What is the Christian perspective on war?

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It was one of the first men to use total war, American Civil War General William Sherman, who used to say, "War is hell!" He was both right and wrong.

It is hellish in its horror and destruction: the unleashing of the forces of evil.

It is hellish in its suffering. The four horsemen of Revelation 6 riding out to conquer and fight, to impoverish and to kill, are the realistic images of war. For with war come not only conquest and hostility, but also economic disaster, illness, and death.

It is also hellish because it is the consequence of and judgment upon sin. It is the Lamb who opens the seals that release the four horsemen—the Lamb who died to take away the sin of the world and has risen to rule and put into effect the plans and purposes of God. It is the Lamb, Jesus, who sends the four horsemen into the world as part of the judgment of God upon sinful humanity.

But war is not hell. Like all human self-willed chaos, it is only the foretaste of hell. The four riders of the Book of Revelation are only a beginning and warning of the judgment to come. In any event, war raises a multitude of questions. Where does war fit into God's plans? Is God on our side? How does war look from God's perspective? What should Christians be praying for, hoping for, and expecting to happen? Fortunately, the Scripture in general, and particularly the sixth chapter of Revelation—a text often ignored and feared because of its apocalyptic content—provides guidance in times such as these.

Five Views

Let me begin by briefly outlining five different attitudes to war, because God's Word has something to say to each.

First there are the doves, the pacifists who are opposed to all war and all violence. We all have sympathy for this position. The biblical image of heaven, after all, is of peace and harmony, where people "will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore" (Isa. 2:4). The Prince of Peace will usher in the time when "the wolf will live with the lamb" (Isa. 11:6). That, however, is exactly what I believe is wrong with the pacifists' position: It is the wrong timing. We are not in the Garden of Eden, nor yet in the heavenly city. Now is not the time for world peace. We are in the fallen world of human sinfulness, where evil people do dastardly things and where God has given governments authority to administer justice with the sword (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). Pacifism is a godly mistake in that it fails to take seriously the sinfulness of humans, for monsters do exist and do need stopping. We are all capable of doing real harm to our neighbor and need the constraint of law and order and of good government.

The second attitude is the opposite of the dove: the hawk. By this I mean the person who is always looking for a fight, for controversy and the use of force to get his way. While one can be sympathetic with the godly mistake of the dove, there is little or no sympathy for the man of violence. The Scriptures say, "The Lord … hates the wicked and the one who loves violence" (Ps. 11:5, ESV), and "human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires" (James 1:20). So we are warned: "Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways. For the Lord detests the perverse but takes the upright into his confidence" (Prov. 3:31-32). Nowhere in the Bible do those who love violence get God's approval. Those who are pleased, thrilled, and excited about war should look to themselves and repent, for they are out of step with God.

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