If you have studied apologetics or philosophy much at all, you likely have run across the simple argument that without God, there is no basis for morality. This is a simple argument, to be sure. But simple does not take anything away from its accuracy.
In order for us to see an action as right or wrong, good or evil, acceptable or unacceptable, there must be a standard by which this is determined. If the basis for this determination is subjective, totally based on the point of view of the one assessing the situation, then in truth, there is no such thing as right or wrong. Only if there is an ultimate judge, an ultimate law-giver or morality-maker, can we actually understand that what is right is really right because it is right.
In contrast, if we live in a materialistic and naturalistic universe, morality cannot exist in any meaningful way. If all you and I are at our cores are collections of chemicals that have randomly come together to produce the illusion of meaning, then there is no actual point to discussions of right and wrong. After all, there is simply no way to suggest that one random collection of chemicals dismantling another random collection of chemicals has any sort of moral value. We do not judge a rock as morally wrong if it falls and breaks another rock. WE do not judge the ocean as in sin for eroding the coastline. And thus, if human beings are mere matter, we have no moral basis for judging any action of humans, regardless of its level of destructiveness.
While this argument appears philosophically sound, a more important question arises: Is it biblical? Does God’s word reveal to us the truth that we feel we arrive at through simple reasoning? I thought of that in my daily reading, this time in the Psalms.
1 Transgression speaks to the wicked
deep in his heart;
there is no fear of God
before his eyes.
2 For he flatters himself in his own eyes
that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
3 The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit;
he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
4 He plots trouble while on his bed;
he sets himself in a way that is not good;
he does not reject evil.
The wicked does not reject evil. Why? What is it that prevents the wicked from rejecting evil? What is he missing? What is at least part of the problem? Notice what the psalmist gives us.
At the end of verse 1, we see that a key to being evil is that there is no fear of God before your eyes. In verse 2, we see that the wicked deceives himself into the belief that no one can find out his wickedness. And I would suggest that these two thoughts fall perfectly in line with our discussion of a need for God in order for morality to have meaning.
In verses 1-2 of the psalm, a wicked person acts based on a pair of false beliefs. This person assumes that there is no God, no judge above him to assess his actions. Thus, the wicked person feels free to act according to his desires, uncircumscribed by an external moral standard. He believes that his iniquity cannot be either found out or hated by anyone who matters. At the end of the day, it appears that the wicked person walks easily into wickedness because of his assessment of the world that he will answer to no one for his actions.
No, this psalm is not engaging in the deep philosophical discussion of whether or not true morality is possible apart from a belief in God. But it does point us in the direction of an answer. The lack of acceptance of the existence and authority of God leads people to act in wicked ways because they fear no retribution for their actions from a judge who sees.
Now, it is also true that some men, claiming a religious faith, have acted wickedly. And it is true that some who claim no religious faith have behaved in ways that are consistent with good. But the key to our understanding is that it is only logically consistent for a person to find his or her morality based on the presence, existence, judgment, and standards of God as we find revealed in the word of God.