No Such Moral Dilemma

Recently, in my Sunday School class, we discussed the doctrine of lying. Specifically, I asked if there is ever a situation where a person may say something that is untrue and not be guilty of the sin of lying. Not surprisingly, the case of Rahab came up. As we discussed her story, it became clear to some that she was put into the classic moral dilemma situation. Philosophically speaking, a moral dilemma exists when a person is faced with a choice, the result of which, can only result in evil. These are the so-called gray areas – there is no black and white. The individual is put in a situation where they must weigh which choice will result in the greater good/lesser evil and make that choice.

I argued, and perhaps convinced some, that Rahab did not face a moral dilemma. In fact, I argue that there is no such thing as a true moral dilemma. Today I want to explain why. Let’s begin by looking at the story of Rahab. Her story is recorded in Joshua 2, though the important part for our discussion today are verses 1-5:

Then Joshua the son of Nun sent two men as spies secretly from Shittim, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went and came into the house of a harlot whose name was Rahab, and lodged there. It was told the king of Jericho, saying, “Behold, men from the sons of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land.” And the king of Jericho sent word to Rahab, saying, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who have entered your house, for they have come to search out all the land.” But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them, and she said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they were from. It came about when it was time to shut the gate at dark, that the men went out; I do not know where the men went. Pursue them quickly, for you will overtake them.”

There are a couple things to glean from this passage. First of all, Rahab lied. There is absolutely no doubt about it: she purposefully spoke an untruth to the messengers from the king of Jericho. Second, I believe it is safe to assume that the king of Jericho intended to do unpleasant things to the spies from Israel. The terror of the Israelites had fallen upon the land and, especially in that case, kings don’t take kindly to foreign spies.

It is these two facts that some may use to setup the moral dilemma. Rahab was faced with a choice: lie to the king’s messengers or hand over the spies to certain death. This is an almost identical scenario to a choice that many germans were faced with in the 1940s: lie to the nazis or hand over the jews to certain death. In this scenario, it seems that no matter what you do, you are in sin. If you lie, you are (obviously) guilty of the sin of lying. If you hand over those you are hiding, you are an accessory to their murder. As a result, most people argue that since murder is a greater crime than lying, the better decision is to lie for the greater good.

This kind of scenario makes many people (including me) very uncomfortable. A standard way to try and resolve this problem is to argue that their is no scenario where you should sin, no matter what the cost. So, in the Rahab scenario, she should have told the truth – given up the spies – and trust that God will handle the consequences. In this case, the fact that handing the spies over will cause their death is not viewed as sinful. They won’t be the ones killing them and it is more important that they remain free from the blemish of lying. 

In response to this position, R. J. Rushdoony argues that, even though Rahab did face a moral dilemma, she is called righteous in spite of her specific sin of lying. In his book “The Institutes of Biblical Law”, he argues that:

Rahab had a choice to make: 1) she could tell the truth and surrender the spies, two godly men, to death. 2) she could lie and save their lives. This is the kind of situation the moralist hates and refuses to accept. Either course involves some evil, however the moralist seeks to deny it. The question is, which is the lesser of two evils? Our choices are rarely black and white ones; we rarely have the luxury of an absolute choice. But we do have the continual opportunity to make decisions in terms of an absolute faith, however gray the immediate situation. This faith Rahab had. Whether she lied or not was relatively unimportant as compared to the lives of two godly men. She lied and saved their lives. For this James singled her out, together with Abraham, as an instance of vital faith, of faith which was not a mere opinion but a matter of life and action (James 2:25). Again, Hebrews 11:31 singled this same act as an instance of true faith. It is useless evasion to try to abstract something from the act as praiseworthy while condemning her for the lie, and a violation of the unity of life. Rahab clearly lied, but her lie represented a moral choice as against sending two godly men to death, and for this she became an ancestress of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:5). For the moralist, it is important that he stand in his own self-righteousness, and Rahab’s alternative is intolerable, because it makes some kind of sin inescapable at times. For the godly man, who stands, not in his own righteousness but the righteousness of Christ, his own purity is not the essence of the matter but that God’s will be done. And God, in this situation, certainly willed that the lives of the spies be saved, not that the individual come forth able to say, I never tell a lie.

It’s clear that Rushdoony had no problem with the idea of a moral dilemma. In fact, he had no problem saying that Rahab did lie, but she did it to the glory of God. 

However, there’s a small problem with both of these positions: two New Testament authors call Rahab righteous for what she did! James, in his discussion of faith and works, says that “In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25) And the author of Hebrews, in the hall of fame of faith, says that “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.” (Hebrews 11:31) How can you argue with what she did when we have authoritative proclamations of her righteousness?

Now, I understand the response to what I just argued. Those unwilling to call her lie an act of righteousness will say that neither James nor the author of Hebrews specifically commend her for the specific deed of lying. If that was righteous, they say, wouldn’t it be mentioned specifically? And while I must concede the facts, I reject the interpretation. The only reason Rahab was able to send “them out by another way” was that she lied. Her lie is what saved the spies and later led to her being spared from the destruction of Jericho. If she hadn’t lied, she wouldn’t be part of the story. You can say that “God would’ve found a way” all you want, but you cannot deny that she was counted righteous for deeds that were a direct result of her lie. 

So, there’s a problem saying that she was in sin for lying and shouldn’t have done it.  Like most things in the Christian life, these two arguments represent extremes and the real answer is somewhere in the middle. Both of them are wrong in saying that Rahab sinned – the New Testament authors seem to deny this. But I believe that the more fundamental problem with both of these positions is that they believe she was actually put in a position where she had to sin. 

The problem with that position is that it makes God directly responsible for her sin. To understand that statement, you have to understand the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and compatibilism – a problem in today’s church. God is sovereign over all and has decreed all things that will come to pass. The standard evangelical response to this doctrine is “no, I have free will and God would never violate my will.” Well, that is simply not true. We see the opposite in God’s word time and time again: God has decreed all and what he has determined will surely come to pass, even when that means hardening someone’s heart (like Pharoah) or hating someone before they were born and condemning them to destruction (like Esau). However, we also see in Scripture and know from experience that men do make real choices. The doctrine of compatibilism says that man is not a mindless puppet – we have what theologians call a volitional will – the ability to make free choices. We are not coerced into any decision and have the ability to choose the way we want to go. Both of these things are true: God determines, we choose. This is compatibilism. 

With the doctrine of compatibilism in mind, we must look to the moral dilemma scenario. If compatibilism is true and the moral dilemma is a real thing, we are necessarily arguing that: God determines that no matter what we choose, we will be in sin. It is hard to say, if this is the case, that God would not be responsible for our sin since He put us in a position where sin is inevitable. This is probably why many people reject the doctrine of compatibilism. It is more than wrong to say that God would be responsible for sin, so there must be a better way to understand what is going on. I argue that we can’t reject compatibilism and that there is a better way to resolve this problem than fleeing to the doctrine of man’s sovereign free will. 

To understand the better resolution, and why there is no such thing as a moral dilemma, we must look to 1 Corinthians 10:13

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

In the context, Paul is teaching the Corinthians about the mistakes of those who came before them. He is trying to warn them not to repeat the same mistakes that caused thousands of Israelites to die in the wilderness – the mistakes of those whom God had “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (v2)! Yet, despite their position, “with most of them God was not well- pleased” (v5). They were examples of what not to do. But Paul knew what the response to those examples would be: ” We are better than that! We would never do the stupid things they did!” So, Paul tells them that first, they must not be puffed up into thinking they will be free from any temptation. Temptation will come and they must be ready and willing to face it, lest they fall. But, and here’s the kicker, God will provide a way out from temptation. Don’t be puffed up, but rely on God who never puts you in a situation where you must sin and where you will turn out like those who came before.

Implicit in the argument above is the idea that God determines that you will be put in situations where you will be tempted. We know from James that God Himself will never tempt you, but He is the sovereign one who has determined you will face it from the world, the flesh and the devil. But this is the great hope we have from Paul’s teaching: He will provide a way. 

So, how does this help us with the Rahab scenario? First of all, it is clear that we must reject the idea of the moral dilemma. God has promised that he will provide a way. Paul isn’t addressing the Corinthians and giving them advice that doesn’t apply to anyone else. He is describing the Christian life! So it must have been the case that Rahab had options that were not sin. When we apply the analogy of Scripture, and use the James and Hebrews passages to help us interpret the story in Joshua, we see that lying – in her case – wasn’t sinful. He determined that she would be put in that scenario and be forced to decide whether to lie or hand them over. But, God provided her the way out in what seemed to be part of the dilemma in the first place and, as a result, rewarded her with her life, with a place in the genealogy of Christ, and with a place in the hall of fame of faith. Perhaps another time I will address the doctrine of lying in general, but for now we must accept that God called – albeit indirectly – her lie a righteous deed.

At the end of the day, those who say that we must do what is right and let God handle the consequences are correct. God gives us a way out so that we can do what is right. However, we must also have a perspective similar to Rushdoony and recognize that sometimes acts that may seem to be sinful are actually the righteous way to go. God, in his faithfulness, will provide a way out, but he also requires that we study His word and know His law so that we can understand the way we ought to go. It may, at times, be difficult to determine that way, but we have all that we need for life and godliness. If we have faith in Him and His word, we can learn that way, and apply it in the sticky situations that come up.

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