Does the End Justify the Means? – part 1

Does the End Justify the Means? – part 1

A terrorist is heading towards your city.  He will be wearing a suicide vest.  He will detonate it in a crowded area, killing themselves and probably many innocent people around them – men, women, children, babies.

And you are in charge; yes, you!

His co-conspirator terrorist is sitting in your jail.  He knows who the terrorist is, where he is heading and how he will get there.  With this information you could stop the terrorist attack.  But the terrorist sitting in your jail won’t tell you the information you need.  You know that torturing him to get the information is wrong.  However if you choose not to torture him many innocent lives may be lost.  What should you do?  Is torture OK if it will save many lives?  Do the ends justify the means?

Every now and then we are faced with a difficult decision.  It may not be as dramatic as the above scenario.  But on a lesser level we make decisions all the time.  When we are faced with an outcome that we know is right (eg saving lives), is it OK to do whatever it takes to achieve that outcome?  Perhaps you would say No when I phrase it that way.  However the overwhelming majority of people, I believe, would say Yes.  The default ethical position of most people, played out over and over on our TV and movie screens, is the ethic of ‘the end justifies the means’.  If you know the end in sight is right, does it matter how you get there?

What does the Bible say?  The books of 1 & 2 Samuel tell the story of the rise of kingship in Israel.  Israel sinned by rejecting God as their king and asking for a human king to lead them in their battles (1 Sam 8).  Saul was chosen as their first king.  However Saul’s lack of trust in God was expressed in his disobedience, which led to his downfall (1 Sam 13-15).  David was chosen as his successor and Samuel anointed him as king, as recorded in 1 Samuel 16.

The problem however was that although God rejected Saul as king and had chosen David to replace him, Saul continued to sit on the throne.  There were effectively two kings: the true king, David, and an anti-king, Saul.  Yet Saul was still truly in the office of king.  Saul realised that David would replace him and he set out to deal with the problem by wiping David out.  There is an enormous section of our Bible: 1 Samuel 18 to 2 Samuel 5, almost 20 chapters, the size of a Gospel, which deals with David on the run from Saul before he becomes king.  Between the anointing of David and when David takes his throne there is a huge gap.  The end is clear: David will become king, for God has declared this.  But how will it take place?

1 Samuel 24-26 is a favourite part of the Bible for me.  Chapters 24 and 26 seem almost identical.  David, as he flees from Saul, receives an opportunity to kill him and become king.  In between is a seemingly unrelated story about a mean cattle baron called Nabal.  Yet these chapters are crucial to the story of how David is to become king.

In chapter 24 David and his men are hiding from Saul and his men in a cave, as Saul pursues David with murderous intent.  Saul went into the cave to relieve himself and David’s men said to David: “Here is the day of which the LORD said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you’.” (1 Sam 24:4).  God did not say that, but David was persuaded.  God had said he would become king, and now he could kill Saul and take the throne.

Does not the end justify the means?


  1. Brenda

    I think we have to be careful of these things. There are clearly times in the Bible where the Lord commanded things such as the wiping out of the wicked inhabitants in the land promised to the Israelites. There are some who take stories like these to justify unrighteous behavior. I think Davids example of trusting in God’s time for his promises to be fulfilled instead of taking it upon himself is admirable. I believe that if we do what is right and trust in God, that we can count on Him to provide the proper end.

    • Martin Pakula

      Thanks Brenda and Lyn for your comments. I agree with you Brenda, that we have to be very careful about jumping straight from the OT to today in application. We should read the OT in light of its NT fulfilment in Jesus, and that may change how we apply it today. And Lyn – I agree about revenge. It’s very hard to be sure you have pure motives. The counsel of friends is indeed important. Interested to hear your comments after reading Part 2!

  2. Lyn

    I agree with Brenda that David’s waiting for God is admirable. I would put the question of revenge into the picture here. Would it have been revenge on the part of David in this instance with Saul if he’d acted for himself? I guess sometimes God requres us to act but I wonder if we search our hearts before acting to see if there is any wicked way in us? Hmmm, these are deep issues aren’t they! I have recently had a familiar issue arise in my life which, in past similar situations, I have stood up and acted. This standing up and acting has inconvenienced me in some pretty big ways but I’ve done it. But recently when a similar thing happened again, Christian friends advised me to just let God deal with it and I did. This meant I could go on and accomplish my goals without interruption which was a welcome change! However, I am yet to see the outcome in the situation through God dealing with it instead of me!

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