“And you will hear of wars and rumors of war. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6). “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war…And I saw the beast, the kings of the earth, and their armies, gathered together to make war against Him who sat on the horse and against His army” (Rev. 19:11, 19).
The subject of war so thoroughly pervades human history that it has become normal, accepted, and even heroic. From Homer’s Iliad, to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, to modern day “war movies,” despite various interpretations ranging from the glamorous to the utterly worthless, the fact of war itself is taken for granted, and human beings continue to prosecute wars throughout the globe. In fact, the last century witnessed the most profound and pervasive wars the world has ever seen, with the most destructive weapons ever invented by mankind.
As seen in the two passages above, war happens on two different and related levels. The first level is the material, physical, and worldly: people harming and killing other people for control over, or defense of, others’ bodies and their possessions. The second level is the spiritual: attacking and destroying one’s opponents who threaten evil. For Christians, this second level is immaterial and bodiless exemplified by the bodiless hosts of angels, as expressed by the Apostle: “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal (i.e., fleshly) but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4-5; see Eph. 6:11f.).
The Elder Sophrony (Sakharov; 1896-1992) wrote: “And we know that we are at war. But our one and only war, which we elected for, is the sacred battle with the common enemy of all people, of all mankind – against death (cf. 1 Cor. 15:16). In effect man has no other enemy. Our fight is for the resurrection – our own and each of our fellow-men’s. The Lord ‘sent us forth as sheep in the midst of wolves’ (cf. Matt. 10:16).” Then a few pages later he wrote: “I had lived for years in the stifling atmosphere of the fratricidal hatred – at first of conflict between nations and then of civil war. Since that time I would rather hear of maybe thousands of victims of earthquakes, floods, epidemics and so on – catastrophes which normally inspire widespread compassion, whereas wars drag practically everyone into moral participation in the slaughter. There is no worse sin than war” (from We Shall See Him As He Is ).
The sin of war, that is, physical conflict, murder, and death for material and worldly gain, is the ultimate twisting of the reasons we live. “Moral participation in the slaughter” has led to the concept of the “just war,” literally, the justification for killing other human beings so as not to be guilty of evil, but good, in the process of expanding, maintaining, or safe-guarding life merely in this world.
Even in the case of self-defense when the instinct of self-preservation takes over, while not entirely condemned, the taking of another life is not applauded either. As our Lord responded to Peter’s action in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying, “Permit even this” (then healing the servant’s severed ear), He also said, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Lk. 22:51; Matt. 26:52). Jesus told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36).
The Orthodox canonical tradition contains this: “Homicide in war is not reckoned by our Fathers as homicide; I presume from their wish to make concession to men fighting on behalf of chastity and true religion. Perhaps, however, it is well to counsel that those whose hands are not clean (i.e., who have killed another in battle) only abstain from Communion for three years” (St. Basil, Canon 13). Killing in war is at best a concession to our human condition fallen into violence, yet always a rupture of communion with God and one another to be avoided at all cost. As Christians we cannot condone or encourage war against other human beings and nations of people. Although Christians may in good conscience serve in the armed forces – see Luke 3:14; 7:1-10; Acts 10:1, 24f. – the proper use of military force is to keep the peace and reward the good in society (cf. Rom. 13:3-4), not the indiscriminate slaughter of the masses almost assured using modern weapons both conventional and nuclear.
We see this in the regulations for war in the Old Testament. When first possessing the Promised Land, the destruction of the nations there was not a military campaign, per se, but an overwhelming total purification of the land by God from everything opposed to communion with God (“as He did for you in Egypt”; Deut. 1:30; 7:1-5). The Israelites were expected to cooperate with this work of God, and because they didn’t, they were vexed with idolatry and ungodliness to the point of their own self-wrought destruction (see Judg. 2-3). As with the Gibeonites, it was possible for the nations of Canaan to come under the service of God and be spared from destruction (see Josh. 9:9f.); however, all the others did not choose this course.
After the conquest of the Promised Land and the establishment of Israel as the one nation devoted exclusively to the one true God, whenever the forces of Israel came near a city to fight against it, they were first to “proclaim an offer of peace to it” (Deut. 20:10). In the language of the covenant, “peace” (Heb. shalom; “wholeness, health”) is complete acceptance of the will of God in obedience to His Law resulting in God’s blessings of life. Rejection of this peace results in a curse leading to death. Especially with Israel, war was never done simply for fighting’s sake to gain earthly reward; rather, it was an exercise of faith intended to awaken hearts and minds to acceptance of the knowledge of God.
In the Person of the God-Man Jesus Christ, the concept of war has its fulfillment, both the utter futility of fighting on a material, worldly level, and the absolute victory of fighting on a spiritual level. “[Jesus Christ’ Himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:14), who endured all manner of opposition, violence, and murderous hatred without resistance or retaliation, suffering the atrocity of the Cross, yet triumphing over all these forces by His glorious Resurrection on the third day. Jesus Christ slays the real enemies “with the sword which proceeds from His mouth” (Rev. 19:21; 1:16), that is, “the Word of God” (Heb. 4:12-13). Likewise, all genuine disciples of Christ wage war against sin, death, and the devil with the Word crucified and risen for the salvation of our souls and bodies, in whom we are willing to give up our bodies to physical death in order to preserve our souls alive in the Spirit of holiness, hope, and love.