The Verse That Divides — the Moral Imperative

Genesis 1:1

In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.

Sunday, I preached on this verse, and called it ‘the verse that divides.’  I decided to do a few blog posts on the topic.  The first, posted Sunday, dealt with who is supreme — is it God, or is it death?  In this one, I want to deal with the question of moral standards.  This, perhaps more than anything else, is where this verse divides.

If God Created….

If you believe that God has created, then you believe He has the power and the right to set the moral standards.  It is not arbitrary despotism, for a God who cared enough to create will care enough to set standards that are good.  He, better than anyone else, knew how His creatures function, their strengths and weaknesses, and established a moral code to use their strengths and guard against their weaknesses.

We’re Like Software, Sort of

My work is in computer software, and the designers and coders of a system best know how it works.  Software users can, by trial and error, figure out a lot, but there will be bumps along the way where things didn’t work right.  If the software is complex, the users will make a lot of mistakes and maybe never figure out everything.  If the developers have explained well (via clear layouts, help system, etc), they save the users a world of trouble.

With us, God is the ‘Developer.’  We learn of His moral guidance in multiple ways (conscience, Scripture, etc), but all come from Him.  He is the Ultimate Arbiter of morality, and has instilled an awareness of morality in His created beings.  If God created, people cannot decide what is moral, but they are responsible for their own moral decisions.  If God created, there is accountability and responsibility, both individually and corporately/communally.

If God Didn’t Create….

If you don’t believe that God has created, the moral imperative is far different.  This is not to say that atheists have no moral standards — some have very strict standards, but the basis is internal, based on their own conscience.  There is no reason, in a godless existence, why any one person’s conscience should line up with anyone else’s.  Nor is there any real reason why any one person’s sense of morality should carry any weight with anyone else, or have any persuasive power.

The only basis for shared morality, in a godless existence, is power.  If there is no god, no moral authority, then the only way to avoid chaos between people with differing moral conclusions is for some person or some group to exercise power to determine the winners and losers.  That power may flow from a monarch, from some form of democratically constituted government, or from economic or social pressure being used to impose common morality, but all of those things are different forms of power.

In a godless existence, if someone disagrees with the moral standards of their society, there is no moral force that would cause them to obey.  If they can avoid negative consequences in breaking society’s moral code, there is nothing to stop them.  The only reason a person should submit to a moral code that they don’t like, if they can avoid consequences, is if they believe there is some external absolute moral authority.  But to believe in an outside moral authority is to believe something which can’t be proven, and to thus take us back to the realm of faith.

Social conditioning can achieve some level of consensus on morality, but that will never approach universality.  If there is no Divine Being that has placed within the conscience a universal view of right and wrong, then there will be no internal consensus, and there will always be those who resist the social conditioning.

If there is no God who created, morality then largely becomes a matter of expediency.  Standards against theft or murder, for instance, are expedient — they make for a better-functioning society, and so society may impose them.  Thus, to deny God as Creator does not mean you won’t end up with some of the same moral rules, but if a society truly denied God, it would support and defend those rules because of expediency, and it would have to resort to force of one type or another, not moral suasion, to elicit obedience among those who disagree.

Thus, Genesis 1:1 is the verse that divides in terms of the moral imperative.  Those who believe the verse is true have a clearly-defined basis for morality.  Those who deny it may hold to internal moral views but have no real basis other than expediency to try to persuade others of their views.  If they argue that one should not do anything that hurts others, for instance, one can always ask them, why?  What is the basis for ‘should not’?  The best ultimately that they can argue is either that society doesn’t work well (expediency), or perhaps that the majority agrees with them (which is not a moral argument at all), or just that they know it is wrong and you should know it, too.  But they have no real evidence-based reason for an absolute morality which we should all accept.

In Reality, Everyone Knows There is Morality

The purpose of this article is not to refute atheism but rather to just highlight the foundational aspect of the first verse of the Bible.  But it is worth noting that the very fact that there really is an almost universally shared morality is one of the evidences of the existence of God.

Everyone (except those with serious mental dysfunction) knows that it is wrong to kill someone, and thus even those who do so accidentally or in self-defence are often traumatised by the experience.  Everyone knows that it is wrong to steal, and so those who do so generally try to avoid getting caught.  People do what is wrong all the time, but they try to avoid it being known even if there are no particularly threatening consequences.  And although there are some differences in moral standards, most of them are pretty much universal.

Where did this universal acceptance of the existence of morality, and mostly universal acceptance of many standards, come from?  Why do even those who deny the existence of God resort to moral arguments?  You can’t listen to a politician or an activist (on any topic) for more than five minutes without hearing them try to claim the moral high ground.

It makes sense if ‘in the beginning God created….’  He made us moral beings, and placed at least a partial awareness of what true morality is within all of us.  But if God did not create, from where comes this universal moral awareness?  It’s not credible that it would have evolved — ‘survival of the fittest’ would have precluded morals and taught a very different morality.

This question, the moral imperative, is thus not only a way in which ‘the verse that divides’ makes a difference — it is also one way in which one side of the divide lacks any coherent explanation for what we see around us.  The atheists among us may try to tell us what we should do, but they have no compelling reason for why we should, and no explanation for where the concept of ‘should’ even arose.  Yet, there it is all around us, and the atheists use ‘should’ as much as anyone.

Next:  The Verse that Divides — One Way of Salvation

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
This entry was posted in Rightly Dividing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The Verse That Divides — the Moral Imperative

  1. essiep says:

    This bit:
    “There is no reason, in a godless existence, why any one person’s conscience should line up with anyone else’s.  Nor is there any real reason why any one person’s sense of morality should carry any weight with anyone else”
    Is only true for a person who lives a solitary life away from society.
    My problem with the idea of absolute morality is how can we know what that is? It’s not in the Bible because morality in the Bible changes over time. Morality is different in the old and New testaments. An absolute morality would be consistently the same over time. Clearly, in those books, morality differs.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      The Old Testament provided both moral and civil law, telling Israel both how to live rightly and how to order their justice system. The New Testament gives moral law, telling Christians how to live under a justice system over which they may have no influence (and for most societies through most of history, have had no influence).

      The classic example often provided is ‘an eye for an eye’ vs ‘turn the other cheek.’ The former is a civil law for judicial action, the latter a moral instruction to victims, the heart of which is forgiveness.

      A just legal system has a responsibility to punish wrongdoers for the protection of the vulnerable and to deter others from wrongdoing. The punishment should fit the crime. A follower of Christ is to be forgiving.

      These are not a different moral standard but differing moral instructions to different people in different situations.

      To see these as conflicting morality is to misunderstand the context in which it was given and to overlook a significant purpose of the Old Testament Law.

      • essiep says:

        There should be no need take account of ‘context’ if we want to accept these moral standards as absolute. The standards should be discreet, objective stand-alone rules if the Christian claim is to be acceptable.

      • Jon Gleason says:

        Sorry, but that really makes no sense. It is good and right and moral for the police to use whatever force is necessary to restrain someone who is trying to hurt other people. It is not good and right and moral for you or me to use force for selfish purposes. Morality does not have to be stupid to be absolute. Context always affects morality. It is moral to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre when the building is on fire, and immoral to do so if it isn’t.

        If there is a an absolute morality, as I believe and you apparently do not, it would have to be coherent in how it deals with different contexts, but not blindly and stupidly ignore context.

  2. spawneedave says:

    It’s not the ”survival of the fittest”, but those that adapt. Homo sapiens are tribal. They are tribal through evolution. Our ancestors soon realised that through cooperation, they could fend off attackers, they could hunt together, they could look after each others offspring. They developed empathy for one another. They developed a moral code, long before Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Pastafarianism or any other religion came along.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      So as I said, ‘If there is no God who created, morality then largely becomes a matter of expediency.’ You are consistent with denial of Genesis 1:1, and an example of how this verse divides.

      Of course, there’s no clear evidence for any evolutionary development of morality, or one that predates Judaism. It’s entirely speculative — you are in the realm of faith here. And your statement, ‘they could fend off attackers’, highlights one of the flaws of the idea. If they cooperated, they could also be more effectively the attackers, and have more food, more goods, more workers, etc. Yet, there has arisen a very broad consensus that people should not be the attackers, and in fact, that the weak, the elderly, the sickly, should NOT be attacked, but protected.

      Why? Where did that idea come from? If evolution was the driver, there would be cooperation, but there would also be a ruthless extermination of those who held back the tribe. You’ve said how you think morality developed but I don’t think it explains much of humanity’s moral consensus (or near consensus).

  3. essiep says:

    I’m not sure about the Absolute Morality belief., my argument is with the Christian idea that morality can only come from a god. that’s certainly not what we see around us- our morality comes from society. In fact, I’d be alarmed by a morality that stemmed from the bible considering the more disgusting stories that can be found in the old testament.
    Those examples of police restraint are pretty trivial compared to a god ordering a genocide, or tolerating daughters being sold into slavery. To put briefly, the old testament contains accounts of God’s behaviour that are immoral by modern standards.
    Going back to the Absolute Morality idea, Christianity claims that it exists but Christian sacred books run counter to the idea. It seems that Christian writers can do no more than make excuses for the horrors in the OT. Other Christian writers simply disown the OT and I don’t blame them for that.

    • Jon Gleason says:

      You illustrate much of what I’ve said in the article.

      You say that morality comes from society but then you condemn your interpretation of Old Testament morality as ‘disgusting’ and ‘immoral’. On what basis? The standards of the society in which you live today? That’s rather arrogant. If society is the arbiter of morality then you have no leg to stand on in condemning another society’s morality (whether you properly understand it or not).

      Your very words show that you don’t really believe that society is the arbiter of morality, and that you really do believe that there is an absolute morality by which judgments can be made. Yet, you also state there is none, that it is societal. You don’t have any coherent basis for judging the morality of another society. The best you can really say is, ‘I don’t like it’ or on some things, ‘It wouldn’t be acceptable in my society.’ By your own standards you can’t call something ‘disgusting’ or ‘immoral’ which was societally accepted.

      • essiep says:

        That argument would not stand up in the Nurernburg Trials. You think genocide is okay?

      • Jon Gleason says:

        Which argument? Your idea that society determines morality? I agree. The Nuremberg Trials were only defensible if there is an absolute morality, not a societally-determined morality.

      • essiep says:

        If I’m arrogant for condemning genocides in the Bible, then I’m cool with that!
        All this supports my original point that morality changes over time therefore – no absolute morality. I can see why you think that is contradictory but surely there was never a time when genocide was cool.
        There are many countries around the world that have separated church and state. With the moral contradictions in the Bible, Christianity should never be allowed influence over legislation in my view.

      • Jon Gleason says:

        Well, perhaps it is just my own limitations but it is hard for me to see how anyone can argue that morality changes over time, and is determined by society, and yet deny that context matters, and then morally condemn actions taken in an ancient society of which he knows hardly anything. I think this discussion is becoming fruitless. I do thank you for engaging in it courteously.

        And for what it is worth, Baptists have always believed in the separation of church and state.

Comments welcome! (but please check the comment policy)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s