The fact of evil in the world may comprise the greatest proof of God’s existence; we recognize people doing wrong and we’re moved by moral instinct to condemn and resist evil behavior. Yet without God there can be no such thing as evil.
Recognizing and responding to evil is fundamental to our both spiritual nature and our entire legal code, so we must be very careful when Christ says, “Resist not evil.” (Mt 5:39a) Taking this out of context sets us up for failure.
This is not about someone taking out their frustrations on us, or persecuting us for our faith, or even about random acts of violence, but a civil context where we’re found guilty of harming another and justice requires similar harm be imposed on us, the offender. (De 19:18-21) In such cases, mere justice is insufficient for the follower of Christ: we must go beyond the letter of the law in making things right. (Php 2:15)
This is most clearly seen in Christ’s second example, in the immediate context of how we’re to voluntarily offer to suffer more than we already have: we’ve been sued in court and found guilty, and the penalty is that our coat is being taken from us and awarded to the plaintiff. (40) When our community has found us guilty (implying we resisted resolving the offense out of court (Mt 5:25), and the offended party had to take us to court to find justice), it’s certainly appropriate for children of light (Ep 5:8-10) to go above and beyond what the law requires and voluntarily offer more if our adversary wants it. (1Co 6:7b) In other words, we’re to go out of our way to make things right once we’re shown by due process to be in the wrong. (Mt 5:16)
Christ’s third example is similar; one is compelling us to carry their burden a mile. (41) In other words, we have a moral obligation to comply with their request, as when Roman soldiers conscripted subjects into short-term manual labor to assist with military duties. (Mt 27:32) When one with such authority lawfully engages us to do something most people would resent, we show our integrity by willingly and cheerfully going well beyond what is required.
There’s a sense of resolving injustice even in Christ’s first example: someone strikes us on our right cheek. (39b) This would typically be done with the left hand, and would therefore be a formal insult. Presuming it is deserved, and lawfully dealt, Christ is telling us to submit to more harm than required to ensure any and all wrong on our part is fully resolved.
We see then by repeated examples in the immediate context that Christ is not teaching us to be passive in the face of wanton malevolence, but to voluntarily accept additional suffering (evil) as needed to fully resolve our offenses and fulfill our civic duties. He is calling us to live above reproach. (Tit 2:8)
It’s important then to consider how others might abuse this concept and teach us that it’s inappropriate to resist evil people, to defend ourselves and others, that we’re never to confront and challenge those who would wrongfully and maliciously harm us.
Yet Christ Himself does not do this, passively stand by as others harm Him contrary to the Law; He does not turn the other check when He is slapped; He publicly resists such abuse by pointing it out as unlawful and challenging it. (Jn 18:22-23) The Apostle Paul acts similarly, even cursing his perpetrator. (Ac 23:3)
So, when scholars corrupt Christ’s teaching here, as very many do (2Co 2:17), saying we ought to voluntarily submit to the arbitrary malice of evil people (NASB, NIV, RSV, ASV, ESV), thereby deliberately and unnecessarily forcing the language of scripture to specify the source of the harm as moral wickedness, and thereby claiming it’s un-Christlike to stand up to malevolence in general (as if the translator’s only concern is grammatical possibility, without regard to context, with no intent to actually obey what they offer as scripture), we should carefully observe a carelessness, a thoughtlessness, and a dangerous presumption with God’s Word, evidence we ought to hold such translations in overall suspicion, and distrust them as spiritual authority.