Deny Christ to save others’ lives?

Q. What does the Bible say? I’m told by my captors that if I don’t deny Christ, five Christians will be put to death. What will happen to my relationship with Jesus if I deny Him under those circumstances?

The first thing the Bible would say to you in this situation is that you shouldn’t trust or believe your captors when they say that they will spare these five other Christians (presumably your fellow hostages) if you deny Christ. Your captors are clearly opposed to Jesus and his message, and that means that they do not have a commitment to the truth or to keeping their word. (Jesus says, for example, in the gospel of John that those who oppose him “do not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in them.”) History and experience certainly confirm that oppressors who make promises to those under their power in order to get them to do things don’t keep those promises.

So the Bible would warn you, first of all, that if you deny Christ under these circumstances, it’s quite likely that you would be denying him for nothing. You wouldn’t be saving anybody’s life. Your captors are opposed to Christ and his followers, and there’s nothing to keep them from executing your fellow hostages anyway, after getting the propaganda triumph of your denial. They have no incentive to do otherwise.

On the other hand, if you don’t deny Christ, your captors have no incentive to execute your fellow hostages because of this. Their goal is clearly not just to capture and kill the six of you, but also to try to discredit Jesus by showing that his followers are not loyal. Once you show that you are loyal, their goal cannot be furthered by killing your fellow hostages—unless they were planning to do so anyway—because this would just show what an incredibly high price you put on loyalty to Jesus. It would defeat their purposes. They are more likely to try to come up with some other incentive, threat, or promise that might get you to deny Christ.

And even if the other hostages are executed, you haven’t killed them; your captors have. They can’t transfer their moral responsibility for that onto you.

This apparent ethical dilemma is much like the “situational ethics” problems that were suggested a while back. In one of them, a serial killer rings your doorbell and asks if your son is at home. He is; do you tell the truth? (In more general terms, is it justified to do a small wrong for the sake of a great right, such as saving a life?) One fallacy of these dilemmas is that they assume things that would never happen. Serial killers don’t ring the doorbell. A second fallacy is that you only have two options: in this case, to answer the question directly by either lying or telling the truth. You have more options than that. If this really happened, I’d recommend telling the killer, “Stay right there,” locking the door, and calling 911.

However, even though it’s entirely unrealistic, let’s assume that you really could save the lives of those other five hostages by denying Christ. Let’s also assume that by denying Christ, for all you know, you would lose your soul—for the sake of this exercise, you can’t count on being forgiven if you repent afterwards. So the question really is, “Would you be willing to risk losing your soul to save another person’s life?”

Suppose you did. Suppose you went ahead and denied Christ, even at that risk, in order to save the lives of your fellow hostages. Then you really wouldn’t be denying Christ. You’d be imitating him. Only Christ-like sacrificial love would lead a person to do something like that. Jesus himself went to the cross and, at least as many understand it, was separated from fellowship with God so that he could bear the sins of the world. You might be speaking a denial outwardly, but with your action of self-sacrifice you would be expressing ultimate loyalty to the way that Christ taught.

Still, your denial would bring dishonor to Christ on earth. And you would be doing wrong by saying one thing when you really believed and were practicing something else. And if your course really hadn’t been the wisest one, that would be disappointing to Christ as well. So what would happen to your relationship with him?

What does the Bible say? It tells us that Jesus forgave a disciple, Peter, who denied him not to save others but to save himself, after boasting that he would never deny Jesus even if he had to die with him. Certainly if Jesus forgave and restored Peter under those circumstances, he would forgive someone who denied him thinking, even if mistakenly, that this was justified to save others’ lives. Even if you couldn’t claim forgiveness, I believe that Jesus would offer it freely.

Still, I think the best outcome would be not to trust the false promises of your captors, to remain faithful to Christ, and to recognize that this would probably lead them not to kill your fellow hostages but to try to think of some other way to get you to deny Christ. The Bible says, “Do not be immature in your understanding. With respect to wickedness be innocent, but in your understanding be mature.” I think the wisest and most mature course in this case would be not to take the captors’ promise at face value, but to discern the motives and intentions behind it and respond accordingly.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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