Should Christians Support Torture?


The legitimacy of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” commonly referred to as torture, has been a volatile issue among evangelical Christians in recent decades. Some Christians have accepted (if not celebrated) the use of torture if it provides time-critical intelligence that can be used to preserve human lives. Other Christians are either outright opposed or cautiously skeptical of torture since, in their minds, it seems to undermine the dignity of man as one made in the image of God. Having served in the military for over twenty years, I have seen a wide variety of opinions on this subject.


While I deeply value the preservation of American lives as well as our national security, it is my conviction that torture is an unacceptable practice in light of Holy Scripture. Most specifically, I see torture as a violation of the sixth commandment. While the sixth commandment forbids the murdering of human life, I would argue in accordance with longstanding Christian tradition that the sixth commandment also bears an implicit command to preserve the life, dignity, and overall wellbeing of fellow humans (Psa. 37:8-11, 82:3-4; Prov. 11-12; Rom. 12:19; Eph. 4:26-27; Col. 3:12-13).


I do believe that Scripture permits the use of deadly force within the realms of capital punishment and just war, but torture is a very different animal. Military prisoners have not been sentenced to death in a lawful court and they are no longer armed combatants on the battlefield. I can find no Scripture that would provide an escape clause for the violent mistreatment of a non-combatant held in custody.


More than that, the golden rule given by our Savior speaks loudly to my conscience. I cannot imagine that any American service member would desire to be tortured while being held prisoner by the enemy. Which one of us would like to return to our loved ones having been stripped naked, water-boarded until nearly dead, our fingernails pulled out or electrocuted on our genitals? Dare we mute our ears to our Lord’s definitive statement: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).


Like most Christians, I watch the news with a heavy (and sometimes angry) heart as terrorists continue to massacre human lives without remorse. Unfortunately, terrorist activity often produces a complete vacuum of compassion for the terrorists themselves. I’m obviously not opposed to hunting down and killing terrorists. I flew over thirty combat missions in Iraq designed to do that very thing.


Yet, as Christians, we conveniently forget that every physical act of terrorism against humanity pales in comparison to humanity’s spiritual terrorism against God. Man in his fallen condition is the hostile enemy of God (Rom. 8:7). We do well to remember that the Apostle Paul hunted down Christians and terrorized the church before the grace of Jesus Christ seized hold of his heart (Acts 8:1-3; 1 Tim. 1:13). If the Apostle Paul was not beyond the grace of God then neither are modern day terrorists.


When I began making these scriptural connections they dealt a sorely needed prick to my calloused conscience. As image bearers of the Living God, does not even the worst terrorist deserve humane treatment by a country that claims to serve the Living God? To be very clear: I am in full support of stern and serious interrogations for the purpose of extracting information from our enemies, but I remain convinced that torture of divine image-bearers is a moral evil that must be avoided by nation that was established to be a city set upon a hill (Matt. 5:14-16).


Terrorism has a definite shelf life—it will not last forever. God’s Word, however, will never pass away. Though surprising to some, Scripture does have something to say about the role of torture, and it is a message that the church needs to hear. Obviously, there is not sufficient space in an article like this to examine the myriad of scenarios that might occur when dealing with detainees in times of war.


For those who are interested in further study, my good friend and former Marine JAG Officer, Porter Harlow has recently published a dissertation through P&R Publishing in which he examines the role of torture in light of scripture. Look for it under the title: “How Should We Treat Detainees?” I give it my warmest recommendation for those who desire to think and live Coram Deo, even in times of war.


Joe Steele is a pastor at Woodland Presbyterian Church (PCA). He is a CDR, United States Navy Reserve and a former F/A-18 pilot during Operation Iraqi Freedom