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.

For example, in Matthew 5:39 He said, "if someone slaps you on your right cheek..." First of all, a slap on the cheek is not a lethal attack. Second, notice that He specifically mentioned the right cheek. Most people are right-handed, so striking someone's right cheek would require a back-handed slap. That would be an insult, not a threat to your life or someone else's. Jesus was saying that you can bear insults—you don't have to retaliate. And that seems to be the general tone of the New Testament.

However, if we go to Luke 22:35-38, we see an interesting command. Jesus told His disciples to obtain a knapsack, sandals, a money bag, and a sword for their future journeys. When a disciple produced two swords, Jesus told him, "that's enough." The Greek word for "enough" is hikanos. It means "sufficient, adequate" (Bauer/Arndt/Gingrich/Danker Greek-English Lexicon, p. 374). Jesus was saying that two swords for eleven disciples (Judas had left by then) were plenty. There were lots of four-footed and two-footed varmints out there, and Jesus was giving them permission to use a weapon to defend themselves. Now, some people say that the swords here were only symbolic. If symbolic, why would Jesus speak approvingly in verse 38 of their literal interpretation? Also, if the swords were symbolic—then so were the shoes, knapsack, and money bag. But that hardly seems to fit, does it? I think here Jesus gave His followers permission to use weapons to defend themselves if they thought it would be the best option. Why else would He tell them to take a sword, along with the other items?

But what about Matthew 26:52, where Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, "for all who take the sword will perish by the sword"? It's pretty clear from the Gospels that it was Jesus' mission to die on the cross. It is equally clear that the rash Peter had a tough time understanding that and was using a weapon in the wrong way. Yes, Peter was trying to defend the innocent, but God had already revealed that it was His will for Jesus to die at that time. God has not revealed such things to us about other people today.

In fact, He has revealed that human government has the responsibility to use force to protect the innocent (Romans 13:4 again). As for the rest of us, Paul told us in 1 Timothy 5:8 that "if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his own household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever." What should you provide for your own household?  Shelter, food, clothing, and...security. Especially in a very dangerous, fallen world, I think it is a very godly thing to provide protection (whatever level you think you are capable of) against predators and invaders.

So, back to the original question. If you see an attack upon your neighbors in progress, what should you do? I think we should do whatever is legally and morally justified to stop the attack. Armed citizens in our country can legally stop such attacks. It is not evil to defend the innocent and helpless from the evil that seeks to destroy them. I am convinced that, consistent with the Bible, defending people with force (if necessary) is one of the most loving things we can do.