At the height of the COVID pandemic doctors in Italy faced excruciating decisions about rationing ventilators. More patients needed support than there were machines available. Lisa Rosenbaum reports that they “seemed exquisitely uncomfortable when asked to describe how these rationing decisions were being made”. Her further questions “were met with silence.”[1]

Conflicting Duties

That is a dramatic and heart-breaking example of the moral dilemmas that we often confront. There are times when every option seems a bad one and it is a matter of choosing “the lesser of two evils.” Or is it?

There are times when every option seems a bad one and it is a matter of choosing ‘the lesser of two evils.’ Or is it?

J.I. Packer holds that there are cases of conflicting duties in which “love’s task … is to find how to do the most good, and the least evil … love for persons must arbitrate between the conflicting claims of moral principles.” We shall, he says, “insist that evil remains evil, even when, being the lesser evil, it appears the right thing to do; we shall do it with heavy heart, and seek God’s cleansing of our conscience for having done it.”[2]

Rahab protecting Hebrew spies is the most famous biblical example of a moral dilemma (Josh 2:1-7). Her choice was to tell the truth and sacrifice the spies or sacrifice the truth and save the spies. She protected the spies.

Similar scenarios occur in the case of …

  • the midwives who deceived Pharaoh about the birth of Hebrew boys (cf. Ex 1:15–20);
  • Michal who lied to her father, Saul, to protect her husband David (1 Sam 19:14);
  • David himself who misled Ahimelek the priest (1 Sam 21:2).
  • Samuel’s cover story (provided by the Lord) when he travelled to anoint David (1 Sam 16:1–5);
  • Samson’s Philistine-destroying suicide, apparently broke the sixth commandment, but was enabled by the Lord in answer to Samson’s prayer (Jd 16:30);
  • Elisha seems to have enticed Hazel to lie to Ben-Hadad king of Aram — and even to assassinate him (2 Kings 8:10-15);
  • Jonathan’s betrayed his father (and king) Saul, in favour of his friend David (1 Sam 20);
  • Godly characters who disobey human authorities to obey God (Dan 3:12-18; Acts 4:19; 5:29).

These biblical narratives reflect the difficult circumstances of all human life. Yet none of the episodes is explicitly identified as an unresolvable moral dilemma and in most of these cases the action is implicitly endorsed.

Real Problems

Most evangelical thinkers hold that God gives objective and unalterable laws. They differ, though, about how these relate to each other. The classic position, often called “non-conflicting absolutism,” holds that properly understood God’s laws never conflict. Not surprisingly, the alternative — “conflicting absolutism” — is that there can be real dilemmas in which the best option is still an evil. (This was J.I. Packer’s view).

Norman Geisler (1932–2019) offered a ‘graded absolutism’ in which one ought to do whatever fulfils the highest moral rule in a situation. This is still a non-conflicting view, since it holds that properly understanding God’s law includes knowing the hierarchy of laws.

Jesus’ life provides one compelling argument against conflicting absolutism. He stood in our position, facing our temptations and struggles, but was without sin. There is no suggestion in the New Testament that he resorted to the “lesser of two evils”. His life demonstrates the possibility of following God’s will at every point.

Jesus stood in our position, facing our temptations and struggles, but was without sin. There is no suggestion in the New Testament that he resorted to the ‘lesser of two evils.’

Where does that leave us with our hard cases? It might not be necessary to choose a “lesser evil”, but the right is not always obvious. How do we respond when we seem to have no good choice? A non-conflicting view might suggest that ethical decisions are straight-forward—just follow God’s law. All of us know that isn’t the case. Who would want to stand in the shoes of the Italian doctors? I suspect lots of us have reflected in the last few months about the difficult decisions political leaders and senior public servants have faced through the pandemic. The wrestle Packer describes is very real, whatever view you take about the possibility of conflicting absolutes.

The Possibility of Growth

There is, however, some real encouragement in the non-conflicting view since it concludes that the problems lies, not in the moral order itself, but in our understanding. That means there is the prospect of our growth in discernment, and that is exactly the biblical vision:

  • The Lord promises wisdom (James 1:5).
  • Paul urges the Romans to be transformed “by the renewing of their minds” with the result that they “will be able to test and approve what God’s will is” (Rom 12:2). , that is to “discern, appreciate and determine to obey, God’s will”.[3]
  • Mature Christians are described as those who have trained themselves to “distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14).
  • Paul tells the Ephesians to “find out what pleases the Lord” and to “understand” the Lord’s will (Eph 5:10,17). He prays for believers to have a growing and deeper grasp of God’s will (Col 1:9; Phil. 1:9–11).

Our need to develop discernment, together with God’s promise to provide it, suggests that our situations are complex. Moral insight requires Spirit-guided application of God’s word as we seek to serve him and love others. The specifics of situations mean that the right call might be quite different in apparently similar circumstances — there is not a neat formula to apply.

The challenge of discernment means that people with similar biblical and theological convictions might come to quite different conclusions about the right action on complex ethical issues, especially when we face novel situations.

Growing Together

Growth in moral discernment is an aspect of progressive sanctification. Just as the work of the Spirit leads us to seek to follow Christ more fully, he also develops our insight into how to do that. Such, growth in Christ is never a solo affair. The instructions and prayers of the New Testament concern Christians in fellowship. We grow and learn together.

Just as the work of the Spirit leads us to seek to follow Christ more fully, he also develops our insight into how to do that.

As in all aspects of sanctification, growing insight never reaches perfection. We will always find points where we lack wisdom, and must prayerfully search God’s word and seek counsel. There will be times when we fail to recognise our lack of insight!

What does that mean for Italian doctors and government officials, who may not be believers? God’s common grace means that they too are able to have some insight into what they should do and to grow in that. One reason for Christians to participate in ethical discussions is to bring salt and light in the wider community. God’s gift of discernment can be blessing to others.

Recognising the need to grow in moral insight encourages patience with others and ourselves. It takes time to develop wisdom about issues. The events of the pandemic have thrown up a range of new questions or at least new variations. Like Paul, pray that our “love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight”, so we “discern what is best” (Phil 1:9).

[1] Lisa Rosenbaum, M.D. “Facing Covid-19 in Italy — Ethics, Logistics, and Therapeutics on the Epidemic’s Front Line” N Engl J Med (March 18, 2020); 382:1873-1875 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp2005492

[2] J.I. Packer, ‘Situations and Principles‘, Law, Morality and the Bible, B.N. Kaye and G.J. Wenham eds. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978), 151-67.

[3] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today. Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove.: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 324.