Is the Lesser of Two Evils a Biblical Principle?

What does this all mean for us? It means when faced with a dilemma, a tough choice, we don’t need to compare the degree of “evil” in the choice — we must choose the right thing according to God’s Word.

Published Jan 25, 2022
Is the Lesser of Two Evils a Biblical Principle?

There are countless phrases we hear — and often use ourselves — that sound quite biblical but are not. Some of these even pass the test of logic by sounding good to the ear, making their biblical source seem quite reasonable.

“God helps those who help themselves.” “God will never give you more than you can handle.” “Time heals all wounds.” While these trusted cliches may seem to carry with them biblical principles, none appear in Scripture. The same can be said for “white lie” and “necessary evil.”

It is perhaps a sad truth that we all have faced situations where we believed we were faced with a dilemma — one in which there seemed to be no good choices. When we felt left with only “the lesser of two evils.”

The phrase itself signifies when a person is faced with two bad choices and forced to pick a “less evil” option. We have certainly all been in positions where we were uncertain what to say, or not say — or what choice was the right one when, for example, someone was going to get hurt no matter which choice we made.

In human terms, of course, this is perfectly relatable. Our entire justice system applies this logic in its sentencing guidelines — a misdemeanor is viewed and punished, far differently than a felony. One is less offensive, less evil, than the other, thus justifies a lesser punishment.

Such an argument is supported using a type of “graded ethics” or “situational ethics” rather than a system of black and white absolutes.

Perhaps the most common, and possibly most extreme, example of a lesser-evil choice is that posed by Corrie Ten Boom — Nazis knocking on your door demanding to know if you are hiding innocent Jews in your home.

The choice was to either tell the truth and sacrifice the lives of refugees, perhaps sparing her own — or to lie, praying to be believed by the evil at the door, sparing those same lives that would be lost by the truth.

This topic, by its nature, raises questions:

Is doing a lesser evil to prevent a greater evil a sin? Is it okay to sin — say, a lie — if it means that lie is the lesser of evils? When truth causes harm: e.g., telling a child a truth he or she may not be prepared to understand — what is the right choice? What if love requires deception?

Does God Use the Lesser of Two Evils?

Today, Christians are often faced with the “lesser of two evils” question in the political arena. This seems particularly true in today’s era of the endless news cycle, and broad access to every word, every deed, uttered or committed by political candidates.

No candidate seems immune. Each one has his or her own shortcomings and weaknesses that are then made all too public.

Yet we repeatedly find that the ultimate choice made is still in keeping with the voter’s particular political persuasion. Their “lesser of evils” choice always seems to fall on the candidate of the party that they support. The phrase is used simply as a justification for the choice they intended anyway.

It is interesting though how often we act as self-righteous voters — wanting our candidates to be perfect, when the truth of the matter is, they never will be. We are all sinners — every one of us. Perhaps my sins are different from yours, but we remain sinners, nonetheless.

Thus — the choice between any two candidates will always, to us, represent the lesser of evils. And yet, the Bible tells us that God will use and control even the most wicked of rulers for his purposes.

Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning (Daniel 2:20-21).

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God (Romans 13:1).

King David was arguably the greatest of Israel’s kings. Yet, he not only committed adultery, among many other sins, but he even conspired to murder the woman’s husband so he could have her and to avoid scandal (2 Samuel 11).

Still, David was called a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) God used David to accomplish his purposes. He chose David to advance his kingdom and accomplish his will. Even Pharoah was chosen on this basis.

Through Christ, we too are men and women of God’s own heart. God doesn’t choose the lesser of two evils — he chooses who/what is best. He chooses based on what is the good, right choice.

But What about Our Dilemmas?

So that’s great for God, and for politics, you may be saying now — but what about us? What about our tough choices?

What do we do when faced with an impasse where we must choose between what seems like two bad options? After all, there is no “lesser evil” in God’s eyes. Evil is evil — and ever shall be.

That may be so — but perhaps we need to look at what that evil choice may be in the eyes of God.

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)

Jesus was quoting from the prophet Hosea — “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). It bears repeating. God said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” 

In Micah, it was put this way: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Meaning, I would rather you do good than offer your sacrifices. This, during the time when sacrifices, was the law of the day. God says, "I would rather you do right — to show mercy, and act justly."

The entire core of Christianity is to love God and our neighbor with everything we are. Jesus taught that quite emphatically (Matthew 22:36-40).

As disciples of Christ, what we must strive for is to love fully. Indeed, this is Christ’s teaching — it is all about loving God and each other.

When Jesus allowed his disciples to glean the fields on the Sabbath — some observant religious leaders considered these actions to be sins. We read in the gospels of Jesus healing on the Sabbath:

Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. (Matthew 3:4-5)

Jesus taught us that healing people or allowing them to eat were acts of love and clearly overruled the written law — and so, on his terms, not sin, since Jesus never sinned.

The fact that truth-telling is a biblical principle does not necessarily mean that principle overrides acting in love. Until God’s kingdom is fulfilled, we will indeed experience periodic conflicts between truth and love.

The Jewish midwives in ancient Egypt carried out deception to save the baby Moses (Exodus 2:1-10). Rahab deceived the soldiers of Jericho in order to safeguard the lives of Israelite spies (Joshua 2:1-24). Rahab was not only an ancestor of Jesus but is mentioned in the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11.

What does this all mean for us? It means when faced with a dilemma, a tough choice, we don’t need to compare the degree of “evil” in the choice — we must choose the good thing. Do the right thing. To not act in love may be the true evil in the eyes of God.

That doesn’t mean the choice that is best for you — or for what others will think of you. It does not mean that it is okay to lie to save your skin, or because the truth will make you look bad or get you in trouble. It means to do what is required by the second commandment of Jesus — love your neighbor.

Do not choose the “lesser of two evils.” Instead, search your heart. Ask the Father to lead you to the path of righteousness. And then do what is right and good, in love.

For further reading:

Is the Phrase ‘Necessary Evil’ Biblical?

Does God See All Sins as Equal to One Another?

Did Evil Exist Before Adam and Eve Sinned?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/artisteer

SWN authorGreg Grandchamp is the author of "In Pursuit of Truth, A Journey Begins" — an easy-to-read search that answers to most common questions about Jesus Christ. Was he real? Who did he claim to be? What did he teach? Greg is an everyday guy on the same journey as everyone else — in pursuit of truth. You can reach Greg by email [email protected]  and on Facebook


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