Everyone knows that we here in America are in the midst of an all-out culture war regarding guns and their place in society. And in this skirmish, most of the pro-gun rhteoric presupposes the sanctity of a little thing called “self-defense.” This tenet of U.S. law is no longer even questioned, but simply assumed to be a valid, even watertight justification for lethal violence. Somewhat bafflingly, most Christians also seem convinced of this position by default, and if statistics are any indication, many would even go so far as to believe that “self-defense” is a God-given right that they are obviously entitled to.
But is this really what the Bible teaches? Are we really allowed—or even commanded—to hurt or kill others just to protect ourselves or the ones we love? What about the commands to love our enemies, or turn the other cheek? If you’re like me, you have probably heard next to nothing in terms of practical biblical teaching about these important issues. Hence this article.
There Is Such A Thing as Governmental Self-Defense
One of the most foundational misunderstandings about biblical teaching regarding the use of deadly force is the failure to make a distinction between the rights of individuals and the higher authority of the State. Governments are expected in Scripture to “bear the sword”—i.e. to wield lethal military force for the defense of its own sovereignty and the punishment of evildoers within its realm. Therefore, serving as a soldier or policeman in faithful service (with complete obedience) to an earthly government is a valid and even God-appointed vocation. And of course, Scripture is replete with wars of aggression and defensive battles for protection and survival.
In the case of Old Testament Israel, which was God’s chosen people before the church age, they were commanded to look to Him alone for protection. He told Abram, to “Fear not… I am your shield.” The Psalmists praised Him as their “fortress” and “tower” and “stronghold.” He repeatedly warned His people not to look to the weapons in their own hands or the military might of their allies to defend them, but rather to Him as the One who saves. From Moses to Joshua, from Gideon to Hezekiah, God has consistently commanded His people to look to Him for victory—military or otherwise—rather than themselves.
There is No Such Thing as Individual Self-Defense
However, when it comes to individuals, there is absolutely no teaching in Scripture that commands—or even approves of—the use of force for the protection of one’s own life, or home, or family. In fact, the only biblical example of an individual’s use of force was when Peter impulsively cut off the ear of a man who was taking Jesus into custody unlawfully. And what did Jesus say? “No more of this!” Our Lord clearly condemned Peter’s actions, even going so far as to give us this sobering proverb highlighting the self-destructive nature of violence: “All who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus also graciously healed the wounded man, expending the last miracle of His earthly ministry to undo the damage his reckless disciple had caused in so-called “self-defense.” And all this for a man whose only intention in that moment was to commit evil!
Jesus makes an even stronger point in His iconic teaching as part of the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” In other words, we simply do not have the “right” (biblically speaking) to prevent others from harming us by harming THEM in return. There may of course be much wisdom in removing oneself from a dangerous situation—God commanded Joseph to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath (although sometimes such actions amount to nothing more than cowardice, as is seen with Elijah and his flight from Jezebel). But in no case whatsoever does God allow or sanction the use of force—let alone deadly force—for self-preservation or self-protection. Rather, we are commanded to “never avenge ourselves,” to choose to “be wronged” rather than retaliate, to “overcome evil with good.” In other words, we must let God be God and submit ourselves to His will, even if that means our suffering.
The Actual Biblical Ideal of Self-Sacrifice
Think for a moment, about the examples given to us in Scripture of those who pleased God, the “heroes of the faith” if you will. Other than those who served as soldiers or monarchs in battle, how many of them used force to protect themselves from evil attackers? Did the Apostle Paul carry a sword, or did he go unarmed and defenseless? Did Jeremiah strike the false prophets who struck him, or was he silent? Did John the Baptist fight back against his imprisonment, or did he go willingly to his death? Did Stephen pray for deliverance for himself, or for the salvation of his murderers as they were murdering him?
And what of those mentioned in Hebrews 11? “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” Are we to assume that these were all fools for not arming and defending themselves? If that is your belief, then you have fundamentally misunderstood Christianity.
Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Using violence to protect yourself from suffering may seem like saving your life, but if Christ’s words are to be believed, you’re actually at risk of dooming your own soul. And of course, Christ Himself practiced what he preached. He did not try to rescue himself from the unimagimnable, suffering He endured, but instead prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Which brings me to my next point.
“Self Defense” As A Cover-Up For Hatred
“God is love,” and so the greatest commandments in Scripture are to love God and love other people. But whenever we are threatened or attacked, most of us find a very different emotion spilling out of us: hatred. We instinctively HATE those who bring pain into our lives, and all of our natural inclinations urge us to HURT those who hurt us, preferably as quickly as possible. But Jesus calls his followers to a more excellent way: “I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
And yet, many Christians seem to think that the danger of being attacked somehow excuses them from the divine duty to love their neighbors as well as their enemies. Just because you are in danger of losing your life, does that mean you can hate your attacker(s) in your heart and slay them without remorse? If someone is violent toward you, does that give you the right to be violent towards them? If you’ve been paying attention, you should know the answer by now.
Think about it: taking a life in self-defense is tantamount to saying, “I care about my life, not about theirs. I care about my own suffering, not about theirs. I’m ok if they die, so long as I live.” This is not love. It’s selfishness. It’s self-centeredness. It’s sin. Not loving your enemies, even those who attack you, is sin.
This then is the false gospel of self-defense: that the state of being threatened exempts you from the duty to love your enemies or suffering for the sake of righteousness. Self-defense thus becomes a sacrament that supersedes God’s commandments about love and justifies inflicting suffering on others. It is a unholy incantation by which we put ourselves in God’s place and choose to take the life or health of another rather than submit ourselves or the ones we love to to suffering.
Hopefully by now you can spot the difference between the counterfeit and the genuine. The real gospel commands love and self-sacrifice and faith and trust in God’s grace. Any gospel that promises earthly protection or security is a forgery, and ultimately a form of idolatry.
“Good Guy” Rhetoric Is Just Human Arrogance
There is a popular line of reasoning—and a very silly one at that—that suggests that the best way to stop the “bad guys” is to arm all of the “good guys.” But this is foolish because biblically, all of us are “bad guys.” There are no good guys: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Also, the Bible warns us to be on guard against the “deceitfulness of sin,” and to never assume that we are immune to any form of temptation: “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Anyone who thinks “I could never commit such a heinous act” is in denial of the deceitful nature and subtle power of sin. It’s another form of pride. He who trusts in his own goodness and presumes himself incapable of temptation is a danger to himself and others.
Not to be too controversial here, but Adam Lanza started out as a “good guy” by NRA standards. He was a gun enthusiast who spent a lot of time learning how to shoot them skillfully. He had multiple certificates of training and read handbooks on various types of firearms. He was a gun-rights poster child, a model “good guy”—right up until the moment when he used his training to slaughter innocent children.
Here’s my point: When you give sinful people more power, you empower them to commit more sin. Not everyone will do so, of course, but the more people who have access to power, the more people will take advantage of it in sinful ways, and the more destructive and deadly those sins become. Trusting in your own goodness to ensure the safety of others around you is not only arrogant, but dangerous.
Is Gun Ownership Wrong?
So what about guns specifically? How can you tell if your gun ownership amounts to idolatry?
Well, I would encourage you to search your own heart in regards to these matters. Do you feel safer owning a gun? Do you feel more protected, more secure, more defended because of the presence of one or more firearms in your life? Then to the extent you feel this way, you have betrayed your trust in God and sought it through another means. You are testifying that God Himself is not enough for you. The Bible may say he’s a “fortress” and a “shield of our help and the sword of our triumph,” but you are not taking any chances. You are just like our ancestors who trusted in chariots and horses and turned away from dependence on God’s strength.
And don’t think you can get away with saying “God uses secondary means, so guns are therefore God’s chosen way of keeping me safe.” That would be like saying “my money is God’s chosen way of keeping me happy and healthy.” Rubbish. Gun owners trusting in their guns is no different than rich people trusting in their riches, and the Bible isn’t flattering about what happens to people like that. Storing up ammo and storing up riches are one and the same. You can’t baptize false idols with Christian trappings and expect a blessing from God.
We Can’t Do This Without God
If you’re offended by what I’ve said, or think my arguments over-simplistic and possibly even anti-American, then that’s ok. This isn’t ultimately my teaching; my goal in writing this was to make a clear case for what the Bible says about this topic (which is why there are so many links that you can click and read for yourself). But I’ll also be the first to admit that Scripture is often hard, a “stumbling block” that even committed Christians sometimes find difficult to accept. God has His own ways, and doesn’t need or even want our approval. God knows that true freedom is not everyone doing what is right in their own eyes; true freedom is doing what He says. And guess what? Sometimes that looks like laying down your life for His sake. And yes, you’re right—humanly speaking, this is impossible. But if you are a Christian, and you have the Holy Spirit dwelling in you, then it IS possible.
May God give us grace to lay down our lives for others the way Christ did for us.