It is claimed that without God there can be no objective morality and no objective value. I want to consider this proposition in relation to Christianity. I will defer to a version of the Moral Argument formulated by William Lane Craig, the Christian apologetic philosopher. It is not my intention to critique his position, and I will consider it as given for the sake of argument. I want to establish that Christianity and the Moral Argument are mutually exclusive positions, and that the truth of one entails the falsehood of the other.
In his article  William Lane Craig explains that if God exists, then objective moral values and duties exist. By this he means that some things are right or wrong independent of anyone’s opinion. Divine commandments, he says, constitute our moral obligations and duties. God also acts as a moral judge, punishing evil and rewarding righteousness. This allows us, once in the afterlife, to appreciate that the universe itself is just, even if on earth it didn’t seem so. It follows that our actions have cosmic and eternal significance. Theism, he argues, provides a sound foundation for morality which involves objective moral values, duties and accountability.
Craig goes on to consider morality from a naturalist point of view. If naturalism is true, he concludes, it is impossible to condemn things like war, crime and oppression as evil, or to praise things like equality or love as good. It is impossible, in other words, to justify in any objective sense why these things are valuable. If atheism is true, he goes on to say, there can be no moral accountability for ones actions; it makes no difference, ultimately and cosmically, whether one acts virtuously or viciously.
Craig believes that there is a non-arbitrary choice between these two world views. It is obvious, he thinks, that we apprehend an objective morality – he refers us to the obvious wrongness of things like rape, torture, child-abuse and brutality, passionately calling them “moral abominations”. This leads inescapably to the conclusion that God exists.
Craig’s view, in summary, is this. Questions of morality are about questions of right action. Which actions we consider right or wrong are to be decided by a consideration particular values and duties. These values and duties, to be meaningful, must be ‘objective’, and only by the existence of God can there be objectivity about these matters. Since, of course, we do apprehend this objectivity it follows that God exists. This moral question is partly theological and partly meta-ethical, but it also plays a part in more lofty considerations of meaning and purpose. Our actions have cosmic and eternal significance since we are to be held accountable for them in the afterlife. The cosmic and eternal significance of our actions gives a kind of objective meaning to our time on Earth, and also entice us to take these considerations seriously.
I intend now to contrast the above view, and all that it entails, with a Christian view on value and morality. We are aware, of course, of numerous moral pronouncements in the bible, both pleasant and unpleasant. What is rarely focused on, though, is what I shall now attend to: the acceptance of Jesus as the savior of mankind.
Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He was sacrificed for our sins, and by accepting Jesus we are all forgiven of our sins. If we accept Jesus, we are granted eternal life in the Kingdom of God, whereas if we deny him we will be cast into the fires of hell. This all amounts to a particular view about value, and consequently about which actions are right and good.
Since God is our final judge in the afterlife this cosmic accountability provides two things: firstly, cosmic significance and meaning to life on earth, and secondly cosmic (final and absolute) justice. Acceptance into heaven, therefore, is the manifest result of the virtuous and good life, and since we are all judged by God, this provides cosmic justice to the universe. Since we will be accepted into heaven given that we believe in Jesus, the virtuous and good life is the life in which we believe in Jesus. Since cosmic justice exists only if the virtuous are separated from the vicious, cosmic justice is about separating believers from unbelievers in the final judgment. What is of value, therefore, on a Christian world view, is belief in Jesus. This, I think, contradicts (Craig’s version of) the Moral Argument and it offends our common sense notions of morality, justice and value.
Craig takes great pains to show that objective morality, which depends on objective values, is about kinds of actions. Rape, torture, child-abuse and brutality are “moral abominations”. Anybody who denies this, he says, is as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5. He is heavily critical of atheism and naturalism particularly because he believes them to be inadequate in providing a rational justification for objectively wrong actions. “Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest.” (My own emphasis)
These things are not really wrong on a Christian view either. Rape, torture, child-abuse, brutality, murder, war, crime, and all other actions which we consider wrong, will be forgiven if the person who commits them repents and accepts Jesus. Those who have accepted Jesus are righteous, and will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven. The actions themselves have no moral significance, the only thing of value on a Christian world view is whether one believes in Jesus or not. 1 John 1:9, Acts 10:43, Matthew 12:31 and many others confirm this.
The only thing which is unforgivable, and therefore on a Christian view the most immoral thing in the universe, is to blaspheme against the Holy Ghost (Mark 3:29 and Matthew 12:31-32). Goodness and rightness do not, for a Christian, reside in the doing of any particular kinds of actions, but rather in a particular kind of belief. Indeed, so alien is the consideration of the value of actions or their consequences in this world that Christians are instructed to forgive (as much as they can) all trespasses against them (Matthew 18:21-22). We are, in fact, to have as little consideration for anything in this world as possible (save for our beliefs), for to value the things of this world – of which actions and their consequent happiness and misery form a part – is to deviate in ones love for God (1 John 2:15).
The absolute moral law is, therefore, rather simple. To be good is to believe in Jesus, and to be evil is to reject him. The cosmic justice to be served in the afterlife, without which life on earth would have no meaning, is decided on this matter alone. ‘Cosmic justice’, then, just means accepting believers into heaven and sending unbelievers to hell. Morality has absolutely nothing to do with actions or consequences, and justice has nothing to do with punishing those who bring about misery or rewarding those who bring about joy.
This clarification is not a rejection of the Moral Argument, it remains undecided whether the argument succeeds or not. What this shows, is one of two things. If God exists, and if Christianity is true, then what is objectively moral, and objectively valuable, is some kind of belief in the divinity of Jesus, and nothing else. Or, if things like murder, rape and child-abuse are objectively wrong – and I agree partially with Craig when we mentions that we all apprehend these things as ‘wrong’ –then it is impossible for Christianity to be true. In other words, we either have to accept that our intuitive notions of value and morality are altogether incorrect, or that the Christian morality is untrue and surely also undesirable.
What attracts people about the Moral Argument is the idea that there are some actions which are really wrong. Craig’s examples typify our moral intuitions, which have nothing to do, really, with orthodoxy and much more to do with behaviors of social significance. Most people are quite happy, after all, that people should believe whatever they want to – this is because we recognize intuitively that what counts in moral evaluation is some kind of action and not some kind of belief.
In some sense, the Moral Argument is compatible with Christianity; the objective moral value would be the belief in Jesus. This, however, runs against our moral intuitions, and directly contradicts Craig’s formulation of the argument in which he supposes particular actions to be valuable and moral. In this sense, therefore, the Moral Argument is incompatible with Christianity. Whether the Moral Argument is correct at all is a matter for a different discussion.
It reduces, I suppose, to the question, ‘which God?’ The Moral Argument is a philosophical argument for the existence of a supernatural grounding for the truth of particular (normative) claims. It labels this supernatural grounding ‘God’ but then it must be clarified that this ‘God’ is unlike the Christian God. This is another example, I think, of how the God of Philosophy differs from the God of Religion. Many Christians will accuse atheists of being unable to account for an objective morality – by this they normally intend that atheists cannot account for why particular actions are right or wrong. I think that is a mistake, but what is sure is that Christians cannot account for why particular actions are right or wrong either. The only thing of value, which is the grounding of justice, morality and cosmic significance of life on Earth, is a belief in Jesus. Christian morality, therefore, differs from, and is plainly contradictory to, our common understanding of morality. It remains an open question whether atheism and naturalism can account for morality, but it is quite clear that Christianity cannot.
Grayling, A. C, “The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century” (2007)
Mackie, J. L, “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong”, (1977)
Rachels, J, “Introduction: Moral Philosophy in the 20th Century”, in 20th Century Ethical Theory, ed. Cahn & Haber (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995)
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