Most people out there have a sense that some things are really wrong (rape, murder, etc.) and some things are really right (courage, compassion, generosity, etc). We have the sense that there is an objective standard of morals that we ought to adhere to, but often times don’t. Scripture affirms that we all, to some extent, have this standard written in our hearts, “[Gentiles] show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse them or even excuse them . . .” (Rom. 2:15). As Christians, we think that the moral law comes from God. Many theistic philosophers would argue that the only way such a standard of morality can exist is if there is a God who made it and commands it. If there is no God, then there is no real good or evil, and all morality is simply subjective.
When I say “objective” morals, I mean things that are good or evil no matter what I think as an individual. For example, if Hitler and the Nazis had succeeded in winning WWII and brainwashing everyone in the world to think that what they did was right, it would still be objectively evil. To put it more simply, morals are discovered, not created.
Most unbelievers, however, don’t think morality needs to be grounded in God to be objective, and they often attack the above argument in a couple of ways.
First, they point out that even most atheists are good people, some may actually be better people than most Christians. Why do we need to believe in God to be good? Obviously many people who don’t believe in God are doing fine on their own! How can we be so naïve as to say we need to believe in God to be good people?
Second, people object to the argument by stating the famous Euthyphro Dilemma. For those of you who have taken an ethics class, you’ll probably recognize this argument as the chief argument against Divine Command Theory. Christians claim that God is our standard of morality, but the dilemma, first argued by Plato in his famous Euthyphro dialogue, asks “is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because it’s good?” If we say something is good because God commands it, then morality is simply arbitrary. He has no real reason for saying what’s right and wrong other than preference. God could have said rape is good and generosity is evil and it would have been so! To the Christian, this seems unacceptable, surely God isn’t arbitrary. If, however, we say that God commands something because it is good, then we are admitting to a standard of goodness that is independent of God. It is a higher standard than Him and He is just as subservient to it as we are.
The trick is that neither of these choices are beneficial or desirable for the theist who wants to say that the moral law comes from God, but it seems that we have no other options. How do we affirm that the moral law comes from God without affirming either of these undesirable possibilities? In part two I will show why these arguments either misunderstand the Christian position and fail to refute it.