How Jesus Solves the Trolley Problem

There’s a famous thought experiment called the Trolley Problem that goes like this: imagine you […]

Bryan J. / 9.25.19

There’s a famous thought experiment called the Trolley Problem that goes like this: imagine you are standing by a trolley track, and an out-of-control trolley car whizzes by. Looking ahead, you see that five people have been tied to the track by an evil moustache-twirling villain, and they will die if the trolley continues on its current path. But you also see there’s a switch, and you just so happen to be standing by it, and you have the power to shift the trajectory of this dangerous trolley car onto a second track. The catch is that our mustache-twirling villain has tied one single person to this second track, and so if you throw the switch to save the five people, this one person will die. Do you throw the switch?

It’s a philosophical problem posed by the ethics school of utilitarianism, which supposes that ethical good is found when we accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number of people. It turns out, in many experiments, that 90% of the people would indeed throw the switch in this situation — not that it is a common one, of course. But the experiment forces us to ask how we value people, and how we value life.

Jesus Christ experienced his own trolley problem. In Luke 8, Jesus is asked by a prominent synagogue leader to come heal his sick twelve-year-old daughter. This man is well-regarded within the community. He gives to the synagogue of his time, his wealth, and his energy — he’s on the synagogue’s vestry or session or leadership council. But on Jesus’ way to heal this man’s daughter, a woman with her own illness steps out of the crowd. This woman’s illness was severe. For twelve years, she experienced menstrual bleeding, a condition that made her unclean by Jewish purity law. She wasn’t allowed in the community, she wasn’t allowed in the synagogue, she wasn’t allowed to be touched, for twelve years. She elbowed her way through the crowd with the idea that if she just touched the fringe of Jesus’s robe, she would be healed.

It’s no coincidence that Luke pairs a twelve-year-old girl’s illness with a woman whose menstrual bleeding continued across twelve years. Luke wants us to consider who we think is most important in this reading: the daughter of a prominent community member or an unclean outcast. If you could only heal one, which would you heal?

When the unclean woman touches Jesus’s robe, he stops the crowd and singles her out. She had hoped to keep her healing quiet, but Jesus has her tell the crowd her story. As she is explaining her healing to the crowd, messengers arrive with bad news: the woman with twelve years of bleeding may have been healed, but the ill daughter has died. If we stop reading here, we might think Jesus chose one person over the other, that Jesus Christ threw the trolley switch and diverted his saving grace.

The story, however, isn’t finished. Jesus tells the distraught father to keep the faith, travels to see the deceased daughter’s body, and raises her from the dead with his words: “Daughter, I say to you, arise.”

Jesus, you see, doesn’t care for the trolley problem, or at least, he isn’t constrained by the choices of the thought experiment. The ethicists say, “Who would you heal?” and Jesus says, “Both.” The ethicists say, “Okay, right, but if you could only save one, who would you save?” and Jesus says, “Both.” And what we discover is that there’s a third answer to our trolley problem that the ethicists hadn’t considered.

Perhaps, instead of throwing the switch, diverting the trolley from one track to the other, you could throw yourself in front of the trolley’s path. It would be the most painful experience of your life and you would die, of course. Your skin would be ground off of you and gum up the machinations of the trolley car, your bones would snap and jam into the wheels. But why consider saving five people or one person when you could save all six by laying your own life on the line?

This is Jesus’s solution to the trolley problem. By throwing himself in the way of judgment, he doesn’t have to decide who to save or who not to save. He does not need to weigh the pros and cons of who is better or worse, he doesn’t have to have a deep philosophical conversation about utilitarianism or deontological ethics. He saves people apart from their moral philosophy or ethical successes.

So, whether you’re a synagogue leader or an unclean outcast, know that God’s love for you is real and unlimited, and it looks a lot like a man throwing himself in front of a trolley. Take heart that the trolley problem is no problem, for Jesus Christ.

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4 responses to “How Jesus Solves the Trolley Problem”

  1. CJ says:

    i love this

  2. Ethan Richardson says:

    Yup, this is totally amazing. Thanks, Bryan.

  3. Adrian Jude C. Dela Cruz says:

    One of the best analogies I have ever encountered, to explain why Jesus had to do what He choose to do. This puts Him on the perspective of divinity while laying down His life for everyone.

  4. But it is a problem for a human. Assume throwing yourself on the track the trolley would just run over you and continue on to the five victims. You have died for no benefit.

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