The gatehouse of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, infamous World War 2 Nazi concentration camp
Without God, There Can Be No Absolute Good or Evil
by Dr. David Vallance (Ann Arbor, MI, USA)
Since God exists, good must also exist. As the designer and creator of the cosmos, God is the definition of good for the cosmos. Good therefore cannot be arbitrary; it relies wholly on God. Good is nothing more and nothing less than the sum of God’s own ethical qualities (Exod 34:5-7). Evil is anything that falls short of these divine moral features (Rom 3:23). Thus to do what is right is to do what God Himself would do in a given situation. And since goodness derives from God, it cannot change, for God Himself is absolute and unchanging (Mal 3:6).
Right and wrong could only change if God changed. Thus a clear line of reasoning from God’s Word drives us to a certain belief in moral absolutes. From the start, God plainly showed His concern for absolute goodness by pronouncing what He had made, “good” (Gen 1:3), and by defining right behaviour for Adam and Eve (Gen 3:16-17). The Creator has always expected His creatures to mirror His own perfect character (Mat 5:48). He says, “Be holy [a prescription], for I am holy” [a definition] (1 Pet 1:16). The absolute Being sets the absolute standard and calls all men everywhere to meet it.
Conversely, if there were no God, there could be no good. If we drive a wedge between God and good, we are left with no abiding standard of behaviour. If human nature arose from the chance meandering of evolution, from a process apart from any divine mind or divine plan, then moral absolutes disappear. Apart from God, right and wrong are accidents, not absolutes. Good defined apart from God can only be a consensus of what seems to bring pleasure or prosperity, or what seems most useful and least offensive. But the foundation of such God-less good can only be the shifting sand of human preference; God is the only possible moral bedrock. A God-less good has no mechanism to attach the word “ought” to human behaviour. Since it flows merely from human consensus, it cannot dictate the behaviour of all men absolutely. Apart from God’s authority, there can be no basis for moving from “I prefer” to “I must”, much less from “I prefer” to “everyone must”.
It follows that all the world’s ethical systems belong in one of two camps. The first is from above, revealed ethics, a system of behaviour from God; the second is from below, speculative ethics, the product of mere human reasoning. The first depends on divine authority; the second on human preference. The first is absolute; the second relative. The first acknowledges God; the second rebels against Him. We have witnessed a massive defection in the West from the first camp to the second. Humanism has banished God from the cosmos and exalted man in His place. Modem man therefore thinks he is autonomous and free to decide what is good and what is evil. But by abandoning the Bible, he has lost the only adequate foundation for ethics. His finite and flawed reasoning has no inherent right to dictate his behaviour, and no power to restrain his destructive ways. Humanism has utterly failed man and. left. a maelstrom of moral confusion in its wake. A brief survey of the popular ethics of our day will make this clear.
Pragmatism: The end justifies the means
Pragmatism is pragmatic. This popular speculative ethic goes with what works. It focuses on the result or outcome of an action. We can judge an action as moral or immoral by what it produces. If the outcome is good, then whatever means we use to achieve that outcome must also be good. According to this, we should legalise drugs to curb the crime that comes from trafficking in illegal substances. We should dispense clean needles to drug addicts to stop the spread of AIDS, and abort babies so their mothers can go to college without worrying about child care, and set Christian lyrics to heavy metal music to reach the young with the gospel.
Two glaring problems with this ethic are (1) accurately foreseeing how an action will turn out, and (2) properly computing whether the result is actually good. Many of the decisions we make have long-term outcomes that are wholly different from their short-term results. Those who justify adultery based on its immediate pleasure, for instance, ignore life’s overwhelming evidence that pain is more prominent in the last analysis. But far worse than these problems with ends is pragmatism’s vexing refusal to defend the morality of the means. Pragmatism should be judged by the sordid offspring it has fathered – statism and egoism.
Statism claims that the government should decide what is best for the whole society, and then use whatever means necessary to reach its goals. The Marxist and Nazi regimes of the 20th century have worked from this ethical framework. They have justified wholesale murder for the good of the state. On the other hand, egoism uses the same ethic to seek what is good for the individual alone, at the expense of everyone else. Thus, our “me” generation preaches the gospel of hedonism and scrambler for the top. It pursues position and pleasure ruthlessly. It is faithless in the family, cannibalistic in business and eager to sue whenever it doesn’t get its way. The ethic of pragmatism ignores the importance of motive. It provides no objective basis for deciding why one end is better than another, and obviously has no mechanism for assuring that a desired end will ever be achieved. Worse still, it readily excuses evil means to pursue its uncertain ends. Thus the end-justifies-the-means philosophy is utterly bereft of moral justification, and God roundly condemns it (Rom 3:8).
Phenomenalism: Counting noses
Phenomenalism is statistical morality. It looks at what is happening, the phenomena. It says that morality is determined by nose count, and therefore concludes that whatever opinion polls tell us that people do and think must be right. Right and wrong (and increasingly, truth and error) are decided by majority vote. According to this ethic, homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia are all right because the majority of people approve of them. To construct sexual ethics, the phenomenalist looks for data, as in the Kinsey report. He assumes that whatever people are doing is normal, and whatever is normal must be right.
Statistical morality is an anomaly of our time. Most societies in history have viewed morality as prescriptive, and not merely descriptive. They have made their people accountable to a right standard of conduct, rather than making the standard accountable to the whim of the people. Thus the USA was set up as a republic, a rule of law, not a rule of men. It was expected that we would make what is ethical, legal and what is unethical, illegal. The democratic process was intended only to let us decide ethically neutral questions of state, or to determine what course would be ethical when that was debatable. The ethics themselves, built into our consciences (Rom 2:14-15), were never to be overthrown, but rather to guide our decisions. The Achilles heel of a democracy is disregard for ethics. When unethical behaviour is customary, and men come to believe that what is customary is right, and that what the majority believe should be binding, the majority will soon begin to tyrannize the minority, and the strong to pillage the weak.
Majority is no synonym for morality. That is, if the ethical value of an idea is zero, one does not increase its value by ascribing it to a million (or even a billion) people. A million times zero is still zero. Simple consensus, like simple consent, is not a moral justification. Morality is as independent of majority opinion as it is of pragmatic preference. We must withstand this confusion and maintain the difference between absolute ethical standards and fallen human behaviour. What most of the people do is likelier to be wrong than right (Rom 3:9-18).
Situation ethics: Doing the loving thing
The late Joseph Fletcher coined the expression “situation ethics”, which others have called the new morality. This ethic stresses the starting point of an action rather than its result. For Fletcher, a right motive is all that matters, and the right motive is love. If I mean well by my action, then it is good. To prove his case, Fletcher used excruciating cases. For instance, he said that a Jewish woman in a Nazi concentration camp would be right to commit adultery with a soldier if the soldier promised to spare the lives of other Jews as repayment. From this extreme case, however, he extracted the general principal that if we feel right about what we are about to do, then it is right for us to do it. Similarly, if other people feel right about what they do, then I have no right to judge them. This is the familiar “I’m OK, you’re OK” philosophy that pervades today’s thinking. Thus, what situation ethics means by love becomes mere tolerance. This system replaces thinking with feeling, and completely relativises the truth.
The Scripture cares not only about motive, but also about means and result. The motive should indeed be love – but only biblical love. And this means first of all, love for God: “…whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). The love of Christ constrains us and gratitude for the free gift of eternal life impels us to serve God. The glory of God is also the result that we seek. Further, if we are to please God, the means we employ must be God’s means. They must follow God’s law. We cannot do evil so that good may come.
Relativism: Sinking sand
To justify its sin, our society has delighted to abandon its traditional moral code in favour of moral relativism, which rejects both the written law of God, and the natural law of conscience that once buttressed the laws of men. Tolerating no absolute standard of righteousness, relativism instead makes truth and error a matter of preference, and right and wrong a matter of taste. If you like doing something – no matter how obscene by the old standard – then for you it is right. If this chosen activity involves another person, however, he or she must be consenting. (But how often will sinners who no longer fear a moral code, fail to consent to sin?).
By embracing relativism, men claim to have not merely the knowledge of good and evil, but the power to create good and evil. They do not claim to be like God, sharing in His knowledge; the become God, fashioning their own reality by the mere power of their belief. Relativism gives them the authority to rule. Its central truth is that there is such a thing as objective truth. Its great wrong is to assert that any action could be intrinsically wrong. Its only law is “judge not.” Its unforgivable sin is to impose your morality on another person. You must tolerate everyone else’s preferences. You cannot choose to be against choice. Men want to commit sin without interference from anybody, and nothing enrages them more than a person who refers to some moral code and tells them that what they are doing is wrong. So the world has taken counsel together and declared that there is no binding moral code, and no absolute wrong but one: bigotry, or intolerance.
The watchword of relativism: values. What is right for one person may be wrong for someone else, since everyone holds different values. Since this view rejects any absolute standard of morality, it asserts that the task of parents and teachers is “values clarification.” Parents should not influence their children one way or the other, but rather allow them an environment of freedom so they can come to their own conclusions about right and wrong. The greatest damage parents can do is to stultify the children’s freedom – forcing their values on them. Children must be let alone to choose their sexual orientation, to choose whether they will believe in God, and so on. The prevalence of this reasoning explains the popularity of the pro-choice stance on abortion.
Relativism proves to be a sink of confusion. Relativism says that it is true that there is no truth. It claims that it is wrong to say anything is wrong. It asserts that there are absolutely no absolutes. All of these are contradictions, and relativism therefore cannot possibly be true. Thus none of the speculative ethics we have considered can possibly be true either, because all of them rest on relativism. Relativism cannot be true because it denies truth itself. If what is true for one person is false for someone else, there can be no absolute truth. However, to reject all absolutes is to make an absolute statement. By affirming the absence of absolute truth, the relativist makes an absolute statement, and thus contradicts himself. The phrase “there are no absolutes” is analytically false, for to deny absolute truth by this statement, you must affirm the absolute truth of the statement itself. This objection is powerful, and not merely an exercise in cleverness. If relativism negates truth, then even relativism cannot be true.
Truth is by definition narrow and exclusive. The pilot landing a 747 has only a single option – the narrow flight path that leads to life. Deviation from that path will bring destruction. Thus beyond making truth impossible, relativism makes life impossible. Perhaps that is why people who embrace relativism do so selectively They are relative relativists. That is, they become relativists when it suits them (usually to excuse unethical behaviour). But at other times they revert to being absolutists – they must, because absolute relativism is fatal. When you drive your car toward an intersection, you cannot relativise your situation. You know that the presence of an on-coming gravel truck is not a relative matter. You know that the light cannot be both red and green at the same time. You understand that if you proceed into the path of the truck you will not end up not relatively dead, but absolutely dead.
Revealed ethics: The only sure foundation
Human systems all try to find man’s good apart from God. But no stream can rise higher than its source. God’s morality comes down from heaven, and lifts men from the earth. Human morality only crawls on the ground, with no wings to rise. The Bible teaches us that good is inextricably tied to God, who is the ultimate Good, and the giver of every good thing. Thus we have no good apart from God, and our greatest good is to be like God. In ourselves, we have no power to meet God’s perfect standard, and His moral absolutes drive us to the Cross. God the Son came down from heaven and kept that standard perfectly. For all who believe, He is Jehovah Tsidkenu, the Lord our Righteousness.
If we seek to follow Christ, we must anchor our minds to the rock of biblical ethics and divine morality. We must daily imbibe the content of God’s moral precepts, and also abstract moral principles that we then learn to apply to daily situations. And rather than having to be forced to look at the ethical implications of events in our lives, we should constantly seek out these implications. The ethical mind is passionately concerned that God is honoured by having His moral standards upheld. Paul certainly had and taught this passion: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good…Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:9, 21).
Thus ethical studies need to be a part of our weekly routine. Knowing God brings the awesome responsibility of meeting His standards, but this knowledge also brings the possibility of pleasing Him. We need to work out the implications of God’s teaching in daily, concrete situations. We need to stand up for what we know to be right. We must be able articulate our positions, or we do not really know them. Each field has its own ethical problems, and we should be versed in the problems relating to our own occupations.
Ethically, we must give our employer an honest day’s work. We must strive for competence in our field of work, so that our work has the highest possible quality. Co-workers and bosses will quickly perceive this competence, and it will give us the right to be heard. In the context of excellent performance, for instance, the gospel we share will have greater legitimacy. The only reproach connected with Christianity is the offence of the cross (Gal 5: 11), the foolishness of Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23). Although the preaching of the cross honours God, the reproach and scandal associated with laziness and incompetence deeply embarrass Him. His “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things” (Mt 25:21), applies to our secular employment as well as to the ethical use of spiritual talents.
Originally published in Truth and Tidings Magazine and used with permission.