Written by: Caroline Moore
I was recently having a conversation with my brother, who is an atheist, about what we most want out of life. Brothers and sisters who are close in age are likely to have such late-night conversations, but our differences of religious affiliation lead us to different ideas about what we’re on this little planet for. My brother, a brilliant engineer, desires to make great innovations in mathematics and science so that he won’t be forgotten when he dies. When I was younger, I felt that way too, but after becoming a follower of Jesus, I find that over time I don’t care as much what I do so long as Christ is exalted in me. Maybe you can relate to one or both of us. At a minimum, you’ve probably spent time thinking about what you exist for and what you would like to do with your existence.
The Baptist Shorter Catechism speaks on this topic when it says, “What is the duty which God requires of man?” The duty which God requires of man is obedience to His revealed will. “What did God at first reveal to man for the rule of his obedience?” The rule which God at first revealed to man for his obedience was the moral law.” This cuts straight into the center of our purpose on this earth, a question relevant to us all, and as the Catechism reveals, our duty is to obey God through obedience to the moral law.
So then, if there is a God, then we are obligated to act morally. But what if we start at the end and work backward? Can we say that if we are obligated to act morally, then God exists? As it turns out, Christian thinkers have been making that exact argument for hundreds of years. Here is one way to present the idea:
- If objective moral values and duties do not exist, then God does not exist.
- Objective moral values and duties do exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
Note that this is a formal logical argument that has two premises and a conclusion. If both premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. If one or both of the premises are not true, then the conclusion is not valid. Many atheists choose to attack the second premise rather than the first.
But a few brave atheists have tried to suggest alternative foundations for objective moral values, meaning other sources of morality which are universally true and which define that which is good and that which is bad. For example, in this debate atheist, Sam Harris maintains that human well-being anchors objective moral values. He argues that any action which tends to the improvement of human well-being is objectively morally good, and that which detracts from human well-being is objectively morally bad. It’s a compelling argument insofar as it borrows from the idea of a God who is good and who loves humans, desiring their well-being, but it’s not a sufficient foundation for objective moral values. William Lane Craig, the Christian who opposed Sam Harris in the debate, pointed out that if indeed human well-being is the ultimate good, then there can be no situation in which human well-being results from immoral behavior. But clearly that’s not true. As an example, he mentioned sociopaths, people who have a mental illness that causes them not to feel remorse for hurting people or even to find hurting others thrilling. They can be perfectly happy and thriving in spite of a lifetime of lying to and stealing from people, cheating on romantic partners, and enriching themselves illegally. Clearly, their behavior is immoral even if it tends to their own well-being, so thus human well-being cannot ground objective morals. William Lane Craig then stated, “In philosophy, knock-down defeaters of arguments are rare, but I think we’ve got one.”
The second premise, that there exist objective moral values, is more frequently called into question. I think there are two main considerations here. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis expresses the first, which is the idea that whether or not people will admit that they know objective morals exist, they consistently act as though they do. On page 11, he says “[People who are quarrelling] say things like this…’How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?’–’Come on, you promised.’…what interests me about all those remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies, ‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse.”
Our moral experience demonstrates that objective moral values exist. Thus, we are justified in our belief in objective moral values, in the absence of some more compelling reason not to, based on our own experience. William Lane Craig expounds, “Any argument you run to be skeptical about our moral experience, I can run a parallel argument about why you should be skeptical of your experience about the world of physical objects around us. You may be a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated by a scientist…or a body lying in the Matrix inhabiting a virtual reality. In the absence of a reason to defeat your experiences, you’re justified in believing in what those experiences teach you.”
Louise Antony states this idea even more bluntly: “Any argument for moral skepticism is going to be based upon premises which are less obvious than the reality of objective moral values .”
If indeed it is true that objective moral values exist, then God exists. That has two implications for humans: first, that we are obligated to act morally, and secondly, that God is good. It follows that if He is good, then He must also be just. And if He is just, then such a God would not be fair to overlook immorality, partly because it hurts people, but mainly because it is sin. In 1 John 3:4 we read the following:
“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” (ESV)
So then, if sin is lawlessness, then a law is needed. Indeed, God gave to the people of Israel a code of law which provided a way to be forgiven of their immoral behavior through the sacrifice of animals. This meant the animal suffered the punishment for the human’s sin. But even the law could not erase the lawlessness written on men’s hearts.
But then: “…Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come…he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves, but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:11-12)
And, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God…For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us, for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts and write them on their minds,’ then he adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Hebrews 10:12,14-18)
These two passages from Hebrews describe the only way humans can be forgiven for the immoral behavior of which we are all guilty. Christ, who was perfectly moral because He is God, took the punishment for our immoral actions on the cross for our sins. By a single offering of His body and blood, He has perfected for all time those who are being saved, imputing His own perfection to us. Thus, we can have peace with God. If you are reading this, you can join us who are being saved:
“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:31 ESV) To be saved is to trust in Jesus to save us from our sins; no more and no less.
There is no point whatsoever in acknowledging, let alone arguing for, the existence of objective moral values in a manner divorced from these realities. This is more than a philosophical thought experiment. It is a discussion that ultimately has tremendous implications for human beings, each of whom is accountable to God to act morally and justly. Although we cannot do this in our own strength, He has made a way, and now asks of us to avail ourselves of the morality of Jesus, which is given to us who trust in Him for our salvation from the righteous wrath of the Father.