January 14, 2022

Guns or Roses?

Civil Conversation about Uncivil Options

Joseph Olstad / Frank M. Hasel

The issue of Christians owning and using guns, especially against other humans, has been debated almost since firearms and gunpowder appeared in Europe in the 13th century. In today’s fragmented religious environment, many opinions are advanced in churches, in the public square, and on media. Seventh-day Adventist Christians, often influenced by polarizing political, social, or cultural viewpoints, debate this issue both publicly and privately. We asked two authors with contrasting opinions to engage in an imagined conversation with a respected Adventist friend who holds a different opinion about this divisive topic, each explaining their viewpoint from a Christian and Adventist biblical worldview.—Editors.

Turning Guns into Shields

Should Christians use guns? YES!

By Joseph Olstad

Scripture assumes a theology of protection. Consider the nuanced laws regarding whether a woman’s cry can be heard if she is attacked (Deut. 22:22-27). There is no command for her rescue. It is assumed that the community would save her upon hearing her scream. It seems some moral obligations are so obvious that God doesn’t need to command them.

He simply expects others to rescue as He rescues when hearing their cries: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him . . . . You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword” (Ex. 22:21-24, ESV).[1]

The words for “oppress” and “mistreat” can also be translated “afflict, crush, treat violently,” or even “destroy.” No wonder God invokes lethal force, i.e., the sword, to defend these groups. He is saving their lives.

So what does this have to do with carrying guns? At the core, a gun is an extension of a theology of protection when used appropriately. The practical question is: What provides the best chances of defending innocent lives against lethal threat? Depending on the situation, a firearm, in well-trained hands, can be a shield of protection.

Many Christians, however, are convinced that carrying guns is out of harmony with Christ’s teachings and therefore not an option. Let’s consider these concerns.  

Violence and Reducing the Tragedy

Violence—intentional, casual, celebrated or regretted—is the spirit of the age. No wonder that well-meaning intellectuals and activists, seeking to root out violence, have focused on guns. For many, guns are synonymous with violence, and if any group should be avoiding violence in all forms, it should be Christians.

If an attacker is shot by a Christian in self-defense, is that violence? If the standard definition of violence is used as intentional use of force with a likely result of injury or death, then yes, the Christian gun owner is committing an act of violence. (Note: if that definition is used, then any fighting, with or without a weapon, is violence.) But there’s a problem. Using violence as the only contextual category provides no substantial moral difference between whether the defender kills the aggressor, or the aggressor kills the defender. Violence would have been committed either way, with the same result—the loss of one life.

But our God-given moral intuition perceives that although any loss of life is tragic, the tragedy of an innocent life lost is greater than the tragedy of a murderer being killed to prevent more murders. The question to ask is not "How does one eliminate violence in a lethal situation?" Violence is going to be committed whether we like it or not. The question is "How does one reduce the tragedy of inevitable violence?" A gun in the right hands can be used ethically to reduce the tragedy of violence. Simply think of a mass shooter being stopped by a civilian gun carrier. If that’s the circumstance, it’s hard to conceive that a Christian can be morally guilty for using a firearm to that end. In fact, we don’t condemn those who reduce tragedy; instead, we call them heroes.

From Sword to Shield

Christians carrying and using guns as an extension of a theology of protection don’t use guns to kill people. A shot is fired, not with the intention to kill someone, but to decisively stop a lethal attack. The shot may or may not be fatal. If they stop a threat by firing on an attacker, they then have the moral obligation to do all they can to save the aggressor’s life (e.g., calling for medical help, administering first aid, etc.). In this sense the gun is used more as a shield than a sword; its purpose is to protect under extreme circumstances, not to purposefully take life. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord (Heb. 10:30, ESV). The Christian carrying a gun recoils from any hint of vengeance killing. In fact, if the trigger is pulled after a lethal threat is discontinued (even if the bad guy did really bad stuff), the gun carrier could be convicted of attempted murder—and should be.

Eden—Not Yet

To the objection that more spiritual weapons are at our disposal, including prayer, the miraculous power of God, and the moral teachings of Christ, gun-carrying Christians wholeheartedly agree. Prayer should be unceasing, especially in dire situations (1 Thess. 5:17). Principles such as “turn to him the other [cheek] also” (Matt. 5:39, ESV), “put your sword back” (Matt. 26:52, ESV), and “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44, ESV) should be carefully applied to daily life. Applying them to life-threatening situations becomes more complex.

I have four daughters. If an intruder stabs one of them, I feel no obligation to offer that person the other cheek. Perhaps in the name of self-sacrifice (Matt. 16:24) the Christian should let himself or herself be killed rather than take the intruder’s life. No doubt, this would be morally permissible and even commendable. However, it is less clear in a family situation, say, whether the father should make such a self-sacrifice, leaving the wife and (in my case) four daughters exposed to potentially unimaginable horrors.

A common reaction to scenarios like this is “Trust God to protect.” There is no doubt God is in the protecting business. But many of God’s protective actions are mediated through the agency of His creation. It may be no less an act of God for an angel to strike down a killer than it is for a Christian to shoot one. Also, because some Christians have lived a lifetime without experiencing horrible tragedy, they may be tempted to think being a Christian insulates them from the extreme dangers of life. Learning about the real world of violence, choices, and responsibility disallows that naive view. Christians during all times and places have had to face nightmare situations. I recently read of a Seventh-day Adventist family who lost a son to a serial killer. We are not in Eden yet. There are protections that Christians are permitted to take in recognition of that fact.

Conclusion

Seventh-day Adventist Christians possess a wholistic view of humanity. We don’t just focus on the mental and spiritual aspects of our lives; we also highlight the physical experience. Think about our health message or the bodily resurrection that Scripture teaches. Physical life has always been a priority with God (Gen. 9:6). If a firearm or other weapon is used appropriately to preserve the life of loved ones, it is difficult to see how this violates one’s commitment to Christ. Preserving innocent life seems, instead, to be a fulfillment of that commitment.

Joseph Olstad is a graduate of the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies and Andrews University. He lives in Utah, United States, with his wife and his four daughters.


Does Love and Compassion Come from the Barrel of a Gun?

Should Christians use guns? NO![2]

By Frank M. Hasel

The Heart of the Problem

Guns are weapons deliberately designed to damage an object, inflict wounds, or kill another living being. Whoever intentionally carries a deadly weapon must be prepared to use it and must be ready to potentially kill. Carrying a deadly weapon thus inevitably alters the way we see and interact with people. We view those around us through a lethal lens. This contradicts three paramount biblical principles: love your neighbor; love your enemy; and trust God fully.

This brings us to the heart of the problem: being ready to kill someone is at odds with loving them. Moreover, relying on a weapon to keep me safe raises a spiritual question: am I placing my faith in guns or God? Whom do I trust will save and protect me? My gun, or God?

What Makes a Christian?

Love and compassion are high on the list of characteristics of those who would be recognized as Christians. Bearing arms, inflicting violence, killing other human beings, and causing others to suffer from gunshot wounds does not reflect the loving and compassionate character of Jesus Christ, who is the Prince of Peace.

It always puzzles me how some Christians are strangely forgetful of the clear teachings of Jesus that have guided and motivated Christians throughout the centuries: “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44, NKJV).[3] Using a gun does not emulate the virtues of love and compassion. We know that “those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6, NLT).[4] Believers should never “repay anyone evil for evil” (Rom. 12:17, NIV)[5] but rather “overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:21, NKJV). Love is the quintessential virtue of Jesus’ followers and the identifying mark by which the world recognizes us as His disciples (John 13:35).

Embodying Faith and Imitating Christ

God does not want people to be victims of violence, and certainly not at the hands of those claiming to be followers of Jesus. Christians cannot change the world through violence. Guns are instruments of violence, designed to harm other human beings who are created in the image of God. Even when guns are used with very noble intentions, the sad reality is that they destroy lives, fracture families, cause injuries, and result in enormous bloodshed, grief, and death.[6]

The use of guns runs counter to the spirit and teachings of Jesus. There is something profoundly unsettling when Christians use weapons of warfare to kill others and think they are somehow following the Prince of Peace.[7] When this happens, Christianity loses credibility, because what matters most is not what we claim about Jesus, but how we embody our faith. By imitating Christ’s peaceful and kind manner, especially in dealing with our enemies, we present to those who would cause us harm the manner by which Christ deals with them. For if we do not treat our enemies as Christ has taught us, how will they know the One we proclaim to be Lord and Savior? Can love and compassion come out of a gun barrel?

Redemptive Violence—Fact or Fiction?

Hollywood and society have conditioned us to believe that violence stops evil and saves lives. This myth of “redemptive violence” is diametrically opposed to what Jesus practiced and taught in the Gospels. “Put away your sword,” Jesus said, because “those who use the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52, NLT). Jesus did not commend Peter for his skillful use of a sword. Jesus did not wound: Jesus healed! As followers of Jesus, we should be willing to suffer injustice rather than retaliating with violence (1 Peter 2:20). In using guns, we have strayed a long way from the peaceful and loving path of Jesus.

Agents of Shalom

As Seventh-day Adventist Christians we are not called to play the Dirty Harrys, Rambos, or James Bonds of this world. Devotion to the way of Christ means that we do not take up worldly weapons and participate in violent acts, but we are agents of shalom as Jesus has described the essential nature and ethics of His new community of believers (Matt. 5:38-48). We do so because God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35, NIV). Jesus never violently injured another human being. He never punched a Pharisee or assaulted a Sadducee. Jesus exercised His power to heal, not to harm. The early Christians comprehensively rejected the legitimacy to kill at any level, including abortion, capital punishment, gladiator contests (even watching them!), infanticide, and warfare.

Conclusion

If I am completely honest with you, try as I might, I simply cannot imagine Jesus looking into the eyes of another person and pulling the trigger of a gun or a semiautomatic weapon, firing a round of bullets at someone, or engaging in a knock-down, drag-out fistfight with an adversary. I cannot imagine Jesus deliberately hurting or killing another human being. His love compelled Him to act differently. We too should model this love by recovering the courage to learn from Him to be agents of peace.

Frank M. Hasel is an associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the world headquarters of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Postscript

Two highly divergent opinions, both argued from a biblical worldview perspective that accepts Scripture’s truth claims on our lives. Both positions can call on Scriptural support; both ground their reasoning in the believer’s adherence to God’s Word. We invite you to search for relevant biblical principles—and for civil conversations with those who may not believe as you do. Editors


[1] All Scripture quotations marked ESV have been taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] For a more detailed description, see the discussion in Frank M. Hasel, Barna Magyarosi, and Stefan Höschele, eds., Adventists and Military Service: Biblical, Historical, and Ethical Perspectives (Madrid: Editorial Safeliz, 2019).

[3] Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[4] Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

[5] Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

[6] For some sobering statistics on the impact of gun violence in the United States see https://www.bradyunited.org/key-statistics, accessed Aug. 20, 2021.

[7] There is a profound difference between shooting a wild animal and shooting a human being, who is created in God’s image. No human being is made to be hunted or killed. No human being should be in the crosshairs of another person’s gun or assault pistol.

Joseph Olstad / Frank M. Hasel