“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32)
In his influential book Situation Ethics, Christian ethicist Joseph Fletcher argued the unthinkable: under certain conditions it could be ethically right to deny Christ publicly. This claim is rooted in Fletcher’s ethical framework, a form of act utilitarianism. It’s utilitarian because it identifies correct ethical action with the end the action produces. And it is act (rather than rule) based because it eschews general rules as guides for discerning the right action. Instead, it yields to the irreducible particularity of individual life circumstances. And according to Fletcher, the public renunciation of one’s faith could maximize love in particular circumstances. Here is how he put it:
“one could surely pretend to have no faith in God, or in any combination of gods, if it were necessary for loving cause. We could make a formal but false apostasy under persecution for the sake of dependents or the life of an illegal underground church. […] God knows the secrets of the heart; he knows when he is denied falsely and lovingly, and he also knows when he is acclaimed falsely and unlovingly.” (Fletcher, Situation Ethics, 72)
Here’s the question: are there any circumstances where Fletcher might be correct? Are there any cases where a “false apostasy” could be the right thing?
Let’s consider a scenario. One day Rev. Kim, the pastor of a vibrant underground church in North Korea, is arrested by the police. They begin to interrogate him, suspecting that he is the leader of a church. Rev. Kim knows that if the interrogation continues much longer, the North Korean police will resort to torture in order to discover where his congregants are hiding. Rev. Kim knows that if he is tortured he might reveal the location of his congregants, and that could result in dozens of people being sent to the state’s infamous labor camps for a life of beatings and hard labor. So in a plea to protect his congregants (and spare himself torture; he is human, after all), Rev. Kim tells the police that he renounces his faith. This satisfies the authorities and they release him.
Let’s say that you stop Rev. Kim in the street just after his release from the police. “How could you do that?” you ask. “How could you renounce Christ?”
Rev. Kim replies: “I did it with my words, but not in my heart. And if that action is sufficient to damn me, then so be it. Paul himself declared that he would choose to be cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his people, the Jews [Rom. 9:3-4] If I am damned then I count myself with Paul, cutting myself off from Christ for the sake of my people. And isn’t that what Jesus himself did? Didn’t he cut himself off from the Father for the sake of his children?”
Did Rev. Kim betray Christ? If so, was he morally justified in doing so? Did he undertake an act that damned his soul? If so, was it, ironically enough, a selfless act in which he emulated Paul (and ultimately Christ) by sacrificing himself for others?
Or is he merely a coward who failed in the moment when it mattered most to be a witness for his faith?