A Note from Our Editor: “Lesser-of-Evils”

 The lead article in this issue of the Global Journal, Dr Daniel Heimbach’s essay on torture, raises a key ethical issue that particularly plagues evangelical believers.  Evangelicals (like Roman Catholics engaged in moral casuistry and the quest for “sainthood”) desperately want to fulfil John Wesley’s desire for moral perfection.  But how is this possible in a fallen world where ethical ambiguities can leave one with no choice that is inherently good?  Take the standard torture example:  suppose that only by physically torturing a terrorist can we find out where he has planted a bomb that, if and when it goes off, will kill one hundred school children.  Most rational people would—as a lesser-of-evils—torture the terrorist, but such an act is, nonetheless, morally reprehensible. 

 Or take war.  Here is a telling passage from Scott Turow’s second-world-war novel, Ordinary Heroes; the narrator is a soldier who took part in the D-Day landings:

“It was the devil’s hell, all right.  Sitting in church, having the preacher tell me where the sinners was gonna find their ugly selves, and thinking so hard about it, that was what I’d seen.  The       banging, the screaming, the pain.  Even the smells of the bombs and the artillery rounds.  That’s a saying, sir, you know, war is hell, but it’s a truth.  The souls screaming and sinking down.  And the skies falling.  When I get to thinking about it, sometimes I wonder if I’m not dead after all.”

 One of the most widely accepted ethical solutions for evangelicals is what Norman Geisler has denominated “graded absolutism.”  In essence, this view says that biblical commands vary in importance and if one chooses to violate a “lower” command in order to follow a “higher” command, one is not sinning at all.  Thus, in Corrie ten Boom’s “hiding place” dilemma, if one lies to protect Jews, one does not commit sin and one’s sanctification remains intact.  Of course, the problem with such a viewpoint is simply the flat biblical assertion that “whosoever shall keep the whole law,  and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).

 Far more satisfactory (and biblical) is the Reformation position that sees such ethical “hells” as negating a doctrine of perfectionism.  When one sins, one sins; and the only proper recourse is to go back to the Cross of Christ for forgiveness and restoration.  One chooses the “lesser-of-evils”—but a “lesser” evil does not become a good by virtue of the fact that its pragmatically negative consequences are less than the opposing choice.  Of course, it is better to lie than to sacrifice the lives of fellow human beings, but lying is still wrong; indeed, Jesus classifies lying as devilish (John 8:44).

Geisler makes three points in arguing against the Reformation ethic, which he terms “ideal absolutism” or “conflicting absolutism” or “the lesser-of-evils view” (Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics [Baker, 1981], pp. 81-101).  Here they are, with our commentary:  (1) The Reformation view “holds the individual guilty for doing his best in an unavoidably bad situation.”  But this is precisely God’s judgment against every generation of mankind since Adam fell:  “When you shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10). (2) “There is always at least one right thing to do—1 Corinthians 10:13.”  But the temptation referred to in this passage, and which we need never give in to, is that of irresponsibility: not bothering to go through the agonizing process of choosing the lesser-of-evils.  (3) Reformation ethics “would render the sinlessness of Christ either impossible or meaningless.”  But to be true man, Christ neither had to have every particular human experience (he never experienced old age, for example) nor had to experience every particular human temptation (he was never in the military and he was  apparently never presented with the “hiding place” situation).  To be “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” and “tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) requires qualitative, not quantitative, identification with fallen mankind.  God was incarnate “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4): doubtless one aspect of God’s choice of time and place was to ensure that during his sojourn on earth he would not have to choose even a lesser evil; and his omniscience (except as to the hour of the Second Coming) whilst in the earthly state gave him the knowledge totally to avoid ethically compromising choices.

In contrast to so-called “situation ethics,” which is totally lacking in ethical absolutes (save for “love,” which, being undefined, loses absolute quality in any case), Reformation ethics takes biblical principle so seriously that it recognises genuine moral conflicts in a fallen world.  The difficulty is not with the principles (of course both lying and betraying one’s fellow man are contrary to scriptural principles!) but with the depravity of the world which we have made—in Adam as our representative and in the selfishness that penetrates our every decision and action.  (Cf. Joseph Fletcher and John Warwick Montgomery, Situation Ethics—True or False: A Dialogue [2d ed.; Calgary, Alberta: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, 1999], passim, but especially pp. 64-66.)

So, whether in the case of war or torture or the “hiding place,” we need to give up our chimerical belief in realisable holiness in this life.  With Luther, there are occasions where we must “sin bravely”—“but believe and rejoice in Christ even more bravely, for he is victorious over sin, death and the world” (WA, 2, 371).  When we must act in such ambiguous situations, let us not dissemble but courageously pray, “O Lord, forgive me for my participation in this sinful and fallen world.  Without thy death for me, I would be lost forever.  Raise me up by thy sacrifice and take me into thy presence in spite of what I have had to do.  When I am called out of this world may I spend eternity in that land where sin is no more and which thou hast prepared for those who know that they cannot save themselves.”  (See Montgomery, Human Rights and Human Dignity [2d ed.; Calgary, Alberta: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology and Public Policy, 1995], notes 347 and 376.)

 In conclusion, a word from another character in Turow’s Ordinary Heroes; in this instance, a battlefield general who eventually becomes a theologian:

 “We’re lost.  Utterly lost.  Because we need God, Dubin.  Every man out here needs God. . . . Do you know why we need God, why we must have him? . . .

 “Well, I’ll tell you, Dubin.  Why we need God.  Why I need God. To forgive us,” he said then, and with the words his anger almost instantly subsided to sadness. . . . “Because when this is over, this war, that’s what we’ll need, all of us who have done what war requires and, worse, what war permits, that’s what we’ll need, in order to be able to live the rest of our lives.”

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 This issue marks the tenth anniversary of the Global Journal: tempus doth indeed fugit!

As noted above, our lead article, by Dr Daniel R. Heimbach -- a distinguished previous contributor – deals with the thorny contemporary issue of torture.  By a careful study of this paper, readers will be able to wrestle with an ethical issue of great importance vis-à-vis the war against terrorism.  

Vol. 10, No. 1 also features Willie Honeycutt’s “Analysis and Appraisal of the Exclusivist Claims of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity” -- refuting the commonly-held fallacy that Hinduism and Buddhism are “open” religions in contrast to exclusivist biblical Christianity. 

Finally, Daniel Janosik provides an historical essay on one of the most fundamental distinctions between Christian doctrine and Muslim beliefs:  “John of Damascus’ Response to the Islamic View of Justification by Works.”

Raise a glass for our tenth anniversary celebration (even though, if you are Baptist, your glass may contain only grape juice . . .)!

John Warwick Montgomery

Opinions expressed in the Global Journal are those of the
individual authors.
They do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or of
Patrick Henry College.