The Georgia grand jury’s decision to indict former president Donald Trump on Monday night was surprising only for its speed.
Grand juries are famously—or infamously, if you prefer—willing to indict. That’s because they’re presented with only the prosecutor’s case (there is no defense at a grand jury hearing) and not required to reach a unanimous decision (here, 12 of 23 jurors had to agree) or to settle the actual question of guilt (all the grand jury must determine is if there’s enough evidence to bring charges). Fulton County district attorney Fani T. Willis may not manage to convict Trump and the 18 lawyers and other allies charged along with him. But the Georgia indictment has long since struck me as a sure thing.
I can’t say the same of Trump’s three other indictments: the arcane tax and campaign finance case in New York, the federal documents retention case, and the federal case concerning Trump’s behavior in the run-up to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. All three have some moral or legal ambiguity (though it’s important to note the federal January 6 case has some overlap with the Georgia indictment). Reasonable Christians might disagree over whether these prosecutions are politically motivated, punishing behaviors that may look bad but aren’t, in fact, illegal or wrong.
In the case of the Georgia indictment, though, I don’t see the same ambiguity—at least where Trump himself is concerned.
To borrow a phrase from an often misunderstood and misquoted Bible verse, I see a clear “appearance of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22, KJV). Legally, we don’t know yet if he’s guilty. But from what I can tell, this isn’t a case of undeserved ill repute. Trump’s election meddling in Georgia didn’t just look wrong. It was wrong—and likely illegal too.
There are two halves to my assessment here. The first is what Trump did, which was significantly undisputed because we have the key action—asking Georgia state officials to “find” him just enough votes to tip the state’s election result in his favor—recorded on tape. If you haven’t already listened to the audio of this phone call from January 2, 2021, or read the transcript, I recommend it.
“So look,” Trump pleads. “All I want to do is this: I just want to find 11,780 votes”—the number, by a margin of one, he’d need to win the state. The Republican officials to whom he’s speaking explain repeatedly that there are no more Trump votes to count or recount, that every investigatory angle he proposes has already been explored, but the then-president ignores them and presses on: “So what are we going to do here, folks? I only need 11,000 votes. Fellas, I need 11,000 votes. Give me a break.”
Trump may have gone into that call sincerely believing he’d won Georgia, perhaps unaware of steps the GOP-run state had already taken to verify the election outcome. But he certainly couldn’t have ended the call that way—not after an hour of conversation in which members of his own party explained all they’d done to check and double-check the votes and confirm that President Joe Biden did win Georgia by a nose.
“The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listen to advice” (Prov. 12:15), and Trump was plainly not interested in listening to advice. He was interested in winning, and he kept pursuing victory even after it was made wholly clear that this was a goal he could not obtain legitimately.
That brings me to the second piece of my assessment, which is about the “appearance” of evil. Like many American Christians, I spent years reading and hearing 1 Thessalonians 5:22 quoted in the King James Version: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” And like many American Christians, I assumed “appearance” was used in a common contemporary sense of the word, commanding us to avoid doing anything that looks wrong to other people, even if it’s morally permissible.
Some other, more recent translations and paraphrases might reinforce this interpretation. The New Living Translation says we should “[k]eep away from everything that even looks like sin.” N. T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone advises that “if something looks evil,” we should “keep well away.” And Eugene Peterson’s The Message tells Christians to “[c]heck out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil.”
But the NIV, NASB, ESV, and others render this verse quite differently. Instead, these translations advise us to reject every “kind” or “form” of evil. The difference, as biblical scholar Preston Sprinkle has argued, has to do with the Greek word in the original text and different English uses of “appearance.”
To modern ears, the exhortation to “abstain from all appearance of evil” seems more concerned with how people might perceive us than what we do or don’t do. It seems to be about how we appear and how our actions might look to others rather than whether we’re truly in the right or in the wrong.
But the way the King James translators used the word in question is more like a “television appearance” or “appearing at a party.” It’s closer to “incident” or “instance” or “a time something or someone showed up.” “Paul’s admonition is not to stay away from anything that might look like evil,” Sprinkle contends, “but to stay away from evil in every form [in which] it appears.”
In the case of Trump’s accumulating indictments, a common defense is that what he did wasn’t actually wrong—or, more precisely, that his actions only look wrong if you possess certain prior assumptions about him or accept a certain skewed media narrative. In some cases, this may be true—and in those instances, Trump does not stand condemned by the command in 1 Thessalonians 5:22.
But when it comes to the charges in Georgia (and their overlap in the second federal prosecution), while Trump’s legal guilt or innocence has yet to be decided, there is little question that what he did was wrong. This case isn’t about inflammatory political rhetoric or document classification rules or the intricacies of campaign finance law. Rather, the evidence seems to point to a real attempt to pervert the well-verified results of a free and democratic election.
That is, we seem to be dealing with behavior that is just as evil as it appears.
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.
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