First published 19 December 2011
In order to start to sketch out Christian moral foundations we need to understand that the way Christians talk about equality is different to the way modern secular atheists talk about it. That’s because secular atheists can often appeal to equality as the fundamental truth on which to base moral principles (which, as we’ve seen, is in itself quite an arbitrary appeal). We also need to contrast the Christian view of the origin and purpose of human beings with non-religious views.
As I have already implied, I believe that when non-religious people talk about equality they include some notion of all humans equally having the right/authority to work out their own morality. For them the equality of human beings really stems from having the same origin. Logically that also puts us equal with animals, rocks and plants, and therefore it means that we have the same rights and responsibilities with regard to morality as animals, rocks and plants. Nothing in their assumptions necessarily leads to there being natural distinctions between things. There is no logic to it. But in an attempt to find meaning, arbitrarily, they distinguish between things (e.g. coal, water, air), living things (e.g. fish, birds, animals, flowers), and intelligent living things (human beings). Non-living things tend to just follow the laws of physics and chemistry. Non-intelligent living things tend to just follow the instincts of their species. But as intelligent living things we humans are characterised by a conscious struggle, according to the secular atheist or non-religious Westerner – the struggle for meaning and to “find our place in the universe”. That struggle includes the struggle to work out right and wrong, but since we are equal we all have equal rights to find the answer for ourselves.
For the Christian, equality also starts from equality of origin, but to fully appreciate the Christian’s moral framework we have to also appreciate other levels of equality. Human beings are equally created, but also equally sinners, equally deserving of eternal punishment, equally called to repentance and faith, and equally offered grace to eternal life. We’ll look at some of these in later parts of this series. For now let’s think about our place in God’s creation.
Since God created everything, all of creation owes its existence to Him and its allegiance to Him. The Bible teaches that the human race was specially created to manage the rest of creation for God. Human beings were created “in the image of God”. God defined the distinctions between things, living things, intelligent living things and human intelligent living things. Humans were created with the extraordinary and special capacity to relate directly to Him, the need to relate to Him. And we all – every single human on earth – trace our ancestry to the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. (Incidentally, this does leave open the possibility that we may find other non-humans that show intelligence. Intelligence does not define our special relationship with God. Our humanness does.) Nothing else in the material universe was given the same direct relationship with our Creator – no animal, no bird, no fish or tree.
Before God, humans have special responsibilities that come with those extraordinary capacities. But under Him we are all morally equal, equally responsible. But note: we are responsible to God, not under our own authority.
What this means is that when Christians talk about morality, we seek to reiterate God’s standards and apply them to particular behaviours and contexts. And as we reiterate God’s standards, we do it for ourselves too, as fellow human beings. If abortion is wrong, then it is wrong for me too. If sex outside monogamous heterosexual marriage is wrong, then it is wrong for me too. I am not at liberty to re-engineer morality, since God has hard-wired it into the universe.
We’re all equally judged by God’s standards, which are the same for all human beings. So when a Christian makes a moral statement about whether something is right or wrong, that statement does not automatically include within it a moral judgment that puts the Christian above anyone else. This is key for non-religious people to understand, because their moral judgments do involve seeing themselves as better than others because their morals are based on themselves as final authority. So when a Christian makes a moral statement they are saying something objective and factual. When a non-religious person makes a moral statement they are saying something subjective and comparative. This actually makes it possible for a Christian to be hypocritical and still make moral statements that are no less true. And as we’ll see next time there is a sense in which Christians are all hypocritical, but that doesn’t invalidate what we say about right and wrong, so long as what we say is in line with God’s Word.
But we also need to emphasise to people that God created human beings for a purpose. He did not just make a man and woman and say, “ok off you go and have a play, and I’ll check in on you from time to time!” He gave us a purpose and a job to do – “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28) He also said that we have to do that in a way that honours Him by obeying Him. The command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17) was God’s way of saying that this world is His and we are not allowed just to do whatever we want.
We are not meaningless blobs, we were not just created and left lost in a big universe. We are the special creation of an All-powerful Creator, with a special job to do, to manage the world in the way that He tells us to.
In fact what I’ve said so far doesn’t really do justice to God’s purpose for us. The Bible consistently talks about God having a loving purpose for us. He calls us His children. He didn’t create human beings and then leave us to do whatever we want in the universe while He went off to do something else. Nor did He create human beings and then leave us a job to do while He went off to do something else.
God created human beings to work with Him. We have a whole universe to discover, and it’s as if He’s like an excited Father watching His children learn new and wonderful things, discovering amazing things He made for us. He made us for that relationship. When we discover something new and wonderful, He wants to hear us say in effect, “Wow! Thanks Dad! How did you do that? That’s amazing!” (I hope I’m not being irreverent in putting it like that.) He made us to love His power and wisdom. He made us to love Him. And He is alongside us in every step we take. We humans are special to Him.
So whilst it is right to think of God as Judge, because the Bible speaks of Him as Judge, we ought not to think of that role as an impersonal one. It is very personal. When we refuse to follow His instructions in the way we conduct ourselves in the world we are acting like delinquent, rebellious children. Everything we have is from Him (whether material possessions or intellect and wisdom or power) and yet we use those very things to shut Him out. We are selfish. We think life is all about us. But it’s not. God is ultimate. Everything in the universe comes from Him and is for Him. So when we are out of step with God, disobeying His rules, we are out of step with the whole purpose of the universe.
In conclusion, non-religious views of morality are based on arbitrary foundations, because their assertions regarding the distinctiveness and equality of human beings have no foundation. In contrast, Christian morality is based on God’s creation of human beings as special, to relate to Him and go with Him throughout the world to discover His wisdom and power and glory through everything He has created. As it has often been said, Christian morality is all about “following the Maker’s instructions”. And the equality of all human beings is firmly based on that purpose and special creation, giving God’s rules a firm rational ground.
But there are other things that apply universally to all human beings, and therefore reinforce the equality of all humanity. And we’ll look at those in the next few pieces.