The trolley problem is a common illustration used in the study of ethics and morality. I did a search on the “Christian” answer to the problem, because, of course, that would undoubtedly be the “correct” answer, and the moral dilemma it posed would be solved (if only life were that easy). I was left unsatisfied in my search for the same reason that I failed to write this blog post years ago.
I had wanted to write a post simplifying complicated questions, and present it in box, neatly tied with a bow. After all, I believe in a moral code backed by the absolute authority of God. I didn’t, and still don’t, believe in “grey” areas. Something is either morally acceptable, or unacceptable. It couldn’t be both.
I’ve since come to realize how impossible it is to simplify the countless individual situations that come up to an individual answer. The moral code may be absolute, but the situations to which they apply are vastly different because each person is different than the next with their own understanding of how to best do good (eg. James 4:17).
For instance, years ago I heard a discussion on the ethics of providing safe tools for drug addicts to continue in their addiction. Both sides wanted to help addicts. One side said that providing safe tools ensured that the drug addicts were protected from many of the health risks they were exposed to in their addiction. The other side insisted that providing these tools enabled the drug addicts to continue. On that information alone, I am not able to make a moral judgement on which side was right. Both sides are discussing how to best help the drug addicts. Both sides recognize the importance of the protection of human life.
What’s the point of speaking up at all, if I don’t know the right answer? It’s because I believe that a right answer can be reached with each situation, and how we reach that answer is important. But before I get into that, I want to first review the trolley problem.
The Trolley Problem
For those who don’t know the trolley problem, I’ll give you the simplified version.
Suppose there is a trolley on a crash collision course with a group of five people who are stuck on its track and unable to move out of its way. The collision would undoubtedly kill the five people. The only way to save these people is to hit a switch, which would cause the trolley to go down a different track, where a single person is stuck and would be killed in the process. The question is, should you involve yourself and flip the switch?
There’s a second part to the question. Suppose you are on a bridge over the track that the trolley is on, and there is no switch to send the trolley away from its path towards the five people. However, next to you on the bridge is a fat person, and you know for a fact that if you push the fat person onto the track, that would kill the fat person but be sufficient to stop the trolley. Should you push the fat person onto the track to save more lives?
It may come as little surprise to you that the majority of people presented with this question said that they would flip the switch in response to the first question, but the vast minority of people said that they would push the fat person in the path of the trolley in the second question.
(If you want to save time you may want to at this point scroll ahead to the section of my blog with the heading “My Answer to the Trolley Problem”)
So what’s the “right” answer?
I posed that question to one of my friends, and she gave me an unsatisfactory response. She refused to answer, saying that she didn’t like being restrained to a mere two options when in real life there would probably be more. As much it failed to give me a hypothetical answer to my question, her response on a practical level was completely correct. The majority of the time when a person is faced with a difficult moral question, there are so many more factors and responses involved than what the trolley problem poses.
As I tried to tackle any complex moral conundrum my mind could conceive of, it was easy for me to set aside a primal fact, a truth that we would all do remember: we will never be put in a situation where we will be forced to do the wrong thing (the definition of “wrong” being “sinning against God,” which is objectively the worst offense we can do in any situation).
1 Corinthians 10:13 - No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
This promise is repeated.
2 Peter 1:3 - His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life
I know, that’s easier said than done. It’s one thing to recognize that God will to provide the answer. It’s another thing completely to do what is necessary to discern what that answer is. It can be incredibly hard to know what the right thing to do is. For that reason, I absolutely love Proverbs 3:6…
“in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
I want you to take the flipside of that verse into account. That being, “if you ignore God and what he desires for you to do, when the time comes to make decisions, it will not be very clear to you which direction to go.
Romans 12:1-2 - Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
To me, the greatest difficulty often doesn’t come with knowing what the right choice would be, but with being willing to accept the answer once it’s reached. Often the answer of the right thing to do is so contrary to what is needed for self preservation; the correct moral option doesn’t seem true because it seems the path of most resistance.
I have gone over how a Christian should go about navigating “grey” areas, and I have done so by using the Bible as support. That is because the Bible, as God’s word, holds absolute authority regarding moral issues. That means that the more a moral issue is addressed in the Bible, the less “complex” it should be to us. We shouldn’t lean on our own conscious and convictions and discernment when the answer has already been plainly laid out to us in the Bible.
I understand that it’s a common thing for a particular passage of the Bible to be taken completely out of the context that it was given, and so we need to recognize that although the Bible has authority, our interpretation of the Bible does not have the same authority. That means that we should be willing to acknowledge the limitations of the convictions we have. However, there are enough points in the Bible that make the character of God and what he wants clear to us that are portrayed in unambiguous ways that we can use the Bible as a functional reference and not as merely a loose guideline.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 - All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
The reason that the trolley problem is such a great illustration to explore is because it has the human life at its epicenter. Most people recognize the value of human life without being told. The Bible gives reasons why the human life has inherent value. The reason why I couldn’t get a satisfactory answer for the trolley problem wasn’t because the trolley problem was asking “is the human life valuable,” but rather, “what lengths would you go to preserve human life?” It’s much closer to asking “what constitutes as murder,” than “is it wrong to kill?” I will not give a comprehensive answer to the ethics of murder, but I do want to scratch the surface and go over the things that I can say with confidence.
I could spend a great time exploring arguments and counter arguments, but instead I’ll see if I can cut to the chase and let the scripture speak to us. As a Christian, what exactly are the rules surrounding us that we need to follow?
After reading that question, we learn that asking what the rules are is asking the wrong question.
Romans 7:6 - But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
I have known for a long time that much of the laws in the Old Testament were civil laws given to the ancient civilization of Israel, and aren’t laws that God wants us to follow today (Colossians 2:16-17). However, I still held that the ten commandments were absolute rules that I needed to follow or else I would be sinning against God. For reasons that I could back up with Scripture (and will go over in the next section), I made myself a clause in the statement that Romans 7:6 made about us not being bound by the law any longer. However, I was missing the point.
Matthew 22:35-40 - One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The point of explaining the spirit of the law wasn’t so that we would have additional laws to follow, so that we could become like Pharisees and merely check the boxes of completed tasks. Jesus gives light to the absurdity of trying to achieve righteousness by following rules when He gives all sorts of additional “rules” to live righteously in Matthew 5, then finishes with “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
So if it’s not about following a bunch of rules, what is it about? How in the world can we hope to achieve “perfection” if we don’t live driven by following the rules?
Romans 8:1-4 - Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Okay, so we are supposed to live according to the Spirit. That does show us that how futile our attempts to follow the law to the letter on our own accord is. But how does living by the Spirit different than living by a set of laws?
The difference is not necessarily what we do differently, but why we do what we do. Living by the Spirit recognizes that we are in a relationship with God. Living a righteous life is no longer strictly about what we do, but about who we are.
Romans 8:14-16 - For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
An illustration from my work place may help shed some light on the situation. At work the boss wants us to work efficiently. That’s the goal. We often measure the rate at which we get a specific job done. It can be tempting to make working quickly the goal, but the speed we work at is only a guideline put in place to help us reach the goal.
I often supervise others at my job. When I’m a supervisor, I carry my bosses’ authority. I need to follow their rules, but there are often situations that their rules don’t directly address. I know from spending time with my bosses and from seeing the rules that are in place what the correct way to approach new situations are; I get an idea from time spent in service how my boss would have me handle everything. The more experience at my job I gain, the more I find myself not responding to the rules, but to the goal of pleasing the boss. The rules haven’t gone anywhere, I still follow them. But I’m not overwhelmed by them. I learn why the rules are in place not so that I can merely obey the rules, but so that I can adopt an attitude that correctly propagates the desired effect of the rules.
As I build a relationship with my employers, I learn of the way that they would have be behave. The same is true in the Christian walk. The more we walk with Christ, the better we will learn how to approach situations the way that He would want us to.
Dealing with False Conclusions
Before we get back to the trolley problem, I want to deal with a conclusion that we would be tempted to draw from what I went over thus far. We cannot take our freedom in Christ and our understanding of the reasons he put the law in place and use those as an excuse to disregard the laws themselves. Here’s what Jesus Himself has to say about disregarding the matter…
Matthew 5:17-18 - “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.
Reading that, and further scriptures, we can see how the fulfillment of the law by Jesus changes the dynamic by which they apply to us.
Hebrews shows us that Jesus came into the world as the perfect sacrifice and as the perfect priest, fulfilling the laws regarding sacrifices and priestly duties. We no longer have to approach God through merely human priests because we can approach God through Jesus, who is fully man and fully God and the perfect priest. We no longer need to rely on the blood of sacrifices to cleans our sins because the blood of Christ covers all our sins.
The laws given to Israel as a nation set apart as God’s chosen people have been fulfilled because through Christ’s work, those who follow Jesus are now his chosen people (1 Peter 2:9; Ephesians 22:11-22). We are unified not as a physical nation but as a spiritual one. (That is also why the skeptic’s argument that the Bible commands Christians to put sinners to death according to the Old Testament rules is not a valid one)
The reason we cannot treat the ten commandments in the same way as the other laws that Jesus has fulfilled is because they are so basic and primary that disregarding any of them would go against not only the law itself, but also the spirit of the law, which is to love God first and to love others as yourself (as previously shown).
I believe that is the reason that even though Paul and the other Apostles say we do not need to follow certain Old Testament rules (like circumcision, eating certain foods, etc. eg. 1 Corinthians 7:19; Romans 14:20), not once do they say that we are exempt from following the ten commandments.
We also see distinctions between the commandments and laws by the very fact that they are given different words and are used in a way to show that they are two different things.
Romans 7:12 - So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good.
When Paul was showing us the importance of having the law to show us what sin was, he used the commandments as an example.
Romans 7:7 - What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”
James, too, tells that disobeying the commandments is breaking the law.
James 2:11 - For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
All of that was a very long way of saying “yes, the commandments have authority and we still need to follow the do not murder rule.” I needed to go through it, however, to know exactly why that was, not just because I was going with an arbitrary gut feeling brought on by being conditioned to think a certain way. The conclusion I came to about the new dynamic the Sabbath commandment has (see my article About the Sabbath) with the freedom that Jesus bought us also made me wonder if there was a new dynamic to any other commandments.
Not for the Greater Good
This is related to the previous section. Once we understand what God wants, we also become tempted to do things “for the greater good.” In regards to the trolley problem, a person may say “murder is fine if it is done out of the love for the people on the track.”
I am not trying to simplify the trolley problem with this statement, but we cannot let ourselves say “it’s okay to sin a little in order that we may show love to even more people.” We cannot say “it’s okay to murder if by doing so we are saving lives.”
A common exploration of the question of the moral acceptability for the greater good comes when we discuss how in cases in history, people lied to the enemy to save lives.
Before I go any further, I want to remind you I do not claim to have the answer to the hard questions we are now discussing. That is why it took me this long to get to this point. I needed to first show that we need to rely on the Spirit for guidance.
I want you to consider this next verse.
Ephesians 6:12 - For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
The end goal isn’t a physical one. The end goal isn’t to have as much people stay alive for as long as possible. In fact, the more I read the Bible, the more I get the sense that there is a good chance following Jesus will lead us through more physical hardship than if we didn’t follow Him.
Romans 8:36 - As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
I am very against “the end justifies the means.” There are two primary reasons for that:
- We do not
have control over what happens next.
Yes, it is true that we can make educated and very accurate predictions
of any given action given what we have figured out about the way the universe
works. But we don’t know the future as a
fact, we can only know it is a likelihood.
What we do have control over is whether we remain in obedience to God.
God has already shown that He has control over the end. Perhaps in our lifetime we’ll never see the full reason why He allowed an end to come through a particular means, but we need to trust that He knows best.
I also want to mention that when we disagree with God about the means to the end, there is a good chance we are forgetting what the “end” is. It isn’t to bring ourselves glory or to glory, but to bring glory to God.
- Let’s take “the end justifies the means” to its natural conclusion. If that were a valid argument, then a person could commit all sorts of evil so long as they were convinced in their own mind that they were doing it for the greater good.
My Answer to the Trolley Problem
I do not claim that this is the “be all and end all” true Christian answer. I do believe, however, that I cannot come too much closer to an answer that I would be able to state with confidence.
I recognize the degree of separation of realizing an answer in theory and carrying through a certain conviction on a practical level. If I were approached by people wanting me to lie to protect them from their evil pursuers, I know that regardless of how I respond, it won’t be as simple as me consulting a pre-calculated conclusion.
In order to answer the question of the trolley problem, I would have to rely on the Spirit’s guidance, and carry through what I believe it shows me to be the right answer. When the situation comes, if I see myself as “sinning by murder in order to save even more people,” I do not think I should carry through with it. However, there is a chance that when the situation comes to be, the thought that I would be murdering someone for a greater good may not even come to mind; there is a good chance that I would merely have “protecting people in danger” on the forefront of my mind, enabling me to do what I needed to in order to protect them.
There’s still a considerable number of things I could say that could add to this topic. However, I believe that I went over enough that anyone who has made it through this post in its entirety besides me (bravo, by the way, if you’re real) has been shown the tools that we have to approach a great deal of tough, moral decisions.
In summary, I would like to say a few things.
- Draw closer to Christ. The closer you get to Him, the greater insight you will have in approaching difficult decisions.
- Don’t just do better, but be better. Follow Jesus and become part of the family of God.
- The way you come closer to God is by talking to Him and listening to His words. All of them. That includes the laws that we may not necessarily need to follow because their purpose has been fulfilled, as they still give us insight to the character of God and the things about our behaviour that have significance (Remember Matthew 5:17-18).
We are approaching the question the wrong way when we see how close to the line we can come before we are technically doing anything wrong.
The right way to approach the question is "how can I best represent God's glory and his desire for us, His creation?"