What Is Morality?

Today I’d like for us to think about morality. Morality means what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior, what is good to do and what is bad to do. The premise behind the concept of morality is that there are some things that are good to do and some things that are bad to do. Christians hopefully strive to live lives doing things that are good and not doing things that are bad.

There is a problem with that, though. Christians don’t agree on what are the good things and what are the bad things. Christians argue among themselves about whether any certain thing is good to do or bad to do. If you imagine it as there being a list of good things and a list of bad things, Christians don’t always agree on what should be on the list of good things and what should be on the list of bad things. Today it seems like that’s what Christians spend most of their time arguing about—which behaviors to put on the good list and which behaviors to put on the bad list.

But I’d like for us to go beyond that argument and think about something even more basic. What is it that makes any certain behavior good or bad?

Take stealing, for example. In general, stealing is seen to be on the list of bad things, the things you should not do. But what is it that makes stealing bad? Why, exactly, is stealing bad?

 

Divine Command Theory

There are two very different ideas in Christianity related to that. The first idea is the simplest. It says that stealing is bad because God says it’s bad. Why is it wrong to steal? Because God says not to. Very simple. In this idea, God decides what is right and what is wrong, and then God tells us what He has decided in the form of commands, in the form of laws. God says, “Do this;” “Don’t do that.”

This idea says the things that are bad are bad because God has decided they are bad. The things that are good are good because God has decided they are good. God decides what is good and what is bad. In this idea of morality, God makes the rules, and we follow them. That’s what most Christians believe. In fact so many Christians believe this that it has a name. It’s called the Divine Command Theory of Morality. It says that God decides what’s right and what’s wrong and then tells us in the form of commands.

That idea is very popular, so let’s consider the ramifications of it. Think back to the book of Genesis when God created Adam and Eve. Remember that God placed them in the Garden of Eden, and He told them they could eat the fruit of anything in the Garden except the fruit of a tree called “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” God told them if they ate that fruit, they would die. If we think about this using the Divine Command Theory, then we say that the reason God told them not to eat fruit from this particular tree was that He didn’t want them to eat it. God was trying to test them, to see if they would do as He said, so He just picked out a tree—any tree—and told them not to eat the fruit from it. And, the only reason Adam and Eve should not eat the fruit of that tree is because God told them not to.

We notice in Genesis that God tells Adam and Eve if they do eat the fruit of that tree, they will die. Interpreted through the Divine Command Theory, the only reason Adam and Eve would die if they ate the fruit was because God decided that would be the punishment if they ate it.  God decided He didn’t want them to eat the fruit of that one particular tree, and He decided death would be the punishment if they did eat it.

So, why did God tell Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit? Because He decided He didn’t want them to. Why would Adam and Eve die if they did eat the fruit? Because God decided that would be the punishment. In this view, morality, what is right and what is wrong, is decided by God. God communicates His decisions to us in the form of commands, and our task is to follow what God decides, follow the rules God has made. This view sees God as the rulemaker. God makes the rules, and we play the game by God’s rules.

Why is anything that’s wrong wrong? Because God says it is. Why is stealing wrong? Because God says it is. Why is murder wrong? Because God says it is. Why is adultery wrong? Because God says it is. Why is lying wrong? Because God says it is. And, this idea works both ways. It also applies to things that are right to do. What’s right is right because God says it is. Why is it the right thing to do to help someone in need? Because God says that’s what we’re supposed to do.

It’s essential to understand that, according to this idea, the only reason something is wrong is because God says it’s wrong. The only reason something is right is because God says it’s right. In this idea, God makes the rules, and we play the game by the rules God made.

As I said, this is what most Christians believe, and I would imagine the way I presented the thing about Adam and Eve not being supposed to eat the fruit is the way most of us look at it. Adam and Eve weren’t supposed to eat the fruit because God told them not to, and they would die if they ate the fruit because God decided that would be the punishment.

And so, to sum up, this idea says that morality is decided by God. Things that are wrong are wrong only because God says they are wrong. Things that are good are good only because God says they are good. There is nothing bad in and of itself, and there is nothing good in and of itself. Things that are good are good only because God declares them to be good, and things that are bad are bad only because God declares them to be bad.

 

Another Possibility

But there is another idea, and this idea is completely different. It involves a completely different interpretation of God telling Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit in the Garden of Eden, an interpretation we’ve talked about in this series before, only this time, we’re going to expand the implications of it.

In the first idea we discussed about what makes things right or wrong, the only reason Adam and Eve weren’t supposed to eat the fruit was because God told them not to, and the only reason they would die if they did eat it was because God decided that would be the punishment. There was nothing about the fruit itself that led God to tell them not to eat it. He could just as easily picked the fruit from another tree and told them not to eat it.

But in this other idea, the reason God told them not to eat the fruit of this tree was because there was something about that particular fruit itself. In this idea, the reason Adam and Eve would die if they ate the fruit was not that God had decided that would be the punishment, it was because there was something about the fruit itself that would make them die if they ate it. The reason God told them not to eat it and told them they would die if they did eat it was that God knew this fruit was dangerous and was warning them about it. He was warning them to stay away from something that knew would harm them.

See the difference?

In the first idea, there are a whole bunch of trees in the Garden of Eden, and God just decides that He doesn’t want them eating the fruit of this one tree, and God decides that if they disobey Him and do that, they will die. In the first idea, there’s nothing about the fruit itself that would harm Adam and Eve. God just decides He doesn’t want them to eat that fruit and just decides that they will die if they do.

But in the other idea, there is something about the fruit itself that would make Adam and Eve die if they ate it, and that’s the reason God tells them not to eat it. In this idea, God doesn’t just arbitrarily decide He doesn’t want them to eat that fruit. God looks around at all the trees in the Garden of Eden, and He sees that fruit and realizes, “Huh, oh! The fruit of that tree is dangerous. If Adam and Eve eat it, they’ll die. I’ve got to warn them about that so they won’t eat it.”

Completely different way of looking at it, isn’t it. Not only is it a completely different way of looking at the narrative about Adam and Eve eating the fruit, it also paints a completely different picture of God. But what’s most important for what we’re talking about today is that it also paints a completely different picture about what makes “good” and “bad.”

In the first idea, there’s nothing really bad about the fruit, and there’s nothing really bad about eating the fruit. The only reason it’s bad is because God says it’s bad. We can apply that idea to everything else that’s bad; it’s only bad because God says it’s bad. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about anything. Bad things are bad only because God says they are. And, there’s nothing intrinsically good about anything. Good things are good only because God says they are.

But in the second idea, there is something inherently bad about the fruit itself. That’s why eating it is bad, and that’s why God told Adam and Eve not to eat it. According to this idea, some things are inherently bad, and some things are inherently good, independent of any decision God makes. When God tells us not to do something, He’s warning us away from things that will have a detrimental effect on us. When God tells us to do something, He’s guiding us to do things that will have a positive effect on us.

When we apply this to specific situations, we see two completely different ways of looking at things. Let’s take stealing again, as an example. The first idea says there’s nothing really wrong with stealing itself, it’s just that God says not to do it. Stealing, per se is not bad. It’s bad only because God says it’s bad. If God had decided stealing was OK, then it would be OK for us to steal, because there’s nothing really wrong with stealing; it’s only wrong because God says it is.

But the other idea sees something inherently bad about stealing itself, and that’s why God says not to do it. There’s something inherently wrong with stealing, and God knows that if we steal, if everyone lives their lives by stealing, it will have detrimental consequences for us.  These detrimental consequences will come not because God has decreed these consequences, but because they are built into the way things work. In this idea, God’s laws and commandments are not just rules for us to follow; rather, God is clueing us in to how things work. God is clueing us in to the inherent nature of things. God doesn’t want us to be harmed. God doesn’t want us to be involved in things that have harmful consequences, so God warns us to stay away from those things, to not do them.

God is not just making rules for us to follow and then punishing us if we don’t follow the rules; God knows the nature of how things work and is warning us to stay away from things He knows will harm us. They will harm us not because God will punish us; they will harm us because that is the nature of them.

I’m not splitting hairs here, and I’m not trying to be picky. This concept is essential to understand if you’re thinking about right and wrong. As we saw earlier, in the first one we looked at, there is really no right or wrong, in and of itself. Nothing in and of itself is bad, and nothing in and of itself is good.  There actually is no bad at all; there are only things God says not to do. If God hadn’t said not to do these things, they wouldn’t be bad. If God hadn’t told us not to commit murder, it’d be OK to go out and kill somebody for whatever reason. If God hadn’t told us not to steal, it’d be OK for you to walk into someone’s house and take whatever you wanted. If God hadn’t told us not to commit adultery, it’d be all right for you to spend the night with whoever’s wife or husband you could convince to join you.

But there’s something else. Remember, according to this idea, there’s also nothing good in and of itself. That’s even more disturbing. Something is good only because God says it is. There’s nothing really good about helping a person in need. The only reason it’s good is because God says it is.

But the other view is different. In the other view, there is something inherently wrong with murder, and that, in the final analysis, is why you shouldn’t go out and kill someone. There is something inherently wrong with stealing, and that, in the final analysis, is why you shouldn’t walk into someone’s house and take whatever you want. There is something inherently wrong with adultery, and that’s why you shouldn’t go after someone else’s wife or husband. And, there is something inherently good about helping someone in need. In this view, we could take God’s commands and God’s laws completely out of the picture, and what’s wrong would still be wrong, and what’s good would still be good.

 

Can You Get By with Doing Bad?

Why is this important to think about? Well, if bad things are bad simply because God says they are, then maybe you can do those things and skirt the consequences. After all, if you believe God is merciful and forgiving, then maybe you can do those things and later depend on God’s mercy and forgiveness, and get by with doing them. If things are only wrong because God says they are, maybe you can live your life doing as you please, and in the end depend on the mercy and forgiveness of God and get by with it.

But, if the other idea is true—if some things are wrong because they are inherently wrong in themselves and have bad consequences just because of the nature of them—then God is not the one meting out the punishment, and the fact that God is merciful and forgiving won’t guard you from bad consequences if you decide to do bad things. After all, God is not the one causing or sending the bad consequences; the things themselves, by their very nature, carry bad consequences, totally independent from God.

This is the danger. It’s not that you’re going to get bad consequences from God for doing bad things. It’s that you’re going get bad consequences just from the inherent nature of the things themselves. That’s the real danger.

Let’s illustrate this with an example. Imagine that a child has a paper clip and decides it might be fun to stick the paper clip into an electrical outlet and see what happens. The child thinks, “Daddy told me not to play with electrical outlets, and if he sees me do it, he might spank me.” The real danger to the child is not the possibility of a spanking; in fact, that should be the least of the child’s worries. The real danger is that the child will get electrocuted, and that’s something totally unconnected to the spanking and something the father has nothing to do with.

See why this matters? If we view morality as originating only with God’s list of do’s and don’ts, then we don’t have to take things the Bible says not to do seriously. We can ignore them, do what we want, and we might get by with it.  But if we view morality as something inherent in the way things are, then ignoring good and bad—right and wrong—becomes much more dangerous.

This makes us see morality in a different light. It’s not God making rules for us to follow; it’s God warning us away from things that, just by their very nature, are destructive and harmful to us. If we do those things, we may very well escape God’s punishment, but we won’t escape the destructive and harmful consequences that come to us just by the very nature of those bad things we involve ourselves in.

Christianity has told us we should not do bad things because God will punish us for doing them. “If you do this, this, and this, you’ll go to hell”—that’s been the message we have heard so often from Christianity.  Christianity has often used the threat of God’s punishment to whip us into line and keep us from doing bad things. Going back to the example of the child wanting to stick a paper clip into an electrical outlet but being afraid of a spanking, it is the threat of God spanking us that Christianity has so often emphasized. “Don’t do this, don’t do that, because if you do, God will punish you.” That’s what Christianity has emphasized.

What Christianity has failed to emphasize, and a lot of times even failed to realize, is the real danger—the electrocution that will happen if you stick that paper clip into an electrical outlet. Christianity has often been so busy emphasizing the threat of God’s punishment—God’s spanking—that it has ignored the natural consequences of engaging in bad things. It has ignored that if you stick a paper clip into an electrical outlet, you will be electrocuted, not from God’s doing but because that’s just the way things are, the way things work.

There’s something else to consider regarding this. We live in a society where many people regularly, and in a big way, engage in things that are bad. If it’s just that by doing these things, they risk bringing God’s punishment on themselves, then that’s between them and God. What they do is not our business. But, if these things have bad consequences in and of themselves, and if much of society operates along those lines, then the bad consequences will affect not only the individuals doing them, they will affect all of society, of which each one of us is a part.

That’s something to think about.