Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “What is worse than doing evil is being evil.” These words were used to defend his actions in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War II. An assassination is an evil thing, but some, including Bonhoeffer, would call it a necessary evil, in light of the greater evil of the Holocaust. Is the concept of “necessary evil” supported in Scripture?
We should probably first define the word evil. Two different uses of the word are found in Scripture: natural disasters and morally deficient (bad) behavior. In Isaiah 45:7, there is a reference to God creating evil: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (KJV). The word evil in this passage means “disaster” or “catastrophe.” The antithetical parallelism of the poetry places evil in direct contrast with peace. The sense is that God brings times of peace and times of trouble.
The other type of evil that denotes something bad or morally wrong is mentioned in Matthew 12:35, where a “good” man is contrasted with an “evil” man. See also Judges 3:12; Proverbs 8:13; and 3 John 1:11.
Both definitions must be examined in relation to the question of “necessary evil.” Jonah was a prophet called of God to declare judgment upon the city of Nineveh (Jonah 1:2). Instead of obeying, Jonah tried to flee on a ship. God sent a terrible, raging storm against the ship, and the people on board feared for their lives. As a result, Jonah agreed to be thrown from the ship, and when he hit the water, God had a large fish waiting to swallow him up and keep him for three days. The storm and the time inside a fish’s belly were “evil” (in the sense of “catastrophic”) for Jonah, but they were “necessary” evils to turn Jonah away from his disobedience. Not only was Jonah restored, but the whole city of Nineveh was saved (Jonah 3:10).
There are people in biblical history who did what they knew to be wrong in order to bring about a perceived “good.” One example is King Saul, who took it upon himself to offer a sacrifice to God instead of waiting for Samuel. Saul knew it was wrong to offer the sacrifice, but he reasoned that offering it (in God’s honor) was better than not offering it. God did not see it that way. The result of Saul’s disobedience was the eventual loss of his kingdom (1 Samuel 13:8–14).
Rarely would anyone argue that lying is not a moral evil. Yet in two instances in the Old Testament, lying is followed by a positive outcome. The harlot Rahab lied to the king of Jericho in order to protect the Hebrew spies hiding on her roof (Joshua 2:5). Later, God spared Rahab and her family when Israel destroyed Jericho. Was Rahab’s lie a “necessary evil”? It is important to note that the Bible does not specifically condone her lie; Rahab was spared not because she lied but because she welcomed the spies in faith (Joshua 6:17; Hebrews 11:31). True, her lying was part of her plan to hide them. Had she not lied, it is conceivable that the spies would have been killed—unless God intervened in another way. In any case, Rahab’s lie could be seen as the lesser of two possible evils.
Was Rahab’s evil necessary? “Necessary” is a stretch, even though the end result was the spies’ safe return to Joshua. Even if her lie seemingly benefited someone, what Rahab did was sinful, and that sin was one that Jesus bore on the cross (Isaiah 53:6).
Rarely, if ever, will anyone face a situation where two evils are the only choices available. There may be things we are forced to do that are distasteful to us or that go against our better judgment. But, given the fact that God desires holiness in His people (1 Peter 1:15), it does not seem likely that it is ever “necessary” for us to commit sin.