A Beginner’s Guide to the Moral Argument

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In thinking back to when I was not a Christian, I often felt a sense of indignation when people would cheat on their exams or when some jerk would bully a kid in my class. Watching the news at night, I’d respond with disgust when a criminal would rob a person or threaten that person’s life, especially when the victim wasn’t able to defend themselves, such as an elderly lady. I would think: That just isn’t right. People shouldn’t do those kinds of things. Conversely, I’d affix a value judgement of goodness to a situation when someone returned a wallet full of money to its owner or when people gave time to work at a homeless shelter. Yet, from where did I derive this sense of right and wrong? Was it just because of my culture and upbringing that I felt these things shouldn’t be so? Would I have different views if I were raised somewhere else or were these kinds of things always right and wrong?

During my search for answers to these questions, I encountered an argument called the Moral Argument for God’s existence. There are three basic ideas in the argument:

Idea #1: If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Idea #2: Objective moral values and duties do exist
Idea #3: Therefore, God exists.

The terms

Objective: independent of people’s (including one’s own) opinion.

Subjective: dependent upon people’s opinions, feelings, and personal preferences.

The opposite of objective is subjective.

This first idea would seem to be the most controversial idea other than the conclusion. It purports that if God does not exist, then objective moral values (what is good and evil) and objective moral duties (what is morally obligatory) do not exist. In the past, God has been considered as the highest good, or as the maximally good Being, upon which our values have been based. We’ve used the perfectly good nature of God as the point of reference for all our moral judgments and God’s commands as the standard for what we are obliged to do. However, currently, there are arguments against this view. The New Atheists say that we can be good without God. They provide reasoning from evolutionary biology to explain that morality is merely a tool for survival. Others suggest that morality can exist on its own without any origin, as a fixture of the universe. Both views fail to provide a grounding or point of reference for morality in a consistent manner.

If morality is really an adaptation for survival, then we cannot know if any view of morality is true. Rather, instead of there being something actually (that is truthfully) good and evil, there is only that which aids our survival (an ever-changing sociobiological condition); nothing more. This scenario gives us no impetus for why we should do something, it only describes the way things are.

As for the argument that morality has no origin, it just exists, this is an odd argument. Philosopher William Lane Craig states that “Moral values seem to be properties of persons, and it’s hard to understand how justice can exist as an abstraction.”[1] If the universe were void of persons, would we really believe that justice, mercy, patience, love, and so on, exist on their own? These are all qualities of persons, but not necessarily of the non-personal physical realm. Further, why would we feel obligated to something that is non-personal? What would be the motivation?

These examples of alternative explanations for the existence of objective moral values and duties fail to provide a standard of goodness which is the point of reference for our moral judgments and obligations. What we need is a stopping point at which we can say, “This is how I know what is good and what is evil,” and “This is how I know what to do.” A natural stopping point is God, who, “by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, and a being that is the ground and source of goodness.”[2]

The second idea is that objective moral values and duties do exist. As one philosopher states, “Humans do not have to find out what is moral by reading the Bible. Such knowledge is available to all people. Romans 2:14-15 says that those without God’s special revelation (Scripture, Jesus Christ) can know right from wrong.”[3] Since humans have been made in the image of God, they are created in such a way as to reflect the moral qualities of God’s own character. While there may be some differences in the way these moral qualities are expressed or developed in differing cultures, it doesn’t mean that the fundamental grounding for morality isn’t underneath all of our expressions of morality.

C.S. Lewis noted that “there were two odd things about the human race. First, that they were haunted by the idea of a sort of behaviour they ought to practise, what you might call fair play, or decency, or morality, or the Law of Nature. Second, that they did not in fact do so.”[4] How does one know that they are not living up to a moral standard, if there is no standard to live up to? Yet, all cultures throughout time and history share the basic ideas of good versus evil and right versus wrong. He argues that there is a great similarity of the human moral experience across the various expressions, because these expressions are all coming from the same fundamental source.

The third idea is the conclusion that naturally flows from the first two ideas. If we do not find  objective moral values and duties in the world, then God wouldn’t exist. Yet we find that objective moral values and duties do exist, and therefore God exists. The argument is a powerful argument to help us understand why we think there are things such as good and evil, right and wrong, and where we find grounding for those ideas. “Being made in the image of a truthful, rational, good Being makes sense of why we trust our senses/moral intuitions.”[5] The Moral Argument conversely helps us understand what happens when we remove God as the standard for objective values and duties: we do not have any ultimate obligation to uphold fundamental beliefs in values or moral obligations, such as that each person has the right to life and so we should protect human life.

At the end of the day, I cannot get around God as the objective standard for my value judgments and for what I think I “should” or “ought” to do. To strip my existence of this standard would be to leave a massive void in my human experience.

Mary Jo Sharp is a former atheist who came to faith. She first encountered Christian apologetics in her own spiritual search while seeking answers. Mary Jo is now an assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University and the founder and director of Confident Christianity Apologetics Ministry.

Further resources:

Stephen S. Jordan. “C. S. Lewis and 8 Reasons for Believing in Objective Morality.” Moral Apologetics Website. https://www.moralapologetics.com/wordpress/2019/1/18/c-s-lewis-and-8-reasons-for-believing-in-objective-morality

Paul Copan. “The Moral Argument for God’s Existence.” https://www.namb.net/apologetics-blog/the-moral-argument-for-gods-existence/

William Lane Craig. “Can You Be Good Without God?” DrCraigVideos. You Tube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxiAikEk2vU

Francis J. Beckwith and Greg Koukl. “Relativism: the loss of ‘truth’” BeThinking.Org Website https://www.bethinking.org/truth/the-death-of-truth/2-what-is-moral-relativism

Greg Koukl. “Did Morals Evolve?” https://www.bethinking.org/morality/did-morals-evolve

Peter S. Williams. “Can Moral Objectivism Do Without God?” https://www.bethinking.org/morality/can-moral-objectivism-do-without-god


[1] Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Kindle Locations 2241-2242). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.

[2] Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Kindle Locations 2284-2286).

David C Cook. Kindle Edition.

[3] Paul Copan. “The Moral Argument for God’s Existence.” [Internet Article) Available from: https://www.namb.net/apologetics-blog/the-moral-argument-for-gods-existence/ Accessed September 12, 2019.

[4] Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 16). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[5] Paul Copan. “The Moral Argument for God’s Existence.”

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