Warning: This essay brings up quite a few questions, but it doesn’t really give any clear-cut answers. So if you hate it when an author does that to you, don’t read it! Also, I’m writing to a Christian audience that already believes we should, more or less, take the Bible literally. So I’m not going to take time arguing for why to believe this; I’m just going to assume that you do already and work from there. Of course, even if you don’t believe in Biblical literalism, you might still enjoy the essay.
Imagine that you are a Christian living in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. You have compassion on the Jews there that are suffering under the Nazis, so, wishing to help the poor and oppressed as the Bible charges you to, you hide a Jewish family in your home. Now imagine a group of Nazi secret police show up at your door one day and ask flat-out, “Are there any Jews in this house?” Well, yes, there are. But are you going to tell them and so compromise the safety of the people you are trying to protect? Or will you lie? You could try to avoid the question or answer it in a misleading way – for instance, you could say, “No, there are no Jews here,” reasoning to yourself that “here” doesn’t necessarily mean the whole house. But if the police are being careful, they will keep pressing until you have to give a straight answer or else reveal that you’re trying to hide something. And you may not be able to think of a cleverly misleading response in the heat of the moment. So what should you do? Lie and presumably save a life? Or tell the truth and presumably condemn a life?
The world is full of confusing moral questions like this. You might be able to somehow explain away the lying problem above – for instance, by citing the example of the Hebrew midwives that “feared God” who lied to Pharaoh when he asked why they were letting the Hebrew baby boys live. But even if you can deal with one question, there are many, many more that still remain. For instance, is it alright to kill an evil man – say, a ruler who is executing thousands of people without any justification – in order to save other people’s lives? Is it right under God’s law to abort a baby if, as far as you can see, both the mother and the baby will die if you don’t? What can you do to answer these difficult questions in a way that glorifies God and upholds His truth and law?
Many people argue that we must just follow the law literally and trust God to work out everything for good. After all, you can’t be completely sure that telling the truth to the secret police, or letting the evil ruler live, or not aborting the baby will end badly, because God can take care of those situations and make them work out for good. And even if things do turn out badly, God won’t hold you responsible according to this way of looking at things, since you did your part and obeyed the law in faith. When you decide to take things into your own hands and lie or kill or do something else against the law, on the other hand, you are not having faith in God, one could say. Rather, you’re relying on your own prediction of what bad thing will happen and your own judgment of what wrong thing is therefore right to do, and so trying to do good by your own strength. You could see it this way: God gave us a set of laws that serve as limits to what we can righteously do. If we cannot achieve a worthy goal – such a stopping the murderous activities of an evil ruler – within those limits, then evidently God doesn’t mean for us to achieve it. So instead we should in faith leave it to God to figure out another way to further good, whether that involves accomplishing the goal some other way or not. If we rather insist on reaching that goal, even though it requires breaking God’s law, we are, according to this view, arrogantly putting our judgment of what’s important to accomplish above the limits God has established.
The problem with this response is that it tells us to ignore our God-given common sense in order to stick to a literal law – a law that we may very well be misinterpreting in an effort to have faith in God without allowing ourselves to be led astray by our fallen intellect! Now, we are indeed fallen, and so our minds are corrupted and tend towards evil. But God gave us minds back in the day before the Fall, so there must be something good about them. And even now after the Fall, God very often appeals to our sense of logic and reason in the Bible – take Paul’s careful theological arguments in his epistles, for one. And we are to love Him with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. So while we need to be careful to not let our minds get in the way of faith, we must also be careful to not let our concern with maintaining our faith to get in the way of using our minds for good. It is a delicate balance. The above response to moral dilemmas, now, encourages us to suppress our minds in an effort to have faith. Is this a time when we should be keeping our minds from obstructing our faith? It’s hard to know, for, as I said, it is a delicate balance.
Some other people fall on the opposite side of the balance and say that this business of following the law literally is ridiculous. We’ll cause much harm by taking everything literally, they say, missing the spirit of the law in order to follow the letter of the law. In this way they commendably try to prevent the foolish, empty legalism that God so often condemns in the Bible. But many of these people then throw out absolute morality altogether and say that good and evil is completely relative – sometimes killing someone is evil, and sometimes it’s good; sometimes lying is evil and sometimes it’s good; etc. – nothing is innately good or evil. And when you say that anything can be either right or wrong, it just depends on the context, eventually you have to ask, “Well, what makes something right or wrong in the first place?” But in this system there are no absolutes of rightness and wrongness…so is there really any right or wrong in the first place? If you take this relativistic morality to its natural extent, you end up having no right or wrong at all. And that definitely contradicts the Bible, which is full of moral judgments and statements of absolute truth. Relativism also puts our sinful minds in charge of what’s right and wrong, and ignores or at least sidelines what God has to say on the issue. So while the approach of following the Bible literally and blindly trusting God may be foolishly suppressing our minds, this approach elevates our reason to a point where we must dispose of absolute right and wrong altogether. Neither is fully satisfactory.
Still other people, not wanting to have the shortsightedness that seems to result from a strictly literal obedience, but also not wanting to succumb to relativism, try another route. They rank God’s commands by importance – for instance, they might rank “Do not murder” above “Speak the truth to each other” – and then say that when we are faced with a situation where two commands seem to conflict, the right thing to do is to disobey the lesser one in order to follow the higher one. But disobeying the lesser one is not wrong, since we are only obligated to pursue the greater good. Quoting Norman L. Geisler: “God does not blame us for what we could not avoid. Thus he exempts us from responsibility to follow the lower law in view of the overriding obligation to obey the higher law.” (From http://equip.org/articles/any-absolutes-absolutely-/) In this view, there are still absolutes, since there is an absolute hierarchy of laws. Others say that there is only one absolute law – the law of love – and so that always comes first.
But these approaches nevertheless put an outside, human-created framework on the laws of the Bible. The system of ranking God’s commands imposes a hierarchy on His laws that Scripture never fully develops, if at all, and the “law of love” system demotes the other laws given in the Bible. They say, “Well, the Word of God seems to say this, but we smart and reasonable humans have figured out that actually you should interpret it like this.” Again we are forced to ask: how much should we use our God-given but fallen minds, and how much should we set them aside and focus on having a simple faith? And again I say: it is a delicate balance. Our arrogance constantly pushes us towards saying, “No! We can figure things out with our own minds!”, while our tendency to control and regulate ourselves in a hopeless effort to combat sin, to say “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” as Paul writes in Colossians 2:21, pushes us towards restraining our minds and fearfully enslaving ourselves to worthless rules. What is tipping is the balance? What is crossing the line? Different people come to different conclusions.
To me, it seems that the relativistic approach is definitely out; taken to its logical conclusion, it flaunts the moral judgments that pervade the Bible and just does not fit with our natural sense of right and wrong, the law written on our hearts discussed in Romans 2:15. The approach of literally following the Bible and seeking faith over reason, on the other hand, appears much more Biblical. After all, there are many times in the Bible when God tells people who believe in Him to do things that seem foolish or even evil, requiring them to have faith. Consider the story in Genesis 22 where God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, for instance. But this approach is still is difficult for me to accept. It seems foolish and legalistic to insist on following rules such as those to not deceive when things that seem more important are at stake, like people’s lives. Yet when I find this approach difficult to accept, is it because God has gifted me with a thoughtful mind, or is it because my sinful nature is resisting the idea of having to trust God more and trust myself less? How can I tell? Meanwhile, the approaches I discussed that try to take the middle road – the system of hierarchical commands and the “law of love” – also seem much more Scripturally tenable than relativism. But they still do not satisfy me because they, like relativism, elevate humans to a position where we can interpret the law in non-obvious ways. Is this a right position? Maybe. I don’t know.
Or maybe I’m approaching this issue in an unhelpful way in the first place; maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Perhaps there is not One Big Answer to these moral dilemmas, one all-purpose strategy for dealing with them. Perhaps we should approach each separately, studying the morality of lying to save lives apart from the morality of killing to save lives, for instance. Or maybe God meant to not give us all the answers, so we would have to rely on Him in moments of crisis instead of comfortably working out a whole ethical system beforehand. But again, I don’t know.
This brings me once more to the theme that seems to pervade this question of how to handle moral dilemmas: should we rely more on intellect or on faith? How much should we second-guess and re-interpret and explain ourselves out of literalness and build fallible human systems for understanding the Bible, and how much should we set aside logic and the principles of the world and go forth in blind faith and stubbornly stick to literalness even when it goes against common sense? How much should we qualify God’s commands and say, “Well, you don’t have to do it in this situation” and build systems of exceptions and special cases, and how much should we insist on absolute, literal obedience even when it seems downright stupid? How much should we trust in our predictions of the future and our ability to successfully avert “greater” evil by doing “lesser” evil, and how much should we just do whatever we’re sure we should be doing and leave the future entirely to God and rely on Him to work everything out? How much is arrogance and how much is foolishness? How much is indifference and how much is fanaticism? How much is eleven divided by zero?
Clearly, these questions are not easy to answer. But they can make us aware of one of our human weaknesses: our tendency to either arrogantly elevate our minds or foolishly and fearfully suppress them. And when we are aware of our weaknesses, we can more easily take them to God and say: “Look, here I am, a very messed up human being. Can You please give me the grace to deal with these weaknesses? Because I know I can’t.” Unfathomable questions like these can remind us that we can’t do everything and remind us to ultimately rely on God. And so however we choose to explore them, and however we try to answer them, we should do it in a humble manner, sensitive to what God is saying, aware of our weaknesses, eager to seek grace to compensate for them. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even if we can never find all the answers, God will ultimately be glorified.