“From Goodness to God”

Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good;

sing to his name, for it is pleasant!

Psalm 135:3

Do we really need religion to be good? Can’t a person be moral without appealing to an ancient book to tell them right from wrong? These questions are often asked of Christians who argue that we receive our ethics from God in Scripture, his revealed will. The short answer to these questions is, yes, of course unbelievers can and often do act in accordance with true moral principles to some extent. The apostle Paul says as much in Romans 2:14-15:

“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”

But there is an even deeper question that needs answering. Where does this sense of morality originate? Why do humans even have a moral awareness, a “conscience”, in the first place? To be sure, we all have some capacity for goodness and though we are not as bad as we could be, we are certainly not as good as we ought to be. But where does this ought come from? Why should we be good in the first place? The words ought and should speak of moral obligation. But unto whom are we obligated?

A solid case for the existence of God can be made from morality. First, there is such a thing as objective morality. Across cultures, time and space, there are universal principals of right and wrong that include honoring elders, honesty, justice, mercy, care of children and so on. This is what Paul means when he says “the work of the law is written on their hearts.” Thus, throughout the Old Testament, God, through the prophets, held pagan nations accountable to this universal moral law. Even though these nations did not have the Law of Moses which stipulated right and wrong behavior, they knew enough of morality to incur guilt before a good and just God.

Therefore, morality is not relative to one’s culture or individually subjective but is generally universal. Things like rape, theft, torture and the like are always wrong irrespective of the time or culture in which we live. When a person suffers injustice, they cry out against it because they intuitively know the moral law has been broken. If morality is not relative, then we are faced with an objective moral order of some kind. How can we best explain it?

The moral argument is abductive, meaning the evidence leads to the best possible explanation. How do we sufficiently account for the existence of objective moral values?

  1. If a personal God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist — Buddhism, Hinduism and other pantheistic religions teach that God is not a personal, moral agent but a universal, amoral Reality (transcending distinctions between good and evil). Therefore, pantheism cannot support objective moral values because it overtly denies them or it vainly attempts to affirm and deny them simultaneously. Naturalism is out because there is no evolutionary mechanism that can adequately explain the development of moral awareness. And atheism is out because it provides no foundation upon which to build objective moral standards.
  2. Objective moral values exist — As we have argued above.
  3. Therefore, a personal, moral God exists — We are left with the theistic worldviews of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Which one is best? Only Christianity, which is Judaism fulfilled, teaches that humans were created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-28). Thus the human conscience is one of the unique ways in which we reflect our personal and moral God. Furthermore, only Christ can provide violators of God's moral law with hope to stand before him justified.