What Does the Bible Say About Self-Defense?
He spoke without malice. “Do not come into my house in the middle of the night unannounced. I have a gun. I will shoot you. I will kill you.”
The crowd laughed in response, nodding their heads in agreement. The crowd was a church, and the speaker was a single pastor. As I listened, I suddenly realized that the most dangerous place in America is an evangelical household at 3 a.m.
What do you think? If you’re at home alone, is it right to kill someone for entering your house at night?
My guess is that most Christians feel it’s OK to defend oneself with violence. Someone lurking through your house could be a fatal threat, and therefore such situations justify the use of fatal force.
But what would happen if you brought a first-century pastor into the audience to hear that 21st-century pastor’s sermon? Would the ancient pastor be applauding and laughing along with the crowd?
Absolutely not. We know that the early church utterly rejected all forms of fatal violence in self-defense. In fact, the teachers of the early church rejected all forms of fatal violence, including warfare.
Augustine and Ambrose were the first theologians to argue in favor of Just War theory, a pagan framework for determining when a state can use military force. But here’s what’s interesting: both Augustine and Ambrose continued to reject violence in self-defense.
Ambrose wrote, “I do not think that a Christian ought to save his own life by the death of another; just as when he meets an armed robber he cannot return his blows, lest in defending his life he should stain his love toward his neighbor.”
All of this should beg a question: How did these early Christians come to the position that using fatal force in self-defense is wrong? After all, this position is not intuitive. Who wouldn’t want to defend him or herself?
The Bible on Self-Defense
Like many counterintuitive ideas that radically reshaped society, nonviolence sprung from the moral imagination of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stands atop a mountain like a second Moses, giving God’s people a new law to guide their life together. It is not a manifesto for secular governments to follow, but a manifesto for citizens of God’s kingdom. Jesus is explaining how we can live in good faith with one another.
Throughout that sermon, Jesus picks up laws from Moses’s lawbook and expands them. He expands adultery to include lust. He expands murder to include hatred. And he expands the Old Testament’s proportional justice to full-blown non-resistance.
That’s a mouthful. But track with me. In Moses’s law code, we read, “23 You are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Ex. 21:23–25).
This sounds barbaric to modern ears, but to ancient ears it was surprisingly moderate. Babylonian law codes allowed people to take eyes, hands, and lives for small crimes like theft. The punishments were disproportionate to the crimes.
Moses ended this practice by saying that justice must be proportional.
Then Jesus comes along and expands the principle. He says that in his kingdom, justice would move beyond proportionality:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. … 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:38–39, 43–45).
I invite you to read that again, because it seems that even pastors have forgotten this passage. Jesus knows that Moses said, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand,” and says “This is not enough. As my people, you must ‘not resist an evil person.’”
If someone goes all Will Smith to your Chris Rock, you must not retaliate. Self-defense is suddenly subsumed by a higher ethical obligation: enemy love.
The idea that your enemy’s life is more valuable than your own exploded ancient ethical frameworks. Jesus is saying that your responsibility to love your enemy supersedes your responsibility to love yourself.
The Non-Violent Example of Jesus
But Jesus didn’t stop there. According to Luke, this was a standard part of his teaching in other locations (Lk. 6:28–29). He added to it the command, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
His audience understood what he was saying: You have seen the Romans crucify countless numbers of your kinsman unjustly. You have risen up to defend them, but you lost and saw the crucifixions only increase. But in my kingdom, we do not resist. We bear witness to the lie of their so-called justice by taking up their cross non-violently, and dying with dignity because we know that our God will in the end set things right.
If you think I’m overreading this, I’d simply invite you to consider the example of Jesus. The gospel writers present him as a silent lamb who was led to his own slaughter. He tells Pilate that he could violently resist, but will not because that is simply not the way of his kingdom (John 18:36).
When his disciples attempted to put up a violent resistance to his arrest, Jesus was not gentle with them. He told them, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51). And he says the same words to us: no more violence. The message must have gotten through eventually, because in the book of Acts, the apostles are beaten, imprisoned, stoned, and murdered, but they never turn to violent self-defense.
In fact, Jesus describes their non-violent resistance under violent forces as part of how the gospel would spread (Mk. 13:9–11).
What should we make of all this? Perhaps we should ask whether our moral imagination is more a product of a self-expressive, self-loving, self-defending culture, or a product of the self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-denying kingdom. Perhaps we should wonder: If Jesus’s non-violent resistance to sin and evil defeated sin and evil, then perhaps my own non-violent resistance is the best answer to evil in this world.
If you find yourself wrestling with this concept, you’re not alone. And you definitely won’t want to miss our three-part podcast series on this exact topic! Check out the first episode, “The Biblical Theology of Violence,” now.
Posted by Patrick Miller