If someone is attacking you then you may kill or disable him. Self-defense is a biblical principle. However, you may not toy with him as with a spider dangled over a candle’s flame. Sadism is not a biblical ideal for Christian practice. All men—even captured soldiers in aggressing armies, criminals, and terrorists—are created in the image of God and must be respected.
Thus, captured soldiers should not be tortured. Once an aggressor is captured then he is no longer a threat. He may be executed when doing so is the just penalty for his crimes but he must not be tortured. Do unto him as you would have him do unto you if you were the one captured. As well, remember that most soldiers in aggressive actions are conscripted by states and may not share the philosophical goals of their rulers. They may not want to fight but are doing so to save their lives from state tyranny. This fact should at least be a mitigating circumstance in many cases that gives us further reason to shun the practice of torturing captives.
Terrorists and men who commit capital crimes should be executed without cruelty. Capital punishment for murder could be an acceptable practice (Genesis 9:6), although its administration by the wayward state must always be suspect. Indeed, Christians should be wary of public policies promoting the death penalty—especially when administered by states rather than local judges with local jury trials. Why should Christians trust the state to do justice? States have been the greatest distorters of justice in history! Nevertheless, if capital punishment is to be advocated by Christians, execution by torture or cruelty must not be condoned.
Remember that the enemies of Christ—rather than Christians—practice cruelty and torture. “Consider my enemies, for they are many; and they hate me with cruel hatred” (Psalm 25:19). Cruelty is a sign of an unrighteous and unregenerate heart. “Deliver me, O my God, out of the hand of the wicked, out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man” (Psalm 71:4).2 Cruelty and torture are distinctives of unbelievers. “Then she [Delilah] lulled him [Samson] to sleep on her knees, and called for a man and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. Then she began to torment him, and his strength left him” (Judges 16:19). Yes, Delilah tortured Samson. Is Delilah a good example for Christians to follow?
Where in the Bible do we find examples of Jesus, the Prophets, or the Apostles being cruel? Evil men were cruel to them but consider what the Apostle Peter stated about the proper manifestation of Christian character in response: Remember Jesus “who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:23). And “having a good conscience, that when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed” (1 Peter 3:16). Accordingly, Christians should be marked as merciful. “The merciful man does good for his own soul, but he who is cruel troubles his own flesh” (Proverbs 11:27). Men marked by cruelty are hated by men and they are often abhorred by God. But a Christian’s character should be marked by “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness”, as well as by “righteousness and truth” (Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 5:9). Cruelty simply does not fit in the list.
Therefore, Christians should not be characteristically cruel. Cruelty is opposed to their new nature. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). Following the apostolic logic, perfect love (coming from God) casts out fear (being separated from God) which necessitates torment (in this life and later in hell). Think of some cruel men: Nero, the many Papal Inquisitors, Attila the Hun, General William T.
Sherman, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, and Robert Mugabe. Were they Christians? Was God’s way shown through their actions? No, they exemplified the opposite. Cruelty and torment are reserved for hell when God concludes “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4). Until then, Christians should loathe to advocate bringing any aspect of hell to earth—including torture.
Christians should defend themselves but they should not be brutal, pitiless, or malicious. If they advocate capital punishment then they should also advocate that it be carried out in a genial manner. They should not enshrine torture as good and reasonable conduct—whether in America, or as practiced by U.S. forces in Guantanamo Bay, or by the out-sourcing of torture of enemy combatants and alleged terrorists in Uzbekistan. American public policy at home or abroad should not mimic that of Stalin or Pol Pot. The cruel and brutal scourge of General Sherman must be shunned. Moreover, Christians should not monger over war. War is a horrible thing, even when necessary and just. It is neither to be desired nor glorified. And neither should torture and cruelty be part of a Christian’s personal course of action or any public policy which he backs.
2 God complained about His covenant people being cruel: “Even the jackals present their breasts to nurse their young; but the daughter of my people is cruel, like ostriches in the wilderness” (Lamentations 4:3). In other words, they were wayward. Since when is cruelty part of the fruit of the Spirit?
Originally published in The Times Examiner on December 28, 2005.