Does The Bible Provide Objective Morality?

imagesMy last post discussed the proof of God’s existence from the existence of morality. This led to a discussion regarding whether Christianity can actually provide “objective” morals. The challenger quoted Exodus 21, regarding the treatment of slaves and slave-owners to indict the God of the Bible for referring to slaves as the owner’s “property.”

 He then went on:

there is no mention whatsoever why Christians should not hold slaves today, as long as it’s done according to the rules laid down in Scripture. On a plain reading of the Bible, and a plain view of history, I would say the only honest answer a Christian can give is that we should not hold slaves, not because of anything the Bible says, but because it’s inhumane. And I hope that satisfies your desire that I answer al’s original question about “timeless” morality. Morality is not “timeless”- it has a history, from bacterium to chimp to couch potato, and as admirable as much of the morality in the Bible was for the ancient world, and as admirable as much of it still is (it’s hard to improve upon the Golden Rule), in some areas most of us have evolved further, and slavery is one of those areas. Treating women as equals is another.

I’m all for “subjective” morality over “objective” morality as long as it leads to these obvious improvements. What about you?

This response is a good example of what many people think when it comes to the Bible, and especially the Old Testament. How does it come off as being a book of moral rules when it has so many confusing – if not outright immoral – passages? I can do a better job of deciding what’s right and wrong just by thinking about it, can’t I?

We live in a sound bite culture and it’s difficult to change the minds of people who think this way. The reason for this is that they have certain unexamined assumptions that are leading them to the conclusions they have reached.  As modern people, if we want to know how something should work, we look it up. It takes a fraction of a second on the internet to find countless “how to” articles or youtube videos on pretty much any topic imaginable. If I need to replace the headlamp on my car, I don’t need to engage in guesswork; I simply flip to the right page in the owner’s manual, carefully indexed alphabetically at the back, and I can follow the specific directions. If I want to know what type or weight of fluid to put into the engine, that information is unambiguously provided to me.

Isn’t that what the Bible is supposed to be? A book of rules that tells us how our “manufacturer” expects us to operate? So, if I flip to Leviticus and read about slaves, doesn’t that mean that God actually expects me to own one? Or at least is okay with me doing so? That conclusion is easy enough to reach, however mistaken it is in fact. And explaining why that view is mistaken can sometimes make the believer sound defensive, or sound like he simply wants to cherry pick the passages upon which he will rely.

But it’s not about being defensive; it’s about putting the message in its proper context. And that requires an understanding of what God is working with. Most people would say that part of God’s omnipotence is that he can “do anything.” But that’s not really true. It’s more precise to say that he has the power to do all things that power is capable of doing. Power can’t make an illogical statement logical; it can’t create, for example, a square circle. And while an omnipotent Creator can make beings who possess free will, he can’t do that while at the same time controlling their behavior. This would be a contradiction that “power” cannot overcome. In other words, God could prevent all wrongdoing from occurring, or even most of it, but he couldn’t do so without blocking or limiting or overriding our free will.  If God’s plan was simply for us to do things, or to do things a certain way, than free will would not have been necessary. No, the purpose for which we were created is not to do things, although there are things that we do; it is instead for us to be in relationship with him, in the manner – roughly at least -– of spouses (in some analogies) or, more likely, of parent and child.

Anyone who has raised children knows that there is a value in giving specific rules.  Simple compliance with external rules is good, of course, but what a parent really wants to achieve with their child is a good heart – an understanding of right and wrong and a disposition of the heart to do right. While often what’s “right”is easy to discern, there are times when the strict rule has to give way to the law of love in the heart – we don’t want our children to lie, but lying to the evildoer to thwart their evil plans is better than always speaking the truth.

The Bible was never meant to be an owner’s manual which would provide step by step instructions on how to handle every situation that might arise. Yes, parts of the Old Testament do include specific instructions to the Israelites. But that was part of an evolving plan that God set in motion to redeem the world from the clutches of sin. He needed to first set them apart as a nation and make them different from all other tribes and people with whom they were in contact. But those rules ended when the Old Covenant was replaced by the New.  Jesus’ message of universal love and brotherhood gives us the disposition of the heart that we, as children of God, should seek to cultivate and nourish. Jesus answered the question, “who is our brother?” in a way that shocked his people; he elevated the status of children through words and actions that no doubt confounded those that were used to putting children in a much lesser role; he taught us that lusting or hating in our heart was really no different, in God’s eyes, than actually committing the act. He set his world on its heels, and the repercussions of his words still send ripple effects through us some twenty centuries later.

Does the Bible provide “objective” morality?  It certainly does. No one reading Jesus’ words can possibly conclude that owning another human being is consistent with his love of Love. No one reading the Sermon on the Mount could conclude that God wished to institute suffering and slavery among his people. No one considering Jesus’ lowly birth and tragic death on a cross could conclude that God wanted those of exalted means to lord it over the impoverished classes. Quite the contrary: we are to be measured by what we do for the least of our brothers – the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned – by the extent to which we lived out the meaning of our faith.

One final thought is worth noting: the challenger concludes his comments with the idea that he is okay with “subjective” morality as long as it leads to improvements. He does not seem to realize the contradiction. “Better” is a question of degree; we automatically think of “good, better, best,” and when we do, we are thinking of function or purpose. A “better” knife fulfills the function of “cutting” in a superior fashion than does the merely “good” knife. To make sense of such comparisons, one must first know what the function or purpose of the thing is, and have some idea of how to measure the performance against the standard. If morality truly were subjective, then on what basis does one claim that modern morality is any better than ancient morality? It would simply be a matter of opinion. To know that a “subjective” moral view is “better” is to state a contradiction; better on what objective scale?

So, even for the challenger, morality cannot be subjective, even though he thinks this takes him to a better place. And finding “flaws” in the Bible does not defeat its true role and purpose. It simply means the skeptic has yet to understand it.

Posted by Al Serrato

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  1. zilch says:

    Well, al, thanks for answering my question. To tell the truth, though, I already expected this answer, because it’s the one I’ve heard from most thoughtful Christians. And I’m very glad your idea of what a loving God expects from us is to not engage in slavery (or other inhumane practices).

    One problem here (and I wouldn’t be surprised if you expect this answer from me too- we know each other’s positions pretty well now, after all) is that there is really no “objective” way to interpret such pronouncement as “God is love”, or whatever it is you claim to be your Scriptural foundation for anti-slavery. Is striking a child with a rod “loving”? What about striking a slave? I could give you dozens of similar examples. As far as i can see, you are engaging in a bit of eisegesis here, al, not exegesis.

    Another problem: if God thought it worthwhile to rule against thought crimes, such as lusting after your neighbor’s wife, and also found it necessary to weigh in against such crimes as linsey-woolsey, why didn’t Jehovah or Jesus simply say “thou shalt not hold slaves”? It doesn’t make sense that God is against slavery, but didn’t say anything against it, but did say that men with crushed testicles should not be allowed to take part in services.

    It’s just wishful thinking. Don’t get me wrong- I’m all for it. But I don’t see how you can say that being against slavery is part of the Bible’s “objective morality”.

    • Al says:

      Thanks for weighing in. Yes, we do know each other’s position. Your presuppositions are what motivate your responses. God should have been clearer – that appears to be your position. I’m not sure how much clearer Jesus needed to be; they understood quite well, and that eventually led to his being put to death. His words were so profound, and so contrary to much of the world at that time thought, that here we are two thousand years later still discussing them. That may seem ambiguous and no big deal to you, but to many Christians, it is proof that God actually hit the mark – he found the best way to change not just behavior, but hearts, but converting the way people think (“transforming of the mind” as Paul put it) and not just how they outwardly acted (think Pharisees here). You might be happy with a world where everyone “behaves nicely” as you like to put it, but I’m with God on this one – there’s a bit more at play here than simply how one acts externally. At least there is for matters eternal….

      • zilch says:

        Al, I will actually agree with you to some extent at least about the words of Jesus. A lot of what’s in the Bible, especially the NT, is timeless wisdom, and it’s stated in such a way that it’s very memorable. Many people have used the Bible as an inspiration to be the best they can.

        But that doesn’t prove that Jesus is God, or that the Bible is literally true, or that God exists at all- it’s just a very successful social code, and of course it’s not the only one.

        In any case, I’m still not sure what you mean by “objective” morality, al. As you well know, your hermeneutics is another Christian’s eisegesis. You can’t claim that studying the Bible as you do will inevitably lead to the same opinions on morality that it will for another Christian. How many Christian sects are there now?

        It doesn’t make sense to me that something as ambiguous and changing as the morality of the Bible can reasonably be called “objective”. In fact, I don’t see how any morality, no matter how clearly stated, can be anything other than “subjective”, at least in its interpretation. The closest way of being “objective” any system of morality could be would be the ascii code for the words. Everything else must have some degree of subjectivity.

        cheers from warming Vienna, zilch

        • zilch says:

          Oh, and PS- you can of course say that the “objectivity” is in God’s mind: that any given morally relevant action is either “moral” or “immoral” to God. But as I’ve pointed out before, this is of course simply your claim, and it’s unfalsifiable.

          In addition, there’s no guarantee that your actions will be more moral than those of, say, a Muslim or an atheist, because even if your God exists and has objective morals, you admittedly do not have direct access to them and so cannot behave objectively morally, any more than a Muslim or an atheist can.

          Thus, moral actions per se are not salvific for you. A mass murderer can confess to Jesus on his deathbed and get his ticket to Heaven, while a pious Muslim or an atheist who feeds the hungry all his life will go to Hell. How is that in any way just?

    • Al says:

      By “objective” I mean true for all people in the same situation. By “subjective” I mean different rules would apply in the same situation depending on the person’s views or opinions. For example, having an abortion is wrong unless the life of the mother is at risk. It isn’t right for you if you’re okay with it and wrong for me if I choose to view it that way; that would be “subjective.”
      I understand that you want the Bible to read more like an owner’s manual, with clear explanations and rules. I’m willing to accept that God has something else in mind. He wants to develop people who can be in relationship with him, and to do that he has to reorient their hearts. The Pharisees were great examples; they followed the “rules” pretty well, but they really didn’t get it. This would be true even if they were rigorous about following all the rules. The problem wasn’t compliance with rules; it was the disposition of their hearts.

  2. zilch says:

    Al- exactly how much at risk does the mother’s life have to be for abortion to be allowed? Can anyone know for sure? Again, as far as I can see, even if God has an objective morality, no human being can claim to have access to it.

    And yes- if you claim the morality in the Bible is “objective”, then I would expect the Bible to be more like an owner’s manual than, say, a parable or a didactic novel. Some rules are pretty clear, or at least as clear as any moral law can be (thou shalt not murder: pretty clear, but where exactly is the line between murder and, say, self defense?), whereas any moral against slavery is very far fetched.

    But, as I say, I’m glad you take your morals from the fuzzier more general principles of the New Testament. To paraphrase a favorite passage of mine, the letter of the law killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

  3. Al says:

    The question misses the point. Objective does not mean I have the answer to each question regarding, for example, how much risk. It means that the approach I take is consistent across the board; it is not subjective. And yes, people can be mistaken. An objective standard does not require perfection.
    We are making progress, it seems. Your desire to force the Bible into your preconception is part of the problem. If you think about God trying to achieve a different result – i.e. changing hearts and not just external behavior – you will begin to see the bible in a new and different light.

  4. zilch says:

    But al, as far as I can see, it’s not my preconception the Bible’s being forced into here, but rather yours: that it is the source of objective morality. All this talk about changing hearts and not behavior, and not requiring perfection, is what I would call subjective morality: the spirit rather than the letter of the law. As I’ve said, subjective morality is all we have in any case, no matter how clearly formulated our laws may be- and the Bible is all but clear.

  5. Ricky says:

    Doesn’t the scriptures say that God shows no partiality in his judgement? Likewise with Jesus Christ. All those who repent from their sinful ways and believe will not perish but have eternal life.
    Does this impartiality support an Objective moral law?
    I guess to what degree a certain law is broken or followed is up to God to decide and I think we need to respect his position as God. Thanks to Jesus we receive grace upon grace but the OT God displayed very clearly the wages for sin and also warned the Israelites. Even when they rebelled agains God they were punished. No partiality there.
    I would say the OT law established an impartial law for the obedience of God (respecting God’s position in the context of scripture).

  6. Ricky says:

    “I guess to what degree a certain law is broken or followed is up to God to decide and I think we need to respect his position as God.” … This may sound subjective when I say “God decides” but if God were to show subjectivity in his Judgement wouldn’t that make him more untrustworthy? Who wants to follow a God subject to favouritism? Favouritism and Untrustworthiness is not seen in the OT. The laws handed down by God were very clear and serious. And yes, they seem relevant to those times. According to the seriousness of God in the OT and the laws given by God (and eventually broken by the Israelites whom were punished for doing so) I think they would seem to be Objective moral laws (in the context).
    But in respect to Zilch. When God created the Universe and the law, he likely used his desires and creativity. That sounds subjective to me. I think for human kind, he handed down an objective/impartial law respective of the those times.

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