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Reason and Revelation Volume 15 #11

Morality Without God: A House Built on Sand

by  Garry K. Brantley, M.A., M.Div.

The creation-evolution controversy involves more than a clinically detached discussion of fossils and cosmological theories. The debate inevitably touches each of us on a deeply personal level. Our view of origins is linked inexorably to our own self-concept and how we define our purpose in life. It further exerts a dominating influence on our personal standard of morality. And, despite their opposing philosophical/theological orientations, both theists and atheists agree that some things are “good” or “right,” while other things are “evil” or “wrong.”

To issue such ethical judgments implies a supreme standard that is both objective and absolute. And, regardless of one’s world view, his or her behavior will be directed by some guiding ethical principle. Christians find their highest ethical directive from the personal God of the Bible, while Muslims appeal to Allah’s will as expressed in the Koran. Though atheists reject a theistic moral authority, their lives, nonetheless, are governed by some supreme ethical principle. Whether the governing principle is “live and let live,” “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few,” or “there are no moral absolutes,” etc., each serves as the adherents’ ultimate standard for personal ethics. Thus, while we might argue over what should serve as our absolute ethical norm, we all acknowledge that there is such an authoritative principle governing our behavior. The question now becomes, “Why do human beings accept as authoritative an absolute moral principle for their lives?”

In response to this question, John Frame has suggested that, ultimately, “the source of absolute moral authority is either personal or impersonal” (1994, p. 97). Which of these two options better explains humankind’s sense of moral obligation? Atheists, who reject the idea of a personal Creator, contend that the Universe is a natural artifact, and offer purely naturalistic explanations for its existence. To be consistent with this cosmological position, atheists must also attribute humankind’s sense of moral obligation to impersonal, naturalistic processes. Yet, what type of impersonal structure can both create and demand compliance to ethical mandates? What kind of ethical guidance could we determine from the fortuitous combination of subatomic particles? How could blind, purposeless chance demand our ethical allegiance?

Rather than appealing to unpredictable chance, some atheists have attempted to structure their model of morality on the mandates of impersonal, natural laws. Accordingly, “just as what goes up ‘must’ come down” in the physical realm, there are similar “musts” in the moral realm (Frame, 1994, p. 98). The difficulty with this approach to morality is its inability to explain adequately the sense of obligation that is characteristic of moral systems. For, not only do atheists and theists agree that some things are “good” while others are “bad,” they also recognize that there are some things that we “ought” and “ought not” do. Yet, how can an impersonal source of moral value explain this obligatory impulse common to humankind? Organic evolution’s purposeless, impersonal force that somehow optimizes the preservation of the species is inadequate to create a sense of “ought” in the species it allegedly preserves. In fact, it might be “right” and “noble” to resist such a force, especially if we perceive that it is forcing Homo sapiens sapiens into extinction. Our personal sense of self-preservation would prompt such a legitimate resistance to the ominous “force.”

Obviously, appealing to an impersonal source for an authoritative ethical value has insurmountable difficulties. In reality, the basis for morality derives ultimately from personal relationships (see Saucy, 1993, pp. 25-27). Why do we feel obligated to remunerate someone who has performed a service for us? While there may be other factors at work (e.g., civil law with its threat of litigation, family values, etc.), the sense of “ought” in this regard ultimately stems from a previously forged agreement between two persons, both of whom recognize the other as a person. In such a personal arena, the sense of moral obligation is created. Of course, our obligation to pay our bills for services performed is not absolute. We might refuse to pay the full price for substandard work. In that case, a higher moral arbiter, the court, might be involved. But even the court’s moral authority is not absolute for it, too, operates according to some guiding principle of ethical value (e.g., “justice for all”). Regardless of our particular place in the hierarchy of moral arbitration, there is a universal recognition of moral obligation (the “ought” factor). And this recognition implies some absolute standard of morality—a standard that can both create and rightly demand compliance. Since an impersonal force cannot meet these criteria, and since moral obligation is created in personal relationships, it logically follows that the universal sense of “ought” common to all ethical systems must stem from an absolute personal Being.

Thus, the sense of moral obligation unique to the human species argues powerfully for the existence of the personal God of the Bible Who created human beings in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27). And, practically speaking, without such a standard the lines between “right” and “wrong” not only are blurred, but actually fade into non-existence. In the final analysis, the atheistic attempt to erect a moral superstructure apart from the existence of a personal God will suffer the same fate as a house built on sand—inevitably it will collapse.


Frame, John M. (1994), Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R).

Saucy, Robert L. (1993), “Theology of Human Nature,” Christian Perspectives on Being Human: A Multidisciplinary Approach to Integration, ed. J.P. Moreland and David M. Ciocchi (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Copyright © 1995 Apologetics Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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