One reason why some people reject the existence of objective morality is because moral absolutes can conflict.
Canadian philosopher Michael Horner to explains the problem.
You may have been confronted with the story of the Nazi soldier coming to the door of the family who are hiding some Jewish people in their home and asking them point blankly, “Are there any Jews here?” The person telling the story then asks you, “What would you say?” or more precisely, “What should you say?”
[…]I think for many people the term moral absolutes connotes ideas like inflexibility and rigidity, and that there can never be exemptions. I have also found that many people believe that holding to moral absolutes means that circumstances are not relevant in a moral evaluation and that moral absolutism cannot handle moral dilemmas. But in fact it is possible to believe in moral absolutes, or as I prefer to call them objective moral values, without adhering to these connotations I have mentioned.
For many people to believe in moral absolutes is to believe in rules that no other rules can ever trump. It follows from this that moral absolutes are all equal and there can never be any exemptions. But what if moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy?
We know from experience that very often more than one moral rule applies to a situation. This often leads to moral dilemmas. So in the ‘hiding the Jews example’ the moral rule of telling the truth seems to apply to the situation, but it would seem that the moral rule to protect innocent human life from torture and murder applies also.
If absolutes are all equal there is no way out of the dilemma. You can’t choose one absolute over another because in doing so you would be violating at least one absolute which, in their view, is supposed to be inviolable.
So, in this case, it seems as if the moral absolutist is stuck in a dilemma. If you lie to save the innocent life, then that would be wrong. But if you tell the truth and hand the innocent person over to murderers, then that would be wrong. Does this really disprove objective moral absolutes?
This problem annoys me, because I know this is the kind of objection to objective morality that annoying philosophy lecturers like to push onto freshmen in order to convince them that morality is nonsense. But does the moral dilemma objection really work?
[…][I]f moral absolutes exist in a hierarchy and the circumstances or the situation were relevant in determining which absolute takes precedent, then there may be a solution to the moral dilemma. That is exactly what I think is the case in the example. I for one have no difficulty knowing that the morally right thing to do in that situation is to protect the life of innocent people from torture and murder rather than tell the truth to a person who has torture and murder in their plans. My moral intuitions are very clear about this.
If someone objects and says, “No, you must always tell the truth. After all it is an absolute, and absolutes by definition can never be violated,” I would point out that they are just using a different hierarchy, putting truth telling above protecting the life of innocent people from torture and murder. There is no way to avoid making a judgment like that since more than one absolute does apply to the situation. I would just ask them to think it through again, and once they see that they have to make a judgment based on some sort of hierarchy in that situation, then I think most people’s moral intuitions will affirm that protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder, in that situation, trumps truth telling. There is no way to avoid choosing one over the other.
But isn’t this moral relativism? After all, we are deciding what to do based on the situation! It’s relativism, isn’t it?
No, it isn’t, because there is always one right thing to do in every situation. In every situation, you always follow the weightiest moral rule. The right thing to do does not depend on your subjective state of mind. It is an objective moral duty, and it is the same for everyone, across all times and in all places. That’s what objective morality means -what is right and wrong is not determined by personal preferences or cultural conventions, which vary by time and place.
And of course, God is the ground of this hierarchy of objective moral absolutes. They existed through him before human beings even appeared, as part of his design for us, his creatures. How we ought to behave is grounded ontologically in God’s design for us.
55 thoughts on “Do moral dilemmas undermine objective moral absolutes?”
If you look in the gospels when the Pharisees and sadducees brought a loaded question to Jesus about the law he never said yes or no like that. He would go on to explain the state of their heart and why God made those laws in many cases.
In that example too a smart person could use phraseology and the loose nature of language and refuse a yes or no. But answer in a way that is ambiguous and open to interpretation.
They could also say no and not face wrath before God. Most his truths are about learning to behave correctly. Saving a person’s life is a good thing and I highly doubt that many people will enter to a life of constant lying on all things because of. Preservation of life lie.
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I have to disagree with you on this point. While most moral dilemmas presented in a philosophy discussion might hold true to this, most situations in day to day life don’t. Most situations are not an either/or like the Nazi coming to the door dilemma in the post or the popular trolley dilemma.
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“…there is always one right thing to do in every situation..you always follow the weightiest moral rule.”
In the Nazi dilemma, the lie is your sin. The murder of the innocent is another’s sin. You can never justify sinning to prevent sin. You are responsible for your own choices first and foremost.
Can you be salt and light if you hide behind lies? Can you be persecuted for righteousness if you refuse to take a righteous stand? The intuition is wrong is because your life is not your own, but God’s. You are not permitted to sin to save it; you must lose your life to find it. If you refuse to tell a lie and the consequence is that you and your family join the Jew in being persecuted, then that is what you do. Christians embrace what’s right, regardless of the consequences.
Even if there is always a right thing to do in every situation, determination is not trivial and will involve disagreements. You can’t dodge this objection to objective morality easily. Nevertheless, this does not imply that there is no answer, only that it is difficult, complex, and error-prone. The real objection is more like this: “It’s difficult to determine the right thing to do in morally complex situations, so there can’t possibly be a solution. Therefore there is no absolute morality.” This isn’t a sound argument.
The Nazi dilemma is a false dilemma. Your choice is clear. The consequence of that choice is undesirable and you’d like to prevent it, but ultimately it is not in your power to control.
Michael Horner is using his feelings (“intuition”) to make moral judgments. This is subjective and incorrect. The correct solution to the Nazi dilemma flies against feelings.
Then explain Rahab’s lies to the King of Jericho in Joshua 2. It parrallels the Nazi example, but in this instance she was hiding belligerants sent in to help take the city. Ultimately, what do you think is closer to the greatest commandments given by Jesus of loving one another, lying to the one looking for the Jews thereby saving them or turning them in?
Even the 10th commandment isn’t a blanket forbidding of all lying, but that of giving false testimony and by reading Deuteronomy it is clear this is more of a focus in legal settings. While the bulk of the biblical teaching would say do not lie, as Rahab’s actions demonstrate you can’t take this as an absolute in the sense you imply.
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This is the moral relativism. The desperate desire to justify lying requires exceptions to be made. But there is never a case where a lie is not a sin.
Lies go against the very nature of God (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Titus 1:2). God hates when people lie (Proverbs 6:16-19,12:22; Revelation 21:8). He hates when people use lies to hurt others (Exodus 20:16). Indeed, Satan the father of all lies (John 8:44).
So what about Rahab, the Hebrew midwives, and Elijah? Scripture is clear that even the righteous lie, for we are all sinners. The faithful of God are chosen in spite of their sins, not because of them. The Bible never approves of lying, not even once. It is a fallacious argument from silence to read approval for lies because there is no explicit condemnation.
There is no dilemma unless your feelings insist upon it. The fact that you’ll twist the 9th commandment to imply its opposite is a good indication of this.
The exegesis of the text is pretty clear if your heart hasn’t been hardened to it. As WorldGoneCrazy pointed out, Jesus demonstrated a moral hierarchy as well. You make the mistake of the Pharisees.
The exegesis is pretty clear?
1) God cannot lie.
2) God hates lies and liars.
3) Satan is the father of lies.
4) The Bible describes but never justifies lying.
How do you derive from this that some lying is justified?
None of the other examples given (e.g. Sabbath) are of an act that is so heinous that God himself cannot do it. God can take a life and perform good works on the Sabbath, but he cannot lie. This is unequivocal.
Strictly speaking, I’m not providing an argument against a hierarchy of morality. Even if I granted that, I’d still be forced to put lying at the top of the moral hierarchy.
Then why is Rachel listed in Heb. 11:31 as a hero of the faith precisely because she received the spies (and lied about it), if lying is ALWAYS wrong?
That’s an excellent example. That’s Rahab in Hebrews 11:31, right?
Yes. Isn’t it interesting that not only was Rahab not condemned for her being a harlot, but she was commended for lying, AND she is an ancestor of the Messiah.
That’s a great example of the hierarchy of moral absolutes.
Jesus proved the moral hierarchy to be true when He healed (“worked”) on the Sabbath. (Cshort provides other examples above.)
I have heard people say that it was wrong for Harriet Tubman and Corrie ten Boom to use deception to save lives. These people say that they should have told the truth and just turned the Jews over to God, in the case of Corrie, not realizing I suppose that it was the Nazis, not God, who would take possession of the Jews. But, those who say this are committing the same fallacy the Pharisees did: missing the forest for the trees. Jesus noted this when He asked them if they wouldn’t save a child, or ox, from a well on the Sabbath, even though it would technically be “working” to do so.
One lady proudly told me that she would have told the Nazis where the Jews were hiding and then prayed for them. I think she was expecting a pat on the back when she got to Heaven for doing so. But, collaborators in the next life will be treated the same as the French treated their fellow countrymen for collaborating with the Nazis. Justice demands it.
Our hearts tell us what Scripture confirms: the nobility in using deception, as a last or lesser resort, when lives are on the line. (Or working on the Sabbath when lives are at stake.) Tubman and ten Boom are heroes of the faith, not liars burning in Hell. The Pharisees are another story. I have met many churchy “pharisees” in Western Churchianity.
That being said, we should be careful to invoke this line of thinking to TRUE moral dilemmas.
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I can’t believe that we’re getting opposition on this, especially when cshort and you have these good examples.
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“I can’t believe that we’re getting opposition on this”
The feeling is mutual. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time and agree with almost everything that is written here. I occasionally weigh in on a topic, usually in support. I genuinely do not understand how you can hold your position. I apologize if I upset you or your readers. That is not my intention.
Intuition is feelings-based understanding in absence of conscious reasoning. This is the first time I’ve ever seen you support a feelings-based argument. What’s even more surprising is that you take this argument and use it to justify sin.
I did a quick google search to see if I could find any Christians defending white lies. Most are unequivocal that lies are always wrong. The GotQuestions article is a good example, as is the article by Bodie Hodge that addresses the Nazi question directly, and the article by John Piper. You really shouldn’t be surprised to get opposition to this.
Take the quote from the article:
“I think most people’s moral intuitions will affirm that protecting the lives of innocent people from torture and murder, in that situation, trumps truth telling.”
For the humanist this is absolutely the case. Preventing pain and suffering are among the highest goals because there is nothing after death. OTOH, Christians do not fear death as those without eternal hope. We expect increased suffering, not less.
The earthly human life has immense value, but it isn’t absolute. The eternal view transcends the earthly shell: spiritual concerns trump the physical. While it is better to be both saved and not to suffer, it is better to suffer with a saved soul than to live in comfort and be lost. You cannot lie (sin) to save the physical shell.
The 9th Commandment does not cancel out the Second Greatest Commandment.
On your view, are the millions of Christians around the world who are worshipping in secret churches sinning by using deception to worship? Likewise, did martyrs such as Perpetua, Felicity, and many others in the early Church sin by using deception and stealth practices to worship, prior to their being persecuted / martyred?
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Jesus never violated Sabbath Law. Jesus didn’t claim that a higher Law superseded it, rather that healing was already permitted under the Law. Neither healing, nor picking grain, nor saving a farm animal was unlawful. Priests could do holy service on the Sabbath because their acts kept the Sabbath holy and were thus lawful. This was explicitly stated in the Law. Jesus, changing nothing, pointed out that doing good on the Sabbath is holy. Jesus couldn’t have established a moral hierarchy because no Laws were in conflict.
Let’s say that there can be exceptions to moral laws. The Sabbath “exceptions” are justified by the Law itself. But for lying? Exceptions, including “white lies”, are never made in the Bible. It is a false analogy to claim that lying to the Nazi is equal to good works on the Sabbath. The implied argument is that breaking the Sabbath is fine as long as you do good, so lying is fine so long as you do good. But Jesus never broke the Sabbath, so the analogy fails. Moreover, the most you can say is that he did an exceptional kind of work: good work. However, the lie to the Nazi is not an exceptional kind of lie: good dishonesty and good deception. This is the relativism trap: dishonesty and deception are relative evils, not absolute sins.
Jesus didn’t sin when he did good works on the Sabbath, because good works can absolutely never be a sin. To say otherwise would be contradictory because God is good. Lying is not a good work because God cannot do it. God lying would be contradictory to his nature because he is absolutely good. Dishonesty and deception are absolutely evils. Lying is as much a sin as pulling the Nazi through the door, executing him, and burying his body in the basement to protect the hiding Jews. Actually lying is conditionally worse, for God cannot lie, but he can take a life.
I pray God never places you in a true moral dilemma. Actually, I know He won’t, because my heroes are your villains.
“Neither healing, nor picking grain, nor saving a farm animal was unlawful.”
“Exceptions, including “white lies”, are never made in the Bible.”
Absence of evidence is evidence of absence fallacy.
“so lying is fine so long as you do good”
Strawman. Lying is allowed IF it is to satisfy a “weightier matter” and it is the only way to do so.
“But Jesus never broke the Sabbath”
He specifically taught to sinful man that saving a life was permissible even if it was work on the Sabbath. I will wait on your citation.
“However, the lie to the Nazi is not an exceptional kind of lie”
It is unless you don’t believe that it was an exception for Christians to hide Jews in an exceptional environment of Nazi terror. Most “Christians” were as AWOL on protecting the Jews in those days as they are in protecting the unborn today, and we both know it is not because of holiness, but because of cowardice. The command to not lie does not outweigh the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.
“because good works can absolutely never be a sin.”
Great! Then, we agree that Harriet Tubman and Corrie ten Boom did good works, despite having used deception to save lives.
“Lying is as much a sin as pulling the Nazi through the door, executing him, and burying his body in the basement to protect the hiding Jews.”
I thank my God that you were not in Nazi occupied Europe!
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“I will wait on your citation.”
Matthew 12:12 NIV: “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
“Absence of evidence is evidence of absence fallacy.”
There is no absence of evidence. Quite the contrary, the Bible unequivocally condemns lying without qualification. There is overwhelming evidence supporting this claim.
The entire biblical argument against this is that there were a small number of righteous persons who told lies and were not explicitly condemned. It ignores those who were condemned for lying to save a life (e.g. Abraham) and those who died rather than lie (e.g. Jesus; Stephen).
“Strawman. Lying is allowed IF it is to satisfy a “weightier matter” and it is the only way to do so.”
The claim elsewhere is that Jesus doing good works is a “weightier matter” over doing no works at all as prescribed by the 4th commandment. Reasoning by analogy requires applying this to lying using the same logic or else the analogy is flawed. Thus you must conclude that good lying is a “weightier matter” over not lying at all as prescribed by the 9th commandment. This does not logically follow. It’s nonsensical: good lying (a non-biblical concept) is not the weightier matter claimed (i.e. saving a life).
“Then, we agree that Harriet Tubman and Corrie ten Boom did good works, despite having used deception to save lives.”
Good works do not justify sinning. The hierarchy argument is a relativist utilitarian argument that has been used to justify every sin imaginable. It doesn’t matter how you spin the importance of the good work or try to minimize the sin.
“Matthew 12:12 NIV: “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.””
That is the series of verses in dispute. I’m looking for separate citations, it can be in the Jewish law if you wish.
In that same paragraph:
“3He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—WHICH WAS NOT LAWFUL FOR THEM TO DO, but only for the priests.” – Matthew 12:3-4 (my emphasis)
“Good works do not justify sinning.”
So, I just want to be clear here, because we might be conflating two issues. Are you saying that hiding the Jews, in and of itself, was a sin by the ten Boom family because deception was involved in the hiding and in transporting the Jews to and from their home? Forget for a moment what was said or not said when the Nazis arrived. (Betsie was silent and Corrie said “What Jews?”)
The reason that I ask this is because I see the ten Boom family as showing Christ-like virtue in laying down their lives not even for their friends but for total strangers. I want to be sure I understand what you see from this example.
“Are you saying that hiding the Jews, in and of itself, was a sin”
No. Only lying is a sin. Protecting others must not involve lying. The ends do not justify the means.
“I’m looking for separate citations”
If you need more specific citations to any of the points below, let me know.
The primary thrust of Matthew 12 is for Jesus to highlight the contradictions in the Pharisaic teachings and show that the accusations were unfounded.[a]
The Pharisees accused the disciples of unlawfully for picking grain.(v2) Jesus claimed that they were innocent of the charge.(v7) Pharisaic Law stated that David’s actions were lawful.[b] So Jesus highlights their hypocrisy in justifying David’s actions but condemning the disciples’. (vv2-4)
The disciples plucking grain was a breach of Rabbinic Law, not Biblical Law. The 4th commandment is the only one that includes both moral and ceremonial law. The outward mode of observation is subservient to the inward object of observance.[b] There was no violation of the moral law.
This is further highlighted by the example of the priests.(v5) They clearly violated the ceremonial precepts of the 4th commandment by following the Laws pertaining to priestly acts. Yet again the Pharisees recognized that this was lawful. Jesus once again highlights their hypocrisy.
Next the Pharisees claimed that healing was unlawful.(v10) Jesus pointed out their hypocrisy by showing that they already believed that saving a sheep from a pit was lawful.(v11) If saving a sheep is lawful, then saving a person must logically be lawful also.(v12)
If you think Jesus broke the Sabbath, you are agreeing with his accusers.[a] Jesus made it quite clear that it was lawful.(v12) He did not break the Sabbath or violate any moral laws. He certainly didn’t establish a moral hierarchy.
[a] Rod Reynolds. “Did Jesus Break the Sabbath.”
[b] Alfred Edersheim. “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah”, Chapter XXXV
Thank you for the citations!
As for agreeing with his accusers, I don’t agree with them, because I do believe that He was demonstrating a moral dilemma in which the “weightier matter” was achieved. I believe that the Pharisees missed the forest for the trees, because they denied the Christ.
“Protecting others must not involve lying.”
So, the deception that was used by the ten Booms in transporting and hiding the Jews was not lying, is that correct?
Was it lying when Corrie was asked by the Nazis “Where are the Jews?” and she responded “What Jews?”
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“He was demonstrating a moral dilemma in which the “weightier matter” was achieved”
The term “weightier matters” does not come from Matthew 12 and applying it there risks taking it out of context. Nevertheless, let’s examine Matthew 23:23. The Pharisees were hypocrites because they neglected the “weightier matters of law.” Jesus’ solution was to practice BOTH: the lesser ones AND the weightier ones.
While there are definitely weightier matters (justice, mercy, and faithfulness vs. tithing; i.e. moral laws vs. ceremonial and civil laws), there is no moral dilemma: the moral laws are inviolable. Lying is not a minor or ceremonial law, it is fundamental to God’s nature: he is truth and he cannot lie.
“Was it lying when Corrie was asked by the Nazis “Where are the Jews?” and she responded “What Jews?””
I don’t know. It isn’t a false statement, but it is a statement with intent to deceive. It doesn’t violate the letter of the law, but what about the spirit? Based on my understanding of Jesus’ teachings (especially the Sermon on the Mount), God considers the intention of the heart in addition to the action. Regardless, it’s one thing to say that all lying is a sin, but it’s quite another to judge someone as a liar.
This is the problem with using anecdotes to try to prove/disprove the rule. What the Bible teaches is not changed based on feelings and intuitions or by examining charged scenarios that appeal to emotion. This is typical of “ends justify the means” arguments. No matter how you ask it, the answer to “is it okay to sin in order to save a life?” is always no.
“but it is a statement with intent to deceive”
They have already deceived by hiding the Jews.
“This is the problem with using anecdotes to try to prove/disprove the rule.
These are not anecdotes, Derek. These are heroes of the faith – Christians who SHOULD be our inspiration and certainly have shown more courage in their pinkies than you or I will (likely) ever show in our entire lives.
Furthermore, the Bible is not a rulebook. It DOES develop right doctrine that SHOULD (but does not always) lead to right practice. I’m VERY suspicious of comfy Western Christians recommending orthopraxy to those who have truly suffered under different forms of totalitarianism. My experience with Western pastors, in particular, on the sidewalk in front of abortion mills has been that they are almost uniformly unprepared for even the lowest levels of spiritual warfare. They may know their Bibles backwards and forwards, but they have spent their lives “playing at” Christianity in a ridiculously comfortable culture (if you ignore the mass child sacrifice and sodomy, which most pastors do) – in a pretty pathetic way, I might add. Decent doctrine, sucky practice.
That being said, I understand that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, and I am uncomfortable about going down a slippery slope on moral dilemmas, particularly so when I spent last week pointing out that there are no true exceptions to abortion.
You aren’t answering my more difficult questions, but maybe it is because you are getting around to them. If one law is in tension with another, then is that not a moral dilemma? You have answered that you cannot tell a lie to save another person’s life. Have you not then placed the 9th Commandment above the 2nd Greatest Commandment? The life you save may not be a Christian’s life – certainly it was not the case with the ten Boom family.
“These are heroes of the faith”
My Anabaptist heroes of faith were martyrs who rejected ALL violence. You would not consider them heroes. That’s the problem with using anecdotes to justify doctrine. It is subjective.
“Have you not then placed the 9th Commandment above the 2nd Greatest Commandment?”
“If one law is in tension with another, then is that not a moral dilemma?”
No. Your questions presume that they can be in conflict. You have not shown this. Subjective, emotionally charged anecdotes are not evidence, nor is there a moral dilemma in Matthew 12 because there is no violation of moral law. Similarly, there is no conflict between the 9th and 2nd greatest commandments. It may be difficult to determine which action resolves the apparent tension, but that does not change your responsibility to do what is right. The temptation to lie can be very intense, but there is always a way out. (1 Corinthians 10:13)
“I am uncomfortable about going down a slippery slope on moral dilemmas, particularly so when I spent last week pointing out that there are no true exceptions to abortion.”
There are no exceptions to abortion and homosexual acts, yet the biblical support for these claims is considerably more ambiguous than the prohibition on lying. So why do you have such trouble accepting the latter? You should be uncomfortable with the slippery slope in using good works (ends) to justify sin (means). That argument can justify anything. The Bible never makes this argument: it takes intuition, not facts, to defend it. You’re willing to ignore the unambiguous fact that God cannot lie and Satan is the father of lies, instead twisting a somewhat plausible alternative explanation out of the text to justify the intuitive feeling that saving a life must be more important than not telling lies. It is baffling.
“The life you save may not be a Christian’s life – certainly it was not the case with the ten Boom family.”
I mentioned the Anabaptist martyrs. They realized was that eternal life was the highest of priorities. Their choices were not driven by the desire to primarily preserve human life, but to try to lead the lost to eternal life through their sinless example. This sometimes meant torture or the physical loss of life. The Nazi at the front door needs salvation just as much as the Jew being hidden. That is why you cannot sin.
“Decent doctrine, sucky practice.”
I would not describe it so kindly.
“You aren’t answering my more difficult questions”
I’m not answering your questions about deceptions that are not lies. That’s interesting, but distracting. If I missed any other questions, feel free to point them out.
“My Anabaptist heroes of faith were martyrs who rejected ALL violence. You would not consider them heroes.”
False. I DO consider them heroes. As I consider all of those who lay down their lives for the “least among us” to be heroes and most Christ-like, regardless of their use or non-use of deception and-or violence.
Like the ten Boom Family, Harriet Tubman, Thomas Garrett, William Still, Irena Sendler, etc.
“That’s the problem with using anecdotes to justify doctrine.”
Stories of heroic Christians are not being used to justify doctrine, but to illuminate good practice. As I have said elsewhere, I know a lot of Christians who seem REALLY strong on doctrine, and can quote the Bible left and right, but whose doctrine has not informed their practice. Not pointing to you at all, but there does seem to be a growing number of Christians who are “Biblical experts” devoid of the Holy Spirit.
“There are no exceptions to abortion and homosexual acts, yet the biblical support for these claims is considerably more ambiguous than the prohibition on lying. So why do you have such trouble accepting the latter?”
Great point! Perhaps it is because I am confusing deception that is NOT lying with deception that IS lying. Hebrews 31 has Rahab as a hero, because she hid the spies and in your view in spite of the fact that she lied. You yourself have confessed the difficulty of establishing what kinds of statements cross that line in a previous post. And I find your exegesis of Rahab and other deceptions in the Bible to be questionable, yet still plausible. I’m also not Sola Scriptura.
“You should be uncomfortable with the slippery slope in using good works (ends) to justify sin (means).”
Yes, I am, VERY much so. I am equally uncomfortable with an “orthodoxy” that might teach that the ten Boom family was “sinning” in their use of deception to save Jews from the Nazis, or that Harriet Tubman “sinned” by dressing as a man and traveling at night, or that Thomas Garrett “sinned” when he transported runaway slaves in the bottom of his wagon. I consider the acts of all of these people to be most heroic and Christ-like in risking their lives for complete strangers and at times when the churches were AWOL on courage.
I’m don’t think that IS what you are teaching, and apologize if it is a strawman. But, if my view is “emotion,” then it is only because I have a heart. That is part of loving God and our neighbor.
“You’re willing to ignore the unambiguous fact that God cannot lie and Satan is the father of lies”
No, I’m really not ignoring it – trust me when I say that. I may be having difficulty distinguishing between lies vs. deceptions that are not lies.
“instead twisting a somewhat plausible alternative explanation out of the text to justify the intuitive feeling that saving a life must be more important than not telling lies”
Well, it is nice to know that it is “plausible!” 🙂
Yes, forgive me, but saving lives is important to me. I don’t lie to do so on the sidewalk, but yeah, I hold that as important.
“This sometimes meant torture or the physical loss of life.”
I am 100% for that when it is MY torture and MY loss of life. Trust me when I say that I would LOVE to be martyred and would love to be the first in line to go Home. I have been threatened many times in my stand for the unborn, and would only hope that the pro-aborts have good aim. BUT, when another’s life is at stake, I think Jesus talked enough about the “least among us” to know that I am not going to give up any information on where the Jews were hidden.
“The Nazi at the front door needs salvation just as much as the Jew being hidden.”
Hahaha – oh my goodness! I would LOVE to dissect that statement!
In fact, the Nazi in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck WAS converted to Christ, and Corrie and Betsie would not have made it there had they been collaborators or AWOL on saving Jews.
“I’m not answering your questions about deceptions that are not lies.”
Gotcha. That is where we are cross-talking, and the source of my interest and confusion. I agree with you that there will be a way to NOT lie and yet still save lives – my interest is with the first deception. And of course, I summarily reject the idea to answer the Nazi by saying “The Jews are hiding behind a fake wall upstairs in my bedroom.” That’s not a “christ” laying down His life for others. That’s a coward in my book, and one who really should have the blood of those Jews on his hands.
I appreciate your time and especially your emphasis on the source of lies and God’s inability to lie. They have certainly both influenced and moved me. I will definitely pray on your words. God bless you, keep you, and protect you, Derek.
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“I find your exegesis of Rahab and other deceptions in the Bible to be questionable, yet still plausible.”
Hebrews 11:31 NIV: “…because she welcomed the spies…” Clearly she is not commended for lying, she is commended for taking in the spies, which as you say, implies that she is being commended for hiding them. Compare this with another similar example. 2 Peter 2:7 NIV: “…Lot, a righteous man…”
Why is Lot righteous when he offered up his daughters to be raped? Why is Rahab faithful when she lied? Because one’s sins do not determine one’s righteousness or faithfulness. It is acts of obedience to God. How many times did the Israelites turn away to idolatry? Yet God kept bringing them back into the fold when they repented and obeyed. God’s mercy gives us second chances. God does not forget when we are faithful, even when we screw it up. Hebrews 11:31 is not concerned with Rahab’s faults, but her faithfulness. We emulate the latter, not the former.
“Stories of heroic Christians are not being used to justify doctrine, but to illuminate good practice.”
This theme of mercy is found throughout scripture. The focus on the positive, rather than condemnation, indicates that we should not continuously harp on (judge) the sins of others, just as Jesus taught. You’re right: the heroes of faith illuminate good practice. Of course they sinned, but we highlight what they did right.
“I may be having difficulty distinguishing between lies vs. deceptions that are not lies.”
You asked so many questions that I thought you might be sea-lioning, so I avoided your questions that deviated from the central point. It’s clear now that you were acting in good faith. The Bible is clear that spoken falsehoods (the real deceptive kind, not figures of speech and sarcasm) are always disallowed. But there are quite a lot of cases where people hid, kept secrets, and otherwise “deceived” without speaking falsehoods. Yet it’s not just words. We are not permitted to use lying scales and other dishonest actions. The Bible sets the general precepts: be honest, truthful, and act with integrity, but it doesn’t answer all the questions. I’ll have to meditate on this question for a while.
“I summarily reject the idea to answer the Nazi by saying…”
I agree. When the Nazi asks, you cannot answer Yes (cowardly) or No (lying). You must find another option or stay silent. I agree with the OP to the extent that there is always AT LEAST one right thing to do in every situation involving temptation to sin. I just reject any possible answer that involves sacrificing (lesser) morality. Maybe I’ll change my mind if a true lose-lose-lose scenario can be constructed.
“God bless you, keep you, and protect you”
Thank you for your kind words. I wish the same for you also.
Derek, I apologize for replying after signing off, but I did some more research that supports your position and clarified things for myself that I wished to share with the readers. I realize that no more research was necessary than God’s Word, but, as you know, I was confusing and conflating multiple issues. Thank you once again for your patience!
Because I believe the Catholic Catechism is well-informed in the areas of Sanctity of Life and Marriage, in particular, I decided to look there for reinforcement and illumination. I was not disappointed. Two principles jumped out:
1. “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.” (CC 2485)
2. “The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional.” (CC 2488)
So, yes, it is a sin to reply to the Nazi at the door “There are no Jews here.” That is a sin against God and the Nazi. You were correct, Derek, that God will always provide a way out. In this case, Betsie ten Boom’s response was virtuous silence. Other possible non-lying responses might be returning the question with a question “What makes you think there are Jews here?” Or diversion such as “That’s a nice swastika, where did you get it?” 🙂 Or even “Burn in Hell, you filthy Nazi pig!” although some may feel that is not in Christian kindness for other reasons. 🙂
Regardless, withholding information from the Nazi is not, in and of itself, a lie. The Nazi has no right to that information. Withholding information could be good (as in Betsie’s case), evil (as in the cases of the pedophile priests and their coverup), or neutral and a matter of Christian freedom – as in the case of Derek using his full real name versus myself and WK in using pseudonyms. THIS is the area of moral discernment, NOT the issue of lying versus not lying. Lying is not allowed. Withholding information MAY be allowed. Two different issues.
Equally wrong, of course, was the Christian woman who told me that Corrie ten Boom sinned by NOT replying “The Jews are behind a false wall in my bedroom,” because such a reply is clearly a sin against the Jews and, thus, God.
So, I hope this clarifies things and am sorry for conflating the issues of lying versus withholding information. The former is a sin, and the latter MIGHT be a sin, but might also be a virtue or neutral. Interestingly, the Catholic Catechism also discusses journalistic responsibilities (Fake News) and many other facets of this area.
While I still believe there MIGHT be a moral hierarchy, I agree with Derek that God will provide a way out of us sinning in order to save a life. My view at this point is that the dilemma proposed is a false dichotomy. Thanks, Derek, for staying on top of this, and my apologies you and to the readers I confused by conflating the topics of lying vs withholding information. God bless all!
I agree with WorldGoneCrazy on this one. Lying to evil people like the Nazis to protect innocent victims outweighs not telling lies in my mind. That’s why there are situations where one moral principle can supersede another, like saving an innocent life by telling a lie, even if lying in itself is wrong. What does the least harm and the most good sometimes means some moral values take precedence over others in some cases. It can be very horrible to have to choose, but choices sometimes must be made. Now of course, not lying may take precedence over not hurting people’s feelings for another example, if telling the truth will lead to the greater moral outcome if spared feelings will not. Holding literally and rigidly to one principle, like not lying, can backfire in many cases, like enemy interrogations, protecting innocents, and hurting feelings unnecessarily. What is ethical can be flexible, and tailored to the specific circumstances.
Did Jesus use deception when He passed unnoticed through a crowd that wished to stone Him?
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
Weightier matters of the law sounds like a hierarchy of moral absolutes to me.
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That is a great example that I have never caught – the word “weightier.” Thank you for posting that, WK!
This is a post that is near and dear to my heart, because I was DRAWN to Christianity during my atheist years by heroes who, yes, used deception when they had to (not as a normal part of their lives) in order to accomplish WEIGHTIER MATTERS. Was I being drawn to a false faith, or do the examples of the Resistance to the Nazis, the slavery abolitionists, the men who performed the Great Escape, gosh even the von Trapp Family if you think about it – do these point to Something and Someone Higher?
How about Irena Sendler, who smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto? Extreme deception! I’m sure there are better examples than I gave.
BUT, if I am wrong, then Jesus Himself sinned when He worked on the Sabbath (by healing and saving). I prefer to not think that Jesus sinned. I prefer to believe that He demonstrated a moral dilemma, He satisfied it properly, and He taught us how to satisfy it properly by the example of a child stuck in a well on the Sabbath.
However, there is a matter of Christian freedom here: if a person believes that lying even under the circumstances of a “weightier matter” IS sinning, then he or she should NEVER allow themselves to be placed into such a situation. Sit on the sidelines while the rest of us rescue slaves, Jews, and babies being aborted. But, don’t confuse holiness for cowardice.
This brings to mind the book Things We Couldn’t Say, by Diet Eman. It’s about the Christian Resistance in Holland during WWII, and I certainly learned that lying to the enemy is acceptable in warfare when innocent lives are on the line.
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I think there are very few absolutes in morality. Many cases must be judged on their specific circumstances, and what is right is not always cut and dried. I wish it was, but it isn’t. I’ve struggled myself thinking about moral absolutes and moral relativism. Especially as a secular person who can’t just look to a higher being to dictate my morality for me. On one hand, I don’t hold with rigid “my way or the highway” I’m right and anyone who disagrees is wrong. People, I think, have the right to draw lines in their own moral compass on many issues on what they feel morally comfortable with. However of course, I feel there must be some standards we can all agree on, or else wanton murder or rape would be allowed merely by one thinking it is okay in their mind! I take more solace in trying to determine ethics as objectively as possible, for example setting core criteria for what is wrong. The idea in many worldviews of not causing others harm, physically, emotionally, etc. without jut cause should be one. The “just cause” in question leaves room for the debate! I would think though, any act done out of malice and intent to harm is wrong. The whole Golden Rule thing springs to mind. The ethical guidelines of many professions, like medicine and science, which ought to be put to use only for good, is a good example of what we ought to try to create ourselves for our own moral codes. “What can we do to do the most help and least harm?” I think is a good foundation to guide your moral beliefs and values.
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Sam Harris the famous atheist suggested a moral yardstick to measure our actions with using the concept of well-being . Ask yourself the question how much well-being does my action promote. Mr Harris was looking for objective morality along the lines of the golden rule.
Unfortunately what enhances my well being may be detrimental to someone else’s well-being ,and the golden rule suffers from the same fault.
Interestingly this blog shows just how much we humans wish there was an objective morality and some will make horrendous decisions to prove the point.
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Lay general foundations to guide moral beliefs, you can build up from there tailoring to each unique situation 🙂
Lying to enemy combatants in wartime is no more sinful than killing enemy combatants in wartime is murder.
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That will depend on whether you believe in the ‘ Just War ‘ pacifists do not , along with many religious sects but the large Christian denominations believe in war. It would also mean that Hitler would now rule the globe since he would not have been resisted.
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“It would also mean that Hitler would now rule the globe since he would not have been resisted.”
You have highlighted a very important point. We Anabaptists believe in non-resistance: we shun all physical violence, including self-defense. We would not (and did not) take up arms to fight Hitler. Some of my (spiritual) ancestors did hard prison time or died for their stand (there is some irony in that). We do not repay evil with evil, but evil with good (Matthew 16:26; 1 Peter 3:9).
It might be more accurate to state that we are non-participants. While we are forbidden from violence, we are not actually forbidden from all forms of resistance. Indeed, non-participation means that we must not obey commands that go against the Bible. So we would have refused Hitler. It is absolutely resistance, just not violence.
The consequence would, most likely, be persecution (Matthew 5:10-12) and death (Matthew 16:24-26). We would be, like those 1st century Christian martyrs, killed for their beliefs. When Christianity met [Roman] government, a lot of beliefs about the use of violence changed.
‘ Those who live by the sword will die by the sword ‘ or perhaps ‘ My kingdom is not of this world ‘ is one you might prefer. Christianity soon took up arms again in the Roman Empire and every empire since that time. True Christianity is complete madness in worldly terms that is why the Just War was created to make sense of the teaching.
I would add it goes against our human nature which is far more inline with ‘ an eye for an eye ‘. I take it that you do believe in crime deserving punishment after all the law is the foundation of civilisation.
“I take it that you do believe in crime deserving punishment after all the law is the foundation of civilisation.”
Anabaptists have historically used shaming and shunning to deal with its unrepentant members. It is generally forbidden to use the law to sue another member or press charges for any crime. Matthew 18:15-35 is fundamental and not optional.
All attempts are to be made to resolve the problems internally. This can cause conflicts, especially with regards to accusations of sexual misconduct. Think of the Duggars (though they are not Anabaptist). To put it mildly, this method of conflict resolution is not popular with the general public.
In general crimes are the government’s business and Anabaptists mind their own business. Nevertheless, it isn’t unusual for the Anabaptist family of murder victims to show up in court, state their forgiveness, and ask the court for mercy for the killer.
Thank you for drawing my attention to the Duggars I had never encountered them before and the internet is packed with information about this group. The problem , as always , is jumping to conclusions and condemnation and judgement are easy for us humans regarding those who have different views from our own.
I’m 76 living in the UK and retired since the age of 61. I have no religious conviction classing myself as an agnostic and piecing together my own views of the world which have changed markedly with time. To me the Bible as it stands is inconsistent and much of the argument about interpretation is due to that inconsistency. I also think that many genuine believers work immensely hard to present a consistent view but as you know they do not agree after two thousand years.
Where belief threatens and suppresses the lives of those who are caught up in it I think it can be very damaging . This blog gives us an example of behaviour which allows what is accepted as evil to flourish due to the dogmatic application of Biblical teaching.
Hey, have you ever read a debate on the resurrection of Jesus?
There’s a video:
I have read William Lane Craig a very talented debater and Christian Apologist , he has a very sharp and agile mind and appears to be a match for many famous atheists and denominational dogmatic believers.
Up until the enlightenment Biblical debate centred on the meaning of the scriptures among Christian believers , of course there were those who did not believe but the majority accepted the faith even if they did not practice it.
The enlightenment threw up many good reasons to question the authority of the Bible and those have increased greatly up to the present time.
Now we have but a remnant of the old school known as young earth creationists, the vast majority of Christians have moved with the times.
Among these movers is Dr William Lane Craig he has been careful regarding homosexuality condemning the act not the nature of the homosexual. Bolder churches have instigated same sex marriage and we have gay Bishops. It would appear he also accepts the big bang like the Pope believing God started things that way.
There are many arguments and counter arguments some too deep for my grasp ( my IQ is about 105) but I must finish with a quote from Steven Pinker ‘ the human brain was created by natural selection to survive and may not be able to unravel many of the intricacies of the universe’.
An Anabaptist is in a Kindergarten classroom with 25 students. A crazed man bursts in and begins firing his semi-automatic weapon. What is the proper response from the Anabaptist view?
“A crazed man bursts in and begins firing…”
Read the West Nickel Mines shooting on Wikipedia. Five died and five were injured. No shots were fired until the cops arrived on the scene when the shooter shot the girls and then shot himself. The Amish reached out in forgiveness and refused to condemn, receiving much criticism for this.
“What is the proper response from the Anabaptist view?”
No Anabaptist, if he were consistent, would resort to violence. The government bears the sword (Romans 13:4). An Anabaptist may call the police, but only if doing so is legitimate.
Not all physical force is violence. So while force intended to harm, maim, or kill is absolutely forbidden, other things are not. Intent matters as well. Corporal punishment (Proverbs 13:24) and restraining someone may also be acceptable. For this in practice, research the Hutterites. If you want to see a more liberal SJW version of non-resistance, research the Mennonites.
If it came down to a binary choice, an Anabaptist would embrace death before resorting to violence (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). There is no doubt that the typical Christian has a sharp, visceral reaction against this.
It’s easy to mock the Anabaptists, but their way of life has been successful. You can see that by the fruit they bear. My direct ancestors lived peacefully with the native Americans. The Mennonites of Germantown (my wife’s direct ancestors), along with the Quakers, were the first to publicly protest American slavery in 1688.
I read the account of West Nickel Mines , the perpetrator in nearly all these cases is mentally unstable and there have always been these types of individuals in all societies.
The government which you imply bears the sword and is appointed by God must use the violence to resolve these incidents. Are you saying I refuse to be violent but I’m pleased God supplied a government who is prepared to be violent to look after me ?
It seems to me that the US government needs to listen to God more carefully and take its responsibility to make it far more difficult for the public to obtain arms.
Forgiveness is a fine attribute but should it come before repentance of the evil doing ? Should salvation and redemption proceed repentance ?
Many of these incidents bring up another very difficult issue ; if my son commits a murder am I in part to blame? Am I fully to blame for my own actions or can I blame my parents or guardians?
Some atheists believe the self and free will are illusions and we are not responsible for our actions ; they point to the evidence of neuroscience which has made great strides in the last decade. In my opinion such talk is dangerous for it removes guilt from us all.
Guilt is what makes us good human beings is is the very stuff of our consciences without it we become intelligent animals. Unfortunately Christianity itself can be used to remove guilt ; how often do we hear the cry I’m free from sin , washed in the blood of the Lamb — a dangerous condition.
Oh, I am not mocking Anabaptists or Quakers. Thomas Garrett is a hero of mine, as are all of the Quakers who risked their lives and liberty on the Underground Railroad – no violence or lying required.
I was thinking of the lady taken hostage by a killer who presented the Gospel to him and he turned himself in – so I agree with that method completely. And, yes, charging the shooter to try to block him from killing more is not against that view either.
So, don’t be so defensive – I am trying to understand the position – not mock it. Just like before when you convinced me that lying is always wrong, and that withholding information is not, in and of itself, lying as a matter of practice.
What IS damnable is that the Quakers (or some denomination of them) have turned pro-abortion.
“What IS damnable is that the Quakers have turned pro-abortion”
Quakers are not Anabaptists. Still, Anabaptists join every other American denomination in being assaulted by liberalization. It’s why the Lancaster Mennonite Conference split off from the liberalized Mennonites. My heart longs to join the faithful there again.
“Should salvation and redemption proceed repentance?”
WK has posted debates on this topic, and he can provide links to those discussions.
The Bible’s concept of sin is debt based. When you sin it is against God (to whom you owe your life) and to the person(s) you sin against. You can only forgive someone of a debt if that debt is owed you. The Bible is clear that forgiveness is expected (Matt. 6:14-15) and that it is mandatory if the offender repents (Matt. 18:15-35).
We are told to turn the other cheek and not to resist an evil person (Matt. 5:38-40). Giving up the right to retaliate (i.e. satisfy a debt) is forgiveness. It may not be mandatory, but it is still something you should do. If you choose to forgive a debt, that is your right and no one can say you are wrong to do so (Matt. 20:15). By forgiving you leave judgment in the hands of God. This is immensely freeing.
“Are you saying I refuse to be violent but I’m pleased God supplied a government who is prepared to be violent to look after me?”
No. It’s not hypocrisy. The Anabaptist would never, for example, support the government going to war on its behalf. Going to the government is of last resort, rarely justified, and indicates that something went seriously wrong. Let me illustrate this.
In 1998, a Mennonite high school student hacked into the Eastern Mennonite University computer network, exposing teacher records including grades. The school immediately went to the police and pressed charges. Members of the community were outraged at the university’s response to a fellow Christian.
In the shooting mentioned, it wasn’t an Amish that called the police. Perhaps the situation wouldn’t have ended in death if the police were not involved, escalating the situation.
Thanks for the info on the Lancaster Mennonite Conference!
If I had to read one book on your view that would inspire me the most, what would you recommend?
“By forgiving you leave judgment in the hands of God. This is immensely freeing.”
I’ve turned the other cheek many times on the sidewalk, even to the dismay of my fellow sidewalkers. I agree with you that it is immensely freeing and remarkably evangelical in its nature, which is why I appreciate your view and am thankful for you taking the time to explain it!
“If I had to read one book on your view that would inspire me the most, what would you recommend?”
Anabaptists are non-creedal. Officially we only point others to the Bible itself. The heart of our theology is the Sermon on the Mount. My personal favorite book is Matthew, from which I have referenced heavily in this thread.
I grew up at home, church, and school surrounded by Anabaptist theology. I learned it at every stage, including from the lives of others, not from any particular other book, although I have read many. Still, the Anabaptists have long been inspired by the Martyr’s Mirror, which is a very old book. Digitized copies can be found online.
If God wants humans to apply moral absolutes in every single action that occurs minute by minute of our daily lives then the military wouldn’t need officers to make decisions for their troops; thus all is needed would a computer loaded up with the King James Bible to make all descions which is, of course, preposterous!
Telling the truth that will knowingly support certain imminent evil is a sin. Lying to certain imminent to prevent evil is courageously living God’s word.
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And it is just as courageous if you have no religious beliefs.
Hmm… where in the Bible is always “telling the truth” described as a moral obligation? And to who?
We can debate whether some morals are greater than others. We can debate whether Jesus ever broke the sprit or letter of the law. We can debate whether it is okay to set aside lesser morals in favor of greater ones. We can debate whether all deceptions are lies or sin. We can even debate what things qualify as lies. What is not debatable is that lies are sin.
It isn’t that God chooses not to lie. God cannot lie.[a] Lies are completely foreign to God, indeed, they are of the devil, the father of lies.[b] Every word of God is truth and his word is law.[c] Sin is opposition to the truth or law of God. It is irrational to claim that lying, an act that goes against the very nature of God, is not a sin.[d] When you lie, you do what God cannot do, something completely foreign to the nature of God. You are doing the work of the father of lies. Good only comes from God, so lies cannot be good.[f] We may not lie.[e]
[a] Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18; Psalm 92:15; Malachi 3:6; Romans 3:4; James 1:17-18
[b] John 8:44
[c] Pslam 119:160
[d] Matthew 12:30
[e] Exodus 20:16; Proverbs 6:16-19; Psalm 119:29,163; Colossians 3:9; Ephesians 4:25; 1 Timothy 1:9-11; Revelation 21:8
[f] Psalm 16:2; Mark 10:18; James 1:17-18