Can morality exist apart from God?
Someone once asked me whether morality can exist apart from God. Plenty of people who have no relationship with Jesus still make wise moral choices, and secular societies still acknowledge a basic moral code. Morality certainly exists apart from Christianity. Does that mean it is somehow separate from God?
I’m persuaded that all morality comes from God. If God did not exist, we would have no reason to believe in morality. There’s no way to determine whether something is right or wrong without acknowledging that there’s a reality beyond a closed system of naturalistic flow and cause and effect. If the naturalists are right, then there’s no reason for any particular moral code to take precedence over another.
We know that naturalism is false, and we know that there is a God. In fact, we know that the one true and living God is the God of the Bible, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We know that, and we know that our concept of morality comes from him.
What about people who don’t believe in God?
But what about those people who don’t know God? What about those who believe that, in Carl Sagan’s words, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be?” On what can they base their ideas about morality? They certainly don’t want to base it on God.
Whittaker and Esther Chambers
I read a story about Whittaker Chambers a few years ago that addressed that very question. Chambers, the author of the book Witness, became a household name after he testified before congress in the Alger Hiss trial. Chambers accused Hiss, a former assistant to the Secretary of State and former General Secretary of the United Nations founding conference, of being a soviet spy. He felt he could recognize communist espionage when he saw it because he had once been an active communist himself. Even when he was a devoted atheist at the height of his communist days, however, Chambers was still moved by a deep moral wellspring. George McKenna told the following story about Chambers in an article that appeared in The Human Life Review a few years ago:
Chambers came from a nominally Protestant home, but he lost whatever scraps of religion he had during college, and of course was a staunch atheist during his thirteen years as a Communist. (He became a Quaker some time after he left the party in 1938.) In 1952 he published Witness, a memoir of his Communist years. In it he recalls that in the mid-1930s his wife (who also held no religious belief) told him that she thought she was pregnant. Since this was one of the most intense periods in his career as a Soviet agent, they planned an abortion. His wife went to a doctor to verify her pregnancy, and when she returned, he asked what the doctor said. ‘She said that I was in good physical shape to have a baby,’ his wife replied. Then there was silence. Finally, it dawned on him: he asked if she wanted to have the child.
“My wife ran over to me, took my hands, and burst into tears. ‘Dear heart,’ she said in a pleading voice, ‘we couldn’t do that awful thing to a little baby, not to a little baby, dear heart.’
“A wild joy swept me. Reason, the agony of my family, the Communist Party and its theories, the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century, crumbled at the touch of the child.”
So it happened that Whittaker and Esther Chambers, having no religious law at the time, joyously went ahead to bring their first child into the world.
Whittaker Chambers and his wife had gone to great lengths to deny God, and yet they knew enough to let their baby live. They listened to their consciences.
We’ve already established that morality comes from God. How, then, could an atheist like Whittaker Chambers have a conscience? McKenna continues:
Their consciences bore them witness … It is not religious doctrine, precious as that doctrine is… It is a law written in their hearts telling them that we may not kill people just because their birth will be inconvenient or their death will be greeted with relief.
The Law on our Hearts
Human beings are never morally neutral; we have a law written on our hearts, and the creator made us with consciences to remind us of this law. We have an innate ability to tell right from wrong. That ability can become weak, and we can choose to ignore it, but it can also be a powerful force for good. I’ll talk more about the conscience in my next post, when we’ll take a look at what the scriptures have to say about the still, small voice that prompts us to obey God.
The previous was adapted by Rachel Motte from Dr. Sloan’s address to Prestonwood Christian Academy on November 11, 2007.
- Buckley and assisted suicide, Human Life Review, Winter 2004