In the book of Daniel, we find one of the less frequently referenced titles of God. It’s just before the turn of the sixth century B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar who will soon besiege and capture Jerusalem, has already captured the leading families in the southern kingdom of Judah and carried away anyone with potential to Babylon. After the death of his father Nabopolassar, Nebuchadnezzar has decided to clean house of fake wisemen and astrologers. His method of discerning who’s fake? He’s had a disturbing dream and has decided that unless his “magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers” (Dan 2.2) can both tell him the dream and explain it, their fate is sealed. The king had firmly decided he would “…have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble.” (Dan 2.5) if they could not both reveal the dream and interpret it.
It is in this context that the prophet Daniel, then a young man who had been carried off to Babylon with the other promising young future leaders, made known a rarely referenced, but often experienced (though not necessarily recognized) work of God: that God is the “revealer of mysteries.” (Dan 2.29 NIV; KJV uses “secrets.”) God proceeds to reveal to Daniel both Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and the meaning, thus saving his life along with his friends and the other wise men.
God revealed truth that Nebuchadnezzar knew to be true. He dare not deny it. And to his credit he didn’t. The Moral Argument likewise reveals truth that all who are confronted by it know to be true. But unlike Nebuchadnezzar, those unwilling to acknowledge the existence of God are not as forthcoming. They will recognize the truth, but will refuse to verbally acknowledge it. Instead, they try to hide the obvious by suggesting a number of common but ineffective excuses as to why the Moral Argument doesn’t prove God exists, or impose moral obligations. The excuses are ineffective because just as God is the revealer of mysteries, the Moral argument is the revealer of hypocrites and it exposes those who deny it.
Those who deny the moral argument stand exposed by its light, highlighted like an actor standing on a dark stage in a spotlight. Yet they act as if blind to the folly of their denial. They are like an actor standing in a spotlight but denying the fact that they’re standing in a spotlight. To all who view the scene, it’s clear to see such a person is either a lying hypocrites or an ignorant fool who doesn’t understand the foolishness of denying the painfully obvious. Such is the illuminating power of the moral argument.
Setting the stage: Preparing the Lights
The moral argument, like stage lighting, does not consist of a single element. A stage is typically lit by a number of lights – spotlights and other types of lights – working in concert to provide the proper illumination. A spot light is used to focus attention on a particular actor or performer. The various facets of the moral argument work in the same manner – they focus attention on the moral aspects of God’s creation so that even when such aspects are being denied, such denials can only be seen and understood by the light of God’s moral order. So let’s look at the commonly used components of the moral argument. Then we’ll move on to the attempts to deny both the moral order and its creator.
Formulations of the Moral Argument
The Simple Statement:
“If there is no God…all things are permitted.”
So states one of the character’s in Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” The conclusion is not formally drawn, but merely implied: but obviously all things are not (and cannot be) permitted, so there is a God. This can be presented as a formal logical argument as follow:
The Moral Argument, Logical Statement:
If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Objective Moral values and duties do exist.
Therefore, God exits.
This is a logically valid syllogism in the format of modus tollens  and is defended by well known apologists such as William Lane Craig  and Frank Turek. It should be pointed out that this argument deals with the actual existence of moral realities such as the source of morality (a transcendent being), and the moral order. This is called moral ontology. It does not deal with how we come to know about such moral values and truths (which is moral epistemology). It is relatively easy to prove the minor, premise – that objective moral values exist. A common example given is that of the misuse of innocents such as children. For example who will deny that torturing and then killing children is objectively morally wrong? When I say “objectively” I mean for all people in all places at all times. It is not relative to only certain people, places or situations. In other words it transcends people, places and times (which points to the fact it must have come from a transcendent being.) Few (perhaps none?) will challenge the obvious example above of torturing and killing children. Thus the challenges tend to be with the first premise. But we’ll come back to that.
Approximations to the Perfect:
The Moral Argument of Thomas Aquinas
One of the many things that the thirteenth century theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas is known for is his five proofs or ways to know that God exists. His fourth way speaks of moral perfection and gradations thereof, and thus is another way to frame the moral argument. Aquinas puts it this way:
“The fourth way is based on the gradation observed in things. Some things are found to be more good, more true, more noble and so on, and other things less. But such comparative terms describing varying degrees of approximation to a superlative, for example, things are hotter and hotter the nearer they approach what is hottest. … Now when many things possess some property in common, the one most fully possessing it causes it in others: fire, to use Aristotle’s example, the hottest of all things, causes all other things to be hot. There is something therefore which causes in all other things their being, their goodness, and whatever other perfection they have. And this we call ‘God’.”
Thus the fact that we are aware of morality, and that some actions are more, some are less moral, points to the fact there is a perfect example of morality who is in fact the source of morality – who “causes it in others” as Aquinas put it. That person is God.
This also speaks to objections to the first premise of the logical argument. For Aquinas’ argument makes clear that if you recognize various degrees of approximations to a superlative, you are tacitly acknowledging a moral order which much have originated somewhere. Only the character of a perfect moral being could give rise to the moral order. Thus objective morals and values can only exist if that perfect moral being exists. That person is God.
The Moral Argument – Accompanying Concepts
When evaluating claims made about morals and moral behavior, two other concepts are needed to be understood:
The Natural law is the collection of moral obligations known to all people everywhere. A recent article by Paul Kengor explaining why supreme court nominee Gorsuch understanding natural law is a good thing explains it well:
“Natural law affirms that we do what we ought to do according to nature, to our very nature. “What we ought to do is based on what we are,” writes Peter Kreeft. The natural law, notes Kreeft, is naturally known.”
And how do we get this moral knowledge? Some call it “moral intuition”, and explain it thus:
“moral intuition does not mean some vague suspicion, premonition, or nagging feeling. Moral intuition is a genuine form of knowledge.”
Kengor is more specific and states we know it through “…natural human reason and experience.” The point I want to focus on here however is not how we know, but rather the fact that we are indeed aware of the natural law – the guide to the moral order.
Moral Agency and Free Will
The final ingredient to a proper understanding of moral imperatives is the understanding that humans are moral agents who have free will. No one expects animals, like the lion above for example, to either have the capacity to understand “morality” or be held accountable for doing what lions do: killing as they see fit. No one expects them to be moral agents following the dictates of “right” and “wrong.”
Being a moral agent, however, entails both the ability to make moral decisions, and having the free will to do so. Humans are moral agents because they have both the ability to make moral distinctions and the free will to act accordingly. Humans are not – as scientists such as Stephen Hawking believes – robots subject to “scientific determinism”:
“It is hard to see how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.”
The problem with the “we’re all robots” theory, is it leaves no one responsible – morally, legally, or in any other manner for wrongs done. For example I recently watched an episode of “Law and Order, SVU” where a rapist claims he was not responsible for the rape he committed because he had inherited a “rape gene” which forced him to rape. That is essentially the “no free will” argument packaged in a wrapper of gene forced behavior. No one bought it on the show, and in fact they made sure they had a doctor deny such a thing as a “rape gene” exists. That was drama, but here I’m confident drama reflects life in this point: Few, perhaps none (and especially not the law abiding) accept the premise that people are not responsible for the wrongs they do. The consequence of the “no free will” argument is a “no personal responsibility” reality – which goes against our above mentioned moral intuition that people are response for the wrongs they do. Thus the “no free will” argument is rejected for this reason alone, though you could also throw in the explicit teachings of the major religions of the world (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) which militate against the “we’re robots” philosophy.
Overcoming Objections to the Moral Argument:
Shining the Light on implicit acknowledgments
There are four common approaches taken when trying to deny the moral argument and its valid conclusion:
- Deny that morals are objective and universal
- Confuse moral ontology (the existence of a moral order) with moral epistemology (how we know something is right or wrong)
- Claim that morals are the result of evolutionary processes – they are helpful to “survival of the fittest” and thus would naturally evolve
- Deny there are such things as “morals.”
Shining the Light
We’ll take each in turn and show how the moral arguments above – properly understood – dispels the darkness of error by spotlighting how the those who claim there is no moral law and thus no moral law giver – either live their lives or frame their arguments in terms that require the moral order and thus the creator of the moral order.
1. Denials that morals are objective and universal
Such denials come in a number of flavors:
- Relativism – There is no final right or wrong, thus societies and individuals are free to decide for themselves what’s right and wrong.
- Conventionalism – Believers in this state there is final right and wrong, but it’s determined by the conventions of the society you’re living in. So it varies from place to place.
- Ethical Subjectivism – This view states that individuals decide what is right and wrong for only themselves. This is the “What’s true for you is true for you; what’s true for me is true for me.” approach.
To refute these types of arguments one need merely identify something of importance and value to the one denying it and remove it and see how quickly they object – though they shouldn’t. For instance, to illustrate a holder of “Relativism” actually believes in objective moral values, I will borrow an espouser of denial type 4. – I highlight him below as an atheist who doesn’t believe “morals” exist, and therefore has no problem with “killing you and reproducing with your wife.” In response to the relativist, merely suggest to him that you will direct the aforementioned moral-less atheist to the Relativist and his wife – to do what his genes force him to. Be sure to point out that once the atheist kills the relativist, and has his way with his wife, you’ll make sure the atheist takes all his possessions as well. The Relativist should have no objections to this because there is no “right or wrong” according to him. If he does object, he has been exposed as a hypocrite who actually does believe in objective morals – and a fool who doesn’t understand the consequences of his beliefs.
For the Conventionalist, all you need do is point out Nazi Germany – how they legalized killing of Jews. In that world view, that also makes killing Jews, both legal and moral. The entire world (with the possible exception of neo-nazis) is united in condemning that as wrong. It is unlikely such a person will try to justify the holocaust. Obviously that perspective cannot be correct.
For the ethical subjectivist, you could repeat the scenario given the Relativist, the only difference being the reason such actions are justified. For the relativist, the reason it’s okay for the amoral person to kill him and “reproduce with his wife” is because he believes there is no such thing as “right and wrong,” thus neither should that be wrong. For the ethical subjectivist, the reason it would be okay is because in the ethical subjectivist world view – you go with the morals of each individual. So when you come to the morals – or lack thereof – of amoral people, you can’t suddenly say what they want to do is wrong. So according to the ethical subjectivist, if someone believes its okay for them to murder, rape and plunder then for them it’s moral; who are you to say they can’t? Again, if the Ethical Subjectivist objects to being the victim, they have been exposed.
2. Confusing Moral Ontology with Moral Epistemology
In his attempts to refute the moral argument, Richard Swinburne
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Oxford, England makes this mistake. Swinburne states:
“A lot of people say if there wasn’t a God things wouldn’t be right or wrong and so we’ve got to assume, since there are right and wrong there must be a God.”
“That seems to me clearly false. I don’t think we would have any understanding of goodness and so on if we didn’t recognize well it’s bad to torture children, and it’s a good thing to feed the hungry – quite apart from any suppositions that there’s a God or not. We would seem to have no concept of what morality means, we wouldn’t be able to grasp it quite clearly.”
Here Swinburne has clearly failed to observe the distinction between the moral ontological argument, and the epistemological one. His objections center around how we know what’s right and wrong (the epistemological approach) – again using the illustration of abuse to children. He appears to be missing Aquinas’ point (which is an ontological one): the fact that we recognize good and bad; that we shouldn’t torture children points us to the one who shows perfect morality – perfect behavior towards children and everyone else: that would be the perfect being – God. Swinburne at least does not deny morals exist; his is a different type of error. He quite simply misses the point.
3. Claims that Morals are the result of evolutionary processes
For evolutionists to live consistently within their worldview, they must deny objective moral values exist. As Richard Dawkins’ states:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
But some evolutionists want to claim that morals would evolve because “evolutionary pressures” would drive morals like “thou shalt not kill” which would benefit societies and thus improve survival. If so, these would only be the morals of Relativism because there would be no real objective morals. In other words, it’s not really wrong to murder; it’s just not expedient for societies; it is a detriment to the survival of groups. In such a scenario, rape, which would likely help increase the population and thus increase survival of the population (as even evolutionists admit), would probably be deemed moral.
So in other words we’re back to the same problems the various Relativists have. To drive home that point we’ll look at the next group of objectors – those who outright deny all morals. Here again, one merely need do something the evolutionist deems is “wrong” to expose the fact he is not living and believing the relativism that evolution requires. Here’s a recent example from my own experience – where an evolutionist feels “wronged” and I ask why he feels that way? Because for evolutionists, as Dawkins points out, there is no good, no evil and thus no right and wrong. The problem is they don’t really believe that, so they don’t live that way. They claim they believe morals are only for “survival,” but when it comes to right and wrong in items not related to survival, they demonstrate they believe in those as well.
4. Denials that there are such things as “morals.”
We arrive at those we’ve already referenced twice: Those (typically atheists) who deny morals exist. Allow me to let one atheist speak for himself:
“We are Atheists. We believe that the Universe is a great uncaused, random accident. All life in the Universe past and future are the results of random chance acting on itself. While we acknowledge concepts like morality, politeness, civility seem to exist, we know they do not.“ (emphasis mine.)
There you have the denial that morals exist, and let me point out that they realize that therefore “all things are permitted”:
“Outside of my greedy little gene’s need to reproduce, there is nothing in my world that stops me from killing you and reproducing with your wife. Only the fear that I might be incarcerated and thus be deprived of the opportunity to do the same with the next guy’s wife stops me.”
Finally, this atheist derides other atheists who are unwilling to be confess the same lack of morals he is claiming:
Some of my Atheist friends have fooled themselves into acting like the general population. They live in suburban homes, drive Toyota Camrys, attend school plays. But underneath they know the truth. They are a bag of DNA whose only purpose is to make more of themselves. …
Just be aware that while technically an Atheist, you are an inferior one. You’re just a little bit less evolved, that’s all. When you are ready to join me, let me know, I’ll be reproducing with your wife.
Perhaps you have already caught his inconsistencies. He’s demonstrated that as Aquinas says, he recognizes gradations – approximations to a perfect. He recognizes a “perfect” atheist, for he chides other atheists for being “inferior” – not as good an atheist as he is. He also recognizes gradations in quality of life: he’d prefer not to be incarcerated for practicing an amoral lifestyle. He also recognizes he has freewill, for he has elected to deny the impulses of his “greedy little genes” in order to avoid incarceration. The only thing he hasn’t noticed is his selective attention. He has correctly drawn the conclusion that atheism means all things are permitted. Yet he remains ignorant of the fact that his mere recognition of an approximation to a perfect immoral being implies the existence of God. For just as he is trying to approximate a pure atheist, surely he recognizes there are those running the process in the opposite direction: trying to approximate a perfectly pure being. That being would of course be God. The irony of course being that he is living his life, and has defined categories in his life (superior/inferior; better/worse etc.) according to the gradations of a moral order which he denies exists. A moral order that can only exist if God exists.
In passing, our atheist friend also illicitly (according to his worldview) speaks about “purpose” – even if it is at the level of his DNA. Check the above quote from Dawkins. Purpose in the universe is not allowed atheists and evolutionists. Nor is it allowed (in any worldview) in inanimate objects like DNA. As soon as you start talking purpose in inanimate objects, you’re into Aquinas’ fifth way of knowing God exists – by the guidedness – or purpose apparent in inanimate objects. Aquinas’ example is an arrow – an inanimate object – which nevertheless achieves the purpose of hitting a target. Not by it’s own means or purpose, but by the purpose and direction of the archer shooting the arrow. Likewise for DNA. The only way DNA could have the purpose to “make more of themselves” – is if a creator directed that purpose in inanimate DNA just as an archer sets the direction of an inanimate arrow.
So our atheist in all his supposed atheistic sophistication, affirms by how he thinks and lives that there is both a moral order, and that purpose is observed in inanimate objects. The only way there can be a moral order, is if there is a creator of the moral order, and the only way inanimate objects like DNA can tend toward a purpose is if they’re designed or set in motion by an intelligence with purpose. In both cases we’re describing God.
This framework should cover most of the claims against the moral argument. For example the “I can be moral without God” claim may appear true, but what this person is really doing is denying objective morals exist. Introduce him to his fellow denier in category #4 who would kill him and “reproduce with his wife” if he thought he could get away with it.
So while many may claim that the moral argument doesn’t work and is unpersuasive, it is in fact one of the most powerful testimonies for God’s existence because of its universal application in the lives of all people – whether they recognize it or not. Someone may deny objective morals and the source of such morals. But upon careful examination, you’ll find (as we did above) that those who claim to deny the moral argument will be exposed to be living and thinking according to the moral order – which is impossible without the existence of morals and the source of such morals. You’ll also likely see fallacious arguments (e.g. selective attention, missing the point), and implicit concessions to other arguments for the existence of God (e.g. an implicit recognition of the argument based on purpose – the teleological argument) as we saw above.
To the many out there in denial about the existence of the moral order and its creator – I wouldn’t be quick to boast about that. Instead, here’s a word to the wise:
“let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD.”
1. The character who voices the sentiment (Ivan Karamazov) appears ambivalent about the proper conclusion, but the implications are clear and this has become understood to be an implicit argument for the existence of God. For further detail, see
Andrei I. Volkov, “Dostoevsky Did Say It: A Response to David E. Cortesi (2011)“, The Secular Web, 2011, https://infidels.org/library/modern/andrei_volkov/dostoevsky.html
4. Jonathan McLatchie, “The Moral Argument for the Existence of God“, Cross Examined, 17 July 2012, http://crossexamined.org/312/
As this appears on Frank Turek’s apologetics site, though not written by Turek, he presumably supports the argument.
5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Volume 1 The Existence of God Part One: Questions 1-13, Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1969 pp. 69-70
7. Doug Powell, Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics, Nashville,TN: Holman Reference, 2006, p.82
8. Paul Kengor, Gorsuch Understands Natural Law.
9. Stephen Hawking, ref from John C. Lennox, God and Stephen Hawking – Whose Design is it Anyway, Oxford, London: Lion, 2011, p. 79
Hawking does concede however, that human behavior is so complex it’s impossible to predict and thus in practice they work with the theory that we effectively have free will.
10 Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode “Genes”, TV drama, 22 March 2017
11. For more on these categories, see:
Doug Powell, Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics, Nashville,TN: Holman Reference, 2006, 71-81
12. J. Warner Wallace, “The Inevitable Consequence of An Atheistic Worldview“, Cold Case Christianity, 14 January 2014, http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/the-inevitable-consequence-of-an-atheistic-worldview/
13. Richard Swinburne, ref from, Robert Kuhne Closer to Truth episode “Fallacies in Arguing For God”, The Kuhn Foundation Documentary, 2016
14. Richard Dawkings from River Out of Eden (1995) ref from: Wikiquote, accessed 3/30/2017
15. See for examples studies of Chimps where rape – or more precisely “male sexual aggression” against females – is common.
Tia Ghose, “Male Sexual Aggression: What Chimps Can Reveal About People“, 13 Nov 2014
16. J. Warner Wallace, The Inevitable Consequence
17. J. Warner Wallace, The Inevitable Consequence
18. J. Warner Wallace, The Inevitable Consequence
19. Aquinas’ fifth way is a teleological argument. Speaking of inanimate objects, Aquinas says, “Everything in nature, therefore, is directed to its goal by someone with intelligence, and this we call ‘God.'”
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, p. 70
Featured: “Das Gestz des Starkeren” (loosely – “The Law of the Jungle”) © Photoza | fotolia