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Perceived Moral Dilemmas in the Scriptures


By "moral dilemma" we are referring to instances in Scripture where biblical characters committed some act that is condemned elsewhere in Scripture (either by law or example) but for which the biblical character under consideration was blessed by God. The idea is that, if God allowed for such things to occur in biblical days, then it is not unreasonable to conclude that such things could happen today - and that, at times, the absolute laws of God oppose each other producing a moral paradox. In the face of such situations (if they do indeed arise), what is a believer to do? Are there times when it is permissible to do something that is usually called "sin" in Scripture?


By "perceived" we are admitting that some Christians believe there are no such things as moral dilemmas - they only look like moral dilemmas.


An example would be Rahab's lie to protect the Israelite spies. Was her action justified? Why is she held up as an example of faith by James and the author of Hebrews? Christians have answered these questions and others in different ways throughout the history of the church. Their answers, whether they realized it or not, stemmed from adherence to one of three Christian ethical systems, all of which are absolutist in approach, but differ in their understanding of the relationship of God's absolute laws to each other.


Three Christian Ethical Approaches to Perceived Moral Dilemmas:


1. Unqualified Absolutism


Principles of Unqualified Absolutism:


a. The single nature of God means that all His laws are equal and indivisible (James 2:10)


b. God never allows TRUE contradictions to occur in life


c. Therefore, it is never right to disobey any law of God at any time


d. Therefore, when confronted with a moral dilemma that is ONLY perceived (but not actual) due to our fallibility, we must do nothing trust God to work the situation out by His providence.


Problems with Unqualified Absolutism:


a. There appear to be actual moral dilemmas presented in Scripture situations where it appears that to do right another law of God must be sacrificed (Rahab [Josh. 2], the Egyptian midwives during the Israelite bondage in Egypt [Exod. 1], Esther's marriage, etc.)


b. There appear to be actual moral dilemmas in real life (hiding Jews from Nazis, for example; going undercover as a spy or drug agent, etc.)


c. An appeal to the providence of God doesn't seem to be available from Scripture for such cases when biblical people found themselves in such situations, they did SOMETHING and one of God's laws was violated yet they are often commended for their decision.


2. Conflicting Absolutism


Principles of Conflicting Absolutism:


a. The single nature of God means that all God's laws are equal, but violating one does not mean that the laws never come into conflict.


b. God sometimes allows TRUE contradictions to occur in life.


c. Therefore, Christians may face real moral dilemmas


d. Therefore, when faced with a real moral dilemma, one should try to choose the lesser evil, but must still repent for breaking one of God's laws (i.e., you still actually sin). God will forgive you; you did the best you could.


Problems with Conflicting Absolutism:


a. "It is sometimes partially right to do wrong" seems unscriptural and relativistic


b. Forgiveness should never be used to justify doing evil.


3. Graded Absolutism


Principles of Graded Absolutism:


a. The single nature of God means that He gets to simultaneously declare that none of his laws are unimportant, but that some are more important than others.


b. God sometimes allows TRUE moral dilemmas to occur


c. Therefore, Christians who face moral dilemmas must choose the higher law; if they do so, they have chosen well and honored God. Generally, graded absolutists put the sanctity of life at the top.


d. Therefore, Christians who choose correctly DO NOT SIN; they incur no guilt, even though one of God's laws was broken. There is no need to confess anything.


Problem with Graded Absolutism:


There is no specific hierarchy of divine laws laid out in Scripture. There ARE indications where God hates some sins more than others (Prov. 6:16-19), and that there are degrees of punishment for acts of evil (Matt. 11:20-22, e.g.), but these are not as precise as the system needs.