This article is on the topic of nuclear weapons, but also discusses things like personal revenge and the justice of God, the task of the government with regards to safety and justice, and government's use of force to ensure peace in times of unrest and war.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1983. 6 pages.

The Sermon on the Mount and Nuclear Weapons


The Sermon on the mount is often mentioned in discussions about the morality of atomic weapons.

In this discourse, which Jesus Christ addressed to His disciples on a mountain in Galilee, many topics are introduced. This sermon, found in the chapters 5 to 7 of the gospel according to Matthew, contains some far-reaching pronouncements against the breakup of marriages, speaks with great emphasis about the importance of prayer, urgently warns against laying up treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and calls for a lifestyle wherein matters of eating, drinking and clothing are not considered with anxious care.

One would get the impression that these items are of lesser importance in our times, because we seldom find any mention of them in the newspapers. However, when Christian Democrat Chancellor Helmut Kohl showed that he did not relent in the matter of deploying medium range missiles, the sermon on the mount was waved in front of him by the Christian press.

Today, one particular part of that discourse receives all the attention: The subject of peace. The parts most often quoted are:

  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

  • Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

  • If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

  • Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

The practical application of these exhortations is usually exceedingly simple: If one desires that peace of the Sermon on the Mount, he must most certainly refrain from placing 572 new nuclear missiles in Europe. Further, in Geneva the West must go the extra mile and no longer glare at the Eastbloc with hostility and distrust. Communist aggressiveness β€” if indeed it does exist β€” must be undone by means of a posture of Christian defenselessness.

It is clear, of course, that such a usage of the Bible is a very selective one. And even then, those who call upon us to make this application of the Sermon on the Mount often come into conflict with their own so constructed "Scriptural" doctrine. In the same paper which referred Helmut Kohl to the Sermon on the Mount, I read that the anti nuclear arms movement is planning to obstruct railway traffic, to pull emergency brakes, to disrupt telephone communications and to set up barricades at busy traffic intersections. All this to promote the Peace of Christ? Does this indeed have anything to do with the Sermon on the Mount? Sharp debates and a hot summer seem far removed from the serene climate and atmosphere of the discourse which Jesus gave on the mountain in Galilee.

Tender Eyes and the Flashing Swordβ†β€’πŸ”—

True, this is only one aspect of the discourse on the mountain, and, true, we could silence those anti-nuke noisemakers with another Bible text: "You, who judge others, condemn yourself." But that does not make the actual issue go away, or become any less important, and we are the ones who must come to a conclusion. How can a follower of Jesus Christ, one who also takes that following seriously in political matters, ever give his approval to the practice of threatening with any kind of weapons, let alone nuclear ones?

This problem is as old as the church itself. I mention two names to illustrate that fact. Aurelius Augustinus, in a letter from the year 410 dealt with Marcellius' question:

How can the doctrine of Jesus who asks from us that we, being striken on one cheek, turn the other, and that we go along for two miles β€” how can that doctrine be reconciled with the ethics and actions of the state? Is it not true that in the state the rule is followed that evil is avenged with evil, especially with respect to those barbarians who come to plunder the provinces of the Roman Empire?

I think also of Martin Luther, who dealt with this problem in his publication Von der weltlichen Obrichkeit of 1523. In this treatise he explored this problem further than Augustine did. This was one of the issues that led him to distinguish between two realms: the kingdom of the Spirit and the kingdom of the world.

Nowhere is this problem more clearly formulated than in the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans. In chapter 12 Paul mentions the same things as can be found in the Sermon on the Mount: Do not repay evil for evil; do not avenge yourself; leave it to the judgment of God; if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him to drink (vs. 17-20). But then, without any transition Paul continues in chapter 13 by discussing the governing authorities who bear the sword. He says if you wish to live without fear under them, you must do that which is good and you will receive approval. But if you do wrong, you have indeed every reason to be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain. He is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer (vs. 3-4).

Therefore, the tender eyes of the one party and the flashing sword in the hands of the other are not incompatible. But if they are not incompatable, how then do we reconcile them?

Well, first Paul tells the believers not to take revenge but to let God be the judge (12:19). Then, in chapter 13, he states that the magistracy is God's servant to execute God's wrath, on His behalf, on him who does evil (13:4). Although God forbids my personal revenge, that does not apply to the government. The government may do what I am not allowed to do. My personal calling differs from the office of the government. The government is entitled to use the sword on God's behalf, while I, as private citizen and as follower of Christ am called upon to keep my hands off things. Yet we can both serve peace. The believer of Romans 12 does so when the peace of Christ is manifested in him by his disarmingly defenseless lifestyle. The governments serve peace by maintaining order among the people, or by restoring it, if necessary, with the use of force.

Hitler's Downfall and the Sermon on the Mountβ†β€’πŸ”—

It is only proper to illustrate this fact by reference to the most sizable war mankind has ever known. The second World War was one in which an enormous amount of cruelty took place and errors were made β€” also by the allied forces, costing greatly in human lives and suffering. There is a trend nowadays to place equal-signs between, for instance, the bombardment of Rotterdam by Germany and the allied forces' raid on Dresden. Some people do not hesitate to mention Auschwitz and Hiroshima in one breath as crimes against mankind. But there most certainly is a difference between the one and the other. Let us assume that the raid on Dresden and the bombing of Hiroshima should not have taken place. Even then a distinction must be made between mistakes and misdeeds. The sword of the lawful authorities of the USA, Britain and other countries were raised against dictatorial powers which were trampling one nation after the other underfoot. This was entirely in accordance with Romans 13. Anyone who claims that the Sermon on the Mount prohibits armed resistance against Hitler, must of necessity take into account the consequence of his stand, namely that then many more Jews would have been dragged into the gas chambers.

I do not hesitate to call it an act of peace and love when the oppressors are forcefully kept in check and when the oppressed are liberated. We can engage in endless conversations (if we have nothing else to do) about who are "good" and who are "evil" in the sense of Romans 12 and 13. But when the gas chambers opened their doors to eradicate the Jewish nation, then in agreement with Romans 13 the Nazis were the evil ones and the Jews were the good ones, irrespective of the fact that German complaints about the heavy reparation payments after World War I were quite understandable and justified. The destruction of Hitler's power was not in conflict with the Sermon on the Mount or with Romans 12. Instead, it may be considered as the practical execution of the Biblical twin command: "Love God and love your neighbor as yourself." The active wrath of the government as the servant of God, the protection of its own subjects and the help of those who are oppressed, are not in conflict with the Sermon on the Mount, but rather fulfill the divine command. Justice is not incompatible with love, but rather acts to give love its proper form.

The prevention of chaos by using force keeps open the road towards peace and love. I am inclined to say, with Luther, that it is loveless to deny the government the power of the sword for the maintenance of peace and control of wrongdoers. This can be said, not in view of one's own personal interests (Romans 12) but rather, in view of the well being and benefit of one's neighbor (Romans 13).

To Clench a Fist in Obedienceβ†β€’πŸ”—

I mentioned earlier that Luther spoke both of the spiritual and the profane kingdom. I believe that without such a distinction no Christian politician can clearly perceive his task. However, instead of speaking about two kingdoms I would prefer to mention two regiments, two rulerships within the one kingdom. In God's kingdom there are two different styles of acting: with and without the sword; armed and unarmed. This Biblically founded distinction, which we encounter all the time, affects our ideas about the different tasks of church and state. We are forcefully reminded of it when we are told that the policy of deterrence must be replaced by unilateral disarmament. Not only the church, but the government also, must go the road of defenselessness.

It is unfortunate but true, however, that in this world the deterrence of force is still very much needed. It is also equally true that the Beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers," cannot properly be rephrased as "blessed are the pacifists." One could wish this were true; force is often harsh, cruel, and bloody. Besides, governments often use the power of the sword not to punish the wrongdoers, but rather to oppress those who do well. As well, people like Augustine and Luther, who believed in "just wars," were not optimistic about the actual execution of this calling of the government to the use of force. Augustine qualified some states as bands of robbers. In Luther's opinion, a wise ruler, and certainly a God-fearing one, was a rare bird indeed. If one measures by actual practice, it must be admitted that the application of force and the use of authority are often not in harmony with the Sermon on the Mount but diametrically opposed. All too soon the distinction between those two kingdoms turns into a division between the two. Politics then becomes an enterprise of harsh realities where the word "faith" is out of place. One cannot be active in politics and remain undefiled; politics and ethics are irreconcilable. Ethics exudes saintliness and deals with absolutes, whereas politics always functions by compromise, wherein less is achieved than really should have been. In ethics, the heart of pure conscience beats; in politics, the defiled one. Politics cannot do a thing with the Sermon on the Mount. Bismark stated: you cannot govern the world with Beatitudes.

That is admittedly true, and I can go one step further: neither by the Sermon on the Mount, nor by the complete Bible alone can the world be governed. It requires a great deal of insight and knowledge which cannot be derived from the Bible. But to admit that the world cannot be governed by the Bible, including the Sermon on the Mount, is different than claiming that you cannot do anything in politics with that Bible. We must recognize the boundaries between those two kingdoms (realms, regiments) and neither attempt to erase them, nor build insurmountable walls between them, so that faith, the Bible and the Sermon on the Mount are declared taboo as soon as politics comes into the picture.

Augustine, who had a clear eye for the often horrible reality, did not do that either. He held up a profile of the true monarch and called those blessed who were,

slow to punish but quick to forgive, who mete out punishment because they are forced to do so for the protection of the state and not to vent their hatred as a result of personal feuds; who when they grant pardon do so, not to leave the evil unpunished, but on account of a hope of improvement, and who counter-balance the often harsh decisions they have to make with a warm benevolence and rich benefits; who, when they have unlimited opportunity to increase their wealth, remain modest and sober; who would rather oppress evil desires than all manner of peoples, and who, when they perform all this, do so, not from a burning desire for vain glory, but out of love and to their eternal wellbeing.1

Similar statements can be found in Luther's works as well. When you read such statements, it is obvious that it cannot be maintained that the Sermon on the Mount must be kept out of politics. I would formulate it this way: Those who govern must be able to show a clenched fist, while having the Beatitudes written in their hearts. What is needful politically cannot be wrong ethically. In other words: responsible politics is ethically unsuspect, for otherwise ethics is removed from the scene of real life. We should not condemn a government which, within the limitations of its calling, is able to exercise self-control, if not self-denial. We should not wave the Sermon on the Mount in front of such a government as a form of accusation.

Is that Still Possible with Nuclear Arms?β†β€’πŸ”—

The question may be asked, if those who govern with the Beatitudes written in their hearts, can still hold atomic weapons in their clenched fist. Do those nuclear arms have any relationship with the sword of Romans 13? Is it possible that that sword is an atomic bomb, that can eradicate both the wicked and the good indiscriminately as soon as it is used? Who can still speak of a concept like "just war" when the deployment of such weapons is considered? And who can speak of a "limited nuclear war" without first sticking his head in the sand?

I understand such questions. It is also my opinion that a next world war, using the full nuclear arsenal, would have very little to do with Romans 13 and nothing at all with Romans 12 or with the Sermon on the Mount. But that is not the end of the question. Although it is indeed correct to state that nuclear weapons should not be used because the slightest application carries with it the risk of a holocaust, that does not rule out or condemn their ownership and use as a means of deterrence. Weapons which are not used in combat can still be useful to prevent combat. This is the paradox: we must show a willingness to use nuclear weapons in cases of emergency, in order to prevent the use of these weapons by ourselves and our opponents. This weapon has functioned so effectively as a deterrent that it has not been used as an actual tool in fighting.

I can understand the questions which the Roman Catholic bishops in the USA have asked in their extensive pastoral letter about matters of war and peace: "may a nation threaten with that, which it is not allowed to do? May it possess things which it is never allowed to use?" But in order to answer those questions, the total situation must be taken into account. Our atomic weapons are aimed at the Soviet Union, not at Amsterdam or London. Even the French weapons, which were initially aimed in all directions, are now pointed toward the East. Anyone who fails to see the danger there, either as a result of pious idealism or otherwise, must be against the ownership of nuclear arms. However, I agree with the American bishops in this respect: We must have no illusions about the Soviet system of oppression and about its total lack of respect for "human rights," and about the secret underground operations of the Soviet Union and its stirring up of revolutionary activities. The bishops do not overlook the mistakes of their own government while still pointing out a major difference between East and West: "Nato is a pact between democratic nations; the Warsaw pact is not." They condemn as malicious the attempt to place the lifestyle of the West on the same level as the totalitarian and tyrannical regimes of the East. Notwithstanding much deserved criticism, we can point here to genuine freedom of religion, freedom of speech and access to a free press.

Well then, these freedoms should be valued highly. On the one hand, there is undoubtedly a great risk involved in the presence of nuclear arms; on the other hand, there is the risk that, unless a strong fist is shown, a totalitarian dictatorship could take control of our lives. That clenched fist has been held up. It is not just a coincidence that we have had both nuclear arms and almost forty years of non-use of nuclear arms. Almost forty years after Hiroshima there has been no repeat. The crises with respect to Berlin and Cuba are clear instances of the effectiveness of a nuclear arms' threat.

In the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord's Day 40) the meaning of the command "you shall not kill" is explored. It is stated that the government is armed with the sword to prevent murder. A sword is not only designed to slay with, but is also intended to prevent others from slaying with it. The government is there for peace, not for war.

Along the same line I feel justified in stating that the atomic weapon, especially because of its horrendous capabilities to slay, does indeed prevent slaying. As long as that position can be held up within reason, the existence of nuclear arms can be seen as a contribution toward the containment of the dissoluteness among people. Superpowers in particular are chained down by it.


It is not my task to deal with the policy issue of placing 572 new nuclear weapons. Before dealing with this policy issue the politician must come to terms with the ethical question: Is the threat of nuclear striking power permissible as a means of deterrence? It will be clear by now that I do not answer that question in the negative. The American bishops β€” who have under current circumstances not answered this question negatively either β€” have sharply defined the ethical problem: "May a nation threaten with that which it is never allowed to do?" In my opinion, the correct answer to that question still remains this: It may threaten with that which, if the threat is effective enough, need not be done.

And that is how things still are today.

However, besides the effective threat with atomic weapons there is also the threat of a continuous arms race which makes the world ever more unsafe. And the latter can cancel the first. The fact that ever more nations will have nuclear arms at their disposal, increases the scope of the risk considerably. Therefore everything possible should be done to reduce the nuclear arsenal in this world. The abolishing of nuclear weapons is an aim which the governments must consciously pursue, no matter how illusory that goal may seem. And then I have not even considered the fact that many millions are invested in such weaponry, while at the same time a large segment of mankind lives under conditions that are decidedly substandard.

With that in mind, we realize that the negotiators in Geneva are under the heavy pressure of responsibility. Although the disarmament conferences with their endless discussions and their minuscule rate of success can make us lose heart, it is necessary even then to keep a cool mind. It may sound very pious to cite the Sermon on the Mount as the ground for promoting unilateral disarmament and to propose making a major leap instead of taking many very small steps. But if such unilateral disarmament would mean that the threat from the Eastbloc would increase, the result would be a major step backward instead of forward on the road toward greater world security. The Sermon on the Mount calls for a life dedicated to the service of God and the help of one's neighbor. Within the framework of the Scripturally defined task of the government, such dedication could mean that political caution at disarmament conferences comes closer to following the Sermon on the Mount than a wide-eyed idealistic jump into the unknown, no matter how many Bible texts one quotes.

If Freedom Degenerates into Licenceβ†β€’πŸ”—

There is still one major problem that confronts us when we are dealing with nuclear arms β€” and it is hardly ever discussed. Even so, I believe we should most certainly give it our attention. We have nuclear arms to safeguard our freedom. The moral acceptability of that ownership and of the threat accompanying it is aimed at the protection of that great treasure which we must defend: our freedom. One can say good things about atomic weapons if they serve as a shield to protect our freedom. However, it becomes more difficult if that freedom degenerates into licentiousness. We may be horrified when we hear about the Gulag Archipelago and protect ourselves with nuclear arms against anything that presently enslaves and breaks down the lives of people behind the iron curtain. But what is taking place in our own surroundings with defenceless unborn children? What occurs here when we apply the rule of God's law and of Christ's own words from the Sermon on the Mount with regard to the institution of marriage, to the practice of sexuality, to the respect for authority, to the use of our own wealth in a world full of poverty, and to many more such things?

Abuse of freedom does not cancel out its proper use, and thus neither the right and the duty to defend that freedom. But I repeat what I have said in earlier addresses about nuclear weapons: If Western democracy is being exercised in a climate of spiritual anarchy, eventually its lifestyle will begin to resemble life under the Eastern communist dictatorship. The closer this likeness becomes, the more will the exercise of freedom become a hollow shell, and the more difficult will it be to say even one decent word in favor of these terrible weapons. The protection of our liberty is important, but even more important is the proper use of that liberty. We must do everything within our power to prevent a nuclear war. It is possible, however, that we forfeit the meaning and the quality of our freedom. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed when they turned freedom into licentiousness, and the final Babylon will meet with a similar fate. Hellfire can indeed descend from heaven.

Therefore, a Christian appeal to be steadfast and cautious with respect to nuclear arms must be accompanied by Isaiah's urgent call:

to the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.Isaiah 8:20 NIV

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