The lesser of two evils is a saying that expresses a comparison of two bad or undesirable choices. Neither option is good, but the lesser of two evils seems to be the better choice because it is the less detrimental of the two. Corresponding sayings are necessary evil and for the greater good.
Rarely, when someone uses the statement lesser of two evils, is he speaking about true moral evil. In most cases, the choice involves less-than-sinful options. The issue may be the poor choice of candidates in an election or the least fatty meal at a fast-food restaurant.
The term evil has two applications in Scripture. Most commonly, it implies moral wickedness or sin (Matthew 12:35; Judges 3:12; Proverbs 8:13; 3 John 1:11). Moral evil refers to sinful transgressions that are contrary to God’s good purposes, His holy character, and His law. The Bible also uses the word evil to conceptualize harmful or destructive natural events. Theologians characterize this as physical or natural evil. In the English language, the term evil has wide-ranging applications. Circumstances that trigger harm, injury, or suffering are considered evil. A person who causes hurt can be called evil or an evildoer. An ugly or sinister look is called an “evil eye.”
Taken literally as “moral evil,” the saying lesser of two evils is not biblically sound. Seldom are we faced with a choice between two literal “evils” that are sin. When we are, it’s never suitable for a Christian to choose evil, even if it seems to be a better choice than the alternative (1 Thessalonians 5:22). No matter what decision we face, God is faithful to offer a resolution that does not require us to choose moral evil (1 Corinthians 10:13).
As Christians, we are always to choose what is right in the eyes of God, even if that choice negatively impacts our lives. In Acts 4:13–22, the Jewish High Council issued a legal ban, ordering Peter and John never to speak or teach the gospel again. They faced a difficult choice to either disobey their Lord’s command or disobey the Sanhedrin—and to disobey the latter might cost them their lives. The apostles could have sworn to obey the Sanhedrin but gone out again to preach and teach anyway. They may have reasoned that, between lying and dying, telling a lie was the lesser of two evils. Instead, the apostles chose to disregard their own safety and answered the Sanhedrin truthfully, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard” (verses 19–20, NLT). Daniel was another who, when faced with the difficult choice of obeying his God rather than obeying his earthly king, chose what was right in God’s eyes, fully aware it would get him thrown in the lions’ den (Daniel 6:1–28).
Challenging issues require much prayer and discernment from the Lord. Believers must acknowledge that morality does not equate to legalistic rule-following but to an active relationship with God, seeking and responding to His will in every moment of life (Romans 14:23; Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28; 15:3–9). Rather than be guided by the principle of the lesser of two evils, Christians can seek diligently to know the right thing to do and then do it, or else know they are committing a sin (James 4:17).
If, in the end, we do choose one true moral evil over another, we are not excused from the violation. If we break God’s law by lying, we are guilty of sin (Leviticus 19:11; Proverbs 12:22). Some Old Testament laws had exceptions, like keeping the Sabbath (Matthew 12:11; Exodus 22:2). Essential or merciful works were sometimes allowed on the Sabbath. But lying and many other moral evils have no scriptural exceptions.
Suppose we are convinced we must commit the lesser of two evils because the only alternative is to carry out an even greater evil. In that case, we must admit we have broken God’s law and acknowledge our sin before Him. Thankfully, our Lord is merciful, compassionate, and loving. He understands our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). We can seek His forgiveness through repentance and confession and receive God’s extraordinary grace—which is greater than all our sins (Romans 6:14, 23; Hebrews 4:16).