Questioning the Just War Assumption

I grew up with the general assumption of the inevitability of war. I was never taught the moral necessity of war in a systematic way, but it seems I was formed by the history of war through public education, movies, and stories told by those who experienced life in the military. I never served in the military; although twice in college I had the Army recruiter’s number in one hand and a phone in the other, ready to enlist. While I never entered any branch of the armed forces, I am the proud son (and grandson) of a veteran.

I was serving as a youth pastor in Georgia, when the Bush-led war in Iraq dominated primetime television in 2003. I preached an entire sermon days after the war started to my students simply entitled “War.” It was a 30-minute presentation of the just war theory, i.e. the belief that under certain circumstances armed military combat is both necessary and morally justifiable. I felt this preaching moment was honorable. I felt I must do my part to help my students understand war was ok; it was normal; it was necessity to promote good and defend American freedom. I preached my war-sermon to a handful of teenagers because I assumed the just war theory was the only Christian response to war; but is it?

I have come to discover other responses exist, better responses. Just war theory is not the de facto Christian response to war. A respectful critique of the just war theory as a moral imperative reveals weaknesses in the theory, which opens up new ways of thinking for followers of the Prince of Peace in a war-torn world.

Before jumping right in to a critique of just war theory, let me establish some context. I am neither a pacifist nor a just war theorist. I reject both labels. I am a follower of Jesus. I am neither a professional theologian or an expert in moral theory. I highly respect those who devote their lives to study, research, lecture, and write in the area of theological ethics, but I know I am not among their ranks. I am a pastor. I serve a local church and find myself in the broad world of evangelicalism, taking my cues from those who have a high view of Scripture and take the teachings of Jesus seriously. To clarify, the following critique is not an examination of all the intricacies of the theory, but a critical review of some of the theological and biblical foundations of the theory. I will offer my critique primarily through a series of questions.

So on to the critique…

I often find people default to the just war theory, because they claim Jesus did not teach ethical pacifism. He may not have taught pacifism in its sophisticated form today, but when looking at the teachings of Jesus, nowhere do we see him teaching what we understand as the just war theory. To my knowledge, the just war theory was developed by Augustine in the fifth century after Constantine, after the merger of the empire and the Church. There was no need for the theory when the Church was free of imperial concerns. While the position of the pre-constantinian Church on the issue of a Christian’s participation in the military was complex, the general tone of early church fathers was to discourage it. [1] What is clear is the early church followed the lead of Jesus who did not advocate violent revolution. There were a group of Jews in the day of Jesus who approved of justifiable violent military action to establish the kingdom of God in Israel. These were the Zealots. Jesus was not one of them. He did not join their initiative to take Israel back by the armed combat. What Jesus taught was enemy-love, an ethical love he demonstrated on the cross when he offered a prayer of forgiveness instead of violent retaliation. At the cross, God in Christ, abolished war.

Just war proponents argue the Bible as a whole does not teach a pacifistic ideology, but, in the words of Daniel Heimbach “God expects, and in fact requires, morally responsible rulers sometimes to use deadly force to defend weak and innocent people against unwarranted aggression….” [2] My assumption is the conviction of God’s so-called requirement of political nations to use deadly force is rooted in the Romans 13 passage speaking of rulers who “do not bear the sword in vain.” It seems to me that Romans 13 is speaking of the Christian’s relationship to the ruling authorities as citizens under the jurisdiction of the ruler. Nothing in the text mentions military action between two rival nations (i.e. war). Furthermore, the context of Romans 13 is Romans 12 with its commands to “live peaceably with all,” “never avenge yourselves,” “feed your enemy,” and “overcome evil with good.” Shouldn’t followers of Jesus be modeling and teaching this kind of peace as a witness to ruling authorities? Shouldn’t we be calling ruling authorities to submit themselves to Jesus and his teaching of enemy-love?

Another reason for the assumption of the just war theology is the argument that an appeal to Christian nonviolence is a case of an over-realized eschatology. In other words, while there may be peace when Jesus appears, we cannot assume that kingdom has come in its fullness and thus, in our fallen world, war is simply the way some geopolitical disputes must be settled. I understand the concern here. We believe the kingdom of God (i.e. the rule and reign of God through Jesus on the earth) is here, but we also believe it is coming. We believe Jesus is presently the true ruler over all other political authorities and yet his kingdom is coming. It is not here in its fullness, but shouldn’t we, as followers of Jesus, live according to the values of this coming kingdom? Shouldn’t we be living as if Jesus is Lord now, pledging our allegiance to him and observing his teaching now? Shouldn’t we be living now in light of this coming kingdom where “nations shall not lift up sword against nation” (Isaiah 2:4) and “every boot of tramping warrior…will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5)? I agree; we live in a world filled with wicked people, but does the presence of wickedness and evil automatically create the need for war? Just war theology seems to suffer from an under-realized eschatology, not seeing Jesus ruling and judging the nations now. Doesn’t the presence of war as an option weaken our presence as a nonviolent people?

Some of the weakest arguments from just war proponents is in how they understand the messianic title, “Prince of Peace.”  Some define peace as primarily “the peace of reconciling sinners to God.” This over-spiritualized view of peacemaking is a reduction of the redeeming work of Jesus. Didn’t Jesus make a way for reconciliation (and thus peace) between people? Paul in Ephesians 2 describes the death of Christ as a place where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles has been broken down. These two people groups have now become one new humanity. He has made peace between groups of people by reconciling them to God, and thus “killing the hostility” between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:16). Why do we assume justifiable war is all we are left with when God in Christ has killed the very hostility that leads nations to war?

Jesus lived and taught in a world where violent revolution boiled just under the surface. Granted we cannot read “civic nonviolence” into every appearance of the word “peace” in the New Testament, but we can certainly not remove the notion of nonviolence from statements like, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) in the Sermon on the Mount or “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!” (Luke 19:42) when Jesus drew near to Jerusalem weeping. The context of both of these references to peace implies the restraint of physical violence.

Perhaps one of the most common mistakes for just war theorists is their appeal to violent images of Jesus in Revelation. For example, some see images like “the great winepress of the wrath of God” (Revelation 14:19) and “blood flowing from the winepress” (Revelation 14:20) and the white horse rider with a robe “dipped in blood” (Revelation 19:13) as examples of Jesus coming to kill his enemies. Yet this kind of interpretation is built upon faulty theological miscues. First, Revelation is highly speculative and not the place where we get the clearest picture of Jesus Christ. Yes the book of Revelation is the revelation of Jesus Christ, but it is a revealing Jesus to us through symbol and metaphor. If we believe the son of man in Revelation is literally going to shed blood and that literally blood will flow for 184 miles, then we must literally believe this son of man will be conducting his warfare with a sickle. Why is the bloodshed to be interpreted literally, but the sickle is a metaphor? The book of Revelation does reveal Jesus Christ to us, but because of the highly symbolic nature of the book we interpret the symbols through the Jesus we see in the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament. A standard method of biblical interpretation is we interpret unclear passages by clear passages. Where do we ever clearly see Jesus killing his enemies or advocating the killing of his enemies? If the coming Jesus is going to kill his enemies, then when he taught us to love our enemies he must have been winking, as if to say: “Go ahead and love them now, because I will kill them later.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The image of Jesus we see so often in Revelation is one of a lamb who reigns not by slaying his enemies, but by being slain as seen in the Gospels.

One of the final arguments (and there are others) for the just war theory is the appeal to the unity of the character of God as revealed in both the Old Testament and the New Testament as evidence that Jesus did not teach really teach the way of nonviolence. This reasoning is based on the apparent God-sanctioned wars of the Old Testament. I agree the Old Testament and New Testament tell the story of the one and same God. (Although in strict Trinitarian terms, I would say the God of the Old Testament is the God and Father of the Jesus of the New Testament, but I do not mean to belabor this point.) The logic of this argument could be stated in the following syllogism:

Premise 1: The God of the Old Testament sanctioned just wars.

Premise 2: The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament without change in his character.

Conclusion: The God of the New Testament sanctions just wars.

The weakness of this argument is found in the assumptions behind Premise 2. The assumption is for God to prohibit war he would have to change his character. This assumption is not true. God in Christ did not change who he was, rather he gave us a fuller revelation of who he is. This fuller revealing of his nature did not change who God was, but it did change how God was going to relate to humanity. God in Christ changed how he expected humanity to relate to God and each other. The Sermon on the Mount is the clearest picture of how Jesus changes things. He said time and again, “You have heard it written, but now I tell you….” Jesus was not declaring a change in the character of God, but he proclaiming a change in how we would live as the covenant people of God. One of the changes included no more “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,” no more retaliatory violence, no more killing enemies in the name of God. Jesus, in no way, announced a change in who Yahweh is. He did not say, “You thought Yahweh is like this, but really is he someone altogether different.” Jesus did say in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy: a new covenant between God and humanity is coming. With this new covenant comes new commandments including the commandment to love one another (including your enemies). The Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, moved by the Spirit of Yahweh, foretold of a time when war would come to an end. (See Isaiah 2:4, 9:5, 11:9). Jesus as Israel’s Messiah came to fulfill all that the prophets said about the coming kingdom.

The command to love our enemies is one that continues to challenge me as a pastor and a follower of Jesus. We all have questions about violence in our world. What about self-defense? What about an intruder in my home? What about law enforcement? Police? What about participation in the military? What about protecting my family? What about gun ownership? What about gun laws? What about Word War II? What about Hitler? I do not have all the answers, I do believe ruling authorities have the responsibility to protect their citizens and enforce laws that maintain order, but is deadly force the answer? I pray God gives us a renewed imagination to work for peace-making solutions without the use of war. I fear as long as we hold on the the just war assumption, we will lack the imagination to see the things that make for peace.

If God has put the sword in the hands of ruling authorities then we should echo the words of Jesus to Peter saying, “Put away the sword.”

[1] See “Were the Church Father’s pacifists?” by Matthew Lee Anderson, First Things First April 2010 <>. See also “The Early Church in a Violent World,” Chapter 10 in Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence by Preston Sprinkle (David C. Cook, 2013).

[2] Daniel Heimbach is Senior Professor of Christian Ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He argues from the perspective of the just war theory by stating his reasons for rejecting pacifism here: <>. My critique of the just war theory began as a response to Heimbach.

Tip the Author & Support Our Ministry!

Thank you for supporting this author and Missio Alliance’s ministry of online publishing! All our authors graciously volunteer their time and expertise in creating resourceful articles such as this. Your generosity makes it possible for their voices and perspectives to reach and influence Christian leaders all around the world.
From #GivingTuesday (Nov. 27) through the end of the year, half of any donation you make will go directly to this author while the other half will support Missio Alliance and our Writing Collective platform in particular. 
Donations in any amount are greatly appreciated! 
Select Payment Method
Personal Info

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.

Billing Details

Donation Total: $5

Share This

Print Friendly, PDF & Email