God and Guns: What the Bible Says About Self-Defense

An intruder has an AR-15 and starts gunning people down at the store while you are shopping. If you confess to believe in the Bible as the rule of faith for your life, what is the right thing—the godly thing—to do at that moment? Call the police? Certainly, you should call the police! But remember, when seconds count, the police arrive in minutes. Are you going to try and stop the attacker? How are you going to do it?

From my understanding of the Bible, I believe the best thing for me to do in that awful situation would be to draw my pistol and shoot the attacker until the threat is over.

I can already hear plenty of objections: Thou shalt not kill. Turn the other cheek. Aren't those commands in the Bible? Indeed, they are. So, doesn't the Bible command us to be total pacifists and not use force against attackers? I don't think so. Let's look at those passages (and some others) and see what they are saying.

In Exodus 20:13 Moses wrote "Thou shalt not kill." However, the Hebrew language contains many different words for "kill", and the word used here is ratsach. It very specifically means to commit murder, to take an innocent life with premeditation. God is certainly not prohibiting all killing. God commanded the killing of animals for sacrifice, and He commended the military exploits of warriors like Gideon and David, so in the Old Testament God is specifically against murder, not defensive warfare.

In Matthew 5:39 Jesus told us to "turn the other cheek." But that is not all He said. First, He said, "Do not resist an evil person." But elsewhere, God commended others who resisted evil people; examples are the Hebrew midwives in Exodus, Daniel and his companions, and the Apostles in the book of Acts. So, this obviously was not a blanket statement against all harm done to others all the time. Go back to Matthew 5:38, where Jesus explained the original intent of the law of retaliation in Exodus 21:24 ("an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"). The original law did not mean vengeance; it simply meant that the punishment must fit the crime. But the Pharisees were notorious for taking Scripture and wrapping their own traditions around it, thus warping the original meaning. No doubt they had reduced Exodus 21:24 to an excuse for personal revenge and vigilantism.

If Jesus in verses 38 and 39 meant total pacifism—that we should have NO defense to restrain evil in this world—then we should disband all police and military. Yet, in the four Gospels and the book of Acts, Jesus and the Apostles treated soldiers with great respect. There was no hint anywhere in the New Testament that soldiers in the Roman army, once they came to true faith, should leave their profession. The Philippian jailer in Acts 16:27-34 came to salvation, yet there was no command for him to leave his occupation. The Roman centurion in Matthew 8:8-13, the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross (Matthew 27:54), and the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10) were all spoken of approvingly and there was no censure or command for them to leave or renounce their service in the military. In fact, Paul told us that government is a gift which uses the sword to restrain evil and to protect innocent life (Romans 13:4).

So, obviously, God consistently approves of the use of force (with a sword, if necessary) to hold back evil in this fallen world.  Taken in that light, it seems to me that Jesus in Matthew 5:38, 39 was talking about personal retaliation, vengeance, and vigilantism. He was not addressing what to do about an invading army or what to do if someone is trying to kill your family. Jesus seemed to be talking about non-criminal, non-lethal actions.