Moral truths are malleable and subjective if they aren’t grounded in a transcendent source (such as God). I’m not the only person to realize this; even honest atheists recognize the inconsistency of embracing objective moral truths while simultaneously rejecting the one reasonable source for such truths. In a recent exchange with an atheist who is frustrated with his peers, I received the following email:
“It’s the rare atheist who will honestly admit what their world view would wreak, taken to its logical conclusion. To know that you are simply an accidental conglomeration of chemicals at the same time that such a thing as morals even exist is oxymoronic statement and yet I hear it all the time from fellow atheists. …Be consistent. Acknowledge that the Universe is an uncaused accident, ethics is an illusion, and act accordingly. Or acknowledge the possibility of another possibility. Stop trying to have it both ways. Can you be an ethical atheist? Yes. But you won’t be a logical one.”
That’s an amazingly honest statement from an atheistic perspective. The writer seems to be struggling with the same realizations I recognized as I journeyed from atheism to theism:
Objective moral truths are self-evident
Moral truths are not encoded in our DNA
Moral truths are not simply a matter of cultural agreement
Moral truths are not simply driven by “human flourishing”
Moral truths are not dictated by a common concern for our species
There is a difference between moral utility and moral creation
Theism provides, at the very least, sufficient “grounding” for the objective moral laws we willingly affirm with our words (or unwillingly reveal with our lives). I’ve encountered a number of skeptics who object to such a claim, however. One objection is named after one of Plato’s dialogues (the Euthyphro). Skeptics who hold this objection make the following claim: If God is the source of morality and decides what is “right” or “wrong,” the relationship between God and moral truth can be described in one of only two ways, and both of these possibilities are problematic:
An act is wrong because God condemns the act
If this is the case, morality is largely an arbitrary decision in the mind of God. In such a world, torturing babies for fun is not objectively wrong, but merely a decision God makes (when He could easily have decided otherwise). Would we be willing to accept baby torturing as morally virtuous if God had proclaimed it differently? Is morality “elastic” and merely an arbitrary decision? If your theology allows for a view of God in which He changes His mind (and revelation) given current conditions (like the God of Mormonism who altered His view of polygamy), how do we know if something is truly wrong or simply currently wrong?
God condemns an act because the act is wrong
One way to avoid such a capricious view of moral law is to argue moral truth is simply recognized and affirmed by God. This also problematic, however, because it suggests moral truth precedes (and even supersedes) God. In this view, God is not the necessary, objective source of moral truth, but is instead incidental to this truth (much like you and I). Why should we consider what God says at all if this is the case? If moral truth is the one true eternal reality, doesn’t it trump God?
If these are the only two ways to explain the relationship between God and morality, theists seem no better able to account for the objective nature of moral truth than atheists. There is however, a third alternative:
Moral truth is a reflection of God’s nature
From a Christian worldview, God doesn’t simply tell us what is righteous, He is righteous. Goodness and righteousness are attributes of his innate character. While it’s tempting to think there isn’t anything God couldn’t do, this is not the case. God cannot act or command outside of his character. He is innately logical and moral; it is impossible for Him to create square circles or married bachelors, just as it is impossible for Him to sin. Objective moral truths are simply a reflection of God’s eternal being. They are not rules or laws God has created (and could therefore alter recklessly), but are instead immutable, dependable qualities of his nature reflected in our universe. They exist because God exists (not because God created them or recognized them later). The Bible describes God as omnipotent and capable of doing anything he sets out to do. God’s choices, however, are always consistent with His moral and logical nature; He never sets out to do something contrary to who He is as God.
Theism is still the most reasonable explanation for the objective moral truths all of us either affirm or reflect with our lives. When skeptics argue against a transcendent God, yet acknowledge transcendent moral truths, they are acting inconsistently, given their worldview. They are borrowing from theism as they make a case against it.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.