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Is War Immoral?

Since earliest times there have been wars. In a fallen world of greed and selfishness what else do you expect? When Jesus comes back we are told, “… and in righteousness he doth judge and make war” (Rev. 19:11). If Jesus makes war we can safely conclude that all wars are not immoral. This is not a blanket approval of all wars—only just wars. So, when is a war just?

Christian thinkers have wrestled with this question. Some have said no war is just. They are not something that Christians should engage in. The right thing is “turning the other cheek.” We’ll address that in a moment. The consensus has been, however, that war must be avoided at all costs, unless there is no other way to deal with mad men like Hitler who, if not restrained, would bring unspeakable evil on the world. 

Criteria For a “Just War”

There are five requirements that must be met for war to be considered just. 

First, war must be declared by a legitimate government, not by an unstable, radical group. 

Second, war must always be a last resort. Every other option has failed to bring a peaceful resolution of the problem. 

Third, war must be for a morally-defensible cause, such as stopping military aggression of one nation against another, or a preemptive attack, as in the case of Israel striking an aggressor nation that is preparing to launch an attack. On June 7, 1981, Israel conducted a surprise air strike which destroyed the unfinished Osirak Iraqi nuclear reactor located eleven miles southeast of Baghdad. As could be expected, the attack was met with sharp international criticism. 

Fourth, a just war must have attainable goals. A tiny island nation would be foolish to launch an attack against a superpower.

Fifth, a just war is one that is fought with great moral restraint. This means that winning the war is not the only concern. The end does not justify the means. There must be a sincere effort to avoid civilian casualties and the needless destruction of property. The focus needs to be a war against enemy combatants.

This brings up the question of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs)—nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare. Tactical nuclear weapons against military targets and deep underground bunkers are conceivably a justifiable part of a limited war. Many of the scholars who study the matter believe that megaton nuclear weapons are so destructive not only to the general population but to the environment as to render them immoral. They write that any weapon so destructive as to incinerate and obliterate whole sectors of the civilian population cannot be morally justified.

Dr. Normal Geisler, in his helpful book Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, writes: “The purpose of war is to deter the aggressor, not to destroy him completely. Its aim is to overpower not annihilate, one’s foes. For a war to be just it must envisage securing a peace which establishes with moral order some meaningful community in its wake. If this cannot be the reasonable anticipation of warfare, as it cannot be in total nuclear war, then allowing evil aggression would be better than total annihilation. Saving the race is more important than winning the war, whatever ‘winning the war could mean in that kind of situation’” (p. 176).

Nuclear Close Calls

Nuclear weapons have cast a shadow of doom over humanity. Added to that is the possibility of an accidental war. Wikipedia gives a “list of nuclear close calls.” On January 25, 1995, Russian president Boris Yeltsin became the first world leader to activate a nuclear briefcase. Russian radar systems detected the launch of what was later determined to be a Norwegian research rocket being used to study the northern lights. Yeltsin, who had a drinking problem and had a taste for vodka, was ready to order a retaliatory nuclear strike against the United States. The Norwegian research rocket was mistaken to be an American ICBM heading to Russia. There have been several other “nuclear close calls”—enough to give reasonable people who are unsaved motivation to at least carefully examine the claims of Jesus Christ. I don’t want to sound trite, or corny, but, dear friend are you ready to meet your Maker? Please give careful consideration to the words of Acts 16:31: “… Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” There will be some who will “thank their lucky stars” that we haven’t yet been annihilated, but I would rather give thanks to God for His Son Jesus Christ who shed His blood that I could be saved.

Pacifism—Did Jesus Really Condemn All Wars?

There are those who claim it is wrong for Christians to fight in any war. They appeal to the teachings of Jesus, who said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38–39).

Jesus often used hyperbole—deliberate exaggeration for startling effect—in His teaching. In Matthew 5:29 Jesus says if your right eye offends you, gouge it out. There is not a single example of anyone in the New Testament taking this literally and gouging out their right eye. Matthew 5:30 says the same thing about your right hand. Do holy people have no right hands? We see hyperbole in Mark 11:23. We do not find anyone in Scripture speaking to a mountain and saying, “Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea.”

Another observation—Jesus is not speaking to heads of state in the Sermon on the Mount, nor is He providing rules of engagement for the world’s militaries. Pacifism is an extreme position. The tenets of pacifism would also forbid law enforcement officers from using deadly force in apprehending criminals, and thereby expose the general population to dangerous individuals who would be allowed to have free reign to bring death and destruction to innocent people. And what about Jesus’ statement “that ye resist not evil”? How far do we want to take this? Was Jesus condemning all resistance to evil? Jesus’ ministry on earth was a ministry of resisting evil. He cast out demons, confronted the Pharisees with their own hypocrisy and healed those who were in misery with an illness. Not resisting evil is a sin of omission. James 4:17 says, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”

Once again, to cite Dr. Norman Geisler from the same volume cited earlier: “The able citizen who would not defend his country against an evil aggressor is morally remiss … the total pacifist can easily find himself aiding an evil cause by failing to defend a good one. Thus complete pacifism is at best morally naïve, and at worst morally delinquent.”

How would you feel if a pacifist told the British in 1940 when Britain was fighting for survival, “Go ahead and let the Nazis occupy your country. They can take your bodies but not your souls”? Or how about if someone ventured to tell the Jews, when the full horrors of the Holocaust were known, “Since you Jews are going to be slaughtered anyway, you should voluntarily walk into the death camps to awaken the world’s conscience”? Resistance to such evil is the moral thing to do. We shouldn’t have to apologize for such resistance.

I do think, however, that those who hold to pacifism as a sincerely-held religious belief should be allowed to opt out of military duty that would put them in situations where they may be expected to use deadly force. I don’t believe—in fact, I am firmly against it—government should force people to go against their convictions, such as forcing people to pay for abortions, or hormone treatments and/or gender reassignment surgery, nor should they force people to be vaccinated, certainly not with vaccines that have been proven to produce harmful side effects in those who are vaccinated.

War is ugly. Nations should work for peace. Our efforts need to be on prevention, and on missile defense shields, a national “iron dome system” like Israel has and which is being implemented in South Korea, and the like. But there are enough religious fanatics and mean-spirited misanthropes in the world who believe that they can fight a war and win, and enjoy their own brand of utopia on the earth. Hence, we need to thank God for our military and pray for the men and women who are defending American ideals of freedom, dignity, and respect for all people. They are much needed and do a sacred work of allowing us to enjoy things like freedom of religion and the safety of our families.

The U.S. is pulling the military out of Afghanistan. What is now happening? Here are the latest headlines: “Taliban Find New Revenues as They Seize Afghanistan’s US-Built Border Gateway.” It cost us over $40 million and now the Taliban is collecting customs revenue which they will use to buy weapons which they will use against innocent people. Another headline: “Looters Have Moved Into Afghanistan’s Bagram Airfield.” We can’t be the policemen of the world, but now the world is in our backyard. There are certain flash points that always erupt into violence. Are we to sit idly by when people like Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack using a deadly nerve agent against non-combatants in 2017, many of them women and little children? Was Donald Trump a monster beyond description when he sent fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles to warn al-Assad and set an example?

We are living in serious times. There will be no lasting peace until Jesus returns. But until that time, we can enjoy peace in our hearts, and seek to bring that peace to others through evangelism and church planting. Pray for revival. It will give us national courage to do the right thing and bring the blessings of God upon our land.

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Larry Spargimino

Dr. Larry Spargimino is co-host of the SWRC broadcast and joined the ministry in 1998. Larry researches and writes books and articles for the ministry, assists on tours, and helps answer listeners' theological questions when they call the ministry. Larry holds a doctorate from Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and pastors a local church.

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