War and evil
This post comes from Bill Muehlenberg’s commentary on current issues, “Culture Watch”.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, war is back in the news. Putin is an autocratic tyrant who loves power as much as any other dictator. He wants to invade and destroy an independent nation. Meanwhile, women and children are being cluster-bombed in their homes in Ukraine, and many thousands of Christians and others being rounded up in Russia as they plead for an end to this evil and madness.
Of course, all governments are corrupt. To say both sides are evil is true – to an extent. Evil is a relative term of course in this context. Are both sides quite corrupt in so many ways? Yes, but Ukraine is not invading Russia. Ukraine is not dropping cluster bombs on innocent civilians. Ukraine does not have plans for further territorial expansion, etc.
Martyn Iles of the Australian Christian Lobby has said on this: “what Putin’s doing now is gravely wrong. Hence, we should oppose it completely”.
Should we intervene in foreign wars?
One possible view is that Christian’s and western nations should have nothing to do with overseas’ wars. If intervention is always wrong, then of course all the wars that God instigated in the Old Testament were wrong as well. So too were the Allies for seeking to stop Hitler and the Nazis from taking over the world. So too the wars of divine judgement that we read about in Revelation. And so on.
The idea that Jesus never got involved in the wars of His day (and therefore neither should we) is not very helpful. There were of course hundreds of things Jesus did not get involved in during His day – and that for the very simple reason that He was a man on a mission. He was born to die. He had a unique calling to die for our sins on the cross. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with this divine calling.
So there were many perfectly legitimate things He did not get involved in. For example, He never got married and raised a family. But that does NOT mean this becomes a template for all believers today. And He never set up a Bible college or helped illiterate kids in foreign countries learn how to read and write.
There is in fact a time and place where nation states can and should intervene elsewhere – even militarily. Sure a lot of prayer and care is needed when our leaders make those decisions. But implying that no nation has a right to be concerned about other nations and sometimes get involved overseas is neither biblically warranted nor basic common political sense. It is neo-isolationism and pacifism run amok.
The entirety of our Christian view on big issues like the nations, geo-politics and international relations is NOT confined simply to the words of Jesus. The entire Bible must be taken into account on these matters. If not, normally conservative Christians end up being just like the “Red Letter Christians” of the left.
The idea that if you love your neighbor, you don’t constantly interfere with other nations because it causes more trouble than it solves is also not very helpful. Instead, you treat them how you want to be treated: in this case, as a sovereign nation.
But, if your next-door neighbor is setting up a drug-dealing operation, is operating a de facto brothel, or is being beaten by a partner, it actually IS your Christian duty to interfere! It may mean just calling the police. Or it may mean actually doing something and using force, say, if a child is at immediate risk, and so on. Sometimes loving your neighbor DOES mean intervening in real, physical ways.
In Deuteronomy 20, God gave the Israelites laws concerning warfare. These covered military exemptions, and wars inside and outside Canaan.
God’s response to evil
There are 13 major passages on God’s response to evil in the Old Testament: two from Deuteronomy, three from Kings and Chronicles, and eight from Jeremiah. Three of these follow.
Deuteronomy 29:22-28NIV “Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the Lord has afflicted it. The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulfur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, which the Lord overthrew in fierce anger. All the nations will ask: ‘Why has the Lord done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?’ And the answer will be: ‘It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the covenant He made with them when He brought them out of Egypt. They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods He had not given them. Therefore the Lord’s anger burned against this land, so that He brought on it all the curses written in this book. In furious anger and in great wrath the Lord uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now.’”
Deuteronomy 31:16-18 “And the Lord said to Moses: ‘You are going to rest with your ancestors, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. And in that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come on us because our God is not with us?’ And I will certainly hide my face in that day because of all their wickedness in turning to other gods.’”
Jeremiah 13:22 “And if you ask yourself, ‘Why has this happened to me?’— it is because of your many sins that your skirts have been torn off and your body mistreated.”
Sometimes great calamity falls upon a people or a nation because of all the great evil they are involved in. God does not let sin go unpunished forever. That was certainly the case with ancient Israel. God would judge Israel, and then He would turn around and judge the nations He had used to judge Israel (eg., Babylon and Assyria).
How do we understand something like the invasion of Ukraine by Putin? We do not have the same prophetic word telling us all the ins and outs, and all the whys and wherefores. So we must be much more cautious here. But the general principles of Scripture can be drawn upon in this area and elsewhere.
Some of those basic principles are these: God is concerned about the nations. God can very well use various means (war, drought, famine, plague, tornadoes, etc.) for various purposes, be they for judgment or whatever. And God’s people always should be in a place of repentance and contrition, acknowledging our sins, and confessing how we so often do turn our backs on God. But we also rejoice that God has provided a Savior, Jesus Christ, so that final, lasting judgment can be avoided.
The imprecatory psalms
These are psalms where God’s people call upon God to deal with their enemies – who quite often happen to be God’s enemies as well. They ask God to bring justice and vindication, and to judge and repay those who do evil. Here are just two portions of these psalms:
Psalm 40:14-15 “May all who want to take my life be put to shame and confusion; may all who desire my ruin be turned back in disgrace. May those who say to me, ‘Aha! Aha!’ be appalled at their own shame.”
Psalm 143:11-12 “For your name’s sake, Lord, preserve my life; in your righteousness, bring me out of trouble. In your unfailing love, silence my enemies; destroy all my foes, for I am your servant.”
An imprecation is a curse. The imprecatory psalms name evil. They call down destruction, calamity, and God’s judgment on enemies. They were made for moments like these. We hope for peace because God is indignant and will ultimately avenge wrong and make things right.
Lessons for us
God can use various means, including war, to judge nations. The Bible doesn’t support pacifism and neo-isolationism in the face of evil and war.
In the imprecatory psalms, the Israelites called upon God to deal with their enemies. And today the Ukrainians can pray for Putin’s demise.
Posted March 2022
Also see: Just war principles