Moral arguments for God’s existence feature a rich history—from John Henry Newman to Immanuel Kant, from A. E. Taylor to Hastings Rashdall, from William Sorley to H. P. Owen, and lots besides. In just recent decades the argument has experienced quite a resurgence, with exciting work being done, some that even extends the argument beyond generic theism to something more distinctively Christian. The fundamental idea behind the argument(s) is that morality can provide a vital clue to figuring out the nature of reality. The key to feel its force is intentional attentiveness to the moral evidence in an effort to apprehend its import and evidential significance.
What follows is one such effort: a two-part moral argument. The two relevant pieces of evidence are, first, certain salient moral facts like values and duties and, second, moral transformation. Of course, such an argument need not do all the work of apologetics; it works best in combination with other arguments from natural theology and historical apologetics. Let’s briefly canvass both pieces of evidence and say a few words on why it points toward supernaturalism and away from naturalism (naturalism in the modern sense of delimited to the physical world).
First, consider objective moral values and duties. For an example of the former, consider the issue of human value. The idea that human beings have intrinsic value and dignity and worth is often discussed in terms of the Kantian notion that we should treat people as ends in themselves, and never merely as means. People have value, indeed something like infinite value. The claim is not that secular folks are unable to apprehend the truth of human dignity or value; to the contrary, usually they can and do. The moral argument counts on it! But they simply don’t have the metaphysical resources to make as good sense of it as can Christianity. Historically, as even Jürgen Habermas and Tom Holland recognize, seeing the value of disabled children, or the mentally ill, or the desperate refugee was often tied to the Judeo-Christian ethic and its influence. To love one’s neighbor as oneself, as the Bible enjoins, is not to conjure artificial warm sentiments toward them. It is rather to recognize their intrinsic worth and dignity and honor that obtains irrespective of whether there is reciprocity.
This makes insightful indeed the recognition that we have been endowed by our Creator with certain inviolable human rights. To have been made in God’s image, created for a reason and purpose, imbued with inalienable rights, to be loved infinitely by him; this is the deepest source and most robust of explanations for human dignity and value. A theistic and Christian picture of the human condition provides a compelling account of human dignity, of incommensurable worth, not just for humanity as a whole but for each and every individual. This is an account strong enough to sustain our deepest intuitions about the inestimable value of every human person.
Similarly, if real, binding, authoritative moral obligations exist, they too require a substantive explanation. Moral obligations are not mere suggestions. There is something inescapable about them, categorical, authoritative. Failing to discharge our obligations results in a condition of objective guilt. It is also not uncommon that harm is done by our failure to do our duty, not to mention alienation from other people. Consider a parent’s duty to care for his child, or absolute prohibitions against a lying promise, fraud, or showing contempt for the dignity of another. We have a deep intuitive sense these things are categorically the case—these are binding moral duties for us all. What seems to us obviously true is a good place to start.
What is it about the world that can explain these obligations? Most specifically, what accounts for the authority of moral obligations? It calls for a good, robust explanation, and theism can provide that. There is something supernatural about the world, something transcendent, something sacred—a God who loves us, who created us, and wants the best for us. God provides the better explanation of something like binding moral obligations than anything naturalism can furnish. Recall that naturalists often find the notion of robustly objective moral duties irremediably odd, and for good reason. They don’t fit comfortably into the world as they conceive it.
The second salient piece of evidence is moral transformation, which leads to something like an argument from grace. There are three deep moral needs we as human beings display, and this version of the moral argument addresses all three: our need to be forgiven, our need to be changed, and our need to be perfected. Each of these profoundly existential needs corresponds to an important aspect of Christian salvation. The fact that Christian theology so impeccably addresses each of these deep needs gives us moral reasons to take theism generally and Christianity specifically quite seriously.
There is a moral standard that is objective and universal. It is binding and authoritative on us, but we invariably fall short of meeting it. This results in a disconnect or a “gap” between the best we can do and what morality requires. That we intuitively sense there to be a moral standard that we fall short of leaves us with a condition of guilt in need of fixing. We need forgiveness for having fallen short of the moral standard. This is one way that the moral argument serves as the perfect pathway to the gospel of Christ—indeed we have fallen short and are in need of forgiveness. God offers us that forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Christ. Note that all of this broaches the theological topic ofjustification. We have a problem of guilt, and of shame (both deserved and undeserved), but God offers the solution, by his grace.
But more than forgiveness is required. Another part of a reconciled relationship with God pertains to the next step or stage of salvation—what theologians call “sanctification.” After our conversion to Christ, we are still left with a moral gap—the space between where we are morally and spiritually, on the one hand, and where we need to be, on the other. We have a long way to go; this is true for us all. That gap needs to be closed. We need more than our sins to be forgiven; we need our sin problem itself to be taken away. In light of what seem to be some deeply entrenched patterns of selfishness and moral weakness endemic to the human condition, we need powerful resources to meet the moral demand and effect the needed change in our character.
Malcolm Muggeridge once said that the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact. Humans are infinitely valuable, but not essentially good, morally speaking. We are broken, deeply broken, and need to be healed at the root, not merely the symptoms removed. Like Clay Jones puts it, all of us are born Auschwitz-enabled—the people responsible for such unspeakable atrocities of history were not, as human beings go, preternaturally bad people. They were, sober truth be told, garden-variety human beings who, when certain circumstances presented themselves, behaved deplorably. All of us have that hideous potential. Moral ugliness lurks in each of our hearts. We need major moral surgery.
The moral standard remains obstinately in place, but because of our moral weakness, corrupt characters, irremediable selfishness, intractable egoism, and the like, we are unable to meet that standard. Yet there is great hope. Christianity teaches that the needed resources for radical transformation are available. Although we cannot meet the moral demand on our own, God himself has made it possible, if we but submit and allow him to do it through us.
God can do more than merely ameliorate the symptoms of our chronic moral malady. In the face of our urgent need to become not just better people, but new people, the death and resurrection of Christ is indeed “good news.” This issue of transformation is the Christian theological category of sanctification. Just as God answers our need for forgiveness, God’s grace in sanctification answers our need for radical moral transformation.
Finally, we need the good work that has been begun within us to be completed, which God promises to do at the day of Christ Jesus for those who trust him. Here what we are talking about is the Christian category of glorification, when we are entirely conformed to the image of Jesus, morally beautified to the uttermost, every last vestige of sin having been excised and expunged. Such glorious hope is no pipe dream, but a precious part of salvation.
There are authoritative, objective, binding moral obligations; all of us have a deep intuitive sense of the infinite value of human beings; but we fall short, and we need God’s grace to close the gap between the best we can do and what morality requires. Theism (indeed, Christian theism) provides a compelling, robust explanation, whereas naturalism is much more hard-pressed to do so.
Published January 22, 2024