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[This article was taken from the booklet The Death Penalty: Godly or Ungodly?]
The Bible does allow for killing in self-defense. In a sense, there are different kinds of self-defense. There is personal self-defense, self-defense of the society (“social self-defense”) and there is national self-defense, which we call “war.” In all of these cases, the taking of another human life is allowed for by God. This booklet has been dedicated to “social self-defense,” the execution of criminals who are dangerous to society. War is a national self-defense, when people are called upon to protect their nation from outside aggression, and any student of the Bible will attest to the large number of wars recorded therein. Of course, there are unjust wars of aggression for property, wealth, or slaves, and the heads of state who start those wars will be held responsible by God at the Judgment. Furthermore, not all killing in a war is justified, and almost every war has cases of what are now called “war crimes.”
As with war and the execution of criminals, personal self-defense is also allowed for in Scripture. For example, Exodus 22:2 says, “If a thief is caught breaking in and is struck so that he dies, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed.” This verse should be the law of our land today, and unfortunately in many places it is not. In many cities, a homeowner is not allowed to be readily able to defend himself against someone breaking in. Some areas do not allow homeowners to have loaded guns available, while in some other areas the homeowner must first “be sure” that the intruder has a weapon or is capable of being deadly. Biblical Law says that if someone is breaking into your home, he does so at the risk of his life, and the homeowner would never be considered a criminal for defending himself. Also, remember that on the very day of his arrest Christ said to his disciples, “If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Christ expected things to become very unsafe for his disciples after his death, and told them to prepare to defend themselves from unjust aggression.
It may help to think of killing in terms of “just or unjust” and “accidental or on purpose.”
Murder: unjust and on purpose.
Manslaughter: unjust but accidental.
Execution of criminals (social self defense): just and on purpose.
Killing in war (national self defense): just and on purpose.
Killing in personal self-defense: just and on purpose.
Self defense resulting in an accidental death: just but accidental.
In the above list, we see that murder and manslaughter are unjust causes of death. In personal self-defense, the execution of criminals and in war, the cause of death is just, whether there is initial intent to kill the person or not. We can rightly conclude from Scripture that personal self-defense is something that God sanctions, even if it means the death of an unjust aggressor. The Founding Fathers of the United States were correct in asserting that God gave every person the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” An aggressor who tries to take from others forfeits those rights, and it should be the law of the land that each and every person have the right to defend himself from unjust aggression of all types.
Even a casual look at God’s Creation reveals that self-defense plays an important role in the self-preservation of nearly all forms of life. Perhaps human society could be profitably likened to a biological organism, every one of which has some way of warding off internal and external enemies. The more complex animal bodies dispatch white blood cells to attack germs and other toxic intruders. These white blood cells are very simple forms of life, but they are “wise” enough to act as if the wholeness and health of the organism is at stake, and without sentiment or ceremony destroy the intruder. These enemies of the body are not kept alive and cordoned off in prisons to be preserved. They are destroyed and eliminated as any future threat.
Similarly, evil persons are intruders into the “body” of decent human society, which has a right to protect and defend itself against such intrusion. A body without an immune system cannot defend itself and soon dies. Any godly society that refuses to establish and enforce God’s laws will also eventually “die,” i.e., be overcome by wickedness. People in the medical field work very hard to control “evil” in a body so that a person will not die of disease, and it is understood that harmful bacteria must be killed so the body will be healthy. So too, if we are to have a healthy society, wicked and harmful people need to be executed. This clearly teaches the value of life, because it shows that the only thing as valuable as a life is a life. No wonder God commanded, “Life for life” in Scripture, and even repeated it twice (Ex. 21:23; Deut. 19:21).
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