Question: "What does the Bible say about retaliation?"

Answer: To retaliate is to return in like kind. Usually, we speak of retaliation in negative contexts, so it’s almost exclusively a returning of evil for evil. Someone hurts us; we hurt him back. Getting even is a natural response to being wronged, but God calls us to live above our natural responses. He demonstrated holiness through His Son Jesus Christ, and He offers to empower us through His Holy Spirit so that we can live above our selfish instincts. God’s way is usually opposite our way, so the Bible has much to say about retaliation that contradicts everything that feels right to us (Isaiah 55:9; 1 Corinthians 1:27–29).

Retaliation for harm done is the world’s way of making things right. But God’s way is to “heap burning coals on his head” by refusing to stoop to the level of the offender (Proverbs 25:22; Romans 12:20). When we retaliate with evil for evil, we join our offender in his error. Jesus told us not to return evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21; Matthew 5:39). Retaliation is when we take matters out of God’s hands and insist on fixing things ourselves. However, God has said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay” (Hebrews 10:30). Romans 12:19 gives clear instructions about how Christians are to respond when wronged: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

These commands against retaliation are for individuals, and they should not be applied without qualification to nations or law enforcement. When we try to use Jesus’ words about loving others to matters of national security, they fall apart. Jesus’ followers are to seek to practice every scriptural principle in their personal and family lives. But governments must operate by a different standard. Government was instituted by God for the common good of a people (Romans 13:1–2). There are times when a nation must retaliate in order to preserve its freedom and its people, such as the United States’ response to Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. A nation is given permission by God to exercise force and retaliate against other nations in defense of its citizens (1 Samuel 15:2–3; 1 Samuel 30:1–2, 8, 17–18). A state can also “retaliate” against lawbreakers for the common good (Romans 13:3).

God’s commands always come down to heart attitudes (1 Samuel 16:7; Mark 2:8). He has issued commands regulating outward behaviors because He knows the inward evil that motivates them (Matthew 15:18–19). A man using a gun to take revenge on his neighbor for not mowing his lawn is sinning because the motivation is selfish retaliation. However, that same man using a gun to protect his family from an intruder is not sinning because his motivation is protection of the innocent, not vengeance.

Our job as Christians is to forgive, not retaliate (Luke 6:27–31). We can set healthy boundaries in destructive relationships. We can protect ourselves from further harm and report to authorities someone breaking the law (James 5:20). But personal vigilante justice is never condoned in Scripture. Two wrongs do not make a right. We have a Higher Authority to whom we report, and He has promised to right all wrongs done against His servants (Isaiah 54:17). God’s ways are not like our ways, so what the Bible says about retaliation might contradict what we naturally feel (Isaiah 55:9; 1 Corinthians 1:27–29).