In 95 AD or so, the apostle John wrote:
“We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” I John 5:19-21
No matter how you interpret the finer points of this passage, one thing is clear: there are only two realms in the world in which it is possible to live: the realm of God or the realm of the “evil one.” There is no third world, no middle earth.
Yet I hear people speak of “the lesser of two evils,” almost every election season. The free dictionary defines the idiom as,
“…the somewhat less unpleasant of two poor choices. This expression was already a proverb in ancient Greek and appeared in English by the late 1300s. Chaucer used it in Troilus and Cressida.”
It’s an old saying, but for Christians, it’s not an accurate saying. Of course, you’ve heard the arguments for or against Trump and Clinton based on this principle. And you’ll find plenty of articles entitled along the lines of a recent one, “Choosing the Lesser of Two Evils is Still Choosing Evil.” You’ll hear some TV political wonks debate — endlessly — who is more evil, and it seems to be a close race this time.
But look at the text again: there are only two realms, overseen by two beings — the realm of God and the realm (world) of the evil one. Of the second one, John says “the whole world” lies in his power. That’s pretty ominous: if you are not “of God” you are under the power of the evil one.
To be “of God” means you are born of God, walking in the light as He is in the light (1:7), and do not practice sin (3:9). But John is not saying that those in the realm of God are perfectly sinless individuals — if one says that he is, he’s a liar (1:8, 10). Those who are “of God” are forgiven sinners who continue to need forgiveness. And, because they never forget that they have been forgiven they are the least judgmental people on the planet. I didn’t say they don’t make judgments: Christians are also the most discerning people on the planet — they have no fellowship with “darkness” (1:6; cf. Eph. 5:11).
But those who are “from God” have an understanding of what is true and what is not (we know that Jesus is the source of truth, not the world). In our modern day vernacular, we might paraphrase this to say that our “worldview” comes from God. We can identify good and evil and our lifestyle is to practice the good while steering clear of the evil.
“The lesser of two evils” myth suggests a hierarchy of “evils.” But there is no list in the New Testament that prioritizes evil. It’s not as if there is:
- Minor league evil
- A little worse evil
- Almost really bad evil
- Really bad evil
- Even worse evil
- You better not even think about it evil
There is no list. Evil is evil is evil, even if the consequences of some acts of evil are worse than others. But you cannot make the argument that one sin is on a higher or lower scale than another, in God’s eyes.
Romans 1:29-31 puts to rest any attempt to scale sin. Paul follows his discussion about idolatry and homosexuality with terms like “covetousness,” “strife,” “gossiping” and “disobedient to parents.” If you say you are free of all of these things, then the sin of “haughtiness” may well apply to you. You can’t escape.
And that’s the point Paul is making — we are all sinners, every one of us. His list at the end of Romans 1 proves it but then he goes on to say “none is righteous, no not one” (3:10); and, famously, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (3:23).
The lesser of two evils statement is flawed for Christians because it is not possible to have evil and less evil. The category doesn’t exist in the lexicon of the Christian.
So, if this is true, what’s the impact? First, when it comes to personal decisions on how to act, I agree with Charles Spurgeon who said, “of two evils, choose neither.”
But something about applying this cliché to political elections has been bugging me. In the first place, when we apply this to elections, we are applying it to people, not our own actions. In the current election, we are making a judgment that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are evil people.
Maybe I’m wrong, but that smacks of making a final judgment on these individuals. I have said to someone’s face, “you did an evil thing when you…” But I have never said to someone’s face, “you are evil.” I leave that to God.
Sure, there seems to be plenty of evidence that both of the candidates have done evil things and, if you listen to Fox News or CNN, you’ll hear that one is more evil than the other. But is that a term Christian should use to describe anyone?
In fact, what if we changed the saying to, “the lesser of two sinners”? Doesn’t that change the narrative? Two things come to mind. First, we’re still using a flawed category: sin is sin; there are no “big” sinners and “lesser sinners.”
But second, using the “sin” category instead of “evil” should cause us to think about ourselves. That is, if they are sinners… well, so am I. So, “the lesser of two sinners” is meaningless when viewed in terms of Romans 3:10, 23.
Voting for a Sinner
Whether you agree with that or not, does voting for a “sinner” cause you to sin? The answer is “Yes,” if it offends your conscience to vote for a candidate you feel you shouldn’t vote for. But that raises some questions. Have you consistently voted only for candidates that you knew were moral people? And how do we define a “moral” person, when it comes to a political candidate?
Let’s just limit it to votes for President. I think my first vote was for Richard Nixon in 1972. Oops. In 1980, Jimmy Carter was the “moral” Southern Baptist running against Ronald Reagan, the former actor. I enthusiastically voted for Reagan even though by doing so, I helped elect the first President who had been divorced. And, for the record, if all the reports are true, his divorce and remarriage to Nancy probably would not be approved by God.
And then many of us voted for a Mormon — Mitt Romney — last time around. Yet, the doctrine of mormonism is a direct assault on sound doctrine: Jesus as the true Son of God, the Bible as the final revelation of God’s will, and a host of other false teachings “revealed” to Joseph Smith and perpetuated by young Mormon “elders” in white shirts reading from something called “The Book of Mormon.” How do we justify that, if we must justify our vote at all?
I don’t remember a huge debate about “the lesser of two evils” during Romney’s run. We liked his “morality” and his fiscal policies, I suppose, so he was OK.
I’m not trying to ruffle any feathers. I’m trying to get us to think about whether voting for a particular individual is engaging in evil. I think I am perfectly safe in saying that I have never voted, at the national level, for a Christian and probably never will. I cannot imagine a Christian — as defined and described in Scripture — ever getting onto a national ballot in this country in the first place.
If that’s true, then look at what John said again in I John 5:19-21. There are only two worlds, or realms: the realm of God and the realm of the evil one. There are not shades and grades of evil or good. There is God (good) and evil.
Most likely, I have always voted for someone who is “of the world,” not one who is “of God,” but someone under the power of the evil one. I have never voted for “the lesser of two evils” in my life because that assumes a scale of evil, which I reject.
Everyone I have ever voted for was a sinner, just like me. None, as far as I know, embraced Christ to the degree that Christ demanded of his disciples. So we have always voted for the person whom we perceive to be the “lesser of two evils,” although I think there’s a better way to say that.
I have always voted for the person who I felt at the time would make the best moral decisions and who, at least in general, shares my vision of what the country should look like when my grandchildren grow up.
In the last few years, my choice has come down, almost exclusively, to the person whom I believe would nominate judges for federal courts who will uphold the constitution, not “legislate from the bench.” And I’ve done that with a perfectly pure conscience.
And it’s important that, whatever we do, we do it conscientiously. I would never judge another for a choice he or she makes on that basis.