Christians and Torture

tortureby John Ellis

At the onset, I want to give proper credit where credit is due, and state that First Things has several articles that provide much better scholarly grounding for my thesis than I am able to accomplish. In fact, I leaned on the writers of First Things to help provide me with the little  clarity that I do have as I researched, worked through, and wrote about the topic of torture. I encourage the readers of this article to take the time to avail themselves of the resources on this topic that are available at First Things.

Google “train switch” and “ethics” and a variety of Philosophy 101 style games/questions will pop up in the results. The questions are meant to prompt thought and discussion about ethics. For example, one example queries “Imagine that you are standing beside a set of train tracks. Ahead in the distance are five children stuck on the train tracks. Hurtling towards those unfortunate children is a runaway train with a conductor who has blacked out. Now, there is also a side track that the train can be diverted onto, saving the lives of the group of children. The problem is that there is a single man stuck on the side track; diverting the train onto the side track will have the consequence of saving the group of children, but will kill the lone individual. The switch is in front of you, do you pull the switch?”

Based on studies, the majority of people will answer that question in the affirmative. However, I answer in the negative.

The reason why the majority of people will answer “yes” to the above question is because of the Omission Bias. The Omission Bias states that as long as the negative consequences that are the result of accomplishing a good action are unintended, then the action is ethically acceptable. According to the Omission Bias, switching the tracks to save the kids is worth the unintentional consequence of killing the lone man.

I answer in the negative[1] because the Omission Bias is grounded in utilitarianism, and Christians should outright reject utilitarianism. For the sake of brevity, utilitarianism lays claim to the platitude that “the end justify the means” – an abhorrent platitude that can be used to justify just about whatever socially constructed objective a thorough-going relativist sets her or his heart on[2]. In other words, and bringing it back to our intuition pump[3], we’ll feel badly for that man’s family, but his death, unintentional as it was, saved the lives of a group of children. Group > one, especially if that group is a group of children. Of course, and this is where utilitarianism becomes tricky for the average-want-to-do-the-right-thing person, what if that lone man was humanity’s best hope of curing cancer, and the group of children were all below average students and troublemakers? But, this article isn’t mainly about utilitarianism, except how it relates to many Christian’s opinions on torture. So, to wrap up the “train switch problem,” it is not for me or you to decide who lives and who dies. That is the prerogative of God. Don’t let fancy philosophy 101 terms like “Omission Bias” and “unintended consequences” cloud the fact that by switching the tracks, you would be choosing to end the life of an Image Bearer. You are not responsible for any of the events leading up to that moment. But, once you choose to pull that switch, you, acting as God, insert yourself into the situation. As incredibly horrifying as the fact of children dying may be, it is not for you nor I nor anyone else to decide that the uninvolved man dies and the children live[4].

Got it? Good. Time to move on to the problem of torture.

In the weeks following the release of the CIA Torture Report, several memes with variations on the same point popped up on my Facebook newsfeed on a fairly consistent basis. The crux of the memes is that the torture of a few terrorists is worth the saving of potential lives. The most oft shared meme was a picture of the burning Twin Towers on one half, a terrorist being water boarded on the other half with the words “Water board a few terrorists to save 2,977 innocents? Absolutely!” Well, that’s a utilitarian argument.

Recognizing the memes/arguments as utilitarian does not condemn torture. It simply means that in order to justify torture, the Christian will need another argument. That being said, I’m sure that many are wondering if the train switch intuition pump above and the torture meme make a good one-to-one comparison. After all, the lone guy stuck on the track is innocent as far as humans can determine innocence. The terrorists in the meme are far from innocent, and most humans acknowledge that. Well, good point, except that utilitarian arguments are still utilitarian arguments. Sorry. No matter how you massage the variables, stating that the end justifies the means is still stating that the end justifies the means, and means are not morally neutral. If utilitarian arguments are used in one instance, they can be used in other instances – for example, abortion.

For the Christian, arguments either for or against the use of torture as justifiable need to be grounded in a Biblical anthropology. What does God in His revealed word have to say about humans?

In the opening paragraph of his section on anthropology, titled “The Doctrine of Man in Relation to God,” Dr. Louis Berkhof wrote, “Man is not only the crown of creation, but also the object of God’s special care.”[5] This, of course, raises the question, why are humans “the crown of creation” and “the object of God’s special care?” Although the truth of Genesis 1:28 that humans are made in the image of God should be Sunday School 101, it’s unfortunately often not, and, hence, deserves the rehearsal.

Since humans are made in the image of God, all humans have innate value – their bodies and their mind. Torture denies that innate value; those who utilize torture treat the body as a tool that can be used in order to manipulate and reshape the mind and the will of an Image Bearer. The violation of a person’s internal space by treating their body as a utilitarian tool is degradation – dehumanizing. To dehumanize someone is to claim that they are not made in the Image of God.

Of course, torture is, at least in practice, far removed from most of us. We hear about it through the news media; we many even discuss it with friends or co-workers; but the vast majority of us have never tortured anyone or been tortured. At least in the ways that the UN Convention Against Torture has defined torture. It’s easy to view torture through a purely abstract lens. But what if the degradation of another Image Bearer is brought home in a way that many of us can relate to? How many will condone the degradation of the mean neighbor kid?

For example, imagine that there is a neighbor kid who is mean to your kids. This neighbor kid says mean things to your kids, breaks their toys, and pushes them off the swing set. You’ve talked to the parents; encouraged your kids to dialogue with young Mickey[6]; and you’ve even given your kids permission to use physical force in retaliation to physical force if no other options are available[7]. But, one day, you overhear your kids yelling at this neighbor kid and saying things like “Well, you have a learning disability which means you’re stupid.” Or, “Since you’re mean and stupid, you can’t play with us.”

Most of us, I hope, would immediately take our kids aside and tell them that it doesn’t matter what Mickey says or does, it’s not ok to treat him like that; it’s not ok to say those things to another person.

In that scenario, most people recognize that the actions of the individual do not justify the degradation of that individual. There are things that transcend our personal time and place, and one of those transcendent things is that nothing justifies degrading another Image Bearer. In his systematic theology, Wayne Grudem closes his chapter “The Creation of Man” with the warning that when we began degrading and devaluing Image Bearers, “we will soon begin to depreciate the value of human life, will tend to see humans as merely a higher form of animal.”[8]

I’m not operating under the delusion that I’ll change anyone’s mind about torture. If you think I’m selling myself short, I challenge you to create an outline for this article. Based on organization, this is a “C” paper, at best [9]. Since I don’t have a teacher riding herd on my, I can excuse myself with the claim, the true claim, that my simple hope and prayer is that those readers who’ve never entertained the thought that torture may not be Biblically justified will think and pray about it. Study it out; don’t assume that just because your favorite TV pundit or radio host paints torture as morally justifiable, that makes it so. To further that, I point back to the initial paragraph and encourage readers to check out the articles on First Things that deal with the problem of torture. I will also include some links below to a couple of articles that I believe are helpful.

Means are not morally neutral, and torture violates the Bible’s teaching that all humans are made in the image of God.

[1] When discussing situational ethics, it’s easy to take the moral high road. If actually faced with that absurd scenario (which, by the way, is guilty of implied omniscience, among other problems), I think it would be really hard to not sacrifice a lone man in order to save a group of children.

[2] Research Peter Singer and abortion, for starters.

[3] My apologies to Daniel Dennett for stealing his phrase “intuition pump” for use in a decidedly anti-utilitarian and pro-Christian article.

[4] To round this out, I think that the most righteous and just course of action would be for the man to ask the bystander to pull the switch. Self-sacrifice in that instance reflects the love of Jesus. I think. I’ll be happy to consider opposing arguments.

[5] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 181.

[6] The bully in my sixth grade class was named Mickey Hoodless. I know that that name sounds like it came from Central Casting, but that was the actual name of the actual class bully.

[7] Look, I’m not expressing my opinion of how to deal with bullies (I’m also not not expressing my opinion of how to deal with bullies). I hope that those of you who are offended at the suggestion that it’s ok to return physical violence with physical violence will see what I think is clearly an illustration that is alluding to NOT kids and NOT individual families.

[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 451.

[9] This is no false humility either; I’m quite aware of what I’m capable of as a writer. For an example of my “A” writing, check out “American Privilege and Living On One Dollar a Day.”


6 thoughts on “Christians and Torture

  1. I appreciate the thrust of this post, though I quibble with some of the particulars. Better for a conversation over a pint than a long extended discussion thread. But to note a couple questions I have:

    1. Re: the train switch: I’m not sure I agree about rejecting “the good of the many over the few’ as wrong primarily because it lines up with utilitarianism. Your footnote was a helpful clarifier – that ideally the man would himself ask the switchman to pull the switch, and you acknowledge that if you were actually in the situation, you’d have a hard time choosing the man above the group of kids.
    Sometimes human beings are put into horrible situations where they must make a choice leading to the death of one group to rescue another. Some try to escape the dilemma by not choosing, but that itself is a choice. We can’t escape the question by saying “it’s God who decides.” We probably know people who have faced that exact choice – in emergency room triage, on a battlefield. Apparently God sometimes puts this exact problem in front of some individuals and asks them to make the choice.
    I’m not convinced that the group>individual answer to the train switch problem is somehow wrong because it happens to be utilitarian. You focus on number as the issue; what about potential? Children have whole lives ahead of them – even below-average “troublemakers” as a group possess greater future potential than a single adult man.

    My point: I absolutely agree that torture is dehumanizing and antithetical to seeing others as Imago Dei. I think you could make your point tighter, though. The anti-utilitarian introduction almost distracts from your point.

    2. Re: Torture
    The question of torture gets difficult when we’re trying to draw the line between interrogation and torture. Does any physical discomfort equal torture? Most of us have no problem locking up a hardened criminal for a lifetime inside cell walls – something with hefty psychological and physical consequences. This is a fuzzy line and declaring “no discomfort ever!” seems unworkable when dealing with criminals or enemy combatants.
    Very few people would agree that law enforcement or military personnel have no power to enforce their will on people who are standing in the way of what a government has deemed a lawful objective. Of course, that means stopping to think through normative ethics for governments and their objectives …. It gets so messy so quickly.

    The Economist did a long article back in…2008?… about the failure of torture techniques to be effective. A utilitarian argument might actually be a good ally here. Aside from the moral question, which is significant but divisive if you’re trying to get a majority of voters to push for a policy change, information gained by torture is rarely helpful. It’s often wrong (the person says anything to escape the pain). And a democratic nation loses more than it gains when stopping to such a low view of human life as reflected in waterboarding or kidnapping.


  2. To tackle the question a different way: If we lived in a world where a painless injection of a safe serum rendered an individual capable of only telling the truth to any question, would you oppose the use of such Truth Serum in cases of interrogation of suspects who hold information that could preserve the lives or health of others?

    If you approve of the serum in theory, then your argument against torture is more driven by opposing physical/psychological harm than about the absolute “trump value” of the Imago Dei principle.

    And if you would oppose the serum because it removes the agency of the suspect … I’d agree with you in the theoretical realm, but I wouldn’t oppose its actual use in prescribed situations — ones where removing the independence of an individual had the potential to rescue others.

    I’m not sure that we can push Imago Dei to mean “never harming another human ever” if we also recognize the limits Gen 9:6 places on that principle – that we must weigh the health and safety of other Image Bearers when meting out justice. Capital punishment is actually one of the strongest supports for Imago Dei, though I think it is also extremely problematic in several other ways.

    All that said…

    I really do appreciate this post. The alliance of American jingoism with Evangelical fervor is dangerously prevalent. I think America passed beyond the bounds of propriety shortly after 9/11. I’m not even convinced the “Kill Osama!” war can be justified ethically, because it’s a fight predicated totally on revenge. I’m tired of Christians in my FB news feed throwing slurs at President Obama because he refuses to roll tanks into Iraq to destroy ISIS. Perhaps Obama isn’t a coward; perhaps he understands that we can’t kill everyone in ISIS and remain human…. nor can we drop a bomb on an idea and destroy it. You cannot kill ideas. Love must drive out hate.


  3. I’ve been thinking about this post since I read it the other day, and now that I’ve checked back and have seen your last comment, I think we probably agree that real life is more difficult to navigate than hypothetical situations. Specifically, I think your train switch situation would be closer to reality if it integrated two things; first, an acknowledgement of man’s fallen condition, of sin’s disfiguring effects on the image of God in man; second, a recognition that God gives those in positions of authority responsibility to protect and defend those in their care. Government officials and soldiers have that responsibility in a similar way that you as a father have.

    So I would amend the scenario to make you, Father Ellis, the person standing at the switch. Your two beloved children are the children on the tracks. You believe the man who has become stuck on the side track is the very same man who took your children and placed them on the tracks (in the same way that the people who tortured suspected terrorists didn’t have proof that would stand up in court but believed that the people they were torturing were guilty of terrorism). If this is the scenario, would you still see this as an argument about utilitarianism, or would you see it as an argument about protecting those God has put in your care, specifically your children?

    I’m not saying I believe torture is right (I’m not sure I believe it’s wrong in all cases though), and I am with you on encouraging people to not be unthinkingly patriotic or jingoistic about such serious issues. But I just think it’s a more complex issue than simply treating all people with respect because they are created in the image of God (obviously, that is the ideal, but not always possible in this fallen world).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment.

      The train switch intuition pump is not mine. I used it as an illustration to lay some Philosophy 101 groundwork in case there were any readers unfamiliar with the Omission Bias and Utilitarianism before moving on to explaining why I believe the Facebook memes that prompted this article are not legitimate arguments for torture. I’m not a fan of the train switch problem (I even comment on that in footnote 1). Changing the variables, as you suggest, in the train switch problem would have rendered it a moot point. For example, if the man stuck on the side track is changed to be the person who tied my two kids (or any kids, for that matter) to the track, the question is no longer one about Utilitarianism; it’s now a question of justice. And, in relation to the discussion about torture, I don’t believe that diverting the train in that instance, or in the original instance, is torture. Whether or not it is torture may be up for debate, and that I understand. I didn’t define terms. I tried, but the article became too long and moved outside of the realm of my objective – which I stated in the article.

      I believe that torture is wrong. I also recognize that I’m in a position, thankfully, that makes it easy for me to draw a hard and fast line; others, however and thankfully, too, are in positions that require decisions in real time using definitions that are probably moving targets. I’m not a fan of the pejorative “single issue voter.” It’s condescending and smug sophistry used by liberals to try and shame their neighbors into become “single issue voters” the other way. That being said, there are issues that if a candidate holds to even one of them, I will not vote for him or her. That doesn’t mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that I will automatically vote for a candidate who agrees with me on those few issues. But those issues are too obviously contra-Biblical for me to able to vote for a candidate who supports even one of those issues. Torture is not one of those issues. For the record, I’m not backtracking; I believe that torture is wrong. But, I’m not going to condemn those who disagree. However, if someone is going to change my mind about torture, that individual will have to use arguments other than utilitarian arguments.


  4. Catching up.
    Interesting to remove the Train Switch question from “utilitarian ethics” to “justice” — I think ELM is right to note that the question of torture being right/wrong is complex because, in addition to considering the iidentity of both the tortured person & the interrogator as image-bearers, there are equally weighty considerations – of justice, roles/responsibilities of government, even wartime ethics (which are nearly universally recognized to be different than peacetime ethics).

    John – I guess what I think is odd here, to be blunt, is that you *seem* to be insistent on deciding whether torture is right or wrong in the abstract sense based only on the principle of imago Dei, yet refuse to examine that assumption through the lens of hypothetical examples.

    You’re willing to concede that in the concrete, you’d expect to find the questions murky and you are less willing to judge those who engage in torture as a tactic for public safety or national security…. that you don’t expect you could live under your own conclusion in particular (realistic) circumstances, given the competing demands of your fatherly role as family protector and your innate desire for justice.

    So why are you so opposed to hypothetical examinations of abstract concepts? How else are we to break them into component parts and then poke them to see if they hold up? 🙂


    • I don’t understand your questions. I didn’t use the Train Switch question to condemn torture. As I’ve stated, several times, including in the article, I used the Train Switch question as a set-up to discuss the use of utilitarianism as a defense of torture. If the variables are changed on the Train Switch question to where it’s no longer a utilitarian problem, it no longer has any bearing for me in this discussion – unless you can explain to me otherwise, but that would require interacting with my response to the proposed alteration of the Train Switch – more on that below. I haven’t insisted on their only being one argument against torture. My inability to articulate more than one argument (remember, I wrote, “Recognizing the memes/arguments as utilitarian does not condemn torture.” – the Train Switch problem was NOT used as an argument against torture.) doesn’t mean that I believe there is only one argument against torture. Once again, my use of the Train Switch question was simply a tool to introduce my belief that utilitarian beliefs are out of bounds for Believers – whether discussing torture or anything else. I don’t see how ELM’s alteration to the train switch question has anything to do with torture. But, I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, I argued that if the man stuck to the track is the one who tied my kids to the other track, it is no longer a utilitarian argument (and the entire point of the Train Switch problem is erased leaving Philosophy 101 professors everywhere with the need to find something else to do during that class). It becomes a discussion of justice. In regards to torture, I don’t think that the U.N. Convention Against Torture would define switching the train in that situation to run over the man as torture. What hypothetical examination of abstract concepts am I opposed to? I responded to the proposed alteration of the Train Switch question. Just because you don’t like my answer doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to discussing it. In fact, to be blunt, it *seems* that you’re bypassing my response and simply lecturing me on my inability to argue correctly.

      RE my fatherly role: I didn’t say that I would be acting out of justice. I even wrote that I would probably be screaming for the use of torture even after my kids were safe. I didn’t write that because I thought my response wasn’t long enough. I wrote it as an acknowledgment of my hypocritical sinful heart. My acknowledged hypothetical hypocrisy is not a justification for torture. My saying that I’m not going to condemn those who disagree with me is not a justification for torture. What I’m “hearing” is that my unwillingness to claim epistemic certainty is an issue.


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