him authority to ask that the Holy Spirit be sent into the lives of his disciples. Through the Holy Spirit’s power, the disciples of `Īsā would for the first time be able to live out the life of personal holiness and obedience that God desires (John 14:16-17).
Even more importantly, with the Holy Spirit’s power, the disciples of `Īsā are no longer equally vulnerable to the temptation of idolatry and the evil it encourages. As a result, instead of putting them in a specially protected and purified location and calling the nations to go to them, the disciples of `Īsā are commanded to go out and live among the pagan nations and call them back to God through love, service and proclamation of the truth (Mt. 28:18-20).
Thus, in the Injil, violence is never commanded or desired by God. Even when `Īsā was persecuted and taken into custody by the jealous Jewish religious authorities, he did not resort to violence to save himself. In fact, he specifically forbad his followers from using any weapons to defend him.
Since `Īsā’s followers were empowered by the Holy Spirit, he was able to instruct them to engage in a spiritual warfare with Satan and evil rather than physical warfare against other human enemies. Below are some of the passages that make that clear:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that” (Matthew 5:43-46)
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:50-54)
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our 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. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17)
The early history of the followers of `Īsā was an incredible time of growth during which they went from a tiny group of 120 disciples in Jerusalem to spread throughout the entire Roman Empire and beyond. Yet, that growth was not by warfare or the sword, but through loving service of others and proclamation of the truths about `Īsā. We read in the Injil in the Book of Acts about the early part of that history. There it describes how the church was persecuted and harassed, but responded as `Īsā the Messiah had taught, by loving their persecutors and praying for God to bless them.
Thus, we see in the Injil a change in the attitude towards and use of violence. Whereas in the earlier books, violence had been allowed and even commanded by God on a limited and circumscribed scale, in the Injil the presence of the HS in the lives of `Īsā’s followers make violence no longer necessary or desirable. Instead, the followers of God through `Īsā are able to do what is impossible for humans to do in their own power – to love their enemies and do good to those who persecute them, giving over to God the task of judging evildoers. An enemy fought and killed is lost forever, he will never repent and accept the truth. An enemy treated with love and kindness, by contrast, will possibly be touched, feel ashamed, and turn from his hostility and error to the truth. The enemy becomes a friend. This reflects the Injil’s teaching in the following passage:
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
Rather than fighting human enemies, the followers of `Īsā are now to do spiritual battle with Satan and the spiritual forces of evil. We are to overcome evil, not with the sword, but by patient love and the doing of good.
One last question then arises as to why Followers of `Īsā have been involved in warfare over their religion at different times in history? Why did they fight in the Crusades, for example? Or, why have two different groups of followers of `Īsā in Ireland fought each other for so many years? The obvious but unfortunate answer to that question is that fighting and hatred are basic characteristics of sinful human nature. People of all religions, political parties and nationalities have been involved in violence and warfare.
The real question is, are people fighting because they are encouraged by their religious scriptures to do so or in spite of and in opposition to their religious scriptures? In the case of the followers of `Īsā, their involvement in warfare is in opposition to the teaching of the Injil. In other cases, however, we see people involved in violence and warfare because of the commands and encouragement of their religious scriptures. That is a very important difference.