Going back to our initial question, it seems apparent to me that the moral answer for any individual in the crowd at Jesus's trial is to vote to free Jesus. Our moral duty is not to base our actions upon what we perceive the outcome will be, but rather to base our actions on what God has decreed to be good. But I don't want to argue the morality of this decision here. I've already done that a little bit elsewhere, where I addressed the moral aspect of this issue. Instead, I want to explain here why choosing a lesser evil over which you have control undermines a Christian's hope.
When we think about what we're saying when we choose the LOTE, it goes something like this. "I could make a moral decision to vote to free Jesus, but my vote would have no impact in this situation. For me to have any influence on the here and now, I need to act in accord with a lesser evil and choose to free a thief rather than a murderer. This failure to support justice for the innocent and my choosing to side with a lesser evil is excusable because it minimizes the amount of evil done in the world at this moment. Were I to vote for Jesus, an innocent man would be killed AND a murderer would go free. But if I embrace a lesser evil approach, while I don't side with the innocent Jesus, I lessen the amount of evil that is realized. In order to create the best immediate future, I must fail to adhere to the most moral path at present. My choice to deny the good will then be justified because of my pragmatic motivation to mitigate or lessen evil. "
Such a position is certainly understandable. We recognize the frustration we would have of casting a vote we knew would have no impact on the situation at hand. But when we dig deeper, we come to see that no amount of sympathy for this position can justify it, and no amount of sympathy can save us from the despair it brings. The main issue with the LOTE ethic is that it says we can embrace an evil now because it produces the best temporal results, as far as we can tell. This is problematic for a number of reasons.
1. A LOTE ethic throws out the theology of God's moral decree. We assume that our assessment of situations can trump God's standards and expectations for us. This is a huge issue because it makes morality subjective to our evaluation rather than objective and based upon God's decree. On the LOTE ethic, morality loses its basis in God's moral decree and standards, and rather becomes subjective to our perceptions of effectiveness, and our assessment of how such effectiveness is brought about in a given situation.
2. A LOTE ethic undermines the theology of God's sovereignty. We do the right thing because it's the right thing, trusting that our perfect and sovereign God will accomplish his good will. When Joseph went into slavery, when Gideon whittled down his army, when Stephen preached the gospel in the midst of killers - these things happened in the face of what seemed to be ineffectiveness and defeat. But God was in control of all these things. With Joseph he was sovereign even through the evil of the brothers. With Gideon, he was sovereign over the enemy of Israel. And with Stephen, he sovereignly graced him in his death and preserved his soul as it entered God's presence. In all situations, God is sovereign. Sometimes he brings about immediate good here and now. Sometimes he brings about future good in this world. And sometimes justice and goodness are only realized in eternity. Our job is not to determine the ends and the timetable for the ends we desire. Our job as Christians is to be faithful in our obedience, trusting our sovereign God to accomplish his ends through our faithful implementation of the seemingly foolish means he has prescribed. Implementing a LOTE ethic tells God that we can't be faithful in our moral purity and obedience, as we need to guarantee the good end which we cannot trust him to accomplish.
3. A LOTE ethic undermines our defense of God's goodness through evil. I have written quite a bit about the problem of evil. I find it to be one of the issues which most sidetracks Christians, and which prevents non-Christians from believing in God. There are many theodicies we can provide to defend God from the accusation of evil. The soul building theodicy says that the allowance of evil may be necessary to build souls which will perfectly choose to remain in the presence of God for all eternity. The best possible worlds theodicy and the free will theodicy argue that God has created the best world he could possibly make with free creatures, and that though evil is present, God's creation of the best possible world where the most souls would be saved and the least amount of evil experienced will ultimately justify God's allowance of evil.
But all of these thodicies fall apart if we begin arguing for a lesser of two evils ethic. We justify the LOTE ethic by saying it is our job to bring about the greatest temporal good we can perceive - or that it is justified because we mitigate a greater temporal evil from occurring. But wouldn't such an ethic destroy our theodicies? If the temporal, physical, here and now situations are what determines the morality of our actions, then God cannot be let off the hook for all of the temporal evil throughout history. God could have stopped Joseph's brothers from selling him into slavery. God could have stopped the Holocaust. God could have always brought about good and mitigated evil in all circumstances throughout history, though doing so may not have lead to the greatest possible good, a universe where free creatures could exist, the largest number of people would know God, and the least amount of evil experienced. In every circumstance of evil, God could have used his omnipotence to bring about lesser evil at that moment. If a LOTE ethic is what justifies our actions and determines morality, then God cannot escape his immorality in his allowance of evil at any given moment.
By arguing that we must at times embrace evil to bring about the greatest good, we arrogantly proclaim that God doesn't know what he's doing by giving us his decrees. Rather than viewing God's moral decrees as blessed tools we use for worship, obedience, and life, we view them as helpful suggestions which are generally true, but which may often be ineffective. Valuing what we perceive as temporal effectiveness over what God tells us to value, we claim the attribute of omnipotence for ourselves. We act as though we know how to bring about the greatest good, while God does not. We declare that we must sometimes embrace evil - the antithesis of God - and implement our own means, as we simultaneously deny the means of God.
I would argue that it is our morality which is askew, not God's. It seems obvious to me that our job is not to determine a course of action based on perceived outcomes, but based on the known ethics and standards of God. God's ethics are not based around circumstances, subjectivity, and compromises with evil. His ethics are eternal, immutable decrees which flow forth from his very nature. It's this fact which not only undermines a LOTE ethic, but which Christians rely on to escape from conundrums like Euthyphro's dilemma. If you accept the LOTE ethic, it seems to me that you have a lot of explaining to do to get God off the hook for evil under your ethical standards, while simultaneously maintaining the God which orthodox Christianity teaches. If we embrace the LOTE ethic, we lose our hope for a benevolent God in an evil world.
4. A LOTE ethic undermines hope, and therefore our influence in the world. If God is not benevolent and if he doesn't always uphold that which is moral, Christians lose hope in this world. We lose assurance of God's promises, we lose a confidence in the wisdom of his decrees, and we lose hope in the intentions God has towards us. When we lose hope, we lose trust, and when we lose trust, our actions fail to correspond with what God has decreed. The LOTE ethic puts as at odds with God, as it goes against his decree of sanctification, holiness, and a refusal to partner with evil. It declares our ethic of efficiency as an ethic which is higher than God's ethic. When we live such an ethic out, it not only saps our souls of hope, but it makes our actions ineffective at exemplifying the gospel. It dims our lights and causes our saltiness to lose its savor. Let me provide a few examples.
A Chinese businessman converts to Christ. In his culture, it is common practice to treat customers to drunken parties, prostitutes, and other sorts of gifts, as well as being common practice to bribe officials. The Christian businessman knows these things are wrong, but he feels that keeping his lucrative business could provide a huge amount of money with which he could support the underground church. Not only that, but without his business, how would he support his family? For the greater good, he feels that he must compromise with evil to keep his business, generously uphold the underground church, and keep his family fed and housed. Surely it would be a greater evil to give up such a blessing from God.
While we can sympathize with this man's plight, and while we can recognize the great sacrifice it would be for this man to lose his business, surely we can understand that the right thing to do is not compromise with evil. We don't excuse prostitutes or thieves for doing what they believe they must do to feed their families, so why excuse a businessman? Because he wears a suit and tie instead of taking off his clothes or carrying a gun? We know that God is responsible for sustaining His church, not our financial support. In fact, were this man to be outed in the future for all of his compromises, how much could that ruin the underground church and testimony of Christ? Those who looked up to this businessman could leave the faith. Other Chinese non-Christians may see the compromises this man made and see Christians as no different than the rest of the world. This man's children would see the actions in which their father participated, seeing not Christ, but hypocrisy and depravity. They may never come to know Christ. All that this man would do to "support the church" would really just be things he did to support himself, as he refused to trust God and follow Him in holiness. We may be able to empathize with such a plight, but surely we can't condone this course of action.
We all recognize the disobedience in choosing a LOTE. We would never advocate that we hire a pastor who was an open adulterer or a pastor who didn't believe in the trinity. We would leave the position vacant for all eternity before we agreed to get behind someone who used their position for evil or to spread untruth. Yet when it comes to business, politics, or other areas of our lives, we are willing to bow to evil for what we deem to be efficiency. We think that our morality is a tithe, 10% we give only on Sundays, only at church. But such is not the case. God owns all and requires all obedience and trust. We cannot excuse a siding with evil. If we do, we betray our lack of faith in God, our belief in our own moral ethic, and our lack of hope in the character of God.
The more I think about the LOTE ethic, the more it becomes apparent to me that it cannot work in a Christian worldview. Not only does it compromise us morally as we embrace evil, but it causes us to lose ground in our theology and our hope. Sure, it may be disheartening to think that our obedience to God may often make us ineffective at times. But this ineffectiveness is only seeming ineffectiveness, for a sovereign God has all things in his control. It is only a sovereign God who can assure us that he will bring about our good, despite all evil, as Romans 8 declares. This is a far more hopeful declaration than the declaration of those who say it is up to us, finite and fallible beings, to determine what will lead to the greatest good, and decide our morality according to such limited assessments. The ends are in God's hands, and so must be the means. Be holy as he is holy. Stay the course.
** If you want to explore another specific example of how embracing moral compromises undermines the reliability of God, check out "If Lying to Save Lives is Moral, We Can't Have Confidence in the Bible."