In Christ There Are No Moral Dilemmas
By Jan Charles Haluska
The young man stopped at the edge of the frozen lake. His footprints led back through the snow for several miles to the prison from which he had just escaped. An Anabaptist in sixteenth-century Holland, Dirk Willem had been sentenced to burn at the stake. Now he ran for his life with one guard in pursuit.
The ice at the shoreline was thick and white, but near the center it shaded down to a thinner sheet. A slight man like Dirk would have a good chance of reaching the other side safely, but his heavier pursuer would need to go around or take a terrible risk.
Carefully, gingerly, Dirk made his way to the opposite bank. Just as he arrived, the guard burst out of the woods and began lumbering across the ice as the fugitive sprinted away. But then—a crack, a shriek. Dirk whirled to see a jagged black hole with his pursuers head and flailing arms at its center. Dirk was safe. Free.
But he also faced a question. Was it Christlike to leave a man to die? How could a Christian live with that cry ringing in his ears? On the other hand, how many people could he reach with his ministry after he’d been burned at the stake? Didn’t he have an obligation to stay alive for the sake of their future?
Here, it seems, was moral dilemma enough. “Well,” one might say, “that’s why God gave us brains. Grown-up Christians do not pretend that moral dilemmas are nonexistent, but wrestle honestly with them.”
A few years ago I might have agreed. Then I heard a sermon from Ron DuPreez, of Southern Adventist University’s School of Religion, that convinced me that for a Christian moral dilemmas do not exist.1 Such a statement will seem hopelessly shallow and simplistic to many. But there is enough evidence to the contrary.
Damned Either Way?
Let’s begin by establishing the meaning of the term itself. A moral dilemma is a problem whose every solution involves inescapable evil. The slang expression is “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” Moral dilemmas are a basic feature of Western secular thought. The greatest tragedies of ancient Greece, for instance, involve characters who must decide between twin evils. In Aeschylus’ celebrated play Agamemnon, the hero agonizes over whether to sacrifice his daughter or cancel a god-ordered expedition against Troy. He cries: “Obey, obey or a heavy doom will crush me. Oh, but doom will crush me once I rend my child, the glory of my house” (11.206-209).
He finally sacrifices her in obedience to the god, but his reaction sets into motion an old curse that destroys him and his generation of the family. It is tragedy indeed.
But the great controversy is no tragedy, though Satan would like to have made it so. The Enemy’s attack on humanity was nothing less than an attempt to impose a moral dilemma on God Himself. Affirm the law and destroy humanity. Or save humanity by admitting that the law is unjust. It seemed that either way God would be forced to buy good at the impossible price of evil. Instead, God cut a straight path through the seeming dilemma. Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary was not an evil; rather it was an act of good so unthinkable that we tremble before it, like Isaiah looking into the furnace of God’s righteousness (see Isa. 6:5). It is good nevertheless. The marks on Christ’s hands are a physical record of suffering that demonstrates God’s character as it saved us. They are not a curse. Any claim that God does evil, even under duress, is a deadly blow aimed against Him.2 Let’s put it another way. The idea of a “moral dilemma” rests on the assertion that one Commandment can be smashed against another. That is the core of Satan’s charge against God, and if it’s true the Great Controversy is lost.
Someone might object that these theological ideas fall flat in the real world, asking, “What if you were hiding Jews in your basement when the Gestapo came? Wouldn’t you go ahead and bear false witness in order to save those innocent people? Or would be pharisaical enough to tell a truth that would kill them?”
But such “What if” questions set up a false choice crafted by somebody’s imagination. In the real world more possibilities exist. One could reply to the Gestapo, “Come in and look,” or even, “That is not the kind of question I will answer.” Then what? The Jews might be found or not, either one. The homeowner might be spared or shot, either one. Some Gestapo men might wind up converted, or none might be. Lots of outcomes could follow, including miraculous ones. We cannot know what will happen in a given case.
That is the key. The essential illusion in a supposed moral dilemma is that we are obligated to decide when to break a Commandment based on weighing future results of that decision. We aren’t. We couldn’t be. Roll a billiard ball against two cushions of a pool table; no amount of mathematical calculation can tell exactly where it will come to rest. Likewise, the final outcome of any decision is always unknowable by us beforehand. There’s even a name for this principle in general human experience: the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Thus the belief that people are responsible for choosing whether to obey a Commandment or not by appraising the future is nothing more than a trick of Satan. God does not give us work we are incapable of. If the promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13, that God “will not suffer you to be tempted above what ye are able,” means what it says, we cannot be coerced into such a bondage. Instead, we should exercise our freedom by acknowledging God’s exclusive right to the future. That includes His freedom to act in miraculous ways.
A recent report from a country in Asia illustrates this. A church’s clandestine evangelistic campaign resulted in two truckloads of people ready for baptism. Because conducting a baptismal sermon was strictly illegal, the group was driving to a distant lake—but they got lost. Stopping at a building to ask directions, they found themselves walking directly into the offices of the security forces. The officials told them the way to the lake, then asked the obvious question: “What are all you people planning to do there?”
Now what? Should they tell a “white lie,” claiming that they were having a swimming party or a workers’ outing to clean the environment? Those might have seemed like responsible falsehoods, especially since third parties were also at risk. But the leaders chose to bear true witness anyhow.
“We are members of a Seventh-day Adventist Church,” they declared, “and these are people we are going to baptize.”
“Do you know that you will be breaking the law?” asked the startled official. “If you do, you will be sent to jail.” And that is what would have happened in the standard “what if” world. But in real life things went very differently.
When the trucks started up again, several police motorcycles swung in after them to make arrests when the time came. However, a sudden rainstorm turned the roads muddy just behind the trucks. The police slid off into the ditches, while the still-dry church members drove several miles farther to the lake, baptized their new members, and went home without further incident.
Letting God Be God
We should rejoice in our blood-bought freedom from the misconception that we are morally obligated to predict the future. Let us respond like the three Hebrew boys, who assured Nebuchadnezzar that even though they did not know whether God would save them from the furnace, they would never bow to that idol (Dan. 3:17).
This realization can be wonderfully liberating. In my office some months ago a student shared what he thought was a good answer to a moral dilemma. “This university,” he said, “is so expensive that I’m having to work downtown as a bartender, but it’s really OK. I can give my customers Christian counsel after all, and I really couldn’t stay in school otherwise.” Thus he felt that serving liquor was less of an evil that quitting Southern, and an acceptable answer to a moral dilemma.
“Have you thought much about the power of grace?” I asked.
“Sure,” he answered, settling comfortably into the chair. “I know that God loves me and forgives me no matter what.”
“No, I mean the other kind of power,” I said. “The power to do God’s will in His way.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, sitting up again. For the next few minutes we looked at Bible texts, beginning with Revelation 3:18. Then we prayed.
The next day he told me with a radiant face that he was quitting his job, and asked for prayer. Thereafter he got clean employment that paid equally well, and found himself witnessing God’s power as never before. Denying the illusion of a moral dilemma gave him freedom that Christ promises to all who follow Him.
And what of Dirk?
He went back onto the ice and rescued the guard—who promptly arrested him. Instead of being miraculously delivered, Dirk returned to jail and not long afterward was burned at the stake, as any cynic might have predicted.
It did not end there, though. The story swept through Holland, and in shame for the killing of that righteous man, the Dutch passed a law that no person should ever again be put to death for his or her religious beliefs. It was the first such law in Europe. Holland became a haven for all kinds of Christian fugitives, including the Puritans, who fled there before taking ship for the New World. Dirk’s death enabled a more bountiful outpouring of grace than his living ministry could ever have done. And once again the blood of a martyr watered the church.
This is not to say that the Christian is exempt from practical questions such as whether to budget for fixing the roof or repairing the car this month, though the wisdom promised in James 1:5 is available for those decisions too.
But if the Great Controversy means anything, we should refuse to be enslaved by any suggestion that Commandment-breaking is ever morally required. The way of the cross, our narrow and true path toward a glorious future, guarantees that freedom.
1 While the sermon was DuPreez’, he is not accountable for the examples or train of thought in this article.
2A close reading of the first chapter of the book of Job supports this interpretation. As Creator, God is responsible for the existence of all things, including Satan’s attack. But He does not cause that attack.