The Bible and Torture

What is a Christian to think of torture? This question has forced itself upon us with the release last week of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These EITs, as they are called, were used in the questioning of suspected terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. According to CNN, “The report found that CIA tactics were more brutal than previously known and accused the agency of keeping the Bush White House and Congress in the dark.”[1]

Responses to the report have varied. Dick Cheney was unapologetic. He vigorously defended the CIA, calling the report “a terrible piece of crap,” while Kenneth Roth, executive director of the Human Rights Watch, called for the prosecution of senior Bush officials who authorized and oversaw the program.

A number of people have raised concerns about the partisan nature of the report, its neglect of historical context, the hypocrisy of leading Democrats in condemning techniques which they once approved, and the committee’s failure to interview the key figures who established and ran the program.

CIA director John Brennan said, “In many respects the program was uncharted territory for the CIA, and we were unprepared. But the president authorized the program six days after 9/11, and it was our job to carry it out.”

Brennan also said the agency made mistakes within the program, especially early on, and that some of the techniques were “abhorrent and should be repudiated by all” involved. “None of these lapses should be excused, downplayed or denied,” he said.[2]

Our interest here is not so much with the report itself, or with the specifics of the program, much less with defending or condemning its participants. Our interest is to consider the ethics of torture per se.

The Question
The question at its most basic level, it seems to me, is this:  Is it ever permissible under Biblical law to inflict pain on another human being? The answer is clearly yes. We can cite cases as diverse from one another as these:

  • The discipline of children (Prov. 13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14; etc.)
  • Corporal punishment of criminals (Deut. 25:1-3; Ex. 21:23-25)
  • Capital punishment (Gen. 9:6; Ex. 21:12, 16; Lev. 20:2; etc.)
  • Self-defense (Ex. 22:2-3)
  • Just war (Ex. 17:8-16; etc.)

The Discipline of Children
It should be noted that the pain inflicted in these cases ranges from very mild to quite severe. The mildest, of course, is the loving administration of corporal punishment in the discipline of children. While some overly zealous, ideologically driven child welfare advocates might object, most reasonable people accept the notion that the board of education modestly applied to the seat of learning can have a very salutary effect in leading children to responsible behavior. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24).  

The Corporal Punishment of Criminals
While the corporal punishment administered to children is rather mild, under Biblical law the punishment meted out to criminals could be quite severe. Consider Deuteronomy 25:1-3.

If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.

Note well that Biblical law assumes some men “deserve to be beaten” for their criminal behavior, with the severity of the beating being tied to the seriousness of the crime. One would be hard pressed to describe the upper limit (forty stripes) as causing anything less than rather intense pain.

The same might be said of a literal application of lex talionis, the law of retribution:

If there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe (Ex. 21:23-25; cf. Lev. 24:17-20; Deut. 19:19-21).

Some think this law was never intended to be applied literally and doubt whether as a matter of fact it ever was so applied. On this view, “paying an eye for eye” means giving a monetary compensation for the loss of an eye. However, in the case of murder, monetary compensation would violate Numbers 35:31, “You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.” Here is a clear command to apply lex talionis literally (“life for life”), which leaves open the possibility of other literal applications as well, [3] many of which would undoubtedly have caused intense pain.

Capital Punishment
Various forms of capital punishment are authorized in the Bible.[4] Some of them must have entailed a fair amount of suffering. Consider stoning. The physical suffering prior to the fatal blow (or at least the one causing unconsciousness) must have been quite intense.

Self-Defense and Just War
In authorizing the use of force in self-defense (Ex. 22:2-3), Scripture implicitly authorizes the infliction of pain. The inevitable result is the wounding, maiming, or killing of the aggressor. The same is true with respect to divine authorization for war.

To Extract Information?
We come now to consider the question of the infliction of pain for the purpose of extracting information. This, of course, was the point at issue in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report—the infliction of pain in order to gain information leading to the prevention of further terrorist attacks. Is this permissible under biblical law? I do not see how it can be denied. If Scripture authorizes the use of force resulting in the wounding, maiming, or killing of an intruder in order to save life (Ex. 22:2-3),[5] and authorizes the infliction of pain in the punishment of criminals, why might forceful interrogation techniques not be used to extract information from a terrorist in order to save the lives of innocent people?

I want to stress that we are talking about the use of inflicting pain to extract information only in exceptional cases. What qualifies as an exceptional case?  One in which there is an imminent threat of attack which is likely to result in the loss of life, especially on a large scale. This is sometimes referred to as the ticking time bomb scenario. I know this sounds all Jack Baueresque, but is such a scenario in today’s world really all that far-fetched? We know that terrorist groups are intent on obtaining and using weapons of mass destruction against us. If a plot to detonate such a weapon in a major metropolitan area should be uncovered with the potential to kill hundreds, if not thousands of people, and one of the terrorists should be apprehended, I would hope that the authorities who have him in custody would have the moral courage to use forceful interrogation techniques to extract whatever information is necessary to stop the attack. Those who argue the other side suggest that the comfort of a terrorist (a monstrous criminal by definition; an actual or would-be mass murderer) is more important than the lives of the innocent. 

Of course, numerous provisos must come into play. First, there must be a reasonable guarantee of the suspect’s guilt. Second, there must be a reasonable guarantee that he has the information being sought. Third, innocent parties close to the suspect (e.g., his wife and children) cannot be harmed in order to force him to talk (Deut. 24:16). Fourth, the least painful means ought to be used first; the more severe ones only as needed.

Can such power be abused? Of course it can. What power is not subject to abuse? God places the sword in the hand of the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:1-7). But many who have had this power entrusted to them have abused it. What is the answer? Should we abolish civil government? Of course not. The cure would be worse than the disease. Instead we should labor and pray for godly leaders who will use the power entrusted to them with wisdom and under the restraints of God's law.

Update:  Please see my follow up that address some of the comments below.

[3] This is not to say that the law must be applied literally in other cases. The fact that in the case of murder, and only in the case of murder, it is said that no ransom may be given suggests that a ransom (monetary compensation) may be given in other cases. See Barch A. Levine, Leviticus (The JPS Torah Commentary), Excursus 9:  Retaliation and Compensation in Biblical Criminal Law, pp. 268-270; Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy (The JPS Torah Commentary), p. 185
[4] E.g., being shot with an arrow (Ex. 19:13), stoned (Lev. 20:2; etc.), run through with a sword (2 Sam. 1:15); etc.
[5] The intent of the intruder cannot be known for certain, but the Bible grants the homeowner the right to assume the worst—that the intruder intends, or at least is willing to kill. This is the only way to explain the permission to use lethal force.


Excellent evaluation, Doug. This kind of critique is necessary for developing a wise opinion about the atrocities and presumed atrocities we face in our global world. Your post is like a compass for those who are seek to balance wisdom with fairness.
Anonymous said…
I spent 22 years on active duty as way of some background for my comment. The problem you have with the analysis is not knowing who, how many, and whether the people tortured actually all had knowledge of some future threat. How does the Biblical standard how up to torturing people who have no direct knowledge of any event? Do you believe the CIA is going to disclose any information about tortured individuals who were innocent of any crime or knowledge? Do not be naive. Were does the line get drawn? With the signing of the NDAA by the current President any US citizen can be hauled off, held without legal representation, and tortured by the CIA. The church needs to disengage from being another statist appendage for the governments of the world. Have you forgotten the directive stating we are not of this world. Apologists for the government's abuses will one day answer for this duplicity. I think this is the church which Christ will spew from his mouth when the time comes.
Anonymous said…
"...I would hope that the authorities who have him in custody would have the moral courage to use forceful interrogation techniques to extract whatever information is necessary to stop the attack. Those who argue the other side suggest that the comfort of a terrorist (a monstrous criminal by definition; an actual or would-be mass murderer) is more important than the lives of the innocent."

I am against torturing others, including this Jack Bauer-like scenario. My view has absolutely nothing to do with the comfort of the person subject to torture--who, by the way, isn't necessarily a criminal. Perhaps it is someone afraid to speak of what he knows because of threats to his family, for example.

No, I am against torture because it is wrong to inflict intentional pain on someone in order to get that person to speak. I don't believe the ends justify the means to allow an individual to be tortured so that others will avoid unpleasantness or even death. It is a matter of individual rights.

To become what you hold contempt for is a fate that one should take care to avoid. It's exactly what Nietzsche warned of when he wrote: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you."
Anonymous said…
How do you know the person even has the knowledge you seek?
Everything is compartmentalized,
the person you have in custody may only know a small part of the entire operation.To inflict pain on a person to save others a real stretch. You only have a theory no hard facts other wise torturer would not be necessary.
To take God's word and parse it to fit your idea is wrong. I cannot believe you can stand in the pulpit and preach the WORD and out of your mouth comes this nonsense. Would you condone the torture the Catholic church inflicted on thousands? Simply because the Pope said so. Our government is corrupt first and second our government has created the terrorist issue.

Molon Labe! said…
I simply cannot believe a pastor can write such a glib and biblically unsupportable apology for torture.

The proscription against torture does not excuse the "terrorist"--whether he is or isn't actually that.

The proscription protects the perpetrator of torture; for when we torture, we:

1) become in our own eyes the same evil we fight against
2) become in the world's eyes the same evil we fight against
3) strengthen the enemy's resolve, because he now fights a monster who tortures
4) lose the most important asset in any war: the moral high ground.

All utilitarian arguments pro/con torture fall apart against the much stronger and more important moral argument: don't become what you fight against. Don't become evil.

George Washington executed his own troops when they engaged in torture. Why? Because he recognized all the points above; he wrote about it. He, and the Revolutionaries, were recognized and admired for their stand against torture.

Imagine this, pastor: Jesus is standing to your left. A man who you think is a terrorist is strapped, helpless, to a table. But like the CIA, you're not just going to waterboard him; you're going to insert a tube in his rectum and force pureed food into it.

And in this scene, you're telling me Jesus is nodding His approval?
Doug Enick said…
Some commenters above have seem to assume what I specifically denied in the post, that I intended to deal with the specifics of the program or to defend or condemn its participants. My point was to consider the ethics of torture per se from a Biblical perspective. There is one thing we cannot deny: Biblical law allows for the infliction of rather severe pain for criminal offenders (Deut. 25:1-3). In the interrogation of a terrorist in the aforementioned exceptional cases (never as a matter of routine treatment), I cannot see how the administration of a few stripes (to use the example of Deut. 25) interspersed with questions, promises to stop the beating should the information necessary to stop an imminent attack be handed over, and threats to continue the beating if the information is withheld—I cannot see how this contravenes Biblical law. I understand that Deut. 25:1-3 envisions the due process of law and the application of punishment after conviction while the interrogation techniques we’re talking about are applied before such a process can take place. This is not a minor difference. However, in the very nature of the case, time is of the essence. This is why there must be a reasonable guarantee of the suspect's guilt and a reasonable guarantee that the person being interrogated has the information being sought. Who makes that call? Liberal law professor Alan Dershowitz has argued for a "torture warrant" that has to be signed off by a judge and specifically limits the techniques to non-lethal means.
"Those opposed to the idea of a torture warrant argue—quite reasonably—that establishing such a precedent would legitimize torture and make it easier to extend its permissible use beyond the ticking bomb case. Those who favor the torture warrant argue that the opposite would be true: By expressly limiting the use of torture only to the ticking bomb case and by requiring a highly visible judge to approve, limit and monitor the torture, it will be far more difficult to justify its extension to other institutions. The goal of the warrant would be to reduce and limit the amount of torture that would, in fact, be used in an emergency. This is an issue that should be discussed now, before we confront the emergency." (
GMS said…
Pastor, I disagree with your conclusions for a variety of reasons, most of which have already been stated in the above comments. I would suggest you read an article written in 2006 on the topic of why torture is always wrong. There are five basic reasons listed:
1. Torture violates the dignity of the human being.
2. Torture mistreats the vulnerable and violates the demands of justice.
3. Authorizing torture trusts government too much.
4. Torture dehumanizes the torturer.
5. Torture erodes the character of the nation that tortures.

The article can be found at
Molon Labe! said…
"However, in the very nature of the case, time is of the essence."

You point out the fallacy yourself in the article, calling it "Jack Bauer-esque".

So perhaps subconsciously you understand how this idea has been marketed to you through propaganda.

This is the "ticking time bomb" fallacy used to justify torture. It's weak on two fronts: first, it's not seen in real life; if it were, you can bet the perpetrators in the CIA would be trumpeting it from the rooftops and the senate apologists would be right with them. They're desperate to justify this, because they are nearly on trial for it.

Secondly the "ticking time bomb" is a Utilitarian argument; "the end justifies the means".

It does not--and the Judeo-Christian ethic and law are very clear on this point.

Pastor, you have been sold a bill of goods, and I implore you to revisit this prayerfully and intellectually.

Torture degrades the victim, but it degrades the torturer and his whole country even more.

Even from the weaker utilitarian standpoint, it is a massive strategic mistake. It strengthens the enemy's cause--"We're fighting those torturing monsters!". It turns our allies against us.

And the best part? Used over THERE, it will be used over HERE.

Or are you unaware of the several cases just in New Mexico and Texas of men and women being forcibly anal-probed searching for drugs after minor traffic stops?

This is how the sickness begins--just a little waterboarding, you know, to stop the terrorists.

By the way--you're focused on waterboarding in this article.

But you seem to be avoiding the REAL horrors in the report, including forcible sodomy with foreign objects and "rectal feeding". What kind of disgusting reprobate behavior is that? Is that American, much less Christian??
Bill said…
Doug you are dancing around the head of the proverbial pin. You build up a straw man and then use the bible to somehow justify your actions. Jesus himself was tortured by the Romans for the crime the Jews and Romans believed he was guilty of. These men acted on there fear and misguided belief. You sir are doing the same thing. You are claiming that our government operates under some form of god given right to dictate to other countries what is right or wrong.
Let them rule on there own, we have no right to dictate what form of government they should have.

As I stated in my previous post the USA has been meddling in the affairs of other countries for the past 60 years. Claiming that they have they high road. Well sir it is never right to abuse another human being period.

Would you condone the torture, by the army of England against those who fought for liberty here in the Revolutionary war? Would you condone torture by Abraham Lincoln against those men who fought in the south during the Civil War. These to examples are no different than what the Government is doing to other humans in the name of war.

Anonymous said…
Ah, a Christian justifying torture. Wow. So much for prayer and retaining moral high ground. Go back to the men who founded our country and LEARN from them. GW's principled war against the British is so quickly forgotten. Nor is there any place in the Bible justifying torture despite the myriad of enemies the Hebrews faced. Our current .gov is evil, soulless, and Godless.
Bill said…
I am surprised at the responses to this pastor's blog. I have not commented on any on-line blog before. I chose to comment today because a pastor comes out supporting torture. Which I find to be repugnant to everything I believe the bible teaches.

I find that the number of comments against the idea of torture is running eight to one.
To each of you that have commented refuting the idea of torture I say thank you. I was not sure if my views on this subject would be in the minority.

Anonymous said…
Sorry about the anonymous post. I couldn't use any of the items in the drop down. My name is Rob, I'm a member of a reformed Bible-teaching congregation. All the above comments hammer home why a Christian cannot condone torture...and I just want to register my shock that a Christian would hold such views. Sir--I will pray that the Holy Spirit will come to you and help you discern how this anti-Biblical and lead you toward repentance. Torture is the work of the Enemy.
Anonymous said…
It is natural for all of us to assume that torture is the most effective way of getting information out of an enemy.

I recently came across this book, The Interrogator: The Story of Hanns Joachim Scharff, which admittedly I haven't yet read, but I think the idea of it is to quash this notion. I look forward to reading it and perhaps it will be intellectual fodder for many of us.
Doug Enick said…
Please see my follow up:
Casey Harbaugh said…
In order to understand this properly. We must first correct the subject. First is that we are discussing the art of interrogation not actualy torture. Webster defines interrogate; "to ask (someone) questions in a thorough and often forceful way". Forceful may include some form of what is referrsd to as toture. Certainly these methods are not for this, perverse unknowing and unwilling to learn society, that have created something entirely different than what is at hand. Also, it seems Doug is using the whole of scripture, not just those that convince him he knows as much as God. Which seems to eminate from some of these other comments. Thank you Doug for being humble enough to look for the truth, not just trying to force your ideas on others. Scripture reading requires an openness to seeing what the word says not just what some human thinks it says. It is evident this is your desire. May God be proven true and the whole of man in subjection to Him. God is almighty and sovereign. Second these forms of interrogation have produced much information that has saved several lives. Thwarting attacks that have been planned against the greatest nation this world has ever known. Not just what the mass media has published. Thank you all for reading these comments, to Him be all glory and honor.

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