31 March, 2008

Can We Be Good Without God? Part 2

Who Made the Rules?

The view of morality as something dependant on the will of God has often been criticised by ancient writers. Why do we need God to tell us that some actions are right and some wrong? — they ask. Do we mean that the difference between right and wrong depends upon His arbitrary decree—an action is good if God commands it and bad if He forbids it? Is He so far above all categories of right and wrong that there is no difference between them until He makes a decree one way or the other? On this view God could conceivably have created a world in which truthfulness were a vice and dishonesty a virtue, which would be absurd.

Do we mean then, that goodness is somehow independent of God, like the laws of arithmetic and logic, part of the fabric of reality? Actions are inherently either right or wrong, even if no one were to believe it. An atheist would then argue that that is even less reason to invoke God as the source of moral standards. He would say that the ethical section of the Ten Commandments simply codifies what to any reasonable person is already obvious. We hardly need God to tell us that it is right to seek the welfare of our fellows and wrong to seek their injury. To put the question in its simplest form: Is an action good because God has commanded it – which makes Him appear arbitrary? Or has God commanded it because it is good – which makes Him appear superfluous? This dilemma is held to prove the independence of morality from religion.

In fact both horns of the dilemma are false. For a start, God is not subject to a law higher than and separate from Himself. Everything He does and everything He commands His people to do is an expression of His own nature and God cannot do that which is contrary to His own nature. As Creator He cannot be malevolently disposed toward His own creatures. Whatever He does must lead to their ultimate good. Everything that promotes His own purpose and conforms to His will must therefore in itself be good. There is nothing arbitrary about the commands of God. He is not like a tyrant handing down edicts which His subjects must obey without question. He is best compared to a father who offers advice and instruction to his children for their welfare, even though his children might not see it like that at the time.

A code of morality must have an objective scale of reference to measure good and evil and to determine the boundary between them, in the same way that we need a thermometer to measure temperature. Otherwise, terms such as "good" and "evil" are no more than words. By what yardstick do we measure them if we do not believe in God? Public opinion is fickle, individual conscience is subjective, the laws of nature say nothing about moral issues. The only reliable yardstick is found in the Bible which reveals the character and will of God. That provides a reference point which alone is perfect, unchanging, and transcendent. That is the reality by which all other views of reality must be measured.

The Ten Commandments

What then does the Bible say about the morality which comes from God? The first great summary of moral law is recorded in Exodus chapter 20. This is the legislation called the Ten Commandments, which God gave to Moses. Moses did not invent these commandments, a committee did not compile them; they were engraved on tables of stone by the finger of God.

The first four concern people's duty to God and the remaining six concern their duty to others and to society at large. In a sense they all concern duty to God simply because respect for parents, prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft, false witness and covetousness are God's laws, to break them is not only an offence against society, they are sins against God the source of all morality.
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
Honour your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.
You shall not covet.

Compared to the law-codes of the other nations in the ancient world, the laws which God gave to Israel were remarkably humanitarian and enlightened. Other nations treated foreigners, slaves and peasants as inferiors. The class-divisions of society were seen as part of the divine order. By contrast, the laws of the Israelites emphasised the humanity which all men have in common. Those laws applied equally to kings, aristocrats and peasants. It was the Word of a moral God who was concerned for social justice, for the plight of the weaker members of society, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).

On His behalf the prophets rebuked the rulers who hoarded wealth and oppressed the poor. They denounced hypocrisy, complacency and greed. Many of the higher ideals of the modern world are foreshadowed in the Law of Moses, such as its imperative to look after the less fortunate members of society, its concern for racial minorities and its belief that the individual possesses dignity and worth.

Not only this legislation, but everything else in the Bible, has had an enduring influence upon Western culture over the last two thousand years. The Christian faith became woven into the very fabric of that culture, influencing its art, music, philosophy and its moral and ethical values. Our ancestors took for granted that there was a God, that human life was part of a wider spiritual order and that present conduct would have a bearing upon the destiny of the individual when he left this world for the next.

Natural Law

Are we suggesting then, that if God had not made His will known, then humanity would live on the moral level of savages? No, the Bible tells us that, even without God's revelation, human nature retains a capacity at least to recognise the difference between right and wrong. Jesus implied as much when he urged his followers: ''Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds, and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). Clearly he expected people to recognise good behaviour when they see it.

The book of Genesis tells us that man was made in the "image and likeness of God". That being so all men must reflect. however dimly, something of the nature of God. Human reason, which is itself a God-given gift, can develop a love for truth, virtue and beauty, for the humane values which give richness to human life and transform barbarism into civilisation. This is sometimes called 'Natural Law". In Romans 2:14 we find the clearest statement of 'natural law' in the New Testament:

“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law arc written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” (Romans 2:14-16).

What is the Apostle saying? He is describing two kinds of divine law. One which God had made known through Moses and which Israel alone had received. The other a law "written on the hearts", and which all mankind is endowed with. So even the "Gentiles', that is people who had not heard of the law of Moses, still possessed a knowledge of right and wrong. They had a conscience, they were aware of moral values. This is sometimes called "general revelation'. The Apostle does not say that the Gentiles lived up to that knowledge, in the previous chapter he describes how far they fell short. But they knew enough, he says, to be held accountable by God for their actions.

Without this knowledge of right and wrong "written on their hearts", there could be no ordered society, no civilisation, no cultural achievements. The Apostle Paul lived in the Roman empire, an empire renowned for its civilisation, its legal system and its achievements. He was doubtless familiar with the ideas of its great philosophers many of whom lived by a moral code outwardly very close to the Christian ethic. There were plenty of contrasts with Christianity, but at its best it rose far above the popular paganism of the ancient world.

People like that can be found within every culture. People who try to live by a high moral standard despite the low standards around them. They know that there is a difference between right and wrong. That much at least seems to be ingrained in human nature. Even among those who do not acknowledge the authority or even the existence of God there can be morality and a love for truth and goodness.

"Let everyone submit himself”

The Apostle Paul tells us that governments, in their task of maintaining law and order in society, are given their authority by God. Those who rule, do so on behalf of God, even if they do not know this:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgement on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do von want to be fire from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend von. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he docs not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer (Romans 13:1-4).

The Apostle is referring to the Roman government and by implication, all human governments. Insofar as they restrain evil and uphold social order, the civil authorities of this world are the instruments of God, even those governments which do not acknowledge His authority. Such a role however, is essentially a negative one. There is little that governments can do to instil positive virtue in their subjects. Faced with rising crime figures the answer of politicians is to recruit more police, hand out longer prison sentences and install more CCTV cameras in the streets. It is like a doctor treating the symptoms of an illness instead of its cause.

Every aspect of modern life is governed by laws, from traffic control to drug control, from industrial relations to the protection of property. Countless thousands of laws, by-laws and regulations all designed to protect the law-abiding and restrain the lawbreaker. Yet few would deny that society is less law-abiding than it was a generation ago. There is an obvious link between these two social trends. It is simply because so many conduct themselves in a way that is antisocial or selfish that the government has to bring in more and more legislation in order to restrain the prevailing anarchy and close the loopholes which the unscrupulous are willing to exploit. It is a paradoxical position. The more anarchic a society becomes and the more contemptuous of authority, the more laws have to be handed down to hold the fabric of society together.


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