rahab’s exchange: moral absolutism

image courtesy of reverendmom

[This post a continuation from “rahab’s exchange: the lie” and “rahab’s exchange: ethical theories.”  Rahab lied in order to save the lives of two Israelite spies.  Was she right to do so?  Is it ever right to lie?]

Yesterday we looked at three possible systems of ethics.  Deontological ethics is the system in which we assume there exists a moral law for all mankind — and it is our obligation or duty to act in accordance with this law. Those of us who adhere to this system of ethics are called Moral Absolutists, because we believe this moral law is absolute and binding for all people in all places; most Christians fall into this category.  Today I want to discuss three subsets of moral absolutism (and then cast my vote for one of them).  [For my purposes, I am writing as if we are all Christians.  What that means is we will assume the absolute moral laws come from God, and are contained in the Bible.]

1.  Unqualified Absolutism

Also known as “non-conflicting” absolutists, adherents to this system believe the absolute laws contained in the Bible are never in conflict with one another.  Any perceived conflict is due only to a lack of knowledge.  There never exists a moment in which the Christian must choose to be obedient to only one of two commands or select the lesser of two evils.  There is always a way for the individual to be obedient to every command in scripture.  Lying is always wrong, no matter the situation.

The unqualified absolutist would contend it that Rahab did not have to lie in her situation.  And she was sinful to have done so.  There was some better option for her.  But if she had she told the truth and the spies been killed, she would still have done what was right.

What I appreciate about unqualified absolutism is that it takes very seriously the word of God and obedience to him.  What I don’t like is that this all seems naive and just a bit ridiculous.  [Plus a lot of people claim to be unqualified absolutists, and really aren’t — see the “one last word” section at bottom of page.]  I worry, too, that it elevates these moral rules to a higher status than is deserved or needed.  I believe much of the reasoning for the unqualified absolutist’s stance is:

  • to protect the nature of God. “All moral law originates in the nature and person of God.  If we suggest these laws are at times in conflict with one another, we are suggesting there is conflict in the nature of God itself.”
  • to allow us to possess a simple and tidy faith where hard questions needn’t be asked. “Just read the Bible and do what it says.  It’s that simple.  Don’t start down one of them slippery slopes, you hear.”

I don’t believe the nature of God needs protecting.  And I’m not so sure (heresy alert?) there exists a huge problem with conflict within God’s nature — especially when that conflict may merely be perceived, and not actual.  So… we don’t understand completely how love and justice occupy the same place at the same time in the person of God?  I’m alright with that; chalk it up to me not being God.

As for possessing a tidy, little faith, good luck with that.  I just don’t think it works that way.  Faith is rarely well-groomed, and Christianity isn’t bullet points and name signed on the dotted line.

2. Conflicting Absolutism

This seems a little more honest and realistic to me.  The conflicting absolutist believes there are moral absolutes which all humanity is obliged to obey.  But sometimes these rules come in conflict with one another.  It is the duty of the believer, then, to choose the “lesser of two evils.” He should, based on his knowledge of God and scripture, be obedient to the greater of the two commands, breaking the lesser.  [Of course the Christian should then ask forgiveness for having sinned.]

The conflicting absolutist  would contend that, if Rahab had no choice but to lie (saving lives) or assist in murder (telling the truth), she was right to lie. She chose to be obedient to the greater command, and therefore did what was best — but still sinned.

I appreciate the conflicting absolutist’s realistic outlook on the world, but I do have a couple of problems with these ideas:

  • Jesus was a human. If Jesus was fully human and tempted in every way that we are, then it would follow that he also experienced these moral dilemmas.  He necessarily would have sinned.  And if he didn’t face any of these conflicting moral scenarios, then he was not indeed tempted as we are.
  • It seems odd that the best I can aim for is to commit a lesser sin.
  • If repentance involves admission of guilt and changing my mind and life so that I turn and walk a different direction, then it is impossible to repent of these lesser sins I’ve committed.  Because I fully expect and intend (and would be right) to commit that very sin again if ever in that same situation.

3. Graded Absolutism

[Also called “hierarchicalism.]  The graded absolutists, of which I am one, believe these moral laws can and do at times conflict with one another.  But these are not situations in which the Christian chooses the “lesser evil” and sins.  Rather, the believer has chosen what was good and right. Like the conflicting absolutist, though, the graded absolutist must discern which command is the weightier of the two.

The graded absolutist would contend that Rahab may have had no other option when confronted by the king’s men but to lie or to allow the spies to be killed.*  If so, and she chose to preserve life as it seemed to her to be the more important of the two rules, Rahab was right in doing so and therefore did not sin.

Let me give a short list of reasons I believe graded absolutism to be correct:

  • It argues for moral laws that are binding to all mankind — and these rules originate in the nature of God.
  • It is realistic and acknowledges that, in this fallen world, these laws do conflict with one another at times.
  • Jesus was tempted in every way as us and remained sinless.
  • It is demonstrated in scripture on a number of occasions.  (This will have to be another post — the next one in this series, I think…)

One Last Word

One pet peeve of mine is that nearly all unqualified absolutists practice the conflicting or graded approach but claim otherwise.  Two questions to think about:

  • If I am to obey my parents, who command me to denounce God, what should I do?
  • If I am to obey the rulers and authorities of my nation’s government, and live in a country that doesn’t allow me to be a Christian, what should I do?

In both of these scenarios (and hundreds of others), the majority of Christians (non-conflicting absolutists as well) will say you should worship God and no longer be obedient  to — at least concerning these specific rules — your parents or government.  But isn’t that a conflict in these moral laws?  And won’t any Christian admit as much?

The conflicting absolutist says we commit a small sin by ignoring our parents’ regulations.  The graded absolutist says we’ve done what is right.  The unqualified absolutist has to agree with one of these other groups in this situation…  OR try to rephrase the scenario in such a way that there is no longer a conflict.  And they may try.  But (in my opinion) unqualified absolutism only works on paper — and even then not very well.


In my next post, I intend to answer some of what I assume would be common questions asked of the above ideas.  I’ve got a short list, but if you want to add to it, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments below.  That way, too, one of the other readers can likely offer you greater wisdom and a better answer than me.

* I suppose this could have been due either to the circumstances or even Rahab’s level of intelligence.  I’m not suggesting Rahab wasn’t an honor student; rather I’m merely stating that if I’m unable to ascertain another way to save lives than by lying, perhaps lying is the right thing to do.



Filed under exchanges

21 responses to “rahab’s exchange: moral absolutism

  1. “Do these jeans make me look fat?”

    It isn’t easy, is it.


  2. I like your inquiring mind and your earnest desire to find truths. I man named John Haidt has studied Moral Theory. There is a Moralfoundations.org website http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/index.php This site shows how we decide things and why. He has examples of left and right ideologies that show why we think differently. Life in fact is really complicated. There isn’t a rule book that is absolute and that would fit everybody in every situation.
    Peace be with you

  3. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: ethical theories | aliens and strangers

  4. Thanks for the ethics lesson! I have enjoyed hearing your thoughts and the questions you have posed about Rahab.
    I thought, based on your responses to comments left on the previous posts on this subject, that you were going to land in the first camp – unqualified absolutism – which honestly, I thought was just plain silly. I am glad to see you are a “graded absolutists” (although, I was completely unaware of the term before today!). I too believe that Rahab did not sin. God is too complex and multifaceted to box.
    I am wondering if you see the Jacob and Esau situation the same way?

    • land in the first camp?! me, an unqualified absolutist? surely, you know me not, woman.

      without much study, and off the top of my head, i’m calling the story of jacob and esau different. i think it’s a story of parental favoritism, dishonesty, and selfish scheming. but it’s also a story of God using the decisions of sinful people to bring about his purposes in the world.

  5. I just read this post and like the comments. Hard questions. After doing some thinking, I am reminded of Peter in the book of Acts, who was told not to preach Jesus and was arrested and beaten for it. He said, “We must obey God rather than man.”-I think your question as to whether I disobey my parents or not reminded me of that story.
    I am also reminded of Jesus saying that he came to set a mother against her daughter-somethiing like that-and other family relationships. I need to look it up.

  6. MaeMae

    Are you also going to cover the spies asking Rahab to lie for them?

  7. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: an interview with myself | aliens and strangers

  8. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: a cultural argument for lying? | aliens and strangers

  9. Pingback: rahab’s exchange: a story of true faith | aliens and strangers

  10. I highly appreciate this post. Keep up the good work!


  11. Pingback: the lie of Jesus | aliens and strangers

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