Jesus on war: pacifism, or just war?

Jesus was not speaking as a prophet when he said, “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars.” Anyone with a basic understanding of history or politics knows that. Jesus had a point to make: how we respond to news of war.

What response did Jesus expect from his disciples? Christian responses to war have been polarized, as if Jesus said one of these:

  • When you hear of war, enlist in Caesar’s army. Fight to protect your loved ones. Your country needs you! (Just-war theory)
  • When you hear of war, join the protest rallies. Tell Caesar to stop this madness, to stop killing people for the sake of his power. (Pacifism)

For the first 300 years, most Christians held to some form of pacifism. The notion that some wars are justified has dominated for the last 1700 years. Which did Jesus say? Support Caesar (if it’s a just war), or oppose him (pacifism)?

Neither. Jesus offered no advice for Caesar about his wars. Jesus’ only advice was for his followers:

Matthew 24 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. (NIV)

Well, that’s disappointing for both sides of the debate. Jesus never said, “Go join the war,” or “Go join the protest.” All he said was, “Get perspective. Wars happen. It’s not the end.”

Don’t imagine that Jesus failed to grasp the horrors of war. You can hear his heartbeat for his people as he anticipated the Roman invasion of Jerusalem in AD 70. “Flee to the Judean hills,” he advised (Matthew 24:16). Pregnant women struggle to run. Crying babies give them away as they hide (24:19). Law-abiding Jews couldn’t go far on a Sabbath. They could die of exposure if it was winter (24:20). In war, death comes indiscriminately: without rhyme or reason, one is taken and another left (24:40-41).

If Jesus understood the horrors of war, and he was king of his people, why didn’t he protect them? Isn’t that what we expect from our governmental authorities? If he was the son of David restoring the kingdom of God, why didn’t Jesus do what King David did?

Jesus barred his disciples from fighting for freedom. He expected to receive his kingship directly from his Father, not by warring against Rome. That’s why he refused to let his servants fight (John 18:36).

When Jesus asked them, his disciples did have swords. Perhaps they were sacrificial daggers for Passover, but if they used them against people, they would mark him as a criminal (Luke 22:37; Isaiah 53:12). The instant they began to fight, Jesus commanded: “No more of this!” (22:51).

This is important. Jesus prohibits his followers from fighting. The true king does not liberate his kingdom through war. He explicitly prohibits us using weapons to kill our enemies.

These are direct commands from King Jesus for the citizens of his kingdom. It won’t do to spiritualize them as if Jesus was only concerned about spiritual matters and not about lives in this world. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies not to kill them.

So what should I do if there’s a war and my government orders me to fight?

I have two conflicting commands: my earthly nation commands me to fight, while my ultimate king commands me not to. It’s a simple case of deciding which is my higher allegiance (as in Acts 5:29).

No, I will not join Caesar’s army. No matter how alarming the government propaganda sounds, Jesus says, “See that you are not alarmed.” Even though great powers fall and people faint in terror (Matthew 24:25-26), the world will not end with a nuclear implosion.

We know how it ends: living in peace, under the reign of the Son of Man (24:27). Jesus calls us to respond to the horrors by looking up, recognizing the king who ultimately brings the earth back under God’s reign (24:28).

Jesus cannot be conscripted to fight for the current government in a “just war.” Jesus cannot be conscripted for protest rallies against the current government. Jesus calls us to a third way where we act as citizens of the kingdom of God.

  1. I will not give my life as a pacifist, trying to dissuade Canberra from conducting wars.
  2. I will not give my life killing enemies when Canberra tries to justify war.
  3. I will give my life to announcing the king of peace, enacting his reign, following him to death if necessary.

No excuses. No exceptions. The sooner we live as citizens doing as King Jesus commands, the better his world is.


What others are saying

Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 556. (emphasis original):

2309. The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: (2243; 1897)

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

Preston Sprinkle, Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence, electronic edition (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013) (emphasis original):

The issue of killing was prohibited in every mention by early-church writers. Whenever the issue of military service and warfare was discussed, Christians were prohibited from participating. Nowhere in the written record in the first three hundred years of Christianity is killing ever justified. Not even for soldiers.

But let’s revisit Origen’s statement above about “just wars.” It’s interesting that Origen believed that there is such a thing as a “just war,” and yet he still prohibited Christians from participating. In one of his many treatises, Origen dialogued with a pagan named Celsus, who chided Christians for not fighting alongside their Roman brothers to defend the empire. If everyone did what you Christians do, argued Celsus, the whole empire would collapse!

Origen went on to show that Rome’s own pagan priests were exempt from fighting. According to their own standards, there was a place for religious intervention apart from violence. Origen argued that Christians were doing the same. “Christians also should be fighting as priests and worshippers of God, keeping their right hands pure,” wrote Origen. In fact, “we who by our prayers destroy all demons which stir up wars … are of more help to the emperors than those who seem to be doing the fighting.”

See also:  Should Christians go to war? (Romans 13:1-7)

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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