Kill or Be Killed? What does the Bible actually say about killing? – Greg Albrecht
I am struggling with the biblical command not to kill, and with what that means in terms of warfare, and what it means in terms of the death penalty, which I oppose. Could you shed some light on this topic? Is this topic merely a matter of the survival of the fittest – kill or be killed?
Several thoughts that might help:
- The sense of the commandment prohibiting killing is about unlawfully taking the life of another human being. Killing of animals for food was assumed to be permissible.
- The ten commandments are the center piece, the foundation stone if you will, of the old covenant.
- Within the Old Testament which records Israel under the old covenant we see much violence and death, some of it, as was understood then (as now in the warfare of modern nations) authorized and legal, as it was committed on the battlefield.
- While there is some question as to what and how much violence God actually commanded for Israel to engage in, (whether they assumed God wanted them to do what they did because it fit their own purposes – thus writers in the Old Testament may have put words in God’s mouth, for it is contradictory for him to command humans not to kill on one occasion and then command them to do so on another) it does seem in this pre-Christian era there was some divine allowances made for killing humans if it was otherwise approved by national and civil law – thus we assume that the command, during the old covenant, prohibited taking the law into one’s own hands and murdering/killing, illegally, another human being.
- Many years after Christ the organized church and its leaders debated what just war might mean. Before this time, for the first several hundred years after Christ, Christ followers were primarily pacifists… based no doubt on Jesus’ statements about turning the other cheek and praying for and loving one’s enemies. They would not serve in the military on the grounds that warfare would involve them in taking human life, something that violated their faith. Emperor Constantine (AD 307-337) converted to Christianity (at least officially) and unilaterally dictated that Rome was now “Christian” rather than anti-Christian – with one effect of this ruling being that the empire was now a “Christian” empire, wars that needed to be fought were “in the name of God” and thus previously pacifistic young Christian men could now be conscripted in the empire of Rome, serving its purposes (which according to Constantine were one and the same as that of God).
- In terms of the “morality of war” (if indeed anything about war is moral) there is a long history of nations/warriors considering the moral implications of taking life. Most of the considerations before Christ, and thereafter for that matter, considered killing to be “moral” if lives of “innocents” were being protected. The idea was, and is, that while war is immoral, war can be “just” if a nation is being protected. The most modern and well known example, glaring example if you will, from a North American and European perspective, is that of the Allied efforts to stop the carnage, mayhem and totalitarianism of Adolph Hitler.
- The most well-known attempts, in the early Christian era, to consider and debate “just” war came first with Augustine (AD 354-430) and then Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225 – 1274 in which they tried to define ways in which violence, including murder, might be justified (just) included war in self defense only, never as an aggressor, war in proportion to the aggression being taken, war/violence to protect those who otherwise would be brutalized. Later, Martin Luther, one of the Protestant Reformers, contributed much more thought to the evils of the so-called “crusades” in which Christian “warriors” were deputized to convert “heathen” countries at the point of a sword. Big topic, but this is some of the background. As a Christ-follower, I believe war is immoral and evil … and however impractical that may seem, even unpatriotic by some, that’s how I see this topic from a Christ-centered perspective.
- Of course, this topic spills over into many areas – policing a modern city, state, province or nation – protection of civilians from criminals. Our entire system of jurisprudence, including judges who pass sentences on criminals. I shall not attempt to address those matters here.
- The death penalty is another related topic, but of course it serves only to penalize a crime that has already been committed, rather than prevent it. Advocates point toward the Old Testament practices in this regard, and point toward the potential of such a severe sentence causing criminals to think twice before committing crimes that would require their own life, and for those who are actually put to death, causing others to “hear and fear.” Those who oppose the death penalty say that the threat of a death penalty does not stop grievous crimes of murder, rape, etc – because 1) two wrongs don’t make a right, and 2) killing is inhumane, and 3) criminals do not care about their own life in any case will not be deterred by the threat of a death penalty. Again, this is a huge topic from a Christ-centered focus – one I cannot address fully here. Hope something I’ve said will be helpful.