This article is condensed from its original version which appeared in the April 9, 1982, issue of Christianity Today.

The United States, so we learned in grade school, was a good nation that fought only just wars. In the colonial period we struggled to free ourselves from the tyrannical British government. In the Mexican War we fought to redress just grievances against our Southern neighbor. The Civil War freed the slaves and preserved the Union. Later we freed the Carribean Islands and the Philippines from the atrocities and oppression of their Spanish overlords. In 1917 and 18 we fought a war to end all wars by destroying the one great militaristic power of that day.

Then, in the upper grades—and especially in high school—we began to learn of the Krupp and the Vickers munitions firms and of their international schemes to exploit nations by pushing them into military build-ups and even into war in order to fatten their own pocketbooks. Some of us can remember our sense of disillusionment and cynicism when we learned the truth about Edith Cavell, and about other atrocities. Allied governments first spread these stories to whip up our moral indignation against the enemy. Not until years after the war did we discover that they were largely or wholly unsupported by the facts.

In those years, between the two great wars, thousands of students participated in the Prince of Peace contests, and hundreds of thousands more, perhaps millions, became convinced pacifists. We were angry that our own government had lied to us and could not be trusted. Conscienceless international businesses pressured governments to protect their profits with no regard for the welfare of other nations or just diplomacy for their own. War was not the last recourse of a nation seeking justice, but the tool of greedy profiteers.

Then in the middle thirties a new mood arose. Adolf Hitler entered the scene and brought a new dimension into the picture. The story of Mein Kampf transformed the Western vision of reality. Nazi suppression of liberty, persecution of the church, its scapegoating of Jews, its mind control of its citizens, and its goal to conquer all of Europe created a dreadful specter.

Depending on what church you attended, first Stalin, then Hitler, then Mussolini (with the pope as the false prophet of Revelation) was the Antichrist, who embodied in himself demonic evil that would all but destroy justice and righteousness on the earth (and from which a faithful church would be delivered only by the Rapture and the Second Coming). The lightning invasion of France and imminent conquest of Britain frightened us and forced us to rethink our Christian duty.

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The sneak bombing of Pearl Harbor destroyed the last vestiges of our pacifism. Those who heard it will never forget President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's speech as we huddled around the radio on that "Day of Infamy." Christians perceived a clear duty to join the battle for the preservation of human dignity, for the survival of justice among the nations, and for freedom of conscience. Pacifism largely disappeared, and we stood united in the conviction that this, at least, was a just war.

Liberals and conservatives, radical humanists and fundamentalists, and people from all shades in-between joined the cause. Even most of the traditional "peace" churches were unable to resist the tide. It was probably the last time that America was fully united as a nation on a war issue. Many still reckon that World War II was a colossal tragedy of unbelievable proportions—but right. Hitler had to be stopped. Even the terrifying finale at Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not reverse that conviction. Though many lament the decision to drop atomic bombs, they agree that America and the West were justified in battling against Hitler and his Axis powers. Revelation of Jewish massacres and the near genocide of the Jewish people in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany confirmed for us the fact that we did right.

The Korean conflict a decade later did not seem to change the attitude of many Americans toward war. But our involvement in Vietnam set everyone to thinking once again. We were not quite sure how we had gotten into the mess. We could see no attainable goal even on the remotest horizon, and the ruthless and senseless butchery of innocent people—all brought into our living rooms daily by television—turned our stomachs. Once again, pacifism spread through the nation. Christians—and, indeed, all morally sensitive persons—forced themselves to ask the hard questions. What moral defense can be made for a Christian's participation in war? How does our Christian faith speak to this issue?

Moreover, each passing day brings these questions home to us with a more powerful and more persistent demand or an answer. We live in an increasingly dangerous world. Planet earth has become a spaceship about to explode, with little room for human survival.

Each major power has the ability to destroy and slay every man, woman, and child of its rival—not just once, but many times over. Bombs are proliferating and spreading to nations that show little evidence of political maturity and less of moral responsibility. Meanwhile, the maintenance cost of this gigantic arsenal is an ever-increasing burden to the people of the world. One day someone will push a button that will set off a chain reaction among nations. As each seeks to defend its allies, the whole world will go up in flames. Does the Christian faith have anything to say about this?

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The Pacifist Alternative to a World Set on Self-Destruction

In facing this horrendous scenario, some have again turned to pacifism. We respect their viewpoint. It is usually based on convictions that are undeniably Christian.

The kingdoms of this world are seldom true friends of the kingdom of God. In retrospect, it is difficult to maintain that nations have waged their wars purely from motives of justice and human welfare. Certainly the pacifist stands on solid biblical ground when he stresses the worth of human life. It is the Christian's responsibility not to destroy it, but to protect and preserve it. If he would follow in the steps of his Lord, he will not take life, but he will give his life to save the life of another.

Yet we reject pacifism as a solution for two reasons, both of them because we are Christians, believing ourselves to be guided by our Lord and by basic Christian, biblical, and moral principles.

The first is our Christian conviction about the depravity of human beings. Clear-cut, across-the-board pacifism invites the most selfish and least conscientious power to pursue its wicked way without fear of punishment.

Like individual human beings, but only more so, nations are selfish. They lust for power and repress the liberties of those who stand in their way. Unchecked evil will spread over the earth to the destruction of the life and liberty of our fellow humans.

Christian Responsibility in the Face of International Evil

Pacifists grant that we live in a wicked world, and that left unchecked, individuals and whole nations will work their evil upon us to destroy our lives, our freedom, and our most precious values. But what does that mean for Christians who are citizens of a heavenly kingdom?

Surely they are not called to join this alien struggle of debased powers. The Christian role, rather, is dictated by the gospel. He who follows Christ will witness to the gospel so that dying men may find life and meaning in a world that seems intent on destroying itself. He will bind up the wounds, ease the pain, comfort the dying, and in so doing bear witness to another way, the gospel way of love and peace.

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Yet again we must reject this pacifist scenario. As with our first reason for rejecting pacifism, our, second one is also based on Christian grounds imbedded in the Bible. As a Christian, I am my brother's keeper. It is my duty, therefore, to protect his life. But life is not his most precious possession. I must also protect his freedom, especially his religious freedom. At all cost, I must seek to preserve his dignity as a human person and to protect it as best I can from all who would destroy it. As a Christian, I dare not value my life above the life of my brother. Nor dare I value my life and the lives of others above those things that are far more precious than life itself.

It is along these lines that the Christian church has traditionally defended a doctrine of the just war. According to this understanding, war is always the result of human evil. The Christian who seeks to be guided by the Bible must be willing to oppose this evil. When that evil is in the hands of ruthless men or nations, the only way it can be opposed is by brute force and, sometimes, only at the cost of life.

Human governments, so the argument continues, were instituted by God just for this purpose (Rom. 13:1-7). God committed to them the sword because at times they must wound or even kill to restrain wickedness. This is why we have police officers. This is why we have detention camps and jails. In some cases we can protect the liberties and freedoms of a people only by the use of violence. On rare occasions, therefore, when all else fails, the state must resort to war.

But under what sort of circumstances would war of any kind be justified? When the ancient Christian thinker Augustine spelled out the requisites for a just war, he cited four principles. (1) A just war must be a war that has human justice and human good as its goal. (2) It must be motivated by love, even by love for the enemy whom the Christian soldier is seeking to kill. (3) It must engage in no unnecessary violence. Even though innocent civilian populations might suffer (as in the siege of a city), to be just, a war must be aimed only at the agents of war. (4) A just war can never be private attempts at justice, but collective action by rulers of the state.

Many Christians concede that just wars in days gone by met Augustine's criteria, which essentially were in accord with a biblical ethic. But, they say, nuclear warfare has changed all this because it would destroy not just the military establishment, but also vast numbers of innocent people wholly unconnected with the aims of the war. Even worse, it threatens to destroy all human life on this planet.

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However, it is still true that there are values greater than the loss of human life. We still are our brother's keeper; there are still some humans who are depraved and will commit selfish acts of power. They are ruthless, disregard human life, and are determined to destroy our most precious values. We have absolutely no guarantee that another Hitler will not rise. What will we do then?

Four Alternatives in Our Dangerous World

What are our alternatives? What sort of choices, realistically speaking, are open to us as citizens of this dangerous world in which we find ourselves?

First of all, we could as a nation opt for pacifism. But in that case, we would be giving up the God-given role for which governments were ordained. We would certainly encourage the most ruthless oppressor to take over without the fear of retribution or danger to himself. We would lay the world open and defenseless against the demonic evil of a future Hitler. We would proclaim that Christians hold the most precious human liberties of less importance than the destruction of physical life. Only if there is no possibility that we can alleviate such evil, even at the cost of massive loss of life, is pacifism a viable alternative for the Christian who is committed to be his brother's keeper.

A second alternative is to continue to support the American military build-up. On this strategy we would restrain evil by the threat of mutual assured destruction (IMAD). But this build-up is grinding down the people of the Soviet Union and middle Europe, and will eventually grind us down, too, as well as our partners in Western Europe. The build-up will almost certainly end in a holocaust with massive destruction of civilians in the United States and in Russia. Some frightened or insane person will someday push the button, and that will be the end of America, the Soviet Union, Western Europe, and the world.

A third alternative is the unilateral renunciation of nuclear weapons. In recent years this position has become increasingly popular. But it seems to miss the most crucial points. Conventional weapons, too, can be immoral. Even before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the fire bombing of Dresden broke the standards of just war tactics. In bombing Cassel, Allied airmen were specifically ordered to target churches and public buildings, and 22 of the city's 24 churches were leveled in one night. Direct military goals were beside the point. Destruction of a people and their willingness to wage war became the goal.

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Practically speaking, unilateral renunciation of all nuclear weapons reintroduces the fundamental difficulty of a more consistent pacifism. If we unilaterally renounce nuclear weapons, the unscrupulous who find themselves in a tight pinch with defeat imminent will resort to nuclear weapons in order to gain the victory.

Can we, really, imagine a Hitler going down to defeat from conventional Allied weapons if he possessed atomic weapons that would bring victory—especially if we assured him that we would not retaliate in kind and he believed us? In the final analysis, the nation that unilaterally renounces all use of nuclear weapons is inviting nations whose leaders have no conscience at all to employ nuclear force because they can do so without fear of retribution.

None of these alternatives, as you can see, is satisfactory. We need some other more radical kind of solution. As followers of Christ, we seek peace and the relief of all creatures from unnecessary pain and suffering. As worshipers of a God of justice, we seek to protect all humans and to preserve their rights and their freedoms. Knowing that we live in an evil world we must be prepared, like our Lord, to make dreadful sacrifices—even, if necessary, to die—in order to attain these goals.

But how in our atomic world can we best work to secure these goals? A carefully phased negotiation process—ultimately to encompass all nations, and aiming first at the reduction and then at the repudiation of all weapons, both nuclear and conventional—is the most viable way to work toward these goals. We can offer no guarantee that this plan will succeed.

Indeed, as evangelicals who take the Bible seriously, we believe it will not succeed perfectly; perfect peace will not come until the arrival of the Prince of Peace. Yet this should not deter us. Christians are commanded to seek those goals commanded by Christ and to work as best they can to achieve them. They are not responsible for the obstacles placed in their path by enemies of the good when they have no control over them. Moreover, every step in the right direction will bring immense gains to a suffering and oppressed world. We are responsible for what we can do, and there is much that we can do.

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Finally, may we remind the Christian of his responsibility as a citizen of the state? We cannot thrust aside personal responsibility for this awesome issue of nuclear war.

We are our brother's keeper. The question we must answer is: Are we faithful in that responsibility?

This  article is condensed from its original version which appeared in the April 9, 1982, issue of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

For more coverage on the current conflict, commentary and thought on just war, or Christian debate, see our CTWar in Iraq archive.

A downloadable Bible study on the implications of war with Iraq is available at These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

Recent Christianity Today articles and commentary on the current war with Iraq include:

Weblog: Newspapers Miss the Real End-Times Story | Evangelicals believe this is the end, say papers. Oh really? (March 25, 2003)
CT Classic: The Ethics of Desert Storm | What Christianity Today said during the U.S.'s first war with Iraq. (March 25, 2003)
War Isn't Being Waged From the Pulpit | Most clergy avoid blanket statements on war. (March 24, 2003)
CT Classic: War Cry | As 1991's Gulf War began, a Christianity Today editorial said the church's best weapon was tearful prayer. (March 24, 2003)
What George Bush's Favorite Devotional Writer Says About War | "War is the most damnably bad thing," wrote Oswald Chambers. (March 24, 2003)
Peacemakers Seek to Show War from Point of View of Iraqi Civilians | Six Christian Peacemaker Team members remain in Iraq as bombs drop. (March 21, 2003)
Speaking Out: Where Do We Go From Here? | Now that the bombs are falling, we'll need to repair Iraq—and our nation's moral standing. (March 21, 2003)
CT Classic: Weeping over Baghdad | Desert Storm cost Iraq thousands of lives. At its conclusion, a Christianity Today editorial called for the church to deal with the living souls that remained. (March 21, 2003)
War Could Reduce Holy Land's Christian Presence | Palestinian bishop fears current hostilities could continue a trend that sees Christians forced out of the area altogether. (March 21, 2003)
Weblog: Will War Breed Hate Crimes Against Muslims, Christians, or Both? | Plus: PCUSA court criticizes leader but dismisses charges, and other stories from online sources around the world. (March 20, 2003)
Standing for Peace on the Eve of War | Christian group seeks nonviolent solution in Iraq. (March 12, 2003)
Weapons of the Spirit | Regardless of their positions on Iraq, Christians have much they can do. (Feb. 25, 2003)
Just War in Iraq | Sometimes going to war is the charitable thing to do. (Dec. 10, 2002)
Keeping Their Heads Down | Vital but dwindling Christians face many pressures. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Bully Culprit | Can a pre-emptive strike against the tyrant of Baghdad be justified? (Sept. 30, 2001)
Is Attacking Iraq Moral? | Christian leaders disagree, too. (September 4, 2002)