When you’re feeling pressure to do something that you don’t want to do – or even something you know is wrong – is it okay to choose a “necessary evil”? The Bible is clear that good and evil exist. But what, if anything, does the Bible say about necessary evil? Here’s a look at the meaning of necessary evil, and how to navigate morally challenging situations faithfully.
What Does “Necessary Evil” Refer To?
The phrase “necessary evil” usually refers to something that is undesirable, yet must be accepted. You can think of a necessary evil as something that you don’t want to do, but have to do. One example that people often call a necessary evil is paying taxes. You may not want to pay taxes to the government, but as a citizen, you are legally required to do so. In this most common meaning of a necessary evil, there is no actual evil involved. The necessary evil is simply something unwanted, rather than something that is morally wrong.
However, sometimes people do use this phrase to refer to something this is considered immoral – such as lying. People may say that telling a lie in a certain type of situation is a necessary evil, because they think that telling the truth in that situation would be too awkward for them to manage. For example, let’s say that your spouse bought a new outfit and showed it to you, asking if you like it. If you don’t like it but don’t want to offend or hurt your spouse, you may think it’s a necessary evil to lie and say you actually do like the outfit.
Does the Bible Talk about Necessary Evil?
The Bible describes evil in two different ways – as moral wickedness that is a sin, and as something that is not bad but not sinful.
In the most common biblical use of the concept of evil, evil is associated with sin. Jesus uses this meaning in Matthew 12:35 when he says: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” John 3:11 urges us: “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.” When evil is sinful, it is never acceptable. The Bible never condones any type of sinful evil.
However, sometimes the Bible uses the term “evil” to describe something that isn’t sinful, but simply bad in the sense that it is undesirable. In 1 Kings 17:20, the prophet Elijah asks God – who is completely holy and therefore never sins – “Lord my God, why is it that you have brought such evil upon the widow that I am staying with by killing her son?”. Some biblical translations use the word “evil” in this verse, while others use words like “tragedy,” “calamity,” or “misery.” God himself speaks about evil in this sense, when he says in Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Other translations of this same verse use words such as “disaster,” “woe,” or “trouble” where some translations use the word “evil.”
The Bible also presents situations in which people choose to do what may be seen as a necessary evil. For example, Joshua 2:1-7 describes how Rahab lied to protect Hebrew spies in Jericho, and even though she chose to lie rather than tell the truth in the process, Rahab is commended in James 2:25 for taking action to protect the spies. Another instance of what seems like a necessary evil happens in Judges 3:15-30, in which Ehud assassinates the sinful king Eglon and thereby ushers in a long period of peace for Israel. Although it’s never best to kill another human being, and murder is a sin, the Bible presents this killing without condemning it as sinful. In fact, right before Ehud kills Eglon, he tells the king in verse 20: “I have a message from God for you.” – as if the action he was about to take was justified. In other places, the Bible presents killings in ways that seem like necessary evils in those situations. Exodus 22:2 discusses killing in self-defense: “If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed.” Psalm 144:1 mentions God preparing the psalmist to fight in a war: “Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.”
In all the biblical situations that may be perceived as necessary evils, the situations are undesirable and often tragic, yet not sinful. They represent ways of dealing with the reality of living in a fallen world. They’re choices that people make, and God seems to understand, in troubling circumstances. However, the Bible never says that God leads people to choose a necessary evil. God simply treats them with grace after they have chosen to do so. Rather than condemning them for an undesirable choice in difficult circumstances, God seems to consider their motives. As God reveals in 1 Samuel 16:7: “… For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” When people make bad decisions or even act sinfully, God often treats them with grace and mercy. Psalm 103:10-12 proclaims about God: “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”
Is This a Biblical Idea? Is There Such a Thing?
So, the Bible does mention the concept of evil that isn’t morally sinful, but something that is simply bad because it’s undesirable. However, the Bible never says that choosing evil is necessary. In fact, 1 Corinthians 10:13 declares that when you’re facing temptation, God will provide a way out of the situation: “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.” That assurance means that you won’t have to turn to any type of evil, even in the most challenging situations. Rather than choosing what seems like a necessary evil, you can instead choose to ask God to help you do what’s best.
The Bible emphasizes pursuing goodness rather than worrying about evil. Romans 12:21 urges you: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” God will help you choose good or evil in any circumstances. Goodness is one of the fruits of the Spirit that Galatians 5:22-23 mentions. You can always ask the Holy Spirit to help you pursue goodness – even in the trickiest situations. When you do, you’ll be blessed. Research that my book Wake Up to Wonder describes shows that doing good decreases stress, increases happiness, and promotes mental health. A powerful way to motivate yourself to choose goodness is to pay attention to God’s wonder. Research also shows that feeling awe from encountering God’s wonder serves as an inspiration to pursue good actions.
When you find yourself in a morally challenging situation, it’s easy to feel tempted to respond with something that seems like a necessary evil. But doing so is never really necessary. The best way to approach a situation like that is to change the way you think about it. Rather than rationalizing an undesirable action, instead, consider how you can respond with goodness despite the pressures you feel. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you make the best choice. Refuse to settle for a necessary evil, and instead, have faith that God will guide you to the best decision. As you listen to God’s guidance, you’ll discover new possibilities. Then you can move forward with confidence, even in the trickiest circumstances.