War, What Is It Good For? Sometimes It’s Absolutely Necessary!

War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things:  the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. . . . A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.      —John Stuart Mill1

Growing up, I felt a need to be like the people I admired. So for a time I wanted to be like Jerry West (the hall of fame shooting guard for the Los Angeles Lakers). Later I wanted to be like Beatles legend John Lennon. However, in the eighth grade while writing a report on the Second World War, I discovered two photographs of my father in The Decline and Fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan by Hans Dollinger. I further discovered that my seemingly ordinary father had received both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart Medals during his tour of duty in Europe. I was embarrassed that I had not recognized what an important role model my dad had always been. From that time I’ve been an avid student of World War II, even taking part of my undergraduate studies in history.

War is a challenging moral issue to come to grips with, especially from a Christian perspective. What follows is a brief article I wrote a couple years ago about just war theory.

Christian thinkers through the centuries have taken different positions on war. Three broad theories concerning the morality of war for the Christian are: activism, pacifism, and selectivism. Activism asserts it is virtually always right to participate in war. Strict pacifism insists it is never morally right to partake in war. Selectivism argues it is sometimes right to take part in war.

Just war theory is a type of selectivism contending that while war is always tragic, and often evil, it is sometimes morally right, just, and practically necessary. Leading Christian advocates of just war theory include Augustine of Hippo (354–430), Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), and Francisco Suárez (1548–1617). This theory involves two main moral categories of evaluation.

Jus ad bellum (Justness of war): Concerning the moral justness of waging war, a just war must conform to the following moral considerations.

A just war will:

  • Be waged by a legitimate authority (government or state, not private individuals)
  • Reflect moral deliberation (last resort after sincere diplomacy)
  • Have probability of success (reasonable belief that victory can be achieved)
  • Have a just cause (e.g., defense of innocents and freedom against direct aggression)
  • Be just in intent (establish peace, freedom, justice; not unlimited destruction of the enemy)

Jus in bello (Justice in war): Concerning the conduct of war, strategy and tactics must be just.

A just war will be conducted:

  • With proper proportionality (sufficient, but not excessive force will be used; good should outweigh evil)
  • With proper discrimination (noncombatants—civilians or innocents—should not be targeted)

Just war theory has been criticized for various reasons through the years (e.g., by failing to appreciate the benefits of a preemptive strike, being unrealistic in its moral expectations, being practically unworkable). Yet it nevertheless remains the most commonly accepted position among Christian thinkers when it comes to evaluating the moral considerations of waging war.

People throughout the world benefitted from the heroic Allies defeating the Axis powers in the world’s bloodiest war (with more than 60 million people killed). War is tragic, and at times evil, but it is sometimes absolutely necessary and the morally right thing to do.

For further study on the ethics of war, see John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004) and J. P. Moreland and Norman L. Geisler, The Life and Death Debate (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1990).


1. John Stuart Mill, “The Contest in America,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, April 1862, 683–84, http://digital.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=harp&cc=harp&idno=harp0024-5&node=harp0024-5%3A1&frm=frameset&view=image&seq=687.

  One thought on “War, What Is It Good For? Sometimes It’s Absolutely Necessary!

  1. Hannah
    February 15, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    Thomas Friedman speaks about how globalization has replaced the Cold War System in how we see many things, including war. He writes in his book “The Lexus and The Olive Tree,” how war has changed and The United States is fighting not countries, but individuals who have begun their own groups of terror. How does this fit into just war theory?

  2. Sarah Samples
    February 15, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Very good article, Dad.

    It was really cool to see pictures of my grandfather in that book.


    • January 14, 2020 at 7:03 am


      Your grandfather was a brave man.

      You have many of his qualities.



  3. mgkline4me
    February 18, 2011 at 1:44 am

    Dear Ken,

    I am really wrestling with this issue. I am almost a pacifist because I just can’t see the Bible *requiring* me to participate in violence. But that’s slightly different than the main question(s) I want to ask.

    “Just war” theory sounds good and helpful in the abstract, but I can’t see how it can even get on the ground. For one thing, I wonder whether aggression (i.e., the *initiation* of force) can ever be justified. I agree that defense is morally justifiable for the civil government. But it seems to me that just about any government could justify just about any war if aggression is permissible. Of course, it seems to me that we have to distinguish our American context from war-and-government in the abstract. I just don’t see how our U.S. Constitution or the framer’s intent allows for aggression.

    That leads me to the second part of my question: How can the “just war” theorist have any degree of certainty that he has the right information to evaluate? Forgive my profound skepticism, but even though they are God’s ministers for good in the sense that they, in the grand scheme of things, provide a stable environment for human life in order for God to redeem his people, governments lie and deceive. If a government wants to go to war for bad reasons, it isn’t going to admit those bad reasons to its own people, whose support it needs. I just see an unbridgeable epistemological gap in “just war” theory at this point. I mean, think of the Gleiwitz incident in Germany in 1939, the Gulf of Tonkin incident/the Pentagon Papers, what we now know about the war in Iraq, and a host of other similar deceptions.

    Next, who gets to arbitrate the question of a “just war”? The State? Again, if this is the case, I simply don’t see how it will ever find a war it wants to engage in, to be “unjust.” Does the Church get to arbitrate the question? If it believes government propaganda, will it ever find a war to be “unjust”? If it does find a war to be “unjust,” then what? Does it discipline its members who go off to fight in it? What does that look like?

    Finally, given the nature of modern warfare, how can war *possibly* meet the criterion that reads, “With proper discrimination (noncombatants—civilians or innocents—should not be targeted)”? How can bombs (atomic, napalm, mother-of-all, cluster, etc.) meet this? Even automatic weapons seem to make this difficult. I suppose you could say that the soldier who “accidentally” killed civilians or innocents as he sprayed automatic gun fire in the general direction of the enemy was not targeting those civilians or innocents. But I wonder about the morality of that. I am concerned for the subsequent psychological well-being of such a soldier. I can see the helpfulness of that criterion when Augustine or Aquinas would have promoted it – since it is difficult to “accidentally” kill a civilian with a sword. But today it is a different story.

    Thanks for any help you can provide,


  4. Lloyd I. Cadle
    February 18, 2011 at 10:33 am

    A poor use of war would be Jihad; a holy war waged on behalf of Islam.

    When your God is telling you to kill innocent people just because they don’t agree with your religion or lifestyle, that is not a good thing.

    A war to bring terrorists to justice is good, and should not be viewed as a Jihad but is necessary under the first use of the law. (Called “Curb” in Lutheran theology. It restrains evil and keeps law and order in society.)

    I don’t particularly agree with some our (U.S.) use of imperialism and sticking our noses into other countries’ business for the sake of money.

    I think that a war to defend a great ally like Israel is a good thing. (It should be noted that the situations in the middle east are political and not Bible prophecy. Also, the strange and various forms of democracy that are breaking out in the middle east may really screw up dispensational theology to the point where they may have to come up with a new set of Scriptures to fit all of their false doctrine!)

    Then there is the Sean Hannity viewpoint: All wars are good, just get into one! (I do not agree with that.)

  5. Lloyd I. Cadle
    February 18, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Last add just war: A war is just to defend against an attack against the United States, such as 9/11.

  6. Lloyd I. Cadle
    February 18, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Luther on war, “When state authorities officially call citizens into the army in order to maintain peace or to repel an attack, obedience is rendered to God by following the call. For God tells us: “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (Rom. 13:1). But you may say: Such obedience is dangerous, for I may be killed. I reply: Either you kill, or you are killed; death comes in either case. You are certainly taking the course which God has told you to take. Therefore even killing an enemy at the command of the state authorities is a holy and pious work.”

    Luther warns against going to war against one’s conscience, “A second question: Suppose my lord were wrong in going to war? Answer: If you know positively that he is wrong, you should fear God rather then men (Acts 4) and not fight or serve; for then you cannot have a good conscience before God.”

    Luther goes on to say that war may be the lesser of two evils, “The very fact that God has instituted the sword to punish the evil, protect the good, and preserve peace (Romans 13, 1 Peter 3) proves strongly enough that waging war and slaying and whatever wartime and martial law bring with them have been institued by God.” Luther asks, “What is war but the punishment of wrong and evil? Why is war waged but to maintain peace and obedience?”

    What about just cause? Luther answers, “To start a war you need more than a just cause. As we have said, this does not prohibit the waging of war; for here Christ has no intention to take away anything from the government and its official authority but is only teaching individuals who want to lead a Christian life. Still it is not right for a prince to make up his mind to go to war against his neighbor, even though, I say, he has a just cause and his neighbor is in the wrong. The command is: ‘”Blessed are the peacemakers.”‘ Therefore anyone who claims to be a Christian and a child of God not only does not start war or unrest, but he also gives help and counsel on the side of peace wherever he can, even though there may have been a just and adequate cause for going to war.”

  7. mgkline4me
    February 19, 2011 at 1:29 am

    Lloyd, for a Lutheran, you sure haunt quite a few Reformed blogs! 🙂

    As far as your comments about going to war over 9/11: while I would agree with capturing and trying those who were specifically responsible, I think the U.S. Constitution provides for this nicely with Congressional Letters of Marque and Reprisal. They were originally designed for the 18th century terrorists: pirates. They put a bounty on someone’s head, and anyone can collect. That way we don’t have to waste human life and money in executing justice.

    Plus, I wonder if you’ve read University of Chicago professor Robert A. Pape or former CIA head of the Bin Laden unit Michael Sheuer. They make the case that the single greatest motivating factor for suicide terrorism is the presence of a foreign occupying force on territory that is considered “prized.” (And the terrorist organization that has committed the most acts of suicide terrorism isn’t even Muslim – it is the Tamil Tigers, which claims to be atheists and communists.) When the people of that territory become frustrated that there seems to be no way to get the foreign occupying force out, suicide terrorism appears to be the only option to put pressure on democracies to get the occupiers to withdraw. In other words, perhaps we could provide best for our national defense by bringing all our troops home from the more than 130 countries around the world where we have bases so that they can defend our own land.

    As far as defending Israel, I think they have more than enough nuclear weapons to turn any of their enemies into a smoking hole in the ground. They don’t need us, and it is an “entangling alliance” (against which U.S. founders like Thomas Jefferson warned) that only provokes the very people we’re afraid will attack us.

  8. Lloyd I. Cadle
    February 19, 2011 at 10:15 am

    mgkline4me –

    The Reformed websites that I enjoy are the Riddleblog (Pastor Kim is a super great guy and wonderful pastor) and now Ken Samples’ website. Ken is a great man, a great thinker and a first class person as well. I had the pleasure of learning from Ken in many classes over a six year period!

    I was a Reformed christian until 2004, when after much study and prayer I became a Lutheran. I started out in the LCMS, and didn’t like the direction of the synod, and switched over to WELS (the conservative synod). The LCMS is now in great hands with the new SP Harrison. He is working hard to clean up the mess left by his predecessor.

    When Reformed, I read and studied all of Calvin’s Institutes and other works by Calvin and many others. I also read and studied Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. I have read and studied all of the three forms of unity in the Dutch Reformed faith, including the commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism by the author of it; Zacharias Ursinus, which I would use while teaching Reformed Jr. High kids for three plus years.

    My human hero is sinner Dr. Martin Luther. I enjoy reading him every morning along with God’s Word and my pot of Starbucks (of which I have been addicted to for 16 years).

    I am currently an elder at St. Thomas in Phoenix/Goodyear Arizona, and I am blessed to have Pastor Wagenknecht as my pastor. Pastor Wagenknecht is a master of the original Bible languages, (sometimes in our adult Bible study, he will just teach the Word of God right out of the original languages).

    What is so interesting about that, is his three sons are Lutheran pastors, including one that is a seminary prof., and he teaches Hebrew and Greek to spanish pastors in central America. Pastor Wagenknecht also has or has had four brothers in law that are pastors in the LCMS! Imagine that, eight Lutheran pastors in one family!

    Anyway, to make a long story short, I love the accuracy, richness and depth of Lutheran Theology. I have read, and continue to study the awesome Book of Concord, among many other great Lutheran works.

    Another great thing that I love about Lutheran Theology is that we follow the Church year. (The seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost and the non-festival half of the church year. We have our liturgies, hymns and chants that fit right into the seasons. I can’t tell you how much this adds meaning to worship throughout the year.)

    Lutheran theology is so rich with our symbols and colors that we use throughout the church year and years, which only enhance our studies of Christ come in the flesh to save us! Lutheran theology is historical, confessional and liturgical. The Holy Spirit is within our sacraments, not along side of them. The Gospel, as found in the means of grace, (Word and Sacraments) preserve us in our faith.

    On Sunday mornings, we love to see God’s grace coming down to us through the Lord’s Supper. “Take and eat, this is the true body of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, given into dealth for all of your sins. Take and drink, this is the true blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ shed for you for the remission of all your sins. May these, the true body and blood of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, strengthen and keep you in true faith unto life everlasting. Go now in peace, your sins are forgiven, Amen”

    We have the heavenly elements (Christ’s body and blood) combined with the earthly elements (the bread and wine) which is the sacramental union. Christ’s body and blood are real, and they are under, in, and with the elements of the bread and the wine. Partake! Eat and drink! God in peace! Sins forgiven! Yes, the Bible teaches us that we receive four things; body, blood, bread and wine.

    We look for assurance of our salvation and comfort in the Christian life in the promises contained in Baptism. And since God is true, and every man a liar (Romans 3:4), the promises contained in Baptism are directly to me. Luther taught us not to look to ourselves, how much faith we have, or if we have the right kind of faith, or fruit in our lives, or if we are perservering enough.

    No, Luther taught us to think sacramentally for comfort and assurance in the christian life. Comfort and assurance are found outside of ourselves, in Christ, His word, and in Baptism. (We have to believe the promises that are contained in Baptism, because God is true and every man is a liar. And, the promises in Baptism are to you and to me, and to all who believe this. And we must believe the promises, or we make God out to be a liar, which we certainly do not want to do!)

    I love to momorize Lutheran theology and the Scriptures that explain it so well, and I enjoy teaching it to all who will listen.

    Some of the websites that I also enjoy are Issues, Etc., John the Steadfast, and WELS. I also enjoy blogging on sports with our Phoenix sports talk guys, and on current events.

    By the way, regarding the foreign policy of our great country, even though I am a Republican, my views on this issue would be more in line with the Libertarian party.

    You make some excellent points in your post!

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