Torture can be defined as “the infliction of intense pain to punish, to coerce, or to derive sadistic pleasure.” Of course, sadism is never appropriate or just, but what about punishment or coercion? Is there ever a time when inflicting pain is justified in order to punish wrongdoing or to obtain a confession? What does the Bible say?
The Bible acknowledges the existence of torture. In a parable, Jesus spoke of a servant who was “turned . . . over to the jailers to be tortured” (Matthew 18:34). Such an allusion seems to indicate that the use of torture was common in the prisons of the day. The Bible also records the stories of many victims of torture: Jesus, Paul and Silas (Acts 16), the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:2; 38:6), and other unnamed saints (Hebrews 11:35). In every case, we see that the godly are the victims of torture, never the perpetrators of torture.
As individuals, we are not to seek revenge. Vengeance belongs only to the Lord (Psalm 94:1; Romans 12:19). Also, as individuals we have no authority to punish society’s wrongdoers or to extract confessions from them. Therefore, as individuals, we can have no license to torture; inflicting intense pain on others is wrong. God alone is able to mete out punishment with perfect justice, and it is His prerogative to make His punishment painful. Demons are aware of a future time of “torture” for themselves (Matthew 8:29). Hell is a place of “torment” and intense agony (Matthew 13:42; Luke 16:23-24). During the Tribulation, torment will be part of the plagues upon evildoers (Revelation 9:5; 11:10). In any of His judgments, God is holy and perfectly fair (Psalm 119:137).
Now we’ll consider the use of torture in relation to governmental policy. We know that God has appointed civil governments and charged them with maintaining justice in this world (Romans 13:1-5). “For [the ruler] is God’s servant to do you good . . . an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (verse 4). Elsewhere, God calls judges and magistrates “gods”; that is, their authority to provide justice comes from God Himself (Psalm 82:1-4). If they fail in their duty, they will themselves be judged by the Lord, the Judge of all (verses 7-8).
So government bears the responsibility to protect the good and punish the evil. What methods may it employ in carrying out that responsibility? Beyond the endorsement of capital punishment (Romans 13:4; Genesis 9:6), the Bible does not say. The Bible neither condemns nor condones a government’s use of torture.
Many questions can and should be asked: What specific techniques should be considered “torture”? Where do we draw the line? Is the infliction of any kind of pain inherently wrong? What if there are no permanent physical effects? Is sleep deprivation torture? What about a forced change in diet? Should yelling at a prisoner be considered psychological torture?
May a government, in order to protect its law-abiding citizens, engage in “highly coercive interrogation” (the use of strongly persuasive techniques to obtain tactical information)? What if these techniques do not inflict physical pain?
What if the goal of torture is to prevent further tragedy? What if a prisoner is withholding information that could save the life of an innocent person? What if a hundred lives could be saved? A thousand lives? Should that prisoner be threatened with physical pain until he reveals the information? What, then, if his information is wrong? And what about unlawful enemy combatants who are, legally, not prisoners of war and therefore do not fall under the rules of the Geneva Convention?
These are all questions not addressed in the Bible and that are beyond the scope of this article, but they highlight the need for us to pray “for kings and all those in authority” (1 Timothy 2:2). May our policy makers have the wisdom to distinguish good from evil and to provide true justice.