Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Is Revolution Ever Justified? Part Two

Jul 11, 2013

The topic of a just revolution is one which has long been debated in the Christian church. In addition to some of the key Christian leaders I discuss in Part One of this article, others can also be mentioned. Plenty could be brought into this discussion here, but let me just focus on a handful.

Back in 1982 the American constitutional attorney and religious freedom specialist John Whitehead wrote an important volume called The Second American Revolution. After examining how America is heading off the rails with secularism, immorality, and anti-Christian government, he asks how Christians should respond to this.

He writes, “The battle for Christian existence may be upon us. As the state becomes increasingly pagan, it will continue to exert and expand its claims to total jurisdiction and power over all areas, including the church. . . . Strong biblical grounds serve for a foundation for Christian resistance to state paganism.”

Whitehead also appeals to Rutherford. “Citizens have a moral obligation to resist unjust and tyrannical government. Unfortunately, this has long been overlooked in churches, as a whole. While we must always be subject to the office of the magistrate, we are not to be subject to the man in that office, if his commands are contrary to the Bible.”

He continues: “Rutherford was not an anarchist. In Lex, Rex he does not propose armed revolution as a solution. Instead, he sets forth three levels of resistance in which a private person may engage. First, he must defend himself by protest (in contemporary society this would usually be by legal action). Second, he must flee if at all possible; and, third, he may use force, if absolutely necessary, to defend himself….

“Christian resistance does not mean that Christians should take to the streets and mount an armed revolution.” However, there “does come a time when force, even physical force, is appropriate. When all avenues to flight and protest have closed, force in the defensive posture is appropriate. This was the situation of the American Revolution.”

Just one other book can be mentioned here: the 1984 volume by Lynn Buzzard and Paula Campbell, Holy Disobedience: When Christians Must Resist the State. This helpful volume carefully looks at the issue of civil disobedience more so than just revolution. But it contains many helpful insights and observations, examining biblical, historical and political matters.

For more on the issue of civil disobedience and the Christian, in addition to the article I link to in Part One, see also this more specific article relating civil disobedience to the abortion issue:

Davis and Geisler

Let me finish this discussion by examining the positions of two famous evangelical ethicists, John Jefferson Davis and Norman Geisler in some detail. They both have written much about this topic, and they take differing approaches to the question of justifiable revolution, with Davis affirming it and Geisler opposing it.

Davis argues that there is both a philosophical and a biblical justification for revolution. He examines the thinking of Calvin, Rutherford and John Locke, and then deals with the biblical evidence: “Scripture makes it clear that God’s providential judgments in history can take the form of removing from power unjust civil authorities.”

He cites a number of texts, including Daniel 2:21 which informs us that God “removes kings and sets up kings”. But God works through people, so they have a place in this: “Such judgments on unjust rulers are not exercised in a vacuum; God uses human instruments to accomplish his purposes.” For example, the book of Judges demonstrates how God raised up judges to rescue his people from oppressive situations.

Davis then offers us conditions for a just revolution. The cause for which a revolution is undertaken “must be a just cause, not merely a response to burdensome or inconvenient conditions, or merely a rationalization for narrow class or party interests.”

Also, such action should be a last resort. And it should be issued by lawful authority. “This criterion, borrowed like the rest from just-war theory, may seem to be self-contradictory, given that revolution is a repudiation of the existing order.

“As we noted, however, in cases of the judges of Israel (Judg. 2:16), the existing (de facto) authority did not continue to be the legitimate authority in the sight of God. A revolutionary situation can call into question the moral legitimacy of the existing authority, and the people of God may be called to recognise a new leader or leaders raised up by God to restore a legitimate government.”

Also, such a revolution should have widespread support of the people, and there should be a reasonable hope of victory. And there should be “due proportion between the good to be achieved and the probable evil effects of employing violent means.”

Davis recognises there are clear dangers and limits to all this. For example, he quotes Brian Griffiths: “While revolution may create new social institutions and destroy old ones, it is powerless to change human nature.” Thus the believer will not hold to messianic illusions as did secular revolutionaries such as Karl Marx.

Concludes Davis: “The Christian works for temporal justice, with the realization that perfect justice is not attainable under the present conditions, but will be instituted only when Christ returns and brings the kingdom of God in all its fullness.”

Norm Geisler takes a different point of view here. He argues that while Christians can and should resist an unethical or unjust government, they should not rebel against it. He offers the following reasons as to why revolutions are always unjust:

-“God gave the sword to the government to rule, not to the citizens to revolt.”
-“God exhorts against joining revolutionaries.” He cites Proverbs 24:21 here, “Fear the Lord and the king, my son, and do not join with the rebellious”.
-“Revolutions are consistently condemned by God.” He uses such examples as that of Korah in Numbers 16 and Absalom in 2 Samuel 15.
-“Moses was judged for his violent act in Egypt.”
-“Israel did not fight pharaoh but fled from him.”
-“Jesus exhorted against using the sword.”

He looks at various objections that are raised here. For example, was there not a revolution against the wicked queen Athaliah (2 Chronicles 23)? Geisler says this was “a divinely sanctioned special theocratic case, just like the wars against the Canaanites were under Joshua (Josh. 10)”.

So what are we to do with oppressive regimes? How are we to respond? Geisler offers a number of suggestions, including the need to pray for oppressive governments; the need to peacefully and legally change it; willingness to disobey unjust or oppressive commands; and either patiently endure, or if need be, flee such tyranny.

Before leaving these two authors, I am sure by now some readers might be asking, “So where do you stand in this debate Bill?” Well, I am glad you asked! I must say that while I appreciate where Geisler is coming from, I have to side with Davis on this (and by implication, Whitehead, Schaeffer, Rutherford and Calvin).

But this is an area where believers can and will disagree. Indeed, even on the more limited issue of civil disobedience Geisler admits that “there is difference of opinion concerning how one should disobey”.


The idea of a just revolution, like the idea of a just war, is of course one which can be easily discussed in theory, but the application can be much more difficult. Just war theory of course developed over many long centuries, and its principles can still be applied to the ethics of warfare today.

In the same way some of the thinking surrounding just revolution is also of value, but how and when we apply these principles is a matter of some debate. Indeed, an article like this will likely raise far more questions than it answers. Plenty of questions still need to be carefully teased out here:

-Exactly when is a revolution called for, if ever?
-What degree of tyranny must exist before revolt can morally take place?
-Can the average citizen participate in such revolutions?
-How are believers to understand such passages as Romans 13:1-7 in this regard?
-Can force of arms be used in such revolts?
-How does political revolt tie in with spiritual realities?
-What happens when Christians disagree as to whether a particular government is unjust or immoral?
-What can we learn from church history here?

To these and other questions all I can say is stay tuned: more articles on this may be forthcoming. But at least this two part article hopefully provides some fodder for reflection, debate and discussion.

Part One of this article is found here:

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5 Responses to Is Revolution Ever Justified? Part Two

  • Hi Bill,

    Personally, I am generally uncomfortable with the Christian church participating in revolution to the extent of violence or overthrowing the government. Although, I live in a country that currently does not try to kill me or imprison me for my Christian faith, so it is easy to have such a view. Practically however, it seems that Christians in this country are going to be soon forced to disobey laws which directly contradict their Christian faith – a truly staggering thought given our Christian heritage.

    For instance, had the government’s equal opportunity Bill passed without amendment, it would have been illegal to offend somebody! Combine this with the frightenting debate as to whether religious bodies should even have an exemption from the operation of equal opportunity legislation, and you are left with a conclusion that soon Christians may be prosecuted for preaching against divorce, adultery and homosexuality.

    I am greatly inspired by Richard Wurmbrand’s manner of opposing communism, and I think Christians in the West would do well to imitate how he opposed and challenged that evil regime.

    Nick Davies

  • Well there it is, the answer to my long unanswered question. So if I’ve read this right a christian who is concerned about the level of which their Government has stooped, they should complain by way of legal proceedings or I should say that’s our final draw card?
    Thank you Bill so much for this very important work. In my humble opinion, every church member must read this.
    Daniel Kempton

  • Our current society is in deep trouble. But it’s not the government, it’s the people. The people could easily vote in a righteous government but they don’t want to: they’ve been deceived. Hence a Christian-led revolution, even if justified, could not succeed. I’m not a US student, but it seems to me that the American revolution could not have happened without first the Great Awakening. Yes, we should disobey unjust rules. But the main discussion we need to be having is, how are we going to unite in a fervent prayer campaign for revival?

    Jon Newton

  • A related issue to the issue of whether or not there can be a just revolution against an ungodly government is whether or not it is a Christian course of action to refuse to take up arms as a member of the armed forces of one’s country of citizenship.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer and those he taught in the Confessing Church seminary found themselves caught in this dilemma – some served with the Wehrmacht on the Russian Front, while Bonhoeffer used his position in the military counter-intelligence as a cover for activities against Hitler and his regime.

    John Wigg

  • We are like the prophecied remnant of belief. We are powerless in the face of ferocious global secularism, we may just have to watch the pagans go down and wreak their havoc, dragging us all with them. They have no sense of the mystery of life or the soul’s afterlife. Maybe at the wailing and gnashing of teeth time they will be receptive to Christ’s words “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Maybe it will be a supernatural intervention of God that will stop us all in our tracks. Maybe, when the hour comes, just one person will act as a lightning rod channeling the holy Spirit and changing hearts and minds.

    Personally I shrink from “trying to convert people”. I like to learn and I will always defend what I believe. Although I disagree with many behaviours, I would not want to harm anyone who disagrees with me. The balance is redressed, in my opinion, in hearts and minds and consciousness – we answer to God.

    Rachel Smith, UK

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