by Nick Peters
One of the most popular arguments for the existence of God is the moral argument. It states that God alone makes sense of objective moral values, and since objective moral values exist, then God exists. A large number of people today, including atheists and agnostics, believe in objective moral values. However, they do not agree with the Christian answer to provide a basis for those values.
Sometimes looking at what can be considered the Christian answer, I don’t agree with it either.
For instance, if someone says, “Murder is wrong because the Bible says so,” I disagree. To see what I am saying, consider if I stated this: “Jesus was crucified because the Bible says so.” Is the Bible saying so the cause of Jesus being crucified, or was Jesus’ crucifixion the reason the Bible says he was crucified? Just as the Bible writers wrote about objective history that happened before their record of it, so they wrote about objective morality that was known before they recorded it.
So, if the Christian wishes to state that the Bible is the source of objective morality, or that one cannot know morality apart from the Bible, I will disagree. I also think this is a bad apologetic approach, and here’s why.
The Biblical Teaching
First, the Bible itself disagrees with this. In Romans 2, we are told that Gentiles have the Law written on their hearts and they do the good deeds that the Bible requires. Note that these deeds are not ceremonial or civil in nature. When Paul talks about unrighteous acts done by Gentiles, he is not talking about the failure to offer burnt sacrifices as Leviticus requires, or not observing the Sabbath or wearing mixed fabrics.
What he is talking about is what is called Natural Law. It is the ethics that can be found more or less in other great ethicists. Of course, there are areas of disagreement, but one can go to any number of great moral teachers and find these teachings. The Bible was not recording new information when God told the people not to murder.
In our speaking out against homosexuality, we often point to Leviticus 18 and 20. Notice what the text says at the end about those sexual sins. It says that for the practice of them, the people that lived in the land were being expelled. In other words, they should have known better. God was punishing them for activities that they should have known were wrong.
The second reason is that the image it gives is one the Christian does not wish to convey. It gives the impression to the non-believer that the Christian is just a mindless drone who would believe anything simply because it is in the Bible. I am not saying that is the case, but we Christians need to be able to think outside of our Bibles. Of course, we need to know our Bibles well, but we need to know how to interact with those who do not take it as an authority.
The third reason is that it gets us into several other debates that will be long excursions from where we’ve begun. We will end up having to defend the textual reliability of the Bible. We will have to look at the social context of the Bible. We will have to deal with the so-called immoral passages of the Bible. There is a time and place for all of that, and I do uphold it, but on a purely philosophical argument we don’t need to be getting into red herrings. As one who has debated this topic before, my stance has been to say I am not interested in this point at what the Bible says. I’m only interested in the point of defending objective morality. Now you can attack biblical passages all you want and we can get to those later, but for now let’s look at this point.
Thus, when we debate homosexuality, the last thing we need to say is that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so. That does not engage the critic. We need to point to other data. We could use social statistics on homosexual relationships. We could point to the spread of viral disease in the homosexual community. My personal choice is to point to the way that a family of a mother and father is that which is most optimal for a child. By a man and woman unit, we affirm that being a man and being a woman both mean something. Of course, that’s further philosophical work that is for another time.
Since I have brought up homosexuality, there is a special case we must have in mind. There are legitimate and bona fide Christians who do struggle with homosexual desires and want them to go away. We as Christians dare not make promises Christ never gave. We should not say, “If you become a Christian, God will take it away.” (How many of you all had your desires for sin taken away when you became a Christian?) We shouldn’t say, “Just pray about it.” We don’t need to say something negative about their character or lack of faith. What we need is to show the love of Christ and offer good counseling to them. Now, of course, Christ could take away their desires. Sometimes he does that, but we cannot promise it, and to do so is to prepare a person to become an apostate.
To return to the moral argument, however, I really don’t like it as it is, since the moral argument is meant to show that there are good actions to do. Well and good. I agree. However, I am not interested in just good actions. I am interested in good things. I am interested in good ends. I am interested in good natures. Morality is just part of it. Why stick with just part of something? Let’s go for it all.
This gets us to the question of goodness, and usually there are two common answers to the question. The first is that the good is what God wills. The second is that the good is God’s nature.
Let’s get something clear. If God wills something, it is good. If something is God’s nature, it is good. However, neither of those are the definition of goodness, and that is what we are looking for.
Biblically, we do know good and evil, and we can know these apart from knowing God. Note that I am not saying these can be known apart from God’s existence. God’s existence is necessary for good and evil to exist, but one does not have to be aware of God’s existence to know good and evil. We can say that God’s existence is what keeps the universe existing, but one does not have to believe in God’s existence to know the universe exists.
We also use the word good for several things that don’t necessarily have a moral connotation to them. This is a good pizza. That is a good restaurant. This is a good book. That is a good TV show. I thought that movie was really good. In many of these cases, we are saying nothing moral about the object under question. We are saying it has a certain quality.
Aristotle said that the good is that at which all things aim, and in classical Thomism something is good insofar as it is perfect. For example, I can say I am perfectly human, in that I have all the necessary attributes of being human. I would not say I am a perfect human, however, in that I do not live morally perfect. The idea is that the more something is what it was meant to be, the more we can call it good. (This gets into final causality and the other such causes. I highly recommend Edward Feser’s book Aquinas at this point.)
What is a good pizza? It is the pizza that embodies what is meant to be a pizza. What is a good book? It is a book that embodies the qualities of what is meant to be for its type of literature. Some descriptions could get difficult, but I hope by now the reader has the idea.
Now going back to the two answers, what if we say “The good is what God wills.” Then I am stuck wondering how we can tell non-moral aspects that are good. Is a good pizza a pizza that God wills? Then if I overcook or undercook it, is that wrong since it goes against the will of God for proper pizza cooking?
Note that this doesn’t tell us a definition of good. It just tells us that if God wills something, it is good. It gives me no power in being able to recognize what goodness is.
What of the second? It is quite different in response, but it falls to the same problem. Is God’s nature the definition of good, or is good a description of God’s nature? If the former, then I wonder once more how to recognize other goods. Can I say I am good since God is infinite and I am finite? Am I not going against His nature then by being finite, and thus I am not good?
I suggest sticking with the approach I gave. Now I did say that something is good if it has all the perfections according to its nature. In a look at the 747 argument I wrote here (see link below), I stated that existence is God’s nature. God has all the perfections of what it means to exist. He is a being without limitation. Thus, He is fully good as there is no perfection He lacks, and He has nothing that can limit His nature.
In this way, we have started with goodness. This also helps us because we can see that actions can result in “Good” ends, and that without good ends it makes no sense to do an action. The only reason one does anything is because they believe something good will result, and yet if there is no objective goodness, one cannot say anything good will result. There will be no reason to do anything.
Do we have an argument that can get us to God? We do. It was formulated in the thirteenth century by Saint Thomas Aquinas, the famous Medieval philosopher and theologian. It goes as follows:
The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But "more" and "less" are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God.
Notice that in all of this, I have not had to use the Bible. I have simply used what the average man believes. Now have I established Christianity? Absolutely not! For that, we will need to go to the Bible. However, I have established an absolute morality. Now once I have the unbeliever saying he agrees it must be in a theistic context, we can then discuss the differing religions. Why should it be Christianity instead of Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, the New Age movement, etc.?
The first part does not need to be more difficult than it is. We can have objective goodness, and we can do it in a way that avoids the Euthyphro dilemma.