What is the Christian perspective on war?

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.

The third and fourth attitudes are neither pacifist nor militaristic. The difference between them is timing.
In Ecclesiastes we read the striking verse, "a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace" (Ecc. 3:8). There is a time for governments to take action, to step into the affairs of the world with punitive force, be it by the police, the judiciary, or the military. There is "a time for war."
But when is the time? Was Neville Chamberlain right in his timing, or too slow to go to war? Was Winston Churchill right or too precipitous? It is a matter of human judgment of the pragmatics and strategy of war. We are not God, and we do not know what to do. "Not yet," then, is the third position.

Many believe their government acts too quickly and condemn it as immoral and genocidal. But the Bible says we must nonetheless respect those who are appointed over us in government. The first-century Christians were called upon to respect and obey the tyrannical and persecuting Roman government of their day as being appointed by God. It is no less incumbent on us to respect our leaders (Rom. 13:1; 1 Pet. 2:13). And we must not attack the servicemen and servicewomen who, obedient to the duly elected government of the day, are willing to lay down their lives to protect our freedom, including our freedom to dissent from government opinion.

The fourth attitude is that of "at last" we have had to act. Those who hold this position must remember that God is not on one side in war. He is not utterly disinterested, but neither does he identify completely with one side or the other. Wars are ours, not his. Our wars cannot be fought in the name of God. Furthermore, it is worth reminding ourselves to keep listening to others and weighing the costs and benefits of war. For as the Bible teaches, "Surely you need guidance to wage war, and victory is won through many advisers" (Prov. 24:6). And as Jesus said, "Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won't he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace." (Luke 14:31-32). In listening to advisers and weighing the options, remember the words of Oliver Cromwell to the Scots just a month before the Battle of Dunbar: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

And then the fifth and final attitude: the fence. Many of us feel ourselves unable to decide. We do not want to go to war, but we do not want to see tyranny grow. We certainly do not want weapons to proliferate and fall into the hands of terrorists, but then again we do not know the best way to prevent that.

Those in this position may not know what to do politically, but they can always pray. Paul tells us to pray for those in government over us "that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Tim. 2:2).

—Phillip Jensen is the dean of Saint Andrews Anglican Cathedral in Sydney, Australia.

Adapted from " Apocalypse Again and Again" by Phillip Jensen, Christianity Today. Click here to read the original article and for reprint information.

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