There has been a lot of debate lately over the question of whether Christians are permitted to arm themselves and to use lethal force in defense of themselves and their love ones. As most of you already know, this discussion reached the attention of the media when Jerry Falwell announced that he would like for all the students at Liberty University to carry concealed weapons on campus. Falwell’s announcement produced a flurry of responses, and eventually another nationally recognized figure rose to take the opposite position when John Piper publicly criticized Falwell’s request for being contrary to Scripture. The Christian blogosphere was already flooded with discussion of Falwell’s position, but it literally exploded after Piper’s response. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that most of those on either side of the issue, including Falwell and Piper, have failed to adequately address the most important question of the debate.
Did God change His mind on self-defense when Christ died on the cross?
Both sides of the debate readily admit that killing in self-defense was permitted in the Old Testament. This is very bluntly stated in Exodus 22:2 – “If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him.” What this verse means is that if one man kills another man who is in the act of breaking and entering, the first man is not to be charged with a crime. This verse is accepted by both sides of the debate as proof that the Old Testament permitted the defensive use of lethal force. The only remaining question, then, is simply this: Does Exodus 22:2 still apply today, or did God change his mind on self-defense when Christ died on the cross?
Those opposed to the use of lethal force by Christians have almost unanimously responded to this question in the affirmative. They fully believe that although God permitted the use of lethal force in the Old Testament, He now requires that Christians refrain from killing anyone in self-defense. The arguments offered in defense of this claim generally take one of two forms. Either it is argued that lethal self-defense is a violation of Christ’s command for us to love our neighbors as ourselves, or it is argued that lethal self-defense is a violation of Christ’s command to love our enemies and do good to them who hate us. Unfortunately for this side of the debate, neither of these arguments is adequate to demonstrate that God has changed His mind on the issue of self-defense.
Those who make the first argument fail to realize that the doctrine of loving one’s neighbor is actually an Old Testament doctrine. One of the clearest explanations of this doctrine in the New Testament occurs in Matthew 22:39. In this passage, a lawyer asked Christ “Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Christ’s answer to this question was:
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind (Deuteronomy 6:5). This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Leviticus 19:18). On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The Golden Rule, of course, is identified as the second of these two commandments which Christ quoted from the Old Testament, but the most significant statement of Christ’s answer is found in the very last sentence of the verse: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus Christ was the greatest expert on the Old Testament that ever lived, because He was its Author. Therefore, it is safe to assume that He knew all of the Law when He said that the entire Law is based on the Golden Rule. This means that, according to Christ Himself, Exodus 22:2’s permission to use lethal force in self-defense is not just compatible with but actually founded on the Golden Rule of loving your neighbor as yourself. If Exodus 22:2 is founded on the Golden Rule, then the restatement of the Golden Rule by Christ cannot possibly be a prohibition against the use of lethal force in self-defense.
Those making the second argument, that we are commanded to love our enemies and do good to those that hate us (Luke 6:27), face a similar predicament. Just as with the former argument, the problem with this argument is that Christ’s command to do good to those who hate us is also found in the Old Testament in both Exodus 23:4-5 and Proverbs 25:21-22. If the Old Testament commanded that people do good to their enemies, and the same Old Testament also permitted the use of lethal force in self-defense, then it cannot be true that the use of lethal force in self-defense is forbidden by the command to do good to our enemies.
These two arguments are really just two different renditions of the same basic logical syllogism:
The flaw in this argument is found in the second premise. Nowhere does the Bible ever tell us that if we kill someone, then we are not loving him. This is a pure assumption made on the part of those Christians who oppose the use of lethal force in self-defense. If we take the time to search for this concept in Scripture, what we discover instead is three distinct lines of evidence against this assumption.
From these three lines of evidence, we can conclude that the second premise is definitely incorrect. It is possible to kill someone while still loving him. Therefore, God’s commands for us to love one another are not in any way a prohibition against killing someone in self-defense. I hope that I am never placed in a position where I feel that I need to kill someone in order to protect myself or my family, but if such a situation ever arises, I can face it with the confidence that shooting an attacker does not violate God's Word. In fact, I would probably echo the praise of David when he wrote:
"Blessed be the LORD my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight:"
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)