Honest Q & A: The Existence of God (3a) – Morals Exist (continued)

justiceIn a previous post I made the point that the idea that we are made in God’s image does a lot to explain our intuitive moral sense. If he is, and is good and we are wired to reflect his character, then human guilt (or the lack of it) is not merely a feeling, but the result of actual moral knowledge. Such knowledge may need refining, but it is not our invention.

One comment I received in said, “If knowledge of morality is granted by a morally perfect god, the feeling of moral disgust at his actions should not be possible. This necessitates an alternate method of attaining these feelings …”

We might reword this into a collection of questions something like these:

“If our understanding of morality is based on our being made in God’s image, then why don’t we always agree with him? How is it even possible for me to disagree? Why do I even have moral questions? Further, why do people ever disagree with one another in areas of right and wrong?”

These are great questions, but not particularly vexing, at least not from the biblical position. Speaking as a Christian, these tensions are not only explainable, they are exactly what we should expect. This is what I see in myself and what I see in others – and it is true for at least two reasons: 1) Our inborn need to grow in understanding, and 2) Our regrettably clouded vision.

  1. Our need to grow in understanding: The Bible agrees with our observable reality, revealing that no one is born with perfect wisdom or perfect moral sense. Even Jesus, like all people, grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Peter encourages us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). The book of Hebrews speaks of “the mature … those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). In other words, our moral sense will not naturally agree with God’s any more than a student will always agree with her professor before doing the proper assignments, or a child will naturally agree with his parents while growing up. Time and normal effort can do their part to bring their views closer together. Much more is this true with us and God.
  2. Our regrettably clouded vision: Under the best of conditions we would still need to grow, but the conditions, alas, are not the best – far from it, in fact. The problem is our present state of rebellion. We don’t naturally see things from God’s perspective, nor even from some impartial neutral ground. Our nature has become corrupt, making us biased against him. We too often agree with God only if doing so gives us an advantage.

There is ample opportunity to change this state of affairs. We need to be taught and our fairly steep learning curve begins by getting into a right standing with him. Again, that implies growth and a change of heart. Karen Swallow Prior sees the right place as one of wonder, “Even the ability to doubt him, to struggle against him, to wonder at his ways is rooted in him. Certainty seems bigger than me, skepticism smaller. Wonder is just right.” (Booked, p. 191)

Honest Q & A: The Existence of God (3) – Morals Exist


I just checked the news. Ten years ago a California man kidnapped his girlfriend’s daughter and has held her against her will since that time. He mentally, physically and sexually abused her, forced her to marry him and she bore him a three-year-old daughter under duress. This is wrong. Two landscapers in New Jersey duct-taped the mouth and eyes of one of their clients, a 41 year-old mother of two, and then buried her alive. So wrong!  A rich, important man was recorded making distressingly racist remarks. He was wrong to hold such views, whether or not he expressed them. Finally, a woman’s dog went missing, but it turns out someone stole it. She found it for sale the next day in an ad on Craigslist. This is all sad – and simply wrong.

These are not preferences. It’s not only that we don’t like stealing, murder and various kinds of abuse. It is wrong to do these things. This is not merely cultural, decided by society. The genocides of Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia were wrong, even though many in those societies had actually learned to view them as necessary. Getting a certain critical mass of people to favor genocide will not make it morally right.

Black widows can eat their mates and presumably feel no twinge of conscience. Wolves and hyenas have been known to eat their young. It may be repulsive to us, but that’s just what they do.

Jeffrey Dahmer, sexual predator, serial killer and prominent Milwaukee cannibal, might only have been guilty of violating a number of elaborate herd instincts, products of natural selection, kept for their survival value. In that case, his behavior may have even been the result of a positive genetic mutation. He did, after all, outlive every one of his victims.

But wait. We know that just isn’t true. What he did was bad. Period.

Of course, we most clearly feel the presence of a moral issue when we are the victims of an offense. Nonetheless, we can see one even if the case has zero impact on us. In the political realm we argue the fine points; we don’t question the basic assumption.

The existence of God and the possibility that we are made in his image does a lot to explain this. If he is, and is good and we are wired to reflect his character, then human guilt (or the lack of it) is not merely a feeling, but the result of actual moral knowledge. Such knowledge may need refining, but it is not our invention.

Honest Q & A: The Existence of God (2) – Our Quest for Meaning

“’Vanity of vanities’ says the Preacher, ‘vanity of vanities! All is vanity!’” begins the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes.

“History is the nothing people write about a nothing,” wrote Sir William Golding, the English novelist, in Darkness Visible.

Finally, Shakespeare, in MacBeth,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
           That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
           And then is heard no more: it is a tale
           Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
           Signifying nothing.

We humans desire significance. Incurably so. The thought of a meaningless life is enough to crush us. It is distressing or dispiriting if it is not maddening or all of the above and more at the same time. If we only have some significance, we can taste hope.

But consider, if we or anyone and everyone and everything are ultimately a crowd of meaningless things, the paraphernalia of a meaningless universe, driven by meaningless forces to no significant end, then why should our meaninglessness even matter? Why should we find that the least bit disheartening? Do clouds care that they come and go without anyone even noticing? Does the grass contemplate its fairly modest existence? How about dolphins? They may be fairly intelligent, but do they care about their place in history, their porpoise, that is, purpose in life? (Sorry!)

Yet we self-centered, species-centered humans want to matter, even if we only matter because we devote our lives to the betterment of other species – which implies that they matter, which means the universe ultimately matters. And here we go again, trying to see significance in the whole thing. If that significance is not really there, if we are only kidding ourselves, then it’s all pointless and we have no real reason to care. At all. About anyone or anything.

On the other hand, we may be made in the image of God, for reasons known best to himself. And he may be willing to reveal these plans and purposes to us little by little, in his good time, especially if we seek him with all our heart. He may have his very own sagacious motives for giving us life and we may have a bottom-line reason to be. In that case, our lives do have meaning and will retain meaning, and perhaps even increase in meaning throughout all eternity. Everlastingly significant. Every last one of us. And hard-wired to want our lives to matter. Such a state of affairs would not only begin to explain our significance, but explain why we so badly desire significance in the first place.

Honest Q & A: The Existence of God (1) – A Basic Belief

While uncertainty regarding the existence of God is very common, anyone who flat out denies God’s existence must realize that he or she is swimming against humanity’s current. We need to be clear that we are not speaking of any particular religion’s view of God, but of belief in God in general. We are still nowhere near biblical Christianity.

Most people do, and have always, believed in something or someone above and beyond themselves. Even Buddhism, which in its purest Theravada form, does not really reference any god or supreme being, does not explicitly deny such a being. In fact, Mahayana Buddhism, the more common type, readily acknowledges the supernatural and is sometimes barely distinguishable from the folk religion of the culture in which it is practiced. Human nature longs to be tied to deity – gods, or God – or something above and beyond itself.

Alvin Plantiga was the first to argue that belief in God is “properly basic.” In other words, it’s just one of those things that people apparently somehow know to be true. We know other people really exist and have minds without ever needing detailed proof for that. We trust our memories, even if they are not always accurate. In fact, to seriously doubt such things without serious proof would make life unlivable. Belief has to be our default setting.  People believe in God in this way.  They are not talked into it as often as they need to be talked out of it.

By the way, Plantiga is the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the inaugural holder of the Jellema Chair in Philosophy at Calvin College. While that doesn’t make him right about any given thing, it does mean he’s intelligent. One doesn’t get jobs like that by flunking out. This is a fairly important fact as dogmatic atheists, or atheist fundamentalists, often like to portray themselves as the only ones with brains, which simply isn’t true. We all have to concede that there are savvy people on all sides of the discussion.