The fact of evil in the world may constitute 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 both our 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 being passive as someone is abusing us, or inviting random acts of violence, or even being persecuted for our faith, but a civil context where we’re found guilty of harming another and justice requires similar harm be imposed on us, the offender (38). In other words, the context is where we already have a moral obligation to endure a given level of inconvenience or punishment (evil) in resolving an injustice. (Le 24:19-20) 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 either be done with the left hand or with the back of the right 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 Christ’s teaching here is understood as a general requirement to defer to evil people in their malice, rather than simply accepting additional harm in resolving a civil dispute, suggesting we ought to voluntarily submit to arbitrary wickedness and not defend ourselves (NASB, NIV, RSV, ASV, ESV), we must be very careful; the examples Christ gives don’t appear to support such a conclusion.
It may very well be that one is being malicious and evil in taking advantage of our willingness to go the extra mile in resolving a dispute, yet we ought to maintain a spirit of generosity and love toward them regardless (Mt 5:44), just as we would towards all people. (42) This is the spirit of our Father, who is benevolent toward the evil as well as the good. (45)