Torture — Is it Ever Justifiable

Question from a Site Viewer
This is something that deeply concerns me–the issue of torture. Scripture mentions instances of acts of torture being committed against people. The one that comes to mind is in the Old Testament where King David put prisoners of war “under sharp iron instruments.” There is no mention anywhere of God approving of this behavior, yet at the same time there is also no mention of God forbidding torture or chastising those who did it. What am I to believe about God and torture? Is torture an act of evil or is it justifiable? Does God approve of torture? Is it right to torture evil people?

Tim’s Answer
The question you ask concerning torture is a complex one. Those who take issue with Scripture and the God of Scripture often note that the God of Scripture seems cruel. They cite to the gory details recorded on the pages of Scripture as well as commands by God which seem harsh. Hell itself is seen as God torturing people.

Yet, Scripture also teaches us that God loves humanity and calls us to do the same (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36; 1 John 4:8-16). And in case we think His love is of a different kind then ours, He teaches us that love is kind, gentle, and does not intend evil (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). Jesus calls us to treat others as we would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12). Scripture tells us to repay evil for evil to no one (Romans 12:17; 1 Peter 3:8-17). Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). The Apostle Paul tells us to do good to all (Galatians 6:10).

Is it possible that the same God who teaches us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us (Matthew 5:44; 1 Peter 3:9) can at the same time sanction torture?

In looking at this subject, the answer to the question requires a shared understanding of what we mean when we use the word “torture.” Mirriam-Webster defines torture as the infliction of intense pain to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure. The Oxford Dictionary is similar, defining torture as the action of afflicting severe pain as punishment or in order to force the victim to do or say something. There are two elements to the definitions. First, there is the inflicting of severe pain. Second, there is the purpose element of either punishment, coercion, or sadistic pleasure. We can cause severe pain without such purposes and it is not torture. For instance, I can have a car accident and break someone’s back. Such can cause intense pain, but no one would say that I was torturing that person. If, however, I broke someone’s back for the pleasure of seeing them in pain, that would be torture. A doctor in setting a bone or performing an operation can cause severe pain. Such is not torture. If an interrogator breaks someone’s bone for the purpose of causing pain to coerce a confession, that would be torture. Severe pain becomes torture only when afflicted with an intent to use the severe pain as punishment, coercion, or sadistic purposes.

Intent is key. For instance, consider the following two situations: 1) I poke the end of a small sterilized knife into a child to remove a sliver; or 2) I poke the end of a sterilized knife into a child for the pleasure of watching his reaction to the intense pain. No one would see the first situation as torture. Most everyone would view the second situation as torture. Yet, the same pain can be inflicted by both. We can cause intense pain without anyone considering it to be torture. Intent is key.

When addressing the issue of torture and the God of Scripture, there are a long litany of Scriptures that some quote in linking God to torture. They can be divided into certain situations; 1. Beatings or whippings (Deuteronomy 25:2; Psalm 89:32; Proverbs 13:24; 17:10; 19:25, 29; 20:30; 22:15; 23:13-14; 26:3; 29:15); 2. Temporal retribution (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:16-21; Judges 1:6-7; 8:7, 16; 2 Samuel 12:31; Nehemiah 13:25; Luke 12:47-48; Revelation 9:4-6); 3. Descriptions of man’s actions not sanctioned by God (Exodus 2:11-13; 5:16; 21:20-21; 1 Kings 22:24; Song of Solomon 5:7; Isaiah 50:6; Jeremiah 20:2; 37:15; Matthew 18:34); 4. Eternal punishment (Matthew 8:29; 13:21-22; 18:8-9; 22:13; 24:51; 25:41; Mark 9:47-48; Luke 16:24; Revelation 14:10-11). I would like to address them in this order.

First, there is the issue of beatings or whippings. We live in a time when our societies mostly frown on beatings or whippings, and rightly so. In our minds, when beatings and whippings are mentioned, we think of corporal punishment on steroids, where the victim is physically assaulted to the point of extreme pain, disfigurement, and sometimes to the point of death. And Exodus 21:23-25 does speak to this type of beating. However, the vast majority of references in Scripture to beatings or whippings were not of this type. Rather, they were intended for correction. They were performed by those who care for the one who endured the beatings. Thus, beatings were not imposed on one’s enemies, but on one’s family, one’s clan, and on one’s neighbors and friends. It was the community’s punishment on its own members (Deuteronomy 25:2), intended to correct destructive behavior. It was used in a society where people knew one another, their families grew up with another, and they lived together as small communities, and would need to continue to live together after the punishment. Thus, the one doing the beating must avoid humiliating the wrongdoer. (Deuteronomy 25:3). The Hebrew word translated “beats” or “beating” does not demand the idea of severity. And the idea of a rod does not either, as the rod was also a guiding instrument as shown in Psalm 23:4. No shepherd beat his sheep to damage it, because to do so would damage the value of the sheep to the shepherd. The word “to beat” is used in the correction of children (Proverbs 13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15) and of the correction of fools and scoffers (Proverbs 17:10; 19:25, 29; 26:3). The purpose was to change behavior, not to maim, disfigure, or torment (Proverbs 20:30). That the blows were not intended to be harsh is illustrated by Proverbs 17:10 where a rebuke to a wise person is said to be more effective than 100 blows on a fool. When struck with malice, it does not take 100 blows from a rod to kill a man. Serious injury or death would occur with a single or only a few blows if the blows were the type we see on TV, or in movies, or what our mind conjures when we read these Biblical passages. But the Biblical writers were not thinking as we think. These were blows for correction, not blows for disfigurement, malice, or intent to maim. I do not consider such correction to be torture. The purpose was to inflict pain for the purpose of correction, but not severe pain and not for the purpose of punishment, coercion, or sadistic desires.

I wish to make one more point on this subject concerning Deuteronomy 25:2 and the idea of beatings for crimes. In many parts of the world, we believe it much more humane to take away one’s freedom, to place them in jails, and let them languish for months and years for offenses they have done; than to inflict corporal punishment for a wrong. The humiliation and stigma of coming out of prison makes it nearly impossible for the person to reintegrate into society. While I understand that this is the society in which I live, I do not believe that this system is necessarily better than to inflict a momentary corporal punishment carried out in a way designed to avoid severe pain and humiliation and yet enable the person to continue with their job and life. Incarceration, to me, often seems to be the more cruel approach to punishment. But neither I nor Scripture would support harsh corporal punishment given with the intent to inflict severe pain. I find no support in Scripture for torture from the “beatings” passages.

Second, there is the issue of temporal retribution. These situations can be divided into two types. There are the “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” passages (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:19-20; Deuteronomy 19:16-21). Gouging out one’s eye, knocking out one’s tooth, cutting off one’s hand, burning or striking a person strikes our sensibilities. But following factors that should be taken into account. These commands are given in a national context. This was the justice system of the nation. As the Apostle Paul points out in Romans 12:17-13:6, there is a different standard for individual justice and national justice. Individually, we are not to repay evil for evil. Nationally, the functions of rulers are to punish evildoers and reward those who do well. And, as some scholars have noted, the eye for eye language actually limits the punishment in comparison to some of the other cultures in the same time period.

Even as a punishment inflicted as a nation, these commands were authorized only for those who had done the same thing to others. There was some justice behind the concept that those who intentionally gouged out someone’s eye would also lose their own eye; those who intentionally cut off one’s hand would suffer the loss of their own hand; and those who intentionally maimed someone by burning them would themselves be maimed by burning. Even those who endured such disfigurement understood the justice (Judges 1:6-7). The intent of such punishment was not the infliction of severe pain, but the shared ultimate condition; i.e., eyeless, toothless, handless. As Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, explained with regard to this Mosaic command: “He that maims anyone, let him undergo the like himself, and be deprived of the same member of which he has deprived the other, unless he who is maimed will accept money instead of it; for the law makes the sufferer the judge of the value of what he has suffered, and permits him to estimate it, unless he will be more severe.” Antiquities of the Jews, Book IV, Chap. VIII, Section 35. The shared condition was the point of the legal commands, not the infliction of pain.

Scripture can be read to support justice that results in the perpetrator being treated in the same way that the perpetrator treated the victim. In Judges 1:6-7, Adoni-Bezek, who had cut off the thumbs and toes of 70 kings, acknowledged the justice when his own thumbs and toes were cut off. Samuel, when he slew Agag, said that such was a proper retribution for what Agag had done to others (1 Samuel 15:33). Haman was hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai (Esther 7:10). The servants who beat the servants under them were themselves beaten (Luke 12:45-48). What we sow is what we reap (Galatians 6:7). Jesus Himself said that those who live by the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52).

The second type of retributive justice is when the punishment is unlike the offense. In this category we have Gideon’s judgment on Succoth (Judges 8:7, 16), David’s treatment of the Ammonites (2 Samuel 12:31), Nehemiah’s treatment of those intermarrying with the enemy (Nehemiah 13:25), and the torment of those on the earth during the end times (Revelation 9:4-6.). I include these accounts here for purposes of analysis, although my ultimate conclusion may make them more properly included in the next category of situations.

In the Gideon account, Scripture tells us that he “disciplined” the men of Succoth with thorns and briers. We can conjure many scenarios in our minds as to what this means. But there are no other contemporary reports to explain this phrase and Scripture does not otherwise explain what happened. Did Gideon beat the men with thorns and briers as indicated in the Septuagint translation? Did Gideon cause the men to run through thorns and briers? Did he cause them to lie on thorns and briers? We do not know. We only know that whatever was done was limited to the elders who had scorned Gideon and refused food to those who were famished. And we know that the experience for these few people was not pleasant, but likely not severe, as this was stated to be discipline, not punishment. We also do not have God’s statement approving or disapproving of the action. We only have the account of the story. But we know within the context that the very next story displays Gideon doing something that God clearly did not approve, making a ephod (Judges 8:22-28). So I would not want to conclude that Gideon’s actions were an example of God approving torture.

David’s treatment of the Ammonites in 2 Samuel 12:31, to which you refer, involves a very similar context. The event happens at the end of the sordid story of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. It appears to me that the event happened most likely during the period of time when David was unrepentant and harsh (his reaction to Nathan’s story about the man who took the sheep was to kill the man, something not allowed by the law which required restoration, not execution). So, I would not cite this example as being that which God would approve. In any event, I note that some think that the passage is simply wrongly translated and what David did was set the Ammonites to work with saws, iron picks, and axes. This is the way the Septuagint translates this passage, and the way the Jewish Publication Society translates the passage. I have not been able to find the exact Hebrew for the Dead Sea Scrolls for this passage, but my English translation of them follows the Septuagint in rendering the Hebrew as making them work with saws, iron picks, and axes. If this is the correct rendering, then there is simply no torture involved.

I note that in the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 20:3, the idea may be read as Israel hacking the Ammonites with saws, iron picks, and axes. But some scholars believe otherwise and find support for reading this passage also as putting the Ammonites to work with these instruments, apparently relying both on the parallel passage in 2 Samuel and on the fact that a rendering making this into torture would be an anomaly in Scripture. Even if the idea is of hacking, the question is whether this is an intent to torture or to kill. In any event, as stated above, I find no evidence that God was in approval of the treatment of the Ammonites.

Nehemiah’s actions in striking some of the men of Israel and tearing out some of their hair was in response to what Nehemiah saw as an act jeopardizing the ability of the Jews to rest under God’s favor. But again, there is no statement that this was God’s intended response, nor does Scripture record God telling Nehemiah to do this. As we know, the main characters of Scripture often had points of failure in their lives. The God who commands that His servant must not strive but be gentle to all (2 Timothy 2:24-26) cannot be judged by the character of His people who do not reflect His character in these matters. Interestingly, when faced with a similar situation, Ezra, the great priest of the return, responds by pulling out his own hair in mourning (Ezra 9:3). Thus, while it was proper for there to be a punishment for the transgressions of the people against the national laws, and while striking them and pulling out their hair may have been in an attempt to obtain repentance and stave off the more severe penalty of death that the law imposed for such offenses, the action does not appear to have the sanction of God.

Finally, we have the retributive judgment found in Revelation 9:4-6. In this passage God sends His angel to open the bottomless pit and locust came upon the earth who were commanded to harm only those people who did not have the seal of God and they were allowed to torment then for five months. There are many interpretations of this passage. Some would see this all as being allegorical and the torment is an spiritual torment. Others would see this as reflecting something more literal, as God simply showing humanity what He has protected them from for so long, in His restraint of evil. He is the one who has penned these brutal beasts up into the bottomless pit, lest they would strike us all. There may be some truth to this view. Nevertheless, I tend to view this passage and most of the book of Revelation as being God’s actions in avenging the persecution of his saints in the world. There is a sense of justice throughout the book. In Revelation 5:9-11, there is a cry of those who have had their blood spilled on the earth for God to avenge them. In Revelation 16:4-6, God is said to be just in giving people blood to drink since they have shed the blood of the saints and prophets. In Revelation 18:6, there is a call for God to render to Babylon just as she had done. Verse 13 of that chapter indicates that she was merchandizing in the bodies and souls of men. The Apostle Paul, in speaking about this time, states that it is a righteous thing for God to repay with tribulation those who have caused tribulation to you (2 Thessalonians 1:6). So, I think the better view of this passage is that God is causing a torment on those who have tormented others. In this judicial sense and as just punishment for one’s actions, it is possible to say that God sanctions torture. But we must not make this statement in isolation of the fact that God’s desire is not punishment, but salvation, as we briefly address below. And, as we address below, such action is based on God’s right to judge His creation, a right we as humans do not have.

The third situation, to which some of the previous examples might better be assigned, are those situations where it is obvious that the actions we may see as torture were not sanctioned by God. These include the beating of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt (Exodus 2:11-13; 5:16), the striking of the prophets of God and the Messiah (1 Kings 22:24; Isaiah 50:6; Jeremiah 20:2; 37:15; Isaiah ), the striking of the bride while she was looking for her lover (Song of Solomon 5:7); and the torture of the debtor (Matthew 18:34). Some have taken the situation in Exodus 21:20-21 as an example of God approving torture. In that example a master who beats his slave to death must himself be put to death. But if the slave lives for a few days, then the master is not to be punished. But as many have pointed out, there is no command of God or approval of God to the beating of slaves. In fact, to the contrary, the law went on to state that if the slave fled from his master, he could not be returned to his master (Deuteronomy 23:15-16), but was required to be allowed to stay wherever he wanted. So, if the master was too onerous, the slave was free to go. Paul warns masters to give up threatening, knowing that we have a Master in heaven (Ephesians 6:9). These are not examples of places where God condoned or approved torture.

The fourth and last situation is that of eternal punishment. Here we find God approving what we would see as a classic example of torture. But even this is not what we may think. Again, we go back to the definition of torture. Severe pain is torture only if it is caused with the intent to punish, coerce, or satisfy sadistic pleasure. God does not cause pain to satisfy sadistic pleasure. God says that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but His desire is that the wicked repent and turn from His evil ways (Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11). It is not part of God’s heart to afflict men (Lamentations 3:33). He pleads with people to be reconciled with Him (2 Corinthians 5:20). He is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). God does not enjoy the sight of His creation in torment.

Nor is eternal punishment designed to coerce anyone. There is no sense from Scripture that hell is intended to coerce anyone to do anything. I suspect that after a 1000 years in hell, no one in hell would choose heaven if given a chance. Their desire to avoid God’s reign will not diminish no matter how long they are in hell. We see glimpses of this in the book of Revelation, where after one horrendous punishment after another, we have the repeated statements that for all of this they did not repent or give God glory (Revelation 9:20-21; 16:9, 11). The purpose of hell is not to coerce people into desiring heaven, God, or any other matter.

But we know that hell is punishment. Scripture affirms this purpose in Matthew 25:46. And while there are degrees of hell (see Matthew 11:21-24), none of hell is good. At least for some, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12), fire (Matthew 25:41), and torment (Revelation 14:10-11). Given the purpose of hell and the description of hell in Scripture, I am not ready to defend a position that such does not constitute torture. I am sure, if you put me into hell here and now, I would think such would be torture.

Nevertheless, I wish to make some observations on the subject. God, who alone has the power to create life and who has the right to take the life He has made, possesses rights that we do not possess. The punishment of hell is based on His judgment, who alone has the right and the wisdom to judge righteously. All ultimate judgment belongs to Him (John 5:22; Acts 10:42; 17:31; 2 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 12:23; 1 Peter 4:5). Thus, He tells us not to take vengeance on one another, but to leave that for God (Romans 12:19). We are taught not to judge (Matthew 7:1-2) and especially those outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). Judgment belongs to God. And the only torture that seems sanctioned in Scripture by God is that torture, whether temporal as in the Revelation 9:4-6 passage or the eternal, that is the result of His righteous judgment on the earth.

Outside of the righteous judgment that God Himself delivers, I find no evidence in Scripture that God supports what we would define as torture. Throughout the law as laid down in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, there are numerous commands to punish, and many commands to put to death people who have committed certain crimes. There are no commands to torture. In Deuteronomy 20, when God gives to His people the law concerning warfare, there is peace offered, and if rejected destruction and death may follow, but again there is no instruction on torture. At the instruction of God Israel wiped out many nations. We find the account in the books of Joshua and Judges. Again, while death was widespread, torture seems to be completely absent. Amidst all of the bloodshed by Israel, what we find is the intent to kill, but not to torture. We do not find examples where Israel caused pain for the intent of causing suffering. This is consistent as well in the later accounts where God directed His people to destroy others. The torturing of humans was not something God gave His people a right to do.

We know as individuals that we have no right to torture. Christ commands us to do to others as we would have them do to us (Matthew 7:12). He does not limit this to our friends, as earlier in that great sermon Jesus taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). He Himself demonstrated this treatment towards those who hated Him on the cross. So we know that individually torture is not permitted for the Christian.

I also note that in Romans 13, when Paul is giving instructions about our relationships with governments, Paul states that the rulers do not bear the sword in vain, for they are God’s avengers to execute wrath on those who practice evil (Romans 13:4). It is interesting to me that Paul does not reference any torture instruments in discoursing on the role of government. Rather, he mentions the sword, which was an instrument of death, not torture.

Accordingly, I do not find any support in Scripture for individuals or for governments to torture people.

I understand the logic of those who say that it is better to torture one person than to have thousands die. Of course, this is what Caiaphas said about the death of Christ (John 11:50). But Caiaphas prophesied this about a willing Christ who was freely offering Himself to die on our behalf, which is a far different situation than an unwilling victim being tortured in an attempt to save others. Whether it is right to torture one to save many is the question usually addressed in a philosophy course. It is the philosophical question about the engineer operating the train bridge on which his son is playing. Do we save the many or the one? The God of Scripture values the one (Luke 15:1-7). He also values the many. But we leave Him out of the equation when we think we need to torture the one to get information to save the many.

Sacrificing the one for the sake of the many is a slippery slope. This was the rationale behind Stalin’s purges, and Mao’s as well. It was the rationale behind Nazism. Society as a whole would be better off if certain people were tortured or destroyed. The world rightly condemned the view that the many justified destruction of the few. And I think the world rightly condemns torture today. I believe that those who torture others and those who sanction such torture will face a God one day who has a long history of repaying as we have done to others.

I do not know if you have read The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo, cataloging his famous prison experiment at Stanford University. As far as I know, Professor Zimbardo is not a Christian. But, nonetheless, the book is a telling tale of the effect of power over another on the human mind. People who celebrate their power over another person are to be pitied as they themselves are in danger of losing that part of them that makes them truly human.

In my view, torture degrades humanity, cheapens the image of God in His creation, usurps the role of God, hardens the hearts of the perpetrators, and will bring upon those who practice such things the judgment of God. No matter how evil a person is, I see no permission in Scripture for a person to torture a fellow person. Torture is a moral evil, an assault on our own humanity. I find it inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, and incompatible with the role God has given to individuals and to governments.

I realize there are those who disagree with my conclusions. I provide you the rationale for my conclusion so that you may be able to judge its strengths and weaknesses and draw your own conclusions.

This is a long answer to your brief questions. May the Lord Jesus and His Spirit aid you in thinking rightly about this matter.

a fellow servant,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Characters: 0/1000