A Note From Our Editor: “Lesser-Of-Evils” -- By: John Warwick Montgomery
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...
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