Tuesday, October 8, 2013


On a post last autumn, (WHY I VOTE THE WAY I DO), I mentioned the possibility of having to choose "the lesser of two evils."  This idea was criticized as simply another way of saying that "the end justifies the means."

Also in some correspondence concerning the hate speech of Christians who hold certain political views, I was given the excuse that "most believers in America today" have a "dilemma" concerning the direction their country is headed.

I had written out some thoughts on these matters but never posted them.  And then a recent post by my friend Canadian Atheist spoke of an ethical dilemma he had about eating meat.  This brought to mind my previous musings so I figured I might as well post them.

A dilemma is a choice we have to make, but don't want to, especially when either alternative is undesirable.  When I speak of an ethical (or moral) dilemma, I have in mind a situation in which one is confronted with only two apparent alternatives, either of which would involve sin.

Most of us are, at some time or another, faced with genuine ethical dilemmas, but we should be careful not to see every difficult decision as a dilemma.  The following are not ethical dilemmas:
·       A decision between two goods.  The decision of how to behave in such a situation must be made on the basis of wisdom and sometimes simply personal preference.
·       A decision between good and evil.  That is what's known as temptation.  Many of the "dilemmas" presented in our popular culture -- fiction, movies, country songs -- are just that.
·       A choice of "let us do evil that good may come" (Romans 3:8), of choosing a wrong act to achieve a good end -- i.e., "the end justifies the means."

What is an ethical dilemma then?  It is when I am faced with a situation in which whatever action I choose, I will be doing wrong.  The classic example:

Suppose I live in Nazi Germany.  I have Jews hidden in my house.  The Gestapo knock on my door and inquire if there are any Jews hidden inside.  Do I tell them the truth and allow innocent people to be condemned (which would be a sin of omission on my part), or do I simply lie (which would also be a sin) in order to protect the innocent?

I suspect that most would say "No problem, just lie."  But how do I really determine what to do in such a dilemma?

Those of us who look to the Scripture as our guide for making moral choices may be frustrated when we look at the cases mentioned there.

One of the situations usually noted is the case of the Hebrew midwives who lied to Pharaoh to save the lives of the Hebrew baby boys and were apparently rewarded by God for this act (Exodus 1:15-21).  However, it should be noted that the lie itself is not commended, but their fear of God (verses 17, 21) and undoubtedly their refusal to comply with Pharaoh's order.

Another case is Rahab who hid the Hebrew spies and lied to their pursuers to save their lives (Joshua 2, especially verses 3-5).  She also was rewarded by having her life and the life of her family spared (Joshua 6:25).  Though the text does not say God rewarded her, the New Testament does commend her, especially for her faith (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25).  Again it should be noted that the lie itself was not commended, but her faith which led to action.

There were other dilemmas in the Bible, such as Jephthah’s rash vow which led to the sacrifice of his daughter (Judges 11:30, 31, 34-40) and Herod Antipas’ rash vow which led to the death of John the Baptist (Mark 6:22-28).  In both cases there was a decision between breaking a vow and taking an innocent human life.  In neither case is the decision to keep the vow commended or condemned.  As often in the Bible, the actions are merely reported without any moral pronouncement being made.  We should be careful not to make an "ought" out of every action reported in the Scripture.

Before we go any further, I believe something should be said about the view that has been described as "unqualified absolutism," (a view held by some Christians) whose basic premise is that all moral conflicts are only apparent and not real. This view boils down to just two or three errors:
·       The error that the “way of escape” of 1 Corinthians 10:13 means that there will always be a “third alternative.”  The way of escape is given “that we may be able to bear” the test, not avoid it.  Sometimes what seems to be faith may simply be presumption.  In the cases of Rahab and the Hebrew midwives, even if there might have been a “third alternative,” they are not faulted for not taking it.
·       The error that “all real moral conflicts are brought on by a person’s prior sin(s).”   While some of them may be, not all are.  And even so, the individual is still faced with a real moral dilemma.
·       The tendency to rationalize sin as not being sin.  Two of the biblical cases mentioned above involved deception.  To argue that a deliberate deception is not a lie if somehow phrased in truthful terms, is casuistry.  This would get Satan off the hook for his lie to Eve (Genesis 3:5, 6).
So it seems obvious that we many times may be forced to make a choice between two evils.  How do we determine?  I believe the following thoughts may be of help.  At least they have for me.
·       Sin is always sin.  Lying is always sin, even if it is chosen rather than the alternative.
·       There is a gradation of higher and lower moral laws.  Some sins are worse than others.  Jesus' reply to Pilate in John 19:11 would appear to indicate this:  "You would have no authority over me unless it had been given to you from above.  Because of this, the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin."
·       Though we may choose "the lesser evil," God while regarding this act as an evil, apparently does not in this case impute guilt to the sinner.  Apparently "extenuating circumstances" are considered.

How do we determine which choice to make when confronted with an ethical dilemma?  Ethicists, both Christian and non-Christian, have discussed this question for centuries and it seems that when someone comes up with a formula for determining, a new dilemma shows up that does not fit the formula.  So, though many criteria have been suggested, I'll suggest one that I believe is biblical.  It is love, the simple choice of others over self.

This won't solve all our dilemmas, but it should be of help in many.  It would mean that I must make a choice that would benefit others more than myself.  It could mean that I would bear the harsher consequences.

Our big problem is that often these dilemmas do not allow us time to meditate and ponder both sides of the matter, as in our voting practice.  Rather, they come on us instantly -- maybe not the Nazis at the door, but in other ways.  It is then that we must make a decision based on the working of the Spirit in bringing to our minds what are the right choices.

[NOTE:  Many of these thoughts are taken from my notes for a biblical ethics class I taught at the College of Biblical Studies in Houston in 2005.]