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Morality as a Clue to God

Gregory Koukl
July 10, 1994

I've been talking about the issue of moral relativism this weekend which we have discussed frequently here on this show. I was speaking at Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach this morning, last evening and Friday evening about how relativists are like people who have both feet planted in mid-air -- those people who believe that morals are just the kind of thing that you make up yourself. After we were done with our analysis, I think it was pretty clear that relativism is a bankrupt moral point of view. It's self-refuting. It's self-defeating. It's afflicted by serious counter examples. It is just the kind of thing that can't be lived out, and if that's false then some form of absolutism must be true. It has given new meaning to me for that verse in the old hymn that when we stand on Christ we are standing on solid rock that can be relied upon. When you look closely at all the other points of view, the challengers as it were, and in this case moral relativism, the arguments just crumble into dust. What is left is the truth, and the truth stands alone. That is comforting and encouraging.

Sometimes I wish I had you all in my pocket during conversations I have with others. A couple of days ago I had one of those, in fact on Friday night just after the talk at Hope Chapel. I'd like to tell you about it, and you'll see how profound the implications of a simple observation about morality can be.

After I had been speaking on "Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air", I had a gentleman come up to me who had some questions about God. And he said this: "I'm genuinely searching for God. But God is not clear to me and I'm frustrated as to why He hasn't made Himself perfectly clear. If God is loving, if He's powerful, why doesn't He make Himself clear to someone like myself who's honestly seeking Him?"

Well, that was a fair question, and I can understand where it was coming from so I asked him ,"Listen, did you think this argument against relativism was compelling?" And he said, "Well, kind of."

Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of the issues I addressed and the way I argued my point in this talk, "Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air".

My point was that you really only have two options when it comes to morality. You have some form of moral relativism in which moral rules find their source in the individual that holds them. In other words, morality is relative to each individual person's opinion. Or, the other alternative -- and I might add it's the only other alternative -- moral absolutism is true, which says that there is a moral rule that stands outside of our opinion that judges us and it exists whether we agree with it or not. If there are absolutes, that leads us in another direction.

We can start by identifying some discernible moral absolutes -- truths that exist and apply to everyone. For example, the absolute that you ought not torture babies for fun on feast days seems to be a pretty self-evident moral rule, that it doesn't matter who you are or where you are or what time or culture you are in, that it's hard to imagine that such a thing could ever be morally justified or how something like that could ever be considered anything less than evil. So you have two competing points of view: relativism and absolutism. And when you look at the problems with relativism -- and they are many, and this is what the bulk of the talk was about -- it seems clear that relativism as a point of view simply cannot be true. It's victimized by too many serious counter examples. In practice it seems to be self-refuting and self-defeating. It just doesn't seem to work. In fact, if relativism were true, if everyone just made up their own morality, if everything was entirely individual, then we would all be consigned with regards to any moral issue because we could never even discuss morality.

As we worked through this it seemed to be very, very clear that relativism is a false way of looking at morality and it must be true, therefore some form of absolutism is true. If we can identify even one moral absolute -- not torturing babies for fun on feast days, for example -- this opens up a whole new world to us. This was the point that I was making with the gentleman I was talking to whose name was Michael.

I asked him, "Do you think that morals are relative or are they absolute?"

He said, "Well, you kind of put it in two different extremes. You've got relativism at one extreme and absolutism at the other extreme, and I'm somewhere in the middle."

I said, "Well, no, actually it's not extreme at all. They are just simply two options. There are no other options. If you believe that some things are personal and some things are absolute, that puts you in an absolutist world view. At least you hold to some absolute truths."

He said, "Yeah, I believe that some things are wrong. It would be wrong for me to pull a gun right here and kill my friend standing next to me. Anybody in the same situation would be wrong as well."

"Fine", I said, "we've got your admission that it seems sensible that certain moral rules exist outside our opinion. There are moral absolutes. Right?" Well, this kind of thing invites certain kinds of questions.

If you believe -- and you have good reason to believe it, I think -- that there are moral absolutes, this takes you a long way towards answering his question. He really believes much more than he thinks he does.

How so?

He believes that some moral absolutes exist. Though there may be some things that are individual moral calls, some things aren't. Right?

If a moral absolute exists, it's fair to ask the question, what kind of thing is it? It's not a physical thing. A moral thing is not physical. It doesn't extend into space, it doesn't weigh something, it has no physical qualities or characteristics. It is a non-physical thing that really exists. It's an immaterial thing, something that you know exists but you can't get at with any of your five senses.

This is a very big thing that he's admitting here. I don't think he realized how big, especially considering his question. He was saying that he's confident -- he has a reasonable certainty -- that something exists somewhere in a realm which he can't see, taste, touch, smell or hear. He believes something exists that he can't prove empirically.

That's true for a lot of people who object to the idea of God because they can't find Him with their senses. He doesn't jump up right in front of them, but in fact they believe in a lot of things they can't test in that way, that aren't evident to them in that fashion. But just because you can't sense it by the five senses doesn't mean that it's unreasonable for you to believe that such a thing exists. In other words, there are other ways to learn about things than just the five senses. And if you believe that it's wrong, for example, to torture babies for fun, and you believe that that rule applies to everyone, in other words, it is a moral absolute, then you have just affirmed a belief in something that is immaterial that you don't access by your five senses but you do access with some certainty by some other means. What that other means is, we won't go into right now. I think there is a sense of moral intuition that has a play here. But in any event, you can be considered rational in believing that such a rule actually exists. Once you do that, it does a lot of work for you.

Well, when you say that a thing like an absolute moral rule exists, you've made an admission that has profound implications for many other beliefs. In other words, a whole bunch of other beliefs are bound up in that statement.

For example, when you say that some absolute moral laws exist, you're saying that immaterial things -- like moral laws which aren't made out of moral stuff -- certainly do exist. Therefore, materialism as a world view is false. Instead, it is reasonable to believe in things you don't see and can't test with the five senses. Strict empiricism would be false, then.

Now this is a big step, because in the case of this gentleman, Michael, one of his big arguments against God is that He hasn't shown Himself to him. But by his own admission, it can be reasonable to believe in something you simply can't see. In other words, there are different ways to "show" things to people, ways that don't involve the senses.

Okay, now we have another question, and this is the way the conversation went. Given that this moral rule is out there somewhere, where did it come from? You may be tempted to say, "How should I know?", but really, the options are limited.

Pretend you wake up in the morning and there's a birthday cake sitting on your kitchen table, and it just happens to be your birthday. What do you think? You ask yourself, "Where did this cake come from?" There are only a couple of possibilities, theoretically. It could have just materialized out of nowhere on your kitchen table coincidentally on your birthday. It could have just "poofed" into existence. I guess that would be in the realm of theoretic possibilities. Or maybe a great, hot, wet wind blew through your neighbor's kitchen gathering up a bunch of ingredients and kind of accidentally baked a cake that landed on your table. The fact that it happened on your birthday is a coincidence. I guess that would be "possible" too. The cake could have come out of nowhere, or could have just assembled itself by chance. Or the other alternative would be that a person baked the cake for you and dropped it off in the middle of the night.

Now here's the trick. When faced with limited options you don't have the liberty not to believe something. If you reject the idea that somebody baked the cake for you, you must assert in its place that the cake either materialized out of nothing or formed itself by accident. When you reject one option you are asserting an alternate option when all the options are clear.

Do you see that? When you are faced with just a limited number of choices, if you reject one choice you've got to opt for one of those that remains. So the question is, which option makes most sense? Think for a moment about a moral absolute. Where did it come from? Just like the cake. Well, I guess it could have popped out of nowhere. It just popped into existence, though if it did then one could ask how is it that an arbitrary thing like a moral rule could have any moral force? If it is an accident, if it just comes from nowhere, why would it have any moral force on me? And part of our argument is that a moral rule does have moral force. Maybe it assembled itself by accident out of available immaterial stuff floating around in wherever that world is that morals float around in. Of course, if it happened by accident then you'd still have to answer the question, how does an accidental thing have moral force? Or, third option, it could be that the moral law was made by Someone Who lives in that immaterial realm. Now, those are your options. I don't know how many other options there are, but it seems to me you are stuck with these three.

If it doesn't make sense that the moral thing popped into existence, if it doesn't make sense that the moral thing assembled itself, if it seems that the moral thing exists and has moral force on our behavior, then it seems to me the most reasonable option is that Someone made that moral thing and so that moral rule is a rule of Somebody's, and it's not just a disembodied principle. When you break the moral rule, you offend the Person Who made the rule itself.

You see, you do not have the liberty of standing in a neutral place on this issue. You've got to believe something. If you refuse to believe God made moral laws, given that you admit that they are there, then you're opting for one of the other two alternatives. And if you say that they just popped into existence or that they assembled themselves by chance, you have new problems to solve. In other words, I don't think those are tenable alternatives.

"But this doesn't prove that the Christian God is the true God."

Right. That's another separate step we'll have to take at another time. But something like the Christian idea of God has got to be true to account for morality. Hinduism, for example, simply won't work, because in Hinduism there is no ultimate distinction between good and evil. The kind of morality that we've been talking about just doesn't fit in a Hindu world view, but it does fit into a theistic, Christian world view. So if absolute morality is true, then Hinduism can't be true. Atheism is false. Agnosticism is untenable.

Do you see how making a simple observation about the existence of a moral truth does a tremendous amount of philosophical work for us? It does. It takes us a long way, much farther than we may have thought in the first place.

There is a conclusion to this, and it's a direct answer to his question. My point is to look at what seems to be the obvious existence of moral absolutes and to then look and see where that observation leads us, and it seems to lead us to the existence of a God who makes those moral rules because moral rules are designed kinds of things that don't make themselves, it appears. And it seems that a very good explanation for their existence is that a God with moral character made a set of moral rules that express His character and those rules then become absolutes which are incumbent upon us. Now there is a lot more that we could talk about.

Let me make a distinction between two types of believing: you can believe that and you can believe in. "Michael," I said, "I can only help you believe that God exists and that Christianity is reasonable. I can't help you to believe in Jesus Christ, which means your personal effort of submission to Him. I want you to chew on what I've just said today because I think it has profound ramifications for your question and your concern about whether God has in fact shown Himself to you in a clear fashion.

"Let me leave you with this parting thought. Whether you choose to believe in God and Jesus Christ or not is up to you. But after tonight you can no longer say, 'I can't believe in God because He hasn't made Himself clear to me.' He has made Himself clear; He's made Himself crystal clear. The options are obvious. They are few and they are obvious. If relativism is not tenable, then some form of absolutism is true. If absolute rules exist, this argues powerfully for the existence of an absolute Creator Who made those rules which apply to us and to Whom we are accountable. It's that simple.

"It would be no clearer if God Himself appeared in front of you right now and tapped you on the shoulder. Because if that did happen you'd still have to ask yourself some questions. Is this really God? Am I hallucinating? Is it something I ate? Is a demon trying to trick me?"

Frankly, the options Michael is facing now because of our talk about morality are more clear than if something appeared in front of him and claimed to be God. It's much harder to decide between the real God or a hallucination or a demon is right there. It's much easier to decide if absolutes really exist and where they came from. It's much clearer and it's much easier to decide. And I encouraged Michael to think about it. It's worth thinking about as a powerful argument for the existence of God, and many other besides me have used it before me, including C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity.

  This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show "Stand to Reason," with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason.

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" Morality as a Clue to God "
1994 Gregory Koukl
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Posted: August 12, 1996


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