This is a milestone today. This is the 150th episode of the Unapologetic podcast. For those who have been along for 150 episodes, thank you very much. I hope it’s been helpful, and I appreciate your support. If you’ve joined recently, there’s a lot of great content back on the archive on unapologeticpodcast.com or on iTunes or wherever you subscribe to the podcast.
So, we’ve done a lot, we’ve got a lot to do and a lot to cover in the future. And today we’re actually going to talk about something that I think often gets confused and yet also somewhat overlooked. It’s the difference in moral values and obligations.
Now it probably sounds really dry, but here’s why this matters. One of the great arguments for God’s existence actually comes from morality, and it goes something like this. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist. But objective moral values do exist, therefore God exists. It’s a fairly straightforward argument.
But as a part of it, it has this idea of objective moral values and duties. Those are separate things, and let’s talk about those.
There is moral goodness, and we could say moral badness or something like that. Dishonesty would have the moral quality, the moral value of badness. And honesty might have the moral value of goodness. You’ll see that there are certain things that are good and bad.
But what you may notice is I didn’t say telling the truth is good or telling a lie is bad because those are examples actually of obligation, things you should do or you should not do. There can be goodness maybe as an idea, but that’s separate from an obligation placed upon you to do the good thing. We would say that doing the good thing is itself good and doing bad things are bad. We’ve kind of got two questions here.
One would be: Can you have moral values if God does not exist? Now I think the answer is no. Where would objective goodness come from, something that’s actually good, apart from how anyone thinks about it, in a non-Christian worldview? I don’t think it fits. On a materialistic naturalistic worldview where the only things that exist came about through evolutionary causes and are material, there are no immaterial things, I don’t think goodness and badness or evil actually fit in that worldview.
Now, non-Christians will act as though it does. Atheists will often act as though morality and moral values exist, but I don’t think they can explain it. Now there are some non-Christians who will say that objective morality, objective moral values, exists, and they try to say that it’s simply a feature of the universe, of creation. But they’re left with asking why. Where did that come from? What grounds that? There aren’t good answers to that, and we’ve talked about that in the past.
But I want to focus on the second question. The first question was: Can you have moral values if God does not exist? I don’t think you can, and I don’t think any proposed explanation is ultimately compelling, which is why most of the time people who are consistent in not being Christians will deny the objective reality of moral values. But the second question is perhaps the stronger question: Can you have moral obligations that are binding on us if God does not exist? You’ll recall that’s why the first line in the argument that we looked at earlier was, “If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties or obligations do not exist.”
Because where would you get an obligation except that it would be placed on you by someone else? That’s how we get obligations. I don’t have an obligation to a tree because of the tree. If I have an obligation to something, it’s because someone placed it on me. Then the question becomes, who has the just ability to place a claim on someone else? It can’t just simply be that I have an obligation to be good to my neighbor because of my neighbor. Why does my neighbor have the right to say that I have to be good to him? We can accept maybe goodness exists apart from God. I don’t think that makes any sense. But why would I need to be good? Where would that obligation come from if God does not exist? If my neighbor can say I have to do this thing for him, why can’t I equally say, “No I don’t”? We’re on equal footing. My neighbor and I, we have no power or just claim over the other. That obligation to be good to my neighbor would have to come from someone higher than me. It can’t just depend on how my neighbor feels. That’s just a subjective grounding. What that means is there’s nothing objective out in the world that actually says I have to be good to my neighbor.
In response to this, some people have said, “Well if you get enough neighbors together and you have a consensus or a society, and you make a kind of contract with each other, then it becomes binding.” But why? When you get enough people, why does might somehow make right, or now the will of the majority means I have to do something? I don’t think that makes sense ultimately. That’s actually how great evils have been perpetrated in the past oftentimes. We would say they’re evil looking back, which means that simply having a majority doesn’t mean the thing that was agreed upon was good. Good stands outside of consensus. Good is a feature of the world because good is ultimately grounded in God’s character and nature, and in his person.
But, where would the obligation to be good come from if God does not exist? I don’t think there can be a consistent grounding for it. In fact, the only reason it makes sense for us to do the good thing in a world that often does not promote or celebrate the good thing is because God has placed that obligation on us. If there is no creator, if there is no God over all, no one actually has the just claim to tell me what I should do. So yes, maybe honesty is good, but who has the ability to say that I need to be honest, that it is bad for me to not be honest? That would have to be someone with the sort of authority that none of us have. I can’t do it for my neighbor. I can’t get enough friends together to say my neighbor should do it. There isn’t a group large enough to have that sort of authority not because it’s a size type of consideration but because it’s a quality type of consideration. I am not the type of creature who has the ability to put moral obligations on other people.
Now yes, we have obligations to each other, but those actually come from someone else. So I do actually need to be honest to my neighbor. I do need to not steal from my neighbor, but why? Because God has placed that obligation on me, not because my neighbor has. If my neighbor made up some obligation, it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t stand. I don’t have to follow it. I follow obligations, moral obligations, because ultimately they are grounded in God’s moral values, but more than that, because he’s placed the obligation on me.
When we look at the New Testament, we actually see that the reason we submit to our government, which really just a bunch of neighbors, is because God has placed the obligation to submit to our government on us. It’s not that government has that authority in and of itself. It’s that God has the authority and he has said, “You submit to the governing and ruling authorities that are in place, to manmade institutions.” We only submit because God has the authority to tell us to submit. They only have the authority they have because it’s a delegated and derivative authority allowed and given to them by God.
But all of that to say, maybe someone can find some proposed explanation that is moderately compelling, though I don’t think it’s possible, for how goodness can exist apart from God. I don’t think that works. Hear me on that. But, you will not find a sufficiently robust reason to believe that there are obligations placed on us where we should do certain things, where it’s actually good or bad to do something that does not ultimately find its ground in God. God is the source for objective moral values and God is the source for objective moral duties or obligations, for things that are incumbent upon us to do, for things that we have to do.
There can’t really just be goodness sitting out there somewhere. Goodness is the result of an action. Why should we do that action? Because of an obligation that is placed upon us by God.
Now for the Christian, yes, we have obligations to act in certain ways. That actually doesn’t go away. Some people want to talk of the Christian life like there are no laws, there are no rules. In fact, I’ve seen recently where some people will say, “Religion’s just a bunch of rules,”but that’s not Christianity.” Actually, there are a lot of rules for the Christians. There are a lot of obligations for how we should live, but they are all summed up in the two greatest commandments: “Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Both of those are actually obligations. Maybe we have a very negative connotation of the word obligation. I don’t think it should be something that’s burdensome necessarily, but it is something that we need and have to do, and we should do, and it’s good for us to do. Both of those are placed on the Christian, and all people, by God. It can’t come from anywhere else.
I hope this has been helpful, and I look forward to 150 more episodes with you on Unapologetic.