Does God’s authorization of capital punishment and war in the Old Testament imply that it is appropriate for Christians to execute justice on their enemies and even kill them if necessary?
Does the Old Testament teach that God authorizes violence?
There are many Old Testament scriptures that show that in some situations God divinely authorized violence, including the death penalty, as punishment for crimes. For example, God commanded the death penalty for murder (Ex. 21.12-14; 19; Lev. 24.17, 21), hitting one’s parents (Ex. 21.15; 17; Lev. 20.9), kidnapping (Ex. 21.16; Deut. 24.7), and sacrificing a child to the god Molech (Lev. 20.3). Numerous other examples could be given.
There are also Old Testament examples where God commanded His people to go to war. Perhaps most glaring is when God commands the complete destruction of the Canaanites.
You shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanites and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you. – Deut. 20.16-17 (cf. 7.1-2)
In 1 Samuel 15, God commands Saul to “utterly destroy” the Amalekites (v. 3). When Saul disobeys God by saving some of the spoil, he is rebuked by Samuel (vs. 8-9; 19), who then responds by killing Agag, king of the Amalekites (v. 33). It certainly appears that God approved of Samuel’s obedient violence.
Other examples could be cited, but the two examples mentioned here should be sufficient to show that at times God divinely sanctioned acts of violence against evildoers. We can therefore view these Old Testament warriors as examples of faithful obedience (cf. Heb. 11.34)
Does God Always Approve of Just Violence?
Although God sometimes commanded the Israelites to do violence against wrongdoers, this does not imply that God commands all people at all times to engage in violence against their enemies. God does not change (Mal. 3.6), but sometimes His expectations change.
Early in David’s reign, David received God’s approval before going to war (2 Sam. 5.17-25). Yet late in David’s life, David took a military census without God’s approval and was punished for it (2 Sam. 24.2-4). God viewed David as unfit for building the temple as a direct result his waging of wars (1 Chron. 22.8; 28.3). Although God approved of some of David’s wars, He did not approve of all of David’s military actions.
Years later, Hosea would rebuke Israel for multiplying “lies and violence” and for making an alliance with Assyria (Hos. 12.1). Hosea rebuked Israel for trusting in their warriors (10.13), and for multiplying their national defenses (8.14).
Micah warned that God would “cut off your horses from among you, and destroy your chariots” (5.10-11). Amos too was very critical of nations who used violence against other nations (1.3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2.1), and voiced strong opposition to Israel’s trust in their military power (2.14-16; 3.9-11; 6.13-14).
Keep in mind that Israel was not looking to use military alliances and violence to be conquerors. They were simply looking to the sword for self-defense against other wicked nations. Yet they were met with God’s disapproval because they had turned from trusting in God to trusting in their military might.
What Can We Conclude from God’s Authorization of Just Violence?
God is a Just God
God views human life as special, and God values justice. Although God does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezek. 33.11), He did write the death penalty into His law and at times commanded warfare.
Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made man
– Genesis 9.6
Not All Killing Is Murder
Although the Old Testament is clear that murder is wrong (Ex. 20.13), it is also clear that not all killing is murder. Since what God does and directs others to do is always right and just (Ps. 19.7-19; 33.4-5), and since God tempts no one to do evil (Jas. 1.13), this shows that capital punishment and war are not inherently wrong.
The Key Issue Has Always Been Faithful Obedience to God
Although the Old Testament does show that God gives divine authorization of violence in some circumstances, it is important to recognize that God – not Israel’s military might – would determine their victory.
The LORD your God is the one who goes with you, to fight against your enemies, to save you. – Deut. 20.4
When God defeated the Egyptians as they tried to cross the Red Sea, the entire battle was fought and won single-handedly by God. (Ex. 14-15). God left no room for doubt: Israel was saved by God’s strength alone, not by their own military might.
Israel faced a seemingly undefeatable enemy in Jericho. And yet, because they faithfully obeyed God’s command to march around the walls, God delivered the city of Jericho into their hands (Josh. 7). In contrast to Jericho, Ai was a much smaller village, and would seemingly be an easy victory. However, due to disobedience, Ai defeated Israel (Josh. 8). Israel’s strength in battle was not dependent on their own ability to defeat their enemies. Their strength was dependent on their faithful obedience to God.
In Judges 7, God trimmed down Gideon’s army to just three hundred, lest the people boast and say, “My own power has delivered me” (Jud. 7.2). Israel’s army was made weak so that God would be shown to be strong.
The Holy Spirit summed up the source Israel’s strength in Psalm 33:
The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength.
Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
To deliver their soul from death
Even though God did instruct His people to execute the death penalty and, on occasion, to go to war, Israel’s strength was never dependent on the sword. Their strength was found in their faithful dependence on God.
Our Strength is Found in Obedience to God’s Commands
The Christian’s highest goal is faithfulness. If God commands that Christians execute violence against their enemies, it would be wrong not to. The most important question to consider is this: What has God commanded Christians to do in response to their enemies?
What Has God Commanded Christians To Do In Response To Their Enemies?
The New Testament does not directly address how governments and nations are to view and treat their enemies. But the New Testament has much to say about how Christians are to treat and think about their enemies. As Christians, we are to…
- Love our enemies (Lk 6.27, 35; Mt. 5.44)
- Follow Jesus’ example by being willing to suffer unjustly at the hands of our enemies, even when we have the power to defeat them (1 Pet. 2.18-23; 3.15-16; Eph. 5.1-2)
- Do good to our enemies (Lk. 6.27; 34-35)
- Bless our enemies instead of cursing them (Lk. 6.28; Rom 12.14)
- Pray for our enemies (Mt. 5.44; Lk. 6.28)
- Forgive our enemies (Mt. 5.44; Lk 6.30, 34)
- Feed our enemies when they are in need (Rom. 12.20)
- Never violently resist evil (Mt. 5.38-39)
- Treat enemies the way we would like to be treated (Lk. 6.31)
- Never return evil with evil, but overcome their evil with good (Rom 12.17, 19; 1 Thess. 5.15; 1 Pet. 3.9)
- Never exact vengeance against our enemies (Rom. 12.17-19)
- Turn the other cheek, even when the principle of justice says we can rightly give them what they deserve (Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.29)
- Humbly serve our enemies (Jn. 13.1-5)
- Respond gently to our enemies (1 Pet. 3.15)
- Consider our own sin before considering the sin of our enemies (Mt. 7.1-3; 1 Tim 1.15-16)
That’s everything the New Testament teaches on the matter of how Christians are to treat wrongdoers. Note that nowhere do we find any exception clause in these teachings. Jesus never says “Love your enemies and do good to them except when common sense and your desire for justice tell you that you need to kill them”.
What About Justice?
Jesus embraced God’s justice. According to Jesus, if someone makes a little one to stumble, it would be better for them to have a millstone hung around their neck rather than to face God’s judgment (Mt. 18.6; Lk. 17.2).
In fact, the reason Jesus didn’t fight back when He was crucified is because He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2.23). The reason Paul commanded Christians not to avenge themselves is because God has said “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom. 12.19). The more we believe that God will execute His justice on evildoers, the more we can trust that we are free from having to take justice into our own hands.
This is not to argue that all killing is inherently wrong. This is not to argue that all policemen and soldiers are murderers. This is not to argue that governments and nations are necessarily acting wickedly when they execute justice.
But, as Christians, God gave us the responsibility is to love and do good to our enemies, even when the principle of justice tells us that they would deserve far worse (cf. Mt. 5.38-39; Lk. 6.27-29). And no Christian can offer any service to their government that would cause them to compromise their commitment to God (Acts 5.29).
Every disciple of Jesus must wrestle all of His teachings. I cannot see how a Christian can use violence to execute justice and at the same time faithfully follow God’s commands to love our enemies.
What About Common Sense?
Granted, these teachings don’t make any sense. In fact, at times, refusing to violently resist evil can sound downright foolish. But how much sense did it make for Moses to stretch out his staff across the Red Sea? How much sense did it make for Israel to march around the walls of Jericho? How much sense did it make for Gideon to trim his army down to just 300 men? How much sense did it make for the all-powerful God to let Himself get tortured and killed unjustly rather than using his power to defeat His enemies?
The strength of God’s people has never been found in their weapons. The strength of God’s people is found in their faithful obedience to God.