Knowing Right from Wrong

They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom 2:15 ESV). All creatures are subject to physical laws, like gravity, which cannot be broken. Human beings are also subject to moral laws, like charity, which can be broken. No sane person denies the reality of physical laws, since attempting to break them yields such obvious results. However, it is fashionable for people to deny the reality of moral laws, partly because the consequences of breaking them—although severe and eternal—are neither sudden nor apparent. People have learned not to challenge physical laws, because nature never forgives. God, however, tempers the demands of His moral laws with mercy. Taking advantage, people contest God’s ethical standards, because they find them too uncomfortable, inconvenient, and unworkable.

Unlike animals, humans live in two worlds at the same time—a physical domain and a moral domain. More than rationality, more than language, it is our moral nature that distinguishes us from even the highest animal. God has put an innate sense of right and wrong in our consciences. Every day we shoulder the human duty to make ethical decisions. Animals don’t make free choices; their genes and environment dictate what they will do. Nothing made purely of matter can be free. But we humans, spirits made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27), have the capacity and responsibility to choose between good and evil. We reveal our moral nature every time we use words like should, shouldn’t, ought, owe, right, and wrong. Whenever we praise or blame, applaud or scorn, approve or disapprove, we are appealing to a shared ethical standard external to ourselves. We know by moral intuition, for instance, that it is wrong to deceive friends or to starve our children.

Although people vehemently disagree on many ethical issues, mostly for tactical reasons, they all still appeal to a universal standard. Those who deny the sanctity of life by advocating abortion will still affirm the sanctity of life by opposing other forms of murder. Those who mock Biblical ethics will howl in protest if one of their treasured values is attacked. If anyone says, “We should pave all the rainforests,” they will insist that environmentalism is not simply a matter of personal preference, and that everyone should believe as they do. And if their sexual ethic permits premarital or homosexual relations, they will still recognize the evil of child trafficking and date rape.

Darwinism cannot explain this universal sense of right and wrong. Lifeless matter does not generate moral codes, and selfish genes do not profit from ethical duty. Consider the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). He acted out of high altruism, putting his own safety and money on the line in order to help a complete stranger from a reviled community. Since this behavior conferred no reproductive benefit, evolution cannot account for it. Similarly, a young man derives no advantage from giving his seat to an old lady in a crowded bus. And clearly it was not in the genetic interest of the firemen to run up the stairs of the burning World Trade Center towers while everyone else was fleeing for safety. Life is full of duties that conscience tells us we should carry out, even though we don’t want to do them and derive no benefit from them.

The Absolute Standard: God is Good

“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’” (Lev 19:2). God is the absolute Standard of goodness. “Good” is nothing more and nothing less than the ethical qualities of God’s own character (Ex 34:5-7). “Evil” is anything that falls short of the glory of His moral features, whether by an inch or a mile (Rom 3:23). Thus to do what is right is to do what God Himself would do in a given situation, and God demands that we behave exactly this way (Matt 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16).

Conversely, if there were no God, there could be no good, because separating God from good leaves no abiding standard. Apart from God, “right” and “wrong” are accidents, not absolutes. Any “good” defined apart from God can only be a consensus of what seems to bring the most pleasure or the least pain. The foundation of such godless “good” therefore rests on mere human opinion, rather than on the bedrock of God’s own character. Apart from God’s authority, we cannot explain duty: we have no basis for moving from “I prefer” to “I must,” much less from “I prefer” to “everyone must.”

Thus all ethical systems belong in one of two camps. The first is from above, revealed ethics, a system of behavior from God; the second is from below, speculative ethics, the product of mere human reasoning. The first depends on divine authority, the second on human preference. The first is absolute, the second relative. The first acknowledges God, the second rebels against Him.

Relativism is Self-Defeating

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Isa 5:20 ESV). Satan tempted Eve by saying, “you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Just as Eve and Adam caved in to this seduction, so we, their deluded offspring, continue to define what is good and what is evil according to our tastes. We fashion our own morality by the mere power of our feelings. According to this ethic, there are no absolute standards: what feels right to me is right for me, and what feels right to you is right for you.

This is called relativism, and it cannot possibly be true. The statement “There is no absolute truth” itself purports to be absolute truth, and thus contradicts itself. The claim “It is wrong to say that anything is wrong” must itself be wrong, by its own admission. Such statements must affirm the existence of truth and morality in order to deny them. We do not need to worry about countering such statements, because they defeat themselves.

Notice too that even hardcore relativists are highly selective in applying their relativism. In other words, they are relativerelativists. They spend most of their time as absolutists, because absolute relativism is fatal. When they drive their cars toward an intersection, they cannot relativize the situation. They know that the presence of an on-coming gravel truck is not a relative matter. They acknowledge that the light cannot be both red and green at the same time. They understand that if they proceed into the path of the truck they will not end up relatively dead, but absolutely dead.

The Error of Empiricism: Everybody’s Doing It

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13-14 ESV). This Scripture warns that because of human corruption, people are more likely to be wrong than right. Against this, however, is the common belief that equates goodness with “normal” human behavior—what the majority of people do. This ethic throws out prescription (what people ought to do), and focuses instead on description (what people actually are doing). This enormously popular viewpoint explains why opinion polls and talk shows dominate society. People turn to polls and pundits to decide what they should believe and what they should do. Right and wrong are decided by majority vote. If “everybody’s doing it,” then downloading pirated software and sharing stolen music must be OK.

This ethic starts with “experts,” which should immediately arouse suspicion. Experts compile statistics about what humans do (or admit to do or claim to do). For example, their studies may show that the majority of people are sexually active before marriage. They first characterize such behavior as “common,” and then call it “normal,” and then “authentic,” and finally “good.” If it is good, then it is what people should (!) do. So what began as description morphed into prescription. While we blinked, they slyly turned an “is” into an “ought.” Chastity, which “nobody practices anymore,” becomes abnormal, and then deviant, and finally wrong. In a diabolical twist, the virgin is now stigmatized instead of the non-virgin.

Interestingly, this ethic only seems to apply to sacred obligations (which they want less of) and sexual liberties (which they want more of). It does not work with personal injury. No sane person would say that if the majority of people were thieves, then theft is a good thing. The fact that something occurs—say child abuse—does not mean that it ought to occur. Ethics means duty—not what is done, but what should be done. Every action requires moral justification, which consensus cannot deliver. If the ethical value of an idea is zero, you don’t increase its value by assigning it to six billion people. Six billion times zero is still zero.

The Error of Utilitarianism: Good Ends Justify Evil Means

“And why not say, ‘Let us do evil that good may come’?—as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just” (Rom 3:8 NKJV). Another common mistake confuses morality with utility; whatever works is right. This ethic pushes aside motives and means, and concentrates strictly on results. If an action produces a positive outcome, it must be good. “The end justifies the means.” According to this, it must be good to distribute free syringes to heroin addicts, or even to legalize heroin, because the expected result is good—less crime and fewer new cases of HIV infection. Similarly, aborting unborn children to yield stem cells must be good, because these cells may eventually help patients with Parkinson’s disease.

We call this thinking “Machiavellian,” because Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) promoted this utilitarian ethic in The Prince: in order to maintain his control (a good thing), a prince should be prepared to use deceitful and ruthless methods (also good things, because they work). History is full of such “princes,” and our shared moral compass tells us that their methods have been evil, not good. We all know intuitively that some acts are noble, and some are heinous, entirely apart from what they produce.

Biblical ethics focuses on present duty, not on projected outcomes. Thus any act that conforms to God’s standard of goodness is right, even if it fails; and any action that breaks God’s law is wrong, even if it succeeds. Results are obviously important, and good goals justify using every good means to bring them about. But rules outweigh results. Even the loftiest goal cannot excuse wicked methods. Outcomes—which are impossible to foresee or calculate accurately—are God’s work.

Clashing Priorities: God’s Honor Comes First

“But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29 ESV)Most moral choices are clear, but at times moral duties collide with each other. For example, God commands us to obey the civil government, even when we don’t agree with its policies (Rom 13:1; 1 Pet 2:13-20). However, if obeying the state requires us to disobey God, then we must disobey the state in order to please God (Acts 4:19-20; 5:28-29). Those who hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II had to face this predicament. So do Bible smugglers.

How can disobedience to the state be wrong in one setting, and right in another? Because some commandments are weightier than others (Matt 23:23). God prioritizes moral absolutes in His Word, and He expects us to obey the higher law. (No, this isn’t relativism. Relativism denies absolutes, while true morality affirms each absolute as independently binding.) When two duties conflict, we must follow the higher priority of honoring God (Luke 10:27).

The Ultimate Good: Doing God’s Will

“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Eccl 12:13-4). True morality evaluates motivesmeans, and results. The motive should be love, the means should be righteousness, and the goal should be the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31). Thus the only true ethic in life is God’s will, which He has graciously revealed in His Word (Rom 2:18; 3:2; Psa 19:7-14). God’s moral character never changes (Mal 3:6; James 1:17), so it follows that moral obligations flowing from His nature are absolute. Imperatives like holiness, justice, love, truthfulness, and mercy are binding for everyone, everywhere, all the time. “Be ye holy,” God says, “for I am holy” (Lev 11:45). The only Man Who satisfied and glorified God’s moral standards was His own Son (Isa 42:1-2, 22). Our main concern is not whether we leave carbon footprints, but whether we walk in the footprints of our Lord Jesus Christ.