What does the Bible say about self-defense?

What should we do if someone tries to harm us? Should we fight back? The Bible teaches us to love our enemies, but what might that mean?

If we want to know what the Bible says about violence, we should start by looking at the words of Jesus. As God’s own Son, who is both human and divine, he is the perfect example for Christians to emulate.

Jesus on self-defense

Most Christians are probably not aware that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that Christians may not use violence. Let’s look at Jesus’ words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. . . . I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:38–48 ESV)

Jesus teaches us that we should “not resist the one who is evil.” Even when people slap us, even when they injure us, we shouldn’t respond in kind.

But Jesus does teach of a way of responding to violence—by loving our enemies. What might this look like? Paul writes,

Repay no one evil for evil, . . . Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Rom 12:17-20)

Loving our enemies means not repaying evil with evil. Instead of harming them, we should wish our enemies well, and actively help them where they are in need.

Of course, just because Christians can’t do violence doesn’t mean that Christian parents should not lovingly discipline their children. That’s not violence—they are helping them, and not harming them. If a parent harms their child, we should all agree that that is wrong! But Jesus teaches that harming anyone is wrong.

The view that Christians should do no violence is called “nonresistance.” It gets its name from Jesus’ command to “not resist” evil people. It was taught and practiced by the early church, as well as other Christian groups throughout history, like the Anabaptists.

But that’s a very counter-cultural idea. Is it possible that Jesus didn’t mean his words quite so strongly? Many Christians have raised objections to this understanding of Matthew 5 and the other Bible passages about violence. In this article, we’ll look at some of the objections.

Wasn’t violence allowed in the Old Testament?

God allowed violence in the Old Testament. In fact, he even commanded people like Joshua to go to war. Doesn’t that indicate that violence, at least in self-defense, is permissible?

That may sound reasonable, but notice the way Jesus begins his command in Matthew 5. Jesus explicitly quoted an Old Testament law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” However, instead of confirming it, he followed it up by calling Christians to obey a higher principle: “But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.”

How do we make sense of this? In the Old Testament, God was preparing his people to be ready to receive their Savior. They weren’t ready to receive him or his teachings. So, during that time, God limited the violence that was allowed, but he didn’t completely forbid revenge and self-defense.

But now we are blessed to have our Savior, Jesus Christ. However, that also means that we need to follow his higher law. Now we may only respond to violence with love, rather than self-defense.

But isn’t “turn the other cheek” just about personal insults?

Another common objection is the claim that Jesus’ commands, quoted above, are merely about what we should do in return for personal insults—not serious injuries or life-threatening attacks. Those who raise this objection say that we should meekly endure it when people insult us—but that doesn’t mean that we have to let people actually harm us.

Let’s just look at the surrounding context to see if they are right. Note that Jesus calls us not to follow the principle of, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” If someone permanently blinds your eye, or if someone knocks out one or more of your teeth, is that merely a personal insult? Certainly not. Those can be serious injuries.

Matthew 5 is not just talking about minor offenses and personal insults. In fact, the Old Testament principle that Jesus is referencing also says, “life for life.” That’s the principle that Jesus is telling us not to follow. That strongly suggests that we can’t use violence even against a murderer.

But, you might ask, if Jesus actually meant us not to defend ourselves against killers, why did he say so outright? Why did he give examples of non-lethal violence. That’s a good question, and I think that there are two answers.

Jesus used everyday examples

For the most part, Jesus’ audience was made up of everyday Jews. It wouldn’t have included many soldiers or magistrates. So it would make sense that Jesus would use examples of violent actions that were more likely to happen to regular people.

Jesus wasn’t writing a legal code; he was illustrating one of the central principles of the Kingdom: love your enemies. He brought this principle home to his audience by using examples that they were likely to meet in their daily lives. In this way, he called everyone to nonresistance—not just the people who are in danger of being killed.

Jesus teaches complete nonviolence

I think that people tend to think backwards when they read Matthew 5. They tend to think, “Jesus forbade violence in return for smaller offenses, so his words don’t apply to larger offenses.” But Jesus was teaching us a transformative principle, not just the letter of the law. So we should actually think, “Jesus forbade violence in return for even the smallest offenses, so we certainly shouldn’t do violence in return for larger offenses either!”

If we shouldn’t return evil for evil even when we’re faced with minor violence, we should be even more careful to return only good for evil when we are faced with major violence. Scripture seems to indicate that the way we live in the small areas is how we should live in the big areas. Jesus articulated this principle in another context: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10).

Did Jesus just say this about revenge, not self-defense?

Some have pointed out that the examples Jesus references in these passages are examples of revenge or retaliation. Might Jesus just be condemning revenge, and not actually self-defense?

Jesus’ principles condemn violence

In fact, the principles Jesus gives us are very broad. They cover retaliation and self-defense as well. Jesus tells us, “Do not resist the one who is evil.” Does that leave any room for using violence in self-defense?

Others have argued, “Maybe we shouldn’t defend ourselves, but surely it’s okay to use violence to defend other people.” However, recall that Jesus’ principle is a blanket statement that applies to all violence. He doesn’t merely apply it to self-defense.

The other principle that Jesus gives us is to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. If we have genuine, active love, we will be completely opposed to harming those we love. Some have suggested that we can love someone even when killing them. But where does the Bible ever teach such a cheap love, one that doesn’t actually work itself out in action?

If revenge is wrong, self-defense is even worse

But let’s think about revenge a bit more. An avenger’s goal is to pay someone back for the violence they did. Their goal is to make things right by making them even again. Of course, they shouldn’t do that, but there is a rightness or justice in their actions.

In contrast, using defensive violence doesn’t even have that justification. Instead of repaying someone for their evil actions, those who use violence in self-defense are actually harming someone who hasn’t harmed them yet. They are the ones actually instigating the violence!

What about Christians in government?

But what would this do to earthly governments? They need to use violence.

That’s true—so maybe Christians should stay away from positions in government. This may be the most counter-cultural thing I’ve said yet, but it’s the biblical principle, which we call the Two-Kingdom view.

A Christian view of government

To understand this issue, we first need to understand the way God uses earthly governments. Paul writes that God has ordained earthly governments to keep peace, and that God even allows them to use violence:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom 13:1-4)

The government Paul referenced, the Roman Empire, was brutal and ungodly. One of the Roman Emperors of his day was Nero, one of the most unjust and cruel rulers ever.

So it’s not that God is looking for godly governments made up of Christians who use violence wisely. God uses even the worst governments, full of ungodly people, to accomplish his purposes.

Should Christians be police?

God will work out his will using the government, whether there are Christians in it or not. And as long as there are non-Christians in the world, there will be non-Christian governments to ensure that evil is kept in check. However, if everyone became a true Christian, no one would be evil! So Christians aren’t needed in government.

And in fact, Jesus taught that Christians should not do civil violence. When Jesus referenced “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he was referring to a legal code that was prescribing what punishments could be carried out by society. Christians are forbidden to do even that.

Isn’t this a strange idea?

If you weren’t familiar with Jesus’ teachings on nonresistance before, you may be shaking your head. How is it possible that Jesus would actually forbid self-defense? There’s got to be some catch somewhere.

However, we can know that nonresistance is the correct interpretation of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings. That’s because the early church, the Christian leaders who followed directly after the apostles, taught the same way. Even though they were persecuted by the government, they taught that Christians may do no violence, even in self-defense.

To learn more about the lifestyle of the early Christians, including their beliefs on violence and war, I recommend the course “Christian Citizenship.”

God will take care of those who obey him

But if we can’t do violence, what should we do when we’re faced with an attacker? That’s a very important question.

The answer is that we should respond to violence with the methods taught in the New Testament. We should pray, bless our enemies, and give up our lives for our friends. And guess what—our weapons are stronger than knives, guns, or even bombs. Prayer, blessing, and self-giving love have a God-given power that evil people can’t even imagine. That’s why the early church grew by leaps and bounds in spite of persecution.

But in no way should we disobey Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus compares those who obey his words to a wise man who built his house on a rock. But those who disobey the Sermon on the Mount are like a foolish man who built on sand: “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matt 7:27).

We can safely trust God to make everything right. After all, it is God who has said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” (Rom 12:19). God is far more capable than we are of bringing people to justice. And finally, “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). Those who love God keep his commandments (John 14:15).

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