Changing Ideas of Right and Wrong
There are some fundamental changes going on in Christianity today, in many different areas. One of those changes is that Christianity is changing its concept of what’s right and what’s wrong.
And so the questions arise: How can things that were once said to be right now be considered wrong? How can things that were once said to be wrong now be considered right?
These are questions about changing morality, changing concepts about what is right and what is wrong.
Why Wrong Is Wrong
Last week we talked about morality in the context of what makes something right or wrong. We used the example of stealing and asked, “Why is stealing wrong?”
We saw that Christianity is divided on that point, and that there are two basic positions that are very different. The first idea we looked at says that stealing is wrong because God says it is. This idea says there’s nothing inherently wrong with stealing itself; it’s just wrong because God says it is. This idea says that God just arbitrarily decides what’s right and wrong.
The second idea says there’s something inherently wrong with stealing itself, so that stealing in and of itself is destructive and harmful to us. The things that are wrong are wrong because they are wrong from the very nature of things, and if we do things that are wrong, there will be harmful consequences to us. These harmful consequences will come not because God sends them as punishment for doing wrong, but simply because harmful consequences are the natural result of doing these things.
Morality is Absolute
Those are two very different ways of looking at why something is either right or wrong, but they both share something in common. Both see morality as absolute and unchanging. To use the example of stealing, stealing is wrong today, it was wrong 2000 years ago, and it will still be wrong 2000 years from now. To use the example of murder, murder is wrong today, it was wrong 2000 years ago, and it will still be wrong 2000 years from now.
This is the idea that morality is absolute, that it is constant over time. Morality doesn’t change. If it’s wrong today, it’s always been wrong, and it always will be wrong. As much as Christians might disagree on other things, virtually all Christians agree on that. Morality is absolute, meaning that it doesn’t change over time. Wrong is wrong and right is right and will always be that way.
So, although Christians may not agree among themselves about exactly why something is right or wrong, one thing they do agree on is that morality doesn’t change over time. What’s wrong today has always been wrong and always will be wrong, and what’s right today has always been right and always will be right. As I said, virtually Christians agree on that.
This is in contrast to the idea that says morality is a personal thing, that what might be right for you might not be right for me. That kind of thinking, that morality is a personal thing that varies among individuals, is rejected in virtually all forms of Christianity, all across the Christian spectrum. Christianity says that what’s wrong is wrong, for me, for you, and for everyone.
Morality Is Universal
This is the belief that morality is universal, which means that right and wrong is the same for everyone. Virtually all Christians believe that, too.
All across the spectrum of the different versions of Christianity, we find the idea that morality is unchanging and universal. That is one of the very few things that Christians of practically all stripes agree on. Christians have different ideas about lots of different things, and they argue and fuss with each other about a lot of different things, but they do agree that morality is unchanging and universal.
So, if Christians agree that morality is unchanging and universal, why have there been so many changes lately in what Christians regard as right and wrong? Why do we live in an age where Christianity is so drastically changing its list of right and wrong?
After all, practically all of Christianity, even Roman Catholic Christianity, is revising its list of right and wrong at a dizzying pace. It’s changing so fast you can’t even keep up with it. How can that happen if Christians believe morality is unchanging and universal?
How Do We Know Good From Bad? God Tells Us
Well, to understand that, we need to consider something else about morality. We’ve already considered why a particular behavior is either good or bad. Now we need to consider how we know whether a particular behavior is either good or bad.
There are three basic positions on that in Christianity. The first two are simple and related to each other. The first two each say that God tells us in some way what is right and what is wrong. The difference is in the way God tells us. The first idea says that God tells us through the Bible. We know what’s right and wrong because God tells us in the Bible. According to this idea, even though the Bible might not tell us right and wrong for every specific situation, it tells us enough in general so we can apply basic principles and know whether a certain behavior is right or wrong. That’s the first idea—God tells us in the Bible what is right and what is wrong.
The second idea says that God tells us through the church what is right and what is wrong. According to this idea, in some way or another God tells the church officials what’s right and what’s wrong, and then they tell us. We receive our morality from what the church says. Roman Catholics and many Protestant Christians believe this, that God communicates primarily to the officials of the church, and then they tell us.
In the past, those two were basically all there were. The idea was that God tells us right and wrong either through the Bible or through church officials. No other idea had significant acceptance in Christianity.
But in the 1800’s, a third option began to appear on the scene. This idea started out very gradually, but by the 1900’s, it really began to gather steam, and today I feel safe in saying it represents what most Christian leaders in both Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant denominations believe—the people in the denominational offices, pulpits, seminaries, denominational hierarchies, the leaders of Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity. This idea is why Christianity is so rapidly changing its list of right and wrong.
So let’s talk about it.
This idea started developing with the advent of the modern age, when Christianity first began to confront the claims of science. Science had a different view of the world and the way things work than the Bible. We’ve talked about that before, how it eventually led to Christians taking things like creation, Noah’s ark, Moses parting the Red Sea allegorically instead of literally. In this way, Christians could accept both the views of science and the Bible.
But that’s only part of the story. It wasn’t only science that came on the scene about that time and presented a challenge to Christianity. Something else happened that had at least as much influence as science on Christianity.
The major event in the United States in the 1800’s was the Civil War and the associated movement to abolish slavery. The main justification for the movement to abolish slavery was that slavery is immoral. The problem was, though, from a Christian perspective, that slavery is not only accepted in the Bible, even by Jesus Himself, but the Bible flatly states in more than one place that slaves are to be subject to their masters. And so you have a large segment of society saying slavery is immoral, but the Bible not only accepts it, but by telling slaves to be subject to their masters, in effect says that a movement to abolish slavery is wrong.
So what were Christians to do? You could get around the science and the Bible conflict by taking stuff like creation and Noah’s ark allegorically, but what could you do with this?
The first thing Christians tried was to say that the word “slave” in the Bible didn’t really mean slave. These Christians said it means something like “beloved household employee.” Many Christians started saying, in effect, that the words in the Bible don’t mean what we think they mean; they actually mean something else. It might say “slave,” but that’s not what it means. Slave, in the Bible, doesn’t mean slave as we think of it.
That explanation didn’t get very far, though, because the ancient Greek in which the New Testament manuscripts was written was used in a lot of other ancient writings, and it was a fairly simple matter to go to those other writings, some of which were associated with Christianity and some of which were not associated with Christianity, and see what the word for slave means by looking at its usage in these other writings of the period. When you do that, you find that it does indeed mean slave. And so the idea that slave in the Bible doesn’t really mean slave wasn’t very convincing and didn’t last long. However even today, in some corners of Christianity, you’ll occasionally hear that argument used.
But slavery wasn’t the only issue that caused problems. It wasn’t long until another issue came up, where the argument that “the word really doesn’t mean what we think it does” couldn’t be used. This was the movement for women’s rights. The women’s rights movement burst on the scene in the early 1900’s, with women winning the right to vote in 1920. The idea of women’s rights became more and more accepted in the United States, and, just like slavery, it was often presented as a moral issue. But again, just like with slavery, Christians were in a quandary because there are parts of the Bible that seem to relegate women to a secondary role. This time you absolutely couldn’t get by with saying the word “women” in the Bible doesn’t really mean women.
Christians found themselves in a really bad position. Science and society as a whole were moving away from the Bible. Some Christians were content to remain with what they considered to be biblical standpoints and stand on the sidelines and rail against how things were moving away from the Bible, but some Christians wanted to move with society and science but still, at the same time, remain Christian.
Especially Christians that were in large urban areas, places like New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, who were well-educated, wealthy, and the leaders of society wanted to be seen as sophisticated, intelligent, worldly people. They wanted to be seen as the “upper crust” of society; they wanted to be seen as being on the leading edge. They saw how the world was coming into “the modern age,” and they, of all people, wanted to align themselves with the modern world. They didn’t want to be seen as backwater hicks; they wanted to be seen as worldly, intelligent, sophisticated people, on the cutting edge of everything.
A man named Harry Emerson Fosdick was the minister at First Presbyterian Church in New York City in the 1920’s. He was later hired by John Rockefeller to be the first minister at a church Rockefeller was building in Manhattan, a church called Riverside Church. Fosdick expressed the sentiments of many upper crust Christians at that time when he said, “I want to be a serious Christian and an intelligent modern.”
But how could you do that?
Darwin Applied to Morality
The ideas of a man named Charles Darwin saved the day. Darwin probably never intended for his ideas to one day save the day for these Christians, as he didn’t care much for Christianity. However, Christians began to see in Darwin’s idea of evolution a way to have the Bible and Christianity and be “an intelligent modern” at the same time.
Darwin had, about 60 years earlier, published his ideas about the origin of life on earth. He believed that life as we know it today was not created by God the way it is but evolved from very simple forms of life. Darwin believed that life developed and changed over millions and millions of years, until it finally reached the point where it is today. Human beings, for example, weren’t created by God in one moment as human beings; they developed and evolved over the ages from much simpler forms of life.
These upper echelon Christians realized they could use Darwin’s ideas to resolve the conflict they were dealing with between the Bible and society. They took Darwin’s ideas about the evolution of life—about the development of life—and applied this idea of development to society. They developed the belief that society evolved and developed over the ages just like life did, from very simple, primitive forms to very complex, advanced forms. It was Darwinism applied to society. And they realized they could use this specifically related to the development of morality—right and wrong. They looked back on the societies of the past and saw them as primitive and barbaric, representing very early stages of development on the way to the evolution of modern, enlightened society.
Just as Darwin said human life evolved from animal life into what it is today, so they believed society had developed over the years from primitive, barbaric forms, and this process of development culminated in the modern, enlightened society they lived in during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Just as the high point of the evolutionary development of life was seen as the human being, so did they see the high point of the evolutionary development of society as the modern society of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Their society was akin to modern, rational man of the 20th century. The societies of times past, especially societies in the ancient world, were like the chimpanzees swinging in the trees. Their society was the pinnacle of development; societies of times past were primitive and barbaric.
They applied this concept to morality and basically said, “Morality is absolute and unchanging; right and wrong has never changed but has always been the same; however, it took human society ages and ages of development to reach the point where it can comprehend true morality. It took until now. We are the first generation in the history of the human race that can comprehend true morality.”
To them, the so-called morality of the societies of the past was comparable to the ancestors of human beings that Darwin said were apes swinging from trees. Those people back then didn’t have the right concepts of right and wrong, but they couldn’t help it. They lived at an earlier stage of societal development, when society was primitive and barbaric.
Now of course this was not a specifically Christian idea, but the upper echelon Christians realized they could transfer it over to Christianity. And that’s what they did.
They felt that Jesus represented a quantum leap forward in the development of society; it was just that Jesus was way ahead of His time. He appeared way too early in the development of society. Jesus appeared at a time when society was so primitive and barbaric that people didn’t have the capacity to understand what He was trying to say.
After Jesus died, all that was left to pass on to us what Jesus had taught were primitive people who were so undeveloped that they were unable to accurately pass on to us what Jesus actually taught. Even when they wrote the books of the New Testament, they framed it using such primitive and barbaric concepts that the true teachings of Jesus got lost, buried, altered, and hidden in the pages of a New Testament filled with a primitive and barbaric understanding.
They saw the Bible as a product of primitive and barbaric people, undeveloped people with an almost animalistic sense of morality. And so the idea arose that the true Jesus, who represented a quantum leap forward in the development of humanity, is hidden inside a primitive and barbaric Bible. The idea was that most of the Bible can be dismissed as ramblings from a primitive time, for example, the things about slavery and the position of women in society. Things like that were not from God, not from Jesus, but are a reflection of an undeveloped society. However, if you apply correct biblical scholarship, you can mine through and separate a few things out that actually did come from Jesus that are hidden in the primitive, undeveloped mindset of the authors of the New Testament, and you can glean a few snippets from Jesus that somehow survived hidden in there.
And so the idea developed, in the upper echelons of Christianity, that the Bible—what it says—is the product of primitive, barbaric, undeveloped people. Most of it can be dismissed as just that, but at a few places, if you are really adept at separating it out, you can catch a glimpse, just a glimpse, of the true ethical teachings of Jesus.
This idea was applied to morality—right and wrong. And the result of it was the idea that we shouldn’t look to the Bible for morality, because all the Bible can give us is an animalistic morality from the primitive and barbaric people that produced it. Back then, when the Bible was written, society had not yet developed and advanced enough to be able to identify true morality. That’s why the Bible doesn’t condemn slavery. It’s from a time when people weren’t advanced enough to be able to realize that slavery is wrong. That’s why the Bible seems to accept the subjugation of women. It’s from a time when people weren’t advanced enough to be able to realize it’s wrong.
By the 1950’s, this kind of thinking began to gain widespread acceptance in mainline Christianity. It was taught in seminaries. It was held by the upper levels of church officials in the mainline denominations. And by the turn of the millennium in 2000, it was generally accepted in virtually all mainline Protestant denominations and in Roman Catholicism, and is today the way most mainline Christians are taught, whether they realize it or not, to look at the Bible.
That’s why it seems like Christians are changing their ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong. But actually, from their perspective, they’re not changing them; they’ve just now discovered the truth. All of the changing notions of right and wrong that we see in Christianity today do not represent people trying to change right and wrong; they represent people thinking they’ve just discovered true morality. People still believe morality never changed. People believe true morality has been there all along; it’s just that no one ever realized what true morality was because society was not developed enough. Society has just now advanced to the point where we can see true morality, where we can see that many of the things we used to have in the “wrong” category should actually have always been in the “right” category and many of the things we used to have in the “right” category should actually have always been in the “wrong” category.
The idea is that those who came before us lived at a time when society was so primitive and barbaric that people could not recognize true morality. But now, society has developed to the point that we are finally able to discern true morality. It took until now for society to develop to the point where we can finally recognize what true morality is and know what right and wrong really are.
According to this idea, we are the first human beings in history to be developed enough to understand true morality. None of the people of the past ever did. We, and our society today, represent the zenith, the apex, of societal development. Our society today is the goal for which all human development in the past has been aiming. The people in the past didn’t understand, but we do. Their idea of morality was wrong, but ours is not.
This kind of thinking is accepted in much of Christianity today; in fact, it pervades Christianity. Now, granted, most Christians might not frame it in those terms, and a lot of them don’t even realize that’s what they believe, but that kind of thinking is in the background of much of Christianity today, far much more than people realize.
Society Tells Us Right and Wrong
According to this idea, if there’s no need to look to the Bible for morality, where should we look? To society. Why should we look to society? Well remember, this idea says that just as the evolution of life eventually led to human beings, so does the development of society eventually lead to the uncovering of true morality. And so, since we have now reached the apex of human development, we should look to society to tell us what morality is.
The problem with that idea is that no matter how much people today are convinced that they have reached the apex of development and can now perceive true morality, the fact is that 200 years from now, society’s idea of morality will have changed again. And if Christianity is still around then, Christians then will be saying, “Those people back in 2017 thought they had finally developed to the point to be able to perceive true morality, but they were wrong. In reality, we are the first to be developed enough to finally perceive true morality.” And then, 200 years from then, after society’s idea of morality has changed again, Christians will say the same thing.
But let’s stop and think. Looking at the Bible as the product of primitive, undeveloped people and saying that the “true message” can only be found by stripping out the 99% of the Bible that is just a reflection of their primitive, barbaric society sounds attractive. It does allow us to do something with many of those parts of the Bible that are difficult in today’s society. It is very attractive to say that the things in the Bible that do not fit with how society today sees things are really not from God but are just the product of primitive people. That does allow us to deal with many disturbing things in the Bible. And so it’s very tempting to look at the Bible like that.
Christianity as a Deification of the Beliefs of Society
But you know what that ends up doing? It ends up making Christianity into a religion that is a deification of the beliefs of society at a particular point in time. It allows us to place what does not agree with the viewpoints of society in the category of primitive people’s beliefs and place what does agree with the viewpoints of society in the category of what comes from God. In that way, people will always see the viewpoints of their society as coming from God, and that is a deification of the beliefs of society at a particular point in time.
In order to avoid that, a religion must have some kind of standard that does not change, some kind of standard that is constant over time. That is the purpose the Bible is supposed to serve in Christianity. But the tendency to make religion a deification of our own beliefs is so very tempting. Many have fallen prey to that, not only today, but at many times in the past. We’ve talked before about how the Bible has to be interpreted, and throughout Christian history, Christians have found ways to interpret the Bible in such a way as to support the beliefs of society.
When we look at the Bible, we have to be very careful to guard against doing that.