Whether or not God exists is the most important question for humanity. If he does exist and the Christian Bible has it right, our moral behavior must reflect God’s intentions for his creation. If he does not, and the Bible is nothing more than one holy book among many, then moral behavior is merely a matter of culture or opinion. This discussion brings up one of the classic arguments for the existence of God.
Human beings universally recognize a moral standard. Without it, labeling anything as moral or immoral would be completely illogical. To say that something is right or wrong is to make an implicit claim that a standard exists and others must also recognize this standard. If this standard exists, then there must be a cause for it. We might sum this up in the statement, “Without God, objective morality does not exist.” If we put it in the form of an argument, it would be as follows:
- If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
- Objective moral values exist.
- Therefore, God exists.
Does this standard exist? And how does it point to God?
The Witness of Morality
All human beings recognize a moral law. We consistently differentiate between good and evil, agreeing that some behaviors are virtually always acceptable (e.g., love, charity, and self-sacrifice), while others are morally wrong (e.g., rape, torture, and murder). Through both beliefs and actions, we demonstrate our adherence to a universal moral code. In the end, we must ask where this code originates.
The existence of an objective moral standard requires a supernatural source—someone outside the system. The most straightforward explanation for such morality is that it has been woven into the fabric of creation itself. This easily explains why human beings have the same general moral code, regardless of time and place.
Anthropological evidence indicates that human beings around the globe observe the same moral rules regardless of their culture. Members of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of Oxford conducted a study to help determine the nature of morality and to what extent it varies around the world. They studied sixty different societies and found that human beings almost universally acknowledge the same seven moral rules, which included: family values, group loyalty, reciprocity, bravery, respect, fairness, and property rights. Although different societies rank these seven qualities differently, virtually all recognize their importance.
This nearly universal recognition of a moral code provides support for the Christian worldview. Scripture states that human beings have an inherent knowledge of right and wrong (Rom. 2:14-15). This is most naturally explained by the biblical claim that God made human beings in his image (Gen. 1:26-27). If morality is part of creation as the Bible indicates, then to discover that humanity follows the same general moral principles should come as no surprise.
Can We Be Good Without God?
Due to our being made in God’s image, human beings have an inherent recognition of the difference between good and evil. We naturally recognize the difference between an angel of mercy like Mother Teresa and megalomaniacal monsters like Adolph Hitler and Josef Stalin. Our personal views of morality may be influenced by culture, and our conscience can become seared over time, but virtually everyone understands the difference between good and evil.
Atheists often object that they can be good without God. After all, when people become atheists, why don’t they go crazy and begin raping and pillaging their neighbors? Among some atheists it is often a point of pride that they lead moral lives without any regard for a divine being. However, this tendency toward ethical behavior is described by the apostle Paul, who states, “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:14-15).
Goodness Points To God
While many people have tried to explain goodness, no one has been able to offer a compelling explanation for human decency. Anthropologists recognize that their field has been unable to adequately account for human morality and especially for its seemingly universal existence. Their search for a unified theory of morality from a naturalistic point of view has been fruitless. Moral principles do not appear to be created but recognized.
Atheists often object that they can be good without God. This is true and is regularly the case even with hardened unbelievers who despise God yet still perform acts of compassion and kindness, love their families and friends, and who would help a stranger in need. However, this only sidesteps the real question: “What is good?” Here we come back to the question the atheist cannot answer. While Christianity struggles with the problem of evil, atheism struggles with the twin problems of both evil and good.
Any explanation of human morality will be incomplete without grounding that morality in a universal standard. We may say that human beings are intrinsically valuable, but why? If we are nothing more than cosmic germs living on a speck of rock in an unspectacular galaxy spinning in space, why would we ever conclude that our lives have value and that this value must be respected by other people?
In looking at the evidence, it would appear that the universe is the handiwork of a powerful creator, offers proof of being intricately designed, and is a place with consistent moral standards naturally recognizable to all conscious, thinking creatures. We can be good without God, but goodness cannot exist without God. This is precisely the portrait painted of God in the Bible. Even in a culture where “newer is truer,” it would appear the apostle Paul was onto something.
Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.