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.