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."[1] 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., authoritarian ethics).

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.[2] 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 without God?

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 refutation.[3]

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 individual.

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."[4] Second, " 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."[5] 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 moral law..."[6]

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."[7]

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."[8]

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..."[9] 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."[10]

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."[11] 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 others."[12]

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"[13] 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 action?

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 best explanation.[14]

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 morality!

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 righteous?

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 God.

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 man.

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 extent.

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," 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 Research Journal,
5. Norman L. Geisler, "Any Absolutes? Absolutely!".
6. Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God, the last chapter (I think).
7. Craig, p. 3.
8. Douglas Wilson and Farrell Till, "Disputatio: Justifying non-Christian Objections,"
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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