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Biblical View of Self-Defense


Dr. Grant C. Richison


The issue of personal self-defense is very difficult because the soul has eternal worth. Yet, on the other hand, we live in a sin-cursed world.


Nationalism is not an adequate reason for war or personal self-defense. The idea that “my country is right regardless of the situation” is insupportable. However, the Bible does argue for national entity as a divine institution. God established government for societal order and stability. The government carries the “sword” for justice (Ro 13:1-7). The Christian has an obligation to the national entity in which he lives. God calls on Christians to practice civil obedience (Mt 22:21; Ro 13:4; 1 Ti 2:1-2; Ti 3:1; 1 Pe 2:13). However, there is a point at which the Christian cannot obey government (Ac 5:29; Da 6).

Genesis 9:6 argues for talionic justice (law of like punishment); that is, capital punishment should fit the crime (Ex 21:23-25). Talionic justice is implied in Genesis 4:10, 14; in this situation, God removed vengeance from those who lost their loved one and gave the responsibility of justice to human government. Personal revenge and emotional anger should never be the basis for objective justice. Romans 13:4 gives human government the right for a just war. The New Testament then establishes the continuity of capital punishment. The killing of a human being, an image-bearer of God, demands talionic justice.


It is important to make a distinction between killing and murder. God condemns murder because the killing of another person is done for personal or subjective reasons (Ex 20:13). The Hebrew word rasah means to kill, but it is never used for animals; it is always linked with murder. Neither is this term used for killing in battle.

God gave Genesis 9:6 before the Mosaic Law and justifies taking the life of a murderer. In the Mosaic Law and for the conquest of Canaan, God gave rules for war (Deut 20:10-18). War was an instrument of justice.

Individuals can kill in self-defense. The Mosaic Law explicitly allowed the defensive use of lethal force by individuals. In dealing with a thief in Exodus 22, a person could kill an intruder at night (Ex 22:2). However, after sunrise, this was not permissible (Ex 22:3). At night a homeowner could not tell whether the intruder was a thief or a murderer. In daytime he could decipher the person’s intention was to murder. An individual could kill a murderer at any time. He could not kill a thief to protect property; there is no parallel between a person and property. Moses laid down laws for the limited use of self-defense (Ex 21:12-22:3). Exodus 22:2-3 explicitly permits defense of self by lethal force (however, not in every situation).

In John 18:11 Jesus rebuked Peter for his misuse of the sword, but He did not reject the use of the sword in general. Luke 22:36 allows for a legitimate use of the sword for self-defense. In preparing Jesus’ disciples for His departure from earth, He warned them to defend themselves (Lu 22:36-38). The disciples said, “Here are two swords.” Jesus said, “It is enough.” When traveling from city to city, people carried swords to defend themselves from robbers. Jesus told His disciples to defend themselves when necessary.

Jesus came to the temple and found people turning it into a place of merchandise. With burning indignation, He took a scourge of cords and drove them out of the temple and overturned their tables of money (Jn 2:14-15). Jesus was justly violent in some situations.

Revelation 19 presents Jesus as a warrior king. He is not only a God of love but also of justice. Liberals have tried to separate these two attributes since the beginning of religious rationalism. Jesus will strike down entire nations at this time (Re 19:11,15). To portray Him as a mild person without backbone who wilts before His enemies is an inadequate and distorted picture of who He is.

Turning the other cheek does not mean allowing evil people to overpower us (Mt 5:39-41). Instead, the idea is to not allow ourselves to be overcome by evil but to overcome evil with good (Ro 12:21). Sometimes the most effective way of overcoming evil is by not resisting it; it is better to respond with kindness. However, Jesus does not tell us that the only way to overcome evil is by non-response. Much of the Sermon on the Mount is hyperbole. Jesus did not mean that we are to gouge out our eyes when we sin (Mt 5:29); His idea was to deal radically with our sin rather than be nonplussed about sin. Jesus Himself stood up to the religious leaders of His day. Our primary attitude should not be one of retaliation.


If a man tolerates a rape while watching it and does not prevent it, that is perverse in itself. To witness a pedophile molest a child and do nothing about it is morally repulsive. To fail to protect our families against a violent intruder is to fail our responsibility as protector of the family. To allow someone to murder another person when we could have done something about it is immoral and debases human life.