Do Christians Have the Right to Defend Themselves?

Updated: Oct 26



 

While scripture prohibits revenge and retaliation, it does not prohibit self-defense. Rather, in several instances, scripture supports self-defense. Moreover, there is scriptural precedent for the use of lethal force to defend God’s people.


Revenge and Retaliation are Prohibited


Here are three prominent scriptures from the New Testament that illustrate the prohibition against revenge and retaliation.


But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer, but whoever strikes

you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also. Matt 5:39 (LEB)


Pay back no one evil for evil. Take thought for what is good

in the sight of all people. Romans 12:17 (LEB)


not repaying evil for evil or insult for insult, but on the

other hand blessing others, because for this reason you

were called, so that you could inherit a blessing.

1 Peter 3:9 (LEB)


These teachings place into prospective the “eye for an eye” law of retaliation. The law of retaliation is codified at Exodus 21:23-24 and Leviticus 24:20.


And if there is serious injury, you will give life in place

of life, eye in place of eye, tooth in place of tooth, hand

in place of hand, foot in place of foot, burn in place of burn,

wound in place of wound, bruise in place of bruise.

Exodus 21:23-24 (LEB)


Here, eye in place of eye Illustrates the principle of lex talionis, the idea that punishment must be meted out in exact equivalence to the crime (see Lev 24:17–22; Deut 19:18–19).[i]


fracture in place of fracture, eye in place of eye,

tooth in place of tooth—according to the physical

defect he causes to the person, likewise it shall be

aused to him. Leviticus 24:20 (LEB)


Consistent with Exodus 21:23-24, this scripture also illustrates the principle of lex talionis, which insures that the punishment is commensurate with the crime (“eye for an eye”; see Gen 9:6; Exod 21:23–25; and, Deut 19:21).[ii]


Accordingly, properly understood, the so called law of retaliation illustrates the significance of ensuring that the punishment fits the crime. Nonetheless, we are not to avenge ourselves. This right belongs to God. As it is written:


Vengeance belongs to me and also recompense,

for at the time their foot slips, because the day

of their disaster is near, and fate comes quickly for them.’

Deuteronomy 32:35 (LEB)

Further,

You shall not seek vengeance, and you shall not

harbor a grudge against your fellow citizens; and

you shall love your neighbor like yourself; I am

Yahweh.” Leviticus 19:18 (LEB)


Indeed, God will mete out punishment at the time of His choosing and according to His plan. We see this in God’s command to the people shortly before Moses’ death:


Moses spoke to the people, saying, “Arm yourself

from among your men for the battle, so that they

will go against Midian to mete out the vengeance

of Yahweh on Midian. Numbers 31:3 (LEB)


Here, God commanded His people to engage in a religious war against idolaters, who had seduced the Israelites to practice their abominations.[iii] Thus, while God may use us as instruments for His vengeance, we have no authority to take vengeance on our own initiative.


Scripture Supports Self-Defense


The most prominent from of self-defense in the Bible is spiritual self-defense against spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.


because our struggle is not against blood and flesh,

but against the rulers, against the authorities, against

the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual

forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Because

of this, take up the full armor of God, in order that

you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having

done everything, to stand. Ephesians 6:12–13 (LEB)


Here, not unlike a soldier whose primary defense in battle is a shield, the believer’s trust in God provides protection {a shield of faith} against the devil and his schemes.[iv]


But, what about ones’ right to self-defense on the earthly plain? Many commentators cite Jesus’ instructing his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords[v] as evidence of Jesus’ support for the right of self-defense. However, Jesus’ rebuke of retaliation at Matthew 5:39 together with his chastisement of Peter when he cut off the guard’s right ear[vi] (Luke 22:50) renders this interpretation unlikely.


Consequently, it is more likely than not that Jesus directed his disciples to purchase swords so that, as He said quoting Isaiah 53:12, he may be counted among the criminals. Here Jesus is referencing Isaiah 53:12, which says:


Therefore, I will divide to him a portion among the many, and

with the strong ones he will divide bounty, because he poured

his life out to death and was counted with the transgressors;

and he was the one who bore the sin of many and will intercede

for the transgressors. Isaiah 53:12 (LEB)


Here, the “I” and the “he” to whom Isaiah is referring is the “servant” of Yahweh. “The servant of Yahweh appears throughout Isaiah 40–55. He is an answer to the people’s problems.”[vii]


However, there is support in the Bible for lethal force to repel aggression. For instance, God provides stability and protects us as He prepares us for battle:


Blessed be Yahweh, my rock, the one who trains my

hands for battle, my fingers for war— Psalm 144:1 (LEB)


Open Carry in the Bible


Additionally, in the Book of Nehemiah, the Jews were building fortifications to protect themselves from the Samaritans. We are told that the Samaritans, dreading danger from the growing greatness of the Jews, conspired to surprise the Jews, destroy their works, and scatter or terrorize the builders. Having discovered the plot, Nehemiah devised a plan to ensure the common safety while the wall was being built.


Each of the builders had his sword tied to his side while

building. And the man who sounded the trumpet was

beside me. Nehemiah 4:18 (LEB)


The Use of Deadly Force


Scripture also recognizes that justifiable use of deadly force to protect one’s life and property in extreme circumstances.


“ ‘If a thief is found in the act of breaking in and he is struck

and he dies, there is not bloodguilt for him. (If the sun has

risen over him, there is bloodguilt for him. He will make

full restitution. If he does not have enough, he will be sold

for his theft. Exodus 22:2-3 (LEB)


Defense of Women and Children


Numerous commentators cite Psalm 82:3 as a believer’s call to action to defend the defenseless. A plain reading of some biblical translations bares out this interpretation. See, for instance, the following translations of Psalm 82:3:


Defend the poor and fatherless:

Do justice to the afflicted and needy.

Deliver the poor and needy:

Rid them out of the hand of the wicked.

Psalm 82:3–4 (KJV 1900)

And,

“Enough! You’ve corrupted justice long enough,

you’ve let the wicked get away with murder.

You’re here to defend the defenseless,

to make sure that underdogs get a fair break;

Your job is to stand up for the powerless,

and prosecute all those who exploit them.”

Psalm 82:3-4 (MSG)


However, most translations make it clear that God is not talking to us: He's talking to "the sons of God." In order to see this, it's crucial that we apprehend the Deuteronomy 32 world view. See HEISER, MICHAEL S. 2019, “Part 3,” In Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, 110–14. LEXHAM PR. That is to say:

When the Most High apportioned the nations,

at his dividing up of the sons of humankind,

he fixed the boundaries of the peoples,

according to the number of the sons of God.

Deuteronomy 32:8 (LEB).


Note the clear distinction between "the sons of humankind" (i.e., us) and "the sons of God" [i.e., the elohim in Hebrew (see e.g., Psalm 82:1 “God stands in the divine assembly; he administers judgment in the midst of the gods.” (LEB)]. In his Faithlife Study Bible, Dr. John Barry explains:


“Deuteronomy 32:8–9 notes that Yahweh then chose

Israel for Himself as a nation. The nations would have no

direct relationship with Yahweh, but instead were allowed

to worship and follow other gods.”

John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA:

Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Dt 32:8.


Thus, on closer inspection of the context of Psalm 82:3, it becomes clear that Psalm 82, generally, is about God’s ultimatum to the corrupt gods (elohim). God calls for the wicked elohim to be stripped of power and for true justice to be restored. He declares that the weak and dispossessed must be freed from the oppression of the wicked elohim.[viii]


It is for this reason that in Psalm 82 the psalmist is speaking of God’s—not our—defense of the weak and dispossessed from wicked elohim, whom God had judged as inept, corrupt, and unable and unwilling to fulfill their office and duties.[ix]

Indeed, most of the scriptures that speak to the defense of others are concerned with either caring for the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7; Proverbs 28:27; and, Luke 12:33-34) or upholding and defending the cause of the poor and the oppressed (Psalm 10:18; Proverbs 31:8-9; Isaiah 1:17 and 1:23; and, Jeremiah 5:28). Thus, while God requires us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him [Micah 6:8], the role of Father of the fatherless and Protector of widows is God’s holy habitation, not ours [see Psalm 68:5].


Nonetheless, there is scriptural precedent for the defense of others. In the Book of Esther, the Jews suffered under Haman’s edict, which granted people the right to murder Jewish men, women, and children (Esther 3:1-6). Esther successfully appealed to Xerxes king of Persia for the right of self-defense.


In them the king allowed the Jews who were in every

city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy and

kill and annihilate any army of any people or province

attacking them, including women and children, and

to plunder their spoil, Esther 8:11 (LEB)


Conclusion


Thus, properly understood through the lens of scripture, Christ’s admonition against retaliation and revenge does not exclude the use, if justified, of lethal force to defend one’s self or others under conditions of extreme necessity to protect oneself or others from an attempted injury.


 

Endnotes

 

[i] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Ex 21:24. [ii] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Le 24:17–22. [iii] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 116. [iv] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), Eph 6:16. [v] And he said to them, “But now the one who has a money bag must take it,* and likewise a traveler’s bag. And the one who does not have a sword must sell his cloak and buy one. Luke 22:36 (LEB) [vi] And a certain one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. Luke 22:50 (LEB) [vii] John D. Barry, “Servant of the Lord,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary(Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016). [viii] John D. Barry et al., above, Ps 82:4. [ix] See, e.g., John D. Barry et al., above.