Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible

The image of God I received during my 40 years in evangelical churches was overwhelmingly positive. The central message was, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus was our Good Shepherd, faithfully leading and caring for his flock. He sent the Holy Spirit to comfort and teach us.

I knew of darker passages in the Bible, but those were not emphasized. I was confident that God was good, so there must be reasonable explanations for the God-ordered genocides, enslavements, and all-around harshness that characterize some stretches of the Bible.

Liberal Christians can chalk up these passages to a not-yet-developed understanding of the divine. Evangelicals like I was don’t have that luxury. We believed that the Bible is God’s Infallible Word, and does not change. So, if God ordered genocide, then the pagan tribe on the receiving end must have deserved it. Biblical slavery? It was more like indentured servitude. God’s punishments were harsh? That’s because he is so holy.

After the upheavals described in Parts 123 and 4 of this series, those explanations did not rest as easily as they once had. I had learned that godly, well-meaning teachers could be gravely mistaken, or even lie.

Once I began to ask questions with a more open frame of mind, the flaws in the old answers were obvious. Also, I started to notice just how many troubling passages there were. I do not wish to catalog them all here. I won’t even refer you to any of the many Websites that list Bible atrocities. You can find them yourself if and when you’re ready. All I want to do is briefly mention the few passages that hit me particularly hard, and how my take on them changed.


I think the first passage where I said, “Hey, wait a minute!” was the entire Book of Job. Through misfortunes ranging from boils on his skin to the deaths of all his children, righteous Job refuses to “curse God and die” as his wife urges him to do. “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away,” the faithful man says.

In my evangelical circles, discussion of this book usually centered on why God allows the innocent to suffer. The somewhat unsatisfying answer is given by God’s extended discourse at the end of the book. After poetically saying, “You’re only human and I’m God. What do you know?” several dozen times, it ends with, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”

OK, but that that doesn’t really answer my question. Why did this innocent man suffer?

Then I noticed that Job’s whole tale of woe got started when God made an entirely gratuitous bet with Satan. God bragged to Satan that Job would be faithful no matter what, and then invited Satan to take everything from Job except his life. Satan hadn’t even been bothering Job until God dared him to afflict him in every way imaginable!

Particularly appalling is that Satan killed Job’s children with God’s permission. We’re supposed to be happy at the end of the book when Job gets replacement children, but, speaking as the father of six, I feel qualified to say that hardly counts.

Why would a just God — to say nothing of a loving one — invite these calamities on a man whom the very first verse of the book calls “blameless“? And do so just for sport! Sport with the devil, no less! And then expect Job to love him without question!?

This article really hit home for me: The God of Abuse. If you only have time to read the rest of this post or that article, please go read the article.


The story of Noah brings to mind images from Sunday School: happy pairs of animals boarding the Ark, or maybe the rainbow God created after the Flood.

Does anyone care that this was also the story where God exterminated all but 8 members of the human race? Allegedly they deserved it, but did they really? How about the six-year-olds who died in frantic terror as the flood-waters swept them away from their familes? Were they so different from the first-graders who died this week in the Newtown school massacre? Or how about the babies at their mothers’ breast? Were they more evil than your baby? For more on the righteousness of God’s judgment on Israel’s neighbors, see my post, Was Slavery God’s Righteous Judgment?

And let’s not appeal to a happy ending in heaven. The Bible doesn’t — not for these wicked people.


Jephthah is a lesser-known hero of the faith, but his story has even more pathos. He promised God that if God would grant him victory in battle, then on his return he would sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever first came out of his house. He was probably figuring it would be the family goat, but his young daughter — his only child — was the first to run out and greet her daddy.

Jephthah allowed his daughter a month to mourn the fact that she would never marry, but then fulfilled his vow, offering her as a burnt, human sacrifice to God.

Sad, right? Too bad he made such a rash vow, right? But, you know, you gotta fulfill your vows to the Lord. Right?

Wait a minute! God could have stopped him! He had done it before, when he tested Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac, then staying his hand just as he was about to slit his son’t throat. (Another nice story, by the way.) Why did God do nothing while Jephthah sacrificed his innocent daughter to him? For that matter, why didn’t God prompt the goat to come through the doorway ahead of Jephthah’s daughter? He had marshaled thousands of animals onto the ark. Was it too much to ask for one goat to come through a doorway? Was there no limit to the dispassionate cruelty of this God?

This YouTube video made quite an impression on me. Like all good satire, it goes a little overboard, but not much.


It is a common but false idea, spread by lazy apologists who have not done their homework, that the Bible does not condone slavery. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, God directly commands Israel to raid distant cities and capture slaves. He even gives specific permission and regulations for sex-slavery.

I have written at length about biblical slavery on this blog and solicited responses from professional apologists and pastors. Although in some cases they promised to reply, none ever did respond for the record. The scandal is simply denied, excused or ignored. Here are links to my posts. As a set, it’s a lot of reading but they will give you an in-depth look at the lameness of the evangelical apologetics I encountered in all the issues I’m only touching on here.

The Handicapped

Compared to the atrocities above, the passage I’m about to cite is minor. However, it was very personal and happens to have been the last straw for me.

In Leviticus 21:16-23, God prohibits people with various physical injuries and deformities from approaching his altar. Huchbacks, dwarfs, the lame, and other people with “defects” would “desecrate” it, he says.

When I read that passage, I thought of two of my children. One of my sons was in the Marines. If his foot had gotten blown off by an IED during service to his country, he would have been a hero to any decent American, but a second-class citizen at God’s Temple.  One of my daughters has a genetic condition that would have made God consider her presence a “desecration.” I’m sorry, but if there’s anyone whom God should welcome at his altar, it’s these two wonderful young people.

I asked some Bible-believing Christians about the passage and they had the predictable excuses but by this time the excuses rang hollow.


Although I had always thought of God as good, the Bible also showed him to be a monster. I saw three ways to resolve the contradiction:

  1. Evil is actually good when God does it.
  2. The God of the Bible exists, but the Bible represents him imperfectly.
  3. The God of the Bible was created in the image of man — specifically, in the image of a superstitious, tribal people who were trying to do right, but had significant moral blind spots.

#1 was a non-starter.

After all I had been through over the previous four years, #2 was too close to more-of-the-same. I was not going to believe anything without evidence, and I didn’t see enough evidence for anything close to the God of the Bible.

#3 seemed by far the most likely. In fact, I felt as if I had no choice to admit it was true.

I was done with evangelical Christianity.

Next time: How it felt to leave my faith.

49 responses to “Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible

  1. Thank you so much for this series of articles! I was also raised in an evangelical home, and left my faith for similar, though less-well-thought-out reasons. I think the two things that made me question my faith the most were: 1. if I had been born and raised Muslim, I’d be Muslim, and 2. what kind of loving God would create rational people, then punish them with eternal torment for following observable facts to their logical conclusions? Neither of those are anything original, but together they made it impossible for me to remain a Christian. I’m grateful to you for describing your path so clearly, and for laying out your thought process. And for thoughtfully engaging those arguing for faith.

  2. i have read your article on why you left evangelical christianity. I think you did not meet the God of the Bible truthfully. What you had was a bit of religion. Admittedly, there are difficult things to understand about the Bible especially the mystery of evil and all the injustice in the world. But that was the price God had to pay for giving man free will. Man chose sin so the consequence was banishment from God. However, God provided a way for humanity to escape ie Jesus. God still loves you. The God of the Bible is real and loves mankind unreservedly. There are so many mysteries in the world and creation but that should not drive you away from God’s love. His ways are not our ways and His thoughts not our thoughts. God bless you.

    • >> [evil] was the price God had to pay for giving man free will.

      I followed the link through your name and saw that you’re with the Sonshine School, in Zambia. Your students have free will, even when they’re at school and under the direction of their teachers. They can choose to obey and learn — or not. However, if one of your students were to steal a knife from the kitchen and begin to stab another student, you would stop him, wouldn’t you? Or, if a student were to wander off-campus and walk into a dangerous area, you would run after him and pull him back — by force if necessary. In other words, you would limit his exercise of free will somewhat. If you, being a mere human being, would take that much care for your students, why should we not expect God, who “is real and loves mankind unreservedly” to do at least as much? (See Matthew 7:10-12.)

      >> I think you did not meet the God of the Bible truthfully. What you had was a bit of religion.

      How can you say such a thing? You don’t even know me!

      Have you read the other articles in this series, plus my series on biblical slavery to which the present article linked? If not, please do so. I think you will agree that I am quite truthful and sincere, and that I had more than “a bit of religion.”

      • What kind of insane illogical answer is that… so god is unable to give man free will without making him perfect… sounds like rubbish to me.

    • Nothing like being dismissive to help you clutch on to your faith. Inability to fairly acess your beliefs isnt going to help you impress god. Try reading the bible and not making excuses for the omnipotent creator of the universe he said what he meant and it is all absurd.

  3. This is a really great series. As an ex-Catholic, my familiarity with the Bible is much less than that of anyone raised in an evangelical faith. Reading it is on my list of things to do just so I can better defend my lack of faith. I find that this series is providing some good starting places and examples of contradictions.

    I just want to make a brief comment on your Option 1 for resolving the god as a monster problem.

    >Evil is good when God does it.

    I think that this is possibly how many Christians resolve this problem. Genocide and murder are shrugged off because they are actually good in some unknowable way. As a commenter above pointed out, “God’s ways are not ours.” It seems that literally that which we find deplorable is not so when it is committed by a “loving” god.

    I find this rationalization by believers to be especially ironic since many believe that atheists cannot have any sort of absolute morality. Atheists are stuck determining right from wrong by nothing more than personal whim. Yet, it would appear the God of the Bible does the exact same thing. And, by extension, his followers would do the same. I think this issue was at the heart of the Euthyphro by Plato.

    • Not only that, but many believers would do things that they would normally classify as ‘evil’ if they truly believed that God wanted them to. Good and evil are defined by most believers I know as “in accordance with God’s will” and “contrary to God’s will”, which means that evil is whatever you believe it is.

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  6. Chalk is what you write with. It’s “chock up passages”, not “chalk up passages”.

  7. I love reading deconversion stories. I went to Bible College a fundamentalist Christian and dropped out an atheist and I’ve never looked back.

  8. This is a very interesting series, thank you 🙂
    As a current Christian it has given me some useful things to think about.

    I’d like to offer a small comment on the final passage you mentioned, the one from Leviticus 21. It seems that the passage is only referring to who can or cannot perform the duties of high priest (decedents of Aaron), rather than who can worship at the temple. It seems like both an issue of ritual cleanliness (festering or running sores) and of a parallel to the animal offerings (Israelites were supposed to only offer animals without blemishes, similarly families offered only those without blemish to God’s service).

    So, it does not seem like as much as an issue to me, especially in a culture where physical defects were often (incorrectly) seen as a sign of God’s disfavor, to limit the high priesthood to those of imposing bearing and good physical health.

    An issue, yes, but not as much of one as if worship at the temple by folks with deformities was forbidden, which is the meaning I took away from your article.

    • I’m glad you found this series thought-provoking, Matthew.

      Regarding Leviticus 21, what I said and what the passage says is that God did not allow people with “defects” to “approach his altar”. I did not say they were prohibited from worship.

      It is true that the passage was directed to the priests and was about their priestly duties, but that doesn’t change the discriminatory intent.

      The rationales you cite, of ritual cleanliness and parallels with perfect offerings, are the common ones. If those were God’s concerns, he had other options than to relegate people with “defects” to second-class status. For example, why couldn’t he have instituted some sort of ceremony by which the handicapped could be declared clean, whole and fit to participate? That would have been both more loving and more just.

      Better yet, why not replace the passage I quoted with something like this: “For the generations to come, none of the descendants of Aaron who has a so-called physical deformity shall be kept from the altar. I, your Lord and God, ‘knit them together in their mothers’ wombs’ (to quote a Psalm that has not been written yet) and I declare all of my handiwork to be good and clean. Those who have injuries acquired after birth shall likewise be welcome, for I am sovereign and have allowed all the events in their lives, to ‘work together for good’ (another passage you’ll be getting from me someday). You shall love your physically challenged brothers as I love them, and shall include them as full and equal participants in worship and service to me.”

      As you said, their culture regarded physical defects as signs of God’s disfavor, so my proposal would not be a good cultural fit. But that’s the point. This passage was one of many that was obviously the product of a particular culture, and not a very enlightened one at that. It seemed to me much less likely that a perfect God would have inspired it, and that’s one of the reasons I Ieft my faith.

      As you said in your final paragraph, Leviticus 21 is not a huge issue. But then, final straw rarely are.

      • Here is the thing: the vast majority of folks are already unworthy to approach the altar as a result of not being a direct descendant of Aaron,
        a much more restrictive (in terms of numbers of people classed as unworthy) rule.

        I agree that placing the additional restriction on who can serve based on physical deformity seems pretty harsh in the context of our modern sensibilities, and also in light of Jesus’ consideration for the deformed, which is plainly evident in the gospels. It does not seem as harsh in the historical context of the time, however.

        If we don’t consider the actions of God in the context of the period on which God was/is acting, lots of things don’t make sense. I hear you on the complaint that there are definitely issues (including, for you, this one) which would seem to contradict the idea that God’s essential, eternal, character lines up with our idea of good and loving.
        It’s something I’ve struggled (and still am struggling) with as well.

        The two places I’ve sort of ended up at (by no means complete or satisfactory, and now slightly off topic, but oh well) are:

        1. Human society changes its ideas about what loving actions mean, and what behavior is acceptable, on a timescale of about 50-100 years. Judging the actions of a eternal God by such a fast-moving meter stick is a little crazy (insert special relativity joke here).

        2. God seems pretty OK with death and human suffering. Everyone dies. Pretty much everyone suffers. So any even somewhat reasonable God
        must not have a problem with that, at all.

        I suspect that because we consider removing (assuaging would be a better word here) someone’s suffering is Good, the suffering itself must be Bad.
        Which does not follow.

        Both of these lines of thinking seem fairly reasonable when considered only at a high level, but pretty noxious tasting (or at least some extraordinarily fine lines to be walked) when one considers the implications on an individual level. As you have pointed out elsewhere, the first point requires that God be OK with slavery (but only in ancient society where slavery was De rigueur) , for example. The second requires God to be OK with (for example) kids getting shot and dying young (but not OK with the shooters actions).
        Both of which are…not really easy to swallow, but maybe steps in a right direction, understanding wise

        • Thank you again for your thoughts, Matthew. The creative and determined thinking you’ve put into your proposals brings back memories of my own wrestling with the issues. Even though we are currently on opposite sides of some faith questions, I have to tell you that I feel a real kinship with you. Are you by any chance an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs personality scale (quick test here: http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp)? I am [too].

          I have a feeling that, like Jacob, you will keep wrestling with God until he blesses you … or you decide you’ve only been wrestling with yourself all along. However it turns out, you will always have my respect for fighting as tenaciously as you are. Please stop by again and let me know the outcome.

          Wherever your journey takes you, I wish you joy and peace, my friend.

          • INTP or ENTP, depending on the day, but usually more INTP, although that online test scores me as an INTJ. Strange.

            Anyhow, thanks for your thoughtful response! I may formulate some longer form responses to some of the interesting points you raise in this series and post them on the internet somewhere. If I do so, I could send you the link?

          • Not only could you send me the link, but you could leave it here in a comment for all to see!

  9. Yeah, I stopped believing in God of the Bible when I read parts of Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Psalms. I admit that I didn’t read the whole bible, but when I did go to the parts largely ignored by average Christians I was pretty shocked. I was shocked that God took away Ezekei’s wife away so he can command the prophet to use his mourning of his wife as a symbol of God mourning for Israel. I even asked my Dad why God would do it, his only answer was “AS long as God chooses the prophet, the prophet is responsible”, which I didn’t find emotionally convincing. I also came across the part when the woman’s hand was chopped off because she accidentally touched the one of the man’s genitals as she was trying to stop the fight. I occasionally read Psalms, but almost every few chapters I will always heard the author(s) of psalms asking God to avenge his lost, and then praise God for doing so. This surprised me because it seems to be contrary to Jesus’ teaching of loving your enemies by turning the other cheek (i.e. abstain from vengence). I have to say that after reading that passage it really changed my whole viewpoint on God of the Bible: A highly anthropomorphic, sadistic, vengeful, and psychopathic being. I didn’t stop believing in the existence of God, I only thought the bible was imply a anthropomorphic caricature of God due to limited understanding of the nature of God. Eventually, I stopped believing.

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  13. It even says somewhere in Exodus the Lord actually made people with disabilities. That is one sick God. I am homosexual and I have Asperger’s and would not wish it on anyone. I also love Beagle’s.

  14. ok Larry I won’t read anymore of this after reading your summation of Jephthah I totally understand you are “walking in the dark!” Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter!! Read it. Read it! He vowed her to be as “a burnt offering.” She ran off to weep with her friends for she would never “MARRY” and he would not have a son and no one to redeem his inheritance. Larry, I’m sorry…but I went through something very similar but I didn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. I came to the conclusion that “I” had no idea who God was, not that God is! You’re barking up the wrong tree by reading everyone else’s reasons for not understanding who God is…that abuse article about God being compared to an abusive marriage…WOW! whoever that person is they are damaged goods. Look, let me give you just one piece of understanding…God could only show you who is by creating everything He’s NOT! Light-Dark, Hot-Cold, Love-Fear…the list goes on and on…life without contrast is not life at all. You would never know happy without sad…you were made in the IMAGE OF GOD!!! Have you ever really meditated on this?! Do have any idea what the implications are of “creating” something or someone with “God-like abilities?!!” Ok, your “past” Christian faith taught you that God spoke and the Word became “flesh,” right? Well it did and you have the same ability. Think placebo!! I don’t care if your a Buddhist, Muslim or Christian! However, you best stop thinking like a non-Christian and go to the true scriptures and read and ask God to have mercy on your soul by explaining to you who He is and who you are!!! And I don’t believe in eternal damnation either. Oh, there’s fire all right…some of us are “burning” right now for fire has a positive side don’t you know. Without heat you’d be dead and I wouldn’t be posting this either. Fire was and is used to “REFINE” that which is impure. Fire is only destructive \when it “burns up” that which is useless. When it’s used to preserve it refines and makes things pure. But even man can’t make a 100% pure bar of gold, don’t you know. Larry, I want to challenge you and all of your “followers.” Spend 30 days as follows…no TV, no newspapers or magazines, no internet, no video games, nothing but nature. I challenge you to watch nature, trees, animals, stars(if you live in/near the city, sorry), etc…you’re blog title honors the beagle…God’s message of redemption for mankind is in everything He created…yeah that’s right, ALL of mankind will be redeemed. It’s everywhere and it has been before man ever wrote down one word!!

    Peace on earth and “goodwill” toward men…now that’s the gospel!!

    • Tommy, you encouraged me to read the story of Jephthah again, so I did. In verse 31, he vows to “offer up as a burnt offering” whatever comes out of his house to meet him. As you know, the Law gives very specific instructions on what that meant. In verse 38, he sends his daughter away for two months to weep because of her virginity. The fact that she would never marry was because she was going to die in 2 months; it was not because her father had decided to fulfill his vow in some figurative sense at which the text never so much as hints. I once attended the memorial service of a young man who was killed in Afghanistan. His father gave a eulogy, and the part at which he really lost it was when he lamented that his son would never marry. That is what was going on in our story. Getting back to the text at verse 39, the girl returns to her father “who did to her according to the vow which he had made.” What was his vow? Is it not plain from verse 31 that it was to make a burnt offering of her? I don’t know how this could be any more clear. Our problem as we approach this text in the 21st century is that its plain, barbaric meaning is nearly inconceivable … until we remember that child sacrifice was common in Old Testament times (even if it wasn’t common among the Hebrews themselves).

      I appreciate the good will behind the other things you said. Believe me, I tried nearly all of it. It didn’t work for me.

  15. Curious phrasing: “Evil is actually good when God does it.” I would have expressed this possibility much more straightforwardly as: “God exists, but is not Good.” If God is not good, then various paradoxes like slavery, slaughters, and the way that God seemed to change between the old and new testaments are solved, without the need to conclude that God does not exist, or even that the God of Christianity does not exist.

    A God who is not good can do evil, and can lie. So when he says he is perfect, or that he is the same “yesterday, today, and forever”, it is no paradox, it is simply a lie. He can still exist–but he’s not trustworthy and not worth following.

    I don’t think “Evil is actually good when God does it” makes much sense, especially if you are including acts that God didn’t actually do. It wasn’t God who slaughtered most of those cities, it was the God’s People. You could alter the hypothesis to “Evil is actually good when God, or God’s people, does it”, but does the phrase “Evil is good” make any logical sense in the first place? Nah, better to just say “God is not good” or, to be blunt, “God is evil”.

    Christians, and indeed all humans, tend to conflate lots of issues. It turns out we can separate questions like “Is there a God?” into lots of separate questions that can be answered independently, such as:

    “Is there a creator?”
    “Is there a single creator?”
    “If there is a creator, is he related to the God of the Old Testament? The New Testament? Both?”
    “If there is a creator, is he good? evil? perfect? And what do these questions mean exactly?”
    “Is there life after death? If so, in what way, or what sort?”
    “Do we have souls?” If souls can exist only if created by a creator, we immediately have reason to ask: doesn’t the creator have a soul? Then who created the creator?

    I suppose I used to need God to explain why I have a soul. Having broken apart the issue into different parts, I can understand that my having a soul doesn’t prove the Christian God is either real or good. I must admit it bothers me, though, that I have no assurance of continuing to exist after death. Who wants to die forever? No wonder people stay Christian.

  16. The term “God” has so many meanings implying a mix of good and evil that I find it a difficult term to use. I have decided to use “the Creator”, but sometimes I forget. That term also carries some baggage, but is better than “God”. I believe in a loving, benevolent Creator, but it seems that I must spend a paragraph to define the term whenever I use it. Maybe after we are all dead, but if we still exist we will know what God is and who Christ was/is.

  17. Assume there is only one pathway to the appearance of the human genome.

    If…and as far as we know…. there is only one pathway to the appearance of the human genome….. then everything that has happened on earth, would have to occur in exactly the same order and under the exactly the same circumstances in another world, in another galaxy, in order for another set of the human genome to exist.

    This other world would have to recapitulate our cenozoic, mesozoic, paleozoic epochs. dinosaurs would have to be made extinct by a meteor etc. etc. etc.a lineage of primates would have had to evolve form a trembling marsupial etc, etc, etc….we are the only humans in the universe…..there are no other extra-terrestrials….we are unique….

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  19. all of you have been influenced by what you read. take away the reading bit & you would think like myself !
    I believe in a creator . stop — everything added to that is what we have read , been taught , or imagined ! ” we just know ” all beliefs is a “guess”

  20. Reformed Trombonist

    You’re holding God up to a standard, a moral yardstick, and finding Him wanting.

    It’s fair to ask, where do you get your yardstick?

    There are two main possibilities:

    1. Let’s call it “the moral code”. The moral code is real. It is objective. It is absolute. It is authoritative. If it is not one of these things, it isn’t any of these things.

    2. The moral code is subjective. It is ‘real’ only in the sense that your thoughts and dreams are real, as it is a result of the human mind, or possibly some sort of indifferent or immoral god. If it is subjective, it is also not absolute, as it will change as minds change. It’s hard to see it as authoritative in any absolute sense; when minds change, then the moral code changes, so what was wrong last year is right this year.

    Postmodernists will argue that all perception is subjective, and we can concede that point and still maintain that “objective” and “subjective” are two different things and each imply two different realities.

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume the moral code is real, objective, absolute, and authoritative. Now, how is that possible without a Creator who is real, objective, absolute and authoritative? Did the Big Bang create it? Is it present in physics? Are there scientific instruments that can detect its presence in anything? I’d say, no. Yet if its existence is objective, it must objectively exist somewhere, right? Buddhists would suggest it is an attribute of the universe itself, but they can’t seem to specify what sort of form it would take — the physics of Buddhism haven’t been fleshed out very well.

    We can’t rule out that the moral code is some sort of impersonal supernatural phenomenon, but since it’s supernatural, believing in it requires faith. Furthermore, presuming God exists, by holding God up to that standard (and finding that He falls short), you’d be insisting the moral code itself is higher than God — that it actually transcends God. That’s how moral authority works: it must come from a higher place. By calling God on the carpet for the awful things the Bible says He’s done, you’re going even further and saying that, morally, at least, you are coming from a higher place than God, your Creator.

    The Euthyphro Dilemma touches on all this. Are things morally good because God decrees it, or does God decree it because it is good? The former part of the dilemma implies the good is arbitrary; the latter part implies Something that is higher than God, something that God didn’t create.

    Now let’s take the other side: for the sake of argument, assume the moral code is subjective, therefore it is an invention of man’s. This follows from the naturalist or materialist view of nature and is what the evolutionists argue: certain behaviors have helped us survive and become successful as a species, and one of them is this instinctive notion of right and wrong. If this narrative is true, then good and bad don’t really exist; the moral code is an illusion born of instinct and (some) reason. It is true that humans, like apes, nurture their young. It is also true that we tend reciprocate when someone does something nice for us, like apes — do unto others, etc.

    However, it is also true that humans kill each other. We torture each others. We starve each other. We even eat each other. Our cruelty seems to know few, if any, bounds. So, how do we determine that nurturing is better than cannibalism? Lots of successful species engage in cannibalism — for all we know, it was an integral component of their success as species.

    What naturalistic evolution is missing is the yardstick. There is some criteria by which we judge nurturing and reciprocating pleasant acts as good, and cannibalism bad. The question is, where does that yardstick comes from? I don’t think it’s complicated: we see our own preferences as our moral yardstick, and most people, most of the time, like the pleasant behaviors and dislike the unpleasant ones. This forms a consensus over time, and our instincts tell us these preferences are in fact moral.

    But now, you and I see through that, right? If the moral code takes the form of preferences, then right and wrong don’t really exist. It’s an illusion — an illusion that helps our species survive, perhaps, but still just an illusion.

    Back to the Euthyphro paradox, now: Islam would say the good is that which is Allah’s will. But we know through the writings of the Koran that Allah can be arbitrary. You can be a faithful Muslim your entire life, and still wind up in hell because Allah was having a bad day when you happened to die. That’s why virtually all Muslim prayers are prayers for mercy.

    Christianity solves the dilemma. The good is God’s will, and He wills it because it is good. Both are true. This is only possible because, as Jesus explains, the scriptures can be summarized as: Love the Lord with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. The Greeks like to talk about “the Good” as if it is some unknowable abstract thing, but the Jews were much more concrete. The essence of the moral code is the building and maintaining of loving relationships. At its core, the moral code defines the relationship between the persons of the Holy Trinity, who have been together for all eternity, who always love and respect each other, and want us to model our lives after their relationship.

    There is no way for morality to be objective unless my definition of the good is true. If the moral code is absolute, then relationships must have always existed, eternally, and omnipresent in a Being in relationship to which there is nothing that is higher.

    Allah fails this test: in concept, he is a monadic god (one person, one God) and relationships did not always exist — and the only relationships he has is with his own creatures. He’s higher than they are, so he can be as arbitrary as he wants.

    So, to summarize:

    1. If you believe in an absolute moral code, and you don’t believe in the Christian God, you need to explain where it comes from and what makes it absolute.

    2. If you don’t believe in an absolute moral code, there is little reason to be offended that Christians believe in a God who behaves in a manner not in accordance with your mere preferences. You can be offended, of course; that’s a preference too. There’s just no reason for it. If you’re a materialist, all posturing about morality is just animal behavior.

    If you fall into some other category, would love to hear your defense of it.

    • Thank you for reading to the end of this series, Reformed Trombonist. Having read your comments, I feel a certain kinship with you. I once said to a new friend, “I want to know the truth, and I want to do the right thing. That’s all there is to know about me.” I get the sense that that’s true for you as well. Like me, you prefer a worldview that is consistent, logical and, ideally, objective. If I may say so, I think that if we had gone to the same church in my church-going days, we would have been best friends.

      You were interested in what I believe about a moral code. If I believe it’s absolute, then where did it come from? If I don’t believe it’s absolute, then what grounds do I have to be offended that the Christian God has not behaved according to my mere preferences?

      The enduring quest of my life has been to understand the nature and origin of morality. I have not yet arrived at my goal, although I hope I am getting closer. The best definition of morality I can give at this point is “that which promotes the flourishing of sentient beings, both overall and individually”. I acknowledge that this leaves a lot of room for argument. For example, what does it mean to “flourish”? A gay man may say that he can only flourish if everyone accepts his sexual orientation; a conservative Christian may counter that affirming and accepting someone’s sin is not helping him to flourish. And what do I mean by “overall” flourishing? To borrow an example from one of your comments, if a sexual predator gains 100 “flourishing points” in his own estimation by abusing a girl who thereby loses 99 points, has he done something good?

      These questions do not have pat answers. We must argue over them. The moral argument over sexual predation might bring in other facets of flourishing besides mere pleasure, such as principles of freedom and agency, with the victim’s advocates saying that a society where these are valued as over-arching principles will have more overall flourishing than one in which individuals get to do whatever they want according to their own calculus of pleasure. They might also point out that the predator does not truly flourish with his actions, or at least that his flourishing would markedly increase if he were to re-order his life.

      I have come to believe that this process of argument is the key. We tend to think of argument as a bad thing, but here I think it is almost our salvation. You mentioned William Wilberforce. It was because of his arguments and the arguments of many others that society made moral progress on the slavery issue. It was not because a Book clearly said that slavery was wrong. (Wilberforce may have cited the Bible, but surely we can agree that the Bible was far from clear on the matter; otherwise, why did people have to read it for eighteen centuries before its supposedly clear message dawned on them?) The arguments that carried the day were broadly philosophical, not exclusively biblical. If you want a great read that explores the role of argument in moral progress, try Plato at the Googleplex. It is one of the best books I have ever read and I think you would enjoy it.

      So do I believe in an absolute moral code? If you are asking whether I believe that some things are always right/wrong for everyone in all places and all times, then yes, I do believe there are such things. For example, when you help someone else, both you as giver and the other person as receiver are blessed; flourishing increases for all. Sharing is clearly good (assuming you do not thereby deprive someone else). That will be true for all people, places, and times.

      However, I think that there are fewer absolute rules than you or I (as consistent, logical people) might like. For example, we might wish to say that lying is always wrong. Well, what if you had lived in Germany during WW II and the Gestapo came to your door and asked, “Are there any Jews in your house — yes or no? You are a person of good reputation. If you tell us ‘No’ we will search elsewhere, but if you say ‘Yes’ you must hand them over.” Suppose you had some hiding under your bed at that very moment. What would be the right thing to do: lie about it, or give them up?

      And here’s something that is under-appreciated. Even Christians who look to the Bible and the Holy Spirit as their infallible guides to the moral code struggle to know what’s right. And I don’t mean in specific life-situations like the Gestapo at your door, but right as general principles. Witness the disagreement among Bible-believers on all of today’s important issues: sanctuary to illegal aliens, income redistribution, capital punishment, homosexuality, and even abortion. There are Christians arguing from the Bible on both sides of each of those issues. My point is that even those who strongly believe in an absolute moral code (and even believe that it is written in an actual book!) have a hard time knowing what it is, even broadly.

      I actually dislike the phrase “moral code” because it sounds like a list of rules. Morality is more complicated and difficult than applying rules. As much as you or I might prefer otherwise, it is often situational.

      Jesus said that the entire moral code could be boiled down to “love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Does this statement entail an absolute moral code? Maybe, but it certainly leaves a lot of room for situational interpretation. It’s similar with my definition based on flourishing: it’s an absolute statement that requires lots of tussling over situation details.

      My concept of morality is not grounded in a God, nor in personal preference. It’s grounded in a definition of morality, which, although it is my own, is a pretty serviceable one with broad appeal. (That is, I did not craft it for my own benefit.) I hope that answers your question.

      Again, thanks for stopping by and for your thoughtful comments. You have my best wishes for your quest for truth and justice.

      • Reformed Trombonist

        Well, you are certainly the most polite antagonist I’ve ever come up against in debating Christianity, if “antagonist” is the right word.

        > The best definition of morality I can give at this point is “that which promotes the flourishing of sentient beings, both overall and individually”.

        You seem to take the moral code for granted. I was asking you, how do you explain it’s existence and (apparent) authority? Would still love to hear the answer to that question. I don’t believe you’ll find a satisfactory explanation in atheism, but there’s a first time for everything.

        > However, I think that there are fewer absolute rules than you or I (as consistent, logical people) might like.

        Well, no doubt. When someone says “morality is absolute”, he’s not necessarily saying that the rules themselves are absolute. Morality can be relative as well as absolute, as long as the absolute is being served. As a very unlikely candidate for moral authority, General Curtis E. LeMay, once said, “There’s a reason for the rules. The reasons are important; the rules are not.” The rules serve a very important reason, or they’re no good. That’s why I try no longer to explain the moral code as an “absolute” vs. a “relative” — it’s too confusing. A *truly* relative morality would be one that is unhinged to any underlying principle — in my world view, there is an absolute *measure* of morals, but the particulars can float around so long as they serve the measure.

        The reasons behind the rules are what I’m asking about. Why is it important to help others, and why should I even care about whether it blesses me somehow?

        It’s hard for me to understand how there could be an absolute measure of morals in a godless universe. I think, someone who has it in him to be an atheist *and* a believer in absolutism has it to explain. How can anything be morally compelling, now and for all time, when time itself has a finite beginning? How can “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” hold any authority if it came from the same place I did, namely, an electrically-charged mud puddle? I don’t ask mud puddles for advice, moral or otherwise.

        Why not take a Darwinist perspective? E.g., survival is the imperative. So, if I don’t help someone, why, the weak perish, the strong survive. Of course, maybe religious belief is somehow linked to evolution — maybe it’s what made humanity strong? We wouldn’t know otherwise. All we would really know is that humanity is (so far) doing something right. It would follow from that, that religion too should not be discarded lightly, even if it’s essentially false. What better leash could our consciences (or lack thereof) than an invisible god that watches every move we make and reads every thought in our heads, and punishes the wicked? People like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have thought we’re past the point where religion is helpful — but how would they know?

        So, a Darwinist can explain why morality exists. He can even explain why people heed it. What he can’t explain is why anyone *ought* to heed it whenever doing so involves some sort of sacrifice.

        Classic example: cheating on exams. Let’s suppose I was a pre-med major at a university, and I have enough self-awareness to realize I could probably be a decent doctor, but I’m not quite competitive academically with the other doctor wannabes. We have set cheating up here is a relatively low-risk, but potentially high-reward situation. If I know I won’t make it into med school on my own legitimate efforts, that makes cheating a low-risk situation: I won’t be prosecuted for cheating, but just thrown out of school. But if my cheating goes undetected, and “awards” me high scores, then I’ll be rich by the time I’m forty, score a major babe for a wife, and enjoy very high status.

        So, with all of that: why shouldn’t I cheat?

        A Christian might say, “I shouldn’t cheat because that is bearing false (positive) witness about yourself, and the Lord says it’s wrong, and doing it while knowing it’s wrong puts a stain on the soul that I’m otherwise trying to prepare for spending eternity with the Lord.”

        A Darwinist might say, “Everyone taking these exams knows what the stakes are, and have every opportunity I have to cheat and make their scores even better. So, if they don’t outscore me, sucks to be them. Winning is what’s important, and I’m a winner. I certainly don’t want them cheating against me! So I’ll tell my fellow students, somberly, nobody should ever cheat. But that’s for the rubes.”

        A Christian might have to pay for his cheating someday, in terms of a hurting conscience, and perhaps even having his sins revealed on Judgment Day.

        A Darwinist may be less likely to suffer, as none of those consequences follow from his most deeply-held beliefs. What we call “conscience” is just an attitude left over from man’s struggle to survive, a mere instinct, and it’s unhelpful in his current situation.

        > I have come to believe that this process of argument is the key. We tend to think of argument as a bad thing, but here I think it is almost our salvation.

        Argument is important. But argument is not truth. At its best, it can only serve the truth, but it can serve a falsehood as well. The question is, why does truth matter? And that’s a moral question.

        • >> You seem to take the moral code for granted. I was asking you, how do you explain its existence and (apparent) authority?

          Based on my working definition of morality, the moral code exists simply because there is such a thing as the flourishing of sentient beings. But how to explain its apparent authority — there’s a good question! As you put it later, “Why is it important to help others, and why should I even care about whether it blesses me somehow?” (emphasis mine). I wrote a short series of posts on that very subject. The introduction is here, and the two most relevant to your question were Why Care About Anything at All? and Why Care About Right and Wrong?.

          I would add something that I hinted at in the third post of that series: the moral code has such apparent authority for us because it has literally been bred into us. Although you might think that evolution would drive us to be selfish, it happens that ecological niche that we have evolved to fill is “physically weak creature with a big brain, that can only survive by cooperation.” People who do not play well with others have lost their place in the gene pool.

          That is one reason why we feel most happy and fulfilled (flourishing) when we do the right thing: it’s what we’re bred to do. We might look at a pack of sled-dogs and wonder, “Why do they want to run all the time? Isn’t that a lot of work? I’d much rather do something relaxing.” But they have been bred to run, so that is what they love. A believer looks at an atheist and wonders, “Why could he possibly want to do good? Wouldn’t it be easier to be selfish?” But we have all been bred to cooperate, which is the foundation of morality (doing unto others…).

          So what about that opportunity to cheat in medical school? As you said, a Christian has the motivation of maintaining an unstained soul, and of not being embarrassed on judgment day. I would add that he also wants to please his Lord, whom he loves. A “Darwinist” doesn’t have those motivations, but he does have to look at himself in the mirror every day and he wants to be able to hold his head up. [I had a personal example here but decided to delete it. TMI. Maybe you got it by email.] How strong a motivation is that? I can only say that I am just as honest and caring as an atheist compared to when I was a believer — more so, in some ways.

          >> What we call “conscience” is just an attitude left over from man’s struggle to survive, a mere instinct, and it’s unhelpful in his current situation.

          You’ve put very well how conscience has been bred into us, but I would say it’s still helpful!

          I’ll answer your additional responses over the next couple of days. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the series on Why Care?

          • Reformed Trombonist

            > I would add something that I hinted at in the third post of that series: the moral code has such apparent authority for us because it has literally been bred into us.

            That works fine as an atheist explanation for why morality exists. It fails, however, to explain anything more than an “apparent authority”. Maybe it was bred into us. That doesn’t mean we have to follow it, when it’s more convenient not to.

            When it’s more convenient not to, why should anyone follow it?

            > “physically weak creature with a big brain, that can only survive by cooperation.”

            So let me pose as an atheist who happens to be a reasonable sociopath. My response? I’m fine with everyone else always following these rules. They’re obviously not smart enough to see clearly that they’re just animal behavior and nothing more. Well, I’ve broken the code: I know it’s all an illusion. There is no “should” and “should not” as far as I’m concerned — I’ll determine what my “shoulds” and “shouldn’t” are, thank you very much, based on my needs and my faculties of reason.

            > People who do not play well with others have lost their place in the gene pool.

            [Still posing] And why should I care about the gene pool? I’ll be gone in forty years. The only rational thing for me to care about is how things go for me, personally, for the rest of my life. That doesn’t mean I should never do anything “immoral”, however you define it. It only means, don’t get caught.

            > A “Darwinist” doesn’t have those motivations, but he does have to look at himself in the mirror every day and he wants to be able to hold his head up.

            [Still posing] And, confident in my realization that morals are a mere illusion, I say, if I don’t get into med school, I’ll always be disappointed with myself and never be able to look in the mirror.

            So, I’m going to cheat, and all Beagle can say about it is I’ve ruined things for my prospective gene pool. Oh boo hoo! 🙂

            This view can be reduced to just a couple of facts:

            1. There are no eternal consequences to anything I do.
            2. It is therefore reasonable to live life for myself, above all. If I enjoy helping others, I’ll do it, not because it’s right, but because I enjoy it or doing so helps me.
            3. Who cares about the gene pool? I don’t, not should I. It’s a speculative fool’s errand.
            4. I’m fine with others behaving “morally” because that helps me. I like it that stealing from me is considered wrong. I think it’s quaint, and helpful to me.
            5. Naturally, I’ll act like I believe in morals. Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.

            [Posing OFF] Now, I’m not saying that that’s what atheists would do. I’m saying it would make sense for a reasonable person, with little or no empathy for others, to live like that.

            And it isn’t “wrong” in any cosmic or transcendent sense, because, having just categorized morality as animal behavior in humans, we know it’s simply an illusion created by our breeding. Chimps groom each other. They also kill and eat each other. Both are animal behaviors, and the animal behaviorist doesn’t write in his notes, “Subject A generously groomed his best friend and then did something wicked and ate his best friend’s baby.” Animal behaviorists don’t make moral judgments; they just take notes.

            We’re like that too. Sometimes we do something kind; other times we do something wicked. Both are animal behaviors. To say one is better than the other requires a moral yardstick. The Darwinist approach understands we have a moral yardstick, but cannot tell us why we ought to heed it when it gets in our way.

            However, believing in moral’s absoluteness, I say, it is precisely those times when morals get in our way that they must be heeded.

          • That was my favorite comment of yours so far. I laughed out loud when you said, “let me pose as an atheist who happens to be a reasonable sociopath” because the phrase “reasonable sociopath” and the portrait you went on to paint beautifully capture what many people think atheists are. (And thank you for making clear that that’s not your opinion of us.)

            You asked why a reasonable sociopath “should” follow the rules. As you drew out, there are two facets to that word: “should” in the consequentialist sense and “should” in the sense that it’s just the right thing to do.

            When our reasonable sociopath realizes that the moral code is just an illusion and has no claim on him, he is touching on the latter sense of “should”. Were I to have a conversation with him, I would say this: “You’re right. It is just an illusion. So is free will, as I have explained in my posts Free Will and the Water Park and Contra-Causal Free Will. So what are you going to do about that? Are you going to sit around waiting for things to happen to you because you’re just made of molecules that are subject to the laws of physics, which include deterministic and random behavior, but no woo-woo (yet non-illusory) force called Free Will? That would be a shame, wouldn’t it? Yes, it would, as I argued in the third post in that series, Free Will and Fatalism. Many of the best things in life are emergent phenomena, illusory in the sense that they cannot be seen in the actions of the smaller parts from which they’re made, yet still real. Thought itself is an example: your neurons just receive inputs and fire output in response, with nothing that we would call “thought” yet the result is thought, which we would all agree is real. If you’re still not convinced, my sociopathic friend, I wrote a post yesterday called The Morality of the Invisible Hand. Take a look and see what you think.”

            If that were not enough to cause our sociopathic friend to regulate his behavior, we could resort to the other sense of “should”. If he cheats on his exams, he risks being caught and punished. I admit this is unlikely to deter him, and I agree with you that an atheist’s arsenal of threats is far inferior to that possessed by a religion that has all of eternity to carry out its punishments.

            As for the gene pool business, I was not using it as an argument for good behavior. I agree with you that a reasonable sociopath would be justified in saying, “Who cares about the gene pool?” My point was that most of us (sociopaths excepted) have an inbred desire to do the right thing.

            Your last three paragraphs are beautifully put, and I particularly agree with your final sentence. I would only say that you may be underestimating the power that sentence actually has even for a non-believer, at least those who aren’t sociopaths. There are plenty of times when I want to do bad thing X rather than good thing Y but I refrain, and often for very abstract reasons such as “I want society to be as close to Good as possible, and that will only happen if everyone, including me, does his part.”

            One more thing about sociopaths. It’s interesting that we have the concept of “not guilty by reason of insanity.” It’s almost as if we say the moral code does not apply to such people. Nevertheless, the rest of us do feel we have a right to regulate their behavior (e.g., by psychiatric hospitalization) if they won’t regulate it for themselves. Not sure what to make of that, but there you have it.

            I think I’ve responded to your major points, Reformed Trombonist. If I’ve missed something, let me know. This has been fun. Once again, I give you my heartiest blessings (if I may use a Christian word) on your search for Truth.

          • Reformed Trombonist


            > A “Darwinist” doesn’t have those motivations, but he does have to look at himself in the mirror every day and he wants to be able to hold his head up. I will share with you a very personal example.

            A Darwinist, who doesn’t believe in any sort of transcendent moral code, has no objective reason to worry about the consequences of cheating. He knows that notions of morality are simply that and no more. He knows it’s just animal behavior. He’s not worried about the survival of the human species; he’s just worried about getting into med school. Cheating is a perfectly reasonable and rational response to his problem. Rather than beat himself up over breaking a moral taboo, he should congratulate himself for solving his problem and not being handicapped by outmoded, irrelevant attitudes born way back when the species was still struggling to exist.

            He might decide, as you do, that there are other good reasons to be “moral”.
            But that’s his decision to make, not yours, and not some unnamed, poorly-understood “social behavior” gene.

            I’m not saying all Darwinists are immoral (my terminology) or (from a different perspective) willing to free themselves from social norms that are unproductive given their situation. I’m just saying they have no reason not to be, other than, don’t get caught.

            To be a Darwinist (or naturalist, or in Marx’s terms a materialist), you’re not living out your philosophy if you simply adhere to moral norms because that’s how you were raised, or even just force of habit. Empathy/sympathy for others may be a valid reason if you don’t like being uncomfortable — but that too raises a question: if it makes you uncomfortable to hurt someone else, maybe the discomfort is the problem, rather than the hurting. If empathy/sympathy makes you unwilling to do something it takes for you to succeed, maybe it’s serving no purpose for you.

            That’s why we evolved brains, right? So we can question things like instinct and sympathy.

            Nietsche greatly despised the English for their culture of manners and ethics. He saw no reason, them having decided that theology was nonsense, for them to cling to the residues Christian belief had left behind. Nietsche thought they should let all that nonsense go.

            Perhaps Nietsche was the one being shortsighted. From a practical perspective, I can think of no better position than to be free from accountability to some imaginary spaghetti monster, and then to live in a world inhabited by people who are afraid to do me wrong because their all-knowing God will punish them, whereas I have no such fear feel no such constraints, but only that I must take some care to ensure I don’t tip off my hand.

            I have posed this question to atheists several times. If you answer the question, your will be the first. All the others responded with a wave of indignation that I would bother with asking a hypothetical question. It is a hypothetical question, of course.

            Let’s say you knew for a fact that there is no God. One day, you’re working on your lawn, and you see a vision. It’s some sort of powerful alien being, who has studied our world extensively. He makes an offer to you:

            “I have been asked by those who sent me to see whether one human could be found to betray his entire race. So here’s my offer: I have the power to extend your life to 10,000 years. You would be immune to disease and invulnerable to any form of death. You would be blessed with great handsomeness/beauty during that entire time, and always in perfect health. You would enjoy a powerful intellect too, plus a charm that will invite admiration wherever you do. You will also be rich beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

            “I can give all that to you. In return for one little thing. In 10,000 years, you will die. And five minutes later, the entire human race follows you into death. Not a one will be left alive. It won’t be painful — they won’t even know it when it happens. They’ll just fall dead in their tracks — everyone, babies, geezers, farmers, factory workers, professors, athletes. And the human race is over.

            “What is your choice?”

            That’s not too far off from Satan’s offer to Jesus. “What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?” Well, we’re assuming there is no such thing as a soul.

            What should you do? Why would you take him up on his offer? Or why should you not?

            We’re all going to die someday. You can’t change that. You can just chose when a lot of them would. The human race might kill itself off by then anyway; it seems more and more likely with each passing day. And humanity will enjoy ten thousand more years at least, and hopefully you’ll be there with them, helping them achieve their own goals with your ages-old wisdom and a perspective second to none.

            If a friend of yours were made the offer instead of you, would you try to talk him out of it? And why?

          • Thank you again for your comments and arguments about morality. I don’t have anything further to say, so I’ll leave the discussion with you having had the last word. However, you did pose a new and intriguing scenario about the alien.

            >> “I can give all that to you. In return for one little thing. In 10,000 years, you will die. And five minutes later, the entire human race follows you into death.” … What should you do? Why would you take him up on his offer? Or why should you not?

            You said, “I have posed this question to atheists several times. If you answer the question, yours will be the first. All the others responded with a wave of indignation that I would bother with asking a hypothetical question.”

            I’m not sure my answer will satisfy you, but I know I can do better than a wave of indignation. I’m all about hypothetical scenarios!

            It happens that I have a life-experience that is just faintly similar to your scenario. Based on my experience, I would decline the alien’s offer.

            For many years, I was a leader of the junior high youth group in our church. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but it’s fair to say that the kids looked up to me. Their admiration was, I’m sure, only a dim shadow of what the alien proposed (“a charm that will invite admiration wherever you go”), but here is the insight to the alien’s proposal that it gave me. During the period when I was filled with doubts about my faith, it was torture for me to lead the youth group. I was giving these kids who looked up to me answers that I did not fully believe myself. I felt like a fraud. I felt that the kids, particularly at that stage of their lives, deserved someone who could give them solid answers and I knew I was not that person. (When I finally resigned, that is what I told them.) Their admiration, rather than being a source of joy for me, was a source of guilt.

            I imagine that my guilt and anguish during the alien’s 10,000 years would be even more acute. I would be one of the most admired people on the planet, yet I would know that I would be the cause of the deaths of billions of their descendants. Everything about the scenario that is supposed to make it attractive would only magnify my guilt.

            It would get worse every year. During the final decades, I would know that I had shortened the lives of not just some abstract billions in the distant future, but the real and living children of everyone I knew and loved, not to mention the equally important children of everyone else. I would live the entire 10,000 years in dread of that final period.

            So, while the alien intended to offer me a personal utopia, I would see it as a personal nightmare.

            Your scenario would make a great episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror. You should pitch it to them!

            Edited to add: Just to be clear, my guilt would not be about the deaths per se. As you said, those would be painless and instant. My discomfort would be over being a fraud. I have lived through not being what people thought I was, and I don’t want to to it again, especially not for 10,000 years. It would also really bother me that everyone around me during those final decades would be filled with hopes and plans that I secretly knew would never come to pass. Not only would my own sense of self be torn apart on account of being a fraud, but I would know that I was the cause of everyone else being decieved not only about me, but about themselves. Awful!

      • Reformed Trombonist

        (Second response)

        > My concept of morality is not grounded in a God, nor in personal preference. It’s grounded in the definition of morality, which, although it is my own, is a pretty serviceable one with broad appeal. (That is, I did not craft it for my own benefit.) I hope that answers your question.

        Well, I guess you did give something of an answer to my question. But as you define it, I’d say it falls under the heading of “preferences”. You would prefer it if people lived up to your view of morals. It doesn’t matter whether you crafted it for your own benefit; you crafted it; ergo, these are your preferences. They may have originated as other people’s preferences, but now they’re yours, too.

        You didn’t explain why anyone else ought to follow what you crafted. Why should a sociopath follow your rules? Or a psychopath? Why should someone completely without empathy or remorse worry about what you think?

        Morals have authority. People believe in them. Why should they? I’m not questioning the rules of a godless moral code. I’m questioning its authority.

      • Reformed Trombonist

        (Third response)

        You’ve given me some suggestions for reading; I’ll give you some of my suggestions.

        I’d be interested in your take on what is called “presuppositional apologetics”. It’s a form of Christian apologetics that takes a different approach than classical apologetics (like St. Thomas Aquinas’s). I’ve run into a lot of commentary online where it’s either dismissed flatly or criticized for begging the question. But that’s sort of their point: we *all* beg the question at some point. We assume it to be true that truth matters. We assume it to be true that argument can help us find the truth. These are things that must be assumed because you can’t prove the validity of proof; you have to beg the question, that proof has validity, and start with that.

        Presuppositionalists question the foundations of such assumptions. If we all come from mud puddles, if we are all just the result of the randomness of physical energy and the collisions of molecules, undesigned from the start, with no god, creator, or inherent purpose — why should we believe that “proof” is anything more than just a mental exercise? And a futile one at that?

        Someone who believes in God can say, “We have a purpose. The Lord made us for His own purposes. Reason has validity because it reflects his vast mind. Love has importance because relationships are the most important things. He gives us principles to live by that help us to build and maintain those relationships so that one day they’ll be like the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we’ll know the greatest joy in all creation.”

        Someone who doesn’t believe in God can say… well, what? “We have no purpose. We’re just the product of random forces, brought together for a bit of time by this thing we call ‘life’, and just as randomly dispersed back into the universe. Some day, the universe itself will end, either to be sucked by gravity back into a singularity, or dispersed widely and its energy dissipated, like the dying sparks of a Roman candle. You may imagine you have a purpose, but it only means anything if it means something to you, since all reality is sensed subjectively.”

        That latter paragraph is where the godless philosophers have taken us — into the moral abyss known as postmodernism.

        I’d recommend reading some passages from Cornelius Van Til and Gary Bahnsen. As a debater, by the way, Bahnsen was second to none, FWIW. My pastor attended one of his debates — he was up against an atheist philosopher who, according to Pastor Ken, was so unnerved he was visibly shaking. Their basic message is this: we can explain why we embrace reasoned debate; you (the atheists) cannot. Reason exists because God exists. Since you believe that God doesn’t exist, you then must account for its existence. Please explain what it is, where it comes from, and why we hold it to be authoritative in our debates. If you can’t, then it would follow we are simply the results of a deterministic physics, and we are no more “debating” anything than we are simply fizzing and frothing at each other like two opened cans of soda.

        • I haven’t read Bahnsen or Van Til, but I have read a little of Alvin Plantigna who, if I am not mistaken, is also a presuppositionalist. I agree with that school of thought when it says that we all necessarily start from somewhere. However, one’s presuppositions do not give one blank check to spin any worldview one pleases from them. In particular:

          1) We must be willing to abandon our presuppositions if they lead us to a logical contradiction, or maybe even to a moral contradiction. I do not say that we must abandon them at the first sign of conflict, but the possibility must exist.

          2) Even when our worldview that is predicated on our presuppositions manages to be consistent, we must ask if other people, with their equally consistent worldviews, might be right and we might be wrong. A physical example rather than a philosophical one comes to mind. Astronomers who believed the Earth was the center of the solar system had to invent more and more convoluted explanations for the observed behaviors of the planets. Ultimately, they had to concede that the heliocentrists’ model was simpler and to be preferred. (Yes, there was a presupposition there that simpler explanations are the best, but that leads to my third point.)

          3) We must be alert to what experience teaches us, particularly when it challenges our presupposition. In the previous example, experience has taught us that simpler explanations usually ARE the best. That’s not a proof, but it’s something to consider.

          I can illustrate all of this with my own experience wrestling with the creation/evolution question. I tried mightily to hold onto my belief that God created the world as the Bible relates in a face-value reading of the text, this belief having been informed by my presupposition of biblical inerrancy, which in turn was predicated on a presupposition that God would not lead his people astray, which in turn was based on the presupposition that God exists and is neither a jokester nor a liar. Just to give you an idea of the extent of my effort at reconciling the abundant evidece of an old Earth with the Bible’s seeming to say otherwise, I even entertained the notion that measuring time was like measuring points in a football game. A referee can say that a touchdown doesn’t count and those 6 points don’t exist, even if the physical evidence on the field says otherwise. His word is the ultimate fact. In the same way (I tried to convince myself), God can say that only 6,000 years have passed even though the physical evidence, including the number of times the Earth had orbited the Sun, says otherwise. It was when I caught myself thinking that way that I realized my presuppositions had been strained to the breaking point and I should reconsider them.

      • Reformed Trombonist

        One more thing, and I’ll leave it at that if and when you respond.

        > “Jesus said that the entire moral code could be boiled down to “love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Does this statement entail an absolute moral code?”

        I know the Greeks well enough to understand that they loved to talk about “the Good” as an abstraction. The Hebrews/Jews saw it as doing God’s will, which they assumed was good. Doing something because someone bigger than you will clobber you if you don’t has little to do with doing good, however. That’s where Islam ends; it’s where Christianity begins.

        What is morality… or, as I call it, what is the moral code? Jesus gave us it to us in His summary of the Torah, but only in concrete terms, because that’s how Jews thought about such things. If we were to phrase it more abstractly, more like a Greek would, we’d say, “Morality is about relationships: building them and maintaining them.” “Love the Lord your God” describes how we should build and preserve a relationship with Him; “Love your neighbor as yourself” describes how we should build and preserve a relationship with our fellow man.

        If I’m right that morality is all about relationships, then that tells you everything you need to know about its absoluteness. If the Christian God is real, then the moral code has existed forever, the way He has. Because the One God consists of Three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then relationships have existed forever, even before He made creatures, even before our universe existed. Because the relationships between the Persons of the Trinity have always existed and always will, that makes morality absolute. It has, does, and will always exist because relationships have, do, and always will.

        But the moral code can’t be absolute if the godless universe is a fact. It must be subjective, existing only in the minds of man (or some similar sentient being) and subject to a continual barrage of changing perspectives. Empathy or sympathy may explain why we often make sacrifices to maintain relationships, or self-interest, or some combination of the two. But there was a time before relationships existed, there will be a time after they existed, and life itself doesn’t guarantee the existence of such relationships. Spiders will gladly eat their mates. Scorpions will eat their own children. They’ve survived just fine much longer than humans. It seems to work for them. The way we do it seems to work for us. That could change, and change again. Under the godless heavens, what we call ‘morality’ is simply an illusion: a bunch of rules that change continually, that only some of us buy into at all, and is much closer to animal behavior than it is to any sort of truth from on high.

        Of course, atheists don’t have to believe in God to believe in God’s moral code. They can see it, because of course it exists. They don’t believe God made cows, either, but they can still eat a hamburger. What they can’t do is explain why we should adhere to the moral code when it gets in our way.

  21. Reformed Trombonist

    Should have added: when it appears to a Bible reader that God is acting in a wicked manner, the first thing we should question is our understanding of the scriptures, not God’s actions.

  22. Reformed Trombonist

    > That was my favorite comment of yours so far. I laughed out loud when you said, “let me pose as an atheist who happens to be a reasonable sociopath” because the phrase “reasonable sociopath” and the portrait you went on to paint beautifully capture what many people think atheists are. (And thank you for making clear that that’s not your opinion of us.)

    Interesting discussion here. I have to admit, if the article is right, when I thought ‘sociopath’, I probably should have been thinking ‘psychopath’.


    I didn’t intend to be humorous, nor insulting. A psychopath could easily, perhaps even more easily, fit into a Christian church than your typical believer. Can such a psychopath be saved? I don’t know. I suppose so. It would depend on whether, I think, he could somehow bring himself to love the Lord and obey Him. I don’t know whether that’s possible. By “love” the Lord, of course, I don’t mean love in the squishy sentimentalism of too many Christian churches. By “love”, I mean making the hard decisions of life in accordance with God’s will.

    Either way, a psychopath could almost certainly fit into practically any setting, church being one of them.

    But back to the point: If memory serves, it was Nietsche who finally let the dirty little secret out that philosophers had rejected God only to find that it meant none of the moral truisms that seemed fitting no longer fit.

    It seems to come down to this: you believe our morals are a result of animal behavior. If that’s your belief, then, really, you shouldn’t be giving lectures on morality, as you did when you parsed through the Bible to point out your notions of God’s immorality. By your own philosophy, the only reason you can give for condemning the way God treated Job is, you don’t like it. You don’t like it because human instinct recoils at what appears to be cruelty… that is, sometimes. Other times, as a species, we practically revel in it. There has to be some yardstick by which to distinguish the things that should make us recoil and the things that should make us revel.

    If God does not exist, then we are the yardstick. If the yardstick is us, then it is not a reliable yardstick. It is certainly not an absolute yardstick. It is certainly not a transcendent yardstick. Nothing transcends anything. It’s just molecules and energy. Period. And the reasonable way to live your life, if this is reality, is 1) to do whatever you think would make you happy and 2) when what makes you happy makes the natives restless, don’t get caught. Morals are just an illusion superimposed by evolution and there’s no sense letting them dictate to us. Follow them, when it is not inconvenient to do so, because you want to blend. But don’t let them constrain you when they stand in the way between you and what you want to accomplish.

    If God does not exist, being a psychopath is rational.

    > We must be willing to abandon our presuppositions if they lead us to a logical contradiction, or maybe even to a moral contradiction. I do not say that we must abandon them at the first sign of conflict, but the possibility must exist.

    Why? All you’re doing here is saying that your presupposition is logic. If logic is the product only of man’s limited mind, why would you suppose that it’s capable of judging the workings of a hypothetical vast and omniscient mind? The presuppositionalists are asking you to explain why logic holds any authority in debate, why it even exists, if there weren’t a logical God whose mind thinks in these patterns? Remember, nothing is transcendent — that’s your world view, not mine. Logic can therefore not transcend our argument and tell us who wins or loses. Logic is just subjective. It lives in physical manifestations of our brains and gives us the illusion that it holds some sort of authority. Another illusion that will die when the last man in existence draws his last breath.

    BTW not every Christian believes that the only proper way to interpret the book of Genesis is a literal reading of it. My own pastor does, but the PCA doesn’t have an official view. My own take is that time is a dimension and therefore part of the Lord’s creation. And so, from man’s perspective, there must be something analogous to time in the Lord’s perspective. “Day” may be the closest way to explain it to a human, but for all we know, a day is a billion years as we humans would objectively experience it.

    As to Adam and Eve: what if there were hominids similar to Adam, but lacking self-awareness or that thing we call a soul?

  23. Reformed Trombonist

    I tried typing this in and it wasn’t accepted for some reason. I’ll try again. I’m going to pose to you, Beagle, a conundrum. I thought of this, but I may not be the first to think of it. Heck, it may not even be very original. I’ll call it Satan’s Conundrum, after the first “person”, so to speak, to make a similar offer.

    Let’s say you’re just minding your business one day, alone in your study, having a martini, and suddenly a strange being appears in front of you. He seems alien, but doesn’t seem threatening. After he calms you down, he tells you he’s from an advanced race on a distant world, and his job is to study primitive cultures, which led him to Earth.

    He tells you he’s been studying human beings for thousands of years. And he proposes a bargain. It goes like this:

    “We are prepared to grant you a very long lifetime. We have the technology to extend your life to 1000 years. Your body will always be perfect during that time. You’ll always be youthful; you’ll always be healthy; you’ll always be strong and handsome. Your mind will always be sharp and clear. You’ll also be wealthy. There won’t be anything in this world that you can’t have.

    “Here’s the catch: when you do finally die, my race will ensure that the entire human race will follow you into death within five minutes. It will be quick and painless, I assure you. But gone they will be, every creature you call human will die out when you die.

    “What will it be?”

    Explain to me why anyone ought to turn that offer down.

    • Your original comment did go through, and I answered your query there. That was a fun thought-experiment!

      • Reformed Trombonist

        Beagle, I fully accept that this is what you’d do: turn the Devil down, so to speak. My story about the alien is pretty much what Satan offered Jesus. All I really did was to secularize it and add specifics, to make it relevant to a modern person.

        Make the story about Satan, though, and you instantly shut off any engagement of the typical atheist’s mind. After all, Satan is a fairy tale and we might as well ask whether Dumbo the Flying Elephant should make us a better offer, as far as an atheist is concerned. After all, we have no evidence that Satan even exists.

        But make the story about an advanced race of hypothetical aliens, and to an atheist, somehow, that adds credibility. We have no evidence they exist either, but it’s the kind of disbelief they’re willing to suspend.

        Just like, in the minds of atheist astrophysicists, there is no evidence of God, but they do think an infinite number of other universes exist, or are at least mathematically possible. All hail Stephen Hawking. We have no evidence that those other universes exist either, but the atheist mind would rather believe they exist than to believe God exists.

        God’s existence implies accountability’s existence; a trillion other universes don’t.

        I’d venture a guess about Hawkings’ motive. There are physical constants that have to be just so, for life (as we know it) to have come about. Preconditions, that is. I wish I were a physicist and could explain things better. But so many things had to be just so. If you’re interested, you can read up on the Anthropic principle. I think I can explain just a couple such physical constants.

        One is the efficiency of hydrogen fusion. It’s a number: 0.007, or 0.7%. When hydrogen fuses into helium, 0.7% of its mass disappears — that’s the part that becomes energy. Physicists think that if the constant were only 0.6%, stars would have never ignited — they would just be big balls of gas that perhaps glowed a little. They also think that, if the number had been 0.8%, all of the hydrogen in the universe would have been used up long ago — our universe would have already fizzled out. That number had to be 0.7%, or we wouldn’t be here to remark on that fact.

        Another is the so-called cosmological constant, which pertains to the density of the universe. It too is a number, 2.90×10−122. Physicists believe that the universe will continue to expand and eventually dissipate, or else contract back into a singularity. Why hasn’t it already done one or the other? Because it’s a balancing act, like so many other things in nature. 10 to the minus 122 power — or you can express is as 1 over 10 to the 122 power. That an incredibly small number (physicists think that there are about 10*80 atoms in the entire universe). To give you some idea of its magnitude: if you were able to take a tape measure and stretch it across the entire universe, we’re talking about the length of a yardstick.

        What are the odds that tolerances of this precision were accidental? That is what explains Hawkings’ motivations. The reason he and other astrophysicists want to believe there are so many universes is because it makes the existence of our own universe more likely through natural, i.e., undesigned means. We’re back now to the monkeys and typewriters.

        This is what science has become: looking for ways to explain God’s non-existence.

        Paul knew the truth…

        “..that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”

        It’s almost as if Paul saw Darwin and Hawkings.

        Back to my “alien” conundrum: Beagle, I do not doubt you are a moral man and would make the moral choice. I’m only saying, given your belief system in its current form, you’d have no *reason* to turn this alien down, other than sheer sentimentality. Under your belief system, any remorse you’d feel upon accepting the offer would be a personal problem, one born of psychology, not morals.

        What reason is there to feel remorse for generations unborn? They’ll never exist. It doesn’t make sense to empathize with people who don’t exist. Since God doesn’t exist, there is no reason not to assume His role.

        Why feel remorse for taking the lives of those who will exist in a thousand or ten thousand years? They all have to die sometime anyway. By accepting the alien’s offer, you’ve made it painless.

        Once humankind is gone, there will be no moral measure to say whether you did the right thing or the wrong thing. Morality is subjective, after all, and cannot exist without the subjects who believe in it.

        Life is just an accident of chemistry anyway. Those atoms will still exist when life is gone; they’ll just adopt a different chemical form. Why should we prefer the chemistry of human life to the chemistry of non-human life, or sterility?

        It scares me, by the way, when I think like this. I feel like I’m channeling my inner psychopath. Because, best as I can tell, that’s what being a psychopath is all about — namely, divorcing reason from conscience and following it to its logical conclusions.

        But the logic is ineluctable. If morals do not objectively exist, then anything goes, and any resistance to what’s good for you personally is a personal problem, not a moral one.

        Nietsche was right that, if God is “dead”, it is rational to be a psychopath. Obviously, you choose not to be one. You reject the Christian God, but you retain your sentimentality toward His moral precepts. Nietsche would see that as silly. I see it as a slender thread holding you to God.

        I do pray that you’ll come back to where you belong.

  24. Pingback: Morality vs Accountability | Path of the Beagle

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