Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Moral Dilemmas - A Biblical Analysis

Is there such a thing as a moral dilemma? Before exploring the answer to this question, the definition of a moral dilemma should be clarified. Our definition will be within a Christian context, which I would argue is the only context where moral absolutes are definable.(1) To go a step further, the entire analysis of moral dilemmas that will follow will be within the Biblical context that there are moral absolutes, and that they are knowable to us. “A moral dilemma is a situation in which there appears to be, or is, a conflict between two or more moral absolutes/norms that allow no exceptions.”(2) In other words, a moral dilemma is a situation in which all of the choices available to us involve breaking one of God’s commands (sinning). The three basic positions on moral dilemmas are ideal absolutism, graded absolutism (also called hierarchicalism), and non-conflicting absolutism.

Ideal Absolutism

Ideal absolutism states that absolute norms do not conflict in a world without sin, but in our broken world with sin they actually do. Resulting from this are situations where we are left choosing between different sins, with our duty being to choose the lesser of two evils. There are several clear problems with this, but three in particular stand out. Paul gives us these words:

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”(3)

Paul is clearly telling us that God will always provide us with a way of escaping the sin that temptation is luring us to.

The book of Hebrews, speaking of Jesus, shows us the second main problem regarding ideal absolutism:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”(4)

Clearly we see here that the Bible tells us that Jesus faced every temptation that we might face. This means that Jesus would have had to have faced a situation where he had no choice but to sin – but this verse also states clearly that Jesus was without sin.

The third main problem with the claim of ideal absolutism, that God’s commands can contradict each other in a fallen world, is that God’s commands were given after the fall had already occurred. It would be inconsistent with God’s character for him to give commands that he expects us to obey and yet could possibly contradict each other, thereby making it impossible to be obedient.

Graded Absolutism

Graded absolutism makes the claim that absolute moral norms do conflict, and that it is the greater moral norm that we are duty-bound to obey. The reasoning is that when a person follows the higher norm, they are absolved of their responsibility to the norm(s) they are breaking, and therefore do not sin. While this does at least alleviate the concerns mentioned above from the 1 Corinthians and Hebrews passages (we are no longer left with a situation that must result in sin, as we are not held responsible for breaking the lesser norm when we are obedient to the greater one), it does little to address the problem of God’s commands contradicting each other. If something is right because God commands it,(5) then we are left with the possibility that God’s commands could indeed contradict each other.

However, a Biblical understanding of God’s character tells us that something is right because it flows out of God’s very nature of righteousness. John Frame explains this clearly:

“Goodness is neither above God nor below God. Rather, goodness is God. God is his own goodness. Goodness is God’s eternal attribute. Without his goodness, he would not be God.”(6)

This teaching comes from the repeated teaching found in the Bible that righteousness is an attribute of God’s very character, in that he is the very definition of goodness and holiness and love. Therefore it would be contrary to God’s very character for him to command us to sin, and in fact it is contrary to God’s character to even give contradicting commands (as these commands are expressions of who God is).

Non-Conflicting Absolutism

The flaws of the previous two positions lay the foundation for the support of non-conflicting absolutism. Non-conflicting absolutism states that there is never actually a conflict between absolute moral norms. This means that there are no real moral dilemmas, just apparent ones. In the place of a moral dilemma is instead a crisis of faith, or courage, etc.(7)

John Frame makes a comprehensive analysis on the incompatibility of a moral dilemma with the Bible.(8) As stated earlier, the Bible is clear that Jesus faced every temptation that we do, and yet was sinless – these can not both be true if moral dilemmas exist. Also, stated earlier is that God promises to always provide us with a way out from under any temptation – we will never face circumstances where one’s choice is only to sin. Furthermore, the Bible is clear regarding our duty – to always do what is right, and to never do what is wrong. So, we are commanded to never sin, and promised the provision of always having a choice that does not result in sin.

It follows that if we are commanded never to sin, and we are always provided a way that is right, then we must have knowledge of what is right. “God judges even pagans because they know what is right, but reject that knowledge (Rom. 1:18-23, 32).”(9) It is logical, then, that if we face a situation that does not have a right alternative, then in this situation there is no possibility for knowing what is right. If this is the case, God’s standard for judgment is no longer consistent. In fact, we can further say that the law of God is no longer consistent, and thereby scripture itself, because it requires contradictory behavior. Continuing down this line of reasoning would lead to the laws and teachings of the Bible counseling us to sin. However, the Bible actually states the opposite:

“The law of the Lord is perfect,

reviving the soul;

the testimony of the Lord is sure,

making wise the simple;

the precepts of the Lord are right,

rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the Lord is pure,

enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the Lord is clean,

enduring forever;

the rules of the Lord are true,

and righteous altogether.”(10)

Finally, the end result is that God himself counsels us to sin – this is clearly blasphemous and clearly rejected in James 1:13-14.

Addressing Opposing Arguments

The reality is, however, that many continue to find the concept of a moral dilemma inviting. This is because many moral decisions are complicated and can be very difficult to make. In fact, there are some circumstances where we may not be able to see a right alternative – it is type of situation that requires us to remember our sinful condition, which blinds us from a complete understanding of right and wrong. As we become more and more sanctified we are more and more able to see things as God sees them – to see right as right and wrong as wrong. But we will never be fully sanctified while we are on this side of heaven, and the result of this is that we will never fully see things as God sees them during this life.

There is a second concept that addresses the apparent occurrence of moral dilemmas. God reveals to us in several places in the Bible the fact that we are simply not capable of understanding all of his ways. The prophet Isaiah speaks of this when he declares that our thoughts are not God’s thoughts, nor are our ways God’s ways.(11) This is also a theme that is woven throughout the book of Job – that we simply cannot grasp the vast knowledge of God, nor can we fully understand all of his actions.(12) In fact, it is where our ability to understand falls short that we must have faith and trust in the truths God has revealed to us. There are places in the second half of the book of Daniel where an interpretation can be taken to mean that God’s statement is intentionally vague,(13) leaving us with the conclusion that God is telling us to stop trying to understand every detail and instead trust in him. Ultimately we must trust God and take him at his word – that his commands do not conflict and he will not ask us to sin, and therefore real moral dilemmas do not exist.
  1. As John Frame says on page 125 in The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), “…in the end, nobody has the right to argue an ethical principle unless he is willing to listen to the God of Scripture. Moral norms can come only from a personal absolute, and the Bible is the only written revelation that presents such a God to us.”
  2. Class notes, Todd Miles
  3. 1 Corinthians 10:13
  4. Hebrews 4:15
  5. This is one of the options presented by Plato’s Euthyphro: Is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right? In the end, we find that neither of these answers is sufficient.
  6. p.318, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008)
  7. I will further expand on alternatives to real moral dilemmas in the concluding section.
  8. This paragraph and the next draw heavily on John Frame’s 7-step refuting of the claim that the theory of moral tragic choice (moral dilemma), as found on pgs.231-232 of The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).
  9. p.231, The Doctrine of the Christian Life (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008)
  10. Psalm 19:7-9
  11. Isaiah 55:8-9
  12. This is made particularly evident in Job 38.
  13. One of these places I am referring to being the reference to a time period of “a time, times, and half a time” in Daniel 12:7. I am borrowing an approach to interpreting these passages suggested by Ray Lubeck that would require additional information than is immediately relevant to this paper.

1 comment:

Luke of Hazard said...

Excellent piece. Though for my thick skull it is not super clear which of the three positions you support, but maybe that is intentional? I do think you outlined each one well.

And you seemed to address my only concern. In your first paragraph you state one of you assumptions is that "that there are moral absolutes, and that they are knowable to us." I guess I agree that they are 'knowable', but feel that in practicality they are not 'known' in all situations. Therefore I feel your assumption from the first paragraph may be misleading.

Then in your second to last paragraph you address this by referencing Isaiah, Job, and Daniel. I agree with all of your conclusions here, and appreciate them very much. I just think that they may undermine one of your original assumptions. Ah the mysteries of God!