Sometimes in the Bible righteous means not righteous


So I was on Catholic Answers Live on Friday, July 25th.

You can check out my less than dulcet tones here. I was fairly nervous and I knew time was running short, so I may have spoken at hyper-speed. I am the last caller of the hour (not counting the surprise call at the end for the screener who was leaving the show – which was very nice).

I want to thank the host, Patrick Coffin, and the guest, Dr. David Anders, for having on non-Catholics like myself. I also want to thank them for their courtesy. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much chance to respond but I don’t blame them as there wasn’t much time left.

That being said, I have to take issue with the answer I was given, which I can charitably describe as silly. I recapped to them the story of Lot (one I’ve had discussions about on the forums in the past). I asked them why God saved Lot after trying to throw his daughters to an entire town of rapists. The response was that when the Bible says someone is righteous, sometimes it doesn’t mean that they are righteous. Instead it could mean that God has plans for that person. In other words, someone can be unrighteous yet be called righteous by God? The next words on my lips were going to ask if that’s the case, and if so what value are words if they can mean their opposite. But like I said, time had run out. They did direct me to get “Answering Atheism” (and I kind of felt like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story” when he decodes the message and says, “A lousy commercial!”)

I don’t necessarily want to focus on the Lot story since both the host and I agree that what Lot did is wrong. Instead I ask you all:

Can righteous mean not righteous? If so, can holy mean unholy or true mean untrue?


Look at the text very carefully, read slowly, and see how smart Lot really is. Lot had made a home in Sodom. Lot knew his neighbors well. He knew they would not take the women because they were all raging homosexuals.

Behold, I have two daughters who have not known 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." But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door. (Genesis 19:8-9)

The homosexuals saw the offer of women instead of men as a judgement on their behavior. The homosexuals thought that their behavior was acceptable but the offer of women was Lots way of telling them that homosexuality was wicked, an abomination. The homosexuals were so offended at being judged that that they tried to rape Lot for it.

Lot effectively said, “Don’t have sex with men. Have sex with women instead.” The Homosexuals effectively replied, “Who are you to judge us. We will have sex with you too!” And God destroyed the place.



I’m going to do my best to link the answer you got to what I’ve read, but I have to give a disclaimer - I could easily be misunderstanding your question and/or the answer on the radio, so it could be that in trying to link these things together that I am assuming the answer you got means other than it does. So keep your salt shaker handy, I could be wrong:

If we try to remove the context of the story of Lot so as to avoid discussion of that, does your question become “can a person be called righteous in the bible even if he often does evil things?”

Given that most people in the bible who are called righteous do evil things (which the bible recognizes as evil), it would appear that the answer is yes. So if these people are called righteous, it cannot be that the word is used in the sense of commending all their actions.

In fact, the OT explicitly states that there are no people who are righteous in the strong sense at all: “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)

But the word is used anyway, so it must mean something other than this strong meaning. The answer you got on CAL, that it can mean “involved in God’s plan,” is, I think, a very, very condensed thing that sort of relies on lots of other stuff. Paul’s letter to the Roman’s, I think, is a good place to go to get a more in depth look at it. It is hard to summarize, but Chapter 3 especially (with chapter 2 tying it into the Ecclesiastes portion) kind of talks about it some. There are a lot of other issues Paul is addressing at the time (whether circumcision is necessary for gentiles, among others), but it is worth reading even if it is not entirely focused on your issue.

At this point I’m gonna steal a quote from Jimmy Akin and give you a link, because I am not coming up with a better way to explain it. This is referring to Christians, which is related to baptism and the like (which wasn’t available during OT times), but I think you can see enough of a parallel to see how the concepts could be used in the time of Lot.

First, [Catholics] recognize what is called “initial justification,” which is a single event that happens to a person once, at the beginning of the Christian life and by which one is given righteous before God. Second, they recognize what is called “progressive justification,” which occurs over the course of the Christian life and by which one grows in righteousness.

Ontological or real righteousness is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does righteous acts. Its opposite, ontological or real unrighteousness, is the quality which adheres to the soul when one does unrighteous acts. Catholics conceive of guilt and innocence as objectively real properties which cling to our souls just like colors cling to the surface of objects. When we sin, we become guilty and our souls grow dark and dirty before God. But when we are justified, God purifies us and our souls become brilliant and clean before him. Guilt and innocence, righteousness and unrighteousness, are therefore conceived of as properties of our souls

Again, that whole link is not focused on your issue specifically, but it may shed light on it. As to how this could apply to someone who does evil things - well, in short, a person could have received the initial jump-start, as it were, then went about mucking things up, hopefully to accept purification later.

Which I think may (again, if I understood them) explain what was meant by the answer you got of “sometimes it just means the person is part of God’s plan”: it’s not just that God arbitrarily decided to call an evil man righteous because He was going to have to deal with him, it’s that God offered this man a sort of start in the right direction, an opportunity to work towards the way things should be, and the man accepted. Then later, he may do some very evil things, and may in fact do things contrary to God’s will, but he continually accepts the correction and tries to return to the correct path. In this way, he received something analogous to this initial jump-start and then purification - he entered into a covenant, and tries to abide by it, accepting the corrections it requires when he fails.

So no, righteous cannot mean unrighteous, but people and their actions are distinct and so applying the word to a person does not mean that the word must apply to all his actions. Calling the person righteous does not need to mean that everything he does is good, but rather that in general he is aligned towards the good, and accepts corrections when he deviates. Which is what it means to be involved in God’s plan as the radio guy said - not that we carry out the plan perfectly, but that, for the most part, that is the general direction of what we do, even if we have to be prodded with a stick every now and then to end up going in the right way. But at least we consent to the stick prodding.


For anyone who wants to check out the dialogue, it begins just shy of the 49 minute mark…


I think that I would respond first by clarifying the reference you’re making (since I think you’re making an implicit reference to Scripture incorrectly, and I’d like to start by making sure we have our ducks in a row), and then offering some definitions of terms, and finally examining what these references actually do (or do not!) say…

First off, in your intro to your question, you state that God is looking for ten righteous men in Sodom; you then ask why, in light of Lot’s actions, does God call Lot ‘righteous’ and save him. From the way you ask the question, it seems you’re pointing to the question of ‘ten righteous men’ in Genesis 18 and then pointing at Lot as an example of a righteous man on whose behalf God might spare Sodom. The question, then, is whether the events of Genesis 19 fit your description – that in Genesis, Lot is a “righteous man.” On the surface of it, I would say that this is a premature conclusion that doesn’t necessarily fit the narrative. After all, Sodom does get destroyed, and there isn’t any mention of even nine righteous men, such that we might conclude that Lot is saved through his righteousness!

But… why, then, is Lot saved? The narrative provides an answer: “[God] remembered Abraham and sent Lot away from the upheaval that occurred when God overthrew the cities where Lot had been living.” So, we see that, according to the author of Genesis 19, the reason that Lot is saved has nothing to do with his personal merits; rather, Lot is saved because of God’s relationship with Abraham. This, I think, is critical – but we need to look at two other Scripture references to understand why.

The practical upshot, though, is that we can’t look at Genesis 19 and conclude that God saved Lot “because Lot was righteous.”

So… from where do we get the notion that Lot is righteous? Actually, this assertion is in the Bible, but we have to turn to the 2nd Letter of Peter to find it. In 2 Peter 2:7-8, we find that “[God] rescued Lot, a righteous man oppressed by the licentious conduct of unprincipled people (for day after day that righteous man living among them was tormented in his righteous soul at the lawless deeds that he saw and heard)”.

But, what does this mean? Is it saying that God rescued Lot because he was righteous? Or rather, does it simply assert that Lot was righteous and God saved Lot? I would suggest that it’s the latter. Moreover, I think that this makes perfect sense if we look at it in the context of Genesis 18. There, the writer explains why God bothered explaining His plans to Abraham: “I have singled him out that he may direct his children and his household in the future to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just, so that the LORD may put into effect for Abraham the promises he made about him.” So, by this description, God shares His plans for Sodom with Abraham for a distinct purpose – for the sake of helping Abraham teach his descendants to ‘keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just’. And this fits perfectly well into the point of 2 Peter 2:4-9; that is, that “the Lord knows how to rescue the devout from trial and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment”.

So, according to Genesis 18, God’s actions in Sodom allowed Abraham the means through which to teach his children God’s ways. And, what were these ways? 2 Peter 2 asserts that they are “to rescue the devout from trial”. So, having examined these verses, can we say, as you have, that God rescued Lot ‘because he was righteous’? I would say that this rationale isn’t at all what Scripture is suggesting!

So, if God isn’t saving Lot for his righteousness, per se, what’s going on here? Is this an example of God being inconsistent? I think I would argue that this is not the case; and, to see my point, it’s necessary to define terms. ‘Righteous’, as Donkey suggests, doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ or ‘sinless’. So, throughout the Bible, we see that God saves His people – who are right in His eyes – even though they’re not sinless. I think that this distinction in terms is essential: we’re not saying that God saves the sinless; we’re only saying that God saves sinners who are righteous.

But, haven’t I just taken a long time simply to answer your question – that God saves Lot because he’s righteous? No, I don’t think so: God doesn’t save Lot – or any of us – because of our righteousness; rather, God simply saves. They aren’t saved because they’re righteous, per se – they’re saved because God is God. Am I playing semantic games? I don’t think so: after all, I’m saying that you can’t argue that God saved Lot because he was sinless (since you could disprove that easily), nor that God saved Lot since he was righteous (since you could dispute Lot’s righteousness). Instead, the narrative only shows that God saves because He’s God. That much is indisputable.

Yet, can we object that Lot is righteous? We can’t do so in Genesis (since the author makes no such claim), and I’m not certain that we can do so in 2 Peter (since the author there only claims that Lot is righteous inasmuch as the sins of Sodom were offensive to him).

So, I think that, although you may have received a less-than-satisfactory answer to your call (and hey – it’s probably not unfair to suggest that this is so, due to the time constraints in the program), I don’t think that the case you were trying to make (that God’s saving of Lot, due to Lot’s personal merits) necessarily holds in this case.


Thanks for both of these answers. While it does not speak directly to the question I asked on the forum this morning, they both give a lot of insight and I learned. I love learning. I love gaining new perspectives here (new to me) and the verbiage you use to articulate. :slight_smile:


This is the interpretation I am familiar with. It is also the interpretation given in the Haydock commentary.

Ver. 8. Known man. They were neglected, while men were inflamed with desires of each other. See Romans i. (Haydock) –Abuse. Lot tries by every means to divert them from their purpose; being well assured, that they would have nothing to do with his daughters, who were promised to some of the inhabitants. He endeavours to gain time, hoping perhaps that his guests would escape by some back way, while he is talking to the people. (Haydock) —Some allow that, under so great a perturbation of mind, he consented to an action which could never be allowed, though it was a less evil. (Menochius)


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