Can There be Ethics Without God?
I believe in an authoritarian theory of ethics. This means I
believe that God Himself is the standard of right and wrong. Put another
way, objective morality exists and it is rooted in God's immutable and
glorious nature. Furthermore, "God's moral nature is expressed in
relation to us in the form of divine commands which constitute our moral
duties or obligations." God's commands and revelation of Himself are
found in the Christian Bible. Later we will see the reasons for
accepting the truth of the Bible in light of the many books which claim
divine origin and then address the matter of "interpretation."
The authoritarian view of ethics is rationally sound. My
argument will be very simple. First, truth and morality are absolute.
Therefore, all ethical systems which either admit relativism or cannot
justifiably establish absolute morality must be false. Second, there can
be no such thing as absolute or universal morality apart from God.
Therefore, no system which leaves God out (i.e., non-authoritarian
systems) can be true because it cannot affirm absolute morality without
being inconsistent with itself through presupposing God (i.e.,
By objective, absolute morality I mean that there is a real right
and real wrong that is universally and immutably true independent of
whether anyone believes it or not. Lowell Kleiman argues very well for
an objective, universal right and wrong. He argues that since almost
all people assume certain things to be wrong (such as genocide), the best
explanation is that such things really are wrong. Indeed, how could
anyone hold that the truth "rape is wrong" is not a moral absolute?
Further, moral relativism is self defeating. The statement "there are no
absolutes" is itself absolute. One cannot support relativism with a
non-relative statement. Finally, I believe that my paper on truth and my
answer to test question #3 have adequately established that truth and
morality must be absolute. At this point, it should be clear that any
theory of ethics which explicitly says "morality is relative" must be
wrong. But what about theories which appear to establish absolutes
By examining the utilitarian and deontological theories, we will
see why there can only be absolute morality on the authoritarian view.
This renders God the only possible basis for ethics. Egoism need
not even enter into our discussion, due to Medlid's very convincing
Utilitarianism defines right as what brings the greatest good to
the greatest number of people. This seems to make right and wrong simply
a matter of preference (i.e., convention). It disguises this relativism
in that it is the preferences of society that determines right, not
preferences of the individual. This does not make morality any less of
a convention than if right is defined by what benefits a single
Norman Geisler points out some of the further flaws with this
view. First, "no one can accurately predict what will happen in the long
run. Hence, for all practical purposes, a utilitarian definition of good
is useless." Second, "...it begs the question to say that moral right
is what brings the greatest good. For then we must ask what is "good"?
Either right and good are defined in terms of each other, which is
circular reasoning, or they must be defined according to some standard
beyond the utilitarian process." So utilitarianism must
presuppose some higher law, the very same higher law that it tries
to do without. In doing this, it is inconsistent.
The utilitarian may try to get around this and say that the
"greatest good" is defined as "greatest happiness," and that this is
self-evident and therefore does not presuppose a higher law. I have
many responses to this. For the sake of clarity, "right" will refer to
a proper moral action while "good" will refer to the standard that makes
that action right. First, it is not at all self-evident that good is
equivalent to "greatest happiness." I think that the Utilitarian at
this point is confusing an expression of goodness with the nature
of goodness. Happiness is an expression of goodness, and that seems to
be self-evident. But it is not self-evident that happiness is the
foundation of good. When the utilitarian says that happiness is
self-evidently good, they mean the same thing as saying that intelligence
obviously good. But that doesn't make intelligence the nature, or
foundation, of goodness. And it doesn't necessarily make actions that
promote intelligence right just because they promote intelligence (the
movie "Lawnmower Man" comes to mind).
In fact, happiness could not establish an adequate foundation for
absolute morality. For one thing, absolute morality must be grounded in
something greater than humans in order to be binding; otherwise it is
purely subjective. For another, what if a violent rape would bring the
greatest good (i.e., happiness) to the greatest number? Would that make
the rape right? Of course not. Furthermore, what if billions of people
delighted in the act of rape itself--if rape in itself made the majority
of mankind happy? Would their happiness (the alleged "foundation of
good") itself be good? I think that we would consider them seriously
evil. It seems as if our subjective feelings of happiness themselves
need to be judged be a standard which is above utilitarianism. Thus,
happiness is an impossible foundation for real morality.
This brings us to another question that has not been answered: on
what basis can the utilitarian view say that it is good for the greatest
number of people to be happy? Since it is not self-evident, then it must
simply be assumed as a first principle without reason. But if they do
this, isn't utilitarianism backing down on the very question ethical
theories are asked to answer--what makes a thing good? Saying that a
right act is what brings happiness still begs the question in light of
what we have previously argued. We must ask, why is happiness good?
Since happiness must be assumed without a foundation to be good, then
good is being arbitrarily defined. But this amounts to saying nothing
and certainly fails at giving a foundation that can establish absolute
morality. But if utilitarianism wants to avoid arbitrarily defining
good, it must appeal to a standard outside of its world view to define
this necessary first principle of good.
It seems clear that utilitarianism cannot affirm absolute
morality and remain consistent. It must secretly be presupposing some
standard out-side of its own view when it affirms absolute
morality. The deontological falls to this inconsistency as well. It
clearly assumes a moral law and says a moral act is what is done out of
reverence for the law. But what makes the law moral? If it is responded
that thinking carefully about the moral law will cause it to appear to
you does not answer the necessary question: Where did this law come from
in the first place? An ethical system should be able to establish why
the moral law is moral and why it is absolute. The deontological cannot
do this because it assumes the very thing I want it to establish. It
cannot answer this question: Why is "good" good?
A response may be that something which is desirable for its own
sake is good. But on what basis can we ground the assertion that "good
is what is desirable for its own sake"? And don't we often desire for its
own sake things that are clearly evil? We would have to supply some
other standard in order to determine of what we desire is good to
desire! If this standard is "what most people in society would desire"
we've reduced ourselves to determining morality by vote.
If these ethical theories are to remain consistent with
themselves, they cannot assert absolute morality. Morality is purely
subjective and arbitrary on these views. Unless the moral law is
grounded in and given by an absolute being, the moral law cannot be
absolute. Furthermore, absolute morality means that man is subject to
something greater than himself. If, however, mankind is the ground of
this moral law in any way, then he is not subject to something greater
than himself. Clearly, only God can be the ground of morality. Ravi
Zacharias brings this out well: "When you accept the existence of
goodness, you must affirm a moral law on the basis of which to
differentiate between good and evil. But when you admit a moral law, you
must posit a moral lawgiver. That, however, is who you are trying to
disprove and not prove. For if there is no moral law giver, there is no
Let's ask a few more questions to clarify the situation. Why
cannot reason be the moral law giver that Zacharias referred to? Or what
about the conventions of the people? The answer is simple--this could
still not establish absolute morality. If morality were not rooted in
God, it would always be entirely subjective and non-binding--there could
no longer be actions that are really right or wrong. For example, if the
conventions of the people establish morality, then man is not subject to
something greater than himself. An absolute moral law must be grounded
in something that is absolute; how can a foundation be anything less than
what is founded upon it? If morality is founded in conventions of the
people, "then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality
is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably."
Reason cannot establish absolute morality either. Why? First,
reason has the same problem as morality--it has no foundation without
God. How could reason that has no foundation itself be the foundation
for morality? Second, without God the world is purely material. But
then there is no distinction between chemical reactions in our head and
those in a swamp. In that case, how could our thoughts have any
meaning? We would "have no reason for assigning truth and falsity to the
chemical fizz we call reasoning or right and wrong to the irrational
reaction we call morality."
If we deny God as the ground of morality, the words of
philosopher of science Michael Ruse appear to ring true: "Morality is
just an aid to survival and reproduction,...and any deeper meaning is
illusory..." Ethicist Richard Taylor also concludes that apart from
God, nothing can make morality objectively true: "Contemporary writers in
ethics, who blithely discourse upon moral right and wrong and moral
obligation without any reference to religion, are really just weaving
intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they
discourse without meaning."
Finally, "even if there were objective moral values and duties
under naturalism, they are irrelevant because there is no moral
accountability. If life ends at the grave, it makes no difference
whether one lives as a Stalin or a Saint." What good would a moral
law be that we are not ultimately held accountable to? But God is
necessary for people to be held accountable to objective morality.
It now seems evident that non-authoritarian systems are stealing
from my world view (authoritarian ethics) by presupposing
authoritarianism to establish what their own system cannot account
for--namely, absolute morality.
One last question on this issue will perhaps solidify my
argument. Which system of morality is better--utilitarianism or
deontological? (It can't be both since one emphasizes only ends as
the ground of morality, the other only motives.) How could we
ever decide this question without presupposing God? And then, of
course, we would have established authoritarian ethics! "The moment you
say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in
fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms
to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that
measures two things is something different from either. You are, in
fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there
is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and
that some people's ideas get nearer to that real Right than
All non-authoritarian systems are inconsistent (and therefore
untrue) because they assume an objective morality that they have no right
to accept on their world view. At this point Brian Medlin might object
that this is O.K. "Sooner or later we must come to at least one ethical
premise which is not deduced but baldly asserted" he would say. And
therefore there is nothing wrong with non-authoritarian views "baldly
asserting" moral absolutes which they have no foundation for. But that
sets the situation like this: either I accept a system of ethics which
cannot account for absolute morality, and is in fact unjustified in
asserting absolutes, or I accept a system of ethics which can account for
absolute morality and thus gives a solid basis for something that the
other views must "baldly assert." Which seems like a better course of
It is one thing to assume minor matters without any reason at all
(and do we ever even do that?), it is quite another thing when the most
foundational and essential aspect of a theory of ethics must simply be
"baldly asserted." Instead of disguising this sever problem, it should
just be admitted that non-authoritarian systems are groundless. And if
they are groundless, they are inconsistent and should be rejected (see
page 1, paragraph 2 of this paper).
At this point an important objection to my view surfaces. Does
God command something because it is right, or is it right because He
commands it? If God commands something because it is right, then God
Himself would be subject to a higher law and therefore not be God. But
if something is right simply because God commands it, wouldn't He be
arbitrary and without foundation?
I respond that something is not right because God commands it,
nor does God command it because it is right. Morality necessarily flows
from God's own nature. Right is right because it reflects God's
character. Wrong is wrong because it does not reflect God's character
but attacks it. This eliminates any arbitrariness in God without making
Him subject to anything because the ground of morality is located in
God Himself. Since God is absolute, morality is therefore absolute.
This is what it means for morality to be grounded in God. This also has
wonderful implications for daily life and provides exciting insight into
the nature of the universe God created and why He created it.
Another common objection to authoritarian ethics is that one
cannot know which authority to believe. Muslim? Jewish? Buddhist? Why
must it be Christian (as I have been implying)? This objection is not as
strong as it may seem. We can determine which religion is true by
investigating them with the legal-historical method and examining them in
light of certain practical and philosophical issues.
The Christian faith claims to be a religion based on real events
in real history. The central historical event to the Christian faith is
the resurrection of Christ. "If Christ has not been raised, your faith
is worthless" Paul said in 1 Cor. 15:17. Since the resurrection is
claimed to have been a space-time event, we can investigate its
historicity with the same methods we investigate any other historical
event. All other religions deny that Jesus rose. Therefore, if it can
be established that Christ rose, we will have established the truth of
the Christian world view. If Christ has not risen, there is really no
point to life.
William Lane Craig has done an excellent job in demonstrating the
reasonableness of the resurrection. Assessing the New Testament
Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ is an excellent scholarly
work exploring all the relevant evidence. Knowing the Truth About the
Resurrection is a popular treatment of the evidence which is also
very convincing. Gary Habermas also argues very convincingly for the
resurrection. He argues only from the facts which critical
scholars accept. Some of the facts accepted by even critical scholars
are Jesus' death by crucifixion, the empty tomb, that Jesus' disciples
had real experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ,
and the conversion of Saul the persecutor into Paul the apostle. Within
the twelve minimal facts which critical scholars accept, Habermas limits
himself to four and then proceeds to demonstrate that resurrection is the
On the basis of the evidence for the resurrection, I think that
Christianity is by far the most reasonable and rational religion to
accept. Christianity is not a blind faith, but intellectually strong.
This allows us to make a choice of the Christian world view on the basis
of "reasoned conviction" and not "blind faith." This essentially solves
the problem of which religious authority to accept, for Christianity is
by far most likely to be true.
For those who object that the Bible is unclear and we color its
meaning by our interpretation, I respond that the objection is
overstated. Of course some things are hard to understand. But the issue
of how to live and what is right is set forth very clearly.
When the problem of evil is brought in, the most serious
objection to authoritarian ethics based in the God of the Bible is
raised. But this issue also makes it even clearer that the God of the
Bible can be the only true God. I see at least two main reasons for
this. First, atheism cannot be true. This is because, as we have seen,
object moral values exist. Atheism (since it is non-authoritarian
ethics) cannot account for these without presupposing God. Thus, if
objective moral values exist (and they do), God must exist. Moreover, if
a wholly good God does not exist, there can be no problem of evil.
Without God we could have no objective morality by which to really call
something evil. The objection of the problem of evil cannot even justify
its own assumptions without assuming that God exists.
But how do we know which "God" exists from this? There are many
different religions. We've already seen the historical evidence that
Christianity must be true. Now I also offer this--there are no good
alternatives to the true God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is truly
fantastic and glorious to which none can even compare. If God exists
(and we have seen that He does) it must be Him.
The God of the Bible is the only God who is worthy of worship.
Looking at the problem of evil brings this out clearly. First, only the
God who has revealed Himself in Christ has become personally involved in
our suffering and pain. And only He has decisively dealt with evil. He
became man and endured the worst suffering and death of anyone. At the
cross, He conquered death and evil and sin. This exhibits his great
love, compassion, and power. One day soon He will fully exercise His
victory and establish a new heavens and earth with no evil. The
so-called "gods" of other religions remain removed from the most
difficult area of human experience and therefore just aren't very
loving. And they haven't decisively dealt with evil. Only the God of
Christianity is worthy of the name "God." Therefore I will accept the
testimony of the infinite God who became man that the other "gods" really
do not exist.
But it has been objected that God's justice is called into
question because He allowed evil. Further, the story of the Omela's
implies that God was unjust in how He defeated evil. Since God is the
only possible ground of justice itself, how is His justice maintained in
these areas? It is good to inquire into these areas in seeking to
understand the ways of God. But it is not good to call God's
righteousness into question, as so many do in this area. As fallen
creatures we hate to admit our guilt and are always trying to transfer it
away from ourselves. In the problem of evil, we often try and transfer
blame for sin to God. Instead of recognizing that evil shows that
we are not good, we try and make it show that God is not
good. I think that is truly ironic and unfortunate.
God did not create the world in its fallen state or with evil and
suffering. He created it wholly good and then man brought evil
and sin into the world by his own fault. Evil is here and people suffer
because we brought it upon ourselves by sin. This is not to say that
every sickness and injury is correlative to specific sins committed, but
that if we had not sinned we would not suffer. In other words, God
cannot be blamed for evil and suffering; it is our fault.
Contrary to the views of many, I do not believe that the
preceding comments lead us to the conclusion that man's sin and the
resulting evil occurred apart from the plan of God. While man has a will
and is responsible for sin, God is in complete control and nothing can
happen apart from His eternal purposes. But if God could have prevented
sin, but did not, it is often concluded that there God is not
all-loving. But this objection is based upon an unjustified
presupposition--the presupposition that a loving God would not have
included sin in His plan to exalt and glorify Himself. Perhaps God had
holy and just reasons for allowing evil.
What if the most loving thing God could do was allow the
temporary presence of evil in the universe, the evil being a result of
man's sin? A holy and righteous God would place infinite value on His
own worth--otherwise He would not be fully valuing what is supremely
valuable, which would be idolatry. A loving God, it seems to me, would
want the best for His people. And the best thing for God's people is God
acting to glorify Himself (i.e., to display His greatness and moral
perfections to the highest possible extent). This means that it is
loving for God to pursue His own glory and act for the sake of His name.
And if He did not do this, He would not be supremely valuing what is of
infinite value (Himself).
It seems as if God allowed evil in order to fully demonstrate the
greatness of His power in conquering it, the holiness of His character in
judging it, and the wisdom of His plan in bringing good out of it. God's
character shines forth brighter in defeating sin and judging it. In
doing this, God is greatly glorified and thus His people, in the long
run, greatly benefit.
Thus, it seems a loving and just God would allow evil,
temporarily. But this brings us to the objection raised by the Omelas
story. In order to conquer sin and death and evil, God sent His Son to
the cross. Was it unjust of God, as the story of the Omelas tries
to imply, to ordain His innocent Son to suffer on
the cross? This question has radical implications, for if God were
unrighteous, man has no hope for life, let alone a foundation for
First, I would again point out that without God, there could be
no justice. As Thomas Hobbes has said "Where there is no common power,
there is no law; where no law, no injustice." As I have shown, if there
is no God there is no law (and no one to hold people accountable to the
law) and thus no injustice or justice.
The city of Omelas fails to make God appear unrighteous for
several reasons. Most simply, the poor child in the story who suffers
for the welfare of the rest of the city is not
choosing to suffer for the people. Jesus, on the other hand,
willingly endured the cross. Further, Christ's sacrifice was not
unfruitful for Him. He will not be in a cage suffering throughout
eternity, but will be the very center and focus of heaven in all His
glory. "For the joy set before Him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising
the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of God" (Hebrews 12:2).
Christ sought the joy of bringing many sons to glory, and considered the
cross worth the sacrifice. Furthermore, since Christ is Himself God, the
one who requires the penalty is also paying the penalty! The judge also
serves the sentence!
If we think it through further, it is clear that it was not
unjust for God to plan Christ's death but actually a vindication of His
justice: 1) God's righteousness is His unfailing commitment to preserve
the worth of His glory. If God did not value Himself above all things
and preserve the worth of His glory, He would not be valuing what is
infinitely valuable--which would be unrighteous. 2) Sin is an attack on
the worth of God's glory. 3) Therefore, if sin is treated as
inconsequential and the profane done to God's name is not repaired, God's
glory is treated as cheap. 4) Therefore, if God did not judge sin, He
would be unrighteous.
So here is the situation: God cannot just overlook sin, because
then He would compromise His justice. However, "all people have sinned
and fall short of the glory of God." So, all people deserve to be
eternally judged for their sins. So how can God save sinners and remain
The Father's love and commitment to His glory moved Him to send
His son to deliver His people from His just wrath that they deserve. He
sent Christ to die in the place of those who would come to
believe. Christ endured the penalty and punishment for the sins of those
who believe in Him. This makes it possible for God to forgive those who
repent while still remaining just. Far from calling into question God's
justice, the cross vindicates His justice!
The death of Christ was therefore a marvelous act of both
love and righteousness. Through the cross, the Father in effect said "My
glory is of infinite worth, and I will not treat it as cheap. I love my
glory and I will not compromise it. But I also love the world.
Therefore I will send my Son to deliver those who will believe from the
penalty of their sins while still upholding the worth of my glory." The
cross demonstrates that God the Father is an all glorious God who refuses
to settle for anything less than being all glorious. This is a beautiful
Far from the death of Christ demonstrating the "infinite worth of
humanity" as Robert C. Mortimer says (p. 270), it demonstrates the utter
sinfulness and depravity of man. And it demonstrates the infinite worth
of God's glory since Christ was willing to go to such lengths to preserve
His Father's holy name. The cross shows the infinite worth of God, not
God the Son, in choosing to become a man who would die for sins, in
effect said to
His Father "I value your glory so much and I love you so much that I am
willing to die before I see your name dishonored." Christ in effect said
to His people "I love you so much that I am willing to die in your place
to deliver you from the penalty of your sins."
The death of Christ sent two glorious echoes across the universe
"The Father's glory is infinitely valuable!" and "God is so full of love
that He is willing to pay the penalty for His people's sins!" The death
of Christ preservers, displays, and magnifies the glory of God while also
being an expression of ultimate love to His people. This is a glorious
God! While it was sin for the Jews to nail Christ to that cross, God was
being wholly just in sending His Son to die. The cross of Christ
magnifies the mercy of God, the justice of God, the holiness of God, the
grace of God, the love of God. It displays his character to a wonderful
Christianity reveals a God who not only decisively dealt with
evil and sin (unlike the "god" of any other religion), but who brought
about a greater good from the temporary presence of evil in the
universe. Because of what God did at the cross (where sin was defeated),
it is very clear that He is infinitely glorious. How can we complain
about evil in light of this? We should repent and then praise God, not
blame Him. Our mouths should be stopped at these two facts: 1) Evil is
our fault, not God's and 2) God greatly displayed the worth and value of
Himself through conquering evil.
In examining the issues of justice and evil, we have further
given reasons that the God of the Bible is the source of all ethics and
we have also answered the major objections to this view.
Finally, how can one apply this ethical structure to real life,
such as the case of the Omelas? If I were in Omelas, I would certainly
not walk away. My God does not command us to avoid problems, but
confront them. So I would help the poor child. The child is being
tortured (if we think about it, isn't that what is really happening?) for
the society against his will and undeservingly. If he had
chose the suffering or if he deserved it, things might be different. But
he did not choose it; it is forced upon him.
"Open your mouth for the dumb, for the rights of all the
unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the
rights of the afflicted and needy" (Proverbs 31:8, 9). "And you
shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the
land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow or orphan" (Exodus
22: 21, 22). "He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law" (Romans
13:8). In Matthew 25:41-46, those who did not feed the hungry and help
the poor find out that they are not the people of God.
As a Christian, I am called to obey God regardless of the
consequences. I believe, however, that no matter how "foolish" an act of
obedience may appear at first (as in this case, since the whole society
will be altered), God will work all things together for good.
Last of all, I think the authoritarian view of ethics unfolded
here has major ramifications for philosophy. God is not just necessary
for objective morality, but also for true justice, rational thought,
personal identity, truth, knowledge and for every other area of life to
make sense. Much philosophy for the last several hundred years seems to
be somewhat confused and in such a difficult place because it lacks God
as its foundation. Being without God as a foundation has made a coherent
world-view impossible and the resulting philosophical views have been
utterly unlivable (for example, Berkeley denying necessary causality but
admitting that he still wouldn't recommend jumping out of the window).
Existential experience (and thus purpose) has been wholly separated and
disjoined from rationality and logic. The outcome of this can only be
despair. Man needs a unified field of knowledge, and this can only be
had by making God the foundation. God is necessary for coherent and true
life and philosophy.
1. William Lane Craig, "The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical
Foundations for Morality,"
http://apu.edu.edu/~CTRF/papers/1996_papers/craig.html page 1.
2. Kleiman & Lewis, Philosophy: An Introduction Through
Literature, pp. 317-324.
3. Ibid, p. 276.
4. Norman L. Geisler, "Any Absolutes? Absolutely!", Christian
5. Norman L. Geisler, "Any Absolutes? Absolutely!".
6. Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God, the last chapter (I
7. Craig, p. 3.
8. Douglas Wilson and Farrell Till, "Disputatio: Justifying
9. Cited in Craig, p. 2.
10. Cited in Craig, p. 2.
11. Craig, p. 3.
12. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 25.
13. Kleiman and Lewis, p. 275.
14. Antony Flew and Gary Habermas, Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?
pp. 19-20. This book is a debate between Flew, an atheist, and Habermas,
a Christian. An excellent work.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.
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