The Christian faith is often misunderstood and criticized. Because my faith is important to me, I am learning the discipline of Apologetics to prepare myself to defend it. I recently read a couple of good books on the subject - Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), a former atheist, and The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, by Timothy Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
The Faith I Defend
At the beginning of Mere Christianity, Lewis noted that the word "Christian" has lost its original meaning. Today there are people who culturally identify as Christians who do not practice the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Keller points out that the Bible tells us to expect that people will misrepresent the faith and even tells us how to discern this. So to be clear, my defense of Christianity is a defense of the faith of those of us who believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, have repented of our sins, and have chosen to follow him. This not a defense of religious fanatics or of people who are Christians in name only, though you may certainly describe me as a Jesus freak if you wish.
C.S. Lewis used human morality to make his case for God’s existence. Moral arguments were woven throughout Keller's book as well. As both authors admitted, science can't prove that God exists. In Mere Christianity, there are several assertions about human morality, which I have listed below:
- People agree that there are moral laws or rules of behavior we ought to live by.
- The rules of behavior tell us what we ought to do or what we should do.
- No one actually follows the rules perfectly. We may want to, but we can't.
- When we fail to follow the rules of moral behavior, we make excuses for ourselves.
- We evaluate rules of morality by saying some moral laws are higher than others.
- Sometimes moral obligations conflict with other moral rules or with our other instincts, e.g. with our instinct for self-preservation.
- Our consciences weigh the rules so we can make the best moral choice.
- The best moral choice isn't necessarily the one that is in our own interest. The most moral choice may not be useful or convenient.
Lewis acknowledged that some people believe moral laws are determined by one's culture. However, there are rules of human behavior common to all cultures - you should not steal, you should be fair, etc. Critics also claim that morality is relative to the individual - if something feels right to me, it is moral. Yet even these people complain when someone wrongs them. There would be no point in arguing about what is right or wrong if we did not have common beliefs about morality. We would not make excuses for our own moral failings if we didn't agree that there are rules of behavior that we all should follow.
Furthermore, if morality is relative, then any individual or culture can say that rape or incest or torture are moral. Yet we know that these behaviors are objectively wrong. Other apologists have argued that relativism leads to nihilism. If there is no god, there is no objective moral authority. Every moral question becomes the question "Says who?"
I believe that we can only accept a moral obligation as objective, as a rule that we all ought to follow, if the highest moral authority establishes it. Not only that, the authority figure must be completely above reproach. Most of us don’t mindlessly submit to the rules that define moral behavior. Generally speaking, we have the free will to choose how to behave. We learn and practice what it means to be a decent human being - that we shouldn't be selfish, for example.
So how is human morality evidence of God? Well, you can take the non-religious, naturalistic view and say that the universe and all life forms were caused by natural forces and that humans evolved from a simpler life form into complex beings based on evolution and natural selection. Or you can take the religious view (not just the Christian view) that says that the universe and life were created by an intelligent force, a power with a purpose.
Lewis noted that if there is a controlling power outside our universe, it could show itself as one of the observable facts, as an influence to behave a certain way. He also said that if this power behind the moral law is interested in morally right behavior, then it follows that it would not approve of wrong behavior.
To explain the origin of morality in the absence of a god, you must either believe that morality is a creation of the human mind or that morality is a characteristic that was passed on through natural, evolutionary processes (i.e. the natural selection theory). It seems to me that there have been plenty of selfish, ruthless people throughout history who have been “fit” enough to survive and pass their genes on to mankind. Morality doesn’t seem to be naturally selected or to have an evolutionary purpose for survival.
The Christian View of the Moral Argument
Christians believe that God is the intelligent, supreme power behind our universe. We believe that God created us in his image as intelligent, creative beings with the free will to choose. We believe we were designed to live in mutually beneficial relationships with other people and with God, our creator. We believe that because man disobeyed God, sin was introduced to the world. We believe that our disobedience has consequences – physical death and eternal separation from God.
It seems to me that there are a few things that the non-religious and Christian views of morality have in common. One, we agree that human beings are special (among the life forms we know about) having intelligence, creativity, the capacity for love, etc. Each of us is unique - unique DNA, unique experiences, unique personalities and talents. We see beauty in that individuality and want to be loved and valued for who we are as individuals. Second, we believe that human beings have the ability, even the right, to choose our own way in this life. We want to pursue the things that make us happy based on our own preferences and perceptions. Third, we agree that humans do not behave the way we collectively think we ought to behave.
The Great Teacher, Emmanuel “God with Us”
During his ministry on Earth, Jesus taught his followers several things about moral law. He taught that we should show love and mercy towards one another, forgive one another, avoid anger and hatred, and live in peace. He taught that we should take care of the least among us. He was not impressed with outward appearances of piety but was instead concerned with what is in our hearts. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.
Any genuine Christian will tell you, it is not easy to follow Christ's moral example. He taught that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He said that we should not judge other people. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. He taught that we should be humble and have the heart of a servant. We should be willing to give up everything to follow him.
There are a lot of rules in the Bible about how we should behave, yet when asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
The Internal Struggle
You certainly don’t have to be a Christian to understand the second greatest commandment, commonly known as the golden rule. If you have empathy, you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see how mutually beneficial it is to treat other people the way you want to be treated.
The commandment that Jesus called first and most important is much harder to accept and follow. We don’t want to submit to someone else’s will; we want to find our own way in life. We make our desires for achievement, wealth, relationships, pleasure, status, power, social approval, etc. so important that there isn’t room for God. So to the Christian, sin isn’t just breaking the rules of moral behavior. It is making something other than God central to your sense of self, to your desire to prove your own worth. Our self-centered nature leads to the personal, internal struggle to tame the thoughts, imaginings, emotions, desires and longings of the heart.
Lewis called pride the greatest sin. He said that pride is “essentially competitive” because it causes us to compare ourselves to other people as we strive to be richer, better looking, smarter, more something. In God, we find the one who is greater than us in every way. It takes humility to admit this. Christianity is not an exclusive club. Becoming a Christian is as simple as confessing your sins and believing that Jesus Christ died for you. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
I believe in gravity, the powerful force that keeps me physically grounded. I can't see it but I know it's there. I believe in another powerful force that keeps me morally and spiritually grounded. I can't see God but I know He is here. He reveals Himself to me not only in the wondrous natural world I see, but also in love, mercy, and forgiveness and the witness of people whose lives have been transformed by his power. I am redeemed. Giving up on the never-ending struggle to prove yourself worthy of the world's love frees you to accept God's love, a love that is more powerful than any other.
If there is no God, then moral choices are meaningless. People make up their own rules to suit their own desires when the best moral choice is too inconvenient or restrictive. We don't universally accept the authority of other people to hand down moral rules. Their authority doesn't pass the "Sez who" test - God's does.