Bangor Church of Christ

Great Moments in Bible History

Number 10

What is morality?

Who Tells You What to Eat?

Do you like to be told what to eat? Most of us resent anyone, especially government, telling us what to eat. It’s alright for the government to tell us not to steal things or shoot people, but when it tells us what we may or may not put in our stomachs, we rebel.

A chef

So how do you think Noah felt when he got off the ark and God started telling him what he could and could not eat? In Genesis 9:3-4 God told Noah that he could now eat meat but must not drink blood. Isn’t God just supposed to make laws governing morality? Why did He leave morality and get into mere legal matters pertaining to food?

But what is morality? What is it that makes one thing a moral matter while another is merely a legal matter? If I asked these questions of ten different people I could get ten different answers. Everyone has a standard of morality, but those standards differ greatly from one person to the next. What one person would consider a moral matter another would consider a matter of indifference.

The Bible does not ask people their opinions about morality. It answers our questions very simply: what God says is right is morally right and what God says is wrong is morally wrong. Thus if God says not to eat blood, then to do so is morally wrong.

To some people, though, this is an oversimplified answer to a very difficult subject. They would rather work out their own standard of morality without any help (or hindrance) from God. But is that possible? Can a person devise a consistent standard of morality apart from God? In our next article we will look at that question.

What’s Wrong with Murder?

Suppose we leave God out of the picture for the moment and see if we can come up with a standard of morality on our own. This is not a new idea. It is one that every atheist has worked on to some extent. But is it possible? If we assume that there is no God can we develop a consistent standard of morality?

If we are going to leave God out, the logical place to begin is with ourselves. In this case our standard is: “Whatever I think is right is morally right for me.” This allows each individual to determine their own standard of morality. Naturally, most people will decide that what makes them happy is what is morally right.

This is the only standard of morality I know of that is completely consistent with atheism. It recognizes that there is no absolute standard and so it allows each individual to set their own standard. It has only one drawback: nobody really believes in it!

There are many who claim to believe in this standard, but none really do. Consider an example: Mr. Fletcher, an atheist who believes that what is right is whatever makes him happy, is walking home at night. Suddenly a man with a gun jumps out in front of him and announces, “I’m going to kill you!”

“Why would you do that?” Fletcher asks, rather nervously.

“Because it makes me happy,” replies the gunman. “But that isn’t right,” argues Mr. Fletcher. “I’ve never done anything to hurt you. Why should you hurt me?” And at this point Fletcher has betrayed himself. When he told the gunman he was wrong (morally) to do something which made him happy, he showed that he really did not believe that the individual decides right and wrong. Deep down he believes that there is a higher standard of morality.

People need a standard of morality higher than the individual. Something that allows them to say, “You think what you are doing is right, but I know it is wrong.” But where are we going to get such a standard if we reject the knowledge of God?

We could simply let society decide. This would suit our hypothetical Mr. Fletcher just fine. The society in which he lives says that murder is wrong. Thus he has the right to condemn the actions of his attacker.

But suppose Mr. Fletcher was a Jew living in Nazi Germany. Now instead of a lone gunman it is the society in which he lives that is seeking to kill him. Since society decides what is right, then it must be right. And once again Fletcher is stuck with a standard of morality that is too weak. He knows his society is wrong but he has no standard by which to condemn it.

We need a standard of morality which allows the individual to cry, “I don’t care if the whole world thinks that is right, I know it is wrong.” At this point Humanism steps forward and offers us its solution: human rights. “Every individual,” we are told, “is born with certain rights. It is morally wrong for an individual or for society itself to violate those rights.”

Now, there is a standard with some teeth in it! There is only one problem. Who gets to decide what those rights are? Does each individual get to decide for themselves? Does society decide? We already tried those methods and they didn’t work.

Where do we go from here? Some atheists have been willing to live a contradiction. They live as if there is some moral standard while their atheism, in fact, denies it. Others have not been willing to be so dishonest. They have continued searching for that standard until they have convinced themselves that atheism cannot provide such a standard. Many who have come to that realization have ended their lives in despair.

But there is no need for despair. The One who created us did not leave us without a standard by which to live. If Mr. Fletcher had been willing to believe in God, his answer would have been simple: “Regardless of what you say or what society says, God says, ‘You shall not murder.’”

Theophilus cartoon - The consequences of a standard of morality

How Are We Different from Animals?

Every culture understands that murder is wrong, but what about killing animals? In our culture most people have no objection to killing and eating animals, but there are some cultures where that is forbidden. To those people killing an animal is not much different from killing a person.

After Noah came out of the ark God gave him permission to eat animals (though not the blood as we learned in an earlier article). In that same conversation God addressed the issue of killing people. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Genesis 9:6) This is the answer to why it is OK to kill and eat animals but not OK to kill people. People are different from animals because they are made in God’s image.

In issue number 1 of this paper we discussed what it means to be made in God’s image. God is a spirit. We humans have spirits. That gives us the ability to reason, to love and to hate, and to make choices about what we want to do. It also gives us the marvelous ability to know and understand God.

When we see a human being, God expects us to see something more than just something that might be useful to us. He expects us to see a picture of God. It is true that the picture is blurry. None of us are perfect images of God, but we really are images of Him. And He expects us to treat that image with honor and respect—not just the people that we like or find useful to us, but every single human. Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)

When we treat people like God wants us to because we see in them the image of God, then we are showing honor to God Himself.