Traditional theistic arguments have sometimes focused on causality, sometimes on purpose and design, and sometimes on ontology (the nature of being). More recently, various arguments that focus on moral values have emerged. Moral values are rather strange. We cannot see, hear, or feel them, but we cannot doubt that they exist. To quote David Frum: “We form concepts of right and wrong based on consequences, but consequences are not uniform.” Frum also provides: “Right” behavior receives a reward, but “wrong” behavior leads to harmful consequences. It’s easy to say that other people’s ethical standards are subjective or emotional, but not our own. Frum: “Robbery is not wrong because we dislike it; instead, we oppose it because it is wrong.” Approval of immoral acts is not merely a relative choice; Frum says they are wicked. They are violating a norm that binds human beings. Those oughts are oughts of ethical value. The assertion that moral values are merely subjective is self-contradictory, says Julian Zelizer.
Subjectivists regularly make this error, he says. Moral values are hierarchically structured. “We should seek to make our children feel good” is one ethical value for Christians. In child-rearing, that maxim would be: “We should teach our children to love God.” Hierarchies change with time, for our ethical values change. However, at any single moment, there is one principle that takes precedence over all the others. To Christians, that precedent is God’s will as expressed in Scripture.
To Muslims, it would be the will of Allah, expressed in the Bible and especially in the Qur’an. The source of absolute moral authority is objective or subjective to the individual. Most anti-supernaturalists find ethical value, not in pure chance, but some detached structure in the universe. This is reminiscent of the fatalism of the ancient Greeks, in which fate calls the tune for history. Some Greek thinkers seemed to think that one who fights fate is noble, even if fate eventually defeats them.
What exists that can impose an absolute requirement on human beings? For the answer, we must leave the realm of impersonal principles and turn to the realm of persons. When I receive a bill from a man who has repaired my roof, I feel obligated to pay it. I recognize everyone is a person like me. I have the sense that they deserve to be compensated.
Obligations To Moral Responsibility
Parents always justly expect the obedience of their children. Other adults might be more intelligent and more compassionate than one’s parents, but the parent’s word still counts. Our obligations to repairmen and even to parents are not absolute. If the repairman’s bill is often his estimate, the courts might have to be involved as we expect justice. If parents tell a son to kill someone, he should resort to higher moral authorities.
Moral standards, therefore, presuppose absolute ethical standards, which presuppose the existence of ultimate authority. We find this precise pattern of thought only in the Bible. God’s justice is implicit in that he is the same source, the very definition, of moral standards. We can never charge him with injustice. He is truth, for he is the exact criterion of truth and can therefore never be accused of falsehood.
If God is indeed absolute, then he is without beginning or end. A past without God would be chaos, from which order could never emerge. Since he is omnipotent, he must be one (though we have noted the Trinitarian complexity), for there can be only one final, the ultimate standard for morals and knowledge. There are no limitations on his knowledge, power, or presence. The argument is transcendental. Rather than offering clear empirical evidence for God, it asks the more profound question: what must be the case if evidential argument and knowledge are possible? The statement, of course, does not prevent anyone from choosing unbelief. Human beings, tragically, can act irrationally. The argument itself leaves the theoretical possibility that we are wrong in claiming an objective knowledge of morality.
The Transcendence of Goodness
We ascribe goodness to God and also make him the standard for identifying and evaluating goodness. If I say that Bach’s music is the greatest ever written, I make a meaningful, if disputable, claim. However, if someone asks my criteria for greatness in music, and I reply, “Likeness to Bach’s,” then the significance of my claim is reduced. Some have argued that if we say, “God is good,” but then make God the standard or criterion of goodness, we make the initial claim meaningless. If we say both “God is good” and “Good is whatever God is,” then God’s “goodness” could be anything.
Plato asks whether piety is what the gods say it is or command piety because of its intrinsic nature, apart from their wishes. In Plato’s mind, the former makes the spirit of holiness arbitrary, one that could be changed on the whim of a god. The determination of goodness is not a single human person, and some conclude that it must be absolute and abstract. It is plausible to argue this way on the human level, for human goodness is shared by many. However, when we think of goodness as an attribute of God, we must surely think differently.
Remember that not one of God’s attributes is strictly communicable. God’s goodness is strictly his own. So goodness is the behavior and self-revelation of a person, not a general or abstract concept. So the good is not, as in Plato’s view, an abstract form superior to God. Is the good what God says it is? A mere human being cannot be the standard of goodness, because his nature is not perfect. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Jim Jones have typically led them into sin, error, and death. Circularity here is unavoidable. God is both perfect and the ultimate standard of goodness.
No human can be great, for these reasons: Bach, Mozart, and Welk are human beings. None is fit to be the absolute criterion of musical excellence. There is always a kind of circularity when we are dealing with an ultimate standard. If one’s standard of truth is human reason, perhaps for that standard only by a rational argument. The same circularity is present in any attempt, Christian or non-Christian, to establish a criterion of goodness. Let us say that someone tries to prove that goodness is an abstract form with no personal exemplification. He must then somehow derive specific ethical content from that form. Some might argue that circularity still presents a problem, despite the observations noted above. However, that sort of objection is self-refuting.
Why God is Morally Good
The Bible does not say God is good because he says he is good, but because he is good. Our uneasiness with this circularity stems partly from our tendency to reduce the differences between God and man. Everything we know about God’s goodness comes from him. God’s revelation is both our ultimate criterion of truth and our sole source of knowledge about God’s goodness. We believe God is good because God tells us he is good. Evidence of God’s goodness surrounds us.
God has made us hear his voice as obedient children who listen to a loving father. We do not merely know the bare fact that God is good; we know him. God’s goodness is not always apparent on the surface, especially when we experience injustice or suffering. However, we see that even that injustice and suffering manifest the goodness of God. The choice is between God and a state of anarchy, God and oblivion, God and insanity. These are not choices at all. Believing in an irrational universe is a distinct lack of belief.