Killing in Self-defense: It’s a given—except when it isn’t

(For other reflections on the sanctity of life refer to the home page for the series Everybody Wants to Kill Somebody)

My wife and I raised eight girls through their teenage years. I impressed upon more than one young man that Christianity is not an altogether non-violent religion. There are occasions where we are  permitted—even expected—to use reasonable and proportionate force when necessary to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and anyone else in our vicinity who is threatened by a strong and unjust power.

Self-preservation is an instinct in the animal kingdom, and it is an instinct common to the human. Taking the life of one who is attempting to take my life seems so reasonable that we ought to be able to turn to Scripture and find numerous passages that clearly affirm this natural right. Except that we can’t. When I first searched the Scriptures looking for affirmation of this principle which I always assumed was there I was surprised to find that it isn’t. At least, not in a form as clear and unambiguous as we like.

There is little help in turning to contemporary authors on this subject. They seem to have the same difficulty I do in finding relevant passages. The overwhelming majority of what passes as scholarly work among protestants in this area (whether the pacifist, the just war theorist, or the outright militant) constitutes some of the best examples of confirmation bias in academia. The arguments are frequently drawn from extrabiblical and even non-Christian sources. Where Scripture is cited, it can only be deemed relevant after being disassembled, redefined, and reordered, so that it fashions a new revelation of God. Similarly, they tend to argue from silence. Finding a silence in Scripture, they then fill it with many words of their own.

I would refer the reader to relevant sections of the medieval Summa Theologica or the more recent encyclical of John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae. It is a worthwhile undertaking for the younger person who may be able to fully appreciate these works by the time they retire. That is exactly the kind of work I am trying to avoid (as if I were capable).

With a lot of help and a lot of study I have been able to locate only two passages of Scripture  that relate directly to the taking of  human life as an act of self-defense. Exodus 22 addresses the issue of a person killing an intruder who has broken into their home after dark. The community is not to impose any penalty on the homeowner. The same is not the case if the break-in occurs in daylight. Then, in Luke 22 Jesus, just before he is betrayed, reminds the disciples how before he sent them out without purse or bag. Now, he says to them, take purse and bag, and get a sword even if you must sell your cloak to buy one. The sword referred to is a self-defense weapon. Those who insist otherwise are not being deceitful (because no one would believe that foolishness unless they wanted to, and you cannot accuse someone of deceiving a  person who wants to be deceived) they are just being silly.

We have one instance in the Hebrew Scripture where the community is told not to punish a person for taking a life in a specific circumstance of self-defense. We have Jesus instructing his disciples to arm themselves with defensive weapons. There is no record that they ever used them. That is about all the clarity we will get from Scripture. There are several guiding principles drawn from other passages on other subjects that can help us as we use Scripture to interpret Scripture. One must place  a lot of trust in any commentator today that does that because the protestant church in North America has tolerated far too much abuse and malpractice in that area  from our pulpits and seminaries.


God chose not to provide us with either explicit consent or unambiguous prohibition for taking another’s life in self-defense. I believe that is a good thing for us. God is serious about, “Thou shalt not kill.” The taking of any human life is always a grave matter. People are always looking for loopholes because everyone wants the right to kill somebody. Look at how far we have come from , “Thou shalt not kill” through nuanced definitions of terms. We say, “But that is only talking about murder,” then we give softer names to our murders, so they do not apply as murder: Euthanasia, dilation and extraction, just war. How much faster and further might we have fallen if we were given a blank check for self-defense. How many more murders would we nuance into that category? We kill 600,000 people a year under the nuanced definition of life-and-health-of-the-mother. If God has consented to killing in self-defense then it is in a way that he wants us to think through carefully in advance of such situations.

In the case of the Old Testament home invader cited above if the intruder killed the homeowner then the intruder could not claim fear for life and health as a self-defense argument. The intruder is the one who acted in disregard for the sanctity of life and created the situation where life was in jeopardy. There would have been no danger if the aggressor had behaved himself. One cannot, through design or recklessness, create a situation where life is in peril and then kill a person to avoid the danger. We are not free to commit a new sin to avoid the consequences of an earlier one.

Sometimes a self-defense killing occurs where neither party is to blame. Suppose a police officer encounters a young man with a gun. This young man is of diminished mental capacity and incapable of understanding future consequences or the reality of death. He sees movie stars shot and killed in film and then reappear in another movie. He has found a prop to act in  movie. Let us allow that the officer is aware of this person’s diminished capacity. If, after the officer has made his best attempt to de-escalate  the situation, the young man raises and points the gun, the officer may protect his own life. To describe the moral implications for the young man’s action we would say that he died accidentally, because he had no intent to create a danger and was not even aware that he had done so. To describe the moral implications of the officer’s action we would say that he killed in self-defense. That is one of the legitimate responses to which God has consented, yet it is still a tragedy and not a virtue.

I promised to speak to the life-of-the-mother exception to abortion in this section. The illustration above where a person of diminished capacity unintentionally endangers the life of another person closely parallels that scenario, but with one caveat. If the parents acted in a way that would invite God to deliver a new soul to the world with full knowledge that this would put the mother’s life at risk, then they cannot claim self-defense as an option. One cannot, willfully or recklessly, create a situation that puts life in jeopardy and then kill the innocent party to avoid the danger.

The texts and examples cited here are enough to affirm that God has consented to self-defense killing. God’s consent, however, is not in the form of an explicit command. As the event presents itself, the Christian may choose from self-defense, a heroic death, or a martyr’s death. Two are virtues: One is an act for which the community should not punish the person.

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