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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.