The concept of a “necessary evil” is the idea that sometimes morally questionable actions or means can be justified if they achieve a positive outcome. This raises complex ethical debates around whether the ends can justify the means. What does the Bible have to say about this difficult issue?
At first glance, the Bible seems to condemn evil unequivocally. Passages like Romans 12:9 say to “hate what is evil” and 1 Thessalonians 5:22 say to “avoid every kind of evil.” However, a closer look reveals a more nuanced perspective.
For example, the Bible recognizes that we live in a fallen world where difficult moral dilemmas exist. Jesus stated that offenses and difficulties will inevitably arise (Matthew 18:7). The apostle Paul recognized that he had to sometimes choose between the “lesser of two evils” (2 Corinthians 12:21). This implies that in our complex world, we may at times be forced to choose between two imperfect options.
The Bible also portrays situations where morally debatable actions were deemed necessary to achieve a greater good. The Hebrew midwives lied to protect innocent lives (Exodus 1:15-21). Rahab lied to protect the Israelite spies (Joshua 2:1-7). David’s men ate consecrated bread out of life-preserving necessity (Mark 2:23-26). While deception and breaking ritual laws are portrayed negatively in other contexts, these “necessary evils” were deemed justified in light of the circumstances.
At the same time, the Bible also warns strongly against the dangers of rationalizing wrongdoing for purportedly right goals. Paul stressed we must never “do evil that good may come” (Romans 3:8). The ends do not automatically justify unethical means. Situational factors and motives behind “necessary evils” must be weighed carefully. Good intended outcomes cannot excuse cruelty, hatred, or malice (Proverbs 10:28, Romans 13:10).
How then should believers approach situations involving potential “necessary evils”? Here are some biblical principles to guide moral discernment:
- Consider if there are creative alternatives to avoid the evil.
- Ensure the evil is truly necessary and not rationalized.
- Make sure the greater good is substantial and heavily outweighs the evil.
- Minimize the scope and impact of the evil as much as possible.
- Act only out of love and mercy, not hatred or malice.
- Accept responsibility for the consequences of the choice.
- Seek wisdom and input from others.
- Pray for guidance and integrity.
In summary, while the Bible condemns evil, it acknowledges we live in a fallen world where difficult moral dilemmas arise. In these complex situations, believers must prayerfully and wisely weigh ethical alternatives, humbly examining their motives and the situational factors. Any potential “necessary evils” should arise out of sacrificial love, with the minimal harm necessary to achieve substantially greater good.
Biblical Examples of “Necessary Evil”
1. Hebrew Midwives’ Deception to Save Lives
In Exodus 1, the king of Egypt ordered the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill all newborn Hebrew boys. “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live” (Exodus 1:17). When confronted by the king, they lied, saying, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Exodus 1:19). Verse 20 says God was good to the midwives for protecting life and “gave them families of their own.” Their deception, while normally wrong, was deemed necessary to save innocent lives.
2. Rahab’s Lie to Protect the Spies
In Joshua 2, Rahab hid the Israelite spies from the king of Jericho, falsely telling his messengers “the men went out, and I do not know where they went” (Joshua 2:5). James 2:25 and Hebrews 11:31 commend Rahab, saying her lie was deemed acceptable to save lives. Calvin commented, “if the name of God is precious to us, the lives of the innocent will be even more precious.”
3. David’s Men Eating the Bread of the Presence
In 1 Samuel 21, David’s hungry men ate the consecrated bread from the temple that only priests were permitted to eat. Jesus defended them, saying: “Have you never read what David did…he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat” (Mark 2:25-26). Breaking the ceremonial law was excused in light of the extreme, life-threatening hunger.
4. Israel’s Wars in the Promised Land
God often commanded Israel to go to war against wicked nations (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). Augustine argued these wars, while terrible, were necessary to prevent even greater evil, to deliver God’s just punishment, and to protect the innocent. Other commentators, however, debate whether God’s commands unequivocally justify Israel’s military campaigns.
5. Corban Vows Permitted to Avoid Supporting Parents
Jesus condemned those who used Corban vows to consecrate their finances to God in order to avoid supporting their needy parents (Mark 7:9-13). Some Jewish leaders, however, argued these vows were necessary for the temple offerings, which took priority over parental care. Jesus exposed their manipulation of traditions for convenience.
These examples illustrate how biblical figures weighed their options and prioritized higher ethical principles in their justification of “necessary evils.”
Common Arguments to Justify “Necessary Evils”
Throughout history, Christians have employed various lines of reasoning to defend morally questionable choices as “necessary evils.” Some of the common arguments include:
1. Preventing Greater Evils
This argues that it’s ethical to choose a lesser evil if it prevents catastrophic harm or shields the innocent. Examples include violent resistance against oppressors or killing in self-defense. But what constitutes an adequately grave evil to warrant such means? And are creative non-violent alternatives fully explored?
2. Upholding Justice
Some maintain that actions like the death penalty or war may be necessary to uphold justice and enforce due punishment for crimes. However, others argue only God has authority to take lives he created. Biblical justice also involves mercy and redemption.
3. For the Greater Good
This argues that immoral means are justified if they serve a greater good, like saving more lives. Utilitarians hold that promoting the maximum happiness for the most people should override other considerations. Critics counter that God’s moral absolutes exist regardless of outcomes.
4. Guilt is Lessened by Necessity
The argument goes that while regrettable, forced choices amid difficult circumstances lessen moral guilt compared to premeditated evil. But some maintain that we are always responsible for our choices, necessary or not.
5. All Have Sinned Anyway
Since everyone sins and falls short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), some argue we shouldn’t overly scrutinize means when striving to do good. Critics, however, point to Christ’s high call to holiness.
These rationales emphasize valid concerns but can also dangerously minimize the corrupting influence of evil. Wisdom and scriptural principles are essential when invoking arguments of “necessary evils.”
Deeper Ethical Considerations
Seeking ethical clarity on complex issues like “necessary evils” requires grappling with profound theological questions:
1. The Cosmic Conflict Between Good and Evil
The Bible depicts a great cosmic conflict between the forces of good and evil (Genesis 3, Revelation 12). Moral dilemmas are part of spiritual warfare that requires discernment. Can good really flow from evil means, or does that further the work of the devil? This spiritual dimension deepens moral reflection.
2. God’s Will Versus Individual Judgment
To what extent can human beings accurately determine what is truly “necessary” versus God’s perfect will and higher ways? Even with righteous motives, our limited perspective risks rationalizing actions that God may judge differently.
3. Corruption of Power and Self-Interest
Even the best-intended people are corrupted by power over time. The “necessary evil” argument easily becomes a slippery slope used to justify progressively worse sins for increasingly nebulous benefits to humanity. Lofty ends get redefined to accommodate growing evil.
4. The Definition of Love
When confronting evil, many argue “violence is never the answer” while others say “love must protect the innocent.” But how is biblical love—willing the absolute good of others—properly expressed? Christian love goes far beyond sentimentality. Protecting life can require courageous action.
Wrestling with these deeper questions allows us to more thoughtfully apply biblical truth to real-world moral quagmires.
Guiding Principles for Discerning “Necessary Evils”
Scripture outlines several guiding principles that should inform decisions involving potential “necessary evils”:
1. Evil Still Bears Moral Guilt
While situations may require difficult choices, the Bible never justifies evil itself. Evil still damages people and relationships and incurs moral guilt we must acknowledge (Romans 3:8). Necessity may lessen, but does not remove, guilt for wrongdoing.
2. Seek Alternative Options First
We should thoroughly seek morally upright alternatives before concluding evil means are absolutely necessary (1 Corinthians 10:13). Have we truly explored every creative solution? Overlooked options? Asked for divine guidance? The bar for “necessity” should be set very high.
3. Minimize the Evil as Much as Possible
If evil means are unavoidable, we must take care to strictly limit the scope and impact. Choosing bombing targets to minimize civilian casualties, for example. If we inflate evil beyond necessity, we expose unethical motivations.
4. The Ends Cannot Justify All Means
Though difficult moral dilemmas exist, the Bible rejects utilitarianism. Some actions—like rape, abuse of children, or genocide—are always morally wrong regardless of outcomes. We cannot rationalize evils based on tenuous or speculative benefits.
5. Beware Rationalization and Gradual Compromise
We are experts at self-justification and gradually rationalizing moral compromise (Jeremiah 17:9). Vigilance is required to ensure our reasoning is scripturally sound, not a slippery slope of sin. Regularly re-evaluating is wise.
These principles help illuminate the narrow path believers must navigate when confronted with situations where they feel compelled to consider “necessary evils.”
Practical Questions to Discern Necessary Evils
When faced with difficult moral dilemmas involving a potential “necessary evil,” asking probing questions can clarify if it meets biblical standards:
- Is this truly unavoidable or just inconvenient to avoid?
- Am I rationalizing or hesitant for a reason?
- Is there a creative, ethical solution I’m missing?
- Is the greater good I’m seeking clearly substantial enough to warrant this evil?
- Is this action absolutely as limited in scope as possible while still achieving the good?
- Does this arise more from love and protection or anger and frustration?
- Will innocent people be unjustly harmed?
- Does this align with Jesus’ teachings and example?
- If all premeditated, would I still consider this absolutely necessary?
- Am I willing to bear moral responsibility for the outcome?
Asking probing questions can help test if a potential “necessary evil” truly meets biblical standards or if flawed human logic is rationalizing immoral actions.
Alternative Views on Necessary Evil
Throughout history, Christians have debated how to apply biblical principles to situations involving potential “necessary evils.” Here are three general perspectives:
1. Pacifism – Avoid Any Perceived Evil
Pacifists believe it is always wrong to use force or violence, even in self-defense or to protect others. They argue Jesus’ example rules out any evil means and requires a non-violent approach, trusting God with outcomes.
2. Just War Theory – Evil May Be Justified for Greater Good
This view argues warfare and violence may be morally justified when certain criteria are met, such as just cause, right intention, and protecting innocent life. It offers principles to evaluate when force could serve the greater good.
3. Utilitarianism – Whatever Maximizes Overall Happiness
Utilitarians judge actions right or wrong solely based on consequences. Any means, whether conventionally considered good or evil, are justified if they maximize overall human happiness, pleasure, and well-being.
Each view represents coherent ethical systems. Yet they require careful discernment to apply in a balanced biblical framework. Absolute stances risk legalism, compromise, or rationalization.
How to Make Wise Choices in Difficult Situations
When facing potential “necessary evil” dilemmas, how can Christians choice wisely while maintaining integrity? Here are some suggestions:
Pray for wisdom and discernment.
Ask God to illuminate the right path in difficult situations (James 1:5). We often struggle to perceive dilemmas rightly in light of eternal truth.
Study scriptural principles.
Careful study equips us to balance competing principles like justice and mercy. We must also observe how biblical heroes responded in challenging contexts.
Seek counsel from mature believers.
The book of Proverbs repeatedly states there is wisdom in many counselors (Proverbs 15:22). Fellow believers can help test our rationalizations against scriptural standards.
Choose the option that requires sacrifice.
When faced with two difficult options, often the choice requiring self-sacrifice and going against our natural inclinations reflects Christ’s example of others-centered love.
Act with Christlike love, not anger or hatred.
Evil actions that arise more from anger or judgment than sacrificial love often violate biblical standards. Our motivations matter greatly.
By humbly submitting choices to God in prayer and wise counsel, we gain clarity to act with integrity honoring Jesus Christ.
In a complex fallen world, Christians at times face ethical dilemmas where purely righteous options seem unavailable. Though Scripture condemns evil, it acknowledges situations where biblical figures employed morally questionable means to achieve greater goods or prevent terrible evils. When confronted by such difficult choices, we should pray, seek counsel, examine scriptural principles, scrutinize our motivations, minimize harms, consider creative alternatives, and act with Christlike love. With wisdom and humility, we can make choices that honor God and his truth.