JESUS AND MORALITY
The moral law does it exist?
Is there such a thing as “right” and “wrong”? Something that is always wrong in all all situations, at all times? To use the example of Christian apologist, Frank Turik,
“Is it always wrong to torture babies for fun?”
Certainly, we all have a keen sense of right and wrong when we are the ones being wronged. People who say, “ There’s no such thing as right and wrong”, or “Nobody, not even God, can tell me what to do”, are usually the very ones who object the loudest when they are offended. Take their seat on the bus, be rude to them, steal something from them or upset them in anyway, and they are the first to object, “That’s wrong” or “That’s unfair”.
If a universal moral law does not exist, then there is no difference between Mother Teresa and Hitler. Some may want to excuse Hitler as one who just did what he thought was right and therefore not that evil. Others may accuse Mother Teresa of being motivated by selfish desires to appear good, holy or saintly, and therefore the good that she did was not really that good. So Hitler was not wrong and Mother Teresa was not right?
But there are good reasons to accept that universal moral values do exist. We sometimes call this the moral law, natural law, or an inner knowing of right and wrong. We can also call this “conscience”.
Conscience exists, it’s a real thing. Our conscience may be influenced by culture, social identity, personal preferences, circumstances, or our mental state, as in the legal plea of diminished responsibility. But though fallible and inconsistent, conscience does exist and it points to the existence of a universal moral law. And if there is a universal moral law, then there must be a universal moral Law Giver.
C.S. Lewis the famous literature professor and Christian apologist, authored many books including, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Narnia Chronicles. He also wrote Mere Christianity which has helped many people, especially intellectuals, see the relevance of Christianity. In his book on basic Christianity he tells the story of his ‘reluctant’ journey to faith.
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.
Thus, in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never have known it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.
C.S. Lewis saw that our concept of justice demands an external standard of right and wrong. And, therefore, an external Law Giver and Justice-upholder. Certainly, if morality exists, we need to ask…
Where does morality come from?
There have been many philosophical, psychological and sociological attempts to explain the existence of morality. According to biological evolutionists, the answer is, we are only “dancing to the tune of our genes”. There is no morality at all, not in any kind of real sense. But how can anyone be held to account if they are just dancing to the tune of their genes?
You have think more deeply than that. Where does the concepts of justice, right and wrong come from? Has they evolved in order to propagate and preserve our species? If so, morality as we know it, is only a natural mechanism. And if that is so, it is not really morality as such. Only survival, a form of self-preservation, one might even say instinctive selfishness. How is that morality at all?
Perhaps we can accept that, somehow, morality is in the nature of things. But where you go from there will depend on your understanding of ultimate reality, the ultimate nature of things.
If you believe that the material world is all that is, then you must believe that morality is only a description of human behaviour and, ultimately, not meaningful. Only a matter of what is, and not what it really ought to be. There is no real moral imperative. Certainly no foundation for it in this world view, as honest atheists do admit.
Richard Dawkins one of the most famous ‘new atheists”, says on page 155 of his book, River Out of Eden:
In a universe of blind forces and physical replication, some people are going to get hurt, others are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A.E. Housman put it,
‘For Nature, heartless, witless nature
Will neither care nor know.’
DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its tune.
But does that really ring true to you? Many atheists are honest enough to admit, that while they theoretically believe in an amoral universe, they find they cannot live like that in practice. And anyway, do you really believe that there is no difference between what is truly right and what is truly wrong?
Hitler was in a sense messing with genes when he tried to exterminate the Jews thinking he was promoting the Arian race. In terms of the evolutionary theory of morality what he did was correct, justifiable, even good or’ at the very least, not wrong. If there are no absolute rules, what did Hitler do wrong in making up his own rules in the belief he was advancing humanity?
But compare him with Jesus who was willing to suffer for, not kill the Jews, but die for them, and for every other race. He taught and lived love, sacrifice, and kindness to friends, strangers and enemies.
This is all very different from “blind pitiless indifference”.
What did Jesus say about morality?
Christian moral teaching is both the reason why many are attracted to the faith, and also why many others are repelled by it. The attractive part is the generalised teaching of being kind, loving, respecting others, loving your neighbour as yourself, and, so on. But what repels some people is the Christian ethical teaching regarding human relationships, sexual immorality, gender issues and many other matters of contemporary cultural interest.
Also, there’s this Christian insistence on the deep moral failure that lies at the heart of our broken human nature. Most people like to think of themselves as basically good, and resent being told otherwise.
A story in the Gospels makes this point clearly (see Mark’s Gospel Chapter 10 Verses 17-22). Jesus was speaking to a rich young ruler who came to him for spiritual advice,
“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus’ answer was abrupt and startling,
“Why do you call me good? Only God is truly good.”
Why did Jesus answer that way? What point was he was making?
First, to show we don’t get to God by being good
At the heart of the Christian gospel is this assertion: we have all failed and, therefore, don’t get to God by being good.
I know many people dismiss this idea as, a ‘religious guilt trip’. We have all heard the expression, ‘Catholic guilt’. But you don’t have to be Catholic to feel guilt. I am sure most people will be honest enough to say that they have, at least at one point in their lives, probably more than once or, more accurately, frequently disappointed themselves by their behaviour. We all fall short of the higher morality that we instinctively set for ourselves. I doubt that no one on this planet, or anyone who has ever existed, who has not been disappointed, deeply disappointed by others, by the way others have treated them.
So we do have a problem. We are imperfect people, living in an imperfect world, conducting ourselves however much we try, imperfectly relationally, socially, economically, ecologically, and morally. Much good exists in us and others. But we’ve got to face up to the fact, that both this world and the people in are it, are flawed in many different ways.
Second, to point to Jesus’ true identity
Jesus wanted this young man to reconsider who he thought he was. Jesus was not merely a good moral teacher, but also Saviour, our Redeemer.
There is a big question many try to avoid. How do you deal with moral failure? How do you deal with injustice? I don’t just mean on a day-to-day or interpersonal basis, or even at a societal and historical level. All these are important questions. What I am getting at here is the question of ultimate justice based on external, objective justice.
If morality exists, then justice exists and if justice exists there is going to have to be a pay day, a day of justice. The only way that day is going to arrive, is if there is a God who must act and will act to bring justice. But when he does, where will we stand? We have all failed and need redemption. To my mind, the only worldview that makes sense is the biblical, Judaeo-Christian world view that proclaims an all-powerful God of justice, love and redemption. All this comes together in the cross, where Jesus took upon himself the moral failures of us all so that we could be set free to live the life for which we were designed.
The Golden Rule
The so-called ‘Golden Rule’, “Do to others what you would have them do to you”, is famous. It is related to the moral imperative of love. The two greatest commandments of the Hebrew Scriptures are also carried also into the New Testament, “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself”. In popular thinking, this is usually reduced to, “love you neighbour as yourself”.
But love and what flows from must be rooted in a certain form of transcendence as I move beyond myself to think of others. The Christian inspiration and standard for this is God himself who sets the supreme example of love, his self-giving on the cross.
If you think deeply about what is good, sooner or later you’re going to have to think about God. At the end of the day, no one is truly or completely good, but God. Our inspiration to be good comes from him, and the standard of what is good also comes from God himself.
Without God, there is no foundation for right and wrong, no way of knowing what it is, and no real reason for it to exist in the first place.
Without God, the Golden Rule actually makes no sense. Treat others the way you would like to be treated may sound like a simple rule to follow. But why should we do it? To live in a better world so that we all get what we want? We can support the utilitarian view of morality, and live to benefit ourselves and the maximum number of other people as well. But ultimately, this boils down to what benefits me.
There are other, one might say better, ways of getting what you want. We can do so by force, control, manipulation. Furthermore, what happens when your kindness to others isn’t reciprocated? If I won’t eat the shark, does that mean he won’t eat me? Injustice exists. Evil exists. It’s the ‘bad people’ who often win and get what they want. The ‘good people’ tend to get left behind. If this Rule doesn’t really work, why follow it? Why not, take advantage of others before they can take advantage of you?
A line from one of the characters in Amazon’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels says: “Harry does what’s best for Harry”. That’s all we are left with if we take God out of the equation.
Why do something good, unless it is the right thing to do, no matter what you get out of it, or however others respond back to you.
And why do it unless you knew that in the end, justice will prevail, good will triumph over evil? But how can you know that, or be confident enough to live that way, unless there is an external element to it all? Unless there is a Moral Law and a Moral Law Giver and a Moral Law Governor who will ultimately bring justice. Most important of all, how can we prepare ourselves for that Day? Who will save us from ourselves?
All honest talk about morality points us in one direction. Good and evil do exist, we have all failed and we need redemption.