Ethics: Should Christians Ever Condone Torture?

Torture in order to get information from prisoners of war and terrorists has become a hot button topic over the last few years. Some argue that without torture methods such as water boarding, we may have never founds Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. Others argue that torture does more harm than good.

Consider a situation has presented itself where a terrorist is captured that the government believes has crucial information regarding an imminent terrorist attack that could kill thousands, if not, millions of Americans. This person has not responded to conventional interrogation methods and has managed to stay silent.

Does it become a situation where torture is an ethically appropriate means to get information that could save untold amounts of Americans?

Before I begin, it is important that we classify terrorists as prisoners of war. We are said to be “at war” with terrorism every day and thus any captured terrorist is technically a prisoner of this war.

There are several different ways to look at the situation.  The first view is Utilitarianism. The utilitarian is “concerned with maximizing benefits for the maximum number of people.”[1]  They would argue that because the terrorist has information that could potentially save scores of lives, then torture is ethically appropriate. Their rationale would focus on how the country itself would benefit from the torture.

Kantanian duty comes from Immanuel Kant. He argues that “we must act out of regard for duty and respect for moral law.”[2] Moral law currently dictates that torture in any form is wrong. If a person recognizes this, they must consider it in their decision. The decision must be made without any personal bias. In line with Kant’s thinking, torture would not be justified because, according to Kant, we are to “always treat persons as ends and not just means.”[3] If you were to torture the prisoner, you would have used that person and method as a means to get the information. However, that person would become solely a means. Recall that the Geneva Convention is still law and it does outlaw torture[4].

Virtue ethics were championed by Aristotle. They include self control, courage and wisdom[5].  In this view, it comes down to staying calm and tactful under pressure. You may be aware that this prisoner has information, but you cannot torture them for the information because you are aware of the moral objections to such a practice. One may argue that the wisdom of knowing the terrorist may have information that will save lives outweigh moral obligations to refrain from torture. However, self control seems to dictate that torturing the prisoner for information is a violation of personal tact. I would argue that it takes more courage to continue humane interrogation techniques than it does to resort to torture.

Christian-based ethics are based on the idea that (in regards to God and human nature), “What he created is good, and the ends for which he created are also good-good ends that we as God’s servants should pursue.”[6] Whether adhering to this principle condones torture in this specific case is really based on an individual level. I would argue that scripture interpretation best outlines what to do in this instance. There are two arguments to be made based solely on The Bible. In regards to the Old Covenant, meeting violence with violence seems to be justified[7].

However, a Christian cannot logically make such a claim especially in regards to Jesus and the bringing of the New Covenant which is the meat of the Christian ideology. Jesus Himself spoke against the text in Exodus in Matthew 5:38-48 in which he says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In light of this explicit passage, Christians are called on to demonstrate love in all circumstances. Torture certainly does not reflect the idea of love. Even if someone made the argument that saving the lives of countless people would be “what God intends”, they would be completely wrong. The statement in itself is a Relativist Fallacy. Just because their interpretation of Scripture leads them to an opinion does not mean that opinion is universal. Who is to say that the prisoner would not eventually give information in time? Who is to say that torturing him would kill him? Does God , then, intend for the terrorist to die without an opportunity for repentance?

In short, none of us really know God’s intentions. We only know that He loves us and wants the best for us. In this situation, perhaps God intends for us to find another means to get our information that does not bring harm to another and save the lives of innocent people. Trusting God is hard for us to do, let alone understanding why He allows certain situations to occur.

Take note of a blatant fact. Any decision to proceed with torture is driven by our human nature to fear death. Even though Christians may feel they are saved and will join God in Heaven, the fear of death will always linger in the back of our minds.

[1] Holmes, A. F.  Ethics: Approaching Moral Decisions (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.  p. 43

[2] Holmes, p 62.

[3] Holmes, p. 63

[4] Peace Pledge Union. “Geneva Convention: an introduction”.

[5] Holmes, p. 133

[6] Holmes, p. 65

[7] Exodus 21:23-25


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My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. I post theology and have leaned towards an emphasis on domestic violence and forgiveness. I serve as Ambassador for the state of Virginia in the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. I hold a Masters of Divinity from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor from Liberty University. I have studied in the two “major fields” of theological thought. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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