He is the gospel, the good news, what He says is icing on the cake when seen through His own lens. He is the only possible warrant for believing in God that we will ever have. The icing is make it as well as you can now for the cake is all shall be well.
What does he mean in John when he says you must be born again?
Whatever we make it mean in the light of the gospel, i.e. above all Him and all He said and meant by it. But what are the implications, above all, of Him?
Thanks for your interest in my reply. You bring up some important issues to which I gave a lot of thought in the past 2 weeks or so.
Side note before I begin: @Daniel_Fisher’s comment about the use of the word “absolute” instead of “objective” is a good point. But to avoid confusion in the current discussion I won’t change horses in the middle of the stream.
I see that you do not state whether you accept or reject my definition of “objective” as being “defined by something (or someone!) entirely independent of and external to human existence and human purview,” though perhaps in saying that I am “kicking the can down the road” you are implicitly rejecting my definition as useful. In any event, your first comment uses a different definition of “objective,” one that would require morality to be above and/or beyond God, not just humanity, to be considered objective. Since the word “objective” is such a key word here, using a different definition would mean that we are really responding to different queries. Using my definition, and assuming orthodox Christianity as is evidently fair on this forum, I still consider my original answer to #1 to be satisfactory, but if there is disagreement there, I’m open to discussion. As far as I can tell, you don’t seem to dispute my reasoning, but rather think that the question I’m answering (i.e. with my definition for “objective”) is too small to be important.
So, since you brought it up, let me take a moment to give my thoughts on the question of whether or not morality is above/beyond God. I would say that God being the sole, omniscient, and “a se” Creator implies that He Himself is not subject to anything or anyone (by definition of a se), including more abstract notions like logic, rationality, or morality. I think the Bible teaches this. See for example Acts 17:24-25 (He has no needs!), Job 21:22, and Isaiah 40:12-14 (God could not be instructed in anything, meaning in particular that there is no morality which could exist separate from His nature). John Frame’s book “Apologetics” has an appendix about divine aseity which includes further discussions on this topic (particularly: God is His own standard of goodness, and His attributes, goodness included, are thus concrete and personal, not abstract or impersonal ideas; I recommend his entire book, as a matter of fact). So “How could we know if God is deriving morality from an objective standard separate from God?” If we accept orthodox Christianity, then we can say that He is not because the Bible tells us otherwise.
This leaves us with the question of how, then, He defines morality. I think the two primary options have been mentioned already in previous replies to this thread: that morality is defined directly by His nature (in particular, it follows necessarily from who He is) or “only” by His command and not His nature (which would seem to suggest that He could have chosen a different set of morals to command His creatures to follow if He had so desired). I’ve already given away my position on this, but let me nuance it a bit. I believe that there must be at least some core of morality which flows necessarily from God’s unchangeable nature. Why? One of God’s eternal characteristics is His perfect justice (see Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 19:7—9, 33:5, 89:14, 98:9; Isaiah 51:4—5, 61:8; Revelation 16:5—7). As justice is part of morality, then at least this aspect of morality would therefore be determined necessarily by His unchangeable nature. I think there are other attributes of God in this “core” in addition to His perfect justice, but one example is sufficient for my point that some core exists.
Now, as can be readily seen, not every command of the Law is at the same level of “eternal constancy.” Some commands make sense as being for all people everywhere, but some are particular to an individual culture or time. The difference between rape and driving on the correct side of the road is a modern example of this distinction between “moral law versus civil and ceremonial law.” But this doesn’t refute my claimed existence of the “core.”
In summary, I’m only claiming that there is at least some core morality which is defined by God in that it flows necessarily from His nature (I see this core as being a subset of moral law – or possibly all of it, though I would have to define more clearly what is meant by “moral law” to answer this). In this way, He is not subject to it, and it is not arbitrarily (“subjectively” by God) chosen. I think this accords with orthodox Christian doctrine.
The question (in my words) also naturally arises: “Even if we accept that God is the source of morality, how can we know that we can understand it from Him correctly?” To me, the answer rests, once again, on the nature of God Himself. If we accept the Christian doctrines that God is the sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient Creator, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to believe that He could make it possible for us, His creatures, to truly understand what He wants us to understand, morality included? Let me push that further: could such a God be unable to translate His desired knowledge for us into words, ideas, or analogies that we can understand? The answer must be “no” or else we contradict the nature of God. The fact that each one of us has a subjective experience of reality does not render something from God (morality or otherwise) unknowable. Under our assumptions, God understands perfectly our subjective experience, even better than we do ourselves (cf. Proverbs 20:5 and 1 Samuel 16:7 with Psalm 44:21, Luke 16:15, Acts 15:8, and Romans 8:27), so if He desires for us to know something, He has the ability to present it to us in an understandable way, whatever that might mean for each of our subjective experiences.
Moreover, I believe the Bible makes it clear that God is not just able to communicate to us, but that He desires to. The fact that we have Scripture at all and that His Law is codified for us is enough to establish this point, not to mention His oft-stated desire to “be our God, and we His people” (many references including Leviticus 26:12, Ezekiel 36:28, Jeremiah 32:38, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Hebrews 8:10, Revelation 21:3, as well as His actions in the Garden of Eden before the Fall).
He is both able and willing (and actually desiring) to communicate His ways to us. Thus God’s words to us can be firmly regarded as true, sure, and certain. Do humans still misunderstand what He requires of us? Of course this happens, and I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t. We are morally weak and bent toward evil. Our hearts are “desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Rather, my point is that, because of God’s ability to communicate to us correctly, coupled with His history of doing so, we can say with confidence that God’s morality can be known. Indeed, we are the ones to be held accountable for any “misunderstanding” (or rebellion, of course). It certainly is not God’s fault. But it also isn’t a victimless miscommunication in which no one needs to be held accountable. Morality is not out of humanity’s reach if God is the one speaking the words, so we are not free from its obligations. (Thank the Lord that He offers us grace and mercy through His Son, who alone could meet these obligations on our behalf!)
To claim that our subjective human experience makes all objective truths unknowable, as has been suggested by many, is to descend into irrationalism. On irrationalism, either no truth exists at all (which is a truth claim – thus this is a self-defeating viewpoint), or at the least we can’t trust anyone’s understanding of anything – even the statement that truth is unknowable! Either way it is self-defeating and would make all of these discussions nothing but a waste of time. So I don’t think we should go that route. Alternatively, if one believes that some truths are objective and knowable (thus avoiding outright irrationalism), but that no amount of morality is among those truths, then that viewpoint affirms a version of subjective morality.
So, though I have already made a positive case for objective morality, let me address subjective morality now. We must be clear about the meaning of the word “subjective.” We have so far been working with 2 choices for “objective” (in short: (1) independent of humanity, and (2) above God), and the corresponding definitions for subjective would be something like (1) dependent on human experience, and (2) dependent on an arbitrary, capricious, or otherwise changeable command of God (a necessary or unchangeable command of God or definition by His unchangeable nature wouldn’t describe what we mean when we say “subjective”). From what I understand in your post, this latter subjectivity seems to be what you would find troubling if morality were defined by God, but I will address these two in order. (As a side note, I won’t consider the possibility which extends the above dichotomy: that morality is defined by something supernatural and above humanity, but by some supernatural being other than God. This doesn’t seem to be an option that is concerning to anyone on this forum.)
Morality that is dependent on humanity is a difficult thing to argue for consistently. For if morality could be defined subjectively by each person’s conscience however they see fit, then we would have no basis on which to label someone else’s actions immoral, or even to label our own actions in the past as immoral (“I did such-and-such back then because it seemed right to me at the time”). There would be no overarching principle by which to compel any person to do anything that he or she doesn’t want to do. Some try to use some principle such as “the continuance of human flourishing” as this type of principle, but doing so introduces an objective standard (with a source yet to be identified), thus contradicting the assumption of subjective morality anyway. The only logically consistent “reason” I/we could give is that someone’s actions do not conform to my/our personal standard of morality, but this is no more than stating moral preference. What reason would we have to favor one person’s preference over anyone else’s? I could always choose my own preference, and no one would have the authority or ability to convince me to do otherwise.
You say that morality based on the human experience is superior “because it is based on what humans find to be the most important in their lives.” But I don’t see this as establishing its superiority; what if the thing most important to me is my immediate happiness, regardless of the cost to others? What if two individuals find that what is most important to them is incompatibly in conflict? These are not just idle hypotheticals – they happen in the real world. That latter scenario would place those two in a moral conundrum that doesn’t just have a difficult or unknown solution; it would be entirely unsolvable when arguing from the standpoint of morality dependent on human choices.
And yet, we all find ourselves in situations in which we think someone else has wronged us. We cannot help but label some actions as indubitably immoral, without debate; indeed, in your post you give some examples that would evidently make your list (killing children and committing genocide). Do we simply write off someone else’s wrongs as different individual choices, and nothing more? I don’t see anyone living that way. If someone severely wrongs us, we desire, expect, or even demand that it be made right. But why should our desires matter to our offender, if he/she is entitled his/her own moral preferences? And what does it even mean to make something “right” if right and wrong is up to each of us individually? Calling an act (like killing children) wrong, or saying that someone should or should not do that (imposing a moral obligation on someone), immediately posits a standard for morality beyond human experience. We cannot hold these two ideas (calling morality subjective and calling any actions just flatly immoral) simultaneously.
Of course, individuals disagree on what is moral, but that is not the question at issue here. Retreating to morality defined by an individual’s own sense or conscience gives us no resources to say that someone’s moral choices are actually wrong, and I simply have never known a person to live as if they accept that.
If morality were dependent upon an individual’s choice, the best we could hope for would be widespread agreement about morality (thus, subjective morality defined by a group of people, not an individual). But agreement constitutes neither reason nor a foundation. Even if such agreement existed, what if cultures changed in such a way as to erode this agreement over time? We would have no reason to call that shift “wrong.” Would we simply change our own personal senses of morality based on the majority opinion of the culture we happen to find ourselves in? If not, what other choice would we have (consistent with a culturally-defined morality, that is)? It doesn’t take a long look at history to find examples of cultures which have approved of actions that our modern culture finds despicable. But if morality can be defined by a culture, we would have absolutely no right to call those things wrong; they just don’t conform to our current collective preferences. Again, there would be no principle to tell us that some societies are more moral than others. And yet I’ve never heard anyone claim that all societies have been equally moral, though I’ve certainly heard claims to the contrary! I know of no one who can live, behave, or speak consistently with this understanding of morals.
Moreover, from an orthodox Christian worldview, if morality is subjective in this sense, then how are Christians to understand God’s moral commands in the Bible? If those commands aren’t about anything objective, then they aren’t really commands at all. If we are free to choose our moral preferences based on our subjective experiences (at the individual or cultural level), Biblical commands would be mere suggestions. Morality that is left up to each person’s or culture’s subjective experience runs counter, then, to Biblical teaching.
Of course, the Bible indicates that people will disagree on morality, but the (or a) reason given is that some do not seek the Lord and others do; only the latter “understand justice” (Proverbs 28:5). If we claim that morality is objective, then how can we adjudicate the inevitable disagreements among people, even among those who both believe they are being faithful to God? We have His Word as the standard, but of course there are still disagreements about interpretation. In my opinion, I don’t think humanity is in a position to be able to answer definitively all such questions (some questions, yes, but not all). If we were, we would be the judges, but of course that role is God’s (more on that below). The “wheat and the weeds” grow up together, and God will sort it out in the end (Matthew 13:24—30). And as a side note, the Bible gives us an indication that there is such a thing as morality even outside of the human experience: Christians will judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3), which would apparently mean that there is some notion of morality in the supernatural realm, outside of the human experience.
Thus, I don’t think that affirming a morality that is dependent on an individual’s or culture’s choices leads to a consistent, livable, or otherwise cogent viewpoint.
The second notion of subjective morality, that it is an essentially ill-conceived moral code from an arbitrary deity (the topic of the last sentence of your post), is next. First of all, as I described above, this situation, in which this deficient “God” commands us to do bad things, would indicate that there is an objective moral code which this God has an obligation to follow (or else, by what standard could we know that His commands are bad?). If, in being so obligated, this God simply needed to follow orders, He would have to give His allegiance to something (here, an apparently impersonal, abstract notion of morality) which is above Him. Could we really say, then, that He is God after all? I don’t think we could. If God has a boss, then that boss is the actual God. I would rather follow the boss. If God is God, He must be His own, self-attesting standard. So I think this view of subjective morality hides an internal inconsistency.
But let me pretend for a moment that there is a hierarchy in which humanity is answerable to God, and God is answerable to a higher moral code. Even this is only problematic if this God is untrustworthy or incompetent. If the God of the Bible is behind the morals, even if they were commanded by Him “arbitrarily,” then there is still no need to worry, even in this hypothetical scenario. God is completely worthy of our trust, as well as wholly wise, loving, and so many other characteristics relevant to morality. We would have every reason to believe that His system will be perfect. The problem of this supposed-but-actually-subordinate God doing a poor job of following His orders by commanding us to act in contradiction to that higher moral code vanishes. This hierarchy would only be describing some hypothetically possible universe, not the actual one we live in. So, even ignoring the inconsistency that I see in this viewpoint, I find that it worries about a universe we don’t live in ruled by a God who doesn’t actually exist. So I don’t see it bearing the hallmarks of truth.
One might ask if accepting God’s morality over our own runs into the same problems as above, namely, needing to choose one’s preferences over another’s. Why accept God’s choices over our own convictions? First of all, as just alluded to, He is entirely above us. He is not a “peer being” to humanity, but is ontologically something different, and higher, than we are; His ways are higher than our ways (see Isaiah 55:8-9). His nature is so much better than ours (morally, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) that it would be silly to think that our moral preferences would somehow be superior to His. I touch on this idea a little more below, too.
Now, what if we don’t understand why He commands us to “do this but not that?” Put simply, He doesn’t require our understanding, but rather our obedience. I think the old hymn is right when it says, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” This kind of submission is excoriated by many today, as the human heart is naturally inclined to assert itself over God. But let me explain why I think such submission to the one true God is necessary.
I’ll do so by starting with this question: what if we find that we don’t just lack understanding, but that we actually disagree with God on what constitutes correct morality? Certainly, there are individuals who accuse God of wrongdoing, sometimes even on the basis of what they perceive to be objective Christian morals. This is an entirely different matter. If God is God, then He is endowed with His natural position of authority to be the ultimate Judge. Basically, He is the one with the unique right to decide on (define) good and evil (Psalm 50:4-6, Isaiah 33:22, 2 Timothy 4:8, Hebrews 12:23, James 4:12, Revelation 20:11-13). He is the potter, and we are the clay (Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:1-10, Romans 9:19-24). He alone sets the standard, so He has the unique right to judge according to it. To accuse God of wrongdoing in either His actions or His commands, the same God whom the Bible worships as “holy, holy, holy,” (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8), in whom there is no variation or “shadow of turning” (James 1:17), in whom there is no evil (Psalm 92:15, James 1:13), is to have our understanding of Him flawed and our relationship with Him completely backwards. If we think we witness God committing evil, we are the ones who must change our minds, not Him. If we were in a position to judge God, then here again He wouldn’t be God after all. He would instead be more or less a peer being of humanity. But a peer would be worth only the occasional compliment, not the unending, unfettered worship that is offered to God throughout the Bible and commanded of us. (Side note: We are to worship Him because He truly deserves it – because of His wonderful nature – and is truly worthy of it, thus making the worship right, good, and proper. Not only does this mean that He cannot be our peer, but it means that He doesn’t command worship out of some insecure, petulant deficiency in Himself. He commands it because it is wholly right and good). The Bible also indicates that we are not in that position of authority; we are “doers” of the law, not judges of it (James 4:11). Something is clearly wrong with the viewpoint that we can make judgments about God’s choices.
So what if we find that we can only trust God’s commands when we are able to recreate all of His thoughts and verify that they meet our standards? This runs into the same authority problem; He wouldn’t be God at all. Again I’ll reference Isaiah 55:8-9. You ask, “If a deity commands us to go against our own sense of morality then what good is an objective morality?” This suggests that we ought to evaluate God’s commands on the basis of our own sense of morality. But doing so assumes at the outset that God does not have moral authority over us; it assumes the negation of a foundational point before the discussion is even had.
What good is it, then, to follow God’s commands, even if they run counter to our sense of morality? To reiterate something I said earlier, we are sinful and He is not. Thus, He is more trustworthy than we are, so it makes good sense to trust Him rather than ourselves. Only in doing so will we show faith enough to submit (cf. Hebrews 11:6). Only in doing so can our fallen sense of morality be remade in His righteous image, having our minds renewed to be able to discern what is “good and acceptable and perfect” in the first place (Romans 12:2). If we try to make ourselves the judges of right and wrong, then we have put finite, mutable, inconsistent, and, yes, evil hearts in charge (again I’ll reference Jeremiah 17:9). That cannot end well. But alas, I believe that many people resist submitting to the morality of the God of the Bible not for intellectual reasons, but for spiritual ones. They cloak their distaste for submission to God in intellectualism, but I believe the core issue is in their heart and spirit. (I am by no means suggesting that you are guilty of this, T_aquaticus, but I have certainly witnessed it elsewhere in my life.) I pray frequently for such individuals.
Let me supplement all this with a personal example. I used to have a much harder time genuinely forgiving someone who hurt me, even if they would apologize. I might say outwardly that I forgive them simply because I was taught to do so, but I tended to harbor bitterness in my heart. Part of me thought that that person should continue to suffer in some way for the pain they caused me. I thought this was justice; I thought I was doing the morally correct thing by holding them accountable and not letting their sins against me go unpunished. I even had the tendency to “write them off” and try to cut them out of my life, if possible. But in learning God’s precious words in Scripture, I gradually came to believe that I was wrong to think that way; my mind needed His renewal (Romans 12:2 again). I ought to extend to others the forgiveness that God has bestowed upon me, I realized. While I am still learning to do this (and of course, it becomes more difficult the more serious is the offense against me), I see so much good coming out of it. My relationships with others can be healed, restored, or not damaged as much in the first place. I can live with less anger in my heart. These good outcomes which I can already enjoy are things that I never would have known if I had not violated what I thought was right and started to choose God’s commands over my own. I couldn’t have guessed the good things that I was missing out on by clinging to my morality rather than trusting His. We don’t always have such immediate confirmation of obedience, but in this case, I have had it.
And even better than immediate, earthly benefits of submission to Him is His gift of salvation. Indeed, Romans 3:19-20 reminds us that one of the purposes of God’s Law (essentially His moral obligations placed upon humanity) is to reveal to us our sin so that we can understand that He is the one who is holy and that we are incapable of achieving holiness before Him, whether by following our own moral code or just by trying hard to follow His. Reflecting on and trying to live out God’s morality eventually leads us to realize that we need His help if we are ever to be morally justified before Him. We need His grace shown to us through Christ’s sacrifice, a sacrifice which sees God maintaining His perfect justice while simultaneously showing humanity mercy and offering justification. His plan of salvation is positively awe-inspiring.
So, what good is it to follow God’s commands even at the expense of my own sense of morality? Why should we submit to Him? We may not be able to guess the excellent things He has in store for obedience, both for ourselves and for His unstoppable Kingdom, until we take the step of faith to submit and obey. And I’m sure He has an eternity of more reasons to unfold before us as we follow Him.
P.S. You have another very important question in your post: “Whose God?” I am continuing to think on that and hope to have something to say soon.
I started to write a blow by blow response, but it feels like I am repeating a lot of what I said before. If there is something specific you would like me to respond to I would be happy to respond.
The difference between objective and subjective does seem to be an important one, so I thought I speak to that specifically. If I said chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla ice cream that would be a subjective statement. If I said there were 5 gallons of ice cream on a shelf in the supermarket that would be an objective statement, one that you or others could check for yourself and confirm. Objective facts are independent of the entity making the claim. If God is giving us an objective morality then there has to be a source independent of God that we could check for ourselves. If the source is God alone then it is a subjective morality. You may say that God is good, but how do we know that? An all powerful and all knowing supernatural deity is also capable of giving immoral commands.
In practice, subjective morality is what we use. We use our own sense of morality to determine if the tenets of a religion are moral. We reject the idea that actions can be justified by simply following the edicts in a set of scriptures. Obedience is not morality. “I was just following orders” can not excuse immoral actions. Each of us is held to account because we are expected to understand good from evil using our own sense of morality.
Great question, we need more like it.
When we talk about evolution we usually stop before we get to this question, because it becomes a lot more complicated than simple biological evolution. Undoubtedly the roots of morality are found in biological evolution. Compassion and Love, mother and child. Loyalty in Kin selection, monkeys have a sense of fairness. But, humans have taken the evolution of morality to an amazing level involving evolution of the brain, evolution of the mind and evolution of civilizations.
What really differentiates humans from their ancestors is our ability to cooperate in large numbers. To a large degree this has been dependent on agreed upon moral codes. Many in history have claimed their moral codes were revelations from God.
The Law given to Moses, is it from God?
Did it give Israelites/Jews a selective advantage when they kept it?
A well worded insight from Lewis…
To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially conditioned to have… the fatal superstition that men can create values, that a community can choose its ‘ideology’ as men choose their clothes. Everyone is indignant when he hears the Germans define justice as that which is to the interest of the Third Reich. But it is not always remembered that this indignation is perfectly groundless if we ourselves regard morality as a subjective sentiment to be altered at will. Unless there is some objective standard of good, over-arching Germans, Japanese and ourselves alike whether any of us obey it or no, then of course the Germans are as competent to create their ideology as we are to create ours. If ‘good’ and ‘better’ are terms deriving their sole meaning from the ideology of each people, then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another. Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring. For the same reason it is useless to compare the moral ideas of one age with those of another: progress and decadence are alike meaningless words.
“If there is something specific you would like me to respond to I would be happy to respond.” One topic I’m particularly interested to hear your thoughts about is regarding the critiques I gave of subjective morality in my last reply. They seem to me to be very problematic for subjective morality, so I would be curious to hear how you resolve them.
“The difference between objective and subjective…check for yourself and confirm. Objective facts are independent of the entity making the claim.” In my last reply, I identified a few possible definitions of the word “objective,” so I take it that the purpose in your quote is to establish the definition which you would like to employ. Namely, “independent of the entity making the claim.” I think that is reasonable. Indeed, this is not so different from the definition I used in my original post on this thread when I claimed that morality is objective with respect to humanity because it comes from a source independent of humanity (“something…entirely independent of and external to human existence and human purview”). I think it’s good to clarify this.
“If God is giving us an objective morality then there has to be a source independent of God that we could check for ourselves. If the source is God alone then it is a subjective morality.” Now, we have to nuance the definition of “objective” from the previous paragraph a bit. A moral claim can be objective with respect to humanity by being independent of humanity, or objective with respect to God by being independent of God. This added dimension to the definition is crucial because the relationship to morality could, a priori, be quite different for humans as compared to God. So we need to identify which one we are dealing with. In this quote, your criteria for what constitutes “objective morality” (without further qualifier) is something that is independent of God. I addressed what I see as the problems with this view already in my previous reply. In summary, a source independent of God to the extent that He is subservient to that source is an impossible situation because God by definition must be the highest of all entities in existence. So on this view, either the set of morals is not higher than God after all, or He is not God after all. As I have said before, I think it must be the former. If we could “check for ourselves” God’s morality, we would have to know by what criteria we would use to check it. I’m claiming that those criteria are precisely the morals which flow from God Himself (because of what is meant by “God” and by “morality”). So we would be checking God’s morals against themselves, which isn’t really much of a “check” at all. If you see a reason to dispute my claims, I’m open to hearing it.
“You may say that God is good, but how do we know that?” I do not say this on my own authority. This is a central Biblical teaching; I gave some Biblical references in my last reply. So, as Christians, we know it because the Bible is trustworthy. Now, if we are allowing for the possibility of God being any other kind of God from any other past, present, or possibly future belief system, then I cannot vouch for those other “gods.” And I make no claim about those other gods being good. But if we accept the God of the Bible, then we can know with confidence that He is completely and purely good.
This quote also runs into a familiar issue: by what standard can we determine if God is good or not? Can we be the judge of God’s goodness? Not at all! If we have the authority or the right to judge Him, then He isn’t God.
“An all powerful and all knowing supernatural deity is also capable of giving immoral commands.” Only a hypothetical god could. The Greek gods, for example (which were not actual deities) could do wrong by the standards of the actual God. But the God of the Bible has no such evil in Him (I gave some Biblical references on this in my previous reply). He is not capable of doing wrong, for it would violate His nature.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that in each of the last two quotes, you are allowing for God’s nature to be one of a large number of possibilities. I don’t believe the Bible supports an uncertain or unknowable view of what He is like, as I touch on in my last reply. Thus we would be allowing in this discussion gods which are not the God of the Bible. Let me say again that I make no claims as to their authority, goodness, or even existence. This underscores to me your question from before about “Whose God?” I still hope to reply to that soon. But for now, let me continue with your current post.
“In practice, subjective morality is what we use. We use our own sense of morality to determine if the tenets of a religion are moral.” I think that is true for most people at most times, but observing what happens in practice doesn’t justify it happening. What we do use isn’t necessarily the same as what we should use. We ought to use God’s correct morality, but often we think we know better, so we choose our way over His. If that God is the every-way-perfect God of the Bible, then to ignore His way in favor of ours is sin, plain and simple. So I don’t see this as a support for subjective morality but rather an essentially empirical observation.
But let me discuss it as a defense for subjective morality. Certainly, we are used to evaluating standards presented to us in life. Say a new law is passed; is it a good law (morally speaking)? We ask that kind of question all the time. A new law in our country can be evaluated because there is a higher morality which serves at its standard. Our country’s laws are subservient to that more fundamental standard of morality. But the situation is very different when discussing that standard itself. What basis can it be evaluated on? By definition there is no higher code or set or “sense” of morality, so what would we use in the evaluation process? There can be nothing. It must be its own standard, evaluated on the basis of its own terms, or else it isn’t the highest, most fundamental standard of morality at all.
This, by the way, is why I believe that morality must come from God Himself, because God is, by definition, not subservient to anything or anyone. Fundamental morality must be part of His nature because the alternatives lead to contradictions. If God is subservient to morality, then He isn’t God by definition. If morality is subservient to God, then God would evaluate morality on some other standard or basis of His – but then the basis that He uses would itself have to be the “real” basis for morality. So, as I see it, fundamental morality must be part of His nature. (As this doesn’t seem to be your view, T_aquaticus, I’d be interested to hear your reply on this point.)
Therefore, if morality is part of God’s nature, then the commands that God gives could be nothing but moral to their very core. For us to attempt to determine if they are moral or not is to declare ourselves to be or to have access (through our own sense of morality or wherever else) to a yet more fundamental morality, which is a logical impossibility. So, really the question is: will we accept the true morality as the true morality? Or will we choose our own version of what seems right and wrong to us? Doing the latter would lead us back to the problem of subjective morality being nothing more than preference. Judges 21:25 speaks of such a lawless time in Israel’s history. Though it does occur, it is not desirable by any stretch.
But in fact, Isaiah 53:6 and Romans 3:10-12, 23 go further to tell us that even today each one of us has chosen our own sense of right and wrong over God’s true morality. This isn’t condoned. It is precisely the reason for our guilt before God, the true Judge; it is why we need saving! God’s plan of salvation has punished Jesus in our place since our debt of moral rebellion is too great for us to pay (Romans 6:23, 2 Corinthians 5:21). We must accept His sacrifice rather than defend our perceived “right” to be lord over our own lives. (Yes, I see this issue of morality as being important for an exposition of the Gospel.)
I think it’s also worth pointing out that the quote isn’t always true. Indeed, as I described in my last reply, I myself have changed my view of morality on some issues because I have become convinced that the God of the Bible knows better than I do; so when I differ with Him, I am wrong. God’s morality judges me, not vice versa (James 4:11-12, which I referenced in my prior reply).
“We reject the idea that actions can be justified by simply following the edicts in a set of scriptures.” If the scriptures are writings that have their source in humanity (who are limited, meaning the sum of their wisdom is still flawed), then I would agree that they don’t constitute an adequate justification for actions. But what if the scriptures have their ultimate source in a perfect, supernatural being? This is precisely what Christians believe about the Bible. It was physically written down by people, but I believe its true author is the one and only faultless God. That’s a whole new ballgame. That Scripture would then be authoritative. Again, it would be what judges us, not the other way around.
(Side note: I have been implying that one could extract a set of commands from the Bible that are in some way equivalent to the higher notion of morality. I recognize that distilling down all of Biblical teaching into one complete, indisputable, universal set of “rules” is not trivial (and if we consider civil law as part of the list, then the list by definition isn’t universal). This is why there are moral disagreements even among faithful, Biblically-centered Christians. The Old Testament makes the “list of commands” mostly clear, but then the New Testament seems to complicate this endeavor (consider Peter’s vision in Acts 10, for example). But Jesus gives us the list of the two greatest commands, in order, in Matthew 22:36-40, and they come down to loving God with all of our being and loving other people as we love ourselves. Can these two commandments alternatively be given as an all-inclusive list of specific actions to take, and others to refrain from? After all, unfortunately, the Biblical concept of love has been perverted by sinful humanity, so we could reasonably ask for more specifics. So what exactly does it mean to “love God and love others” on a practical, day-to-day basis? Giving a manageable, understandable, but all-inclusive list of commands is effectively impossible. We have guidance in the Scripture, of course, but we are also faced with situations today in which applying principles from Scripture is still difficult. So, why does it seem that we are left in the lurch? I think part of God’s purpose in presenting morality to us this way is to force us into the process of seeking Him with our whole heart, of discovering His will more each day. A heart regenerated by the Holy Spirit will desire to live by God’s morals without need of a list of do’s and don’t’s (though some guidance is still useful!). And a heart not regenerated by the Holy Spirit will not love and desire Him, and thus will not be pleasing to the Lord anyway, even if a list of commands is (begrudgingly) followed. It might sound cliche, but Christianity really is a relationship. We get to know Him more every day that we walk with Him, and I think that’s at least one reason why “the command list” for New Covenant Christians is not spelled out in such concrete terms.)
Now, back to your quote, I ask: what would justify an action? Presumably we would agree that the answer is “the action’s adherence to the most fundamental realization, manifestation, or expression of goodness.” I have already argued that this fundamental realization of goodness is part of God’s own nature which is explained to us (to the extent we can understand it) through His Scripture, the Bible. In particular this means that it isn’t an arbitrarily chosen set of rules. And the Bible isn’t just one scripture among many peers, as if the scriptures of all world religions are equally true or authoritative. So we Christians don’t believe that we are haphazardly choosing one set of scriptures over another without good reason. The one and only true God stands behind the Bible.
“Obedience is not morality. ‘I was just following orders’ cannot excuse immoral actions.” First off, let me say that this quote assumes again that there is such a thing as immorality, a standard to which a person can be held accountable regardless of his/her personal sense of morality. This idea would contradict the notion that morality is up to each individual’s sense of morality. I am not sure how you reconcile these ideas.
Further, to repeat some ideas from a few paragraphs ago: this quote assumes that the orders can themselves be evil. If the edicts are pure and perfect, then obedience to them is indeed true morality. And following those orders would be the most moral thing we could do.
It occurs to me that we may be thinking about morality in a different way from each other. If a list of rules, edicts, commands, etc. can be tested against some other sense or set of right and wrong, against some other understanding or “measurement” of good and evil, then the list of rules is not the fundamental expression of morality after all. The sense/understanding/measurement would be the fundamental expression, and thus that sense would be what I am referring when I say the word “morality.” Like I mentioned above, we can ask if our nation’s laws are morally good, but that’s because we have a higher sense of good and evil to appeal to. But here we are speaking of morality itself, the most fundamental realization/expression of good and evil. To ask if that higher sense, that fundamental expression of morality, is good or evil tells us nothing because it compares itself against itself. As I discussed above, there can be no other standard by which to judge it other than itself, or else we wouldn’t be talking about morality (the fundamental expression) in the first place. It would effectively be asking, “Is good good ?” Trivially, yes. This question and answer is vacuous.
“Each of us is held to account because we are expected to understand good from evil using our own sense of morality.” I’ll be largely repeating myself here: by what standard are we held to account? If there is a standard of good and evil that we are all obligated to know and adhere to, then that presupposes a morality that is determined independently of our own sense of morality (which is how we defined objective morality above). It says that morality is subjective, but at the same time is required to comply with an objective standard; this is self-contradictory. And if different individuals have different senses of morality (which we do as a human race), then what is good or evil anyway? Good to one could be evil to another. Then “understanding good from evil” would be a phrase with no meaning at all because each person could interpret however they desire, with no way to adjudicate inherent incompatibilities between two interpretations (this is the same idea in C.S. Lewis’ quote from @Daniel_Fisher). Individuals may use their own personal, subjective morality in practice, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for an objective standard to judge between individual moral senses.
If there is a point I have brought up in these replies that you believe is incorrect, T_aquaticus, I would be interested to hear your reasons why. Many of my points above are repeated from my previous reply, but I am still not sure how you resolve them.
On that note, you may wonder why I care to say some of these things again. I care about this issue because it has important implications for our view about God and His Word, and thus our relationship with Him, which is all-important in our lives. I want you, myself, and everyone else to appropriately revere God for who He is; “hallowed be His Name.” For if this God really does exist, then He would be worthy to be extolled so much so that not doing so would be wrong and to the detriment of our spirits. John Piper is right that the greatest good is to know Him as He is, which, if one knows Him accurately, leads necessarily to desiring Him more and worshiping Him for who He is. (I don’t have a specific quote of his about this, but I’m sure there is one somewhere in his “Desiring God” book…)
In the end, what is important is for each of us to know God for who He is and to love Him well. I engage in this discussion because I think this particular issue can help us all grow in those areas. As in Matthew 22:37, I endeavor to love God with all of my mind, believing correct things about Him (through reasoning, His revelation, etc.), so I hope any disagreements that may arise will lead to learning for each of us, myself included. But no matter what, I pray that we don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal during this or any discussion.
It depends on a combination of several surrounding factors. But my simple belief is if being a human being is not an optimum quality for humanity, then the whole point is defeated.
Then it would be a subjective morality as determined by the whims of God.
Then we would have to ask how we would know if God’s commandments are moral.
The Bible was written by men and is being judged by men. It is the authority of men throughout. This would be a human derived and subjective morality.
You believe God is good, you don’t know it. Those are different things. Knowledge isn’t derived by just believing something to be true. Knowledge is derived through evidence, reason, and logic.
Then we can’t know if God is good, according to that argument. Therefore, none of God’s commandments can be demonstrated to be good. All one can do is believe they are good.
This also creates a rather large problem for your argument. What we believe or don’t believe is subjective. Which religion we believe in is subjective. Therefore, the choice of commandments to follow is subjective.
I disagree. If God’s morality goes against everything we humans deem moral then we shouldn’t follow God’s morality. Without going to far afield, I bet you know of many examples of people committing atrocious acts because they believed that’s what God commanded them to do.
The standard is the wants and needs of human beings.
That is exactly what you are setting up. You are saying that God is subservient to morality because God can not command us to do something immoral.
Christians are humans. The Bible was written by humans. You have humans claiming that human written scriptures are the ultimate source. By your own criteria, the Bible is not adequate.
First, it is arbitrary because you are using one out of many such scriptures that make the same claims. Second, you are making the argument, and you are a human. Third, the scriptures were written by humans.
Humans have an inner sense of morality that is common to almost all humans. That is the standard.
Thank you Christopher, you have helped me collect my thoughts as well and will try to communicate some of them.
I believe that Gods inbreaking to evolution is that he has revealed glimpses of his reality to humans that seek him. The monks and mystics of all religions are really not very far apart in their thinking and ideas, but these monks would not survive long in the world. We know from Game theory that altruists, like the early Christians, get slaughtered.
It seems revelations from God need to be compromised to survive in our world. Clearly Jesus was a pacifist, but Christianity had to find justification for war before the Romans accepted it and spread it through much of the world.
Mortal laws are a tool, it is a tool to restrain our wildness. In fact, God was the one that created the basic since and world view, which got passed on generators to us. we worth nothing, all billions of years or humanity civilization, or even earth, is just dust in the universe. universe can be endless, or it could be a huge space. we do not matter to the universe or anything else, but we do matter to God. So, mortality came from god.
First let me reply to your most recent post. But this is only a partial reply. I plan to also post a reply about some related issues in the next few days.
“Then it would be a subjective morality as determined by the whims of God.” This view of God assumes that He is as arbitrary and as prone to aimless whimsy as any human. That just isn’t true of the Christian God. I have said already in an earlier reply that a morality determined by God’s choices (even though I don’t think that is a correct description of morality’s source) is not simply up to His whims, as if He would change His mind at any point. He is steady, unchanging, and trustworthy. For the view of this quote to apply, we must be talking about a God other than the God of the Bible; I make no defense for some other “god.”
“Then we would have to ask how we would know if God’s commandments are moral.” Precisely my point. If God’s morals are the highest standard, they can be checked only against themselves. As strange as this may seem at first, this is an unavoidable situation for a foundation for morality (and all of human reasoning) of all worldviews. For example, if you hold that your personal, subjective view of morality is your criteria to judge actions, then your personal morality would be the standard that it measures itself against. There must be a final step in the process of moral evaluation. There’s just no way around it. Basically, since human beings are finite and limited, all of our knowledge has to start somewhere, including our basis for morality. We must have an ultimate authority, ultimate reason, ultimate standard, or ultimate criteria. If our knowledge started nowhere, there would be an infinite regress of supporting reasons, which isn’t possible for a finite mind like the human mind (not to mention it is just another form of irrationalism, as I pointed out in a prior reply). Thus this apparent circularity of an ultimate standard being its own standard is required for anyone’s and everyone’s view of morality, regardless of their worldview. I realize that introducing the word “circularity” would normally sound the alarm on a line of reasoning, but there’s a difference here. The present circularity in reasoning is not of the same type as the unhelpful or fallacious “circular logic” that we all know – and must avoid – from basic logic; the fallacious type is an artifact of a particular line of reasoning or worldview that isn’t present in other views, but as I said that isn’t the case for the circularity discussed here. You can read more about this in Frame’s “Apologetics,” especially Chapter 1 and Appendix D.
I admit that I used to resist this circularity argument at first. But as I reflected on it for an extended period, I eventually became convinced that it is the only way to establish a foundation for “ultimates.” It is an observation with huge implications for human epistemology. The alternatives in our present day world, in particular the milieu of scientism in the Western world, just cannot compare (more on scientism below). As Cornelius Van Til would put it, those other views lack the necessary “epistemological self-consciousness.” They don’t illuminate their own foundation.
I’m not sure that just two paragraphs do justice to this important topic, but I hope you see the point I am trying to make.
“The Bible was written by men and is being judged by men. It is the authority of men throughout. This would be a human derived and subjective morality.” The Christian view of the Bible is that it is built on the authority of God, not men. The Bible claims that it is divinely inspired and not written under the auspices of humanity only. But we don’t just believe in the divine inspiration of Bible on the basis of its claims; such claims would be necessary, but not sufficient. The Bible supports its own case for divine inspiration in many situations (such as Jesus supporting His ministry with miracles, most of all His resurrection). And history and archaeology support so many of the Bible’s claims as well, though of course the charged nature of these topics means that every evidence will have its opponents. I have also mentioned in a different thread how the Bible’s coherent worldview and its ability to get right to the human heart and describe flawlessly the human condition, to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart (see Hebrews 4:12-13), gives us reason to believe that it isn’t just a product of humankind. Its source is supernatural, as it claims (2 Timothy 3:16). Again, one paragraph hardly does justice to this topic; there is more to the case for divine inspiration of the Bible. But to claim that the Bible rests on human authority because it was physically written down by humans is to deny even the possibility of the Bible’s claims before allowing its case to be made.
“You believe God is good, you don’t know it. Those are different things. Knowledge isn’t derived by just believing something to be true. Knowledge is derived through evidence, reason, and logic.” I agree that knowledge is derived through more than mere belief. A common, workable definition for knowledge in philosophy is “justified, true belief” (there are some almost pathological counterexamples to this definition, but I think we can safely ignore them for our purposes). So, belief is one of 3 necessary components of knowledge. I certainly have the belief that God is good, and I hope that you do, too. What is true is our very question, so our discussion will for all intents and purposes have to ignore that component of knowledge. The remaining component is “justification.” This is a can of worms, to put it mildly. What justifies a belief? You apparently allow for “evidence, reason, and logic.” I would agree that they are justification, but I don’t think they are the only sources, either.
I have already used reason and logic in my previous replies to give at least partial justification of the claim that God is good, though if you think I have done so improperly, feel free to point out possible errors. But let me make a further comment here. It is argued by Cornelius Van Til and his philosophical devotees that the very use of logic in the first place doesn’t make sense inside any worldview other than Christianity. So, to promote the use of logic with any non-Christian worldview would be inconsistent. Of course, that isn’t to say that non-Christians do not use logic; in practice it is probably the most used tool among any worldview whatsoever. But the point is that doing so introduces an inconsistency in the worldview. Why? The full reasoning is rather lengthy, so I will refer you to Chapter 4 of John Frame’s “Apologetics” that I have referenced before. The briefest of summaries would be: logic does not make sense in a universe in which there is not an “absolute personality” as the universe’s ultimate being. While I don’t have the time or space to fully defend that view here, I did want to at least bring up this claim. Once this claim is put forth, to use logic outside of the Christian worldview should at the very least give one pause if this claim hasn’t been analyzed.
The other component of justification you put forth is evidence. Evidence could take many forms. The historical and archaeological evidence for the Bible adds to its credibility. That’s significant because my comment to which you replied was a logical implication; I only claimed that the statement’s conclusion follows from its premise. The premise was the truth of the God of the Bible, which is a justifiable premise, especially on a Christian forum such as this. My claim was then that we can know from the Bible that this God is indeed good. My point was that the question of God’s goodness can be answered by those who accept the Bible as authoritative. If you do not accept the Bible as authoritative (you at least raise questions about its authority), then that would be another topic.
Not to be overlooked, another possible form of evidence is personal experience. I have years of significant personal experience with the Bible’s claims that convince me that it could not be written on the authority of people alone and that convince me that God is good. Of course, I know others do not share my experience, but others’ experiences don’t invalidate mine any more than mine invalidate theirs.
Now, when you say that “knowledge is derived through evidence, reason, and logic,” it seems possible that you may be espousing scientism, the belief that science is the only reliable source of true knowledge. J. P. Moreland’s book “Scientism and Secularism” has much to say about the inconsistencies and dangers of such a worldview and why it is a futile basis for epistemology. A few outlined reasons:
- Scientism is a self-refuting philosophy; there is no scientific evidence to establish the view that science is the only source of knowledge, so it doesn’t meet its own criteria.
- Scientism has a shaky foundation. It relies on the interpretive ability of the scientist (or scientific community) being essentially infallible. But the worldview itself gives no reason to believe that humans can discover, understand, or interpret science reliably. Scientism depends on our interpretation of the universe being completely reliable, while offering no reason even to trust the consciousness of the humans making those interpretations. And related, there is always more out in the universe that is unknown; who’s to say that those unknowns won’t fundamentally alter the “knowns” to the point of even contradicting what we thought we knew? Many times in history, the scientific consensus at any one time has been shown later to be incorrect, so couldn’t that occur in the future to almost all of what we currently consider factual knowledge? Scientism is not able to say no. Ironically, scientism casts great doubt on the efficacy of science.
- Scientism depends on the universe being orderly and regular and having consistent, stable laws over time. We expect its laws to continue because we have observed their stability in the past (at least the relatively recent past in comparison to the believed age of the universe), but scientism itself has no reason to believe that that will continue in the future. Thus it has no foundation for one of its essential assumptions.
- Scientism doesn’t have an adequate explanation for the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” Why is it that supposedly abstract and theoretical mathematical musings done by someone alone at their desk can so frequently find crucial applications in seemingly unrelated real-world problems? There would be no reason to expect such “luck” within scientism.
- Specific to the current discussion of morality: science cannot tell good from evil at all. Scientists (as people) make claims of good and evil, but science itself does not. Truth claims regarding issues which are beyond the scope of science defy scientism.
One other thought here: there is commonly an implicit charge in scientism that anyone who doesn’t hold a scientistic view is a fideist (something like: “either you trust the facts of science or you are led by blind, groundless faith”). Hopefully my previous replies have made it clear that this isn’t the case.
Let me also emphasize that the problems listed above apply to scientism as a worldview, not the practice of science. The tool of science is a great and effective gift of God when understood and applied within a proper worldview. In the Christian worldview, God, the “Absolute Personality” creates the orderly universe and guides scientists in their search, resolving the problems listed above. Scientific discoveries are more reliable when they are grounded in the activity and guidance of the Creator than that of the creation.
Of course, I am only inferring a preference for scientism on your part, so these last few paragraphs might not be applicable to you anyway.
“Then we can’t know if God is good, according to that argument. Therefore, none of God’s commandments can be demonstrated to be good. All one can do is believe they are good.” My discussion of “circularity” above addresses this: the highest standard must be its own standard. God’s morality is that standard. Thus it is perfectly legitimate, in fact necessary, for God to be His own standard if He exists. We certainly can (and should!) believe that He and His commandments are good, but that isn’t all we can do: we have plenty of evidence that He is the true God (some discussed above in the context of the Bible), so our belief comes with significant justification. Indeed, living by His standards as much as we weak humans are able gives additional evidence of their goodness (as I referenced above, this has been my personal experience; and see Psalm 119 for that author’s similar experience).
On the other hand, let me carry out to completion the notion of humanity judging God’s morality, as if He were a peer of humanity. What if we found Him in the wrong? Would we tell Him to change? Would He listen to us, especially if He is the arbitrary and capricious deity you suggest that He could be? Would He need to listen to us if He is in total authority over us? Would anything be gained by instructing Him if we were able to? Even if judging God were justified, I don’t see a productive endgame in this scenario.
In the end, seeking the truth about whether God is good or who God is more generally (or if He is even there at all) is not a purely academic exercise. It isn’t just an intellectual endeavor that leads us to a lifeless, inanimate, stuffy, monolithic, impersonal “truth.” If the Biblical God is real, then He is living and active, near to us (Acts 17:27, James 4:8), a person capable of communicating with us, even communicating things which seem/are impossible to discover otherwise (“seeing the invisible” in Romans 1:20 or “knowing that which surpasses knowledge” in Ephesians 3:19). If God is real, then we could come to Him and ask Him Himself.
And of course, I recognize and agree with you that everyone does possess a subjective notion of what is good. So let me appeal to that subjective sense of yours for a moment. Think about God’s actions to you personally as described in the Bible. Consider what the Bible says God has done: He loves us enough to sacrifice Himself on our behalf, and gives us all the gifts, even eternal life, as soon as we accept Him. We don’t have to “perform” for Him to earn these rewards. We can receive them on the basis only of what He has done for us, which He then offers to us freely. He was willing to humble Himself to come in the form of a man in Jesus to suffer and die just to save us (see Philippians 2:5-11). How much must He love us in order to do that of His own choosing! He loved us even when we were His enemies (Romans 5:8). Can we look at those actions of God and agree that they are good? And that level of good, that love, isn’t offered anywhere else, either. The love offered by the God of the Bible is so unfathomably strong and is unique among any other proposed gods. Even without knowing your subjective sense of goodness, I would venture to say that you would call anyone who treats you with that amount of love a “good person.” Even if you had doubts about other things that this good person has done, you would reasonably start to see those other things in light of the love they treated you with. The loving actions are too magnificent to ignore. If we can agree on that, then I think the rest of our conversation can take a backseat. And questions about His goodness in other instances would have to be seen in light of His ongoing goodness to us as He sustains us and graciously helps us in our sanctification. Even if we subjectively thought that something else that He has done is wrong, His salvation and sanctification of us tells us His character is good, so we would have to start to think that His other acts might be justified and have good reason. Indeed, His love is so good that it demands a response from us.
I sincerely hope and pray that you discover for yourself God’s goodness and accept it on your behalf, if you have not already done so. When it comes to belief, mountains of debate pale in comparison to personal experience of God’s goodness. I hope you seek out such personal knowledge of God if you aren’t already. I am confident that He won’t turn you away if you truly want His answers.
“I disagree. If God’s morality goes against everything we humans deem moral then we shouldn’t follow God’s morality. Without going to far afield, I bet you know of many examples of people committing atrocious acts because they believed that’s what God commanded them to do.” Sometimes God has commanded things of His people that are hard for our modern prejudices to swallow (such as using Israel to execute His righteous judgment on hopelessly wicked nations surrounding them). But this is part of the crux of my point: if my prior arguments establish the goodness of God’s unchanging character, then if God has truly commanded it, it isn’t sin. We may not understand or even like it, but we are not the standard of right and wrong. In any case, God’s morality doesn’t go against everything we deem moral, so this is merely hypothetical. Quite often human morality naturally lines up with God’s morality (because of His common grace on humanity, He hardwires us that way). In the few times when the two moralities don’t line up, obeying His way instead of our own is absolutely the right way if He is the standard of good (as I have been arguing that He is). I have made the case for this already. If you disagree, then I fear that you credit humanity with power and purity that it just doesn’t deserve.
Certainly some people (and groups of people) have sinned mightily thinking that they are obeying God. But those were not genuine commands of God.
“The standard is the wants and needs of human beings.” I have already laid out critiques of this view, so I won’t repeat it all here.
“That is exactly what you are setting up. You are saying that God is subservient to morality because God can not command us to do something immoral.” Let me clarify. God “cannot” command us to do something immoral not because He is unable or is constrained by a force higher than He, but because it is a logical impossibility. And the same way that morality’s core is part of God’s unchanging character, so too are the laws of logic. Thus for God to adhere to His own morality and to logic is for Him to simply be who He is; He is not subservient to either morality or logic.
I cannot swim across the Atlantic Ocean without stopping because I don’t have the strength or ability. I also cannot both exist and not exist simultaneously, but this time it’s because to do so would be a logical contradiction. The same word “cannot” is used in both contexts, but the two meanings are clearly distinct. Thus when I say that God cannot violate the morals which inhabit His personality, I am using the latter sense of “cannot.” So I am not saying that God is subservient to morality.
“Christians are humans. The Bible was written by humans. You have humans claiming that human written scriptures are the ultimate source. By your own criteria, the Bible is not adequate.” I have discussed this above. The Bible can be written physically by humans but simultaneously have its authority, its source, based in its ultimate author, whom Christians believe to be God. So they are only “human-written Scriptures” in a sense that is not relevant to the argument (namely the physical sense). As I say above, if you doubt that the Bible has divine authority or doubt that it is divine revelation, then that is a separate topic for us. But the Christian view is that the Bible is God’s work even though He uses human authors to put it into a human form (He commonly uses humans “vessels” for His divine purposes). BioLogos affirms this viewpoint. So on a fundamental level, on the level needed for our discussion, it would be incorrect to say that “the Bible was written by humans.”
“First, it is arbitrary because you are using one out of many such scriptures that make the same claims. Second, you are making the argument, and you are a human. Third, the scriptures were written by humans.” To your “first” and “third” point: just because several Scriptures make the same claims does not mean that they are all equally true. There are good reasons to believe that the Bible is the unique set of true Scriptures and with a divine author, so to choose to follow them is anything but arbitrary. I think my response here goes along with your previous quote, too.
To your second point, I’m not certain of the implication. Yes, I am a human, and I am flawed, limited, and sinful. But it doesn’t follow that everything I say is wrong. To suggest that some argument I describe is wrong simply because I am human is to commit the genetic fallacy: believing it to be wrong only because of its source. I could apply the same logic to everything that anyone says on spiritual matters. It is still possible for humans to say correct things. In fact, much of “my” argument isn’t mine at all; it is from God’s revelation in the Bible which I am trying to faithfully represent. I cannot take credit for its truth – but any mistakes are fully mine. If I repeat the words of an infallible God, then what I say must be true and would carry the authority of God (though of course a messenger can’t be haughty about delivering a true message). Now, I don’t claim my arguments to be a specially revealed word of God, and if I have misrepresented God’s Word in some way, then that is my fault. But to the extent that my arguments are consistent with God’s words, they are as trustworthy as He is. I’m not sure if this is responding to the point you were making, so you can let me know if I’m “barking up the wrong tree.”
“Humans have an inner sense of morality that is common to almost all humans. That is the standard.” I have discussed some problems with this standard as a foundation already in prior posts, but there are some other thoughts I want to add. I think there is less agreement across times and cultures than you are suggesting (and even the agreement that is there has a simple explanation inside the Christian worldview: God’s common grace to all humanity puts the seeds of His morality in our hearts so that He graciously limits the lawlessness on the earth). Even so, how much agreement is enough for a certain belief to “count” as being part of this standard of morality? Do we need 99% agreement? In that case there would be almost nothing on the “list of morals.” Is a simple majority enough? In that case our morals (the standard by which we would all personally be held accountable) would be swayed by a small number of people, perhaps people who don’t care much to think through their beliefs at all. That is unsettling, to put it mildly. What about some number between them – a two-thirds majority? Even if we can choose some number, how would we know we have the right one or even just a good one? And how would we actually know that we achieve that level of agreement in the earth short of taking a representative, global survey? On this view, though, these questions would need answers before anyone could claim that they know what is right and wrong. Since that is practically impossible, then in our day-to-day lives, we would be held to a standard that we could never adequately identify. This is highly problematic.
So, I have doubts that those questions can be answered in real life, but for the sake of argument let’s assume they can be. If there isn’t enough agreement on a particular moral issue, does it cease to be a moral issue? And could individual cultures be “allowed” to (i.e. be morally justified) in breaking with the global opinion? There are almost certainly moral views which would be the majority opinion in the U.S. but which buck global values; would it be morally right to be countercultural with respect to the U.S. view just to conform to the global one? Or should an American do as the Americans do?
Perhaps a bigger problem here is given in the dual facts that, on this view, no one person would be justified in disagreeing with the majority opinion (that’s by definition of the standard in this view), but, secondly, as can readily be observed, opinions do change over time (both for individuals and for cultures). These two are, practically speaking, incompatible. For, fix a moral issue X. Sometimes those in the minority opinion on X (who, according to this view, are wrong by definition) eventually change the mind of enough people in the majority opinion to flip the majority. But then that would imply that public opinion on X is won over by a view that was immoral, by definition. Moral “progress” of a society would necessarily have its origins in something morally wrong, according to this view. This is an absurd conclusion which derives from this view, one that I think undercuts it severely.
For example, in the U.S. at least, consider opinions on gay marriage between 2004 and 2019. According to the Pew Research Center, those opposed outnumbered those in favor by approximately a factor of 2 in 2004 – but that flipped completely in 2019 to those in favor outnumbering those opposed by nearly the same factor: https://www.pewforum.org/fact-sheet/changing-attitudes-on-gay-marriage/. So, on this view, what is right and wrong would have actually changed in those 15 years. If a person held a consistent view from 2004 to 2019, they would have had that same viewpoint change from wrong to right or right to wrong, depending on which side they fell on this issue. Can one really believe that?
Has there never been a time where you held a minority moral opinion and thought that you were right, with the majority being wrong? If you hold this “majority rule” view of morality, then any time you disagree with the majority, you must be wrong by definition. So there could never be a reason that is justifiable, according to this view, to disagree with the majority. Can we live with this conclusion? I doubt it.
And similarly, the majority would be justified in doing anything to the minority, so long as they agree on it, and no one would have a reason to call it wrong (of course, people would protest, but to do so would be unjustifiable according to the majority rule standard). Again, I don’t think we can live with this conclusion.
It’s also worth pointing out that the standard you list here (“Humans have an inner sense of morality that is common to almost all humans. That is the standard.”) can conflict with the standard you enumerate above (“The standard is the wants and needs of human beings”). Humans’ wants and needs are quite often in conflict with one another. They might intentionally do things that they know aren’t best for them because their carnal desires are too strong, and thus they are blinded to the gravity of the long-term consequences. Or their expectation of what will fulfill their needs is simply wrong. After all, humans can’t see far enough into the future to know the end of their choices (the book of Proverbs gives much practical advice for the reader – who is all of us, really – who couldn’t otherwise “perceive the end” of their behavior). Left to themselves and without guidance, people will do things that are unhealthy or destructive to their physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being. But often they don’t know that until it is too late (Proverbs 14:12). These standards don’t always coincide.
So the standard of what is commonly agreed upon by most people is not an acceptable standard. In contrast, despite what humanity might favor today, “let God be true though everyone were a liar” (Romans 3:4). Public opinion is an unstable, shifting foundation, but the unchanging God of the Bible (James 1:17) is our solid Rock. I urge you to build your foundation on the solid rock (Matthew 7:24-27).
More to come soon.
Hey T, here as well!
Hi again T_aquaticus,
Here is my promised second post.
In response to a few of your comments over the last several posts, I want to give an account of a few reasons to believe that the God of the Bible is the one and only true God over against His supposed “competitors” from other belief systems (this will include my answer to your earlier question of “Whose God?” that I have been promising to speak to) and reasons to believe the Bible is God’s trustworthy Word to us. There are then a few other loose ends I want to tie up. This being a Christian forum, I have often been speaking from a Christian point of view, but I think discussing these here is appropriate given the content of our discussion so far.
By the way, before I start, let me say that I don’t fault you for having such questions or doubts. Even the most faithful believers have doubts at some point in life, and everyone (regardless of one’s belief system and worldview) has questions that they are unable to answer fully. And I recognize the natural “ebb and flow” of questions of this nature, how each one of us has seasons where some questions occupy our minds more than others. So I simply intend this post to give you some confidence in Christian belief if you desire it.
How can we see that the God of the Bible is the one true God? One important step is to see the distinctives of Christianity. Christianity is unique among all world religions and belief systems in several ways. I’ll focus on three: Jesus’ Resurrection, salvation by grace, and Ravi Zachrias’ “four fundamental questions.”
First, Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection is central; 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 tell us it is necessary for Christian faith, and Acts 17:31 connects it to God’s inevitable, righteous judgment. Many other Scriptural passages could be included in this list, too.
The Bible makes clear that it was an historical event, not simply a metaphor or an allegory. And further, 1 Corinthians 15:6 indicates a large number of people were eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus, so concluding that the post-resurrection encounters with Jesus were hallucinations loses credibility. Historical and philosophical scholars like N. T. Wright and William Lane Craig have written extensively on this topic (I know these two have some negative feelings directed towards them – which tend to be unfairly critical, in my opinion – but whatever your feeling is about them, please don’t discount their discussion out of hand simply because of the source). Craig has a brief and readable account at this link: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/images/uploads/The_Resurrection_of_Jesus.pdf
Basically, he gives historical evidence of 4 facts that, when taken together, can scarcely be explained by anything other than Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The four facts, quoted from this above pdf, are:
- “After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.”
- “On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.”
- “On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.”
- “The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.”
Richard Swinburne adds another scholarly contribution to the resurrection’s case. He uses a statistical argument to claim that the posterior probability of Jesus rising from the dead is 97%. You can see a summary of his argument here: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~orie0087/pdf_files/Papers%20from%20Philosophical%20Journals/Swinburne_2013-resurrection.pdf
There is more to the argument in his books “The Resurrection of God Incarnate” and “Was Jesus God?” While some are tempted to write these off as the ravings of a religiously motivated charlatan, note that these are published by the reputable Oxford University Press. Regardless of what one thinks about his specific arguments (for example, his assignment of the various probabilities), they should be taken seriously as scholarly works.
Further, I have been told by a pastor (though I admit I don’t have a source to confirm this) that 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection, about half of Jerusalem had belief in Christ. Now, if Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, Jerusalem would be the worst place for belief in Him to grow since that is where the entire crucifixion event took place. If it could be demonstrated to be a false narrative, surely Jerusalem of all places could verify that! For example, if Jesus was still dead, they could have just gone to His tomb and produced His body.
As foreign as this is to us, I think these arguments give a compelling case for the truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. I know that bodily resurrection is easy for a scientist to balk at, and of course many have tried to explain it another way (I’ve even heard Craig talk about a scholar who postulated a previously unknown identical twin of Jesus who returned to Jerusalem right after Jesus’ death – certainly far-fetched). In the end, I hope you agree that this evidence is convincing.
There are a few stories of resurrection from other religions such as Zoroastrianism, but Jesus’ resurrection stands alone in its (historical) veracity.
The implications of Jesus’ resurrection are monumental. If Jesus rose from the dead, that alone gives enormous credibility to His ministry and the Bible’s claims to His divinity; I would say it immediately puts Him “ahead” of anyone who has not resurrected (so, even a polytheist would have to put Jesus above the other gods as the only one truly worthy of worship, though I don’t think polytheism has been on the table in your questions). Frankly, I think this miracle alone makes it difficult to choose to follow anyone else besides Him. Jesus connects His own life (both before and after resurrecting) with the God of the Bible, the Creator of all else and the God who revealed Himself through the Old Testament prophets and then through Jesus Himself. Thus the resurrection lends credibility to the Biblical canon as well. And for the believer in Christ, His resurrection guarantees our own according to 1 Corinthians 15:35-58.
The second distinctive is salvation by grace. Christianity’s soteriology is absolutely remarkable: God took the form of a man and then willingly (though unjustly) suffered and died as a man. He did so to bear the punishment rightfully reserved for us. Having taken our punishment upon Himself, He offers us salvation if we simply accept what He offers to us as a gift, without us ever needing to earn it. There is no other religion that offers salvation in this way. Only in Christianity are the full benefits of salvation given to us immediately upon acceptance; we don’t need to “work up to it” or earn anything. The work is already done (and not by us!), so the gifts are just given. This whole doctrine is unique and, when understood in context of the gravity of our rebellion against His holiness, it is breathtaking. In every other religion, the adherent must work, work, work to keep their god happy or to earn something from him/her. So I ask you something on a personal level, not an academic one: who else can match the love that God provides in His offer of salvation by grace? Isn’t this something you find attractive? Of course, finding something attractive doesn’t make it true, but proving its truth isn’t my purpose in this paragraph (I try to provide enough for that claim elsewhere). I hope that you will desire to accept this gift of God.
Third, just a brief mention of an idea from Ravi Zacharias. He identifies four fundamental questions that a worldview must answer satisfactorily in order to demonstrate its coherence (origin, meaning, morality, and destiny). He argues (though I won’t reproduce it here) that Christianity is unique in its ability to answer these. Thus Christianity stands alone in its coherence as a worldview.
There are many other reasons of various kinds that could be added to support the claim that the God of the Bible is unique. Identity in Christ is unmatched by the sense of identity in other religions; miracles lend support for Biblical claims; and for everyone, He has given us nature to observe. Taking in the wonders of the created order ought to inspire us to seek a reason behind it, something well beyond humanity (which is itself just part of that wondrous created order). The Bible indicates that those who conclude otherwise are willingly and deliberately rebelling; see Romans 1:18-23 and 2 Peter 3:5. And others can be added.
Intellectual support for the claim that the God of the Bible is the only true God is a composite case. Put it all together and the argument becomes formidable. Many objections to it (“Christians have reinterpreted their own Scriptures over the centuries” or “the Bible contains mythological elements” or “the Bible has false science in it” or “the Bible promotes slavery and other evil things and thus can’t be trusted”) are actually about ancillary issues (which might nuance our understanding but not negate the core doctrines), represent a misunderstanding of the purposes of the passages being attacked (poor hermeneutics), or are just flatly incorrect. Most of them don’t speak to the core doctrines at all. And those which do (“Jesus never existed”) have a tough row to hoe given evidence to the contrary, some of which is sketched here (with much more elsewhere).
Now let me say a few words about the second division: is the Bible trustworthy? Parts of the Bible, and specifically parts of the New Testament, were written by eyewitnesses (see 2 Peter 1:16-21). That gives them considerable authority over their claims about what they saw.
And yet, interestingly, Peter also claims in that same passage that the words of the prophets are even more certain than his own eyewitness testimony because the prophets were directed by the Holy Spirit Himself. This ought to give us great pause if we want to claim that the Bible is just a manmade book. Sure, many books have claimed divine origin and authority, but the Bible stands alone in characteristics such as its accuracy (archaeology, history, etc.), its description of the human condition, its profound influence on societal development, and some more outlined below.
The Bible also contains lots of fulfilled prophecy. Hugh Ross counts a staggering 2,000 fulfilled prophecies, a smattering of which are discussed at the link: https://reasons.org/explore/publications/tnrtb/read/tnrtb/2003/08/22/fulfilled-prophecy-evidence-for-the-reliability-of-the-bible
The story of the Gospel, the metanarrative of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, is attested to throughout Scripture with remarkable consistency considering how many cultures and centuries the writing spans. It has a high degree of internal unity. That suggests a common source for the revelation throughout the Bible, which adds to its credibility.
And I find that the Bible’s narrative simply rings true to life, both for society and for my own heart. To me, the Bible gives cogent explanations for the biggest questions in life including why there is evil, why there is pain, and what to do about them (as well as Zacharias’ four fundamental questions). It goes further to give an eternal narrative, consistent with what it has already laid out about history, that restores and redeems those hurt by evil, pain, and suffering, bringing meaning even out of pain — as John Piper puts it, based on 2 Corinthians 4:17-18, our “light, momentary, lifelong, total affliction is doing something….It’s not meaningless.”
You have expressed doubt that men could write something that is from God. But in light of these evidences I ask: if God did choose to use human authors to write His Word, what more would you want? Would you doubt His choice of revelation procedure in the first place? If God were to speak to humanity, how would you think He should do it? It is dangerous territory to try to prescribe to God how He ought to reveal Himself (a little more on that below). Given what we know about the Bible, believing that it is God-inspired is reasonable.
Some modern people in Western, developed countries think that since dreams and visions are not common in our culture, then they must have just been delusions or wishful thinking back in Bible times, too. But in fact, there are modern-day stories of the kind of visions and dreams like the ones that show up in the Bible, though the modern stories I know about are not in developed countries. A former pastor of mine has told me a few which occurred during his time as a missionary in an undeveloped country. The story of Samuel Morris is another (see https://www.taylor.edu/about/samuel-morris or the book written about him). A reasonable explanation in the Christian worldview would be that God reveals Himself in different ways to different cultures. In America, we have free and easy access to His revealed Word in the Bible, and if we don’t believe the Bible, we wouldn’t believe anything else, either (cf. Luke 16:31 in the context of that parable). If an unbelieving, scientifically-minded individual were visited by an angel in a vision, for example, wouldn’t it be easy to explain it away somehow? On the other hand, in many of the places where stories of visions still persist, at least to my knowledge of most of these stories, access to the Bible is much less widespread. Thus God provides a way for those people to know Him, too. My point here is twofold: we ought not immediately discount Biblical events which don’t fit our Enlightenment (or even postmodern?) mold; and if access to the Bible indicates fewer direct visits from God, then it isn’t crazy to consider the Bible itself God’s “visitation.”
One more thing here: sometimes it is used an assault on the Bible that some of the Biblical writers likely had beliefs which turned out to be incorrect; for example, it is argued that the apostle Paul believed that Jesus would return physically within a generation, which clearly did not occur. Thus, the argument goes, the Biblical writings of these individuals are suspect. I would say in response that, first of all, it is dangerous to assume what the writers “must have” believed as they were writing. But secondly, the writers could still write down God’s inspired Word without fully understanding it themselves. If the writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), this wouldn’t even be surprising. After all, Christians don’t (or shouldn’t) hold up the Biblical writers as the objects of worship; no, it is God who is to receive the glory for His Word. How much more glory would He get if His Word remained accurate even despite using “broken vessels!” So an attack on the writers themselves does little to cast doubt on Scriptural teaching.
I’m not going into much detail here. But I think I have made my point: one cannot consider these qualities of the Bible and shrug it off as nothing but myths or “just another religious book.”
And by the way, for the case of Christianity, certainty isn’t the requirement anyway. Mark 9:24 shows a man with faith apparently mixed with continued doubt. “I believe; help my unbelief,” he said to Jesus. And Matthew 17:20 declares the impact of faith the size of a “mustard seed,” apparently suggesting that it can be small while still being “enough” (genuine, saving faith). And John 20:24-29 tells us the famous story of “doubting Thomas.” In all cases, some faith, even though mixed with doubt, was powerful and not condemned by Jesus. Certainty isn’t required, but a believer ought to grow over time in trusting God over himself or herself. It is a hard process to daily “die to self” (Luke 9:23-24, Romans 12:1, Galatians 2:20) and submit more and more to God’s leading, but it is the only right thing to do if He really is God. After all, if God is truly God, then He would know infinitely more than we do and would want what is good much more than we do, so trusting Him over ourselves is the most rational choice we could make. As the hymn says, “‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus…how I’ve proved Him over and over.” It’s a process of growth, not a onetime event.
I’d now like to address the notion you bring up about every culture coming up with its religious answers (basically the “Whose God” question), one implication evidently being that all religions are centered around superstition and myth (though I’m not attributing that claim to you). That conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise. The mere fact that there is long-standing disagreement shouldn’t lead us to conclude that no one is right. I would even lean the opposite way: if every culture independently recognizes the need for “religion and spirituality,” then that suggests that there is more than likely some truth behind it. We seek the God who is really there because the others aren’t gods at all. The true God wasn’t invented by any culture, so He doesn’t “belong” to anyone. It’s quite the opposite: we belong to Him, and He doesn’t belong to any particular culture or people group. Whoever worshipped Him first isn’t so important. (I might rephrase the question as “Which God?”)
Timothy Keller has some helpful insights here. In his book “The Meaning of Marriage” (of all places!) he points out that much of the Bible was countercultural at the time it was written, so it would be inaccurate to claim that it is just a record of how “those ancient cultures” behaved. It wasn’t! The God of the Bible would not be the God that the ancient Hebrews would have wanted to invent to suit their needs. (And for us today, it should not be troubling for Christians, nor surprising to anyone else, that the Bible remains countercultural). And in Chapter 3 of his book “The Reason for God,” Keller discusses Christianity’s unusual characteristic of being “flexible” among different cultures. “The pattern of Christian expansion differs from that of every other world religion,” he writes. Other major world religions, even if spreading, are still largely centered nearby where they were founded. Christianity, by contrast, has spread from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean to Europe to North America. And “today, most Christians in the world live in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.” Christianity is one of a small number of belief systems that has flourished in so many cultures, for centuries, across the globe. If cultural and societal impact of a belief system is significant evidence of a worldview’s truth or value, then Christianity has to be right up there at the top of the list. Its cultural adaptability should indicate that it is grounded in something that transcends culture – which can scarcely be said of any other major belief system.
There is another implication in the “whose God?” question: that we could never be confident that we have correctly decided between so many religions (but again, I am not attributing that claim to you). If we follow that implication to its end, we arrive at agnosticism. This position may at first seem like a strong one intellectually, but it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Agnosticism is not a place of neutrality where one can gather evidence until it “tips the scales” in favor of one religion. Agnosticism still makes religious claims, one being “we can’t know which God is real, if any of them are.” (By the way, agnosticism is different than an individual who simply claims “I don’t personally know which God is real;” that’s just personal doubt which all of us experience for one or more seasons. This is understandable for a time. But to remain there is to eventually claim either that something cannot be known, or that the person doesn’t care enough to try to find out. Both are definite religious positions). To claim we can’t know which God is real is to claim that if any God is out there, His revelation to humanity has been insufficient. That means the person is making himself/herself out to be the judge of how much revelation is enough, and what form it must take. On what authority can a person say that? Wouldn’t each one of us have potentially different criteria for what kind of revelation (or evidence more generally) is enough? In that case, we would need to have an objective standard of whose criteria is right or wrong. Without such a standard, we would have nothing but our own opinions and feelings to “justify” our criteria, and this leads us to the same problems as the ones I discussed regarding subjective morality. There would be no way to tell who is right or wrong because the terms “right” and “wrong” have no meaning at all when we each can decide for ourselves every day what they mean to us at that time. So, following similar argumentation as I have in the topic of morality, we conclude that only the true God (if there is one) can be the judge and standard of how much and what kind of revelation is adequate (and if there is no true God, then no one has lost anything by choosing whatever position they like). In this way, then, agnosticism leads the agnostic to conclude (if only implicitly) that he/she is that God. That is quite a strong claim, and anything but “neutral.”
Often, when someone claims there isn’t enough evidence for God’s truth, they try to force God’s hand to reveal Himself to them in the way and time that they want. For example, they might only accept scientific evidence (of which there is plenty for the open mind, but nonetheless this is an overly narrow view). They intentionally ignore the ways God has declared that He has revealed Himself because they don’t find them “good enough.” It reminds me of the modern-day parable of a man who comes upon a stranger under a streetlight at night, looking intently at the ground. “I’ve lost my watch,” says the stranger. The man begins to help stranger look all around where the streetlight shines, but they find nothing. “Are you sure you lost your watch here?” says the first man. “No,” replies the stranger, “but this is the only place I can see.” That is a wrongheaded search from the outset. God has revealed enough of Himself to hold us responsible for faith; we just must be willing to accept the revelation that He provides rather than demanding He reveal Himself the way we want Him to.
Secondly, if I (for example) were truly an agnostic, then I would be unsure if any God is there and if so, which one it might be. Since the stakes are so high on my decision (eternal life might be on the line!), then I should try insatiably to please any god that I learn of just in case that’s the real one. I should seek to practice each and every religion fully and completely so I don’t miss the opportunity to be faithful to the right God. Has anyone ever lived this way? I don’t think it is even possible to! But to go about life claiming agnosticism, all the while living as if all of the gods are false, is to betray agnosticism. In this case, it would be nothing but atheism called by a different name. And that’s quite a different discussion.
Another comment on “religious neutrality.” It seems natural, especially to scientists, to think that we could decide between the various options for God by simply gathering our evidence and comparing the “points” for one versus the points for another. Indeed, I have several times argued as if this is the process. I don’t believe, however, that this is truly how our “decision” goes in reality, nor how it ought to go. Why not? It assumes neutrality and objectivity on the part of the decider, characteristics that no person truly possesses. All of us come to these questions harboring presuppositions whether for or against a certain outcome. We digest the evidence according to these presuppositions, which partially explains why two people of equal intellect can look at the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions. Neutrality on these topics is a myth.
Let me take a step back to analyze the question itself, “whose God?” The impossibility of “neutral examination” is problematic for it. But there’s a more existential problem with that approach: its authority structure is upside down. If we simply search for evidence to decide between the various “options” of religions laid out before us, then even if we were to rightly pick the true God in the end, we have implicitly declared ourselves the judges of what God has revealed. It would be effectively telling God, “good job. You have done enough to meet my standard for sufficient evidence. Now I can believe in You.” Even if this seems to end in faith, it is clearly backwards (and thus there would be something deficient in that faith anyway – if one must verify God’s claims first, then is the subsequent submission to them really submission at all?). The VanTillians have made this thought very well-developed, but I trust you see the problem.
Side note: as I have said about morality, declaring yourself to be the standard of morality capable of judging God means that you make yourself out to be the ultimate judge of right and wrong. It is, for all intents and purposes, making yourself out to be God. Interestingly, as self-righteous or arrogant as this may sound, I have heard many prominent non-Christian thinkers admit that they wouldn’t want to submit to God’s authority even if they were convinced that He were the true God. Why not? Because either they don’t trust His decisions or they simply want the autonomy to make their own choices. This is outright rebellion; “even if God is there, I want to be in charge instead of Him.” Thus, a resistance to submission of God’s moral authority is not at its core an intellectual resistance but a spiritual one. Some of these individuals have thought through the issues enough to realize that they are declaring themselves to be their own god – and yet continue down that path anyway! That is a warning to us all. I encourage you to personalize the question: If someone were able to convince you that God exists and is our ultimate moral authority, would you be willing to submit to God? Or would you choose your own authority? The answer to this question might just make all other debate on this topic meaningless.
Finally, I want to shift gears for a moment. While these kinds of discussions bring up many academic issues (philosophy, theology, history, logic, etc.), we must remember that religious questions are not just intellectual exercises. People aren’t convinced solely by academic arguments, whether logic or science or philosophy or history or whatever. If they were, then salvation would be only for the intelligent, well-informed, well-educated, or other ways intellectually privileged — which certainly doesn’t fit the worldview of Christianity (nor most individual’s views of the way things ought to be). Supporting reasons are important and needed, especially for thoughtful, rational, curious minds, but they usually aren’t the core things that people cling to when the chips are down, whether for belief or unbelief. Persuasion, verisimilitude, belief – it’s a different beast.
Reflecting on my own personal faith journey, I admit that there are a whole host of interconnected reasons which together uphold my faith (I believe that it is God Himself who strengthens me to persist in faith, but here I’m referring to the manifestation of His work in my life). Intellectual, psychological, social, and emotional factors all coexist with experiential learning, and if I’m being honest, I find it hard to identify which of them (if any) are really the foundational ones. But as I intend to argue, I think all people form and maintain their religious beliefs for similarly holistic, “compound” reasons. So I would ask you to recognize the truth of why you do or don’t believe whatever it is that you do or don’t believe – in particular that the reasons are much more complex than just intellectual or academic arguments.
Why isn’t intellect enough? Because people aren’t purely intellectual machines; we all possess an intellect, but it isn’t the only aspect of our personhood (as Francis Schaeffer would put it, our “mannishness” includes more). We still have emotions and a will and psyche and desires and an awareness of our own consciousness, to name a few. Indeed, probably the two most common reasons for a person to walk away from faith today is because they are disgusted by the hypocrisy of those in the believing community, or because they have endured a personal tragedy and begin to doubt how a good God could allow such evil. In both cases, the person walking away was already certainly intellectually aware of the existence of “believing hypocrites” and of the prevalence of evil and hardship (even affecting the faithful). So their experiences had little impact on their factual knowledge, but their personal experience produced such an overwhelming, visceral, emotional reaction that they “cannot” believe any longer. Changing one’s belief because of experiential learning is not an intellectual decision. There are less extreme examples which illustrate the same point: people need more than just intellectual arguments or reasons to persist in belief.
In fact, this phenomenon of our multifaceted “mannishness” cannot even be kept out of our intellectual pursuits. Let me highlight an example that I am most familiar with: mathematical proof. Mathematical proof, widely considered the highest form of human reasoning, is bereft with non-intellectual aspects of humanity. The mystique of proof holds to lofty ideals, and they aren’t entirely unfounded (I still think it’s true that the degree of certainty in mathematical proof is among the highest of any human activity), but the day to day practice of mathematicians is a different story. What is meant by a proof and what constitutes proof, perhaps surprisingly, share less agreement within the mathematical community than many outsiders realize. In most practical situations, mathematicians read proofs to gain an intuition for the ideas it utilizes or introduces. They are generally less concerned with verifying the correctness of all of its details formally (proofs which elucidate literally every necessary step of formality would be too intractably long; even if they are more complete, they are less preferred in practice, so they are almost never written at that level of formality). See articles such as “What Do We Mean By Mathematical Proof?” by Todd CadwalladerOlsker and “How Mathematicians Determine if an Argument Is a Valid Proof” by Keith Weber (published 2008 in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education) for more. In other words, most of the time mathematicians aren’t as concerned with the “pure intellect” even in proofs. (And even if they were, the formal proofs themselves would still be built on axioms, so the knowledge is still limited by the axioms selected and logic – which, as I mention in my previous reply, makes the most sense in a Christian worldview anyway because of God as the “absolute personality”). Similar scrutiny for empirical sciences reveals a similar conclusion: humans, even scientists, are convinced by “reasoning” that isn’t purely intellectual. (In particular, this casts serious doubt on the scientistic notion that science is humanity’s sole source of reliable knowledge.)
And as a side note, I don’t think this fact is something to be ashamed of. Our “mannishness” includes so many dimensions with complex interrelationships. Examining them in ever-greater depth is, to me, an exciting journey. Regardless, whether we find it beautiful or repugnant, it is the human condition. Religious questions are so complicated (and lead to so much debate) precisely because they bring to bear all of these aspects at once; they require our intellect (of every discipline), our psyche, our emotions, our will, our societies and social structures, and more. This is how I read the “Greatest Commandment” to love God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my mind (Matthew 22:37). It takes everything; pursuit of God is all-encompassing. Other pursuits, including science and mathematics, purposefully limit the scope of their investigation to isolate the phenomenon being studied. This helps us discover real knowledge in the arena being studied, but we can’t expect a discipline which intentionally limits its scope to generalize to all of the other aspects which were purposely ignored. Only in religious studies do we bring every possible way of knowing out for use. I find it extraordinarily gratifying that in God we find the culmination of our being – all we know, all we can discover, who we are, and who we are meant to be. Pursuit of God is the ultimate joy and satisfaction in a Christian hedonist sense (a la John Piper). It actually makes my academic pursuits more fulfilling, not less. I can continue asking why (and I do, as a curious academic), but I don’t have a spiritual need for a perfect answer because I am satisfied in my spirit. My salvation isn’t riding on my worldview being flawless. My motivation for questions and answers change. My soul is satisfied, so I don’t have anything personal riding on the answers.
What of the people who want to claim that they reject faith for “intellectual reasons,” or even that they are “too smart to believe that stuff” (as I have heard many people say)? In 1 Corinthians 1:18, it recognizes that the cross (and by extension, Christian belief more generally) appears foolish to such a person. But verses like Job 38:2, Isaiah 55:9, and 1 Corinthians 1:25 show that human intellect is paltry in comparison to the wisdom of God, and 1 Corinthians 2:14 says that wisdom needs God’s Spirit to be understood and discerned. Many other verses throughout 1 Corinthians (and elsewhere) make similar claims. Intellect isn’t enough, and claiming that it is veils a deliberate, spiritual rejection (see Romans 1:21-23 or 2 Peter 3:5).
I’m not advocating for fideism. Intellectual and academic reasons do support faith, but by the nature of the types of complex creatures that humans are, and because of our finiteness and necessarily limited intellect, those reasons are only one leg of the support.
My summary of this point: intellectual questions are fine and are even necessary, but not sufficient. Intellect is part of the process (it’s part of loving God with all of your mind), but not enough. Don’t be duped into believing that it is the sole foundation for belief or unbelief.
So let me urge you strongly to get to the true heart of the matter. If God is really the living God that Christians claim, then He will be there when you ask Him. So, ask Him!
But be warned by the Word: if you aren’t seeking the true God and only ask questions as a challenge to believers, or to prove yourself right, or some other motive other than to know Him, then you should not expect much from an answer to a question like that. See Hebrews 11:6 and James 1:5–8; ask Him, but do so with an attitude that genuinely seeks Him. As the saying goes, in religious debates, we should seek to be made righteous, not proven right. Setting up intellectual smokescreens or veiling rebellion with unanswered questions will not fool God. These “questions” aren’t really about their purported content at all, but about finding excuses for disbelief. Jesus’ typical pattern for those who came humbly was to first offer grace, and then to teach His truth (see John 4 for example); but for those who came to justify themselves or with a haughty spirit were met first with truth (often one that was hard to accept) and only grace if they stayed around (see Mark 10:17-22 or Jesus’ many interactions with the teachers of the Law). Of course, I am not assuming impure motives on your part; I’m just making clear the temptation that we all, myself included, have in coming to God. So please, examine your own heart and open it up before Him – if He’s really there, He sees its darkest corners already. So, I hope you will let your guard down (if it is up) and let Him in!
On the other hand, as God says in Jeremiah 29:13, “You will seek Me and find Me, when you seek Me with all your heart.” And in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” To emphasize, it is important to ask honest questions with an open mind, genuinely wanting to find Him and the truth about Him – not trying to demand that He reveal Himself in a specific way or at a specific time (since He has already revealed Himself), and not just going through the motions to give yourself an excuse to continue in rejection (like the Pharisees infamously did to Jesus on numerous occasions, such as Matthew 22:35 just before the “Great Commandment” that I have referenced so often). God is the one who knows the true motives of the heart (see 1 Kings 8:39, 1 Samuel 16:7, Psalm 44:21, Proverbs 21:2, Matthew 9:4). So, if you have honest questions, you can ask Him yourself. If you come to God honestly, I am confident that He will honor your requests. He will be much more persuasive than I am or anyone else can be.
This discussion began with morality, but we have drilled down to many other deep issues. I hope you agree that they get us closer to the heart of the matter and the underpinnings of how we each try to answer the original question.