Is Assassination Ethical?

Question
Is assassination ethical?
Answer

There is not a yes or no answer. Judges 3:12-30 would be the closest text. Essentially the Israelites sinned. God punished them by sending Eglon, King of Moab. Eglon gathers some allies of his to come with him and they do battle with Israel. The Israelites cried out for help. God answered their prayer and sends Ehud, the assassin. Ehud is left-handed and asked for an audience with Eglon. The king's body guards don't discover his concealed weapon (probably because they didn't bother to search his right side for his sword). Ehud stabs Eglon and kills him. Leaving his blade behind, Ehud escapes and rallies the troops, who unite around their new leader. He then strikes ten thousand Moabites down with his army, and none escape.

There are some other relevant texts as well (Psa. 82:4; Prov. 24:11-12; 1 Sam. 14:45). See "Praising Jael for Murder" below.

So, biblically there is a foundation for assassinations. Some might object and say this is not walking in love towards your neighbor. Two points come to mind: (1) your enemy is not your neighbor when he is trying to kill you and (2) if you do not defend your other real neighbors from such enemies when it is in your power to do so, then are you really acting in a loving manner toward them?

"You shall not murder," is God's law (Exod. 20:13). However, the Hebrew for "murder" (ratsach) does not refer to all killing. Assassinations are linked with the theory of what is commonly called "Just War." Jack Arnold in an article entitled, "Should A Christian Go To War?" gives four viewpoints on war. He says:

There are four basic viewpoints on war that have been held by the historic Christian Church. Of course, there are also many modifications of these views.

Crusade War: This view says one should wage war in the name of religion. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders, inspired by the Roman Catholic Church, felt it was right to spread Christianity by the sword. They made war in the name of the man who gave his life for others, believing it was commanded to take life. This period is a dark spot in the history of the church, and Christians often hang their heads in shame when reading about the Crusades. Jesus Christ made it clear that Christianity is never to be spread by the sword, but in love and by the power of God.

Non-resistance: The other extreme says that Christians are not to participate in any type of war whatsoever. Those who hold this view believe that all killing in war is wrong. Some would not oppose killing in self-defense or fighting a defensive war. Others would enter military service as non-combatants. There is a great deal of latitude in this position. The Mennonite, Brethren, and Quaker groups have traditionally been pacifists. Many Methodists are also of this persuasion.

Blank-check War: This viewpoint says Christians should go to war whenever their government tells them to do so. It makes the state an idol and would cast Christian morality and ethics to the wind. There may be times when Christians cannot fight for their country, such as when the country is an aggressor or when the Christian is required to do unchristian acts.

Just War: Those holding this view evaluate a war and the activities involved in it to see if violence is justifiable. This group feels that Christians, like all other men, have social responsibilities and that war may be justifiable on a political basis in some cases. Their criterion is: Is the war less harmful than the evil it hopes to prevent? This theory has been held by the Reformed groups, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and most Baptists.

According to Dr. John Frame, Just war is "a tradition that goes from Aristotle to the Stoics, and it has then been adopted by Christians like Augustine." It has been defended by many (WCF 23; WLC Q. 136; Calvin: Institutes, book 4, sections 11 and 12; Turretin: Institutes, Topic 11, Question 17; Dabney: Lectures in Systematic Theology, Lecture 33, Question 7; Charles Hodge: Systematic Theology, Part 3, Chapter 19, Section 10; John Murray: Principles of Conduct, pp. 178-179). Knox, along with Theodore Beza, George Buchanan, Samuel Rutherford, and others of the 16th and 17th centuries advocated rebellion against unjust government.

Pacifists incorrectly appeal to certain Scriptures to make their case: If pacifism is taught in Scripture, then why didn't John instruct the soldiers to get out of the military? (John 3:14); Cornelius (Acts 10), etc. (see: Violent Resistance). Isn't it just as wrong to break any and all of the commandments, as it is to keep one commandment to point of breaking another?). In my opinion during war, or even to prevent war, assassinations may be permitted "at times." One may be justified in neutralizing an enemy early to prevent loss of life (pre-emptive strike, assassination, etc.).

An example of this may be seen in the life of Dietrich Bonheoffer. There were many attempts or plots to kill Hitler; forty-two attempts documented by historians. I personally believe that the theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer was acting according to good Christian ethics in a failed conspiracy plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944.

Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis in April 1943 because he used his government position to help numerous Jews to escape to Switzerland. He was also a part of the resistance group that attempted to assassinate Hitler and take over the German government by force. The conspiracy came to a head when German Army officer Colonel Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg planted a bomb in one of Hitler's staff meeting. The bomb failed to kill Hitler. However, it did kill or injure others. The coup had been planned for some time and though Bonhoeffer was already in prison when the attempted assignation took place his role in the plot was eventually discovered. This led to his execution by hanging at Flossenburg in April 1945.

This case, like any in this arena, was unique. And though Bonhoeffer himself felt that God was calling him personally to take part in the plot against Hitler, he was not necessarily calling every Christian in Germany to do so. He knew that it was an extra-ordinary calling. In my opinion, this attempt met all the parameters for "just war": (1) comparative justice, (2) competent authority, (3) right intention, (4) probability of success, (5) last resort, and (6) proportionality.

While something like assassination should never be our first choice, it should not be removed from the proverbial table of possibilities of last resorts in a just war scenario.

The issue of Germany also brings to mind the importance of elections and the lesser of two evils. Hitler was considered the lesser of two evils vs. Stalin. Hitler had some support from Great Britain and the USA prior to World War 2. Hitler was seen as the sole resistance against the Communist threat. However, what people appear to be is not always the truth. Selecting the lesser of two evils is not necessarily always the right thing to do. The more one votes for the lesser of two evils the more alike the two evils become. This seriously compromises one's moral values. Of course, things may have been even worse under Stalin, but then again he also may not have been as a influential leader as Hitler.

We need to always be in prayer and seeking a viable biblical option.

Quotes by Bonhoeffer

  • Cheap grace is grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate, Jesus Christ. Costly grace is the gospel. It costs people their lives. It cost the life of God's Son, and nothing can be cheap to us, which is costly to God (Cost of Discipleship).

  • Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads to death (Cost of Discipleship).

  • Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and action (Letter to family and conspirators).

  • The will of God is not a system of rules established from the outset. It is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must forever reexamine what the will of God may be. The will of God may lie deeply concealed beneath a great number of possibilities (Ethics).

  • Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy).

  • We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself (Letters and Papers from Prison).

  • The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy).

  • And as he once prayed:
    Almighty God, who doest inspire thy martyrs in their several generations to risk their lives in thy service, and the just service of their country; Grant that we might be inspired by their witness, and profit by their sacrifice, so as to be prepared to witness our faith in times of tribulation. Through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who laid down his life for us. Amen

Quotes form Other Great Voices

  • Tyranny being a work of Satan, is not from God, because sin, either habitual or actual, is not from God: the power that is, must be from God; the magistrate, as magistrate, is good in nature of office, and the intrinsic end of his office, (Rom. xiii. 4) for he is the minister of God for thy good; and, therefore, a power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power; and is no more from God, but from sinful nature and the old serpent, than a license to sin. God in Christ giveth pardons of sin, but the Pope, not God, giveth dispensations to sin. (Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, p.34).

  • For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy of being reckoned in the number of mankind. We ought rather to spit upon their heads than to obey them whenever they are so stubborn and wish to spoil God of his rights, and, as it were, to seize upon his throne and draw him down from heaven. (John Calvin, Lecture 30 on Daniel).

  • The powers that be are ordained of God to protect the good and punish the bad (Romans 13), but if they start to persecute the good, they are no longer ordained of God. (The Magdeburg Confession).

  • First they came for the communists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews,
    and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

    Then they came for the Catholics,
    and I didn't speak out because I was Protestant.

    Then they came for me
    and there was no one left to speak out for me. (Martin Niemoller)

Books to Enjoy

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas (Thomas Nelson, 2011).

The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Touchstone, 1995).

Letters and Papers from Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Touchstone, 1997).

Ethics, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Touchstone, 1995).

Related Material:

Does the Bible encourage murder? - Psalm 137:9
Ehud - Judges 3:12-30
Praising Jael for Murder
Christians and Civil Government: Should I Obey the Government?
Pharaoh's Second Plan: The Hebrew Midwives - Exodus 1:15-21

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).