“The Lesser of Two Evils”?

“Lesser of two evils” is a fairly common phrase but how helpful is it? Is there really a situation when we would have to choose between the lesser of two evils? That is a contested ethical issue and an important one.

In answering this difficult question we are dependent. We need wisdom outside of ourselves. John Frame points us in the right direction through his meditation on Scripture. He offers us some helpful theological reflections (See Frame, DCL230-34). I share just two of them.

First, he points out 1 Corinthians 10:13: “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.” If we cannot be tempted, or tested, beyond what we can bear, as it says in Scripture, then it would seem that we would never have to choose between the “lesser of two evils.”

Frame also points out the fact that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses because He was tempted in every way that we are yet without sin (Heb. 4:15). So, there is no way for Jesus to both be tempted in every way that we are and choose between the lesser of two evils.

Thus, having to choose between the lesser of two evils must not be an actual situation that occurs. Although, from our limited perception it may appear that that is what is happening. 

There are a lot of difficult hypothetical situations we could put out there. And it may be very hard to sort through what the right response would be. Difficulty in making the right decision is not the same as there not being a right decision. Just because we are not sure of the right thing to do does not mean that there is not a right thing to do. This points us to our limitations. We are not infallible. We are reliant, or we need to be.

I believe the phrase “lesser of two evils” is misleading and unhelpful. I, therefore, think it should be dropped. If a decision is very difficult and we cannot be sure if it was the right one, we should say that. But I would prefer we not say that we had to choose what is evil, even if it is “lesser.”  

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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