We are confronted by a society around us which denies absolutes. There is no absolute right or wrong. Everything is determined by the situation. No longer is it just the intellectually elite who trumpet this dogma, but it has filtered down to the man on the street. Some highly secularized couples pride themselves on not teaching their children right and wrong, not imposing a moral code upon them. One mother even boasted that her child did not know what “sin” meant! They want their children to “discover” their own code of morality. Human nature being what it is, the prospect for their future is dim.
Any insistence of an absolute is met with this statement, “You have no right to impose your moral code on me!” Of course, even that statement implies a moral code, a code which says it is wrong to impose a standard of morality on others. But that is exactly what the accuser is doing – imposing his moral code on you, which says that you cannot impose your moral code on him!
As stridently and as vociferously as our “tolerant” society proclaims its abhorrence of moral standards, it cannot escape them. Every time it employs such words and expressions as “you cannot,” or “you ought to,” or “you must,” it is acknowledging that there exists a standard of right and wrong, a code of morality. Their world is colliding with ours!
Six millennia ago, Satan brought down Adam and Eve with the promise that they would be able to decide good and evil and not have it imposed upon them by God. They bought into the lie and it has been greedily consumed by myriads of men and women since that moment. The Age of Enlightenment threw off the “shackles” of religious superstition and affirmed that human reason was sufficient for determining what was morally right. The Scientific Age posited that everything was material and nothing was supernatural or non-material. The present age has elevated tolerance as the benchmark of morality. And yet for all this, people continue to say “ought” and “should have” to indicate that there is some innate sense of right and wrong.
We do not need to travel into the metaphysical realm to discover what this innate sense is or what its origin is. Romans 2 teaches us that while many people are “without the law” (Rom 2:12), they are not without “the work of the law,” or a consciousness of a moral right and wrong, written on the heart. We call this “conscience.” It is the awareness that I know something is wrong. It is possible, and sadly prevalent, that repeatedly ignoring the voice of conscience can lead to a seared or hardened conscience which no longer speaks to a person (1Ti 4:2). When conscience ceases to speak, a man has become amoral, not necessarily immoral.
We need not feel embarrassed or apologetic that we subscribe to an ethic based on revelation. This means that God has revealed what is right and what is wrong. His moral law, the commandments, is a reflection of His character. We do not have the ability to frame a moral code on our own. It was Socrates who said it would take gods to give us laws. We are “inside the box” called life. We cannot see outside to know what “the good” is. Even those who claim that the morally right thing is to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people are handicapped by time and space. Who can calculate the greatest good for the greatest number of people down through the ages? What may seem beneficial to one generation can prove a liability to the succeeding one – just look at some of the decisions made by nations!
God has revealed right and wrong in His moral law. While framed in the negative, “thou shalt not,” the commandments affirm what is true of Him in the positive: He loves unconditionally and intensely. And this was not left to speculation or dogmatic assertion but was lived out in the Incarnate Son of God. He came and moved amongst us, “loving His neighbor as Himself.” That kind of love does not covet, lie or steal. It gives and always seeks the best for another. It is helpful to see the positive outworking of the moral law as it resolves the tension when absolutes seem to contradict each other.
To posit that absolutes exist does not deny the reality that there are times when absolutes come into conflict with each other. The Bible does not hide these conflicts: Rahab lies to protect the lives of two spies (Jos 2); Moses’ parents disobey the edict of the king and hide their son for three months (Exo 2); Abraham, in obedience to God, is ready to offer up his son on an altar (Gen 22). These and other examples have been the subject of reams of literature in both the religious and secular media. Varied suggestions have been advanced for resolving these conflicts; none disproves the existence of the absolutes.
Currently we face the argument that all ethical “norms” are mere social constructs, functions of the times in which we live and the views of the dominant culture. The ethics of different cultures that, on the surface, appear to contradict each other are advanced as proof of this. Yet on closer scrutiny, many of these seeming contradictions are seen to relate to the differing application of an identical moral value. The value of human life that is cherished by us leads us to preserve life at all cost. Native tribes, who allowed older men to walk off into the wilderness and die, cherished human life as well. Their concept, however, was tribal and not individual. Thus the welfare of the whole tribe and the value of their lives were preserved by allowing those who were no longer able to hunt and contribute to the tribe to die.
The quibbling assertions of the philosophers and the test cases of the debaters will continue to attack the truth of moral absolutes. But we can stand our ground, confident of the accuracy and adequacy of the Scriptures of truth. We have a “God who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2).