Webster’s Dictionary defines collateral damage as “injury inflicted on something other than an intended target, specifically: civilian casualties of a military operation”. The United States Air Force Intelligence Targeting Guide defines the term as "unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment, or personnel, occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities", stating that "such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces". This term originated as a military term, but its use has broadened to many civilian applications, such as the business world and computers.
This term also has a spiritual application. Although the phrase does not appear directly in the Bible, the idea that people can become the unintended victims of the sins of others is clearly described in the Bible. This sounds unjust on its face, and it is. However, we live in a fallen world that is rampant with such injustices. When we boil it down, we have two spiritual positions to take in response to this. We can get mad at God and blame Him, or we can blame man. The Lord is the only One completely innocent of injustice. Man is never completely innocent. Even though an individual may not be the direct cause of a specific wrongdoing, we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). We are all contributors to the collective cesspool of sin and its effects. As a primary example, no one alive today is directly and personally responsible for the sins of Adam and Eve, but we all have suffered the effects (Gen 3, Rom 5, 1Cor 15:20-22). We all perpetuate the problem with our own sins.
There are other examples throughout the Bible. Noah was a just man surrounded by a wicked world (Gen 6:8-9). The sins of the world were not his fault, and God chose him to build the ark that would be the vehicle of salvation for mankind and all air-breathing animal life from a worldwide flood (Gen 6-9). Not only did the world perish, but Noah also suffered. He spent 100 years building the ark while being disbelieved (2Pet 2:5, 2Pet 3:3-7). He lost his relatives except for his immediately family, his home, the world he knew, and everything else that was not on the ark. He and his family spent over a year living on the ark with a bunch of animals during the worst storm in history by far. After the flood they had to start all over building a new life in a new place in a drastically altered world. The animals all suffered too. Most of them died, and the ones on the ark also went through the flood and its after-effects. The flood and its after-effects are a plausible explanation for what happened to some of the dinosaurs.The animals continue to suffer because of the sins of man and also wait for the redemption of the return of Christ (Rom 8:19-23). Not the smallest loss, but one sometimes overlooked, was the death of all of the children of those who rejected Noah and did not board the ark. It was their parents’ fault, but they died just the same. Drowning is not pleasant way to go. Despite all the good Noah had done, after the flood he planted a vineyard, got drunk, and lay naked in his tent. Apparently, his grandson Canaan took sinful advantage of the situation and not only brought evil upon his grandfather, but he brought a curse upon himself and all his descendants (Gen 9:20-29).
The flood is an obvious example of damage because it is on such a huge scale, but sometimes we miss other examples of collateral damage caused by sin. When Israel began to conquer Canaan, the first city to fall was Jericho. The Israelites were told to take no spoils from it, but one man, Achan, took three forbidden items (Josh 7). As a direct result of his sin, Israel lost the next battle over a much smaller city called Ai. Not only did Israel suffer the shame of defeat, but 36 men died in the battle (Josh 7:5). There are battles in the Bible where hundreds of thousands died. There were six battles where more than 50,000 died and five with more than 100,000:
a. 120,000 by Gideon – Jud 8:10
b. 100,000 Syrians in 1 day – 1Ki 20:29
c. 185,000 Assyrians in 1 night by angel – 2Ki 19:35
d. 500,000 of Israel – 2Chr 13:17
e. 120,000 of Judah in 1 day – 2Chr 28:6
f. 75,000 enemies of Jews – Est 9:16
This would seem to make the number of casualties in the battle of Ai insignificant. However, it was not insignificant to the parents who had to bury their children, and to the wives, children, relatives, and friends who lost loved ones. Also, the fear was that this defeat would embolden the minds of their enemies and bring disrepute on the nation and even their God.
David was a great man of God, but he also fell into sin (2Sam 11-12). He had many wives and concubines, but he still committed adultery with the wife of one of his most loyal and mighty soldiers. He tried to cover it up when she discovered she was pregnant with his child after the affair while her husband was away in battle. It did not work, so he arranged for her husband’s death. David then married Bathsheba, thinking it was all covered up, but God saw it all and was not pleased. He sent Nathan the prophet who confronted him with his sin. The punishment under the law of Moses for adultery and murder was death (Lev 20:10, Ex 20:10). David repented and was excused from the death penalty, but he was told that he would suffer consequences for the rest of life. Yet it was not just David that suffered. The baby born of his adultery died. The baby’s mother who was also guilty of adultery suffered that loss as well, as did the baby. They literally lived out James 1:13-15. How you think David’s other wives felt about all this? Later, Bathsheba’s other son by David was chosen to be king over all of theirs. Do you think any of them had to battle the question of why the son of the adulteress got chosen over theirs? What about the effects on all of David’s loyal followers? Did some have to battle loss of respect and confidence in his leadership? Ahithophel was David's counselor (2Sam 15-17), but he turned against him with Absalom. Why did he do it? Apparently, he was Bathsheba's grandfather (2Sam 11:3, 2Sam 23:34). Nathan said God would raise up evil against David out his own family. His son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar, and her brother Absalom had him killed for it (2Sam 13). Absalom fled, but when he returned, he plotted the overthrow of his own father (2Sam 14-19). He was killed in the resulting battle. David’s concubines lived the rest of their days in widowhood because of what Absalom did to them according to the prophecy of Nathan (2Sam 12:11, 2Sam 16:21-22, 2Sam 20:3). Later, another son Adonijah rose up against his father and tried to usurp him and his brother Solomon (1Ki 1). This not only later led to his own death, but that of the general Joab, the priest Abiathar, and the man Shimei as Solomon executed reckoning on them (1Ki 2). Just think how all of this affected so many people and the entire nation. The reputation of God Himself was assaulted by Israel’s enemies (2Sam 12:14).
As John Donne said, no man is an island. Our actions affect not just us, but those around us. Sadly, it is often children who have no control over the behavior of adults who suffer. All of this can be quite discouraging, but there is hope even in the light of the devastating effects of sin. When we confess and forsake sin, God will have mercy (Prov 28:13, 1Jn 1:5-2:3). He prefers to save than to destroy (Eze 18:32, Eze 33:11, Jn 3:17). He wants us to repent so our sins do not destroy us (2Pet 3:9). God can bring good even out of evil. He brought the salvation of all mankind and the animals out of the flood, which is a symbol of water baptism (1Pet 3:18-22). He turned the defeat at Ai into victory when Israel repented and got the sin out of the camp (Josh 8). He can turn a curse into a blessing (Gen 50:20, Deut 23:5, Rom 8:31). God brought David’s successor Solomon out of his relationship with Bathsheba. Solomon led Israel into its time of greatest prosperity (1Ki 1-10). When we place ourselves into the hands of God, sin and faults and all, He can be the potter who turns our clay into a vessel of honor (Jer 18, Rom 9, 2Cor 4:7, 2Tim 2:20-21). He wants us to repent of our sins, not the consequences of them. Jesus never sinned (2Cor 5:21, 1Pet 2:22, 1Jn 3:5). Yet God laid on Him the punishment of all the sins of man from Adam to the end of the world (Ps 51, Rom 5:7:10, 1Pet 3:18). He died a gruesome death for us all to be pardoned. That is the greatest injustice of all. Now we can enjoy the benefits of His righteousness without having done it ourselves when we apply the gospel (1Cor 15:1-4, Acts 2:38). Then, we can in turn be empowered to do right and be a blessing to others through Him, and we can then influence others to do the same. This is what Jesus came to do. How much more powerful is good than evil? Let’s find out. Jesus set the example. Let’s follow Him and see what He can do through us. Then we can see collateral blessings.