Can Christians Kill?

Can Christians Kill?

James C. Denison

The Most Interesting Man in the World turns out to be a 72-year-old actor named Jonathan Goldsmith. He’s a Jewish guy from the Bronx (the accent is fake). His mother was a model, his father a track coach. He’s made a career in television, usually as the guy who gets killed. He’s also sold waterless-car-washes and done network marketing.

In real life he once rescued a stranded climber on Mt. Whitney, saved a drowning girl in Malibu, and sailed the high seas with his friend Fernando Lamas. He says, “I love the old philosophers,” and adds, “I have a large library. I am not a die-hard sports fan. I love to cut wood.”

Real life is seldom what you see in the movies. It’s the same with Christian faith. Most Baptists can tell you about the time when asked Jesus to forgive their sins and become their Savior and Lord. When I did that, nothing happened. I felt no weight lifted from my chest and saw no bright lights. Worst of all, my questions didn’t go away. I still had his questions; I’m still asking them today.

Let’s wrestle with one of the hardest questions there is. Can Christians kill? We will look at war, the death penalty, euthanasia, abortion and murder.” When I put together essays I’ve written on these subjects over the years, they came to more than 40 pages. I’ll do my best to condense all of that down so we can wrestle with these crucial subjects together.

I think through these discussions we will learn that we are to be “pro-life,” not just “pro-birth,” seeing all life as the miraculous creation of God.


Donald Rumsfeld’s book, Known and Unknown, discusses his experience with war during the Bush Administration. The former Defense Secretary has been traveling the media circuit promoting it. In interviews he has often been asked about the decision to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of the war in Iraq to this point:

4,433 U.S. troops killed

32,000 U.S. wounded

More than 100,000 Iraqis killed

War costs exceed $900 billion.

In WWI, 39 million people died (30 million civilians). In WWII, 51 million died (including 34 million civilians) Since WWII, approximately 150 wars have killed an estimated 16 million people.

What does the Bible say on the subject of just war?

Jesus was clear: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). However, his words had to do with personal slander, not self defense or war.

We find warfare throughout the Old Testament, from Egypt’s armies pursuing Israel at the Red Sea to the Jewish conquest of Canaan, to Assyria’s destruction of the Northern Kingdom, Babylon’s conquest of the South, and the Persians, Greeks and Romans.

There is no question that God commanded his people to go to war in Canaan. For instance, at Jericho they followed the order of Joshua, God’s anointed leader: “Every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys” (Joshua 6:20-21).

Is warfare still God’s will for us? What does Christian theology teach us for such a time as this? For most of Christian history, the “just war” theory has been extremely helpful. Used for sixteen centuries, the theory states that war is justified when it meets these criteria:

Just cause —a defensive war, fought only to resist aggression.

Just intent—fought to secure justice, not for revenge, conquest, or money.

Last resort—all other attempts to resolve the conflict have clearly failed.

Legitimate authority—military force authorized by the proper governmental powers.

Limited goals—achievable, seeking a just peace.

Proportionality—the good gained must justify the harm done.

Noncombatant immunity—civilians protected as far as is humanly possible.

By these standards, would our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan be “just”? Here are the factors to must consider:

These wars would respond to aggression on the part of our enemies.

They would be fought to secure justice for the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan.

All other diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis have failed.

Our leaders followed proper political processes.

We must know how these wars will neutralize the threat of future aggression and bring about lasting peace in the region.

The good gained must justify the suffering and death caused by war.

Civilians must be protected as much as possible.

All the while we are required to obey Jesus’ order: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45). Have you prayed for al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban today?

The death penalty

“Capital punishment” derives its name from the Latin caput, meaning “head, top or leader.” A “capital” crime is the most serious, a crime at the top of the list. Punishment for such crimes is thus “capital” as well.

Biblical arguments for capital punishment:

“For your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man'” (Genesis 9:5-6).

“If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life” (Leviticus 24:17-18).

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience” (Romans 13:1-5).

Biblical arguments against capital punishment:

The Genesis statement is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Old Testament laws endorsing capital punishment are not repeated in the New Testament.

Paul’s reference to the “sword” deals with punishment, not execution.

God did not seek the death of Cain, Moses, or David.


Abolitionists: enforcing the death penalty brutalizes society; life in prison is a worst punishment than death.

Supporters: the victims of a capital crime deserve “justice.”


Abolitionists: Since most murders are not premeditated, deterrence is irrelevant.

Supporters: If the law were consistently applied it would have a deterrent effect.

Scripture: “Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again” (Deuteronomy 13:10-11).

The protection of society

A murderer who is executed obviously cannot murder again.

Deterrence: in 2008, the average murder rate for states using capital punishment was 5.2 per 100,000 people; in states without a death penalty it was 3.3 per 100,000. However, another study indicated that each execution decreases homicides by about five.

Discrimination and economic costs (in Florida, $3.2 million per execution, six times the cost of life imprisonment).

DNA testing and execution of the innocent.

My position: Capital punishment for capital crimes is the consistent teaching of the New Testament.


“Euthanasia” is derived from the Greek word “eu” (well) and “thanatos” (death). It usually means a “good death” or “mercy killing,” and is understood to be the provision of an easy, painless death to one who suffers from an incurable or extremely painful affliction. Such an action is considered proper only when the suffering person wishes to die, or is no longer able to make such a decision.

There are three categories of euthanasia:

“Active” euthanasia occurs when someone acts to produce death (“assisted suicide”). Injecting lethal drugs is an example.

“Passive” euthanasia occurs when the patient is treated (or not treated) in a way which leads to death, but actions are not taken to cause death directly. Withholding nourishment would be an example.

“Letting die” refers to medical actions taken to enhance the patient’s well-being during the dying process, even if these actions hasten death as a result. Discontinuing chemotherapy would be an example.

There are three ways to interpret this issue theologically:

“Holistic” ethicists believe that the body and soul are one. So long as the body is still living or can be kept alive, the patient possesses the same rights to medical treatment as the rest of us.

“Dualistic” ethicists separate soul from body; as soon as brain function irreversibly ceases, the “soul” is gone and the body can be allowed (or caused) to die.

“Vitalist” ethicists believe that physical function is itself sacred. Whatever we think about a “soul,” so long as the body can be kept alive it should be, by any and all means.

I support the “dualistic” view combined with “letting die” medical treatment.

We are created in God’s image to “rule over” his creation (Gen. 1:28). Without the capacity or potential for cognitive ability we cannot fulfill our intended function. The “soul” has departed from the body.

At the same time, the body is the creation of God. Only he has the right to determine when its functions will end. We can take medical actions to alleviate physical suffering, but we should not seek to end life as our purpose.

Please remember that maintaining or ending medical care does not necessarily affect the intervention of God. The Lord Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave after he had been dead four days (John 11:38-44). He does not require medical life support to heal. And if it is his will that the patient not survive physically, no medical means can defeat his purpose.


Every year, approximately 40,000 people die on American highways. Every ten days, that many abortions are performed in America. Doctors conduct 1.5 million abortions every year in the United States, more than the total of all America’s war dead across our history.

Since the U. S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in January of 1973, more than 48 million abortions have been performed in America. This is a number larger than the combined populations of Kentucky, Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. Depending on the year, an abortion occurs for every three or four live births in our country.

Abortion is the moral issue of our time. It seems impossible to wrestle with the difficult issues of our day without addressing this crucial debate. Most conservative Christians believe that life begins at conception and abortion is therefore wrong. But are we sure? Is this a biblical fact? If the answer is clear, why have so many denominational leaders taken pro-choice positions? Is there a biblical, cohesive, practical position on this difficult subject?

In 1973, the Supreme Court issued Roe v. Wade, its landmark abortion ruling. In essence, the Court overturned state laws limiting a woman’s right to abortion. Its decision was largely based on the argument that the Constitution nowhere defines a fetus as a person, or protects the rights of the unborn.

Rather, the Court determined that an unborn baby possesses only “potential life” and is not yet a “human being” or “person.” It argued that every constitutional reference to “person” relates to those already born. The Fourteenth Amendment guarantees protections and rights to individuals, but the Court ruled that the amendment does not include the unborn.

The Court further determined that a woman’s “right to privacy” extends to her ability to make her own choices regarding her health and body. Just as she has the right to choose to become pregnant, she has the right to end that pregnancy. The Court suggested several specific reasons why she might choose abortion: “specific and direct harm” may come to her; “maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future”; “psychological harm may be imminent”; “mental and physical health may be taxed by child care”; problems may occur associated with bearing unwanted children; and “the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood” should be considered.

Since 1973, four positions have been taken in the abortion debate:

There should be no right to an abortion, even to save the life of the mother. This has been the Catholic Church’s usual position. Last December, the Catholic bishop in Phoenix removed its denominational designation from St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center after hospital staff performed an abortion to save the mother’s life. This was an expression of the first position regarding abortion.

Therapeutic abortions can be performed to save the mother’s life.

Extreme case abortions can be permitted in cases of rape, incest, or severe deformation of the fetus. Most pro-life advocates would accept therapeutic and extreme case abortions.

Abortion should be available to any woman who chooses it. This is the typical “pro-choice” position.

Moral arguments for abortion

No one can say when a fetus becomes a person, so the mother is the most appropriate person to make decisions regarding it.

Abortion must be protected so a woman who is the victim of rape or incest does not have to bear a child resulting from such an attack.

No unwanted child should be brought into the world.

The state has no right to legislate personal morality.

A woman must be permitted to make pregnancy decisions in light of her life circumstances.

Moral arguments against abortion

A fetus is a human life and should be granted the full protection of the law.

Most “pro-life” advocates are willing to permit abortion in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the life of the mother.

All children should be wanted, so adoption is strongly encouraged as an alternative to abortion. An unwanted child would rather live than die.

Protecting the rights of the individual is the state’s first responsibility.

“Pro-life” advocates want to encourage the health of both the mother and the child, and do not believe that we must choose between the two.

When does life begin?

“Functionalism” states that the fetus is a “person” when it can act personally as a moral, intellectual, and spiritual agent.

“Actualism” is the position that a fetus is a person if it possesses the potential for developing self-conscious, personal life.

“Essentialism” argues that the fetus is a person from conception, whatever its health or potential. It is an individual in the earliest stages of development, and deserves all the protections afforded to other persons by our society.

Can we determine when life begins? Our answer depends on the definition of “life.” A “pro-choice” advocate recognizes that the fetus is alive in the sense that it is a biological entity. But so is every other part of a woman’s body. Some consider the fetus to be a “growth” and liken it to a tumor or other unwanted tissue. Biology alone is not enough to settle the issue.

What about capacity? Many ethicists define a “person” as someone able to respond to stimuli, interact with others, and make individual decisions. A fetus meets the first two standards from almost the moment of its conception, and clearly cannot fulfill the third only because it is enclosed in its mother’s body. Would a newborn baby fulfill these three conditions?

What about individuality? If we view a fetus as a “growth” within the mother’s body, it would be easier to sanction her choice to remove that growth if she wishes. But a fetus is distinct from its mother from the moment of its conception. It is alive–it reacts to stimuli, and can produce its own cells and develop them into a specific pattern of maturity. It is human, completely distinguishable from all other living organisms, possessing all 46 human chromosomes, able to develop only into a human being. And it is complete–nothing new will be added except the growth and development of what exists from the moment of conception.

It is a scientific fact that every abortion performed in the United States is performed on a being so fully formed that its heart is beating and its brain activity can be measured on an EEG machine. At 12 weeks, the unborn baby is only about two inches long, yet every organ of the human body is clearly in place.

Theologian Karl Barth described the fetus well:

The embryo has its own autonomy, its own brain, its own nervous system, its own blood circulation. If its life is affected by that of the mother, it also affects hers. It can have its own illnesses in which the mother has no part. Conversely, it may be quite healthy even though the mother is seriously ill. It may die while the mother continues to live. It may also continue to live after its mother’s death, and be eventually saved by a timely operation on her dead body. In short, it is a human being in its own right (Church Dogmatics 3.4.416).

And note that you did not come from a fetus–you were a fetus. A “fetus” is simply a human life in the womb. It becomes a “baby” outside the womb. But it is the same physical entity in either place.

For these reasons, “pro-life” advocates believe that the U. S. Supreme Court was wrong in deciding that a fetus is not a person entitled to the full protections of the law. Apart from spiritual or moral concerns, it is a simple fact of biology that the fetus possesses every attribute of human life we find in a newborn infant, with the exception of independent physical viability. Left unharmed, it will soon develop this capacity as well. If a life must be independently viable to be viewed as a person, a young child might well fail this standard, as would those of any age facing severe physical challenges.

Biblical considerations

Exodus 21: yatsa (“to come forth”), not shachol (“to miscarry”). Thus premature birth is intended (NIV).

“It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

“Do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty” (Exodus 23:7).