Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight! Isaiah 5:20-21
The recent election cycle renewed vigorous discussion regarding whether Christian ethics may employ “the lesser of two evils” when faced with apparently competing ethical demands in the moral law. To hold such a view, however, accepts as a given that there are, in fact, truly competing moral demands. Ethicists call these “conflicts of duty” or “tragic moral choices.” We often simply refer to them as “the lesser of two evils.”
But is it valid to assume that such “conflicts of duty” actually exist in a truly biblical ethic? Are there situations in which our only option is disobedience to some biblical command in order to obey the lesser or two evils? Does our fallen condition create situations in which obedience to God’s revealed will is not even a possibility?
Many ethicists hold it as a given that such “conflicts of duty” exist and contend that there are times in which it is right to do what God has forbidden or right to fail to do what God has required? Christian ethicists who hold this view attempt to mitigate the obvious concern over calling evil good, by noting that such necessary sins still require God’s forgiveness.
In his book, Medical Ethics: Principles, Persons and Problems, Dr. John Frame refutes this position on the following points.
- In Scripture it is never right to disobey a command of God and never sinful to do what is right. [To do so] is ethically confused at a basic level.
- According to this view, the Scriptures, our fundamental ethical standard, would be contradictory; they would be telling us to do two incompatible things.
- Consider the christological implications of this view. Did Jesus face “conflict of duties?” If so, then He too was guilty of sin; He too ought to have asked God’s forgiveness…. But if Jesus did not face such conflicts, then how can we say with the author of Hebrews that he was tempted in every way, just as we are, yet was without sin (4:15)? Either alternative is unacceptable, so the premise must be wrong. There are no “tragic moral choices.”
- And 1 Corinthians 10:13 promises that Christians need never fall into sin, a promise that is incompatible with the view under discussion.
Given the belief that there are no “tragic moral choices” and no need to choose the “lesser of two evils,” our ethical task ought to be cut and dried, right? Yet Frame notes Christians must often struggle longer than situational ethicists to find the consistent answer, biblically, to our ethical questions. Frame notes several reasons this struggle is difficult.
“Sometimes we don’t understand Scripture adequately. Sometimes we have an inadequate understanding of the situation to which Scripture is to be applied. And sometimes our own spiritual immaturity obscures matters in our minds and hearts.”
Situational ethicists often accuse Christians of taking the easy way out by denying “conflicts of duty,” but the reality is that the unwillingness to call good evil and evil good or to put darkness for light and light for darkness makes Christian ethics far more challenging and indeed impossible without the illumining work of the Holy Spirit shining on the Word of God.