Every person has a moral compass. This is an individual’s ability to discern between right and wrong and act accordingly. They have a standard that encourages or curbs behaviors so they can try and meet the standard as closely as possible. This compass directs their beliefs, values, and actions in life just as a compass points someone north so they can find their bearings and head in the right direction. It helps them to navigate in this world just as a compass helps the hiker navigate unsure and unfamiliar terrain toward a desired destination. And the moral compasses of individuals inform the moral compass of cultures.
All cultures throughout history have had a standard of good and bad, right and wrong. They also have had an explanation for that standard. Whether they believe the standard came from God, human beings, nature, society, genetics, or some other place, all cultures have believed some behaviors are good and others bad. But where does this standard come from? Where do governments derive the principles and laws that are to govern society and promote the good of humanity? What is the foundation for decent human behavior?
While there is some variance between individuals and cultures in regard to morality, there is actually much more agreement than disagreement when it comes to right and wrong. In the appendix to his book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis gives examples from many different cultures and individuals throughout history that have promoted moral goods and prohibited moral evils. These range from ancient Egyptian, Jewish, and Chinese sayings, to Greek, Norse, and Hindu sayings, to the sayings of individuals like Cicero, Homer, and Locke. Across time and culture there is the promotion of love, honesty, justice, protecting and preserving human life, caring for family, and more. There is the prohibition of murder, lying, adultery, stealing, general harm against others, and more.(1) The general moral consensus is evident and there appears to be an objective moral standard that all know.
This standard is an overarching moral law which all people can recognize and is binding on all people. Because of it there is a general consensus concerning how humans should behave and what is appropriate to do and not do in regards to morality. This has been called a number of different things; “Moral First Things,” “Foundational Principles of Practical Reason,” “Traditional Morality,” or “Natural Law.” All of these refer to the same overarching moral principles. This law is “natural” because it was traditionally thought to be known by all people by nature of their very being and did not need to be taught. It is considered “law” because it is binding on all humans just as a law put in place by a government is binding on all who live in that particular country.
Lewis on the Natural Law
C.S. Lewis discusses the natural law in both The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity. He referred to it as “the Tao” to indicate that it was a universal principle that had long been agreed upon and was evident in many different religions and philosophies. He attempted to debunk different approaches to morality which relied on utility, progress, instinct, etc. and assert that there is a moral code which applies to all humans, and which all should follow.
In the beginning of Mere Christianity he discusses how there is a standard of human behavior which all people find reasonable. People quarrel about the behavior of others when it inconveniences them and appeal to some standard that they agree the other person should know about. He says that, “quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are.”(2) Since he wrote this book during the time of World War II, he made the point that if there were no standard of human behavior, or natural law, then all of the comments about the war being just or unjust were ridiculous. In the absence of the objective morality of the natural law all one can say about World War II is that they disagreed with some of the things that went on, not that true moral evil was done.
In The Abolition of Man he argues against those who reject an objective moral code and try to find the reason for morality from other places. Some during his time were saying that what one should or should not do came from humanity’s natural instinct. But he said, “Why ought we to obey instinct?” These people were making a fallacy by deriving an “ought” from an “is.” Observing a reality (an “is”) does not logically lead to a moral obligation to do or not do something (an “ought”) in accordance with the reality. Just because humans have certain impulses to do something does not mean that these impulses should be followed. Also, instincts oppose one another. So, how do you choose one over another? By choosing to follow one rather than the other presupposes the natural law because it provides the moral grid to endorse some instincts as better than others. “If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn from them.”(3)
Certain “innovators” who denied the natural law would make statements about what would preserve society and that these things should be implemented. But Lewis asks, “why ought society be preserved?” They, of course, cannot give an answer without appealing to the Tao. Without the Tao there is no way to determine what is right or wrong, or why a life or society is valuable. Indeed, without the Tao nothing is valuable. “It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.”(4)
This appeal to natural law even found its way into his fictional work. In The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood to ensure that the man whom he is in charge of tempting is not, “allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them.”(5) The natural law is the source of all value and moral judgments and all people know it on some level. It is self-evident.
The Self-Evidence of the Natural Law
This is because certain truths, when presented and explained, are universally agreed upon. “Do what is good and avoid what is evil,” “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you,” and the two great love commandments (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself”) all contribute to the make up of the natural law and are self-evident.(6) That is, as soon as the terms and concepts are explained and understood, the whole truth is immediately agreed upon. This is particularly evident when it comes to genuine moral evils: rape, torturing children, racism, and ethnic cleansing are all wrong. When one understands what these terms refer to they quickly agree that to partake in these activities is evil. For someone to disagree with this does not call into question the existence of objective morality, but, rather, that person’s ability to apprehend, or their desire to follow, the natural law.(7) It is because of this universal self-evidence that the natural law is so powerful.
The Argument for God as the Source of Objective Morality
But can the natural law exist without the existence of God? Can our innate moral compass be explained in another way? Philosopher William Lane Craig has a simple philosophic argument for the existence of objective morality and God as the source of it:
1. If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist.
2. Objective moral values do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.(8)
We can see clearly that premise 2 is correct. This does not mean that everyone has always agreed on everything when it comes to morality. But that there are foundational moral principles which all people know and are obligated to follow. Since this is the case, we must ground the existence of these moral principles in someone or something. It is hard to imagine moral values like Love or Justice just existing as abstract truths apart from a personal God. And even if they did, why would we be obligated to love one another or enact justice? We have no moral duties to act in a certain way apart from God because the duty to do or not do something is a duty that we owe to a person. If God does not exist, to whom are we morally accountable? Since we know objective moral values exist and that there is an obligation placed on us to live in accordance with these values, it makes the most sense that the source of objective morality is a personal God.
So, Can We Be Good Without God?
No. We cannot be good without the existence of God because without Him there is no basis to say that anything is good or bad. If God does not exist all that is left is personal preference for behavior, not objective morality. You cannot declare any action to be objectively wrong or evil. You can only say that you don’t like, or you disagree with, someone’s actions because they go against your personal preferences. As Fyodor Dostoyevsky has put it in his book The Brothers Karamazov, “If God does not exist…then all things are permitted.” Now, you of course do not have to believe in God’s existence or the God of the Bible to do morally good things (some atheists are far more loving, caring, and generous than some Christians), but the existence of objective good and bad, right and wrong, points to the existence of God who is the source of all morality.
This truth provides an answer to the famous Euthyphro dilemma, which comes from Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. The question is posed—Does God will something because it is good or is something good because God wills it? If it is the first case, morality seems to exist independent of God, which we have already shown to be false. If it is the second case then morality appears to be arbitrary. God could have willed evil things like murder to be good instead of bad. But this is a false dilemma and there is a third option: God wills something because He is good.(9) What is right is derived from God’s perfect, holy character, and what is wrong is that which goes against God's character. Therefore, He wills good things in accordance with His perfectly good nature, and prohibits evil things because they go against His perfectly good nature.
Tying This in to the Apostle’s Creed
The truth of objective morality is found in the Apostle’s Creed because it is found in the Bible. The Apostle’s Creed states that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42) and that all Christians believe in “the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus will judge every person who has ever lived by the standard of His perfect, holy nature (Acts 17:31), which is made known to us at least in part through the natural law. All people know the difference between right and wrong and that they should do right and avoid wrong. But we also know that we are incapable of this because of our sinful nature. Thus, we are all guilty of sin and are in need of forgiveness.
The most well known passage that supports all of this is Romans 1 and 2. Here the apostle Paul talks about how the Gentiles—those who do not know God and are unbelievers—still stand condemned before God because of their sin because what is right and wrong is clearly evident to all people. This is where the phrase “the law written on their hearts” comes from. This law is evident to and binding on Christians and non-Christians alike. J. Daryl Charles says, “Deep within the human conscience we discover a “law”—a law we did not create and yet are obliged to obey. To be distinctly human is therefore to act as a moral agent, to act reasonably and to act accountably.”(10)
And yet we are incapable of obeying this law. We should act accountably, but we cannot because of our sinful nature. We all know how we should live and yet none of us live that way. Therefore, we all stand rightly condemned by God because we have missed the mark of living up to His holy standard. This is why Paul’s argument culminates in Romans 3:23 with, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We cannot do anything to save ourselves and need someone to intervene to bring forgiveness and salvation.
And Jesus has done this for us! Paul continues in Romans 3:24, “and are justified by his [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” All who receive God’s gift of His Son Jesus in true saving faith are forgiven and declared righteous. While we could never live up to God’s holy standard, Christ did that on our behalf by living a perfect life in obedience to God’s Law and perfect submission to God’s will. He died on the cross as a sinless sacrifice enduring the penalty that we deserve for our sins and was raised from the dead victorious over sin and death. Those who place their faith in all that Christ has done for us are forgiven and saved. This is all a gift of God’s grace that is received by faith, not worked for (Eph. 2:8-9).
It is those who are in Christ who will be able to stand when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead. All will be judged according to God’s holy standard, but only those who are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) through faith will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34) because they have the perfect righteousness of Jesus, who lived up to God’s righteous standard for us because that is something we can never do. But those who have not placed their faith in Jesus still stand condemned for sinning against a holy God and failing to trust in His only Son. These people will hear Jesus say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Praise God that He has made a way for us when we could not make a way for ourselves!
Our Moral Compass Points Us To God
Our innate moral compass is yet another reason to believe in the existence of God. As compasses point us north and enable us to navigate toward a destination when hiking, our moral compass points us to God and His word. There we find how we are called to live as those made in the image of a holy God, and yet cannot because of sin. There we find what Jesus has done for us at the cross so that we can be forgiven, saved, and able to navigate life in this world as disciples of Christ. While we still fall short of God’s holy standard daily, we are united to the One who perfectly upheld and fulfilled that standard on our behalf. Therefore, we have no reason to fear the Day when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead because we will be blessed by the Father, receive the inheritance that is ours in Christ, and we will get to enjoy eternity in the immediate presence of our Savior.
-By Kevin Tapscott
1. C S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 83-101.
2. C S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 4.
3. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 36.
4. Ibid., 43.
5. C S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 125.
6. Jean Porter, Natural and Divine Law: Reclaiming the Tradition for Christian Ethics, Saint Paul University Series in Ethics (Ottawa, Ont.: Novalis, 1999), 92.
7. William Lane Craig, “Five Reasons Why God Exists,” in God: A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, ed. William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 21.
8. Ibid., 19.
10. J. Daryl Charles, Retrieving the Natural Law: A Return to Moral First Things, A Critical Issues in Bioethics Series Book (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 43.