What Does the Bible Say About Violence?

by Mel Lawrenz

I was sitting in an airport in New Jersey watching the TV coverage of the shootings at the Sandy Hook School in Connecticut, having visited the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan just a couple of hours earlier. I was thinking about how violent the human race is especially because the big newsy items like school shootings are a drop in the bucket compared to the everyday occurrences of domestic violence, bullying in schools, gang violence in our cities, and so much more.

What does the Bible says about violence? I believe that those who are Christians should have a deeper understanding of the roots of violence. The media coverage of the school shootings, for instance, is shockingly shallow. It centers on gun control—an important issue to be sure—but hardly one that gets at the root causes of violence.


Audio of this talk:


It seems to me that most people have acquiesced to the inevitability of violence. They hope that law enforcement can do a better job, they keep their fingers crossed that the next crazed shooter won’t be in their school or movie theater, they hope that more thorough background checks will keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of criminals. But all that deals with violence at its tipping point, not at its source.

So what does the Bible say?

One does not get far in the biblical narrative to find the first heinous act of violence. In the second generation of humanity one brother spills the blood of another. Cain murders Abel, for a reason that comes right from the heart—jealousy. The pattern is set. Something simple like jealousy left unchecked, left to grow and deepen and intensify, leads to acting out in violence. God had warned Cain: “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” This is really an amazing statement. Jealously leads to anger, and that sin is predatory, crouching at the door, looking to possess Cain. Violence, in other words, is often the tipping point after resentment turns to rage. What can be done about violence? God told Cain he had better “master” the pathology of his soul. He did not, and blood was spilled.

God’s responds to Cain: “your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.” And so does the blood of many today.

Lesson number one: violence is the result of a pathology of the soul. Violence does not begin with standing armies, generational ethnic hatred, longstanding social inequities. Violence is as close to us as our own hearts.

A bit later in Genesis a profound principle is laid down regarding the moral wrongness of of violence:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” (Genesis 9:6).

This is early in the biblical account. It is foundational. Most importantly, it links to the fundamental reality that violence against human beings is wrong because human beings were made in the image and likeness of God. There is a worth, a value, a dignity, to every human life, in other words, that makes selfish or wanton violence a moral offense.

Now one question that immediately comes up is whether the Bible itself promotes violence. Isn’t the Old Testament a very bloody account of history, and doesn’t God himself condone violence? This is a large and important question. Paul Copan in his recent book, Is God a Moral Monster?, provides some good answers. But what can briefly be said is, 1) not everything that happened in Old Testament times was condoned by God; 2) some of the violence in the Old Testament was protection against hostile powers, and the judgement of God; 3) the nation of Israel in the Old Testament was a theocracy, and all that changed by the time we get to the New Testament; and 4) it is obvious from reading the New Testament that from that point on an entirely different set of ethics applies with the coming of the kingdom of God with Jesus.

[***Help in understanding Scripture: How to Understand the Bible: A Simple Guide***]

So let’s consider what the New Testament has to say about violence, particularly in the teaching of Jesus.

First, Jesus models the power of non-violence.

On the very night of his arrest, when violent men made their move on Jesus, he told Peter who was ready to fight: “Put your sword back in its place… for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” This was a statement of principle, consistent with all of Jesus’ teaching. At his trial Jesus said to Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). Some Christians, like the Mennonites and others in the Anabaptist tradition see in Jesus’ teaching nothing less than pacifism, while others would say that Jesus’ teaching does not preclude violence in defense, or, as Romans 13 describes, an intentional, punitive use of force in human governing: “rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).

In either case, however, it is clear that Jesus’ teaching elevates non-violence as the preferred response to violence, and the reason is the important part: Jesus introduced a different kind of kingdom, with it a different set of ethical standards. “Might makes right” is is the way most of human history has unfolded, but Jesus introduced an entirely different way of viewing life.

Second, Jesus speaks about the source of violence.

One of the most revolutionary of Jesus’ teachings is that human violence begins in a deeper place. The sin of violence has already begun before blood is spilled or words wound. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matt. 5.21-22).

We cannot talk about murder without talking about rage. We cannot talk about shootings in schools and movie theaters without talking about the infections of hatred, malice, and anger in our culture.

And then there is this important teaching, again from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, ‘Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them…. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person’ (Mk. 7.14-23).

Here is the bad news of the human condition: violence—like all sin—comes out of the human heart. Adultery is not caused externally by someone else’s good looks, greed is not caused externally by money, envy is not caused externally by Mercedes dealerships, and violence is not caused externally by video games or movies. External stimuli certainly affect people, and deep psychological wounding certainly conditions people, and a culture of violence gives permission to be violent, or to be desensitized, but the instinct and choice to act out in violence comes out of the heart.

I’m not saying that this statement of Jesus offers a complete psychology of violence. But there is a kernel of truth here that may serve us well as we look at the mystery of violence in our society. The Pharisees wanted to believe that sin was a matter of what people put in, like the food they ate. That’s a convenient way to look at life. Far more troubling, but true nonetheless, is that all people have within them the potential for violence.

Third, Jesus encourages us to live bravely in the face of violence.

Jesus clearly taught that the world is a sinful and violent place. But he challenged his followers not to live in fear and trepidation: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matt. 10.28). He also said: “I have told you all this so that you may find peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but be brave: I have conquered the world” (Jn. 16.33).

I think we must all ask ourselves: what is this bravery of which Jesus spoke? The kind of bravery that Christians working in dangerous parts of the world exercise every day. How can we take this to heart so that we do not live our lives cowering?

Fourth, Jesus mandates a response to violence.

So where would we turn in the Scriptures for ways to deal with violence? What does Jesus want us to do about violence? What ought to leap to our minds is the beatitudes, which includes this real-life challenge: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” What can we do about violence? It must begin with a serious commitment to the principle: “blessed are the peacemakers.” But that won’t happen unless we go beyond wishful thinking. Peacemaking is active work, hard work, frustrating work. It is not the convenient thing. “Blessed are the blessed,” is what we’d like to believe, not “blessed are those who expend their lives in the interest of reconciliation and shalom.”

This challenge is daunting—but it is Jesus’ clear call for his followers in all times. Our entertainment industry fills our minds with violent images and lyrics. The formidable technology of war today takes on a life of its own. Many people are living a hair-trigger life. And every time a school shooting occurs, and we have 24/7 media coverage, a thousand potential copy-cats—people living in the shadows of society, people who are disconnected or outcast—have their pulse quicken at the idea of having their names in the headlines.

[***Help in understanding Scripture: How to Understand the Bible: A Simple Guide***]

Somehow the work of peacemakers needs to begin long, long before the bullets are loaded in the magazines.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer says: “The followers of Jesus have been called to peace. When he called them they found their peace, for he is their peace…. they are told that they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult.”

John Stott, in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount says, “Now peacemaking is a divine work. For peace means reconciliation, and God is the author of peace and of reconciliation.”

What does peacemaking look like in practical terms? What can be done about violence? Another key New Testament passage that speaks about peacemaking is in the epistle of James:

“Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness…. What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.”

What can be done about violence?

There are many professionals whose work is peacemaking, and we need to pray for them and support them. Law enforcement, criminal justice, educators, mental health professionals, and many others. Safety and security in a community comes from a network of collaborators. We will never eliminate violence, but we can lessen it.

We don’t need vigilantes, we need vigilance. Followers of Jesus are called to do more than passively waiting for the next person to draw his gun. Our Lord and Savior commands us to close the gap with people rejected by others. To connect with the wounded before they lash out and wound others. To bring down the level of tension and stress around us by living in shalom.

It was said of Jesus: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out “(Matt. 12:20). The next person in our community who may act out in violence is right now, today, somewhere, a bruised reed. A smoldering wick. Will we notice that person? Will we help that person back away from the edge of the cliff? Law enforcement officers cannot and should not supervise everybody’s lives. Our laws define civil behavior, but they cannot tame human personalities. Shooting back is always worse than stopping the shooting before it ever begins.

Abel lay dead. Cain knew it—because he did it. “Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Genesis 4:9).

That’s the question for us. Are we our brother’s keeper? Will we watch out for potential victims? And will we have the courage to watch out for the potential aggressors?

Cain would not. Will we?


Audio of this talk:


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18 thoughts on “What Does the Bible Say About Violence?

  1. Thank you Mel. Timely and well presented. Something we can use to refocus and share on the Christian position.

    Peter Chapman

  2. Wow, just a wealth of great insight and truly wonderful Biblical teaching. Mel thank you for your effort and timely direction based on God’s word.

  3. Very good article. Christians need to be taught the Biblical response to violence. Too many of my Christian brothers and sisters have fallen for the world’s teaching that the proper response to violence is to load up and shoot away.

    • Yes, secular teaching against violence does not include Jesus Christ or the Bible. My granddaughter was in a play to show the need to be aware of and the why and how young people become violent and end in real life destruction. Not one thought or quote from the Bible, but it did include sayings from a Hindu leader, communist leader, leading Catholic Nun, and Baptist preacher, and other noted secular scholars. As I listened I felt a pain in my heart for these young performers and for our cities youths.

  4. I loved you message about bravey to live for Jesus no matter what,because the Lord says that we shall have trial and tribulations but be of good cheer for He has over come the world.

    May God bless you
    And your minstries
    Gail Green

  5. While I do agree with most of what was taught here I think there are a couple distinctions that have not been made and a question that has not been answered. The question is “Are acts of self defense wrong? (Carry a gun, defend yourself, defend others, “stop the threat”). The distinctions that I see in scripture (And I am totally open for discussion I may have misinterpreted) is that murder is killing (or even thinking) hatefully. The other distinction I see is that in defense of the gospel or our faith we are not called to strike back (because where is the love in revenge on someone who is attacking your faith) God will be the judge but in various parts of the Bible God allowed the Jews/Israelites to defend their homes. (For example: in Ester she gave a decree that the Jews could defend themselves from those who were sent to kill them. I don’t believe anything happened because it wasn’t worth the trouble of attacking those who would defend themselves). God was a deterrent in the Old testament from people attacking (They had heard stories of the Israelites “God” and what He had done). Also in the new testament if Christ had meant for us not to defend ourselves ever than why allow Peter to carry a sword at all? Historically in those times while traveling the roads through mountains and such people would be attack by Highway Robbers so men carried swords to defend themselves (much like concealed weapons carriers carry today to defend themselves from robbers). So from what I can see we are called Biblically to not defend ourselves when it comes to our faith (as the word speaks for itself and God can defend Himself) but we are not called to submit to those who would like to rob us or murder us in defiance of the laws God has put in place. (Once again I am open for discussion. This is just what I have seen in the scriptures. I do not want to cause arguments or banter.)

  6. Your article was very informative, and gave me insight to the question of violence, but I am still unsure how Jesus would want us (me) to act in the situation we find ourselves in today. The world is a mess, and terrorism, greed, Lies, are all everyday things now, and it is getting worse. We know that ISIS is spreading quickly throughout the world. How are we, as believers supposed to respond to that?

    I bleieve also that we are deep into the coming of Our Lord, the time is very near. Should we fight back with weapons or do as Jesus told us and flee to the mountains? I am genuinely concerned about this and would appreciate your input.

    Again, I enjoyed your article and appreciate your wisdom.

    Thank You,
    Donald Harder

    • I’ve had the same concerns for countless years, only now at 44 years of age do I feel I have found an answer I am comfortable with, in the Book of Daniel. Read the Book of Daniel and learn how he deals with being put into captivity by the Babylonians, raised up by God to hold a position serving those very Kings. At the end, the Medes and Persians invaded, conquering Babylon, still, Daniel did not raise his sword to fight against these invaders. Turns out the Medes and Persians liked Daniel, which made all those around him jealous. Imagine that, being invaded and your enemies find favor in you. This was enough of an answer for me, also, keep in mind that when Jesus was arrested by the Romans, He ordered his Disciple to put away his sword, saying, “They who draw the sword shall die by the sword!” We do not fight against flesh and blood, but the principalities of evil. Pray to God, and seek His council.

      I pray this is in accordance with the Bible, because I do not want to mislead anyone, this is the conviction of my heart based on what I’ve discovered in the Bible. At one time, God was with America, but we have began worshiping other gods, and immorality and lawlessness are rampant in our lands. If God is with us, then who can be against us, but such is not the cause, so should we draw a sword without God’s favor, as Israel is, would we not be in disobedience to the laws of God.

      But, others may argue… Some have told me, the Bible doesn’t say thou shalt not kill, it says thou shalt not murder, but I find fault with this theory. God created all life, Jesus conquered death, how then shall we be generous In the dealings of death, even more so whilst in sin against God. (Bohemian Grove, Satanic Cult, Mason’s, Illuminati, Skull & Bones, and the worship of money, adultery, etc)

  7. Good words. Well put. Many thanks!
    We’re serving in eastern Senegal and Mali. Several times in our 34 years we’ve moved or evacuated necessarily, due to wars and uprisings. This crisis in Paris is upsetting in many ways. Partly because it stops all the Air France flights in and out of Dakar and Bamako. It will have a large affect on the whole world for a long time to come. We don’t feel targeted specifically or unsafe any more than normal, but we are aware of the increased difficulty in our travels and border crossings.
    I just want to say thank you for taking time so immediately to address the fears and tensions of believers at such a crucial time as this. Thank you for your good words sent out so timely.
    May God give you much strength and courage to keep up the good work!
    Steve and Pat Nelson
    Fellowship of Evangelical Churches
    West Africa

  8. I find all of the violence that continues to occur daily so terrible. There is nothing we can say or do to change the massive destruction of our world. Paris is now the object of cruel and undeserving trauma. How can we, as God’s people do more to stop all this? Are we not in the last days where Satan reigns? I say yes. How can God’s people make it all go away without Him? We need His presence and it is needed now.
    I would love to here your response in reflecting to the Paris tragedy. God bless you, Mel Lawrenz!

    • I completely agree with you Carol.
      My family and friends were all deeply shocked by the Paris tragedy and I also would like to here your response, Mel.
      God bless you all.

  9. Good article! This is a question the answer to which after all these years of inner conflict, have I discovered in the Book of Daniel. Daniel existed in the time of the Babylonian Captivity, and through all that he had endured, he never drew a sword to fight against any authority placed over him. One of the Kings was exiled until he could confess that God controls the kingdoms of men, after which time, he returned to his throne. Eventually, the Medes and the Persians conquered Babylon, and Daniel remained in the service to the King; It’s quite something when you are conquered and your enemy finds favor in you, which is how it worked out for Daniel, and those around him were jealous of Daniel because of this.

    Another example of this is with Jesus upon the time of His arrest. Jesus commanded, “Put your sword away! Those who draw the sword shall die by the sword!”, Jesus basically said, “Are you not aware I could have legions of angels at my defense…” The prophesy had to be fulfilled, and Jesus did not come to save the flesh from the Romans, nor have we been called to save the flesh from our enemies. At Jesus trial he told the Roman big guy, can’t remember his name, “You would have no power over me, had it not been given to you from above!”

    So God is in control of the Kingdoms of men! Take Daniel for instance again, they said to themselves we will throw Daniel in the lions den, but God, being in control of the Kingdoms of men, had other plans for Daniel. Same for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who were throne in the furnace. …was if God was saying, I will decide who dies and who lives.

    A large problem I see online, that you never see in Church, is that for a large part, people no longer share the Word of God, but debate over whose interpretation is correct. Even should you quote the scripture which states the Bible is not for personal interpretation, the problem still lay in the fact that no one really understands how to read the Bible, or discuss it without using their own interpretations.

    Churches need to teach these things. Teach people how to read the Bible, how to use the Bible, and question what is of God, and that which is not of God. The Internet has become for a large part, worthless in my opinion. I joined a Christian Chat Group less than a year ago, it was the worst experience you could imagine. A mixture of religious people from various denominations including the Catholic Church, and what was outrageous was one of the Pastors was talking bad about Israel, saying some very mean things about them. You can’t call yourself a Christian if you do not support Israel. Those who bless Israel will themselves be blessed, and they who curse Israel will be cursed, thus it is written.

    Finding the truth is nearly impossible online, because it’s become twisted into so many flavors, for example, I did a Google search yesterday, “What is the Best Bible in the World”, I was surprised when the Hebrew Bible did not show up, instead it was the New World Translation of the scriptures… Why not just call it New World Bible, or did they leave some things out?

    Upon further examination I discovered they added a few things as well… In the Beginning was the word and the word was (a) god. What do you mean (a) god, as if there is more than One. I was surprised that the level of blasphemy there exists today to deceive those seeking the truth.

    I really enjoy the youtube video’s of Amir Tsarfati, he’s my favorite; He was/is a Captain in the Israeli Defense Force, and was the one whom in fact, signed over Jericho to the Palestinians. He has a sense of humor as well at times, which makes us all laugh.

    He said today in one of his videos… Who is a Jew, he said something funny, don’t remember exact words, but …anyone who has the Holy Spirit in their heart, who obeys the Laws of God, something like that. In the discussion of Israel how all Nations will rise against Israel, and Israel will stand alone, he consoles America, in so much that, we as Christians are no longer American’s, but Citizens of an Eternal Kingdom. It’s very hard to be born an American knowing your own Politicians will betray the one Nation they should be protecting. But I understand that it’s prophesy, …I stand by Israel, and I bless the Nation of Israel, and will never lift a hand against Israel, for in doing so, will be the same as fighting against the One True God.

    I’m rambling on…. Bless you and your’s. It’s nice to finally discuss the Scripture instead of argue over it. If the Lord within me, is the same Lord within you, then we should both be in unison, if not, perhaps something is wrong with me. Bless you, and thank you for a good article!

  10. Psalm 11:5…The LORD tries the righteous: but the wicked and him that loves violence HIS SOUL HATES!

    This is not saying that God just hates the act, or just the wickedness..it is actually saying that God HATES THE MAN..His actual SOUL hates the man!
    The Lord is a man of war..of course..He is a King that will stand by His people and fight with them. He also states that it is in ‘Righteousness that He makes war’. Again..of course. He is a righteous King!..but a man who is just violent for the sake of it, to make a point, for self gratification or just because of hate..He despises.

  11. I really liked this article, Mel. I am doing a project at school on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and ‘Daring to do what is right’ and your well-thought words really helped me see clearly and I learnt a lot.
    Thank you!