When reading Jesus’ commands can we ever say, “We know Jesus didn’t mean that, because that’s so obviously not true”? In this article, I discuss whether we can be justified in interpreting Jesus’ commands according to our moral intuitions.
This is the fourth and final article in a series on the doctrine of nonresistance, which is based on Jesus’ command to do no violence. My previous articles have covered the relevant Bible passages and early Christian beliefs concerning violence. I showed that the New Testament prohibits Christians from doing violence in any situation, and that there are no passages in the New Testament that permit Christians to do violence. I also showed that the early church consistently agreed that violence is never appropriate for Christians.
However, most Christians today don’t believe that violence is always wrong. This even includes traditional Christians who believe, correctly, that Scripture’s commands are binding on Christians. One would think, then, that the way these Christians respond to nonresistance would be to examine Scripture and offer reasons why Scripture allows violence.
But although many Christians attempt to do just that, a significant number do not. As anyone who believes in nonresistance knows, the most common response to the doctrine of nonresistance is incredulity, rather than Scriptural reasoning. Instead of responding to the exegesis that supports nonresistance, many people prefer to focus on trying to show that the doctrine is absurd or immoral rather than unbiblical. Instead of arguing from Scripture, they raise objections such as
- “But what if a gunman comes to kill your family? Will you just stand by and not protect them?”
- “You’re a coward if you don’t fight back when you’re attacked.”
- “Nonviolent methods aren’t sufficient to stop evil people.”
- “An attacker deserves to die; therefore, we may kill him.”
In this article, I will show that nonviolence is actually neither absurd nor immoral; instead, those terms better describe the prevailing view among Christians today. I will show why Christian ethics requires us to be nonresistant, and why there can be no Christian ethical foundation for proposing implicit exceptions in Christ’s commands based on our moral intuitions.
What worldview do these objections entail?
In this article, I’m not addressing those who don’t believe we need to follow Jesus’ commands in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s a subject for elsewhere. I’m addressing the many traditional Christians who believe that Scripture’s commands are binding.
But why, if these Christians believe that Jesus’ commands are binding, do they argue that nonresistance is absurd? Why don’t they argue from Scripture instead, since they believe it to be authoritative? I think it’s fair to say that these Christians are basically arguing in the following way:
It is absurd that Jesus would condemn all violence on the part of Christians, since some violence is obviously appropriate. Therefore, Jesus must have left implicit exceptions in his condemnation of violence.
But let’s tease out the implications of their view. What makes it obvious to these Christians that some violence is appropriate? Is it because the doctrine of nonresistance entails logical contradictions? No—nobody has shown that there is any logical contradiction within the view that Christians should not do violence.
If they are not arguing from Scripture or from direct logical implications, then what are they arguing from? It appears that they are suggesting that nonresistance is absurd or immoral, rather than logically contradictory or unbiblical.
(Note: if you do believe that nonresistance is unbiblical, well and good. A previous article addresses your objection. This article is for those who also believe that nonresistance is absurd or immoral.)
Let’s continue teasing out the implications of this view. By what standard are these Christians suggesting that nonresistance is absurd or immoral? It’s not by the standard of biblical commands, since they aren’t arguing from biblical commands. Instead, they must be arguing from an ethical theory—a paradigm by which (they believe) Christians should understand what is moral or immoral.
Thus, these Christians are arguing that, according to their ethical theory, nonresistance cannot be true. They believe that Jesus also shared their ethical theory. This means that he didn’t need to leave exceptions for violent actions, since it should be obvious to anyone who shares the Christian ethical system that some violent actions are appropriate.
This article will address the possible ethical systems that Christians use to justify violence. I will show that, for Christians, the correct ethical paradigm leaves no implicit exceptions to Jesus’ command to nonresistance. Furthermore, these worldviews, rather than nonresistance, lead to moral absurdities, and they do not fit with the Scriptures or Christianity.
A question to consider
If you find yourself using this argument against nonresistance, I think you should ask yourself this question: What would I say if someone used this argument against one of my beliefs?
For example, what would a Roman Catholic say if a Protestant, in arguing against Papal infallibility, would hand-wave away Scripture and the early church, instead preferring to argue that Papal infallibility is obviously false?
Or what would a Protestant say if a Roman Catholic, in arguing for the veneration of images, would hand-wave away Scripture and the early church, instead preferring to argue that the veneration of images is obviously true?
In either case, you would likely say that they were shirking their burden of proof. You would likely ask them why they don’t care what Scripture an the early church taught. I think the same is a valid critique here. If you actually believe that Scripture is authoritative, or that the early church is representative of apostolic doctrine, using this argument seems like an admission of defeat.
In this section, I define the overall views I’ll be discussing. I am unaware of any technical name for the view of those who don’t accept nonresistance. Most likely there is none, because it’s the view that most societies hold—thus, I’ll coin a term for the sake of convenience.
- Nonresistance: the view that even when striving for justice, Christians, unlike earthly governments, must only employ methods other than violence.
- Broadly, the view that violence is an appropriate response for Christians in certain circumstances, such as self-defense.
- For most of this article, I will use the term of the main group I’m responding to—those who believe that Jesus intended implicit exceptions to his teachings against violence, which we can discover through reasoning from ethical considerations of natural law, virtue, or utility.1I call this general view “defensivism,” not in any derogatory sense, but since the common denominator is generally that people are justified in defensive violence.
For an overall discussion of the doctrine of nonresistance, as well as answers to many objections to it, see the other articles in this series.
- The first article gives an overview of violence and Christianity. It defines key terms like “nonresistance” and “violence,” and shows how the Biblical and early Christian evidence fits together. It answers many general objections to the concept of nonresistance.
- The second article discusses what the Bible teaches on violence and shows that Scripture is in full support of nonresistance for Christians.
- The third article looks at evidence from the early church and shows that the consensus of early Christian leaders was against violence for Christians.
- The fourth article, this one, discusses the leading Christian worldview which states that violence is permissible in certain circumstances, and shows it to be impoverished and unable to stand up to Scripture or reason.
How to disagree with nonresistance
It is important to note that Anabaptists believe in nonresistance because of our view of ethics:
- (A1) Anabaptists hold to a form of Divine Command Theory. We believe that morality comes ultimately from the straightforward exegesis of the totality of relevant divine commands and their logical implications.
- (A2) Anabaptists understand the straightforward exegesis of Scripture to teach nonresistance.
Thus, there are two ways that defensivists could disagree with nonresistance:
- (D1) Reject the Anabaptist form of Divine Command Theory. A defensivist could argue that Jesus did not intend us to employ merely straightforward exegesis without taking other ethical considerations into account.
- (D2) Reject the Anabaptist interpretation of Scripture. A defensivist could argue that the straightforward exegesis of Scripture does not teach nonresistance.
In fact, most traditional Christians probably intend to believe (A1) the ethical view Anabaptists hold. So, for most Christians, the correct response to nonresistance is not to argue against (A1) by means of (D1), but to argue against (A2) by means of (D2), that nonresistance is unbiblical.
After all, Anabaptists don’t hold to nonresistance because it comes naturally! Undermine our exegesis, and you undermine nonresistance. For those Christians, the argument that is relevant is the one found in my article on biblical nonresistance.
However, if you still sense the effectiveness of arguments for the absurdity of nonresistance, then it would appear that you disagree with (A1) the Anabaptist form of Divine Command Theory and are arguing (D1), that Jesus did not intend us to employ merely straightforward exegesis without taking other ethical considerations into account.
A defensivist who argues (D1) may or may not believe that a straightforward understanding of Scripture would lead to nonresistance. What this defensivist does believe is that Jesus wouldn’t have needed to leave exceptions for violent actions, since it should be obvious to anyone who shares the Christian ethical system that some violent actions are appropriate. This article will address that position.
Divine Command Theory
First, I’ll lay out the ethical theory shared by everyone to whom this article is relevant. Divine Command Theory is the view that morality consists in obedience to divine commands. What we should do is what God commands us to do; what we shouldn’t do is what God forbids us to do.2It’s important to note that God’s commands are not arbitrary. DCT is our epistemology for moral commands—the way we come to know them. However, moral commands are of course ultimately grounded in the fact that God’s commands are perfectly consistent with his divine nature, which is the ontological standard for what is right and wrong. Thus, the Euthyphro dilemma has no bite for this form of DCT.
Divine commands come from Scripture
Further, the relevant divine commands are found in Scripture. We can’t go to other sources like the Roman Catholic Magisterium to find these commands.
However, might there be another possibility? What if we believe we have a divine command from the Spirit? What if the Spirit tells me or you to fight back? Shouldn’t we obey that spiritual call?
Yes, if the Spirit would in fact order that. However, he will not, because God doesn’t contradict himself. We should test any spirits according to what we already know as having been revealed through the Spirit. And God’s Spirit inspired Scripture, so he has already told us whether we should fight back. We have a spiritual call not to retaliate, so the Spirit isn’t going to ask us or Constantine to be both violent and Christian.
Where we disagree
Anabaptists and other traditional Christians do not disagree on our overall ethical theory. We all believe that Divine Command Theory (DCT) is correct. However, both sides agree that there are other ethical considerations, besides God’s commands, that are relevant to whether or not we should perform an action.
For example, we probably all agree that we should act virtuously, even in situations where no divine command is directly relevant. For example, God never commanded us to be good academics. However, if a student is afraid of an upcoming test, that student should be courageous and take the test rather than skip class on that day.
The difference between the Anabaptist view and the view of defensivists (at least those who believe our ethics should inform our exegesis) comes down to this: Precisely how do these other ethical considerations relate to DCT?
- Anabaptists hold to a pure form of DCT, in which other ethical considerations only come into play for issues that are not addressed by any divine commands. Our understanding of the content of divine commands should only be determined by simple exegesis and logical inquiry.
- Defensivists (at least those who believe our ethics should inform our exegesis) hold to a form of DCT which is married to other ethical views, views which inform their understanding of what the content of the divine commands may be. Our understanding of the content of divine commands is determined by simple exegesis, logical inquiry, and ethical considerations.
Again, if you are a defensivist who accepts the Anabaptist view of DCT, and you agree that no other considerations can allow for implicit exceptions to divine commands, then this article isn’t for you. Instead of arguing that nonresistance is absurd, you should stick to the exegesis of Scripture—because you don’t believe that considerations of absurdity make a difference in interpreting divine commands.
In the next sections, I will more fully characterize the two views of Divine Command Theory. Then I will proceed to show which view is correct.
Anabaptist “Ethical Stack” Divine Command Theory
In this section, I will lay out an Anabaptist view of DCT. In this form of DCT, there are other ethical views that bear on whether or not an action is ethical. However, those views do not come into play unless there are no divine commands that address the issue at hand. Thus, we have an “ethical stack,” in which we only move to the next level of the stack if the levels above it are silent on whatever issue we’re discussing. Here’s what the ethical stack might look like:
- Is the action in question commanded or condemned by a straightforward understanding of the totality of the relevant divine commands, and their direct logical implications? If so, then we know whether it is right or wrong and don’t need to consider the following points.
- Is the action implied by or precluded by virtues that are commanded by a straightforward understanding of the totality of the relevant divine commands, and their direct logical implications? If so, then we know whether it is right or wrong and don’t need to consider the following points.
- If not (1) or (2), then there is probably no objective right or wrong answer to the question. However, one should still consider whether any of the following might yield further insight into what is the most moral decision:
- Might the agent’s intuitions, trained on divine commands, help him to understand what is best?
- Might the action in question encourage or discourage the development of certain virtues in the agent who would be performing that action?
- If not (1), (2), or (3), then there is likely no right or wrong action, and a person is free to use other considerations for understanding what is best. Here are some possible considerations:
- Is the action the one that will bring the most happiness for the most people?
- Might the action help us to make the most moral decisions in the future?
What is most characteristic and important about the Anabaptist form of Divine Command Theory is that considerations which are further down the stack do not influence considerations that are further up on the stack. For example, let’s say we have a command that is straightforwardly interpreted to mean, “Don’t commit adultery,” and no exceptions are listed by other divine commands. We don’t assume that this command has possible exceptions, even if there are considerations further down the stack that would seem to bear on the situation.
Defensivist “Ethical Marriage” Divine Command Theory
In this section, I will characterize what seems to be the common denominator between the different forms of Divine Command Theory that defensivists hold. In this case, we have an “ethical marriage”—multiple ethical considerations are relevant at the same time for determining what is moral.
However, first it’s important to note that the idea of an “ethical marriage” view is not necessarily a bad one. Here’s one ethical marriage view that Anabaptists can agree with:
- Is the action in question commanded or condemned by a straightforward understanding of a relevant divine command?
- Are the direct logical implications of our understanding of this command contradictory to the direct logical implications of our understanding of another command?
- In cases where (1) and (2) are compatible, then whatever (1) teaches is true. If (1) and (2) are incompatible, then our reading of one of the divine commands is obviously incorrect and should be adjusted.
So this type of reasoning is not wrong in principle. In this case, it’s just fine, since it goes by the direct logical implications of divine commands. However, those who employ the argument that nonresistance is absurd go even further and employ this methodology:
- Is the action in question commanded or condemned by a straightforward understanding of the totality of the relevant divine commands, and their direct logical implications?
- Is it obvious, according to the theory of morality which Christians should employ, that the action is or is not the right/virtuous/useful response to the given situation?
- In cases where (1) and (2) are compatible, then what each one of them teaches is true. If (1) and (2) are incompatible, then our reading of (1) is obviously incorrect and should be adjusted to become compatible with (2).
In this view, unlike the Anabaptist view, we go beyond the direct logical implications of the Scripture text. Instead ethical considerations other than DCT matter for understanding what each divine command means. These ethical considerations can inform our understanding of what the content of the divine commands may be.
Overview of defensivist views
According to ethical marriage defensivism, when Jesus said, “Do not resist the one who is evil,” he actually left implicit exceptions, even though he left no explicit exceptions. These defensivists believe that one or more of the following points is so obviously true that Jesus didn’t feel the need to spell it out as an exception anywhere in the New Testament:
- It is obvious that violent actions are right in some situations (Natural Law Defensivism)
- It is obvious that violent actions are the most virtuous actions in some situations (Virtuous Defensivism)
- It is obvious that violent actions lead to significantly better consequences in some situations than nonviolent actions would lead to (Utilitarian Defensivism)
Each of these views offers a possible reason for why a divine command to nonresistance should not be taken entirely literally. In the following sections, I will lay out these general views that the “ethical marriage” defensivist could hold. In further sections, I will show why none of them succeeds.
Natural Law Defensivism
The first view I listed is that it is obvious that violent actions are right in some situations. This view assumes some form of Natural Law Theory.
Throughout virtually all cultures and eras, certain principles appear to have been fairly consistently believed. It appears that these principles occur naturally in the human conscience, which God preprogrammed to hold us accountable to his general moral commands. The following principles are suggested as natural laws:
- All humans have an intrinsic right to life.
- Murderers deserve death.
- If a war is in self-preservation, it is a just war.
If a certain moral belief is true to our consciences, and if it appears that the majority of those who follow their consciences also hold that belief, then one could argue that the belief is probably true. However, I will show that Natural Law Theory does not suffice for showing self-defense and retribution to be correct.
The second view is that it is obvious that violent actions are the most virtuous actions in some situations. This view assumes some form of Virtue Ethics.
Virtues are characteristics that it is morally good for us to have. In any given situation, it seems that the right response would be the response that best cultivates and exhibits the virtues, some of which follow:
- Protection of the defenseless
There is some reasonableness to this approach; however, I will show that Virtue Ethics also does not suffice for showing self-defense and retribution to be correct.
The third view is that it is obvious that violent actions lead to significantly better consequences in some situations than nonviolent actions would lead to. This view assumes some form of consequentialism.
Consequentialism is the view that actions are right or wrong based on the consequences that they bring about. The most common consequentialist view is utilitarianism, which states that the best actions are the ones that bring about the best outcome for the most people.
Of course, as Christians, we believe that the best ultimate outcome will come if we follow Jesus’ teaching, so the idea of utilitarianism isn’t completely false. However, since we don’t have access to God’s knowledge of the future, utilitarianism must practically be based on prioritizing the best humanly foreseeable outcomes. Here are some examples of utilitarian reasoning:
- If a murderer attacks, and you don’t protect yourself with violence, you’ll die. If you do, you’ll live. So it’s better to protect yourself.
- If we kill a would-be murderer, only one person will die; if not, more than one person might die. Thus, it’s better to kill the murderer.
- If a “good” nation doesn’t protect itself against a “bad” nation with violence then the bad nation will be able to oppress people. Thus, it’s better to fight back.
There are too many issues with utilitarianism for it to be employed as an overall ethical theory. Too often it says that things are right when they are most certainly wrong. I will discuss these issues later.
Each one of these ethical theories has some value. Natural law considerations and virtue ethics are helpful for knowing why some things are good or bad, even though they are limited in how well they can tell us what things are good or bad. I would also agree that utilitarian considerations can be helpful for knowing what actions are most useful, though I don’t think utilitarianism can be used for determining what actions are moral.
Most importantly, I don’t believe that these ethical considerations can inform our understanding of what the content of the divine commands may be. Divine commands should be interpreted through straightforward exegesis and logical inquiry. Unless God divinely commanded us to employ one of these ethical theories, and I will show that he did not, it is very unsafe to overturn what seem to be his intentions with one of these ethical theories. As fallible humans who must constantly crucify our sinful nature, we cannot be so sure of our moral intuitions as to reject God’s clear commands because of them.
Even so, some Christians seem to apply forms of these three theories within their application of God’s commands. To them, it seems that the straightforward understanding of Jesus’ commands is unethical; therefore, they assume that Jesus couldn’t have meant what it sounds like he said.
How do we know which view is right?
Now, after characterizing the different ethical views, it’s time to actually dig into the evidence for or against these views. (Of course, if it turned out that Scripture doesn’t even appear to support nonresistance, this is all moot—nonresistance would have no support. So I repeat that if you are concerned about that aspect of this issue, you should review my exegesis in the article on biblical nonresistance.)
In this article, we are asking whether a pure form of Divine Command Theory, such as the Anabaptist “Ethical Stack” view, is correct, or whether an “Ethical Marriage” view is correct. But how will we find that out? Here are the possible ways that we could find out whether the ethical marriage view is true or not:
- Is there biblical precedent for or against including exceptions to divine commands due to considerations of natural law, virtue, or utility?
- Does the intuitive obviousness of defensivism constitute a reason to assume that Jesus’ commands include implicit exceptions due to considerations of natural law, virtue, or utility?
In the following sections, I will examine the different possible ways of finding justification for or against these alternative ethical theories. By the end of this article, it will become clear that nonresistance, based on an “Ethical Stack” Divine Command Theory, comes off better in both rounds.
Is there biblical precedent for or against using other ethical considerations?
Since we believe in Divine Command Theory, our first stop is Scripture. What if Scripture teaches us that there are cases when we should use our moral intuitions to help understand the content of biblical commands?
What are the different possible arguments?
I can think of four possible ways of arguing from Scripture for the “ethical marriage” view or for the “ethical stack” view. I’ll divide them into two categories: arguments based on divine commands and arguments not based on divine commands.
Arguments that Anabaptists must accept
If either of the following are actually true, those who, like me, hold to the “ethical stack” view of Divine Command theory must accept that violence is appropriate in some circumstances:
- If biblical commands are on the side of including exceptions to divine commands due to considerations of natural law, virtue, or utility, and these can be shown to apply to Jesus’ commands to nonresistance.
- If there are biblical commands that contradict a straightforward reading of Jesus’ commands to nonresistance, thus suggesting the need to use considerations of natural law, virtue, or utility to arbitrate between them.
If neither of these arguments is true, then the Anabaptist position is completely consistent with Scripture—and hence all the divine commands that Christians have. In that case, defensivists cannot charge nonresistance with being inconsistent with Scripture. This would also strongly indicate that the “ethical marriage” defensivist position is the one that is inconsistent with Scripture.
Arguments that Anabaptists do not need to accept
The following two points are pertinent to the nonresistance–defensivism discussion as well. However, since they don’t relate to actual divine commands, those who hold to an “ethical stack” view wouldn’t need to accept these arguments, even if they are true.
- Biblical principles are on the side of including exceptions to divine commands due to considerations of natural law, virtue, or utility.
- Biblical examples suggest that we may include exceptions to divine commands due to considerations of natural law, virtue, or utility.
If both the points in this section and both the points in the previous section can be shown to be false, that should be sufficient to show that the defensivist position has absolutely no Scriptural support. Thus, the rest of this section will address these four arguments.
Are biblical commands on the side of allowing implicit exceptions?
First, does Scripture ever command us to use our moral intuitions to help us understand the content of biblical commands? As far as I am aware, no. Thus, this argument cannot be used against the nonresistant “ethical stack” view.
On the other hand, I can’t think of any biblical commands against the “ethical marriage” view either. So we will need to move on to the next question.
Are there biblical commands that complicate nonresistance, making us need other ethical considerations?
Some have argued that there are commands in Scripture that, when properly understood, would contradict a literal interpretation of Jesus’ commands in Matthew 5. The implication is that, if this is true, then there must be exceptions to Jesus’ commands.
I have covered such passages that bear directly on violence in my post on biblical nonresistance. I’ve shown that there are no contradictions between them and a straightforward reading of Matthew 5. In this section I will cover another passage that does not bear directly on violence but may nonetheless be relevant:
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim 5:8 ESV)
This passage says that we have an obligation to meet the physical needs of our families. In context, the physical needs seem to be food. But could protection also be considered one of the relevant physical needs?
Of course, it’s obvious from the text of Scripture that there is no contradiction between this passage and a straightforward reading of Matthew 5. A contradiction could only occur if we try to make Paul’s words an overarching principle that applies to more than just what Paul is talking about. Even if that were legitimate in this context, however, it wouldn’t contradict nonresistance.
That’s because, even if this passage gives us an obligation to protect as well as provide for our families, it doesn’t specify that we can use violent means of protection. Since there are nonviolent means of protecting people, this passage would still be consistent with a straightforward reading of Matthew 5.
One could object that nonviolent protection isn’t real protection. However, this objection merely assumes that violence is obviously permissible—and that’s exactly the question we’ve been trying to figure out! What implies violence, therefore, is not this passage, but the worldview by which defensivists approach these commands, a worldview in which violence is already assumed to be an obvious option.
But in that case, we need to examine the worldview and see if it is more clearly biblical than the commands to nonresistance, which is the whole point of this article. So far, this worldview has not proved to have a biblical basis.
Are biblical principles on the side of allowing implicit exceptions?
We now reach the arguments that cannot bear against the nonresistant “ethical stack” view. However, as I noted earlier, these arguments are worth considering because they could actually disprove the defensivist “ethical marriage” view.
Do scriptural principles suggest that we may use our moral intuitions to help understand the content of biblical commands? No; in fact, scriptural principles are against this.
For example, Saul disobeyed God and kept alive some Amalekite animals, because he intended to sacrifice them to God. However, Samuel condemned him, saying, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22). We could reasonably suggest that Saul’s thought process was as follows: “Because sacrificing animals to God is obviously good, this is an obvious exception to God’s command.” However, God’s words through Samuel’s prophecy left no room for such a thought process.
This same principle appears in Jeremiah:
For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ (Jeremiah 7:22-23)
Furthermore, violent methods don’t seem to be considered virtuous in Scripture. For example, God told King David not to build God’s temple, since David had “shed so much blood” but that his son Solomon could build the temple because God would “give him rest from all his surrounding enemies” (1 Chron 22:7–10). Even when God had allowed violence in the Old Testament, he seemed to consider it a stain on those who did it.
I conclude that the relevant biblical principles indicate that we should not use our moral intuitions to help understand the content of biblical commands.
Are there biblical examples for or against using other ethical considerations?
Does Scripture provide us with examples which suggest either to use or not to use our moral intuitions to help understand the content of biblical commands? Yes; in fact, there are many more case studies here than for the last question.
Against ethical marriage DCT
First, Scripture commends people for dying for their faith, as in Hebrews 11 and Revelation 12:11. To our minds, it would seem preferable to pretend not to be Christians, so as to save our lives for the sake of God’s kingdom. But the opposite is shown to be true from Scripture. Thus, we shouldn’t go by what seems intuitively like it will have the best outcome.
Also, when Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son, he is commended for going ahead and planning to do so. Though Abraham knew that God had promised to give him offspring through Isaac, he knew also that God was capable of raising Isaac from the dead, and that God would fulfill his promise even though it looked to his human eyes as though this was the wrong thing to do. Similarly, we shouldn’t go by what seems intuitively to be wrong.
For ethical marriage DCT
Examples that could be interpreted the other way are cases in the Old Testament when people lied in order to save lives. For example, Rahab lied in order to save the Israelite spies (Joshua 2), and the Israelite midwives lied in order to save babies from the Egyptians (Ex 1:15-21). However, in neither case had these individuals received the commands in Scripture not to lie. God commended them for doing the best they knew.
Another example is Jesus’ attitude toward the Pharisees. When they criticized Jesus’ disciples for picking food on the Sabbath, Jesus used the example of David eating the forbidden “bread of the Presence” when he was hungry (Matt 12). David’s action was a clear violation of the Law, even though Jesus’ disciples’ actions were not. Was Jesus saying that it is okay to violate God’s commands if your physical needs are great enough? I think not. Note that Jesus never said David was in the right—he was likely pointing out that the Pharisees would have to criticize no less a person than David if they were going to criticize him.
I conclude that the biblical evidence is entirely consistent with, and in fact supports, the Anabaptist “ethical stack” view of Divine Command Theory. On the other hand, the biblical evidence lends no support for, and even contradicts, the defensivist “ethical marriage” view. I think the conclusion is obvious—nonresistance and the Anabaptist form of Divine Command Theory are correct.
So there is no biblical precedent for including exceptions to divine commands due to considerations of natural law, virtue, or utility. However, in order to cover this subject completely, it is necessary to answer whether the intuitive obviousness of defensivism shows defensivism to be correct.
Does the intuitive nature of defensivism mean that Jesus’ commands include implicit exceptions?
So far, we have found no biblical precedent for assuming that divine commands intend to leave implicit exceptions. But could the defensivist argue that we don’t need biblical precedent? Could they argue that that it’s just obvious that Jesus intended to leave implicit exceptions in his commands?
An unlimited ethical marriage
It is important to note that, since this new claim is not based on the divine commands found in Scripture, it finds its basis not in Divine Command Theory but in some other ethical framework that is being married to DCT. Whatever ethical framework is being employed, it is claiming to correct our understanding of the divine command found in Scripture.
So it’s important to note that, if we hold this view without specifying any limitations to it, the view is ultimately not Divine Command Theory. If our moral intuitions can correct our understanding of divine commands, then the actual moral authority is not the divine commands but our moral intuitions and whatever ethical theory we hold to. If the ethical marriage view is held without any limitations, the defensivist doesn’t need to follow Scripture at all, in which case he has jettisoned traditional Christianity.
A limiting factor for the ethical marriage
Thus, the ethical marriage defensivist needs to propose some limiting factor which keeps Divine Command Theory the main view, and relegates our moral intuitions to being additional elements that help guide our understanding of divine commands. What could be the limiting factor?
I suggest that this is what ethical marriage defensivists tend to hold to:
It is inconceivable that God would contradict human intuitions to such an extreme extent as to forbid all violence including self-defense.
This sounds like a plausible view. Though I disagree with it, I can see why people would hold to it. However, ethical beliefs do not exist in a vacuum—they require a grounding of some kind. We need to be able to show that we received these ethical beliefs from a reliable source—otherwise anything that anyone felt to be ethical would be ethical.
In other words, we need to be able to ground this defensivist intuition in an ethical theory. What must the defensivist believe in order to ground this claim?
- That some ethical theory that entails defensivism is so obviously true that Jesus not only held it himself but also knew that all reasonable people would hold it; thus, Jesus saw no need to mention it.
- That, according to this ethical theory, it is inconceivable that God would contradict human intuitions to such an extreme extent as to forbid all violence, even self-defense.
However, in the following sections, I will show that this view fails on all levels:
- It doesn’t have a satisfactory grounding or justification; thus, we have no reason to trust it.
- Arguments for defensivism from moral principles such as protecting the weak rest on unfounded assumptions; thus, they cannot provide support for it.
- Natural Law Theory, Virtue Ethics, and Utilitarianism all fail to provide support for defensivism.
- The alternative to defensivism is not absurd but in fact quite intuitive; thus, we have no reason to need defensivism.
Lack of grounding and justification
The most problematic aspect of the ethical marriage view is that it has no satisfactory justification. In the absence of any Scriptural foundation for the belief, it flounders to find any foundation that we can actually trust.
The view that our ethics can inform our exegesis rests on the idea that our moral intuitions are valuable enough that we can trust them even when their claims don’t match up with the straightforward exegesis of divine commands. But though our moral intuitions are helpful, surely we know that they can easily be misled. While our consciences might be trustworthy when you compare them to our carnal desires, they certainly are not trustworthy in comparison with divine commands.
If Scripture doesn’t leave any explicit room for implicit exceptions in the divine command to nonresistance, and if hundreds of years of Christians didn’t either, then how confident can defensivists be that they have discovered the truth? Not very. I have very little confidence in the ability of our moral intuitions to find implicit exceptions in divine commands.
A tu quoque defense
One could respond to my argument so far by saying that all views have this grounding problem, including Divine Command Theory. After all, we must necessarily use our exegetical skills in order to understand divine commands. Thus, that means that our exegetical skills are the real moral authority, right?
This sounds like a good point, but it doesn’t really work. Suppose that a telegraph operator uses her understanding of Morse Code to interpret a telegram from a world-class physicist that includes an important physics formula. That is entirely appropriate—in fact, that’s just what you do with Morse Code! Every encoded document must be read and interpreted by someone who understands how the code works.
In the same way, exegesis is just what we do with the written word. Every written document must be read and interpreted by someone who understands how human languages work. And as humans, the use of human language is one of the things we are best at. We make mistakes in understanding, but in general, we are able to understand messages with a high degree of accuracy—as long as we don’t let our biases get in the way.
However, let’s go back to the analogy. Suppose that the telegraph operator not only uses her knowledge of Morse Code to interpret the message, but also uses her knowledge of physics to correct the message. Would this be appropriate? Certainly not! Unless she herself is a physicist on the level of the author of the message, her interpretation of the physics formula is likely to be wrong.
In the same way, while we should interpret Scripture using our understanding of human language, we can’t interpret its moral commands using our moral judgment—we are not moral agents on the level of God himself, and we would be likely to get his commands wrong.
We are much better at understanding what words mean (we communicate with them constantly) than at understanding what is moral. Thus, our exegesis should inform our morality, and not the other way round. Moral reasoning is not part of normal exegesis, just as physics is not part of normal Morse Code interpretation.
Thus, I conclude that ethical marriage defensivism has no satisfactory grounding:
- It is not grounded in divine commands found in Scripture (see my section on biblical precedent).
- It is not grounded in the principles of normal exegesis.
- Our own moral intuitions, being inaccurate, are not a satisfactory grounding.
I am aware of no other method of grounding ethical marriage defensivism. Thus, I conclude that there is no grounding for it at all.
It is important to note that this objection applies to all the different possible ethical theories used to motivate ethical marriage defensivism, since it undercuts the very idea of an ethical marriage of Divine Command Theory with other views. This point alone should be enough to lay defensivism to rest.
Is defensivism based on other moral principles?
The main argument used on behalf of defensivism is the argument that it is obviously true. In this section, I will show that some arguments used for this purpose rest on unfounded and mistaken assumptions.
Protection = Violent Protection
Often defensivists point out that it’s obvious that we should protect defenseless people. Therefore, they say, defensive violence is permissible. To understand whether this works, let’s lay it out as a logical argument:
- We should protect the defenseless.
- Therefore, we should use defensive violence.
It becomes immediately obvious that the conclusion does not follow logically from the premises. Only when another premise is added can this become a logical argument:
- We should protect the defenseless.
- Protecting the defenseless necessarily involves defensive violence.
- Therefore, we should use defensive violence.
Notice that the assumption sneaked into the argument is one that is entirely unsupportable. Is it true that protecting the defenseless necessarily involves defensive violence? Certainly not. This is a false dilemma. It assumes that the only two possible options are (1) to protect using violence or (2) to refuse to intervene. This is just patently false. People employ walls, locks, burglar alarms, encryption, avoidance, prayer, and many other nonviolent methods in order to protect themselves. Therefore, the fact that we should protect the defenseless does not logically entail defensive violence.
I think that most defensivists would recognize this. Instead, they may mean to argue the following:
- We should protect the defenseless.
- Protecting the defenseless legitimately involves defensive violence.
- Therefore, we should use defensive violence.
The problem is that, in this case, premise 2 is exactly what the defensivist is trying to prove. Thus, this argument begs the question.
The real question is whether defensive violence is okay. Which is the very question that we’re asking in this article.
If something is just, then we may enforce it.
Defensivists also often point out that murderers deserve to die. Therefore, they claim, we have a right to defend ourselves against them with lethal force. Let’s see if this works out better logically than the last one:
- Those who murder or attempt murder deserve to die.
- Therefore, we may kill those who murder or attempt murder.
Again, this does not follow. What is needed is another premise:
- Those who murder or attempt murder deserve to die.
- We may kill those who deserve to die.
- Therefore, we may kill those who murder or attempt murder.
Again, premise 2 is unsupported by the original argument. It is assumed by the defensivist. Here are a few problems with the premise.
Few, if any, defensivists believe that we may kill all those who deserve to die—after all, it is a crime in my country to kill someone as revenge. It only ceases to be a crime when it is in self-defense. In other words, the question of whether the person deserves to die is not the deciding factor as to whether or not we may kill them. The real question is whether defensive violence is legitimate. Which is the very question that we’re asking in this article.
I also note that it is not just the U.S. government that prohibits vengeance on the part of citizens—God also tells us to leave vengeance to him. The difference between the laws of the U.S. and God’s laws is that God doesn’t allow Christians to use violence in self-defense.
Finally, it is important to clarify that, according to nonresistance, there are actually some people who may kill those who deserve to die. That is the government. However, since Scripture forbids us from doing violence, we shouldn’t take part in those actions of the government.
Natural Law Theory and “properly basic” defensivism
So defensivism has no grounding and cannot be supported by other moral principles. But might there be some merit in the argument that it is simply obviously true?
In this and following sections, I will address arguments to that effect which are based on the different ethical theories that are employed as an “ethical marriage” with Divine Command Theory. These ethical theories are Natural Law Theory, Virtue Ethics, and Utilitarianism. This section will primarily address arguments from Natural Law Theory and similar views that hold that it is obvious that defensive violence is right.
Tim Stratton, for example, argues that violence is obviously an appropriate response to violence, and that nonresistance is obviously wrong. He says that defensivism is “properly basic.” While others do not use this particular term, they often argue similarly.
First, let me define the terms:
- A “basic” belief is a belief that doesn’t depend on other beliefs for its justification. For example, I believe that my eyes are seeing the real world, not a hallucination.
- A “properly basic” belief is a belief that is appropriate to hold as a basic belief. For example, “I am the President of the U.S.” is not a properly basic belief. To know that you are President, you need to have external reasons. However, “my eyes are seeing the real world” is a properly basic belief. I should believe my eyes unless I have a reason not to.
There are cases where one should not accept a belief that is apparently properly basic. If there is a truth that undercuts your basic belief, it should be rejected. For example, if I were subject to frequent hallucinations that seem just like seeing the real world, I should not be sure that my eyes are seeing the real world.
Stratton’s properly basic argument
Here’s Tim Stratton’s argument by which he concludes that defensivism is properly basic:
Not only is it good to stop the violent attack against a man’s family, but he should also be willing to die in the process of fighting for the safety of his loved ones. Jesus seems to agree: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If this is the case when it comes to an attack of a wild animal, why would it no longer be acceptable to defend your loved ones from the attack of an evil man acting like a wild animal?3https://freethinkingministries.com/love-thy-neighbor-pack-thy-heat/
Does this actually strike a blow against nonresistance? No. There’s a lot that nonresistant people agree with here. We agree that it is good to stop a violent attack, that we should be willing to die for each other, and that it is entirely appropriate to kill a wild animal in self-defense. That could all be properly basic, and nonresistance would still be entirely true.
As I pointed out in the previous section, the fact that protecting one’s family is good does not prove defensive violence to be good. There are other forms of protection than defensive violence.
So the only relevant question here is whether it is appropriate to use violence against a human being. To support the idea that this is intuitively obvious, Stratton asks what the difference is between a wild animal and “an evil man acting like a wild animal.” But this is surely an odd way of defending his argument—in any other situation, we would treat humans differently from animals. Mentally handicapped people who believe they are dogs should not be placed in a kennel. And we would be okay with euthanizing an elderly animal, but what about an elderly human?
Stratton continues, quoting J.P. Moreland and Norman Geisler:
“…to permit murder when one could have prevented it is morally wrong. To allow a rape when one could have hindered it is an evil. To watch an act of cruelty to children without trying to intervene is morally inexcusable. In brief, not resisting evil is an evil of omission, and an evil of omission can be just as evil as an evil of commission. Any man who refuses to protect his wife and children against a violent intruder fails them morally.”4Stratton is quoting from https://www.amazon.com/Life-Death-Debate-Moral-Issues/dp/027593702X
Every one of these statements can be affirmed by a nonresistant person, since we believe that we should protect people. Recall that it is a logical fallacy to assert that protection equals violent protection. Apparently, Moreland and Geisler are simply assuming that defensive violence is one of the methods by which we may protect our families.5They may give reasons for believing this, but those are not present in this quotation, and they are likely to be ones that I have already addressed. Thus, Stratton has not shown defensive violence to be appropriate.
But could we still make a case for defensivism from this argument? Let’s use the quotation from Moreland and Geisler as a jumping-off point. They suggest that it is a moral principle that “to permit murder when one could have prevented it is morally wrong.” The question is whether, if defensive violence is the only available means to prevent murder, that we should say that we “could have prevented it.”
Obviously, if we could have used violence to prevent murder, it is logically true that the person could have prevented murder. However, just because protecting the defenseless is a good thing doesn’t mean that we can disobey Christ in order to protect the defenseless. Instead, as Christians, we are not looking for all the logically possible means of preventing murder; we are looking for all the morally permissible means of preventing murder.
What’s the difference? Well, here are some situations in which there is a logically possible means of preventing murder, but these means do not seem to be morally permissible:
- If the only means by which one could prevent murder were to murder an innocent person, it would be logically possible to prevent murder.
- If the only means by which one could prevent murder were to commit a sexual sin in public, it would be logically possible to prevent murder.
Thus, the question is whether violence is a morally permissible means to prevent violence, not whether we are responsible to prevent violence. But that’s the question we’re asking in this series. To assume that violence is permissible is to beg the question.
Other properly basic arguments
So far, the arguments for the obviousness of defensivism have mostly fallen prey to logical fallacies. Is it possible to construct a case for the obviousness of defensivism that is logically valid?
Here are a few possible justifications for defensivism and why they don’t work:
- “We have strong physical instincts to do violence against attackers.” But we also have strong physical instincts to lust after women (or men). If this instinct is wrong, why couldn’t the instinct to violence be wrong?
- “Defensive violence is tied up with laudable instincts such as the protection instinct.” But lust is tied up with laudable instincts such as fruitfulness and matrimony. Thus, it is not obvious that violence is permissible.
It seems to me that, after clearing away the debris, we are left with only one possible case for the obviousness of defensivism. That is the bald argument that defensive violence must be permissible, since it is so obviously permissible. But if defensivism retreats to this position, it is obviously false.
Finally, no matter how obvious defensivism may seem, we have no reason to believe that Jesus wouldn’t overturn it. Since Jesus unveiled a new paradigm and explicitly contradicted the former one (see the post on biblical nonresistance), we can’t come to the words of Jesus assuming that we know what ethical paradigm to use when it comes to achieving justice.
Jesus gave us many unintuitive commands. For example, he told us that refusing to forgive those who wrong us would actually keep us from receiving the forgiveness of God (Matt 6:14–15, 18:35). Yet forgiveness is one of the least intuitive virtues.
A belief can only be properly basic as long as there is no truth that undercuts it. (Such a truth would be called a “defeater”). The condemnation of an action by the Son of God should be sufficient to provide a defeater for that action. Thus, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 should be sufficient to assume defensivism to be false—we have no real need to argue about what is or isn’t properly basic.
I conclude that there is no way to argue that defensivism itself is properly basic.
Nonviolence is properly basic
I suggest that, when we consider what might be properly basic, we will find that it is something other than defensivism. It certainly seems clear that the protective instinct is properly basic. However, I suggest that nonviolence is an excellent contender for being properly basic.
War is a terrible evil that has destroyed the lives of millions of people. Many societies have praised taking part in war, but many who have actually been on the battlefield have seen what a crime war actually is. One Civil War soldier wrote home after a battle,
In battle, man becomes a sinner and delights in the work of death . . . When I was a baby I was a great admirer of military stories, now their honors seem tarnished with blood and with tears of widows and orphans.6John G. Marsh, 29th Ohio. As quoted on a display at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum in Winchester, VA.
Wilfred Owen, who died in World War I, wrote the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” repeating a Latin saying, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” He writes that, if one had actually seen the horrors of war,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Sir Robert Gillies, last surviving member of the Māori Battalion, has also come to see the wrongness of war. In an interview, he said,
“If I had my time again, knowing what I know now, I would have been a conscientious objector. I would have been slammed by the average Joe. And I thought like that [then] … But I think they were right to promote peace.”
Sir Robert, who has represented the Māori Battalion at events here and overseas for many years, said people need to remember what war is all about.
“It’s all about killing people,” he said.
These are three of many examples of those who have intuitively seen how wrong violence is. But I wonder if many defensivists themselves don’t recognize the problematic nature of their position.
I’ve noticed that, in discussions on defensive violence, defensivists are reticent to say, “I would shoot and kill the attacker.” Instead, they say euphemistic things like, “I would neutralize the threat” or “I would take out the trash.” It seems that even those who believe violence to be appropriate are still uncomfortable with the idea of killing a human, so they use dehumanizing language to make their action seem less violent.
The same is often true of militaries, who often use dehumanizing terms of their enemies. For example, in WWI, British and American soldiers called the Germans “Huns” or “the Boche.” It made it easier killing people when you could demonize them. Thus, it seems that they tacitly noted that their deeds were wrong.
This is exactly what nonresistance claims. Violence is obviously wrong, even if God has allowed it to happen in some cases. So I suggest this logical argument:
- We should protect each other (A).
- We should not use violence (B).
- Therefore, we should protect each other without using violence (A & B).
I conclude that nonresistance is properly basic.
Can virtue ethics provide a basis for defensivism?
This section will address arguments from Virtue Ethics and similar views that hold that it is obvious that defensive violence is virtuous. Many arguments in the previous section can easily be repurposed as arguments from Virtue Ethics, so I’ve responded to some arguments from Virtue Ethics already. However, in this section, I will examine several defensivist claims that are more specific to Virtue Ethics and show why they are incorrect:
- “It is virtuous to defend one’s family; therefore defensive violence is correct.” I showed this sort of argument to be a logical fallacy.
- “It is cowardly not to fight back.” Of course not. Since violence is an instinctive human response, it is actually easy to fight back. Nonresistant Christians are such out of conviction rather than cowardice and have held to this principle when they were being horribly killed for their beliefs. To obey your convictions even when it would be easier to respond in violence is a strange sort of cowardice!
- “Nonresistance is a way of getting out of your duties, like civic duties.” Anabaptists don’t hold to nonresistance because we want to. We held to it through some of the severest persecutions that Christians have received. In WWI, some nonresistant Christians were persecuted to death for not participating in war. It would have been a lot easier to fulfill our civic duties.
I suggest that any virtues that can be cultivated through defensive violence can be cultivated better through nonviolent protection. Thus, Virtue Ethics cannot provide a framework for defensive violence.
Are wisdom teachings based on multiple competing principles?
In this section, I’ll respond to an argument that could be used either of Natural Law Theory or Virtue Ethics.
One could argue that, in any system of teachings that demand the exercise of wisdom, we find out what’s right or wrong based on weighing different principles. Different situations may call for different responses. For example, when deciding whether or not to read a given book, we should weigh the amount of good that it will do us with the amount of negative influences it contains. Maybe the same holds true of every moral decision—maybe we need to weigh different competing principles, rather than go by only one consideration.
This may be true of decisions that require discernment. However, we all agree that there are certain absolute moral commands that require obedience rather than discernment. For example, it’s clear that we should worship no other God but the God of Abraham—it will never be appropriate to conclude via discernment that worshiping another God is morally good. If God commands something, it no longer belongs to the realm of discernment, but to the realm of obedience. No matter the situation, the appropriate response will always be to follow God’s law.
Thus, defensivism can’t provide an exception to Jesus’ straightforward commands. We cannot bypass Matthew 5 by simply assuming that violence is permissible.
Can Utilitarianism provide a basis for defensivism?
This section will address Utilitarianism and similar views that hold that it is obvious that defensive violence is the method that will bring about the best result in some situations. This addresses cases where defensivists argue in the following ways:
- “But if you don’t fight back, you’ll just die.”
- “If you fight back, more people will live than if you don’t.”
Utilitarianism is basically the view that the best action is whatever brings about the best humanly foreseeable result. Unfortunately, it is fraught with problems.
While using utilitarian thought processes can help us understand what is effective in cases that aren’t a straightforward example of right and wrong or God’s commands, Utilitarianism fails as a means of discovering what is right and wrong. There are two main issues with it:
- It bases its conclusions on what is humanly foreseeable, but we know that we can’t see far enough into the future to have an accurate idea of the consequences of an action. Only God can tell us what would ultimately be best.
- It creates conclusions that we know are wrong. For example, if it so happened that killing an innocent person would make lots of people happy and no one sad, then that would be the right thing to do, according to Utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism opens the door to some other rather alarming possibilities. I recall a case in which a Nazi officer neglected to capture some Jews on the condition that their protector would become his mistress, which she then did, thus saving their lives. On Utilitarianism, this choice was perfectly acceptable. It would also have been acceptable, according to Utilitarianism, for a man to become this officer’s homosexual lover in order to save lives. I find these conclusions very problematic, but they are by no means the worst that Utilitarianism raises. If a situation arose where you could save ten people’s lives by murdering nine people, Utilitarianism would support you becoming a murderer.
Nonresistance leads to the best outcomes
Instead of going by the best humanly foreseeable result, Divine Command Theory allows us to achieve the best divinely foreseeable result. Because God knew what was best when choosing what commands to give us, we can trust to following him, even when it seems dangerous. I believe God can bring the best result from even the most hopeless-seeming situation, without ever needing us to help out by committing sins that we think will be helpful.
Is nonresistance obviously false?
Before summarizing this section, I will cover one final argument that could be employed to support the defensivist position. That is the argument that nonresistance is obviously false—therefore, whatever the possible deficiencies of defensivism, we should accept it.
In previous sections, I covered a lot of the material that’s relevant to this point. However, in this short section, I’ll look mainly at some objections leveled directly at nonresistance and point you to places where these objections are addressed.
- “According to nonresistance, God changed his mind from the Old Testament (where violence was permissible) to the New Testament.” Instead, the New Testament was always God’s goal—the Old Testament was a temporary measure that God put in place in order to prepare his people to live his New Testament commands.
- “According to nonresistance, Christians may not do nonviolence, but non-Christians may. That’s inconsistent.” It is not at all inconsistent. God only has one law for how he wants us to live, and that includes nonresistance. However, since many people disobey him, he wants to keep their disobedience from wreaking full-scale anarchy. Thus, he ordains necessary evils that will prevent the worst possible situations from happening. For those who aren’t in obedience to God, he ordains governments that will disobey him by using violence in ways that will keep the peace better than anarchy would. See my article on the two-kingdom concept for more information.
- “We obviously shouldn’t stand there and do nothing when someone attacks a defenseless person.” As I’ve pointed out, violence is not the only way we can protect people. Nonresistance does not entail standing there and doing nothing.
This article should be enough to demonstrate that we cannot supplement Divine Command Theory with other ethical considerations in an “ethical marriage” view. I went even further and showed that neither Natural Law Theory, Virtue Ethics, nor Utilitarianism can be used as an appropriate grounding for defensive violence.
This article contains quite a bit of material that’s original to me, and it’s quite possible that I’ve missed something. In that case, I would appreciate feedback. If my argument is correct, however, no further argumentation should be needed. Still, I will include a few more sections that will help to apply the argumentation that I offered here.
How should one respond to hypothetical situations?
Probably the most common response to an argument for nonresistance is some form of hypothetical situation which is engineered to make nonresistance seem absurd. For example,
Defensivist: “What would you do if an assailant came to kill your family?”
Anabaptist: “I wouldn’t use violence against them.”
Defensivist: “So you’d just stand by and do nothing while a murderer shot all of your kids? That’s so terrible.”
Of course, given the argumentation I put forward in this article, hypothetical situations cannot disprove nonresistance. Their teeth are entirely pulled. If someone can’t tell you where their belief is in Scripture, and if they can’t defend the “ethical marriage” view against the Anabaptist “ethical stack” form of Divine Command Theory, then they have no support for their moral claims. They may use hypothetical situations till the cows come home, but they cannot disprove nonresistance that way.
However, hypothetical situations still have some emotional and intuitive force. This sort of argumentation seems very convincing to defensivists, even though it has no actual value. In fact, it even bothers many nonresistant individuals. I’ve heard many people express discomfort with hypothetical situations. There are even those who refuse to answer hypothetical questions, saying instead, “Let’s talk about actual situations.”
I think these Christians, by refusing to entertain hypothetical situations, are setting aside a very useful tool in defending nonresistance. Hypotheticals are a commonly used tool in philosophy in evaluating worldviews. Philosophers employ them to see whether a worldview leads to conclusions that we already know are wrong. If a worldview entails claims that we already know to be wrong, that’s a convenient way of showing that the worldview is wrong.
For example, let’s suppose that someone proposes to define “human” as “a two-legged animal that doesn’t have feathers.” The easiest way to show this definition to be wrong is to ask a hypothetical question: “But what if we plucked a chicken—would the chicken then become human?” We already know that plucked chickens aren’t human; therefore, this definition of “human” must be wrong.
Defensivists who use hypothetical questions likewise try to show that nonresistance leads to conclusions that we already know to be wrong. It seems wrong to people to refuse to use defensive violence; hence, they propose hypothetical situations and are stunned when nonresistant people say that they wouldn’t use violence. They feel that they have demonstrated nonresistance to be wrong, since not to use violence is wrong.
However, the problem is that we don’t know that it’s wrong not to use violence! As my articles have clearly shown, neither Scripture, the teachings of the church, nor human reason are on the side of the defensivist position. Conversely, I’ll show that nonresistance Christians can employ hypothetical questions to show that many forms of defensivism lead to conclusions that we already know to be wrong.
How to answer hypothetical situations
First, if you are nonresistant, I would like to show how you can answer hypothetical situations when they are used against you. Here are five tools at your disposal:
1. Know the nonresistant response to violence
To respond to defensivists, you need to know what the proper response to violence is and what our weapons are. This article is a defense for nonresistance, not a manual for it, so I don’t have the space to dig deeply into this issue. However, it’s important to know, not only because Christians should be prepared to make these nonviolent responses, but also so that we know how to answer those who ask us. For that reason, I’ll point out a few of the tools we have at our disposal:
- Prayer—reaching out to God himself. This can work in multiple ways:
- Since God is the most powerful force in or out of the universe, we are drawing on forces which the attacker cannot even imagine. A resistant person has a limited arsenal. Our backup team is unlimited.
- When we pray for our attackers it frees us from focusing on ourselves and our fears about the situation and allows us to gain wisdom from above
- Blessing those who harm us—turning the tables on evil people and bring active good into the situation. This can work in multiple ways:
- It can proactively turn our enemies into friends so that less evil will take place.
- It can shame the attackers by showing them that they are in the wrong
- It can intimidate the attackers by showing them that you have no fear
- Full obedience to God’s commands—allowing God to work as he wishes to do and giving him free rein in the situation.
- Disobedience may seem like it leads to better results, but it’s like a private deciding when to start shooting even though the general told him not to—it will mess up the general’s well-laid plans.
- If evil does happen to you, you’re in a better spot if you were nonresistant and God chose to let evil happen, than when you respond violently but fail to stop evil. In the second place, you are at the mercy of your enemies. But in the first place, you are in God’s mercies.
2. Simply answer them.
You can simply answer the defensivist by saying, “I wouldn’t fight back.” When the defensivist says, “But that’s so wrong,” ask them why. Then show them where their reasoning is unsound.
3. Correct their methods.
Perhaps best is to correct the method that the defensivist is using. Instead of answering, you can point out that the actual question is not whether we feel like our beliefs are correct. The question is whether our beliefs are correct. Ask them where in the New Testament we can find defensivism. Then show them where their exegesis is unsound.
4. Take advantage of the hypothetical nature of hypothetical questions.
It’s also possible to use hypotheticals within the hypothetical questions you are asked. What do I mean? Because it is hypothetical that the proposed situation would actually happen, you can suggest hypothetical facts yourself.
For example, you could suggest the equally hypothetical possibility that the given situation could not actually happen. Someone might say, “What if you were in a situation where the only way to stop a killer is to kill him. Would you do it?” You can simply reply, “I don’t know that there is ever a situation where the only way to stop a killer is to kill him. In fact, I think that, in any case where one could stop a killer by killing them, one could stop the killer better by praying, blessing him, or some other Christlike response.”
Or if someone says, “Suppose an attacker comes to shoot you; what would you do?” You can reply, “I would simply shut the door and call the police.” If they respond by saying, “But what if the door doesn’t close?” You can respond, “I don’t grant that.”
Of course, the defensivist may interpret this response as unwillingness to answer straightforward questions, so you may want to be careful not to use counter-hypotheticals unless you’re pretty sure they’re true. My point is that they are legitimate responses, even though they might not always be the most convincing to the other party.
5. Don’t let them assume their worldview.
When discussing hypothetical situations, be sure that you don’t let the defensivist assume their worldview. For example, if you’ve replied to their hypothetical situation by saying, “I would pray,” they might respond, “But what if the prayer doesn’t work? Would you use a gun against the attacker?”
What the defensivist probably doesn’t realize is that they are unfairly assuming their worldview. If they are going to assume that our weapons (such as prayer) don’t work, but that their weapons (such as guns) do work, they are simply begging the question—assuming that nonresistant methods are inferior to violent methods.
But if they are going to argue that violent methods are better, they will have to make a case for that claim. And I doubt that many defensivists are prepared to do so.
Defensivism fails the hypothetical test
Defensivists typically hold their belief because it seems obviously true. Usually, they simply assume that their view makes perfect sense. But actually, defensivism is just another viewpoint that requires a defense if we’re supposed to believe it. And on closer examination, we can see that defensivism has some serious issues.
In an earlier article, I noted that there may be gray areas within nonresistance, such as whether it’s okay to call the police or to use nonviolent coercion. I said that the minor ambiguities shouldn’t cause us to reject the nonresistant position, since every view will have its nuances. Life is messy, because we don’t live in an ideal world.
However, the gray areas within defensivism, by contrast, are hugely problematic. It’s not a problem for a view to have some minor gray areas—but if a view is so unclear that it cannot give answers to serious moral issues, it can’t be an obviously true one.
For example, if a view cannot tell you whether or not you should kill a particular person, it should push us to ask whether there might be a better view. It’s dangerous to have an unclear answer to such an important question—killing a person might be morally required or it might be a grievous sin. Which is it? Defensivism raises some significant ambiguities. It causes more problems than it solves.
In this section, I’ll offer multiple hypothetical situations for the defensivist to answer. In each case, it is by no means obvious which response a defensivist should make. However, it is obvious which response a nonresistant person should make. Thus, defensivism shows itself to be comparatively quite unclear.
- Suppose that someone threatens to seriously injure you, rather than killing you, but the only way you could stop them would be to kill them. Is it right to kill them?
- Suppose that someone threatens to kill you unless you kill a third party. Is it okay to kill that third party in order to save your life? If not, is it okay to kill that third party in order to save ten people’s lives? What if the third party has murdered someone in the past—is it okay to kill him? What if the third party has already served their prison sentence for that murder, and also repented—is it okay to kill him?
- If it’s okay to save your life by killing someone, is it okay to save your life by raping someone? What if you could save the lives of twenty people by raping one person—would that be okay?
- Suppose that the attacker would let you live provided that you committed adultery with him/her. Would that be right? Would committing homosexual acts with him/her also be right?
- Suppose that someone threatens to kill you unless you deny Christ, but is perfectly okay with you going back to Christ immediately after doing so. Are you allowed to deny Christ?
- Suppose that your livelihood will be taken away unless you make a cake for a gay wedding, which says, “Being gay is godly.” Would it be okay to make and decorate that cake?
- Suppose that someone is leading your friend away from Christ, thus threatening your friend’s eternal life rather than their temporal life. Is it okay to kill the offender? If not, why is it okay to kill someone who merely threatens your friend’s temporal life?
- Suppose that we’re starving and the only way to feed our family were to kill the owner of a hoard. Could we do so?
- Suppose that the government fails to punish a murderer who deserves to die. May we kill the murderer ourselves?
No matter what answer the defensivist gives, these questions are big problems for their position. Here’s why:
- If the defensivist answers, “No, that’s not right,” to one of these questions, I reply, “Why, then, is it right to kill someone who is attacking you?”
- If the defensivist instead answers, “Yes, it is right,” the question must be, “1) Do we have any reason from Scripture to support that? 2) How is that just?”
- Or, if the answer is, “I’m not sure,” then defensivism is obviously far less clear of a moral view than it is claimed to be.
Defensivism leads to moral confusion. Nonresistance leads to moral clarity.
Contradictions of just war
Here are some further points that show why Just War Theory, in particular is wrong:
- We can kill members of our dearest nation (Christians), because our secondary nation is at war with another nation.
- When murder is done individually, it is less good than when done on a large scale.
- Shedding huge amounts of blood is more important than giving up abstractions like the sovereignty of one’s nation.
- Civilians rightly suffer for their leaders wrongs.
While God has allowed violence things to happen, it’s clear he doesn’t see it as how his ideal society—the Kingdom of God—relates.
This final post in my series on nonresistance should suffice to show that there is no absurdity to nonresistance. Instead, defensive violence not only has no Scriptural support but also fails on multiple philosophical levels. Nonresistance is a costly view, but it is worth holding—those who accept it may end up murdered, but at least we won’t end up being murderers.
- 1I call this general view “defensivism,” not in any derogatory sense, but since the common denominator is generally that people are justified in defensive violence.
- 2It’s important to note that God’s commands are not arbitrary. DCT is our epistemology for moral commands—the way we come to know them. However, moral commands are of course ultimately grounded in the fact that God’s commands are perfectly consistent with his divine nature, which is the ontological standard for what is right and wrong. Thus, the Euthyphro dilemma has no bite for this form of DCT.
- 4Stratton is quoting from https://www.amazon.com/Life-Death-Debate-Moral-Issues/dp/027593702X
- 5They may give reasons for believing this, but those are not present in this quotation, and they are likely to be ones that I have already addressed.
- 6John G. Marsh, 29th Ohio. As quoted on a display at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum in Winchester, VA.
- 7From this article