Contradictory Or Compatible Commandments?
By way of reminder, the third point made in defense of Rahab’s deception, was that “Christians (and everyone else, for that matter) are sometimes forced to choose between two or more evils. In those cases [just as in Rahab’s], we are not condemned by God for choosing the best of the bad options.”107
One scholar has aptly observed that “the problem of moral exceptions or necessary compromises with evil has apparently occupied Christians from the very beginning.”108 From a study of available historical evidence, it appears that, up to the time of the Protestant Reformation, major Roman Catholic thought-leaders held that absolute moral commands sometimes come into unavoidable conflict; and that if there were no opportunity for avoiding one of two sins, the lesser evil should always be chosen.109 Other than two notable exceptions,110 it appears that up until the beginning of the twentieth century, most well-known Christian thinkers, in basic accord with the early Catholic perspective, believed that tragic circumstances in life at times force one into the position of having to choose between two moral evils.111
Disagreeing with most other thinkers, a late eighteenth century ethicist held that the possibility of genuine moral conflicts must be ruled out on logical grounds:112 “A conflict of duties and obligations is inconceivable (obligationes non colliduntur). For . . . two conflicting rules cannot both be necessary at the same time.”113 In other words, “if it is a duty, and hence a moral necessity, that a person do A, then it cannot also be a duty, and hence a moral necessity, that the person do something incompatible with A.”114 Specifically, this scholar held that, even in the face of death, deception should never be practiced, because “a lie always harms another; if not some other particular man, still it harms mankind generally, for it vitiates [i.e., invalidates] the source of law itself.”115
Some have felt that this focus on ethical conflicts is a misplaced emphasis.116 Yet, they too must deal with the less than desirable borderline situations. Other thinkers have concluded that, in connection with conflicting moral norms, “the reasonable conclusion is that they are impossible.”117 Still others are firmly convinced of the reality of these situations of clashing ethical responsibilities.118 Over the years, this issue of the apparently inescapable choice between two or more moral evils has given rise to various methodologies for decision making.
Essentially four different approaches to this problem have been developed by professing Christians. Perhaps the most controversial of these, Situationism, claims that conflicts between “law” and “love” can arise. Because it teaches that, in these cases, one is obligated to do “the most loving thing,” irrespective of any God-given moral absolutes,119 it must be rejected by committed Christians who believe that the Bible does completely prohibit actions such as adultery, theft, murder, etc. A relatively recent strategy, called Hierarchicalism or Graded Absolutism, claims to promote biblical morality.120 However, since it holds that, other than God Himself, there are really no substantive absolute moral laws at all,121 in the final analysis it turns out to be essentially the same as Situationism, and must therefore also be repudiated.122 A third scheme, Conflicting Absolutism, contends that in this fallen world moral absolutes do conflict, at which point one is morally obligated to do the immoral!123 Since it, in essence, champions the blasphemous view that God’s law at times compels one to commit sin, it too needs to be set aside as unacceptable for faithful Bible-believing Christians.124 Lastly, there is a system called Non-Conflicting Absolutism, which holds that when correctly defined and rightly understood, universal scriptural moral absolutes do not and cannot ever conflict. God requires loyal obedience under all circumstances, and guarantees to take care of the results.125
It is only this ethical procedure, that totally rejects the possibility of the conflict of absolute moral obligations, that needs further attention, in view of the allegation above that “Christians (and everyone else, for that matter) are sometimes forced to choose between two or more evils.”126 Since the Bible does not have any explicit statements directly addressing this matter, the basic principles and relevant passages need to be carefully considered. Notice the following lines of evidence:
1. The Flawless Character Of God The Father To begin with, a comparison of the Decalogue with the Divine Lawgiver, reveals that “the law of God, being a revelation of His will, [is] a transcript of His character.”127 For example, just as God is described as “holy” (Lev 19:2; Josh 24:19; Ps 99:9), so the law is “holy” (Rom 7:12); in the same way that His character is “perfect” (Deut 32:4), so is His moral law (Ps 19:7); just as He is “good” (Ps 25:8), so are His commandments (see Rom 7:12). Those who believe that divine moral absolutes conflict would in reality be pitting “part of God’s nature against other parts of his nature.”128 And, “if God has given numerous moral absolutes, some of which genuinely conflict at times, it appears that there is conflict within the mind and moral will of God.”129 However, since Scripture declares that God’s character is perfect and flawless, the expression of these attributes in His moral laws will of necessity contain no conflicts or contradictions.
2. The Sinless Life Of Jesus Christ If genuine ethical conflicts exist, in which one must choose a so-called “lesser” moral evil, and if “Christ was tempted in every way we are tempted” (Heb 4:15 NLV), then of necessity, He had to have sinned! However, the rest of the passage just quoted, categorically states, “but He did not sin.” The fact of the sinlessness of Jesus is repeatedly noted in the New Testament (1 Pet 2:22; cf. John 15:10), together with a summons to follow His example (1 Pet 2:21) – a command that would be pointless and preposterous, if people were forced to encounter real moral dilemmas in life in which they have to commit moral evil. Ellen White pointedly declares: “He [i.e., Christ] came to demonstrate that humanity, allied by living faith to divinity, can keep all of the commandments of God.”130 Since Jesus was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15), then we can be absolutely assured that no human being will ever be faced with conflicting moral obligations, in which a sin must be committed.
3. Mankind’s Freedom To Choose Between Good And Evil When God created humankind in the beginning of this earth’s history, He made them free moral beings (see Gen 2:15-17); thus, one is never forced either to obey or disobey God, or His moral law. Scripture teaches that individuals are always afforded a genuinely free choice – between good and evil, right and wrong, faithfulness and disloyalty, allegiance and treachery, obedience and disobedience (see Deut 30:19; Josh 24:15; cf. Matt 11:28-30; 2 Cor 6:2). In a chapter fittingly titled, “Satan’s Enmity Against God’s Law,” Ellen White notes that “man was created a free moral agent. . . . He must be subjected to the test of obedience; but he is never brought into such a position that yielding to evil becomes a matter of necessity.”131 Furthermore, she reminds us that, “everyone may place his will on the side of the will of God, may choose to obey Him, and by thus linking himself with divine agencies, he may stand where nothing can force him to do evil.”132 Therefore, the notion that occasions arise in which the choices are only between one moral evil and another moral evil, flatly contradicts Scripture and supports Satan in his enmity against God’s law.
4. The Divine Guarantee Of A Way Of Escape A constant refrain found throughout the Scriptures is the reality that God is both able as well as willing to protect and provide for those who face tests, trials, and temptations (see, for example, Pss 46:1; 91:1-8; Dan 3:16-18; Rom 7:24, 25; Jude 24). In 1 Corinthians 10:13, the apostle Paul tells us that “God is faithful,” and that He “will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” Concurring that, “He lays on them no burden greater than they are able to bear,”133 Ellen White says: “God has made ample provision for His people; and if they rely upon His strength, they will never become the sport of circumstances;”134 for, no temptation or trial is permitted to come to His people which they are unable to resist.135 Moreover, Scripture says: “God helps you want to do the things that please him. And he gives you the power to do these things” (Phil 2:13 ERV). In other words: “Whatever is to be done at His command may be accomplished in His strength. All His biddings are enablings.”136 The biblical reality, is that believers “can do all things through Christ” (Phil 4:13), because the “God whom we serve is able to deliver us” (Dan 3:16) from any temptation. However, “even if He does not” (Dan 3:18 NIV), loyal followers are challenged to “be faithful even to death” (Rev 2:10 NLV). The fact that a trustworthy God has promised to keep His followers from falling, and to provide a morally right way of escape when trials come, confirms that one will never be forced to choose between two evils.
5. The Fairness Of The Final Judgment The final judgment, which takes place before Christ’s second coming, is frequently mentioned in the New Testament (see Matt 12:36, 37; Acts 24:25; cf. John 5:22; Rom 14:10; Heb 9:27). Accentuating the importance of God’s moral norms, the writer of Ecclesiastes concludes his exhortation, saying: “Honor God and obey His Laws. This is all that every person must do. For God will bring to judgment everything we do, including every secret, whether good or bad” (Eccl 12:13 [NLV], 14 [CJB]). Analogously, after enumerating specific commandments from the Decalogue, so that no one can mistake what “law” he is referring to, James says: “So speak and do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty” (Jas 2:12). As Ellen White pertinently observes: “In order to be prepared for the judgment, it is necessary that men should keep the law of God. The law will be the standard of character in the judgment.”137 Obviously then, there can only be a fair final judgment if there is a clear moral standard that can always be obeyed by human beings, through the power of God. This fact also challenges the notion that moral conflicts occur, in which people are forced to violate the law of God.
6. The Integrated Nature Of God’s Moral Law The holistic nature of the divine moral law is emphasized in the Epistle of James, as follows: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (Jas 2:10 NIV). Therefore, from God’s perspective, there is no such thing as a “lesser moral evil” that He will merely disregard or overlook; for, the transgression of any of His commandments is sin (see 1 John 3:4 KJV). In Ellen White’s words: “In order to be a commandment breaker it is not necessary that we should trample upon the whole moral code. If one precept is disregarded, we are transgressors of the sacred law.”138 But, Scripture records that, “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This offer of forgiveness, however, does not negate the truth that such action is classified as “sin.” On the contrary, the fact that it must be confessed proves that it is a moral evil. Thus, when one recognizes that the Bible discounts the concept of a so-called permissible lesser evil, it will become clear that “God requires of all His subjects obedience, entire obedience to all His commandments.”139
7. Satan’s Accusations In The Cosmic Controversy Lastly, yet most critically, the overall theme of the great controversy between good and evil needs to be thoughtfully considered. The first three chapters of Genesis indicate that the Tempter set out to lure Eve into doubting, questioning, and eventually challenging the veracity of God’s word, as well as the validity, justice, and fairness of His moral requirements (see Gen 3:1-6). Indeed, “from the first, the great controversy had been upon the law of God. Satan had sought to prove that God was unjust, and that his law was faulty, and that the good of the universe required it to be changed.”140 Further light on this cosmic battle emerges from the first two chapters of the book of Job. One of the things Satan set out to prove was that, if God removed His protective care from Job, it would be impossible for Job to be loyal to God and obedient to His law (see Job 1:7-12). Ellen White observes: “Satan had claimed that it was impossible for man to obey God’s commandments; and in our own strength it is true that we cannot obey them. But Christ came in the form of humanity, and by His perfect obedience He proved that humanity and divinity combined can obey every one of God’s precepts.”141 This statement corresponds well with God’s injunction regarding the Decalogue: “‘Oh, that they had such a heart in them that they would fear Me and always keep all My commandments’” (Deut 5:29). Since God requires people to always obey all His moral laws, and since “God has given no commandments which cannot be obeyed by all,”142 it can once again be seen that there is never a time when one will be compelled to choose between two moral evils. In the final analysis, a study of the great controversy theme indicates that it is Satan who claims that on occasion God’s moral law “cannot be obeyed.”143
This concise overview of biblical data concerning the essence of the moral law, the example of Jesus Christ, the fact of human freedom, the promise and power of God’s protection, the nature of the final judgment, the holistic character of the divine law, and the reality of the cosmic controversy between Christ and Satan, all demonstrate irrefutably that it is utterly impossible for genuine conflicts of absolute scriptural moral obligations to exist in God’s universe! Why then, do some insist that all human beings “are sometimes forced to choose between two or more evils”144?
Admittedly, there are people who have assembled all biblical regulations, including all civil, ceremonial, and moral laws into one large collection of rules. As a result, they often end up with various conflicts, such as Nebuchadnezzar’s decree to worship the golden image (Dan 3:1-6), versus the second commandment of the Decalogue (Exod 20:4-6).145 However, more careful scholarship has demonstrated that “the notion that there is some type of division within the law is not a concept that has been imposed on it from the outside.”146 That this categorization is fair to the biblical text, is shown by the fact that the civil statutes in the Covenant Code of Exodus 21-23 had a heading that referred to its laws as “judgments” to be used as precedents.147 Furthermore, while “the Decalogue carried no socially recognizable setting with its laws,”148 thus implying its permanency, the ceremonial rules, from Exodus 25 through at least Leviticus 7, “had an expressed word of built-in obsolescence when it noted several times over that what was to be built was only a model.”149 Thus, it is aptly concluded that “the law can and must be viewed as being divided into various components.”150 When this is done, the limited civil rules and terminated ceremonial rites will be properly understood. Then, when the Decalogue is rightly perceived as God’s eternal moral law, the conflicts previously seen will simply vanish.
Moreover, there are some who maintain a belief in the conflict of moral obligations because of the way in which they choose to interpret and apply certain of the Ten Commandments. For instance, one writer says that telling the truth under threat to potential killers “makes one a participant in the shedding of their blood.”151 In other words, “to permit a murder when one could have prevented it is morally wrong.”152 It seems that this belief is constructed on the sixth commandment, for it is suggested that “the command ‘You shall not murder’ (Exod. 20:13) implies that we should help prevent the unnatural death of innocent people as well.”153 Moreover, it is argued that “human life made in God’s image has the same intrinsic value no matter which way one contributes to its demise.”154 Thus, since it is held that “it is morally unjustifiable not to resist evil,”155 “failing to prevent such a death is as culpable as actually causing it.”156 The pivotal issue here, has to do with appropriate responsibility and culpability. Nowhere in the Ten Commandments is it either directly stated or implied that these absolute moral laws may or should be inverted, from negative prohibitions (“You shall not kill”),157 to positive limitless obligations (“You must prevent innocent people from being killed”). Logically, if “failing to prevent such a death is as culpable as actually causing it,”158 then not deterring those who, for example, choose to commit adultery, steal, or covet, would of necessity make one guilty of violating those commandments as well. Clearly, the moral law must be read as given by God, and not presumptuously transmuted into propositions that place falsely-assumed or counterfeit responsibilities on people. For, properly read as they are recorded in the Bible, these moral laws of God cannot and do not ever conflict.
Finally, one other basis for a belief in these moral dilemmas is due to what some allege is the evidence from “the brute realities of life,”159 “‘reason, and human experience.’”160 Clearly, for these individuals the facts or occurrences of life, as they personally perceive them, provide the supposed proof that moral obligations conflict. Instead of diligently undertaking a hermeneutically sound and exegetically reliable analysis of what the Bible itself shows to be God’s immutable and eternal absolute moral laws, they often operate on unexpressed assumptions and unexamined societal standards as to what these universal ethical norms presumably are. Then, based on these unproven theories, the conclusion is drawn that these duties conflict in the real world and in the Bible.161 By way of illustration, consider the precise problem of lying to save life being investigated in this study. As noted above, some have considered it an absolute moral duty to prevent innocent human life from being taken. However, according to the biblical data, “it is an absolute not to commit murder; but it is not an absolute to save a life.”162 In other words, the reason for this dilemma is the “imposition of worldly definitions of truth on the Bible.”163 While it is no doubt a culturally-conditioned mandate to preserve innocent human life at all costs, this convention does not correspond with Scripture. Considering loyal obedience, more important than life itself, Jesus said: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10). Just as Jesus Christ “obeyed [God] even when that caused him to die” (Phil 2:8 ERV), in the same way Christians are called to “follow His steps” (1 Pet 2:21), and be “willing to die” (Rev 12:11 NLV) for Him. In brief, “Death before dishonor or the transgression of God’s law should be the motto of every Christian.”164
Thus, when all the relevant biblical principles impacting on the conflict of genuine absolute moral obligations is taken into consideration, when God’s immutable Ten Commandments are properly separated from other restricted regulations, when these ethical requirements are correctly interpreted, and when all unscriptural societal expectations are eliminated, it becomes incontrovertibly evident that it is utterly impossible for the divinely-designed moral absolutes to ever come into unavoidable contradiction!
Exerpt from Ron du Preez’s book Morals for Mortals. See book for end notes.