The End of Moral Absolutes?

I recently stumbled upon a poll by the Barna Group, an Evangelical Christian polling group that conducts surveys about the thoughts, attitudes, and spiritual beliefs of America. Over 1000 individuals of different faiths were surveyed and asked various questions regarding the state of morality in America and the nature of moral truth.

Frankly, the results are fairly disheartening to read, but they aren’t all that surprising. Let’s take a look at some of the most important findings here.

Question: Are you concerned about the nation’s moral condition?

Demographic Percent “Yes”
 Overall  80%
 Elders  89%
 Baby Boomers  87%
 Gen-Xers  75%
 Millennials  74%
 Practicing Christians  90%
 No Faith  67%
 Faith other than Christianity  72%

An overwhelming majority (80%) of the American population as a whole is concerned about America’s moral condition. As one might expect, the amount of moral concern decreases as the age of the group decreases. While 89% of elderly people show concern, only 74% of Millennials show the same. Practicing Christians are the most concerned about the nation’s morality at 90%, as they should be. The widespread acceptance of things like abortion and sexual deviancy have further polarized our nation’s moral views.

While a majority of adults with no faith (67%) said they were concerned about the moral state of America, I can only assume that some of these respondents said so because they believe America is too conservative in its moral convictions. There are many atheists who believe the moral constraints of our culture that result from being a majority Christian nation are problematic and need to be thrown off. Many of them view traditional Christian moral values as hindering to America’s “social progress” (whatever that means.)

Statement: Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.03.17 AM
From barna.org

An overwhelming majority of Millennials (74%) agree with this statement to some degree. 31% of them strongly agree with this statement. Younger generations are increasingly given the impression by our culture that the only truth in this world is what you feel works for you. Obviously, this is a dangerous message to convey to a culture that increasingly needs to hear the absolute truths of God’s Word.

67% of adults with no faith agree with this statement to some degree. I’m puzzled by the other 33% who do not agree with the statement. While it’s possible for an atheist or agnostic to behave in a moral fashion, the belief that there is any kind of absolute moral standard is completely inconsistent with their atheistic worldview.

While it’s good that only a minority of Christians agree to some degree with this statement (41%), that minority is nonetheless alarmingly large. Take a look once again at the statement they were asked to react to: “Whatever is right for your life or works best for you is the only truth you can know.” I would agree that every individual has unique experiences and has a life that functions differently from other individuals. However, that’s not what this question is asking. To sincerely believe that “what works best for an individual is the only truth one can know” is to completely deny the foundations of the Christian faith. While some of the Christian respondents may not have recognized the implication of their response, or even misinterpreted the question, I still feel spiritual concern for the 41% who answered in the affirmative. God’s Word is ultimately the only truth we can know and trust, and anyone who believes differently is not familiar with the most basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Statement: The Bible provides us with absolute moral truths which are the same for all people in all situations, without exception.

Question 2.png
From barna.org

According to the survey description at barna.org, a majority of all American adults (59%) agreed with this statement. 83% of Christians agree with the statement to some degree. There are some interesting things about this. First, I would love to have a conversation with someone from the 17% who disagree with this statement. It would do them some good to open up their Bible sometime. While not every statement or commandment in the Bible applies to all people at all times (take, for instance, the Old Testament ceremonial laws), the Bible nonetheless communicates many absolute moral truths that are meant to apply to all people indiscriminately.

The other anomaly here is the disparity between the responses to this question and the previous one. 83% of Christians believe that the Bible has absolute moral truths for all people at all times, but 41% of Christians think that the only truth we can know is relative to the individual. Those numbers simply don’t add up. Either some of the respondents did not understand the questions, or they are simply inconsistent in their beliefs.

The other percentages in the graphic above aren’t too much of a surprise. What is fairly interesting, however, is the fact that 27% of adults with no religious faith still believe that the Bible has moral truths that apply to all people at all times.

Question: Is moral truth absolute or relative?

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.35.30 AM

This question is the one that gets to the crux of the issue. Only 35% of American adults believe that moral truth is absolute. 44% believe that moral truth is relative, and 21% haven’t given it much thought. The fact that only 59% of Christians believe that moral truth is absolute is extremely disappointing and disheartening. These results all but confirm what many of us have sensed for a while now: America is rejecting moral absolutes that previous generations recognized.

Oh, but it doesn’t end there. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day, but there’s even more frustration to be felt with these next results:Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.43.01 AM

 

These results are pretty self-explanatory. Sadly, more Christians seem interested in living a life of pleasure and personal fulfillment than anything else. To the 76% of Christians who think we need to just “look within” to find ourselves: you need to read Colossians 2:9-10 –

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.
We don’t “find ourselves” by looking inward. We find our true identity and fulfillment by looking to Christ who redeemed us and brought us to fullness. The same goes to the 72% who think fulfillment comes from pursuing the things you desire most.
The most disturbing thing here is the percent of Christians (67%) who believe the highest goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible. I hope and pray that most of these people simply misunderstood the question. Where can you even start in responding to that kind of sentiment? Are these Christians so completely unfamiliar with what the Bible says about these questions? There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting and striving for a happy and peaceful life, but I don’t recall any passages that address the importance of just doing whatever “feels best” and makes us happy. In fact, Scripture overwhelmingly says just the opposite –
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Romans 12:2
Scripture makes it clear that we are not to be conformed to the hedonistic and self-seeking philosophies of this world. We are to be transformed by renewing our minds in Christ, which means that our ultimate purpose is found in him.
While the results of this survey are certainly disappointing and even frustrating, they give us all the more reason to reach out to those around us and share with them what God has to say on these issues. Apparently, even many Christians need to be reminded of many of the basic things the Bible has to say about morality. As Paul says in Colossians 3:16 –
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Encourage, instruct, and admonish one another in love. And whatever you do, don’t be the 67%.
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The Euthyphro Dilemma – What Makes God “Good?”

From the very beginning of Christianity, its theology has been explored and expounded upon with the aid of philosophy – “the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct.”1 This is because philosophy and theology often deal with many of the same ideas, such as morality, wisdom, and other complex issues. Philosophy has also been used heavily in attempts to understand God and His nature. While philosophy can be used positively to death-of-socrates-abreaffirm and explain theological truths found in Scripture, others have used philosophy to attack Christianity and religion in general.

Socrates (470-399 BC), a very prominent Classical Greek philosopher, had been known to utilize philosophy and logic to challenge the Greek polytheistic religion of his day, something that eventually got him in trouble with the government, resulting in his execution. Plato, who was Socrates’ most famous student, recorded a discourse of Socrates in his dialogue Euthyphro. In this work, Socrates engages in discussion and debate with the eponymous Euthyphro, a religious expert and prophet of his day. The dialogue consists of Euthyphro’s attempts of defining what “goodness” and “piety” are – and Socrates’ challenges to his assertions.

Euthyphro gives this definition of goodness — goodness is that which the gods love (“the gods” can be replaced with “God” if we adapt this to the context of Christianity). However, this definition led Socrates to present the following question or dilemma:

  1. Is something good simply because the gods love it?
  2. Or do the gods simply love it because it is inherently good?

Either of these two answers leads to their own problem:

  1. If something is “good” just because the gods say that it is good, then goodness becomes arbitrary. Goodness is then not necessarily absolute, because the gods could decide to change what they decide is “good.”
  2. If the gods love something because it is good, then goodness itself is something that is above the gods, and something that they submit to because of its nature. Therefore, goodness is something independent of the gods, and the gods are not supreme in their authority.

In the context of ancient Greek mythology, there is little wonder this dilemma stumped Euthyphro. The gods of Ancient Greece were extremely petty individuals – they fought among themselves over petty problems, had sexual relations with mortals on various occasions – so they hardly exuded a strong ideal of “goodness.” He really had no way of answering this dilemma, because the gods he believed in were a far cry from the true God of the Bible.

This dilemma has been used frequently by atheists and critics of Christianity to challenge the idea that morality can be derived from God or, by extension, the Bible. If goodness is something completely arbitrary that God decides on a whim, then how cHoly_Trinityan that morality be any better than what a human wants to choose it to be? And if goodness is an ideal that is distinct from or even above God, then why does religion claim to have a monopoly on morality?

However, the triune God of the Scriptures stands up well against this challenge to Christian morality. In fact, the dilemma presents a false dichotomy – it only gives two choices when more than two are actually possible. In reality, goodness can be defined as whatever is godly. Something isn’t good just because God says it is good, but because it reflects and exemplifies God’s nature. In other words, godliness is goodness, and goodness is godliness. Goodness is not something outside of God that God must yield to. Goodness is what God is. Because God is perfect, holy, and supreme in his power, the goodness he exemplifies is perfect as well. In fact, the Apostle John tells us in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love.”

Goodness is also not arbitrary, because God is not arbitrary. Because God is omniscient and omnipotent, and because he does not change (Psalm 55:19), the goodness of his nature is a firm and eternal ideal of morality. As the Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 106:1-3:

Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord, or declare all his praise? Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!

The Dilemma for Atheism

Euthyphro’s dilemma can similarly be adapted in order to challenge atheistic assertions and claims to morality. Because atheists cannot derive their morality from any kind of supreme being or law, they are left to be their own source of morality. By substituting “the atheist” for “God” in the questions above, we get:

  1. Is something considered good simply because the atheist approves of it?
  2. Or does the atheist simply approve of it because it is inherently good?

If option 1 is correct, then “goodness” is an arbitrary concept that can quickly be redefined if the atheist chooses to do so. By this standard, morality could be a constantly-changing morality1aideal that is completely up to the individual. This also leads to the problem of two atheists with conflicting moral views. If one person believes that stealing is wrong, but another believes that stealing is perfectly fine, which one is correct? They could be “subjectively” correct, but there cannot be an objective morality due to the Law of Noncontradiction.

(While writing this article, I came across the fascinating fact that prominent atheist Richard Dawkins in an interview was unsure whether or not rape is inherently wrong (transcript here), but shows no hesitation in claiming that it is child abuse to call a child “Muslim” or “Christian.”)

If option 2 is correct, then the atheist is forced to admit that there is some transcendent ideal of “goodness” that exists separate from the laws of science and the material world. At that point, the idea of God existing is not too far off. For the atheist to admit that a transcendent and absolute “goodness” exists is to open the door very wide for accepting a belief in a higher power.

Atheists are perfectly capable of having a moral code of ethics, and might even believe that objective “good” exists. However, the notion of absolute morality is ultimately inconsistent with their belief system, painful as it may be to admit. The only “morality” that Darwinian evolution confers to humans is to take any measures necessary to survive and reproduce. There is no prescription to care for the weak, sick, or poor, as it weakens the species. For this very reason, famous atheist Richard Dawkins has described himself as strongly anti-Darwinian when it comes to society and ethics. Rather, he supports a Christian moral system when it comes to societal values.[2]

God is Good

Christian theology and the One True God of the Scriptures have stood up against scrutiny countless times in the past, and will only continue to do so in the years to come. Various secular scholars, beginning during the Enlightenment and continuing the today, have made claims that it’s only a short matter of time before people will realize how “irrational” it is to believe in God, and will trade their theistic beliefs for atheistic ones. However, the claim never seems to even come remotely true. Religion continues to stand firm against assaults of secular humanism. In fact, the cold and cruel ideals of Darwinian evolution and secularism seem to drive people towards religion as they search for true meaning.

We know that it is God who informs our morality by telling us what is right and wrong by means of His Word. And these moral standards are not arbitrary in the slightest – goodness reflects the holy and righteous nature of God Himself. These values should not be followed out of the fear of being punished, but as a loving response to God’s own love for us and our desire to serve all people. Those who have been called to faith are tasked to walk through this life with goodness and love:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

St. Paul to the Philippians, 4:8 (ESV)

Additionally, we are given the great mission of proclaiming the message of God’s ultimate act of goodness to all people:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you. . . For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . .

1 Corinthians 15:1-4 (ESV)

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Amen. (Romans 15:13)

The Beautiful Brutality of the Cross

Well-known atheist and psychologist Steven Pinker published a book in 2011 titled “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.” The book focuses mainly on the philosophies of religion, asserting that religion (specifically Christianity) is one of the greatest contributors of violent acts and warfare.

If one groups together all religions into a single entity, the characteristics of the group as a whole will most certainly not fairly represent the characteristics of each individual religion. Certain religions preach peace and tolerance, while others teach punishment and submission. The assertion that Christianity is a source of evil and violence can be easily refuted by anyone who seeks to do so. However, I want to focus on a specific point that Pinker makes in his book. He spends a few pages talking about Jesus’ crucifixion, and how it is barbaric and disturbing that Christians see it as the most beautiful expression of love that God has ever shown.

To get a better idea of Pinker’s opinion on the subject, here is a paragraph from his book –

More to the point, what was the lesson that the first Christians drew from the crucifixion? Today such a barbarity might galvanize people into opposing brutal regimes, or demanding that such torture never again be inflicted on a living creature. But those weren’t the lessons the early Christians drew at all. No, the execution of Jesus is The Good News, a necessary step in the most wonderful episode in history. In allowing the crucifixion to take place, God did the world an incalculable favor.” (p. 25)

Do Christians think that crucifixion is a brutal and barbaric method of execution? Of course they do. It is not as if Christians were advocating crucifixion as a good means of punishment for anyone. Rather, they saw it as the most brutal form of execution a man could endure. In this way, Jesus, both God and man, showed the extent of his love to his creation. Pinker seems to be making the false resolution that because Christians profess and value Jesus’ crucifixion, it means that Christians are heartless and barbaric monsters.

As happens with some secular or atheist philosophies, there is a grain of truth to be found in these assumptions. Are Christians barbarians? In a sense, yes. Because of our sinful nature, every human (Christian or otherwise) was and is born completely dead and void of any true love. Our natural opposition to God and his will is what warranted the ultimate sacrifice of Christ.  All mankind was conceived in sin, even to the point that we are all enemies of God. As David states in Psalm 14:3,

“They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
 not even one.”

Do we take pride that it is our sin that held Christ to the cross? Certainly not. The crucifixion was necessary because of the sins of the human race. We are held to blame for all of the sins that Christ took on as he suffered. We believe the crucifixion to be both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. It’s disturbing in the sense that we all took part in crucifying Christ. It is beautiful in the sense that God showed the world the extent of His boundless love, giving Himself up to death for our sake. And furthermore, we know that the nails we personally used to hold him to that tree have been cast out of God’s sight, out of His memory, as if we had never done any wrong to our Savior. Jesus has taken the blame and pardoned us from our guilt, and as a result our consciences and souls are free.

Look at it this way: Christians don’t walk out of a Good Friday service smiling and chatting about the recent college basketball game. It’s usually one of the most emotional and shameful experiences that a Christian can go through. On Good Friday, we focus on the fact that our sin is to blame for Christ’s suffering. We walk out of the service in sorrowful introspection, realizing the extent of our sin.

Then, when Easter comes on the third day, the beauty of Christ’s death is found in the fact the he didn’t stay dead. If Christ had died for us and not risen, the cross would be seen as anything but “good.” If Christ had been punished for our iniquity, and not overcome death itself, the cross would be the shame of all mankind. However, God ensured it to be the opposite. Because Jesus rose from death, we know that he conquered death for us through his atonement. We do not boast about ourselves, as is we have anything to do with our own salvation. Rather, we boast in the cross of Christ, rejoicing in the hope that comes from Christ’s atonement. We heed the words of Paul in Galatians 6:14 – “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” We lower ourselves before the cross, recognizing that God’s gift of salvation was given to us despite our shameful stance towards God.

We also know that through our baptism, we were “crucified with Christ,” that is, our sin and rebellion were put to death through Jesus’ sacrifice. When we rejoice in the cross, we celebrate our death as well. In the same way, when we rejoice in Christ’s resurrection, we take heart in the hope that he has also secured our resurrection. The beauty of the cross cannot be comprehended or understood by one who has not been brought to faith. To Steven Pinker, the message of the cross is foolishness because he is not in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18). The death of Jesus Christ has absolutely no value to those who aren’t God’s children, and is absolute folly to the world.

When Christians look at the cross, we should call to mind both law and gospel. Our disobedience to the law was the very thing for which Christ suffered, but Christ suffered because of his perfect love and grace towards the world. Why would anyone worship a God who was humiliated enough to die such a barbaric death? We worship the humble Christ because God is love  –

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)