Is War Inherently Unjust and Immoral?

Empirically, there would appear to be but one adequate answer to this question. Whether one ponders the hundreds of thousands who have died in world wars or the “mere” several thousands who are casualties in lesser wars, localized wars, or the “war on terrorism,” this question would seem to provide its own answer. After all, war is hell, as we’ve often heard, and nothing can offset this reality.

On the basis of human loss, any war is immoral.

The pacifist presents a compelling case in arguing that, based on human loss, any war is immoral. Who among us can put a premium on human life? From the standpoint of loss, there is no explanation, no justification whatsoever, that might be deemed adequate. Period. In truth, everyone should become a pacifist tomorrow were this the only measurement of justice. But there are other perspectives that need to be taken into consideration.

On a daily basis, everywhere around us, law-enforcement officials engage in crime control, crime prevention, and crime interdiction. They operate on a decidedly different level than most theorists, yet like those theorists they maintain the highest regard for human dignity and human life. They do this, often unbeknownst to the public, at great cost and considerable effort. Most laypersons are unaware of the energy, planning, strategizing, and agonizing over how to deal with the problem of criminal behavior and violent crime. For example:

Suppose a child in your neighborhood is kidnapped. And suppose the kidnapper has taken refuge in a house in the neighborhood. What does local law enforcement do? Commit itself in principle to nonviolent intervention and hope that the kidnapper will change his ways and release the child without any altercation? Or perhaps firebomb the house so that the criminal will surely be incapacitated or killed? Criminal justice, at least as we have known it, will—very predictably, mind you—weigh the options, examine the dangers attendant, consult with other law-enforcement agencies, and chart its response. Along the way this will include attempting to “negotiate,” cordoning off the neighborhood, and perhaps a host of other measures. Why these measures? And why this predictability as a response?

The concern for safety and justice is balanced by a concern for the victim and the environment.

What we in the broader public take for granted is assumed in responsible criminal justice. In our particular scenario, law-enforcement officials neither (1) expect that the kidnapper will suddenly have a change of mind and give himself up without incident nor (2) resort to firebombing the house, or whole neighborhood, for that matter, in order to be sure to kill or restrict the kidnapper. The concern for safety and justice is balanced by a concern for the victim, as well as concern for the neighborhood environment. This latter concern, we must remember, does not mean a renunciation of coercive—even lethal—force should it be required. At the same time, police always measure their calculated use of force against the possibility of harm to the victim. This response to evil is fairly straightforward and remains noncontroversial.

Peace and stability themselves are the fruit of justice.

But if we agonize over criminal justice for those who are vulnerable to mass murder, genocide, or a holocaust, the stakes become far greater even while the moral principles do not change. This is not to suggest that one potential death—that of the kidnapped girl—is any less tragic than the slaughter of a million people. It does, however, test the moral fabric and resiliency of a society’s body politic, whether the holocaust is our own or our neighbor’s.

To not intervene when mass murder is imminent is to be an accomplice to that mass murder.

Not to intervene when we know that mass murder is imminent would be irresponsible. But it is more; it is to be an accomplice to that mass murder. How we think about and prepare for such scenarios is not hypothetical. What is our ethical duty to our neighbor, or a neighbor nation? If we suggest that all war is always and inevitably immoral, we turn our backs on those who might, on some rare occasion, need our intervention. For this reason, Reinhold Niebuhr in the late 1930s could write, “It is not possible to disavow war absolutely without disavowing the task of establishing justice.” In his own day the dilemma reached critical mass in just a few years as the storm clouds of totalitarianism loomed on the horizon. Consequently, Niebuhr was left to confess:

We cannot make peace with Hitler now because his power dominates the Continent, and his idea of a just peace is one that leaves him in security of that dominance. We believe . . . that a more just peace can be established if that dominance is broken. But in so far as Hitlerian imperial will must be broken first, the new peace will be an imposed peace.

War, Peace, and Christianity

J. Daryl Charles, Timothy J. Demy

This informed Christian response to more than one hundred common questions regarding the ethics of war demonstrates the viability of just-war reasoning in responding to contemporary geopolitical challenges.

Pacifism tempts us to make no moral judgments at all when they are desperately needed.

In that sense, evil gains the upper hand. In his significant statement “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” Niebuhr sides with Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas, who believe that genuine love can be—even when it will not always be— called upon to actively and directly oppose the forces of evil, given the sinful will to power that is rooted in human depravity. Responding somewhat sarcastically to the pacifists of his day who advocated nonintervention in foreign affairs, he writes: “If we believe that if Britain had only been fortunate enough to have produced 30 percent instead of 2 percent of conscientious objectors to military service, Hitler’s heart would have been softened and he would not have dared attack Poland, we hold a faith which no historic reality justifies.”Niebuhr sensed, and surely the Jews of his day knew, that there are sorrows and evils that are far worse than the physical deaths and ravages of war.

Simply said, there are, in fact, some human goods that are of such a high value that enormous sacrifices are justifiable in their defense. This, of course, is a moral and not mathematical judgment. Truly civilized society ascribes to human dignity and justice the highest place in its hierarchy of values. If this hierarchy disintegrates and justice is subverted, society is eclipsed. Peace and stability themselves are the fruit of justice. For this reason, peace is incompatible with a tolerance of evil. A belief in human dignity, given the human propensity for moral evil, requires such a view.

Adapted from War, Peace, and Christianity by J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy.

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at