Apologist Clinton Wilcox explores whether the Bible mandates pacifism or if acts of violence can ever be justified 

Violence has a complicated history in the Christian Church. Christ was prophesied as the coming prince of peace (Isaiah 9:6) and he certainly brought a message of love. He wanted us to love our neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12:31) and, in fact, John wrote that if anyone does not love he does not even know God, for God is love (1 John 4:8). 

Christians since the Church first began have opposed violent acts, such as infanticide (several early Christian documents attest to this, such as The Didache, The Epistle of Barnabas and ‘A Plea for Christians’ by Athenagoras, which was written as a response to charges that Christians were violent murderers). It also seems to be common knowledge that Christians for at least the first 200 years of the Church refused to engage in military service. 

Certainly, it seems at the very least, violence should be a rarity among Christians. We should always strive to act in such a way as to love others. To love others is to desire the others’ good and work to fulfil it as far as we are able.


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Violence in the Bible

But does this mean that violence is always forbidden to Christians? Clearly, violence is not inherently wrong. God sanctioned acts of violence in the Old Testament, such as when he commanded the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites due to their rampant and grotesque sins, and when God sent Ehud to assassinate King Eglon, a wicked king ruling over Israel, to deliver them from him. These episodes, and more, show us that violence can, at times, be justified even if it should be a rarity among followers of Jesus.

Of course, when Christ died he established a new covenant with his people. When he ministered on Earth, he preached a message of love, but as Jesus is God in the flesh, Jesus’ teachings would not contradict God’s actions in the past. It is possible that with the new covenant came new teachings on violence (through what theologians call “progressive revelation”), but if we examine the teachings of Jesus, we will see they do not, in my opinion, necessitate pacifism.

The misuse of violence

Jesus told Pontius Pilate that his kingdom was “not of this world”. If it were of this world, Jesus’ disciples would be fighting to keep him from being handed over to the Jews (John 19:36). This fits with Jesus’ actions at the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26. When Judas led a large crowd to seize Jesus, Peter drew his sword to defend his master, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave [1]. 

But Jesus rebuked Peter, telling him to put his sword away, for all those who live by the sword perish by the sword. While some read this passage to say Jesus was rebuking Peter because he used violence to defend Jesus, a proper reading of this passage shows Jesus rebuked Peter because he was misusing violence. 

Jesus had to be taken away so that the scriptures could be fulfilled. In fact, Jesus tells Peter he could have petitioned his father to send twelve legions of angels to his defence. Philosopher Tim Hsiao even draws our attention to the fact that Jesus did not tell Peter to get rid of his sword, but merely to return it to its sheath because using violence in this situation was inappropriate [2].

While Jesus was prophesied as the coming prince of peace and he preached a gospel of love, it would be unrealistic to read Jesus as thinking his followers must never resort to violence, especially when he wants us to speak up for those without a voice and to defend those being led away to the slaughter. That sometimes requires violence, because those who intend harm toward the innocent often brandish weapons to give themselves the upper hand.

Counter cultural

At one point, Jesus told his listeners: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to turn a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a person’s enemies will be the members of his household.” (Matthew 10:34-36). 

Of course, Jesus did not come to bring literal warfare to the Earth. As mentioned above, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. So he did not have his servants use physical violence to keep him from being overtaken by the Jews. But a life following Jesus will, by its very nature, put Christians at odds with the world. And while this often takes the form of theological debates, where Christians stand ideologically opposed to atheists and people of other faiths, this has also taken the form of physical violence at times when it was necessary, such as when Dietrich Bonhoeffer attempted, but unfortunately failed, to assassinate Adolf Hitler who was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews, homosexuals and others Hitler deemed “life unworthy of life”. In order to properly defend those who are oppressed, sometimes violence is necessary.

While all Christians should be ready to die as martyrs if that is what God calls us to do (Matthew 10:16-22), Jesus did not believe that his followers should wait around to be martyrs. In Matthew 10:23, Jesus told his followers: “But whenever they persecute you in one city, flee to the next.” Jesus knew intense persecution would be coming to his followers, so he told them when they saw the ‘abomination of desolation’, they were to flee. They were not to run to the basement to collect their things, or return to their house to fetch their cloak (Matthew 24).

And while fleeing is, of course, a legitimate course of action to escape persecution, sometimes escape is not possible and the only action left is to fight. Before the incident at the Garden of Gethsemane, we read that Jesus told his disciples to take their money belt, a bag, and if they lack a sword they were to sell their cloak and buy one. Jesus knew his impending death and resurrection was imminent, so while he took care of their earthly needs while he was with them, that would no longer be the case once he ascended into heaven to the right hand of the father. So the disciples would now need to provide for themselves, which included ensuring they had money and food to eat, but also ensuring they had weapons to defend themselves. Money and food would allow them to keep their lives going, and a weapon, a sword, would allow them to defend their lives from those who would take it [3].


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Permitted violence 

These passages show convincingly that use of force is sometimes permitted for the Christian. It should not be a common occurrence, but neither should we shy away from it if a situation necessitates it. We are to be virtuous in all things and that includes becoming violent in the protection of ourselves or others from those who would do us harm. 

There are some who attempt to make a case from scripture that God opposes violence, but, in my opinion, the most natural reading of the Bible is that violence is sometimes necessary. I have shown from certain passages that violence is not inherently wrong, so that argument is out of the question. 

I have also shown that while God sometimes endorsed violence in the Old Testament, Jesus did also sometimes endorse it in the New Testament. Any time Jesus spoke against a violent act it was against the misuse of the violence, not the violence itself. 

I sympathise with Christians who don’t believe violence is the answer; arguing that violence is sometimes permitted is not to say that it is good or a joyful thing to have to engage in. But as has been noted many times before, sometimes the right thing to do is also the hardest.


Clinton Wilcox is a staff apologist for Life Training Institute. He specializes in training pro-life people to make the pro-life case more effectively and persuasively. He is also a certified speaker and mentor for Justice for All. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter


[1] Interestingly, the three synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, do not reveal Peter as the man who drew the sword, instead simply saying “one of those who were with Jesus” drew it. John tells us the man who drew his sword was Peter. John also tells us the identity of the slave who had his ear sliced off by Peter, Malchus, and before he rebuked Peter, Jesus restored Malchus’ ear.

[2] Timothy Hsiao, ‘Does Jesus Endorse Armed Self-Defense in Luke 22:36?’, Evangelical Quarterly 92, 2021, 351-366, p. 355. 

[3] For a more detailed examination of Christ’s instruction to his disciples, see Tim Hsiao’s paper cited in the previous note.