This cliche is usually quoted in the context of "the ends don't justify the means", but in practice most folks seem to live as if the ends did justify the means even if the means involved sin. However sometimes people cannot see clearly what is sin and what isn't. An example might be with-holding information from a loved one so as not to upset them.

While on clear situation of sin they might come down one way, given a predicament where the right choice isn't clear to a person, they often turn this cliche the other way around and tell themselves that the ends do justify the means.

Is there any Biblical content that speaks to this cliche one way or another. Is there a good "retort cliche" that one could use as a reminder of the proper way to make a moral or ethical decision in light of Christian teachings?

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    Good retort? How about "do unto others as you would have them do unto you"?
    – user32
    Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 4:00
  • @SoftwareMonkey: hence my other question about The Golden Rule.
    – Caleb
    Commented Aug 30, 2011 at 7:26
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    I think there's a danger in an overly broad/vague treatment of this question; it is a bit subjective, and frankly it depends a bit on which ends and which means. Reducing it to a simple "yes/no" leaves a lot of dangerous ground for over-application. Commented Feb 15, 2012 at 12:28
  • Both the means and the end should be in accordance with the morality of the Bible. If you are wondering what the Christian view would be.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Jun 6, 2013 at 17:45

5 Answers 5


The idea that "the ends justify the means" admits that there is something inherently wrong with "the means". Indeed, it admits that "the means" are actually unjustified by themselves. The claim, then, is that although "the means" are unjustifiable in themselves, that a particular outcome that is achieved by them results in the justification of the unjustified.

Christianity certainly does not have any basis for this idea, and it doesn't need any. I know of a particular religion that believes it's alright for its followers to lie in a conversation with someone of another religion if lying helps them win the argument. Christianity, however, does not need to do this, because Christianity believes that truth is on its side. That's a key point, because Truth invites questioning, whereas lies and falsehoods do not.

God calls us to do what is righteous and then trust Him for the results.

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    (re Ron's comment) I agree the phrasing is inappropriate, however - "you can't disprove it" is not a good way to discuss evidence. Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 16:24
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    @Namian actually, no: to say "He doesn't exist" is the default position, the nul-hypothesis. Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 16:30
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    Extended discussion should be taken to chat. Also lets try to keep this civil.
    – wax eagle
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 17:33
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    @Narnian: Atheism is not the claim that there are no gods. It is only the dismissal of the claim that there are gods. The default position is a question about what we should assume in the absence of evidence. Your claim that there is an "overwhelming" amount of evidence is irrelevant for that question. Also, the claim that there are no gods (which as I pointed out goes beyond the atheist position) is falsifiable, just like the no-unicorns claim is falsifiable (I could falsify it by showing you one). So my question remains: What makes them different with respect to the default position?
    – hammar
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 18:10
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    @Ron if there is an issue with some deleted posts, please take it to meta. As it happens I'm familiar with one of them (the Abraham one), and I share your view that it was on-topic, within the site's definition (drawing on scriptural sources etc), and of very reasonable quality. Getting angry in the comments isn't constructive. Commented Feb 18, 2012 at 11:52

Let's take the extreme example of Germans hiding Jews in their houses during WW2. (inspired by this question) When asked if they are hiding Jews, what do they say? Do they lie to protect them, or do they tell the truth knowing they'll be sent to a concentration camp? I can think of 3 possibilities:

  1. Choose the outcome that is the most loving. I certainly wouldn't want to be handed over to the Nazi's.

    Do to others as you would have them do to you.

    Matthew 7:12 (NIV)

  2. You can justify lying in the same way as you justify resisting an evil government. See this question. Lying would be ok in the same way that hiding the Jews in the first place would be ok.

    Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, "... be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up."

    Daniel 3:16-18 (NRSV)

  3. Faith. Realize that it is actually not you, but God, who is in control, and he won't punish you for obeying him. Do what he commanded and trust that he will work it out. In our example, you could refuse to answer the Nazi's question even though that causes suspicion.

    A controversial Biblical example of this would be Lot refusing to break the hospitality he had offered to two strangers, and instead putting his own daughters at risk. God protects them.

    "Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof."

    Genesis 19:8 (NRSV)

Which option you choose in the extreme case should also guide your decisions in the everyday moral conundrums. I personally believe that the third option is the highest, but also by far the most difficult in practice, because it requires us to give up control.

  • So do you see "the thing most loving" as potentially at odds with acting in faith?
    – Caleb
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 at 1:30
  • @Caleb, sometimes "the thing most loving" is to put the situation into the hands of God, giving up our control over it. This can sometimes be extremely difficult, as we all love being in control. I'm going to update the end of my answer a little to reflect this.
    – Matt White
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 5:58
  • I was about to add the "hiding Jews" example before I read your response - good answer! Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 10:14
  • In Joshua, when Rahab was asked by the guards if she had seen the Hebrew spies, she told them a lie, still Rahab isn't condemned for this and this act is not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible (AFAIK). At the contrary, Rahab is mentioned as a person of fath in Hebrews 11:31 and good works in James 2:25. While the second verse mentions that she took them in, it doesn't mention her lie.
    – Shathur
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 13:11
  • Also, Jeremiah 38:24-28, the king tells him to not tell the officials of their conversations and that if they ask him, he should tell a lie about the intent. Jeremiah did just so, and as far as I know there's no condemnation for this.
    – Shathur
    Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 13:17

The old testament has a story relating to this question. Exodus 1:15-21 ( in my translation, available on Wikisource,

And the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwifes, one of whose names is Shiphrah, and the second Poo'ah. And he said, "When you deliver for the Hebrews, and you saw upon the paired rocks, if it is a son, and you killed him, and if it is a daughter, she lives." And the midwives feared God, and did not do that which the king of Egypt commanded, and they let live the boys born.

And the king of Egypt called the midwives, and told them "Why did you do this thing, and let the boys born live?" And the midwives told Pharaoh that the Hebrews are not like the Egyptian women, that they are animals, not even does the midwife arrive, and they have delivered. And God made good for the midwives, and multiplied the nation, and they became very mighty. And it was because the midwives feared God that he made households for them.

Here, the midwives say that the Hebrew women are like animals, not needing a midwife. This is an obvious lie, and it is a useful lie, because it allows the midwives to save the boy babies. God rewards the midwives financially for this.

In traditional translations, the midwives statement is translated to "the Hebrew women are very lively, they deliver before the midwife arrives". This mistranslates the word "Chayoth", which means "animal" by substituting a different meaning, which is a feminine adjective meaning lively, which is both a painfully stretched interpretation and completely spoils the beautiful and jarring sentiment. This sentence reveals a lot about Pharaoh's Egyptian supremacy ideas--- he is willing to believe any demeaning fact about the Hebrews. This is a biblical parallel to the Nazi-hiding example used in Matt White's answer.

The midwives lie for the purpose of a greater good. Exodus does not ask people to be stupid, and if they have to lie to the authorities, this can sometimes be a good thing. Established religion is authoritarian, so it is not a good interpreter of the holy texts, which are written by inspired authors. This passage is both mistranslated and ignored by Christians and Jews alike.

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    +1 That's a fabulous example and really insightful commentary on it to. The last two sentences don't really do much for your case, and seem to be unwarranted by everything else, but its a really interesting answer. Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 16:50
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    Ignoring some of the rhetoric, I largely agree with this answer. +1. I think the Exodus 1 story is an example of picking the lesser of two evils. One of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was confronted with this type of choice over and over in his life. He had to give up some of his ideals (such as pacifism) in order to serve a greater purpose (he was involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler). I think it's important that we struggle anytime we contemplate doing something wrong and be sure there is no other solution, however. Commented Feb 19, 2012 at 9:11

No, it is not compatible with Christianity. Consider this verse:

Heb 8:5 Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount.

If we do not do things according to the word, it isn't right no matter how much perceived good may come. We must do everything "according to the pattern" God has revealed in His word. Dr. Bob Jones Sr. used to say, "It's never right to do wrong." That's a cliche we as Christian ought to have.

Consider those "Christians" out there who use the "ends justify the means" logic in evangelism. Instead of using the law to show them their need of Christ, they simply ask through the screen door, "Do you want to go to Heaven? Ok, say this prayer... you're in." For many, many folks, a decision can justify any method, no matter how ungodly it might be.

Results should never be a basis for judgement when it comes to our faith.

  • That's a particularly terrible KJVism there. Can we replace it with something that makes sense in the 21st century? Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 15:53

The ends justify the means is a succinct statement of utilitarian ethics. Now, a utilitarian ethic can yield good and holy outcomes. But it can also yield strikingly evil outcomes.

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.(NRSV, John 15)

Is a similarly succinct statement of agape ethics. This kind of ethical approach recasts the means ("laying down one's life") and the ends ("for one's friends") in a way that makes even death a life-giving act.

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