Martyrdom, Consequentialism and Lies

James over at Reasonably Faithless has a post questioning the notion that fidelity to Christ should come before everything.

He begins by discussing the concept of martyrdom, and says that he understands how Christians might put Christ before their own life.

Then in what is essentially another version of the trolley thought experiment, he asks:

“But should it really come before everything?  How about…
You’re in church one Sunday morning, and a gunman enters the building.  He comes over to you, points his gun in the general direction of the other church goers, and says “Deny Christ or they all die“.  What should you do?
There’s a lot I could say about this, but I’d prefer to leave it open for people to mull over it.  I’d really like some Christians to have a good hard think about their response, without trying to avoid answering the question.  If you were in that situation, what would you do?  What should you do?  You only have two options: deny Christ and your fellow church members survive, or profess your loyalty and see them all killed.  So what would you do?  And why?”

My answers:

What should I do? Profess my loyalty.
What would I do? Always tough to say exactly what we would do, but I hope I would act as I said I should above.

Now for the why?

Bear with me, there’s a lot going on here.

What I think the underlying assumptions are here:

1. Morally evil acts are justifiable in order to achieve “greater” goods
2. In particular, life (whether one’s own or another’s) trumps every other good
3. If we refuse to deny Christ and the gunman goes ahead and shoots our congregation, then we are responsible for their deaths

If one accepted all of these assumptions, I think one would end up saying that not only is it permissible to deny Christ in this situation, but that it is in fact what one ought to do.

I, however, reject all of these premises. Here’s why:

1. Morally evil acts are justifiable in order to achieve “greater” goods

This whole thought experiment seems to assume that consequentialism is a good way to go about discerning what action one should take. Within this framework, there aren’t really any “objectively” good or bad actions, they are all simply relative to one another, depending on the perceived goodness or badness of the outcomes that one predicts will come from their actions.

I think that such a position closes off the option of then saying that it would be definitely morally wrong to do anything, particularly in this case, that it would be wrong for Christians to refuse to deny Christ and thus send their fellow Christians to their deaths.

Goodness is not well-defined in the consequentialist view. Should we aim for maximum pleasure? But what kind of pleasure? How do we add up all the positives and negatives on ourselves and other people in a consistent way? It’s just not possible.

I would propose rather that some acts are inherently evil, and these may never be justified, for if you commit one evil in “defence” of a good, you have just successfully undermined the very good you were seeking to uphold, by arbitrarily determining that another good was not worth upholding. When discerning the best course of action, one ought to seek to uphold all goods.

2. In particular, life has the ability to trump every other good

Or in other words, if there is something you can do to prevent someone else, or many people, dying, even if it would otherwise be wrong, you should do it.

The crux of the matter though, is whether fidelity is of utmost importance. James seemed to think that any Christian who refused to deny Christ would be someone to be wary of. But I think a Christian who did act this way would be inconsistent. Time and time again, Jesus tells us that we should be prepared to suffer greatly for Him. This faith is not a mere interior assent, but should also be lived. What does it say about one’s faith if one does deny Christ? How faithful are you really? In the eyes of the Christian, Christ is God. He is Goodness, Truth and Beauty. He is Ultimate Awesome. To be in authentic relationship with Him is the end of Man. There is nothing that can trump this. To lie about the fact that God is everything to you is to tell the biggest lie you can possibly tell, denying Truth itself. And yet, paradoxically, if you are prepared to go that far, to what extent is it really a lie?

Furthermore, if it’s understandable that someone might give up their own life for Christ, then what about the congregation? They should be attempting to convince you not to deny Christ, because they are prepared to die for Him. So they would be sort of vicariously dying for their faith.

Let’s replace denying Christ with something else. What if one was asked to torture a child? What about your own child? Does that change things?

3. If we refuse to deny Christ and the gunman goes ahead and shoots our congregation, then we are responsible for their deaths

Actually, I think the gunman is the one responsible for their deaths. You cannot be coerced into doing wrong because someone else threatens to do evil.

There is also the fact that you can’t ever really know for sure what is going to happen. He might not shoot them after all, and then kill you instead. Or he might kill all of you. Then, as a Christian, where would you be? Facing the One who died for you, right after you denied Him. And you might be counted among those who say “Lord, Lord!” and yet shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven, for He will say, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers,” since, “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 10:33)

Finally, there is the question of the principle of double effect. This post is already too long, so I won’t go into it in detail, but basically I think it’s legitimate to say that while one may foresee the evil consequence of the deaths of the congregation for their own refusal to deny Christ, it is by no means their intended outcome, and this outcome is actually entirely on the gunman. Once you have given your response, he does with that what he wills, and if he chooses to shoot your fellow Christians, their deaths are on him.

[Having said all that, if one was to crumble under the pressure, I think culpability would be lessened, given the intensity of the situation. But that’s another story.]

In conclusion:

To be a Christian and to place a finite good above Goodness itself, sinning in the process, is inconsistent, and is contrary to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. While intuitively understandable, in that saving lives is a good thing, the fact of saving lives does not in itself justify every possible type of action, in particular, denying Christ. Finally, implying that the deaths would be the Christian’s fault is not quite accurate, I think the guilt would more fairly be put on the head of the gunman.

Thanks for interesting thought experiment James! If I have misrepresented your views anywhere, I apologise in advance and will welcome correction.

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