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Could There Ever be a Just War?

Julian Spriggs M.A.

This article looks at the very difficult issue of Christians and their attitude to war. An attempt will be made to describe the ethical criteria to decide how a war could be labelled “just”.

The horror of war

The horror of war must be considered the most dreadful human experience. War is unbelievingly destructive, both through the loss of human life, and through the waste of material resources, and damage to the environment. The Second World War caused the death of over fifty million people, which is equivalent to almost the whole population of the U.K. It also devastates families, making wives into widows and children into orphans. It frequently leaves lasting resentments through history, which are often the root cause of other wars. For example, the unmerciful and humiliating treatment of Germany by the Allies following the Armistice at the end of the First World War can be seen as one of the reasons for the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War.

War between nations is one of the worst consequences of the fallen human condition. Human sin is the ultimate cause of all wars, being expressed in greed for power, the desire to dominate other people, and the expression of national pride. Jesus warned that there would continue to be wars in this life (Mt 24:6-7), showing that we cannot expect to live in perfect peace in this world, before the full coming of the Kingdom of God when Jesus returns at his second coming.

On a positive note: in wartime, people show great heroism, determination, inventiveness and loyalty to each other and to their nation. However we also hear of horrific examples of brutality and cruelty by the people involved. An over-loyalty to our own country often leads to an attitude of pride, thinking our country can do no wrong, and a popular unjustified hatred towards the enemy people. During Falkland's War in the early 1980's, there was a most distasteful anti-Argentinian jingoism, particularly fuelled by the tabloid newspapers. It is important to remember that war is directed against the enemy government, not against its people. Chamberlain, the Prime Minister at the start of the Second World War, made this distinction clear, that Britain was at war with Hitler and Naziism, not against the German people. However, it is mostly the general population who suffer and die during wars, leaving their political leaders safe in their protected bunkers.


Facing the dreadful reality of the suffering of war, many Christians through the centuries have taught that all war is wrong, and that Christians should play no part in it. There are some strong arguments for pacifism. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called his people to be peacemakers (Mt 5:9). Paul told his readers in Rome to live peaceably with everyone, as much as it depends on us (Rom 12:18). This verse recognises that it takes both sides to make peace, and that it is impossible to make peace when the opponent is determined not to. In Matt 5:39 Jesus commanded his people not to resist an evildoer, but to turn the other cheek. The question is whether this command is applicable only to personal relationships to prevent retaliation and vengeance, or whether it should also be applied to international conflicts. Many Christians throughout history have said that it is not legitimate to make a distinction between the two, saying that it is wrong for Christians to go to war in any circumstances.

Another argument that could be used to support pacifism is that as Christians, although were are called to be loyal to our own country, our greater loyalty is to the Kingdom of God, and to the body of Christ worldwide. War can lead to the tragic situation where equally committed Christian believers are fighting each other on opposite sides of a conflict. This predicament was dramatically brought home to me when we visited Hungary in 1986, when that nation was still ruled by the Communists. We met a young man who loved the Lord, but was about to join the Hungarian army for his National Service. That would make him a member of the Warsaw Pact army, which was the enemy of the western powers. I was left with the impossible question, "Would it right for me to fight in the British or NATO army against this fellow Christian?"

The motives for a pacifist position are very good, being an overriding desire for peace and an abhorrence for killing and causing suffering. However, the results of pacifism may be contrary to what was originally desired. Failure to counter and control evil and aggression often results in greater suffering over a longer period. Pacifists can be accused of being hypocrites as they could be in the situation where they are refusing to support any war effort, but are still living and enjoying the benefits of living in the freedom and peace, which war and military defence seeks to protect.

Just war?

In his letter to the Romans, Paul affirms that secular government has authority from God to bear the sword and to execute wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom 13:4). Paul does not condemn the government for using violence, but declares that the state has the right and responsibility before God to use force to restrain evil. The immediate application of this passage is that the state has the responsibility to enforce justice and the authority to execute criminals. However, it is also the role of government to defend its people and to preserve freedom and peace. This is why Paul calls Christians to pray for the government (1 Tim 2:1-2).

Because war is so unbelievingly horrible, it can never be anything other than one of the greatest evils that our world is inflicted with. Choosing a "just war" can only ever be as the lesser of two evils, when there is no right choice, but only two wrong ones. War will never achieve a totally just result. It should always be as a last resort to prevent a greater evil of terror or aggression, after all diplomatic efforts have failed. This concept of a "just war" has been held by many Christians through the centuries, and was originally popularised by Augustine.

In the New Testament, Jesus did not explicitly forbid people from serving in the army, nor did he or the apostles call for the Roman empire to disarm. Soldiers who became converts to Christianity were not told to leave the army. Cornelius, a centurion serving in the Roman army, is given as a positive example of a God-fearing Gentile, who became one of the first Gentile converts (Acts 10). Peter did not command him to leave his job in the army after his conversion to Christianity.

In the Old Testament, God frequently commanded Israel to fight, but no nation has the same position today as Old Testament Israel, which was a theocracy ruled directly by God, as his special people in covenant relationship with him. Yahweh was understood as the lord of the armies, being known as "The Lord of Hosts", who led Israel into battle against their enemies. Israel had to learn to trust God to fight for them, often through means which may appear to be ridiculous, like walking around the city of Jericho in silence for seven days, then blowing trumpets and shouting! Israel had to learn that they did not fight in their own strength, but they had to be totally obedient to God. War in the O.T. was also often a way through which God would bring his judgement for injustice, idolatry, and rebellion, whether on Israel or on foreign pagan nations.

An example of what could be called a "just war" is found in Genesis fourteen, often known as "The War of the Kings". In this, Abraham fought against several oppressing kings from the East. This was not for direct personal defence, as he himself had not been attacked. Instead he went to war to rescue his nephew Lot who had been taken captive. There is no record of Abraham being commanded by God to go to war, but neither is there any mention of God opposing him. After he returned, he was blessed by the Christ-like figure, Melchizedek, indicating that Abraham had God's blessing on what he had done.

For a war to be considered "just" it must have good motives. The nation's intention in going to war must not be for geographical expansion, or for economic advantage, or to enforce some ideological belief or religion. One of the worst things the church has done in history is to bring the Gospel with the sword, forcing people to be baptised, as it did in many parts of Europe and South America. This can never be justified, and has done lasting harm to the reputation of the church. Some Christians argue that war could only be allowed in self defence, if first attacked by another nation. The neutral nation of Switzerland takes this approach. It is highly armed and prepared for war, but only for self-defence. Others would allow preventative war, when instead of waiting to be attacked, it would be ethically satisfactory for a nation to initiate war to avoid a danger of defeat later, or to go to the aid of an oppressed nation.

It is essential that any Christians involved in the serious decision whether to declare war are not being led by worldly reasoning, but are praying in faith that God can change the political situation, and are calling the wider church to earnest intercession, as we pray to an Almighty God who has the power to move in response to our prayers.

The purpose of just war should be to achieve peace. However it is difficult to define exactly what that means. Peace is more than just an absence of armed conflict. The aim of a just war could also be to bring justice or to oppose tyranny, or to stop a nation from proceeding with plans of aggressive geographical expansion. A just war should not use too much force, limiting the use of force to what is necessary for defence. Injury to the civilian population should be avoided as much as possible.

To consider a modern example: It could be argued that the first Gulf War was a just war, when a alliance of western and Arab nations went to war to free Kuwait following invasion by Iraq in 1990. The aim of this war was to help a small conquered nation, and to repossess its territory. There are similarities with the situation Abraham faced when he fought against oppressors to recapture Lot. It achieved at least part of its goal, to free Kuwait from Iraq, but it did not bring real freedom to the people of Kuwait (they still live under an Islamic government which does not allow freedom of worship). It also failed to remove Saddam Hussain, who continued to rule as dictator of Iraq, and the ordinary people of Iraq suffered as a result of the international sanctions imposed because of him. It is far more difficult to justify the second Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as a just war.

Some international conflicts are very complex and have a long and bitter history. Grave injustices have occurred on both sides over many centuries, which have caused deep-rooted bitterness between the different peoples. It can be all too easy for outside powers to step in to seek an overly simplistic conclusion. In the Balkans, the conflicts between the different ethnic groups are deep-rooted, which NATO bombing and peacekeeping efforts are not going to solve easily, but could instead actually serve to make the situation even more difficult.

The nuclear threat

This whole subject of war became far more serious in the twentieth century with the development of nuclear weapons. Suddenly it became possible to imagine a war which would result in worldwide destruction. The ethical issues became more serious, especially during the Cold War, with the threat of Soviet invasion. Was it better to risk nuclear war which would destroy most of western civilisation to avoid a communist takeover? Was it "better to be red than dead", or "better dead than red"?

Many Christians who would support the idea of a "just war" argue for nuclear pacifism, saying that the idea of using nuclear weapons is so dreadful that it is morally wrong for nations even to possess weapons of such mass-destruction. They say that it would be better to live under a communist dictatorship than to risk the massive loss of life that these weapons would cause, if they were ever used.

Others say that we need the nuclear deterrent as a threat to deter aggression. If the western powers were to remove their nuclear capability it would have invited Communist expansion and increase the threat of invasion. It is significant to note that the western peace organisations which called for nuclear disarmament received much financial help and influence from the Soviet Union. We can see that the collapse of the Soviet Union was accelerated by the rapid increase of the arms race during the 1980's.


In conclusion, although my instinctive preference would be to say that war was never justified, and that pacifism was the correct path for Christians. After looking at what is taught in the Scriptures and seeking to apply them in the fallen world we live in, I am forced rather reluctantly to the position to say that there are times that it is necessary for nations to go to war for self-defence, or to help oppressed people in other nations.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.