Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Safeguarding Human Life, Part 1)
March 12, 2019
by Peter Amsterdam
Living Christianity: The Ten Commandments (Safeguarding Human Life, Part 1)
The Bible teaches that God created human beings in His image.
God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”1
Exactly what it means that God created humans in His own image and likeness isn’t precisely explained in Scripture. However, because we are made in His image and likeness, and no other creatures are, we can infer some of what it entails. Humans have intellectual ability that is superior to that of animals; we don’t take action based solely on instinct, but rather use reason to make decisions. We have the ability to design things and then make them, so in a sense we are able to create, and thus we can change and improve our world. We can write, count, do mathematical calculations, compose music, organize, reason, laugh, and much more—which animals are not able to do, or at least not to the same degree. We also have a moral likeness to God, in that we know the difference between what is morally good or evil, right or wrong. These and more qualities unique to humans make humanity distinct from animals, and can be understood to reflect the image and likeness of God.
The creation account in Genesis isn’t the only time humanity is referred to as being made in the image of God. In the time of Noah, the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.2 Because of this God said, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die.3
After the flood God declared:
For your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.4
The Hebrew word shaphak, translated as sheds in this verse, means “to pour out in a large amount, causing death,” and therefore “sheds the blood of man” means to unjustly take the life of another, to murder them.5 Because human beings are made in God’s image, murdering another human is against God’s law.
The sixth commandment reflects this prohibition. This commandment is presented in the King James Version of the Bible as Thou shalt not kill.6 The Hebrew word ratsakh, which is translated as kill, means to murder or slay, so that most Bible translations more accurately render this verse as You shall not murder.7 However, ratsakh also is used to express causing human death through carelessness or negligence, which today is known as manslaughter, so there are times when it is not translated as murder. It is never used in relation to the killing of animals or killing in war, and is used only once in Scripture for judicial execution. A different Hebrew word is generally used for legal execution throughout the Old Testament.
The command not to murder is repeated and referred to throughout the New Testament.8 Jesus specifically mentioned it three times:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.”9
Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder…10
“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder.”11
While it’s clear that committing murder is wrong, the sixth commandment also raises a number of other ethical issues regarding life and death, such as self-defense, war, suicide, euthanasia, capital punishment, abortion, and end-of-life issues. I plan to address these points in upcoming articles, and will begin here with the matter of self-defense.
Is it morally and ethically acceptable to defend yourself if you are physically attacked, or to stop such an attack on others? Jesus taught the concept of “turning the other cheek” when someone offends or insults you, instructing believers that they should not retaliate in like manner.12 However, in contrast to responding with violence to an insult, the idea of self-defense differs in that it refers to the use of force to protect yourself against someone who is committing or threatening to commit imminent violence against you.
There are biblical examples of individuals protecting themselves from violence by escaping from dangerous situations which would have brought them harm.13 Jesus Himself took action on a few occasions to escape an angry crowd that intended to kill Him.
They rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away.14
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.15
Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.16
Escaping from the crowds to protect Himself was a form of self-defense, but there is no indication that Jesus used physical force when doing so.
When doing some research about self-defense, I found that many martial arts experts teach that whenever possible it’s better to remove oneself from a confrontation than it is to fight. One wrote:
After more than twenty years of martial arts training, I can confidently say that I’ve learned some highly effective self-defense techniques. My favorite: run away from trouble. Second best: walk away from trouble. Third choice: defuse trouble from where you are.17
He then added:
This is the core principle of self-defense: Do whatever you can to avoid a physical confrontation, but the moment avoidance fails, attack explosively for the purposes of escape … Your goal is to get away.
While the Old Testament prohibited murder, it didn’t prohibit people from protecting themselves, and even allowed for killing someone in specific circumstances. For example, if someone broke into one’s home at night when it was dark, the homeowner could defend himself and his family, and if the robber was killed in the process, the homeowner was not held responsible for the death. However, if someone broke into the home during the day, the homeowner was not allowed to kill him, and if he did, he was held responsible for the death.
If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him.18
In the daytime, the owner could defend himself but not use deadly force, because the intruder could be identified, and thus caught and punished. It was also more likely that in daylight there would be others around who would be witnesses to the theft and could help apprehend the thief.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we find instances where God’s people were instructed to take defensive precautions to protect themselves. Nehemiah instructed the workers who were rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem to have their weapons at hand in order to be ready to fight against those who might attack them.19 When there was an evil plot to destroy all of the Jews throughout the kingdom of Persia, the Jewish Queen Esther revealed the plot to her husband, the king. Upon hearing it, King Ahasuerus allowed the Jewish people to defend their lives by killing those who were going to kill them.20
In the New Testament, there isn’t much said about self-defense. However, we read that Jesus, shortly before His crucifixion, made reference to His disciples having swords on hand for self-defense.
He said to them, “Now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” … And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”21
Jesus indicated that two swords for the self-defense of the group was sufficient, and it can be understood that He approved of the disciples having some means of protection.
Jesus later rebuked Peter for cutting off the ear of a servant of the high priest when soldiers came to arrest Him. However, this seems to be because Jesus didn’t want His disciples to defend Him, and possibly lose their lives doing so, when He knew that His death was the will of His Father.
Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”22
Behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”23
In the Gospel of Luke we read:
But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.24
While as Christians we are not prohibited from defending ourselves and our families from attempts to do us harm, what about when we are persecuted because of our faith? Scripture doesn’t teach that Christians should defend themselves by force in such situations. Jesus counseled His disciples:
When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.25
He didn’t tell believers to take up weapons and use them in self-defense when being persecuted for their faith. The apostle Peter pointed to Jesus’ example when He faced death:
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.26
It seems that while it’s legitimate for Christians to remove themselves from a persecution situation, or to look for police or governmental protection, and to protect themselves from an actual physical attack, that physically retaliating against one’s persecutors is not the proper response. In a case of persecution that does not involve imminent physical violence, one’s self-defense should be to seek the protection of the legal authorities and the court system by filing charges against the persecutors. If the government is the source of the persecution, then getting legal help or fleeing to a different location would be advisable, rather than taking up arms against the governmental authorities.
If you or your loved ones are faced with life-threatening violence, Scripture morally allows you to defend yourself and your family. Ideally, the action taken would be sufficient to disarm or apprehend the attacker without having to do too much harm or to take their life. Of course, the first course of action whenever possible should be to see if there is a way to defuse the situation and remove yourself from harm without resorting to violence. If possible, call the police and wait for their arrival; however, when that is not possible, defending yourself is morally acceptable.
While it is legitimate to defend yourself and your loved ones, it is also important to be aware that Scripture teaches that love, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and seeking peace are important Christian beliefs. These aspects of Christianity set an overarching tone when it comes to interactions with others.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.27
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.28
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.29
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Genesis 1:26–27.
2 Genesis 6:5.
3 Genesis 6:17.
4 Genesis 9:5–6.
5 Genesis 37:22; Numbers 35:33; 1 Kings 2:31; Ezekiel 22:4.
6 Exodus 20:13 KJV.
7 Exodus 20:13 ESV.
8 Romans 13:9, 1:29; 1 Timothy 1:8–9; James 2:11, 4:2; 1 John 3:12, 15; Revelation 9:21, 16:6, 21:8, 22:15.
9 Matthew 5:21.
10 Matthew 15:19.
11 Matthew 19:17–18.
12 Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount, Non-Retaliation.
13 1 Samuel 19:10: David fled after Saul tried to kill him with a spear. 2 Corinthians 11:32–33: The apostle Paul hid and escaped capture by being let down in a basket through a window.
14 Luke 4:29–30.
15 John 8:59.
16 John 10:39.
18 Exodus 22:2–3.
19 Nehemiah 4:16–18.
20 Esther 8:10–11.
21 Luke 22:36–38.
22 John 18:10–11.
23 Matthew 26:51–52.
24 Luke 22:51.
25 Matthew 10:23.
26 1 Peter 2:23.
27 Matthew 5:9.
28 Luke 6:27–29.
29 Romans 12:17–18.